Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NL Central Preview

Today is the NL Central's turn. Baseball's largest division, it's also the weakest. Six teams compete, yet none can reach 90 wins. One would think that this would lead to more parity among the teams. Unfortunately, the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates have been stuck for years in the bottom half of the division. The Astros and Cardinals, and occasionally the Cubs, have dominated the playoff berths. Last year saw Milwaukee dramatically improve its squad behind solid youngsters Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. As we enter 2008, the old guard has fallen by the wayside. St. Louis and Houston are struggling to reload after losing their veterans that won so many games for them in the past decade. Milwaukee and Chicago are the frontrunners, with Cincinnati not far behind.

Predicted Order of Finish:
Milwaukee
Chicago
Cincinnati
St. Louis
Houston
Pittsburgh

Best Positional Player: Albert Pujols, St. Louis
Best Pitcher: Roy Oswalt, Houston
Best Rookie: Jay Bruce, Cincinnati

Divisional All-Star Team:
C- Geovany Soto, Chicago
1B- Albert Pujols, St. Louis
2B- Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati
SS- Miguel Tejada, Houston
3B- Aramis Ramirez, Chicago
LF- Alfonso Soriano, Chicago
CF- Jay Bruce, Cincinnati
RF- Corey Hary, Milwaukee
SP- Roy Oswalt, Houston
SP- Carlos Zambrano, Chicago
SP- Tom Gorzelanny, Pittsburgh
SP- Ben Sheets, Milwaukee
SP- Adam Wainwright, St. Louis
RP- Carlos Marmol, Chicago
RP- David Weathers, Cincinnati
CP- Jose Valverde, Houston
CP- Matt Capps, Pittsburgh

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Lineup
C- Jason Kendall
1B- Prince Fielder
2B- Rickie Weeks
SS- J.J. Hardy
3B- Bill Hall
LF- Ryan Braun
CF- Mike Cameron
RF- Corey Hart
Bench- C- Eric Munson; INF- Craig Counsell, Joe Dillon; OF- Tony Gwynn Jr., Gabe Kapler

Pitchers
SP- Ben Sheets
SP- Yovani Gallardo
SP- Jeff Suppan
SP- David Bush
SP- Manny Parra
CP- Eric Gagne
RP- Derrick Turnbow
RP- Brian Shouse
RP- Salomon Torres
RP- David Riske
RP- Guillermo Mota
RP- Claudio Vargas

Before 2007, Milwaukee last had a winning season in 1992. They were the frontrunners in the Central for much of the year. But, a mid-season swoon allowed Chicago to overtake them. The Brewers fought valiantly in August and September, but injuries and inconsistency in their starting pitching was too much to overcome.

Another problem with the '07 Brewers was their defense. Braun was downright terrible at third and Hall was only so-so in center. To fix the problem, Milwaukee signed defensive whiz Mike Cameron to play center. Then they moved Hall back to his original position in the infield and pushed Braun to an easier position in left. Every one of their starters is a threat to go deep except for catcher Kendall. Manager Ned Yost has already said he will hit Kendall 9th behind the pitcher. Kendall's one offensive strength is reaching base, so his ability to act as a "second leadoff man" could help Fielder and Braun hit with more runners on base.

With their offense so dominant, the Brewers pitching has a lot of room for error. However, their starting rotation isn't very deep. Bush and Suppan are merely serviceable inning-eater types. Sheets is one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy. But, he hasn't pitched a full season since 2004. The other two projected starters, Parra and Gallardo, are young pitchers with injury histories as well. If healthy, both can be top-of-the-rotation starters.

The Brew Crew bullpen is also heavily dependent on pitchers with injury histories. Gagne, Mota, and Torres have all experienced arm problems in the past two years and are on the wrong side of 30. Luckily, Milwaukee has a strong collection of young arms in AAA and the bench to provide support. Vargas, Carlos Villanueva, Zach Jackson, and Seth McClung could all step in and not miss a beat.

Milwaukee's offense is easily the best in the division. With just a little help from its pitching, the Brewers should make their first playoff appearance since the early 1980s.

