Monday, February 26, 2007

2007 NL Central Predictions

  • I thought I should tell you that Blogger is now offering a "widget" to anyone who upgrades to Blogger Beta. I've e-mailed the company, and hopefully that will be the end of this indecency.

To recap:

St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
84-88 win range
Milwaukee Brewers (83-79) 81-85 win range
Chicago Cubs (78-84) 76-80 win range
Cincinnati Reds (78-84) 76-80 win range
Houston Astros (75-87) 73-77 win range
Pittsburgh Pirates (69-93) 67-71 win range

2006 W-L Record:
83-78 (1st)
2006 pW-pL Record: 82-79
2007 Projection: 86-76
Strengths: Core contributors still best in league; good management team
Weaknesses: Injuries; back of rotation, corner outfield, middle infield
Biggest Change from 2006: Nothing really; Jeff Suppan's loss isn't that big
One Reason:
One reason the Cardinals will win in '07 is that they've got arguably the best hitter (Albert Pujols) and the best pitcher (Chris Carpenter) in the league. They've also got Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, hopefully still in one piece. Add in two promising young starters (Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright), and you've got hope in a winnable division. Okay, that's not one reason, but it's one series of reasons.
One reason the Cardinals will lose in '07 is that their depth has disappeared. Beyond their superstars (who are all injury risks), there's a steep dropoff to the next level of players: capable, unspectacular sorts like David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. The same is true of the rotation, where the Cards really need Reyes and Wainwright to contribute to fill out the five spots. I would say that a lack of depth means the Cards won't be winning the World Series, but I won't make that mistake again. Let's just say that it really won't happen two years in a row.

The Cards have, in my opinion, the best team and the best-run organization in the NL Central. They won the division (and -- gulp -- the World Series) last year despite some dreadful shortcomings. While the Cards haven't gotten a lot better, neither has anyone else in the division. I think the Cards can expect some improvement over last year, and while it's possible that the Brewers can get it together in time to catch them, I wouldn't bet on it.

2006 W-L Record: 75-87 (4th)
2006 pW-pL Record: 71-91
2007 Projection: 83-79
Strengths: Good, young offense; Depth across the diamond
Weaknesses: Pitching in general; Ben Sheets' health
Biggest Change from '06: If the Brewers are lucky, a healthy Ben Sheets. If not . . . well, maybe the ushers will start wearing different vests.
One Reason:
One Reason the Brewers will win in '07 is they've already got the talent to do it. I have no doubt that the Brewers are capable of winning the NL Central (getting there is, of course, a different story). But the Brewers have a strong offense, and while their pitching staff is a bit patchy, it will be a lot better off if we see a healthy Ben Sheets.
One Reason the Brewers will lose in '07 is that everything I just said was also true last year, and it didn't stop them from finishing 71-91. The Brewers need to keep all their stars healthy and productive (Sheets, J.J. Hardy) and will need their rookies to step it up (Fielder and Weeks especially were good, but not that good).

As I said before, Milwaukee has the roster to win a very winnable division. But it's like herding cats getting all these kids on the field and productive. I'm usually a big fan of GM Doug Melvin, but I don't think he's done the best of jobs this past year. The Carlos Lee trade wasn't particularly helpful, and neither was the Johnny Estrada trade with Arizona. There should be reason for optimism in Milwaukee, but not enough to cancel that October cruise.

2006 W-L Record: 66-96 (6th)
2006 pW-pL Record: 70-92
2007 Projection: 78-84
Strengths: Hitting Prospects; Corner Infield
Weaknesses: Starting Pitching; Middle Infield
Biggest Change from '06: The Tribune Co.'s wallet now weighs as much as David Eckstein
One Reason:
One Reason the Cubs will win in '07 is that everything went wrong last year; that can't happen two years in a row. But just so you know -- I said the same thing last spring and was really proven wrong.
One Reason the Cubs will lose in '07 is that they've spent a gi-normous amount of money without really solving most of their problems. They've got a glut of players in the outfield, only half of whom are worth having, they've got far too many middle infielders than they can play, but then they probably shouldn't be playing that much either. They brought in two pitchers (Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis) that improve their starting rotation somewhat, but not nearly proportional to their cut of the payroll. Barring a trade, they've completely blocked most of their major-league ready prospects for the foreseeable future. They tried to fix a low-OBP, strikeout-heavy offense by bringing in the patron saint of poor plate discipline, Alfonso Soriano.
Only in a really unlikely scenario do the Cubs make it to October.

