St. Louis Cardinals
Key losses: Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker, Matt Morris, Julian Tavarez, Abraham Nunez, John Mabry, Cal Eldred, AL Reyes
Needs: 2B, LF, RF, relief help, starting pitcher
The Cardinals' 100-win 2005 is starting to look like a distant memory. But the good news at least is that no one in the NL Central looks poised to pass them by.
The Cards are losing a pretty good chunk of offense in Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, and it will be pretty darn difficult to replace them. The only big bat/outfielder types left on the free agent market are those such as Jacque Jones, Jeromy Burnitz, and Carl Everett, that come with strings attached. Barring a trade, the Cards will be unable to field potent bats in the corner outfield spots, and this will be a big change from 2005. They're also losing capable 2B Mark Grudzielanek. Grudzielanek's big 2005 was a bit of a career year, yes, but there's no one else out there that can really offer much at 2B. If they can't re-sign the free agent, they may be forced to go to someone like Rich Aurilia or Tony Graffanino.
The Cards are also losing a solid arm in Matt Morris. Now that A.J. Burnett has signed with Toronto, the Cards are left scrambling in their attempt to find another solid starter. Their starting rotation isn't their chief worry, but it could use an upgrade.
The bullpen is another story. With the semi-reliable Jason Isringhausen as closer, the Cards don't have much in the bullpen to back him up, with the departure of Tavarez, Reyes, and Eldred. Unless one of these can be re-signed (Eldred has retired), the Cards will have to come up with some middle-relief help somewhere else.
It'll be a tough road in 2005, and it doesn't look like the Cardinals will dominate anything. But unless the Cubs can wake up to some new talent or the Astros can find some offense, the NL Central is theirs to lose.
Key Losses: Roger Clemens, Brad Ausmus, Jose Vizcaino, Orlando Palmeiro
Needs: C, 2 starters
The good news is that the Astros are returning (with the exception of Clemens) all the big players instrumental in winning them their first-ever pennant in 2005. The bad news is that those guys weren't so hot to begin with, and most of them are on the wrong side of 30.
The main thing the Astros will do this off-season is wait on Clemens. Clemens said recently that if he had to decide now, he would retire. But he said that last year and the year before, too, so take it for what it's worth. If the Astros don't get Clemens, their starting rotation takes a big step down, as the big guy was irreplaceable. But even if they do get him, how many age-defying miracles can Clemens perform? He won't be as good as he was in 2005, and it's anybody's guess just how much this 43-year-old has left.
Unless Jeff Bagwell decides to retire (unlikely) the Astros will be on the hook for his monster salary in 2006, which would basically preclude them from signing any big free agents (especially if they have to pony up for Clemens). That leaves a hole at first base to go with the (offensive) hole at shortstop. There's also a hole at catcher, as the Astros just can't afford to sign any front-line free agent catchers. They have a less-than-potent outfield as well (with the exception of Lance Berkman) that, all together, leaves a whole lot of pressure on the pitching staff to be brilliant. They were brilliant in 2005, but the odds of repeating that performance are remote, leaving the Astros most likely as observers in the 2006 postseason.
Key Losses: Jeromy Burnitz, Nomar Garciaparra, Ben Grieve
Needs: SS, RF, maybe CF and a starting pitcher
The Cub offense is basically in a shambles. They've got rock-solid players at the infield corners (Aramis Ramirez at 3B and Derrek Lee -- due to decline after a career year -- at 1B) and a good all-around catcher in Michael Barrett . . . but that's it. They might get decent production out of 2B Todd Walker, but that's almost nullified by his sub-par defense and injury history. Shortstop right now is being manned by Neifi Perez, which is basically a joke. The outfield, as of today, consists of Jerry Hairston, Jr., Corey Patterson, and nobody in right. It's true that the Cubs do have some money to spend and should come away with a decent bat (Jacque Jones?), but there's no way they can upgrade all 4 spots in the lineup currently manned by offensive non-entities.
Is it possible that the pitching staff will pick up the slack? It's possible, but very unlikely. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are amazingly unreliable when it comes to innings and starts, and manager Dusty Baker should think long and hard about why "ace" Prior has so much injury trouble. There is the excellent Carlos Zambrano, but Zambrano showed up 2nd in the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points, a measure which shows roughly how much stress a pitcher endures. With Zambrano only a bare 24 years old, he's due for a big, BIG injury sooner rather than later, and Baker will be almost chiefly responsible. After these three good but injury-laden starters, we have a no-longer-above-average Greg Maddux and Glendon Rusch.
Wait till' next year, Cub fans.
Key Losses: Wes Helms
Needs: Starting pitcher, 3B, maybe relief help
I'm here to tell you that the Milwaukee Brewers just might finish 2nd in the NL Central next year. They have the foundations laid for a fine, fine offense and a pitching staff that isn't too shabby either. They're returning all the same players that made it to .500 last year (for the first time since 1992), and they're a year older and wiser.
The starting pitching is the biggest worry here. Although the Brewers have numerous hitting prospects (Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy), they don't have any young pitchers ready for the majors. This means that the pressure will be on Ben Sheets (coming off a season-ending arm injury in 2005) and the fleet of unreliables behind him. It's possible that Chris Capuano, Doug Davis, and Tomo Ohka will round out a surprisingly decent rotation, but equally possible that the three will take a step back from 2005 with their high walk rates proving fatal. As the pitching goes, so go the Brewers.
Key losses: Rich Aurilia, Jacob Cruz
Needs: Pitching, Pitching, Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Cincinnati is caught in the nether-world between owners. They're in the process of transferring the controlling interest in the franchise, which basically means that nothing will get done this offseason. The Reds really need to trade an outfielder (preferably Pena) for pitching, but even that may get blocked by an ownership not ready to make any big moves. The Reds will return the NL's most prolific offense in 2005. But unless they do something to help their pitching staff, they could challenge the Pirates for last place.
Key losses: Jose Mesa, Daryle Ward, Brian Meadows
Needs: A poke in the eye with a sharp stick
I'm really convinced that no one cares about the Pirates. For all Bud Selig says about teams needing a new ballpark to contend, beautiful PNC Park hasn't helped the Pirates do anything but majorly suck, nor has it prevented them from finishing last in the league in attendance (below even the Marlins, whom Selig thinks will get heavenly blessings with a new stadium). The front office is just putting up the pretense of effort, not bothering to make any significant trades or free agent signings, nor putting any serious effort into mimicking other small-market success stories (Minnesota, Oakland) with a prosperous farm system. Would you believe that the Pirates were the only non-expansion team in the majors never to win a Rookie of the Year award? That changed last year with Jason Bay -- but Bay came out of the San Diego system, and the Pirates got him in the Brian Giles deal. No one really needs to bother with them anymore until the front office wakes from their selfish slumber. You'd think they would be the object Selig's wrath, but of course they have a new stadium. And when faced with the question of what an awful team that already has a new stadium should do (hello, Tampa Bay), Selig doesn't have an answer, except to blame the small market, like the knee-jerk con man he is.