2. Chicago Cubs

Lineup
C- Geovany Soto
1B- Derrek Lee
2B- Mark DeRosa
SS- Ryan Theriot
3B- Aramis Ramirez
LF- Alfonso Soriano
CF- Felix Pie
RF- Kosuke Fukudome
Bench- C- Henry Blanco; INF- Daryle Ward, Ronny Cedeno; OF- Matt Murton

Pitchers
SP- Carlos Zambrano
SP- Ted Lilly
SP- Rich Hill
SP- Jason Marquis
SP- Jon Lieber
CP- Ryan Dempster
RP- Bob Howry
RP- Carlos Marmol
RP- Kerry Wood
RP- Scott Eyre
RP- Michael Wuertz
RP- Kevin Hart

The Cubs concern me a bit. On the surface, they have the most superstars of the division. Guys like Soriano, Ramirez, Lee, Wood, and Zambrano are household names that other teams in the division don't have. Yet, even with all those people, the Cubs barely beat Milwaukee in 2007. And, I can't see the Cubs pitchers equalling what they did in '07. Marquis, Dempster, and Lilly are probably going to decline back to their past career standard.

Chicago also has some major holes on offense that Milwaukee doesn't. Theriot is overmatched at shortstop and should probably be on the bench. But, the Cubs don't have a better option because Cedeno has proven he can't handle a starting load either. Pie will be a great talent someday, but in 2008, he will be below-average. Lou Piniella may be quick to bench him in favor of a veteranc if the Cubs are in contention. The X-factor will be Fukudome. As Japanese players like Hideki Matsui and Kenji Johjima have shown, power decreases when coming across the Pacific. For Fukudome to be productive, he'll have show gap hitting and plate discipline. If he's a success, it could push Chicago past Milwaukee.

However, none of that will matter if the Cubs pitching doesn't perform. Zambrano declined slightly in 2007, as the wear and tear of pitching 200 innings/yr may be getting to him. Michigan alum Hill may turn out to be the Cubs' best pitcher in 2008 if he continues his yearly improvement. Behind those two are big question marks, though. Marquis cannot be counted on to be much more than average. Lilly had a career year last season, can he do it again? The fifth spot may go to Dempster, but it's been years since he started. And the whole reason he moved to the pen was because he couldn't hack it in the rotation anymore. Lieber is also attempting a comeback after missing most of the past two years with injuries. The bullpen is stellar, with Wuertz, Marmol, and Howry anchoring the late innings. But, if you can't get your starters to the seventh inning, what's the point in a good pen?

As many questions as I've risen, the Cubs are still a top-2 team in this division. They have a scary middle of the order and solid front-end pitching. That's more than enough to contend in the Central.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Lineup
C- Javier Valentin
1B- Joey Votto
2B- Brandon Phillips
SS- Alex Gonzalez
3B- Edwin Encarnacion
LF- Adam Dunn
CF- Jay Bruce
RF- Ken Griffey, Jr.
Bench- C- David Ross; INF- Scott Hatteberg, Jeff Keppinger; OF- Corey Patterson, Ryan Freel

Pitchers
SP- Aaron Harang
SP- Bronson Arroyo
SP- Josh Fogg
SP- Matt Belisle
SP- Homer Bailey
CP- Francisco Cordero
RP- David Weathers
RP- Todd Coffey
RP- Bill Bray
RP- Mike Stanton
RP- Jeremy Affeldt
RP- Jared Burton

The Reds have some of the best young talent in the division in Votto, Bruce, Bailey, and top pitching prospect Johnny Cueto. But, the veterans, especially the pitchers, surrounding them aren't quite good enough to lift the Reds above third place.

You really can't ask for much more power in an offense. Phillips, Griffey, Dunn, and Encarnacion are all capable of 30 HRs. Bruce and Votto have tremendous power as well, but in their rookie campaigns, I expect something closer to 20 HRs and a little more doubles. If Gonzalez and Valentin can be anywhere close to league-average, this squad will pile runs in bushels. The launching pad that is Great American Ballpark certainly helps that quest.

Where it helps the hitters, it hurts the pitchers. Harang is the only proven commodity in the rotation. One of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, Harang carried the Reds rotation last year. Bailey has a chance to be a #1 starter someday, but he's still harnessing his control at this point. Fogg, Arroyo, and Belisle are middle of the rotation starters at best.

The bullpen is more of the same story. They have two very good pitchers in Cordero and Weathers, but nothing of value behind them. The lack of pitching depth will ultimately derail the Reds against stronger teams. Fortunately, their offense is more than enough to carry them past what's left of the Astros and Cardinals.

4. St. Louis Cardinals

Lineup
C- Yadier Molina
1B- Albert Pujols
2B- Adam Kennedy
SS- Cesar Izturis
3B- Troy Glaus
LF- Chris Duncan
CF- Colby Rasmus
RF- Rick Ankiel
Bench- C- Jason LaRue; INF- Aaron Miles, Brendan Ryan; OF- Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker

Pitchers
SP- Adam Wainwright
SP- Braden Looper
SP- Joel Pineiro
SP- Matt Clement
SP- Anthony Reyes
CP- Jason Isringhausen
RP- Ryan Franklin
RP- Russ Springer
RP- Randy Flores
RP- Tyler Johnson
RP- Todd Wellemeyer
RP- Brad Thompson

It's not much of a stretch to say the Cardinals may soon look like the Giants of recent years. Pujols could find himself surrounded by a bunch of ragtag veterans and overrated rookies like Bonds became accustomed to. Their fluke (only 83 reg. season wins) World Series victory in 2006 has got the Cardinals thinking they're closer to contention than they really are.