I guess I vented my spleen there in the last comment.
But everyone thinks the Cubs have really improved this offseason. I think they've improved, too, but I'm not about to list them as contenders, as others have done. I've even heard some say that the Cubs are "favorites" in the NL Central. I've already dispensed with the notion that the Cubs have gotten a lot better. I think that this misplaced euphoria is the product of two things: One, that the only thing stronger than a sportswriter's cynicism is his blinding optimism concern his team, and two, that people have a really over-inflated opinion of Alfonso Soriano.
The Cubs will be lucky -- very lucky -- to win 80 games.

2006 W-L Record: 80-82 (3rd)
2006 pW-pL Record: 76-86
2007 Projection: 78-84
Strengths: 1-2 starters; Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion & Homer Bailey
Weaknesses: Back of rotation; bullpen; infield; upper management
Biggest Change from '06: Very little has changed, except that Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez are gone
One Reason:
One Reason that the Reds will win in '07 is . . . they have magic powers?
One Reason that the Reds will lose in '07 is that there's just not enough here to cobble together more than 82 wins, even with a good front office. All things considered, the Reds will be lucky to scrape their way up to .500

The Reds are basically the same team they were last year, except that Ken Griffey, Jr. (and all their relievers) are a year older and nearing retirement. They also won't have Kearns & Lopez for the few months they had them last year. And the odds that Bronson Arroyo will pitch like a Cy Young contender again is remote.
With all these players declining, who's going to be the one to help the Reds break even, let alone improve? Homer Bailey is a big hope. The problem is that because the Reds are so bad and Bailey is so good, they're starting to prepare for his arrival like he's the Messiah. That never ends well, for either the fans or the player, especially.

2006 W-L Record: 82-80 (2nd)
2006 pW-pL Record: 83-79
2007 Projection: 75-87
Strengths: Infield Corners, Roy Oswalt
Weaknesses: Gaping holes in lineup; hapless back of the rotation
Biggest Change from '06: Willy Taveras and Andy Pettite weren't great, but an 80-win team still can't afford to lose them
One Reason:
One reason that the Astros will win in '07 is that maybe they can fool the umpires by giving Lance Berkman a bunch of wigs and letting him take up 6 spots in the order.
One reason that the Astros will lose in '07 is that their only strong weapon was their pitching, and it's just not anymore there like it was.

The Astros are another one of those teams whose win range is really about 20 wins wide. But the realistic guess is that they'll end up at the bottom of that estimation. Their offense was terrible before they traded Willy Taveras. They've got about half a dozen holes in a 9-man lineup. Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Morgan Ensberg are each very good hitters. But if surrounded by 6 clones of Rafael Belliard, they're not too threatening.
Now take into account that their starting pitching is significantly worse than it was two years ago, or even last year. Getting 3 months of Roger Clemens at 6 innings a pop won't solve that problem.

2006 W-L Record: 67-95 (5th)
2006 pW-pL Record: 70-92
2007 Projection: 69-93
Strengths: Ummm . . . let's see . . . their logo is cool?
Weakness: Gross Incompetence . . . and their lineup sucks, too
Biggest Change from '06: Adam LaRoche, plus more seasoning for their young starters
One Reason:
One reason the Pirates will win in '07 is that we'll enter a parallel universe where a loss is really a win.
One reason the Pirates will lose in '07 is that they're the Pirates, man.

I know I've said it before, but the Pirates are the sort of team who will just coast to 70 wins every year so long as they can find some sort of semi-exciting event in the offseason to sell season tickets. They're boring and that's a lot worse than just being bad.

Back tomorrow with the NL West.

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