Was it the defection of first base stars Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League? The retirement of World Series-winning manager Tony La Russa? A new owner and his hand-picked general manager in Houston prior to the Astros' 2013 departure to the junior circuit? First-time managers in St. Louis and Chicago?
Our writing staff has offered up their view of how all these changes and everything else will come together on the bottom line - the projected 2012 divisional standings.
Joining me as participants in this exercise this year are writers Dustin Mattison, Pierce Jefferson and CariocaCardinal. Even with four St. Louis Cardinals-centric writers, there was a major variance in views as to which club will finish on top. In fact, three different clubs received first-place votes and none of the four rankings are identical.
First, let's put all the votes side by side and average them together for the collective view.
While Carioca and I picked last year's Wild Card from St. Louis to take the division this season, Mattison sees a repeat crown from last year's winner, the club from Milwaukee. Jefferson believes Dusty Baker's 2010 NLC champs from Cincinnati are ready to reclaim the top spot after a year's absence. That may be the club about which there is the greatest divergence as the other three voters see a repeat third-place finish in the Reds' immediate future.
There is little disagreement about the bottom tier, however, either in terms of identity or ranking. Carioca sees a bit more hope in Chicago than the others, placing the Cubs fourth. With a batch of young players, Pittsburgh is picked to hold onto the fourth spot overall. Houston is the only club about which all voters agreed, but dead last is not a pleasant place to be.
Now, each voter will comment about each club.
When you include the return of Adam Wainwright, the addition of Carlos Beltran and a full year of Rafael Furcal, there is no reason the Cardinals shouldn't actually be stronger than they were last year with Albert Pujols. A full, healthy year from David Freese and Allen Craig are just icing. I think Lance Lynn will fill in ably for Chris Carpenter. As long as the bullpen doesn't implode like the first half of last year, these Cardinals should be your NL Central champions. – Carioca
I realize this is a soft take, but after being in the clubhouse last week, I feel even better about this club than I did before. Yes, the superstar manager and hitter are gone, but I could see reasons why that may prove to be a benefit. Lance Berkman is a leader as is Matt Holliday, who may emerge as a force. Depth is an exposure along with age, so another major injury to go along with Chris Carpenter could scuttle Mike Matheny's maiden voyage. My Cardinals x-factors this year are David Freese and Allen Craig. - Walton
The Cardinals will receive a huge boost to their rotation with the addition of Adam Wainwright, who is coming off a misplaced season in which he had Tommy John surgery. They would have the best rotation of any team in the NL Central with a healthy Chris Carpenter. But now that Carpenter could miss at least a third of the season, they'll likely see some type of drop in production with Lance Lynn or a signing of Roy Oswalt in his spot. They have solid bullpen depth, and the pitching will benefit from a full season of Rafael Furcal at shortstop. The Cardinals also have a good lineup with no holes, but you can't gloss over the fact that they lost the best hitter of this generation in Albert Pujols and will be relying on aging veterans in Lance Berkman (age 36), Carlos Beltran (34), and Rafael Furcal (34) to stay healthy and help anchor the offense. The Cardinals could very well win this division, and I think the race could come down to a one-game difference. - Jefferson
On paper, the Cardinals look solid, but for me, they need too many things to go right. Rafael Furcal is an old 34. Carlos Beltran's knees are a real concern as are Lance Berkman's. David Freese has bad ankles and I always worry how a player reacts to newly-found fame. Plus, there is large concern over Chris Carpenter's 37-year-old neck. If those aren't enough concerns, factor in that the Cardinals have turned over a large part of the coaching staff, including the steady influences of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. I hope Cardinals fans enjoyed the run to the 2011 World Championship because 2012 could be a very trying year. – Mattison
I thought Milwaukee's pitching overachieved last year. Having Francisco Rodriguez for a whole season and as a possible closer in waiting may be enough to keep them competitive though. I'm not sure they can replace Prince Fielder's contribution on the field or in the clubhouse. If everyone stays healthy, the Brewers could challenge the Cardinals but it would take career years from several players. – Carioca
In my opinion, a key factor that helped the Brewers be so successful in 2011 was their swagger. No longer would they be intimidated. That may have disappeared. Sure, Nyjer Morgan is still there, but his results rarely back up his antics. Let's face it. Aramis Ramirez has hardly been in Prince Fielder's league in terms of inspiring teammates. We have no way of knowing for sure how badly Ryan Braun's wings have been clipped by his off-field issues, but there has to be damage. If the dropoff from the Hebrew Hammer is too great, this could be a third-place club despite a solid rotation. - Walton
