Wednesday

3-24-10: 2010 MLB Preview - NL Central

Hello again everybody...

I'm starting to get back into the groove of things, though it was something of a rude awakening to head back to work yesterday. No matter how much you try to mentally prepare yourself for getting back to the grind after a long break, it still manages to catch you a little off-guard. Oh well, I didn't make any major gaffes - at least none that I'm aware of - and near as I can tell, they're going to keep paying me.

It's the little things, right?

I promise that today's preamble won't be the mini-column that Monday's was. Every time I thought I had Monday's column capped, something else popped up that I wanted to mention. So far, that doesn't seem to be the case today (give me a moment while I try to find some wood to knock on).

But there is one thing I want to mention before I get going with today's festivities. One of my closest friends - and frequent Writing for the Cycle commenter - Lon in Forest Lake, has launched his own blog. I'm not sure how regular his postings will be - and it sounds like he's not either - but he's one of the sharpest minds I know, and he's got a unique and interesting view on things. So I very much look forward to seeing what he produces.

If you want to check out his inaugural post, take a look at With a Grain of Salt. If this becomes what I think it might, it'll be well worth your time!

Now on to my own blogging. Today I continue my series of 2010 MLB Preview columns. This time I focus on the NL Central. The only 6-team division in the majors means there's a lot to get to. So let's not dally...

Onward!

”An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
- G.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936), English writer


And baseball is only boring to those who fail to understand its intricacies.

«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»


With that, let us continue the 2010 MLB Preview with my look at the...

NL Central

You can read my 2009 column on the NL Central here.

Last year, I was about as wrong on the NL Central as it's possible to be. The St. Louis Cardinals won the division after I picked them to finish fourth. The Houston Astros finished seven games under .500 after I'd picked them to finish second. Go figure.

But that was last year. This year, I plan to do much better! So here are my predicted final standings:

1. St. Louis Cardinals: Last year the Cardinals finished 91-71, won the NL Central and were beaten by the L.A. Dodgers in the NLDS.

Last year, I wrote that the Cardinals would struggle to score runs (they finished 7th in the NL) and that I was concerned their pitching wouldn't hold up (they finished 4th in the NL in team ERA). I was off just a bit on both counts.

So I wanted to make sure to take a close look at the 2010 version of the Cards. At first blush, their line-up doesn't look terribly frightening. Skip Schumaker leads off and will play second base. What's a “Skip Schumaker” you ask? He's the guy that's hit .300+ the last two years and has an OBP hovering around .400. He could afford to take a few more walks, sure. But he's a solid lead-off guy. SS Brendan Ryan bats second. First baseman Albert Pujols hits third. What can I say about him that hasn't already been said? He's the best player in baseball, period. I'm a big Joe Mauer fan, and I couldn't have been more delighted about his extension. But he's not the best player in the game. He's probably number two. But until he regularly produces 30+/100+ like Pujols has for the last nine years, I can't put him ahead of Big Al. Left fielder Matt Holliday is your likely clean-up hitter. Holliday came over in a trade with Oakland last year, and hit an admirable .353/13/55 in 63 games for the Cardinals. That's absolutely worth a contract extension. Unfortunately, he also had a critical error in the NLDS that really spelled the end for St. Louis' season. I'm sure he's itching to get back at it and erase that memory. RF Ryan Ludwick hits fifth. Ludwick's average dropped almost 30 points last year from his 2008 numbers, but he still clocked in with 22 home runs and 97 RBI. Not a bad set of numbers for your 5-hitter. CF Colby Rasmus showed some promise in his rookie season last year. There's no reason to think he won't improve on that performance this season as he hits sixth. C Yadier Molina and 3B David Frese (or Filipe Lopez, should Frese falter) round out the lineup.

The Cards' rotation is the best in the NL this side of Atlanta. Chris Carpenter finished second in the Cy Young voting last year after winning 17 games, and failed to win most likely because his teammate Adam Wainwright was equally as good. Two pitchers with excellent seasons like that often split votes between media members in the region, and that likely cost Carpenter some hardware. Not that Wainwright wasn't deserving. All he did was lead the NL in Wins (19), Innings Pitched (233), Games Started (34), and Batters Faced (970). The Giants, Mariners, Phillies and Red Sox (whom I hate) all can lay claim to having great 1-2 starting pitchers. But I doubt St. Louis would trade Carpenter and Wainwright for many of them. Brad Penny had a combined 11-9 mark between Boston (whom I hate) and San Francisco last year. He'll hope that Dave Duncan can work some more of his magic and help him realize the potential he flashed as a youngster with Florida. Kyle Lohse struggled last year after having a career year in 2008. He'll try to rebound while pitching fourth. Rich Hill appears to be their 5th starter.

