The National League Central is the assorted potpourri division of baseball. You’ve got a first class organization leading the way almost every year, an iconic franchise that can’t win the big one, a team that hasn’t been in the National League but for a decade or so, the former juggernaut, the team not even locals care about, and a franchise that hasn’t seen success since the first George Bush was in office. That’s a lot of real estate to cover, so let’s not waste any more time.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Last Year’s Record: 91-71

Predicted 2010 Record: 94-68

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “If you pay attention to baseball literati, pundits and sabermetricians, you’ll know that the Cardinals are cast as the unbreakable bullies of the NL Central. If they aren’t the unanimous pick to win the division, it’s close. The confidence is based on the presence of four established franchise pieces that few teams can match. The St. Louis rotation has a one-two punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright to smack hitters in the mouth. The lineup has Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in place to intimidate opposing pitchers. This fearsome formation provides a strong working nucleus. And plenty of talent has been put around the franchise’s fab four.” Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post Dispatch

Something(s) To Love: Albert Pujols is our last mega-star not to get involved in the steroids scandal so far. If he can continue as the best player in the league, he’ll elevate the game with him. St. Louis fans are generally knowledgeable, respectful, and gracious. Ozzie Smith used to play (and do cartwheels) here. Matt Holliday got his giant contract from another team, and the Rockies are still chugging along brilliantly.

Something(s) To Hate: St. Louis is home to Anhueser-Busch, producer of the world’s most awful beer. Tony La Russa is easily one of the 5 most annoying people on the planet and people want to anoint him a genius for occasionally hitting his pitcher 8th. The Cardinals always seem to be good, which, as a lifelong Cub fan, makes me crazy with rage. Your team doesn’t have Albert Pujols and probably never will. Writing those things to love about this team was one of the most unpleasant things to do because I hate the Cardinals with the power of a thousand suns.

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: 1B Albert Pujols (Since he’s so famous, you almost forget just how ridiculous that last name is)

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “I used to eat ribs all the time. Big slabs of ribs covered with barbecue sauce. The barbecue sauce used to get stuck in my beard. I call that ‘bonus sauce’ for later.”

2. Chicago Cubs

Last Year’s Record: 83-78

Predicted 2010 Record: 84-78

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “The Cubs are still a talented team, and they have enough pieces with enough juice left to conceivably make a Cardinals-in-2006 run, a team that didn’t win when it should have but sneaked out a title when they shouldn’t have. (They’ll need what the Cardinals got that year: the rest of the division falling apart.)” – Will Leitch, Deadspin.com

Something(s) To Love: Wrigley Field. The roster is filled with easy-to-like guys like Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, and Ryan Theriot. Unless you’re a huge Cardinals, Brewers, or White Sox fan, a gigantic prick, or someone who hates Chicago, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for long-suffering Cub fans.

Something(s) To Hate: Insufferably obnoxious Cub fans who have quickly become among the league’s worst. You likely rank Carlos Zambrano in your Top 5 Least Favorite Players. Wrigley has become an overpriced sideshow. Talk of the curse is exhausting and overwrought. Alfonso Soriano.

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: C Welington Castillo (Last name: standard Latin baseball player. First name: British aristocracy.)

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “I’ve been down to Wrigleyville. You’ll find enough drunk people to give you money to get your own drink. But there are a lot of gays.”

3. Cincinnati Reds

Last Year’s Record: 78-84

Predicted 2010 Record: 81-81

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “Manager Dusty Baker led the Reds to a 78-84 record in 2009. He has a nice young core of players to work with and if some of those youngsters continue to develop Cincinnati could make some noise in 2010. However, they play in a competitive division with a perennial pennant contender in the St. Louis Cardinals atop the division. 2010 won’t be the year of the Reds, but there is reason to have hope for the future, especially if Chapman comes in and sets the world afire.”Dr. Jack, Cappers Mall

Something(s) To Love: The Reds have some of the most exciting young pitchers in all of baseball.

Something(s) To Hate: Unfortunately, the Reds also have Dusty Baker in charge of those young pitchers which means you can look forward to five years from now when baseball analysts wonder what could have been after blown out elbows and massive reconstructive surgeries. This team has no offense. Joe Morgan used to play here and never shuts up about it. Their team name is a synonym for Communists.

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: IF Yonder Alonso (Sounds like the last two words of a chapter in a book about the prairie settlers. “…and when his piercing blue eyes begged me to tell him where his ‘pa went, all I could muster was, ‘He’s gone out yonder, Alonso.’”

