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NL Central Preseason Preview
Nate Bartling, FantasyJuice.com

We continue our fantasy coverage up to the start of Spring Training with a preview of the National League Central Division.

The St. Louis Cardinals, led by fantasy stud Albert Pujols and Cy Young candidates Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, are the favorite to win the division.

The Chicago Cubs should have some fantasy rebounds this year with a healthy Aramis Ramirez. However, down years from Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano in 2009 have fantasy owners uneasy.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are bona fide fantasy-first-rounders and will be the first Milwaukee Brewers off the board.

Landing one of the most highly-promoted free agents in Aroldis Chapman in the offseason, the Cincinnati Reds’ young rotation will be one to watch this year.

The Houston Astros are a team of veterans. Will the veterans keep up production or decline in 2010?

With the Pittsburgh Pirates, the young outfielders are very clearly the main fantasy attraction.

Below is our NL Central Preseason Preview. Updates will be made as spring progresses.

 Chicago Cubs
 Additions: Carlos Silva (SP), Marlon Byrd (OF), Xavier Nady (OF)
 Losses: Milton Bradley (OF), Rich Harden (SP), Jake Fox (INF/OF) Aaron Miles (INF), Neal Cotts (RP)
 Free Agents: Kevin Gregg (RP), Reed Johnson (OF), Chad Fox (RP), So Taguchi (OF)
 Pitching
 Rotation: Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Randy Wells
 Closer: Carlos Marmol
 Analysis: The Cubs do not have a solidified fifth starter but the leading candidates are Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva. Ideally, they would like Jeff Samardzija to step up into this spot but he will likely remain in Triple-A for beginning of the season.

Zambrano possesses a high K-rate and is a good fantasy option if healthy. Dempster has been pitching as good, if not better, than Zambrano over the past 2 years. Lilly is coming off shoulder surgery and will not be ready until May. Randy Wells had a great rookie season and will be a player to watch in 2010, but be careful due to his lackluster Minor League numbers.

Marmol took over the closer reigns in Chicago and is expected to hold down the role in 2010. With plenty of close games in the Central, Marmol will have numerous chances for saves to go along with his great strikeout numbers.

 Hitting
 Lineup: Alfonso Soriano (OF), Marlon Byrd (OF), Kosuke Fukudome/Xavier Nady (OF), Aramis Ramirez (3B), Ryan Theriot (SS), Mike Fontenot (2B), Derrek Lee (1B), Geovany Soto (C)
 Analysis: The Cubs starting line-up remains mostly unchanged from 2009, with the one exception being Marlon Byrd.

Much of the Cubs’ roster was dinged up last year, so there will be a general increase in stats overall. Aramis Ramirez will most likely have the largest statistical comeback if healthy.

Derrek Lee had an excellent season last year and while he could post similar stats to his 2010 totals, his homerun totals could vary anywhere from 20 to 40. Expectations should be set somewhere in between, closer to the 30 HR mark.

Soto had a down year compared to his 2008 totals while battling season-long injuries. Provided that he’s healthy and given his age, his 2010 numbers should rebound.

Although Soriano is still capable of hitting 20 home runs, his numbers have been going down steadily for the last 3 years. Expect that trend to continue and bid with caution.

 Cincinnati Reds
 Additions: Aroldis Chapman (SP), Aaron Miles (2B)
 Losses: Willy Taveras (OF), Adam Rosales (3B)
 Free Agents: Kip Wells (SP), Jonny Gomes (OF)
 Pitching
 Rotation: Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez/Micah Owings
 Closer: Francisco Cordero
 Analysis: With the addition of Chapman, the Reds have a dangerous young rotation. After some development in the minors, Chapman could be a big league pitcher by the end of the year.

The Reds have some young, talented pitchers in Cueto and Bailey. Both of which will have time and opportunity to develop this year. Bailey is a former uber-prospect who is just starting to find his game at the big-league level.

Harang and Arroyo are serviceable veterans and offer fantasy owners around 150 strikeouts a year. Look for Harang as a sleeper candidate this year as his numbers could far surpass his draft position.

Volquez is apparently ahead of schedule in recovery for Tommy John surgery, but still won’t be back until July (at the earliest).

Cordero is one of the best closers in last 3 years with an 87 percent save conversion rate.

