Cardinals, with Beltran – Clear Favorites in the Central
Coming off a season which saw them win the World Series after sneaking into the Wild Card on the season’s final day (after starting September behind by 9 games), the Cardinals might not have necessarily had a great deal of hope for 2011. When Albert Pujols departed for Anaheim, those hopes seemed to be dashed further.
However, with the recent acquisition of Carlos Beltran for 2 years and 26 million dollars, the Cardinals should be looked at as the clear favorites to win the National League Central next year.
Let’s look at what Beltran himself brings:
Although his days as a center fielder are probably numbered, Beltran can slide into right field nicely, where he played over 140 games last season. This enables last season’s right fielder, Lance Berkman, to take over for Pujols at first, and give the Cardinals a rock-solid 3-4-5 heart of the order, with Matt Holliday. The presence of two switch hitters in that group will make playing the match-ups tough on opposing pitchers.
Beltran himself hit .300/.385/.525 in 2011, placing 7th in the National League with a 152 OPS+, which was actually better than the departed Pujols. That’s not to say that he can be expected to exceed or even approach Pujols’s production going forward – after all, 2011 was Pujols’s worst season – but building off a 2011 (in which they won it all), the Cardinals found an excellent replacement that didn’t involve committing a quarter-billion dollars.
With this move, the Cardinals have all-but filled in all the gaps that they needed to solve this off-season, without having to break the bank. Add to the fact that Adam Wainwright – who placed top-3 in the Cy Young voting in 2009 and 2010 – is coming back to the fold, and the Cardinals, overall, appear to be a much better positioned team than they were 1-year ago, when they made the impossible happen.
Meanwhile, the rest of the division is scrambling. Defending division champion Milwaukee Brewers have effectively said their farewells to big-time slugger Prince Fielder, while potentially saying goodbye to 50 games of reigning MVP Ryan Braun due to a failed drug test (though some sources have indicated that this was simply from a medication for a -um, sensitive medical ailment). The Brewers upgraded at third base and shortstop with Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez respectively, but with Francisco Rodriguez likely to come-back as the world’s most expensive and angry set-up man for around 10-15 million dollars in arbitration, the Brew Crew will be unlikely to add any more depth to the team and will most likely be in the mid-to-low 80’s for wins.
The 2010 division champion Reds have been busy in the last week or so, leading up to Christmas, acquiring young ace Mat Latos from San Diego and reliever Sean Marshall from the Cubs. However, not only was the cost for these players entirely too high, in terms of prospect talent, but the moves themselves don’t strike me as having the impact that those prices would suggest. Mat Latos has put up nice numbers the last couple years, but he is now moving from the most pitcher friendly park in the game, to one of the most hitter-friendly. Meanwhile, Sean Marshall continues to be a 29-year old reliever. Snore.
As a Brewers fan, I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I see the Cardinals winning around 95 games, even without the best or second-best player in their history. Carlos Beltran doesn’t do that by himself, but he certainly helps – and at the right price. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Reds will most likely have winning records, but will find themselves well out of first down the home stretch in 2012.