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “You know what I like? Big Red. Yeah, the gum. But when it loses its flavor, it makes my mouth feel weird. Then I can’t taste anything for an hour.”

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Last Year’s Record: 80-82

Predicted 2010 Record: 74-88

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “While we’ve covered this ground, it bears repeating that the starting rotation was last in all of baseball in ERA; last in on-base percentage; next to last in WHIP (walks plus hits to innings pitched) to the Cleveland Indians, who have this habit of giving away Cy Young award-winners; and almost last in strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Among the teams at or near the top in all or some of those categories were the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. Check that against the ’09 standings to draw a wholly redundant correlation between success and pitching.” – Michael Hunt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Something(s) To Love: The fans tailgate before every home game. Remember, this is baseball – 81 games. I would move to Milwaukee for this fact alone. Prince Fielder’s choreographed homerun celebration annoyed the rest of the uptight league. When your team plays the Brewers and Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun come up, you’re terrified of their every at-bat. As a baseball fan, that makes you feel alive. The immortal Bob Uecker is their play-by-play man.

Something(s) To Hate: Bob Uecker does not, however, announce the games in the persona of Harry Doyle from Major League.

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: 3B Casey McGehee (You can’t say this name without sounding like you’re giggling)

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “I’ve thought about moving to Milwaukee just for the bounty of beer cans. You can be the king of cans up there! But it’s cold. I hate the cold.”

5. Houston Astros

Last Year’s Record: 74-88

Predicted 2010 Record: 73-89

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “So Fox Sports is picking the Astros dead last, and that really hurts because the Pirates aren’t even trying to win games. I’d hate to think that a team with a $95-million payroll would finish behind a team that doesn’t care. I have to admit that one hurt, and I hope no one sees it because I like to sling the positives in spring training and help sell a few tickets and the way it works with me and Drayton is that I scratch his back and he scratches mine except he hasn’t done the scratching he said he was going to do on a certain job in the big city if you know what I mean and I think you do.” – Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle

Something(s) To Love: Their biggest star is nicknamed “Fat Elvis.” Roy Oswalt has been pitching for them for roughly the last 35 years. Their park used to be called Enron Field which is reminiscent of a simpler time in America. Miguel Tejada aged two years in the blink of an eye on this team!

Something(s) To Hate: Houston is one of the five worst places on earth. That stupid hill in center field. That stupid train in left field. The short porch in the same field. Looking at this roster, you can’t help but think this team would have really kicked ass in 2005.

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: SS Wladimir Sutil (I’m a sucker for people named “Wladimir.” Just cracks me up.)

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “I got clipped by the evil light rail system they have there. Messed up my ‘Nam shoulder. Never going back.”

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Year’s Record: 62-99

Predicted 2010 Record: 66-96

Pertinent Line from Real Team Preview: “Good teams are not built with “if’’ players. Good teams are built with players who already have done it. The argument could be made that no one on the Pirates has done it. The closest thing this team has to established major leaguers are Doumit, second baseman Aki Iwamura, reserve outfielder Ryan Church and starters Paul Maholm and Zach Duke. That’s not enough, particularly considering the ceiling of the established players mentioned.” – Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Something(s) To Love: By all accounts, the Pirates have one of the best ballparks in the entire league, which is a shame considering the awful baseball played there. Andrew McCutchen will likely be one of the most exciting players to watch in the coming years. The article linked above speaks to the indomitable human spirit and endless capacity for optimism. That’s got to be good for the soul.

Something(s) To Hate: How do you hate the Pirates? Unless you live in Pittsburgh, that is. Then it’s easy to understand some well-earned rage at the front office for screwing up countless drafts, trading the wrong players, and basically running a baseball team as poorly as anyone has ever dared to. Otherwise, you hate the Pirates like you hate sparrows (i.e. You don’t).

Funniest Name on 40-Man Roster: CF Gorkys Hernandez (Plural of Gorky! Hooray!)

Fred the Homeless Dirtbag’s Appraisal: “I think the rapid economic deterioration of manufacturing in the Rust Belt makes the continued abysmal performance of the Pirates that much more heartbreaking. This used to be a great baseball town that has been reduced to a laughing stock.”

Tomorrow we fulfill our manifest destiny as we go west, young man.

edagger@crujonessociety.com