Other than Pujols, the only other good offensive players are Glaus, Duncan, and Ankiel. And, Ankiel and Glaus are free swingers that should be easy to pitch around. Offensive sieves like Molina and Izturis await. Though, to be fair, Molina is the best defensive catcher in MLB.

But, when a team has pitching like the Cards do, they're going to need more than just great defense behind the plate. Former top pitchers Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder are both out until at least mid-season. Wainwright is the only good pitcher left in the rotation. The bullpen is solid and should make up for some of the starters' errors, but there are far too many question marks still. Pineiro and Reyes haven't built on early-career promise and Clement is recovering from a year off. I could go either way with St. Louis and Houston, but I think the Cardinals superior bullpen gets the edge.

5. Houston Astros

Lineup
C- J.R. Towles
1B- Lance Berkman
2B- Kaz Matsui
SS- Miguel Tejada
3B- Ty Wigginton
LF- Carlos Lee
CF- Michael Bourn
RF- Hunter Pence
Bench- C- Brad Ausmus; INF- Geoff Blum, Mark Loretta; OF- Darin Erstad

Pitchers
SP- Roy Oswalt
SP- Woody Williams
SP- Wandy Rodriguez
SP- Brandon Backe
SP- Shawn Chacon
CP- Jose Valverde
RP- Oscar Villarreal
RP- Doug Brocail
RP- Chad Paronto
RP- Chris Sampson
RP- Dave Borkowski
RP- Geoff Geary

The Craig Biggio era finally ended in Houston, probably three years too late. But, as the Astros move on in 2008, they are a team without a true identity. Their offense should be respectable with Lee, Berkman, and Pence carrying the squad. Unfortunately, Tejada is being counted on as a superstar still. After all, they did trade five players for him. But, he has been declining the past three years and is not the player he once was. His offense will still be much better than his predecessor, Adam Everett, but his range has been severely hampered. Beyond that, though, Houston will be starting Matsui, Bourn, and Wigginton. None of them have proven to be major league starters - only Coors Field saved Matsui from another below-average year.

Valverde saved 47 games in 2007 for Arizona, but he won't come anywhere close to that in Houston. It's not that he'll decline, in fact, he's likely to improve. But, with only one quality starter, Oswalt, and no viable setup man, Valverde will struggle for save chances. The Astros have to hope for a big leap from third-year starter Rodriguez, because the other starters are aging and unlikely to pitch well in tiny Minute Maid Park.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

Lineup
C- Ronny Paulino
1B- Adam LaRoche
2B- Freddy Sanchez
SS- Jack Wilson
3B- Jose Bautista
LF- Jason Bay
CF- Nate McLouth
RF- Xavier Nady
Bench- C- Ryan Doumit; INF- Chris Gomez, Josh Wilson; OF- Steven Pearce, Chris Duffy

Pitchers
SP- Tom Gorzelanny
SP- Ian Snell
SP- Zach Duke
SP- Paul Maholm
SP- Matt Morris
CP- Matt Capps
RP- Damaso Marte
RP- Byung-Hyun Kim
RP- John Grabow
RP- Jonah Bayliss
RP- Juan Perez
RP- Franquelis Osoria

Much like the Giants, the Pirates will be a bad team with a great rotation. Young pitchers Gorzelanny, Snell, Duke, and Maholm are all capable of winning 12-15 games. Gorzelanny and Snell are the best of the bunch and could win a Cy Young or two in a few years. Unfortunately, voters value wins too much for consideration in 2008. The pitchers simply won't receive the run support needed to win that many games. But, boy will those ERAs look pretty.

For the Pirates to reach respectability, they need a bounceback year from star Jason Bay. He was an All-Star his first two years, but he slumped badly in 2007. Was this because of the frustration of playing Pittsburgh or was this a sign of things to come? I hope for Pirates fans, it's the former. There is little in the way of star talent on offense, just plenty of decent players who would make great bench players on contending teams. Watch for rookie Steven Pearce though. If he can find playing time in the OF corners or at 1B, he could make an impact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Go Cincy! that team has the best chance of winning in years. It is time the young talent steps up