In the bullpen, Ryan Franklin collected 38 saves in his first year as the full-time closer. Given Tony LaRussa's penchant for tweaking his pitching staff, Franklin shouldn't get too comfortable in that role, though he certainly seems to have earned the spot. Jason Motte will likely set-up and Dennis Reyes will be the lefty specialist. Not a lot of big names in there, but the pen was solid for St. Louis last year, and barring injury should be just fine this season.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals don't blow you away with big names. Instead, they have a lot of talented players who have bought into LaRussa's way of doing things. Everybody knows their role. There aren't a lot of big egos. They just play baseball the right way. I know people are getting tired of me picking repeat division winners, but it seems to me that St. Louis should remain the class of the NL Central this season.

2. Milwaukee Brewers: Last year the Brewers went 80-82 and finished 3rd in the NL Central.

I picked the Brewers to finish third last year, and that's right were they ended up. So to my Brewer-fan friends who are annoyed that I'm not picking them to win the division in 2010, take heart! At least second is an improvement!

Picking the team that will finish second was almost a coin-flip. The Cubs finished second last year, and will be picked by many to slot in there again this season. I just like what the Brewers are able to do offensively a little more, and I have more faith in Trevor Hoffman closing games than I do in Carlos Mormol.

Let's break down the Crew...

I got to see four Brewer games while I was in vacation in Arizona, and if lead-off man 2B Rickie Weeks is able to carry things over from Spring Training, the Brewers will be very happy. He was absolutely on fire in the Cactus League and should set the table nicely for Milwaukee. Rookie SS Alcides Escobar will likely start the season hitting second, but may slide down in the order should he struggle with the pressure of hitting that high in the line-up. The Brewers are high on Escobar, or they wouldn't have been willing to part with J.J. Hardy. LF Ryan Braun hits third with 1B Prince Fielder hitting fourth. As a loyal reader pointed out to me, my assertion that Teixeira/A-Rod was the best 3-4 combo in MLB might have short-changed Braun/Fielder a bit. I'd still prefer Tex/A-Roid personally - I'm confident Rodriguez won't kill a teammate... Fielder? I'm not so sure. And now that I'm thinking about it, Minnesota has the only 3-4 combo I can think of who've both won MVP awards, so I guess Mauer/Morneau has to be in that discussion too. 3B Casey McGehee who hit .301 in his rookie year last season will likely hit fifth. Though if he's unable to improve on his power numbers, he may flip-flop with RF Corey Hart who'll otherwise hit sixth. Hart is playing for a contract, so he might be one to keep an eye on. C Greg Zaun and former Twin, CF Carlos Gomez round out the line-up.

(Aside: I saw a classic GoGo moment in Spring Training. He's fantastic in the field, but sometimes over-estimates his athleticism. He made a sprawling dive for a ball he had absolutely no shot at and knocked the wind out of himself, leading to a triple. The following inning he got thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Ah, memories. Enjoy him, Milwaukee. He'll thrill you. But he'll also have you pulling your hair out. I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin...)

Yovanni Gallardo anchors the Milwaukee rotation. His record last season (13-12) doesn't show it, but his 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio give you an idea of how good his stuff is. If he gets good run support (and he should), I expect him to make “the leap” this season. After Gallardo, things start to get dicey. Randy Wolf comes over from the Dodgers where he went 11-7 last season. His experience helps, but he's really more a 3-4 guy at this point in his career. Doug Davis rejoins the Brewers after a stint in Arizona, and continuing the trend will pitch 3rd, when he's probably more of a 4-5 guy. Manny Parra got knocked around by Texas in the game I saw him pitch, though the Rangers will do that to a lot of pitchers this year. Veteran Jeff Suppan is the likely 5th starter. There's more experience in this rotation than in years past. It's just not enough to really compete with St. Louis.

As I mentioned earlier, Trevor Hoffman enters his second season closing for the Brewers. After a late start due to injury last season, Hoffman collected 37 saves for Milwaukee in 55 appearances. Yes, he's 41 and can't keep this up forever, but he's by far Milwaukee's best option. LaTroy Hawkins comes in as a free agent and should compete for the set-up spot. Carlos Villanueva and David Riske, amongst others, will try to improve a bullpen that was a liability for Milwaukee last season.

Bottom Line: The pitching doesn't blow you away, but Milwaukee looks like they'll be able to score enough runs to at least stay in contention. I don't think they have enough to hang with the Cardinals, but they should be in the Wild Card discussion.

3. Chicago Cubs: Last year the Cubs went 83-78 and finished second in the NL Central.

Like I said in the Brewers' portion, 2nd and 3rd are really a toss-up for me in this division. But I've got to pick somebody specific to finish in those spots, so there you go.

