That's basically what happened to the NL Central after reduction surgery to remove the Houston Astros and transplant them in the AL West. One of the first subjects we discussed following the World Series last October was Major League Baseball realignment and the potential impact of balancing the two leagues with 15 teams each, and the effect will surely be felt in the NL Central after operating as a 6-team group since 1998.
The end result might not seem like much when you first look at the numbers. NL Central squads played a screwy slate against one another, going head to head with the other five teams for 15 to 18 games in the past. Clubs averaged 79 division games in that system, and will play 76 this year. But with the Astros in a pitiful state and losing 213 games from 2011-12, that definitely played a role in the division producing a wild card winner each season, which just so happened to be the St. Louis Cardinals each time.
As fate would have it, NL Central clubs will still get a crack at H-Town, but instead of playing 16 games each against the Astros, there will be 16 games total between the former rivals. Four of them -- Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh & St. Louis -- have been playing Houston with regularity for 51 years. Astros fans are simply going to have to get used to a new list of clubs routinely kicking their backsides.
Reds & Redbirds Favored To Repeat 1-2
There are three distinct tiers to the division according to the MLB futures odds released by The Greek. At the top the sandwich's upper crust are the Cincinnati Reds who started at -125 to repeat as NL Central champs, and once again trailed by the St. Louis Cardinals (+200) who have finished second three years running.
It was a quiet offseason for Dusty Baker's Reds. The one big roster move was dealing Drew Stubbs to Cleveland for Shin-Soo Choo. Another move within the roster is making more noise as Aroldis Chapman moves from closer to starter. If successful, the Cuban southpaw might slot in between Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos to form the game's best rotation trio. Bettors need to take into account Chapman likely being restricted to 160-180 innings (a la Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals last year), not to mention how it thins Cincinnati's bullpen.
The lineup is led by Joey Votto, an MVP candidate along with Jay Bruce, plus a tough middle infield tandem offensively and defensively in 2B Brandon Phillips and SS Zach Cozart. Cincinnati was a disappointing ninth in the National League scoring 4.13 runs per game in 2012, at least partly attributed to Votto missing 50 games with injury, and there's no reason this club shouldn't score at least 4.6 RPG playing half the games at Great American Ball Park.
St. Louis is always a threat. Two World Series Championships, three pennants and nine postseason appearances in 13 seasons will lead one to that conclusion. The Cards made our list of undervalued teams entering spring training, and are among my early wagers at 18/1 to make it into the October tournament to go all the way.
Brew Crew, Bucs Aim To Upset The Status Quo
The middle of this division is a tricky duo, each capable of winning 90 or losing 85. But then, isn't that the case for most teams?
Odds to win the division currently have the Milwaukee Brewers at +500 and +1200 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That is a bit of an artificial gap between the two teams, with the Brewers more on the public's mind than the Pirates who extended their MLB record to a 20-straight losing season in 2012.
Neither really looks good from the division title angle, but I'd be far more likely to take a shot on the Pirates at 12/1 over the Brewers with a 5/1 return. There could still be fallout on this Ryan Braun bit with the PED dealer down in the Sunshine State, which has me shying away from Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh might be the better candidate for our MLB picks to reach the 81+ win plateau.
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Do They Still Play The Blues In Chicago, When Baseball Season Rolls Around?
The first bet I ever made involved the Chicago Cubs, and I have hated them ever since that 1962 season. A friend who is a Cubs fan once asked me what was the nicest thing I could say about his team. My reply was quick and genuine, "Steve Goodman rooted for y'all."
If you've never listened to a Steve Goodman tune, do your ears a favor. His Cubbies opened spring training at +2000 to win the NL Central, and that's with the second-highest payroll of the quintet (est. $102 million). There's a good chance they'll deal away around $28 million of that at some point with Alfonso Soriano and Matt Garza the candidates, so at least the 90+ losses won't cost them as much.
That wraps up our previews of the six MLB divisions; if you want to go back and read about the other five, just follow the links below.
AL Central Preview