 Hitting
 Lineup:Wladimir Balentien (OF), Drew Stubbs, Jay Bruce (OF), Scott Rolen (3B), Paul Janish (SS), Brandon Phillips (2B), Joey Votto (1B), Ramon Hernandez (C)
 Analysis: The Reds are much more stacked in pitching than they are in hitting. That being said, there are a few solid fantasy hitters.

Joey Votto proved in 2009 that his 2008 season was no fluke. His power numbers are near the top-tier for 1B and he is an excellent choice for the fantasy owner that doesn’t want to take a 1B in the first round.

The Reds’ outfield is one of the youngest in baseball. Jay Bruce has shown power in his first two years and, at the age of 22, has time improve.

Brandon Phillips is a yearly 20/20 candidate and continues to be one of the best 2Bs in fantasy baseball.

If given playing time, Scott Rolen is decent 3B back-up but he not get as much time this year if the Reds feel Juan Francisco is Major League ready.

 Houston Astros
 Additions: Matt Lindstrom (RP), Pedro Feliz (3B), Brandon Lyon (RP), Brett Myers (SP/RP)
 Losses:LaTroy Hawkins (RP), Chris Coste (C), Jose Valverde (RP)
 Free Agents:Mike Hampton (SP), Darin Erstad (OF), Aaron Boone (INF), Doug Brocail (RP)
 Pitching
 Rotation:Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Bud Norris, Felipe Paulino/Brian Moehler
 Closer:Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon
 Analysis: The Astros have a strong front end to their rotation with Oswalt and Rodriguez, but some questions remain for the remaining three spots..

Oswalt had some minor back problems at the end of the 2009 season, but should return to form in 2010.

Rodriguez had a break-out season in 2009. Consistent for the last couple of years, his 2009 was not completely unexpected. His production should remain high in 2010.

Myers has spent time as a reliever and a starter in the past few years. This year will be the final test of whether he still has the stuff to be a regular rotation pitcher.

Norris had excellent numbers in the minors and will finally have a solid opportunity to be a starter. He is worth keeping an eye on as a sleeper in 2010 and is definitely worth a shot if you are in a keeper league.

The closer position for the Astros remains in the air entering Spring Training. Right now Matt Lindstrom is the expected front-runner but Brandon Lyon also has closing experience. This is a position to watch this Spring.

 Hitting
 Lineup: Carlos Lee (OF), Michael Bourn (OF), Hunter Pence (OF), Pedro Feliz (3B), Jeff Keppinger (SS), Kazuo Matsui (2B), Lance Berkman (1B), Humberto Quintero/J.R. Towles (C)
 Analysis: The Astros’ outfielders are the main fantasy attraction here. Lee is basically a fantasy constant. If you draft him, expect 20+ home runs, 100 RBIs, and a .300 average.

Hunter Pence has also been consistent over the last few years with 25 home runs in each of the past 2 years. There is no reason not to expect similar production out of him this year.

Michael Bourn=speed. He had 63 steals last year and, if he can keep his average and OBP up, a repeat as a Top 50 fantasy player in 2010 isn't out of the question.

Lance Berkman's fantasy value fall off a little in 2009. This year will be the test if he will return to 30-100-.300 form or will signify the beginning of his decline.

 Milwaukee Brewers
 Additions: Randy Wolf (SP), LaTroy Hawkins (RP), Carlos Gomez (OF), Doug Davis (SP), Gregg Zaun (C), Mark Mulder (SP)
 Losses: J.J. Hardy (SS), Jason Kendall (C), Mike Cameron (OF)
 Free Agents:Felipe Lopez (INF), Frank Catalanotto (OF), David Weathers (RP), Braden Looper (SP), Seth McClung (RP), MIke Rivera (C)
 Pitching
 Rotation: Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Doug Davis, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush/Manny Parra
 Closer: Trevor Hoffman
 Analysis: The Brewers' 2009 season hinged on a weak starting roation. With this in mind, the front office bolstered the rotation with the offseason signings of Randy Wolf and Doug Davis.

Yovani Gallardo is a top tier SP on a small market team. His numbers in 2009 were no fluke so expect high strikeout rates in 2010.

Wolf is a nice veteran addition for the Brewers. While going in the mid-rounds in mock drafts, he is a risky pick based on his age, prior performance, and injury history.