Chicago has long struggled to find a lead-off man, and I'm not sure they've found one in SS Ryan Theriot. His career .356 on-base percentage doesn't scream “lead off” to me, but somebody's got to hit there, so I guess it's his turn. RF Kosuke Fukudome certainly wasn't the guy last year. The RF on my “All-Name” team will start the season in the 2-hole. 1B Derrek Lee hits third. Injuries hampered Lee a little bit last year, so Chicago will have to keep their fingers crossed that he stays healthy this season. Without him in the line-up, the Cubs struggle. 3B Aramis Ramirez also was dinged up for portions of last season. His .317/15/65 numbers in only 82 games tease what he's capable of if he can stay off the DL. CF Marlon Byrd returns to the National League after a three-year stint with Texas. He's got some pop, and should be a solid 5-hitter. LF Alfonso Soriano is a near-constant tease. He's a phenomenal player when things are going well, but has had way too many ups and downs in his career to be counted on. C Geovany Soto had a rather significant sophomore slump after winning the 2008 Rookie of the Year award. He'll need to rebound if the Cubs are to contend. 2B Mike Fontenot rounds out the order.

The Cubs' rotation is filled with “ifs”. If Carlos Zambrano finds himself after a lost 2009... If Ryan Dempster pitches more like he did in 2008... If Ted Lilly can get healthy... If Randy Wells isn't cooked... and if Carlos Silva isn't just teasing fans with his strong Spring... then maybe the Cubs will surpass my expectations. But in my experience, when you have that many “ifs” surrounding your pitching staff, you're not in very good shape.

If it's possible, the bullpen is even more iffy. Carlos Marmol is the closer. He had 15 saves last year because manager Lou Pinella couldn't find a closer he liked. I doubt the skipper will be much more patient this year. If Jeff Samardzija doesn't win a starting spot, he would be a nice addition to the pen. But otherwise, there isn't a lot there to like.

Bottom Line: If a series of things go right for Chicago, they could be in the thick of things in the Central. I just think there are way too many question marks surrounding this club for them to be a true contender.

4. Cincinnati Reds: Last year the Reds went 78-84 and finished fourth in the NL Central.

The Reds certainly were bold this past off-season, going out and signing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, who looked lights-out in the game I saw him pitch. But in classic Reds-style, there are questions surrounding him after he left a game the other day with back stiffness. Maybe it's nothing. Or maybe the Reds will be snake-bit again.

CF Drew Stubbs is their likely lead-off hitter. .267/.323 aren't the kind of batting average/on-base percentage numbers you'd like from your 1-hitter, but the Reds don't have many better options. SS Orlando Cabrera was a terrific pick-up for Cincy. He did yeoman's work for the Twins last year after coming over in a trade, and while I like the J.J. Hardy deal for Minnesota, I'm still fond of Cabrera. 1B Joey Votto has tons of potential, but he'll need to play more than 130 games for the Reds to really improve. 2B Brandon Phillips has shown flashes of being a potential star, but needs to improve his discipline. 3B Scott Rolen is an intriguing addition. His talent is undeniable, but so is his surliness. It's dangerous to add a guy like that to a young locker room, but if manager Dusty Baker can keep his head right, Rolen could be a key cog for the Reds. RF Jay Bruce has hinted at being a big-time player, but hasn't been as consistent as he'll need to be. C Ramon Hernandez and LF Chris Dickerson will fill out the line-up card.

There's some potential in the Reds' rotation, and would be even more if Edinson Volquez wasn't out until at least the All-Star break. Aaron Harang is likely the number-1 starter, and he went 6-14 last year. Oof. Bronson Arroyo goes second. His 15-13/3.84 season in 2009 are about what you need from that spot. Johnny Cueto has devastating stuff, but needs to learn how to adjust during a game. Last year, he either blew people away, or got hammered depending on how teams approached him. Homer Bailey enters his fourth year in the bigs. He might still develop into a reliable starter, but to me he looks a whole lot more like a long reliever. Matt Maloney likely pitches fifth.

Francisco Cordero anchors the bullpen. He had 39 saves last season and is by far the most reliable part of Cincinnati's pen. Arthur Rhodes brings a load of experience, but he's well past his prime. Kip Wells slots in there somewhere. But when that's the next best thing you can say about your bullpen, it's not good.

Bottom Line: There's a lot to like about the Reds. Unfortunately, there's just as much not to like. That's a good recipe for another 4th-place finish in the NL Central.

5. Houston Astros: Last year the Astros finished 74-88 and finished 5th in the NL Central.

Last year I argued that the experience-laden roster of Houston would propel them to a surprising second-place finish. As it turned out, that “experience” was more indicative of “age” and mired them in fifth place. And I think they're destined for much the same this year.

As I look at the Houston roster, their best players are nearly all aged players, and that doesn't bode any better for them this year than it did last year.