Like the Cardinals, the Brewers lost a huge part of their lineup of the last several years when Prince Fielder elected to sign with the Detroit Tigers to a massive contract. Milwaukee returns Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, and added an impact bat at third with Aramis Ramirez, but their lineup is top heavy as they face questions with the bottom half of their order. Their rotation rivals the Reds as the second best in the division, and they have a one-two punch that can match up with most teams in Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. - Jefferson
The reigning Central Division champions lost a major piece over the off-season when Prince Fielder took his 38 home runs and 120 RBI to Detroit. It appeared the wheels were about to fall off Milwaukee's repeat plan when it was learned reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun would miss the first 50 games of the season, but Bud's Boys would not be held back and his appeal was overturned by an arbitrator. Shawn Marcum, Zack Greinke, and Yovani Gallardo are three solid front-of-the-rotation starters and the bullpen is covered by John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. An ageless Aramis Ramirez was brought in to help replace some of Fielder's production but it doesn't appear like it will be enough. Even without Fielder, the Brewers are a force to be reckoned with and look like they are ready to win another division title. – Mattison
Like all the teams in the division, Cincinnati has flaws. Even so, with an exciting young core and high upside pitching, the Reds look to have the potential to take the National League Central. Actually, I had picked them to win the division until Ryan Madson succumbed to Tommy John surgery. Mat Latos came over via trade to anchor the rotation and add to an already interesting starting pitching mix. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have the look of the best one-two punch in the division while Brandon Phillips is the class of the second basemen in the Central. With rookie of the year candidate Devin Mesoraco behind the plate, the Reds have the look of a team ready to make a postseason push. – Mattison
Cincinnati's big off season free agent acquisition, closer Ryan Madson, is already out for the year. That will leave Aroldis Chapman to close - a task he hasn't proven himself to be ready for yet. The Reds also picked up Mat Latos to bolster their rotation but as a fly ball pitcher, will he fare well in Cincy's small ball park? Scott Rolen and Ryan Ludwick have shown signs of aging and can't be counted on for big numbers and with two rookies also in the lineup this team could have serious problems scoring runs. Still, the talent is there if several players have career years. – Carioca
There is a lot to like in Cincinnati and quite a bit to not like, as well. Pluses for me are Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs. Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco offer hope for youth. The starting pitching after Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos doesn't do anything for me. Playing 81 games in a launching pad may put a lot of pressure on a bullpen that after Sean Marshall doesn't look like it is going to be enough. Aroldis Chapman can throw hard, but like his team, hasn't figured out how to harness the talent. Unless the Reds play well, Walt Jocketty may decide to go in a different managerial direction from Dusty Baker in 2013. - Walton
The Reds added the biggest off-season prize of any NL Central team in ace Mat Latos, whose stats away from Petco remained strong in his tenure for the Padres. With a healthy season out of Johnny Cueto, the Reds have a rotation that can match up with any team in the division and also added good bullpen depth with the trade for Sean Marshall, now expected to close. They might have the best lineup in the division, especially if Devin Mesoraco gets a chance to shine as the starting catcher. – Jefferson
Almost as surprising as the Cardinals' run to the World Series was the Pirates' strong play in 2011. Andrew McCutchen has established himself as baseball's bright young stars and could be primed for his first 30/30 season. Neil Walker was vastly improved in 2011 and I am still a Pedro Alvarez believer. Casey McGehee was brought in to provide a veteran bat and presence. A.J. Burnett was acquired to lead the rotation but a freak accident has delayed his debut for the Steel City club. – Mattison
The Pirates had one of the worst offenses of the National League in 2011 and with the biggest off-season acquisition being that of Casey McGehee, things aren't exactly looking up in 2012. The Pirates have a bona-fide All-Star in Andrew McCutchen, but they'll have to rely on Pedro Alvarez to cut down on his major contact issues to have a rebound year in helping the Pirates' offense gain any type of respectability. The Pirates were able to acquire ultra-talented, oft-injured Erik Bedard, but he's failed to top 130 innings pitched since 2007. The rest of their rotation is full of middle-rotation to back-end starters, but it should be enough to finish above the Cubs and Astros. – Jefferson
