3-25-09: 2009 MLB Preview: NL Central

Hello again everybody...

I'm still writing to you from the cozy confines of the ST Phoenix offices. Which, in case I haven't mentioned, include a very comfortable back porch which allows me to enjoy the fresh air while I write!

So far I've got three Spring Training games under my belt with a fourth scheduled for tonight. Yesterday was actually a double-header day for me and the folks as we took in a White Sox/Indians game during the day and then attended a A's/Royals game at night. Lots of fun. Lots of fresh air. Lots of pictures (available on my Facebook page). And lots of baseball. It's hard for me to find a vacation that's better than that!

Fortunately for you, my fine readers, I also have some time to keep writing. And it's in that spirit that I bring you today's installment of the 2009 MLB Preview. Today we focus on the only 6-team division (5 1/2 if we're going to be honest about Pittsburgh) in the Majors. It's also the only division winner I got right last year. So will it be the Cubbies again? Or will the Brewers take the next step and grab their first division title since the 80's? Perhaps another team might sneak up on both? Let's find out!

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The third edition of the 2009 MLB Preview takes a look at the division of most concern for my freinds and neighbors to the East. Without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview: NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs - Last year the Cubs finished 97-64. They won the NL Central and lost in the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Though I know it will pain my loyal Brewer Fan readers to hear it, I feel a small affinity for the Cubs. After all, they were the only division winner I got right last year.

But that's not why I'm picking them to win the Central again. I'm picking them because, even though I don't think they're as good as they were last year, they're primary competition in the division also took steps backwards.

The Cubs regular line-up is minus 3B Mark DeRosa (now with the Indians), but added OF Milton Bradley. If - and I stress if - manager Lou Pinella can keep Bradley from melting down, that should be an offensive wash. Defensively, however, it's a step backwards.

Outside of Bradley, the Cubs line-up still features Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto. And Cubs fans are also hoping that Kosuke Fukodome returns to his early-2008 form rather than continuing with his late-2008 decline. All in all, the Cubs are going to score plenty of runs.

And their starting pitching staff remains solid as well. Carlos Zambrano is their Ace. And he's followed by Ryan Demptser, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden. Presuming they're able to keep Harden healthy (and that certainly hasn't been his history), that's a formidable rotation.

The Cubs bullpen on the other hand? Not quite as formidable. Carlos Mormol takes over closing duties from the departed Kerry Wood. Mormol was a decent set-up guy last year, so the move to closer shouldn't be a huge adjustment. Prior to him though, the Cubs have some issues to sort out. Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman, Luis Vizcaino and Chad Gaudin form the heart of the pen. And youngster Jeff Samardzija will be another option as the year goes along. That list doesn't make you sweat if you're Lou Pinella, but it doesn't bowl you over with confidence either.

Bottom Line: The Cubs were good enough to win the division last year, and nobody else in the Central has improved enough to make me think Chicago won't come out on top again.

2. Houston Astros - Last year the Astros finished 86-75. The were 3rd in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

This is the pick that's going to raise some eyebrows. I know that, and I accept it. But hear me out.

The Astros were improving as the season went along, and at one point were a serious Wild Card contender. And while I thought blaming their missing the playoffs on having to move that Cubs series to Milwaukee because of the hurricane was ludicrous, I think the distraction that controversy caused definitely put a damper on their clubhouse.

But now that's behind them and they have a fresh season to focus on.

Their line-up is one again anchored by Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada. True, those guys aren't getting any longer, but outside of Tejada, they haven't given indications that their performance is slipping. And now Houston has added C Ivan Rodriguez into their mix. And I have a feeling he'll experience a mini-revival now that he's not being counted on to hit in the meat of their order.

The Astros' rotation, one through three, can give the Cubs a run. Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and a healthy Mike Hampton form a solid core. Brian Mohler and Brandon Backe don't thrill me by any means, but they're not stiffs either.

In the Pen, Jose Valverde is a solid closer. If you don't ask LaTroy Hawkins to do too much, he can be effective. After that, you run into a bunch of also-rans, but I suppose you could say that about most bullpens.

Bottom Line: I don't expect the Astros to make a huge improvement on their record from last year, but they have an outside chance to top 90 wins. And given the backwards steps I expect from the Brewers and Cardinals, that's enough for me to put them in second place.

3. Milwaukee Brewers - Last year the Brewers finished 90-72. They were the NL Wild Card and lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS.

Sorry Crew fans. I know you're going to hate me for this. But when you take CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets out of your line-up, that's a step backward.

Yovani Gallardo is now listed as the Milwaukee Ace. I simply can't pick a team with an Ace who's started exactly 21 games in the big leagues to be a serious contender. After that, the Brewer rotation goes: Dave Bush, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Jeff Suppan.

I'm not saying there's no reason to hope. I'm just saying there's plenty of reason to be doubtful.

