2008 preview: NL Central

CHICAGO CUBS

In general

The Cubs seem poised for a repeat appearance in the postseason — and another year-long battle for the division with their Wisconsin neighbors, the Brewers. Gone are outfielders Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd and perennially injured starter Mark Prior. The main replacements are prospect Felix Pie and free agents Kosuke Fukudome and Jon Lieber, both of whom have to be considered upgrades. Anything from Lieber is better than nothing from Prior.

So there’s a lot to like from the defending NL Central champions, and if they get contributions from the minors — like Jeff Samardzija in a relief/fill-in starter role — later in the season should any injuries arrive, they should at least have a chance to enter the tournament to for their first World Series title in 100 years.

A leadoff hitter would help, allowing Alfonso Soriano to hit in a run-producing spot, where his inability to draw a walk wouldn’t hurt so much. Finally completing a trade for Brian Roberts would fill that void, but don’t hold your breath. What they need is for Pie to prove he can hit at the top of the order, followed by Ryan Theriot and leaving the 3-4-5-6 spots to some combination of Fukudome, Soriano, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. The NL Rookie of the Year could very well come from a catcher in the division — either Chicago’s Geovany Soto or Houston’s J.R. Towles.

Lieber and Ryan Dempster essentially fill the rotation spots once annually left for Kerry Wood and Prior, though neither had much use for them from the disabled list. Add in Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis, and the Cubs actually have a surplus of capable starters, so someone will be a long man out of the bullpen. Wood takes over the closer role, with Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry setting him up (and filling in, if need be), along with Scott Eyre. It’s a well-balanced team with enough pieces to be at the top of the standings from start to finish. The Cubs did have the second-best team ERA and third-best bullpen ERA in the NL in 2007.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

It’s been fun watching the likes of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui come over from Japan, so what does the season hold for Fukudome? How will Zambrano react to pitching with his big contract? Just how good will Hill be? Can Wood stay healthy in the closer role? Does Samardzija make his debut?

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

In general

The Brew Crew ended its streak of consecutive non-winning seasons (they had an 81-81 campaign in 2005) at 14 and led the division for most of 2007 and is poised complete the turnaround this year. With few changes in the lineup or the rotation, the only question on this team is the bullpen. Closer Francisco Cordero left for division rival Cincinnati, and GM Doug Melvin chose Eric Gagne as the replacement. Whether he signed the one who pitched well in Texas last year or the one who bombed with Boston in the stretch drive may mean the difference in whether Milwaukee or Chicago is adding bunting to the ballpark in October.

The rotation adds Yovani Gallardo for a (mostly) full season, once he gets into playing shape after spring knee surgery and loses Chris Capuano — who went something like 15 starts without a win last year — to his second Tommy John procedure. The lineup benefits from a full season of Rookie of the Year* (it should’ve been Troy Tulowitzki) Ryan Braun. Plus, the addition of center fielder Mike Cameron (after his 25-game suspension for a positive amphetamines test) moves Bill Hall back to third base and puts the brutal Braun in left. Though they did decide Jason Kendall would be a good free-agent pickup behind the plate, which is ridiculous. Hopefully it was their only option. Still, this is a young team on the rise, not a fluke.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Man, Braun was just brutal at third base, so putting him in left field limits the damage his glove can do. But what kind of numbers will he put up without having to worry as much about his defense? Gallardo is supposed to be the second coming of Dwight Gooden, or something like that, and I love the young flamethrowers. Ben Sheets is in the final year of his contract, so I’d like to see a strong season — particularly for all the recent years he’s burned me on my fantasy staff. And how does the Gagne investment pay off?

CINCINNATI REDS

In general

They finished 72-90 last year, but the Reds are poised for a turnaround. I don’t think they’ll get quite that far. I don’t really see any surprises like last year’s Rockies this year, in part because there’s not much room for a darkhorse to break through. Colorado benefitted from a wide-open division last year and eeked out a Wild Card berth. But the NL West is so deep that none of the four teams who could win it would be a surprise. The Cubs and Brewers in the Central aren’t sneaking up on anybody, and I think they’ll either both make the postseason, or the Wild Card will land in another division. In the East, you’ve got three teams who can win it and two who can’t. A quick look at the AL shows that the Jays and Rays — no matter how good they can be — won’t surge ahead of either the Yankees or Red Sox; the Central has three contenders, and should the White Sox sneak in there, they wouldn’t be all that surprising. A Seattle postseason berth really seems like the only possibility among the non-favorites.

But back to the Reds. They’re getting younger, with Ken Griffey Jr. on the cusp of 600 home runs, but also beginning to make way for the future stars. Adam Dunn is in his walk year, so he’ll either stick around as a franchise player or open up a clear spot for Jay Bruce in a year. Brandon Phillips leads the infield, with a young corner combo of Joey Votto at first and Edwin Encarnacion at third. The Reds still like their young rotation combo of Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, but they need a rebound from Arroyo, who went 9-15 last year. Sending prospect Homer Bailey to the minors is frustrating, but he should be up to stay by the end of the year.

Cincinnati’s biggest issue in 2007 was a bullpen that couldn’t hold leads before it got to closer David Weathers (and sometimes when it did get to him). Signing Cordero away from the Brewers helps by pushing Weathers back into a setup role and making the ‘pen deeper overall. Now those arms just have to be more consistent.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Votto should be a fine replacement to popular former Reds first baseman Sean Casey, but with more power. Everyone has more power at this point than Casey, unfortunately. Griffey’s homer chase should be fun to watch, because he’s one of baseball’s good guys and has never had a hint of scandal associated with his name in this recent era of scandalous allegations. Dunn’s season will be interesting for fans of those teams with left field openings in 2009 — like the Mets.

