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Michael Taylor 17th Mar 2009 - 15:47

MLB 2009 - NL Central betting preview

Despite all the pre-season hype in 2008 about the Chicago Cubs they ultimately failed to deliver in the play-offs - again!

This year the Cubs look to have what it takes but they may find the NL Central is not quite as easy to get out of this year, with the Cincinnati Reds appearing to be reaching the end of a long rebuilding process.

Who will make the play-offs from this exciting Central division?

Chicago Cubs

Time keeps on ticking by as the Cubs still can't buy themselves a World Championship. Last year it looked for the world that nobody in the NL could match the Cubs but yet again they fell considerably short in the play-offs, making it 101 years since their last World Series victory.

And once again there is no reason why they cannot do it. They are a team full of All-Stars with few holes to be found in any position, pitching included. Alfonso Soriano is one of the most prodigious talents in baseball and if he gets hot then nobody will stop the Cubs, especially when Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Geovanny Soto offer him protection in the line-up. One player that must improve on last season's effort is Kosuke Fukudome.

As mentioned before even the pitching, ranging from the starters to relief to the closer, is formidable. Carlos Zambrano is the perfect NL pitcher as he swings a hot bat as well while Rich Harden could be set to post incredible numbers if he stays healthy.

Key Player: Alfonso Soriano Prediction: 1st Odds to win NL Central: 4/7

Cincinnati Reds

It's out with the old and in with the new in Cincinnati as Ken Griffey Jr. finally ended his National League nightmare which now leaves room for Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to show what they've got.

All the talk was about how good Jay Bruce is going to be but it was Votto who stole the limelight in Ohio as he broke the Reds' rookie season RBI record, which was held by the great Frank Robinson. It will be interesting if Bruce now excels. Away from the youth, Willy Taveras is a great acquisition that will bring amazing speed to their line-up and Jerry Hairston Jr. should put up decent numbers.

There is also a good deal to suggest a strong starting rotation can get the job done with Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto looking to follow up from encouraging years. The one pitcher that must improve is Aaron Harang who, if on form, could easily manage a 20 win season.

Key Player: Aaron Harang Prediction: 2nd Odds to win NL Central: 10/1

Houston Astros

The Astros were a joy to watch at times last year with Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada and Carlos Lee all showing that you don't have to be in Chicago to play in a big scoring franchise in the NL Central.

Berkman in particular started 2008 like a steam train putting up numbers that brought back memories of the Astros' 'killer Bs', while Miguel Tejada proved that no matter how old he is, he is an All-Star calibre shortstop. A lot can also be expected of Hunter Pence who struggled in his sophomore season but has great potential.

Their pitching is still lacking in a number of areas though with a number two to back Roy Oswalt up still a major problem. The acquisition of LaTroy Hawkins is uninspiring given his poor showing in New York, but in Jose Valverde they are blessed with a very reliable closer.

Key Player: Lance Berkman Prediction: 3rd Odds to win NL Central: 7/1

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers went for broke in 08 trading away top prospect Matt LaPorta for CC Sabathia and although it brought a return to the post-season it could ultimately prove a disastrous move.

The small market Brewers rallied late in the season behind the superb pitching of Sabathia to make the Wild Card but this year looks very bleak as the off-season saw a mass exodus of talent including Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Guillermo Mota, Gabe Kaplar, Russell Branyan and Salomon Torres.

It now leaves just Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder as recognised All-Star type players and Manny Parra, who is a decent mid-rotation guy, as their ace. All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman takes over from Torres as closer but given Hoffman's age even this looks like a downgrade.

Key Player: Ryan Braun Prediction: 5th Odds to win NL Central: 15/2

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh basically turned themselves into a joke in 2008 as they traded away Jason Bay and Xavier Nady - two of just a few star players the Pirates had. The one consolation, the Steelers were crowned Super Bowl champs, so at least the city has one winner.

The Pirates are now left with very few options and it falls on the young shoulders of Nate McClouth to carry a batting line-up so full of holes it resembles a colander. If Freddy Sanchez can reproduce the numbers that won him a batting title in 2006 then at least somebody will get on base regularly.

One piece of good news is that Jeff Karstens looked the real deal in his few starts at the end of the season. After arriving as part of the deal that took Xavier Nady to New York he went 2-0 in two starts which included a 7.2 innings perfect game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Matt Capps and Ian Snell should also do a reasonable job on the mound.

Key Player: Nate McClouth Prediction: 6th Odds to win NL Central: 40/1

St Louis Cardinals

2008 NL MVP winner Albert Pujols was simply incredible last year as he turned the Cardinals into a season long challenger at the top of the Central before they eventually faded towards the closing weeks.

The problem now for Tony La Russa is that only another great season from the future Hall of Fame first baseman can see them competing with the Chicago Cubs - and it could prove too much to ask, even for Big Albert. There should be more consistent at bats by the likes of Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus while more will be expected of Khalil Greene after a terrible year in San Diego.

Aside from Pujols, the other highlight of last season was the resurgent play of Kyle Lohse as he showed he can still hack it in the bigs. Now, if Chris Carpenter can finally start playing on a regular basis there is a backbone for a useful pitching roster. The off-season acquisition of Dennys Reyes should also add a bit of weight to the pen.

Key Player: Chris Carpenter Prediction: 4th Odds to win NL Central: 9/2

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