The saving grace for the Brewers is their line-up. There's a lot of young talent headed to the dish for the Crew this year. J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart (does anyone know if he actually wears his sunglasses at night?) all can rake. And I like the experience of Mike Cameron, Mike Lamb and Jason Kendall hitting 7-8-9. So I don't doubt that the Brewers will score some runs.

The trouble is, they'll need to.

If that rotation doesn't worry you, the bullpen has to. Yes, they went out and got Trevor Hoffman to close. And if he's healthy (it sounds like he's battling some oblique trouble), he can be an effective stopper. I'm just not exactly sure how they're going to get the ball to him with a lead. Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, David Riske and Jorge Julio are all trying to find their roles within a very unsettled bullpen.

Bottom Line: I know there are Brewer fans with hope. And for their sake, I hope I'm wrong here. It just seems to me like they're primed for a step backwards. If the starters are better than I think, and the bullpen gels some, they've got a chance. But for now, I've got them third.

4. St. Louis Cardinals - Last year the Cardinals finished 86-76. They were fourth in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Another NL Central team, another one that failed to improve much in the off-season.

1B Albert Pujols is a perennial MVP candidate, and OF Ryan Ludwick took some nice steps last year. Outside of that, their line-up doesn't scare me much. Rick Ankiel has shown flashes, but Yadier Molina as your 5 hitter? Really?! And there's a reason Khalil Green was available as a free agent. Maybe a change of scenery will help him, but he clearly was a disappointment in San Diego.

There's potential in the Card's rotation. But to fulfill it, Chris Carpenter has to stay healthy, Adam Wainright has to remain serviceable and Kyle Lohse has to pitch as well as he did last year. If those things happen, St. Louis will be in some games.

Their bullpen, however, is a mess. They can't decide on Ryan Franklin or Chris Perez as their closer. And while I liked Denis Reyes with the Twins, he'll be counted on to a lot more with the Cardinals, and I'm not sure if he'll be up to it.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals are one of those teams that could do a moon-walk in the NL Central standings in a big way this year. A key injury will hurt any team. For St. Louis? It could mean the difference between 3rd and "hello Pittsburgh".

5. Cincinnati Reds - Last year the Reds finished 74-88. They were 5th in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Young talent? Thy name is Cincinnati. So why am I not picking the Reds higher? When Brandon Phillips is your "veteran presence", that's a problem. Plus, as good a skipper as Dusty Baker is, I'm not sure he's the best "talent developer" I've ever seen.

The Reds' line-up is stocked with young potential. Jerry Hairston, Joey Vatto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce could form a fantastic nucleus. But outside of Phillips, they're all pretty young and inexperienced.

Their rotation is much the same. I raved over the performance of Johnny Cueto early last year. But then the scouts found his weaknesses and he had a tough time adjusting. Edinson Volquez was great, but can he keep it up? Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo form the "veteran" portion of the rotation. All in all, that's a decent set of pitchers to run out there every 4 to 5 days.

Francisco Cordero's a solid closer. But when the best I can say about the rest of the bullpen is, "Hey, Arthur Rhodes is still pitching?" That's trouble.

Bottom Line: If St. Louis really tanks, I can see the Reds finishing as high as 4th. But unless a lot of things come together (and I'm talking about "Tampa Bay Rays"-style), I don't see this team being much better than .500.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates - Last year the Pirates finished 67-95. They were 6th in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Ah, what do you say about the Pirates that hasn't been said before?

I can't think of anything, so I'll rehash what we know: they're awful. In fact, if you enter "bad" into, you get as good a description as I could come up with:

abominable, amiss, atrocious, awful, bad news*, beastly, blah*, bottom out, bummer*, careless, cheap, cheesy*, crappy*, cruddy, crummy*, defective, deficient, diddly, dissatisfactory, downer*, dreadful, erroneous, fallacious, faulty, garbage, godawful, grody, gross*, grungy*, icky*, imperfect, inadequate, incorrect, inferior, junky, lousy*, not good, off, poor, raunchy*, rough, sad, slipshod, stinking, substandard, synthetic, the pits, unacceptable, unsatisfactory

Yep, that about covers it.

I'd go over their line-up and rotation, but it's likely no more than 5% of you have ever heard of any of them. And don't get me started on their bullpen! Whoa!

Bottom Line: It's sad that a team with such a good ballpark has such a god-awful team playing in it. It's truly a crime for Pittsburgh management to run this group of stiffs out on the field and try to convince the ticket-buying public of Blue Collar U.S.A. that they're worth paying to see. In retrospect, maybe I should've counted this division down from 6 to 1 just so I didn't have to end on such a depressing note!

There you have it. Put the Cubs in the playoffs again! After all, now we can talk about how it's been 101 years since they've won a World Series... woo?!

That's all for today ladies and gentlemen. I'll be back on Friday with the fourth installment of the 2009 MLB Preview. Which division is next? I'll give you this hint: last year I whiffed on this division more comically than any other. Until Friday, thanks for reading!

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