I predict a 2012 not unlike 2011 for the Buccos – a solid start, but not enough depth and kick to break into the first division. Their top five in the order should be ok, but the bottom three look shaky. Their rotation is uninspiring though closer Joel Hanrahan is elite. Let's face it. Pittsburgh's first and foremost challenge has to be to break their series of losing seasons that go back almost two decades – when Barry Bonds' cap size was still 7 1/4. - Walton
The Bucs have a strong nucleus of position players that could break out this year but even if they do, does it matter? Their rotation seems just a shade above Quad-A and their elite pitching on the farm won't be ready this year. – Carioca
The Theo Epstein era has begun for the Northsiders but it will be a lot of the same for the Cubs. Starlin Castro is one of the most exciting young players in the game but the rest of the roster leaves much to be desired. Matt Garza is very good at the top of the rotation but could be trade bait this July for a contending team looking for pitching. – Mattison
The Cubs are under a new regime with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at the helm, but the fans will have to endure another several tumultuous seasons before the front office is able to revamp their system. The Cubs lost the biggest part of their offense in 2011 with the departure of Aramis Ramirez and lack any true middle-of-the-lineup talent for 2012. When the second most productive player returning from your offense from the past season is Alfonso Soriano, you know you're going to have issues. The rotation is anchored by Matt Garza, who would be a fine number-two or three pitcher on a contending team, but Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm aren't enough to save the rotation in addition to a terrible bullpen. – Jefferson
The Cubs have a losing record this spring and a team ERA of 5.38, tied for third-worst in MLB. Based on their personnel, that actually sounds about right. Offensively, a rookie, Bryan LaHair, is batting cleanup with the perennially-disappointing Alfonso Soriano behind him. Only because of the presence of the Astros will the club of first-year skipper Dale Sveum not land in the cellar with a resounding thud. - Walton
There are years that the Cubs have some talent and I assume they are not going to compete simply because they are the Cubs. This year they don't even have the talent. I only rank them this high because I expect Alfonso Soriano to have a strong comeback year. - Carioca
Another season of over 100 losses appears to be in the works for Houston. Fortunately for Astros fans, Drayton McLane and Ed Wade are no longer running the team and that in itself is a victory. Jeff Luhnow is now heading up baseball operations. If he can build up a team like he built up the Cardinals' farm system, the Astros are in good hands. Unfortunately, Luhnow is starting his job in a Texas-sized hole and it will be years before Houston will enjoy another winner. – Mattison
The Astros will end their tenure in the National League as the worst team in baseball. The team rivaled the Pirates last year in having the worst offense in the National League and will now be without their best hitter in Hunter Pence for a full season. Carlos Lee is still somewhat productive and J.D. Martinez will be an interesting player to watch in 2012, but the rest of their lineup is full of holes and more holes. Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris are respectable starters, but the only interesting aspect of the pitching staff is seeing how Brett Myers increases his stock in the closer's role. – Jefferson
This team has managed to win a few games in spring training. I am not sure how. They have a few players who were top prospects who never realized their potential so it is possible that one or two of those might find their lost talent. I doubt it, though. – Carioca
After seeing the Astros squad in person the other day, I really think they will have a problem avoiding 100 losses again this season. Other than a very large Carlos Lee at first base, Houston's starting eight will be anonymous to the average fan - except for ex-Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie, that is. Jose Altuve at second is at least intriguing, but the Astros may not have yet hit bottom. Consider this. The Astros own the distinction of being one of the two teams with a worse spring ERA than the Cubs. - Walton
Accompanying the variance in opinion about the Cardinals of course is a divergence on the number of wins the club will accrue in 2012. Carioca is the most aggressive, with 94 wins, though he noted he believes 91 would be enough to take the division. I think that is about right. The group's average is 90.5 victories.
We'll be back this fall to revisit the subject and pass out final grades. In the meantime, discuss our picks and yours on The Cardinal Nation's message board.
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