CF Michael Bourn hits lead-off. He doesn't hit a ton, but when he gets on base, he's a terror. He led the NL with 61 stolen bases in 2009. If he can improve on his .354 on-base percentage, he'll be an ideal table-setter. 2B Kazuo Matsui hits second. He hit 20 points below his career average last year. That's not a good sign for a player that's 33 and entering his 7th major league season. 1B Lance Berkman hit third. Berkman's clearly the best player in this line-up, yet he also hit 20+ points below his career average. Some of that was injury related, but also at 33 years old, he's not likely to get a lot healthier. LF Carlos Lee cleans up. If Berkman's the best Houston has, Lee is second. And he's in a much better position health-wise. I'm not sure Berkman/Lee is on the same level as those other 3-4 guys I talked about earlier, but if not, then they're at the next level. RF Hunter Pence hits 5th. Entering his 4th season, he's trying to take that next step. In 2007 he finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting. In 2008 he took a step back. In 2009 he regained some of the promise from his rookie year. So now it's time to find out if he's going to be a big-time player, or just another guy. Pedro Feliz comes over from Philadelphia to play third base. He's decent in the field, but doesn't add much at the plate. C Juan Castro and SS Tommy Manzella finish out the line-up.

Roy Oswalt remains the team's ace. The smallest big-man in the big leagues is only 31, but I fear the wear on his body might make him more like 41 in baseball years. Wandy Rodriguez is the young up-and-comer on the staff. He went 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA. If Oswalt's the ace, then Rodriguez is the future-ace for Houston. After those two, it gets pedestrian in a hurry. Brett Myers also comes over from the Phillies, but only appeared in 18 games, so it would seem his health could be an issue. Bud Norris and Brian Moehler would probably be better served being in someone's bullpen.

Brandon Lyon struggled at closer for Arizona, flamed out in Detroit, and is now on his third attempt a closing role with Houston. Let's just say I'm not optimistic. Matt Lindstrom comes over from the Marlins where he earned 15 saves last season. But his 5.89 ERA isn't exactly promising. After that? It doesn't get any more encouraging.

Bottom Line: There's still reason to think that Houston has a little life. They finally have a manager the players don't hate, and that could be worth a few more wins. Unfortunately, a few more wins only gets them into sniffing distance of .500. And that makes their ceiling 4th place in this division. I'll give the Reds the nod for 4th and keep Houston 5th.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates: Last year the Pirates went 62-99 and finished 6th in the NL West.

And if it hadn't been for a game canceled by weather, they very well could've lost 100. What can you say about Pittsburgh. They've been awful for decades and there's no signs that it's going to get better soon.

CF Andrew McCutchen hits first. He finished 4th in last year's Rookie of the Year voting. He's a pretty legitimate young talent. The problem is that everything after him is mediocre at best. 2B Akinori Iwamura brings a decent glove and a .281 average over from Tampa. But he's got zero power and very little speed. Not ideal for the 2-hole. RF Garrett Jones came virtually out of nowhere last year to hit .293 with 21 home runs in 82 games for Pittsburgh. Is that a pace he can maintain over a full season? You never know for sure, but there's usually a reason a guy stays in the minors for as long as Jones did. C Ryan Doumit has never hit more than 15 home runs in a single season, so why wouldn't you tap him as your clean-up hitter? LF Lastings Milledge couldn't cut it with Washington. 'Nuff said. 1B Jeff Clement is getting his first real shot at the big leagues. It's hard to tell what they have with him. 3B Andy LaRoche is Adam's less-talented brother. SS Robby Cedeno fills out an unimpressive line-up card.

Paul Maholm is the staff ace. He's got talent, but he's got very little support. Ross Ohlendorf went 11-10 last year with a 3.92 ERA. Not awful, but not a number-two guy. Zach Duke led the NL in losses last year. You knew that dubious honor had to come from one of the Pirates pitcher, right? Charlie Morton and Kevin Hart fill out the rotation.

Octavio Dotel is Pittsburgh's closer. That's kind of like being the New Orleans Saints' punter. He's not going to get a lot of work. At least not in his preferred role. Brendan Donnelly and Joel Hanrahan are clinging to major league careers. Fortunately, they're not going to have a lot of leads to try and protect.

Bottom Line: The Pirates suck. That's all there is to it. It's only a matter of who's worse, them or Washington. Not a bet I want to wager on thank you.

So there you have them. My picks for the NL Central in 2010. This puts us halfway through the divisions. Three more to go and then one last column to cover the playoffs. Opening day is a scant week and a half away. Are you excited yet? I am!

I'll be back on Friday with a look at the AL West. I have a feeling it's time to shake things up a bit. And the Western divisions might just be the place to do it.

Until then, thanks for reading!

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