Trevor Hoffman, the all time saves leader, put together a great 2009 with the Brewers. At 42, his age has to draw some concerns but his experience as a closer is unquestioned.

 Hitting
 Lineup: Ryan Braun (OF), Carlos Gomez (OF), Corey Hart (OF), Casey McGehee/ Mat Gamel (3B), Alcides Escobar (SS), Rickie Weeks (2B), Prince Fielder (1B), Gregg Zaun (C)
 Analysis: Ryan Braun is, arguably, the best outfielder in baseball and should eclipse 30 HRs and 100 RBIs this year while nearing 20 steals..

Prince Fielder is a top-tier 1B. He will be the second or third 1B off the board in most drafts and there is no reason to expect less-than-impressive numbers in 2010.

The Brewers infield is full of younger players with expanded opportunities in 2010. Alcides Escobar, the #2 prospect on FantasyJuice's Top 50 Hitting Prospects list, is a must-draft for keeper leagues. McGehee will have a shot at the full time job at third after a solid 2009 season, but is an injury risk due to a bad back. Gamel will probably start in the minors but will eventually make his way up to the big leagues.

Weeks looked strong last year before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. He is worth a late round look in 2010 in the hopes that he comes back at his 2009 pace.

 Pittsburgh Pirates
 Additions: Bobby Crosby (INF), Akinori Iwamura (2B), Ryan Church (OF), D.J. Carrasco (RP), Octavio Dotel (RP)
 Losses: Jesse Chavez (RP), Matt Capps (RP)
 Free Agents: No one of note.
 Pitching
 Rotation: Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart
 Closer: Joel Hanrahan, Octavio Dotel
 Analysis: The Pirates have one of the worst rotations in baseball with no clear ace. Maholm, Duke, and Ohlendorf all offer serviceable stats in deep and NL-only drafts.

The closer position is up in the air for the Pirates. Hanrahan is the favorite at this point but he has been attempting to be a closer for a while now without much success. Dotel will end up with the position sooner or later.

 Hitting
 Lineup: Lastings Milledge/Ryan Church (OF), Andrew McCutchen (OF), Garrett Jones (OF), Andy LaRoche (3B), Bobby Crosby (SS), Akinori Iwamura (2B), Steve Pearce/Jeff Clement (1B), Ryan Doumit (C)
 Analysis: The Pirates hitting is about as notable as their rotation. Fortunately, the Pirates do still have some bright spots.

Andrew McCutchen is both the present and the future of the Pirates. He had a solid overall rookie season in 2009 and at age 23 he only has room to improve; a must-own for keeper leagues.

Garrett Jones finally broke into the majors with the Pirates and posted impressive power numbers in the second half of the season. Let the other managers in your league pay too much for him in 2010.

Ryan Doumit had an injury filled 2009 season. After a solid 2008 season, it will be interesting to see if he can stay healthy enough to produce again in 2010.

 St. Louis Cardinals
 Additions: Brad Penny (SP)
 Losses: Mark DeRosa (INF), Khalil Greene (INF)
 Free Agents: John Smoltz (SP/RP) Todd Wellenmeyer (SP/RP)
 Pitching
 Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse, Mitchell Boggs/Jaime Garcia
 Closer: Ryan Franklin
 Analysis: The Cardinals rotation is one of the better rotations in all of baseball with two Cy Young candidates at the front and some solid starters finishing things off. The fifth spot is still up for grabs with Jaime Garcia looking to make the team out of Spring.

Franklin had a great year in 2009, converting 38 of 43 save opportunities and posting a 1.92 ERA. Expect some regression in ERA and WHIP but Franklin should still be a quality closer.

 Hitting
 Lineup: Matt Holliday (OF), Colby Rasmus (OF), Ryan Ludwick (OF), David Freese (3B), Julio Lugo/Tyler Greene (SS), Skip Schumaker/Brendan Ryan (2B), Albert Pujols (1B), Yadier Molina (C)
 Analysis: The Cards have some very clear fantasy stars in their line-up.

It is hard to talk to about the Cardinals without talking about their heart and soul: Albert Pujols. He is about as close to a lock for 100-30-100 there is with a career .334 average to boot.

The outfield is full of talent: Holliday and Ludwick can each hit 20+ homeruns this year. With Rasmus roaming center, they comprise one of the deeper fantasy outfields in the league.


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