We're going to switch things up a little bit today and touch on every team in the NL Central, focusing on which teams are under- or over-valued heading into the season. We picked the NL Central for two reasons; first, it's one of the more wide-open divisions in baseball, and second, we feel that certain teams are due for a drastic change in fortunes from their 2008 win totals.
We included our predications for each team going over or under their Vegas win totals, but we also recommend keeping our analysis in mind for your early-season wagering.
Pittsburgh Pirates (Odds to win NL Central: 20/1; O/U Wins: 67.5)
While there are surprises in store later in this article, one thing that won't surprise anyone is that Pittsburgh remains one of the least talented teams in baseball. The Pirates are like the anti-Tampa Bay Rays in that they've picked in the top of the draft for years, yet have managed to accrue very little talent. They have shown no signs of digging their way out of the cellar of the NL Central; on the contrary, they seem to dig themselves into a deeper hole year after year with poor drafting and uninspired free agent acquisitions. Sporting one of the worst starting rotations in the league to compliment a horrendous offense, the Pirates will be even worse in 2009 than in 2008, so bet appropriately. O/U: UNDER
Houston Astros (20/1 ; 73.5)
Based on "Pythagorean Record" (determining won/lost record by runs scored and runs allowed), the Astros were one of the luckiest teams in baseball last year, finishing nearly 10 games better than expected. This year, they will not be so lucky. With an anemic offense anchored by two very good but aging sluggers (Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman) surrounded by a wealth of replacement-level (or worse) talent, the Astors will be scoring runs like a soccer team in 2009. With a pitching staff very similar to their offense (one stud followed by a bunch of average to below-average hurlers), the Astros will have a very difficult time winning any game not started by Roy Oswalt. All that said, the sportsbooks seem to be using the same line of reasoning as us and have set the over/under very low, so we would probably avoid any "futures" bets on Houston altogether. O/U: AVOID
St. Louis Cardinals (8/3 ; 82.5)
The Cardinals boast the game's best overall player in Albert Pujols, yet unfortunately surround him with one of the worst supporting casts in the majors. For years now, Pujols has basically carried the Cardinals on his back, and they're going to be asking the same of him in 2009. While there are quite a few home run threats on the team, Pujols is the only one who also hits for average and solo shots only help so much. On the pitching side, there is very little to like beyond Adam Wainwright, in the rotation or the bullpen. Finally, factor in the injury and regression risks on this team and it's tough to project the Cardinals to finish any better than .500. O/U: UNDER, but barely
Milwaukee Brewers (9/2 ; 80.5)
We've got the Brewers as being slightly better than the Cardinals heading into 2009, the result of a much more well-rounded offense despite a slightly worse pitching staff. The rotation, now without C.C Sabathia, is basically all question marks, although the upside of Yovani Gallardo is higher than anyone's on St. Louis (yes, including Wainwright). The offense, on the other hand, is a lock to be above-average, and may even be top 10 in the majors depending on how things pan out. Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, and Corey Hart are guaranteed to be above average at their respective positions, while Rickie Weeks and Mike Cameron both have the potential to be huge assets, or huge disappointments. We like this lineup to score plenty of runs, but will their pitchers keep enough runs off the board to allow the Brewers to finish with a winning record? We think so, but not by much. O/U: OVER, but barely
Cincinnati Reds (8/1 ; 78.5)
If there is one team that compares favorably to the Tampa Bay Rays before they made the leap in 2008, it's the Cincinnati Reds. Featuring a core of veterans like Brandon Phillips, Ramon Hernandez, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Fransisco Cordero, as well as future all-stars in Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, the Reds have an excellent blend of proven veterans and talented youngsters. The pitching staff has a lot of potential to really shine in the coming season, and one of the best ways to help a pitching staff blossom is by installing a solid defense behind them, a plan that worked to perfection by Tampa Bay in '08 when they moved Akinori Iwamura to 2nd over B.J. Upton and installed Jason Bartlett at shortstop. The Reds now boast one of the best defensive infields in baseball, with Edwin Encarnacion being the lone, glaring exception - a healthy Brandon Phillips and Alex Gonzalez give the Reds an outstanding defensive middle infield and Joey Votto is fast becoming one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. With expected improvement from the sophomores and a return to health for Alex Gonzalez and Brandon Phillips, the Reds are primed to be one of the best stories of the 2009 season. O/U: OVER
Chicago Cubs (4/7; 92.5)
They're the class of the division, and you don't need me to tell you that. Excellent hitting backed by solid pitching and a great bullpen means the Cubbies will be the team to beat in the NL Central once again in '09. Chicago took on a talented but injury prone star over the winter in Milton Bradley and traded for Rich Harden midway through 2008, both solid gambles for a team that can afford to be without their services if and when the injury bug strike again. With their services, however, Chicago boasts one of the best teams in baseball on both sides of the ball. The Cubs lost very little from their 2008 squad, and Carlos Marmol may even be an upgrade in the one position where they did lose a starter, as Chicago declined to re-sign closer Kerry Wood. In a weak division in the weaker league, the sky is the limit for this star-crossed franchise, and we don't see a reason for them to win any less than the 97 games they won last year. In addition, they are as much of a lock as any team to win their division, although those 4/7 odds mean you may have to invest quite a bit of your bankroll to make the wager worthwhile. O/U: OVER