HOUSTON ASTROS

In general

Love the lineup. Hate the rotation. And the bullpen may have taken a step back. But first, the offense. Oh, the offense. Carlos Lee has proven to be an excellent signing, particularly with the way Minute Maid Park is set up for right-handed hitters. Now they’ll get a full year of Hunter Pence and have added shortstop Miguel Tejada, who should see a rebound coming to a more formidable lineup and benefitting from the aforementioned — or previously alluded to — Crawford Boxes in left field. New center fielder Michael Bourn should, at the very least, be what Willy Taveras was when he was the center fielder and leadoff hitter. And Kaz Matsui — once he gets over his, ahem, surgery — will be no worse than Craig Biggio was in his final few years.

But now the pitching. Beyond Roy Oswalt — who has fallen to 15 and 14 wins the last two years after consecutive 20-win campaigns — we’re looking at Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe (coming off injury), Woody Williams and Chris Sampson. Or Shawn Chacon may be in there somewhere. As good as Oswalt is, I’d take the Reds’ duo of Harang and Arroyo, with whatever else they have, over him and Houston’s back four. The bullpen dealt talented but perhaps troubled — and oft-aching — closer Brad Lidge, but picked up a new one in Jose Valverde. But Valverde has yet to put together two capable, consistent seasons in a row without being bounced as Arizona’s stopper, so he’s no sure thing. He also cost Chad Qualls, one of Houston’s stallwart setup men. This team could sure use a hard-throwing future Hall of Famer, but he’s not worth the headaches.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Big fan of Pence. I love the kids who come up and take the league by storm. The Rookie of the Year Award was his — until he got hurt, missed a month, and allowed Braun to take over the headlines. And Bourn can run all day, so 50 steals isn’t a bad over-under for him. J.R. Towles takes over the catching duties, where he’ll have the guidance of previous starter and current backup Brad Ausmus. That kind of asset can only help.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

In general

It was only a year ago when the Cards entered the season as the defending World Series champions. But they barely got out of that first game before their ace was lost for the season — and perhaps a month or two of this one — and not much has gone right since. Even their best player — one of baseball’s best players — Albert Pujols has said that his injured right elbow will someday require surgery, but he’s going to play with the discomfort as long as he can. For now, he’s still slugging, but it may be sometime in August, when St. Louis is looking way up at Milwaukee and Chicago, that he calls it a season and gets the procedure out of the way.

Pujols anchors a solid middle four of the batting order, with Rick Ankiel having successfully completed his conversion from pitching prospect to outfield prospect and Troy Glaus coming over from Toronto in exchange for disgruntled third baseman Scott Rolen. Chris Duncan, like Ankiel a left-handed swinger, completes the quartet and the left-right balance. But beyond that, you’ve got Skip Shumaker as the likely leadoff hitter, Yadier Molina as a significantly better fielding catcher than hitting one, a declining Adam Kennedy at second base and the oft-waived Cesar Izturis at shortstop — and hitting ninth, in favor of the pitcher at No. 8. At least it appears Tony La Russa will choose to do that again this year.

Chris Carpenter’s absence from the rotation makes Adam Wainwright the No. 1 starter — and puts Braden Looper in the No. 2 slot. Yikes. Kyle Lohse wasn’t signed until about two weeks ago, and the moment that contract became official was the moment Lohse became the No. 3 starter. That’s how desparate this team is for pitching; it needed to sign a guy with a 63-74 career record and 4.82 ERA whom nobody wanted all offseason. I don’t even have to go any futher into the rotation. But that brings us to a bullpen anchored by successful closer Jason Isringhausen, and his degenrative hip. The relief corps will have its good days and bad, but there will definitely be both.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

I’ve seen projections for Ankiel reaching 30 or even 40 home runs and 90 or 100 RBIs. Should he reach the latter numbers, what an amazing comeback story he would be. A full season from him this year would complete the tale; otherwise, last year’s late-season performance will be just an afterword on his disastrous pitching downfall. And if Pujols can still be a 35-homer, 95-RBI monster with elbow issues, he’s perhaps better than we first thought.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

In general

It’s going to be another long year with plenty of good seats available in baseball’s best ballpark. There’s a new CEO and GM who brought in a new manager and coaching staff. But it’s the same old players, though the old guys — as in holdovers — are at least getting younger. The good news is that they’re no longer bringing in the overpaid, past-their-prime veterans like Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa. The trade for Matt Morris last August was questionable, but at the very least, he provides a veteran presence to a young pitching staff and his contract will be off the books at the end of the season.

There’s a good base with Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Nate McLouth won the starting center field job in Spring Training, and there is lots of anticipation in the Steel City for prospects Andrew McCutchen and Steven Pearce. It’s just a matter of time before they get the call.

On the mound, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke would appear to be a fine nucleus for a starting rotation, but they’ve all struggled to establish themselves. How much of that is the result of their own abilities and what can be attributed to the shortfalls of the team behind them is still to be determined. The bullpen, other than promising young closer Matt Capps, is a toss-up.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Signs of life. Anything. I’d like to see McCutchen and Pearce come up and lock themselves into the lineup for the next decade. I’d like to see Snell, Gorzelanny and Duke put it all together and become a poor man’s late-2000s version of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Or even just Steve Avery, Glavine and Smoltz. If it weren’t for my fondness for the city and the ballpark, I probably wouldn’t care much about this team. But I do. Still, even this much on them for 2008 is too much.

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