Let's run through the National League Central, bottom to top as predicted brilliantly and accurately by your faithful (but highly fallible) scribe ...
Ah, the Houston Astros. It really wasn't so long ago that they went to the World Series (and got swept by the White Sox). But with the Killer B's now just a vague memory, the Astros are not only mediocre but (worse) they're boring, too. Is there anyone on that roster you would happily pay to see? Maybe Wandy Rodriguez, every fifth day. And Michael Bourn is a marvel in center field. But this year the Astros might well finish last for the first time since 1991.
You have to hand it to the Pittsburgh Pirates ... They are literally the only team in the majors that's finished in sixth place since 2006. Granted, they play in the only six-team division in the majors, but still: four straight sixth-place finishes is impressive, in its twisted way. Anyway, it says here the Pirates will not finish sixth in 2011, thanks to their passel of young and talented hitters. Granted, it'll be a struggle but we've got them acing out the Astros for next-to-last place.
I'm picking the Chicago Cubs to finish fourth, but it's a qualified fourth ... and in a good way. If you're looking for a dark horse - the 2011 version of the 2010 Reds, say - you could do a lot worse than the Cubs. Yeah, they went just 75-87 last season. But this is the same team that won 83 games in 2009, 95 in 2008, and played a lot better last summer after Uncle Lou Piniella was replaced by Mike Quade. Granted, the roster hasn't changed much. But a lot of these guys are capable of playing better than they did last year, and 30 starts apiece from Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza should do nicely. We'll give them a gentleman's fourth place, with potential.
Everybody likes the Cincinnati Reds, and why not? They won 91 games last season, everybody's back this season, and they've got the National League's reigning MVP at first base. The "problem" is that almost everything went right for the Reds last season, and their luck is probably going to turn this season. Maybe not all the way. But enough. The Reds will be in the mix, but after improving by 13 wins last year they're due for a medium-sized rebound this year.
The Milwaukee Brewers went all-in this winter, with Prince Fielder probably leaving after this season and the fans getting impatient for a postseason run. They needed starting pitchers, and so Bob Melvin got Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. The Brewers' only real weaknesses are shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and center fielder Carlos Gomez, neither of whom can on-base themselves out of a wet paper sack. One guess: If the Brewers don't win the division, it'll be largely because Betancourt and Gomez combined for more than 1,000 plate appearances when suitable replacements were kicking around in Triple-A.
Which leaves the St. Louis Cardinals, given up for dead in many quarters upon the news of Adam Wainwright's flimsy medial collateral ligament. Yes, he's out for the season. But the Cardinals still have two brilliant hitters in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, a coming attraction in Colby Rasmus, and one of the league's best pitchers in Chris Carpenter. Oh, and a Hall of Fame manager and his pitching-coach sidekick. None of that guarantees anything, of course. But the numbers suggest the Cardinals will have just enough to fend off the Brewers. Especially if Zack Greinke doesn't quit playing pickup basketball games with his buddies.
Projected National League Central Standings
6. Houston Astros 66-96