Monday, February 18, 2008

NL Central Preview

2007 W-L Record: 85-77
2007 pW-pL Record: 87-75
Strengths: Strong Offense, Solid Pitching
Weaknesses: OBP, Depth
Biggest Change from '07: Fukudome and his .400+ OBP

One Reason:
One reason the Cubs will win in '08 is that the best is set low in the NL Central. The Cubs won the division last year, have managed to improve over the offseason (without spending $1 billion), and aren't facing any rivals presenting serious challenges. They're not absolutely safe from Milwaukee or even possibly Cincinnati, but they're easy favorites.
One reason the Cubs will lose in '08 is that a lot of their production is precarious. The best-case scenario for their lineup is good, but if Fukudome struggles in his first U.S. season, or if Aramis Ramirez and/or Alfonso Soriano take a step back to mediocrity, the Cubs will be hard-pressed to replace them. There aren't a lot of backup plans for the lineup, and the same could be said for the rotation, where an inordinate amount of pressure rests on Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly. The Cubs do have some backups here in Jon Lieber and Sean Marshall, but neither of them can replace an injured or ineffective Zambrano.


Chicago's offseason strategy for 2007-08 was the exact opposite of the previous year's. They played a conservative hand, knowing that their core ballclub was good enough to win, and their only major financial commitment was to Kosuke Fukudome, a valuable player who's even more valuable to the Cubs, a team whose 2007 team OBP (.333) was below the league average (.334). They're going to hit home runs, but apart from Fukudome, Derrek Lee and perhaps Ramirez, no one's going to be getting on base at a superior rate ... I must also point out that the biggest improvement in the Cubs' lineup is an internal promotion; the difference between a full season of Geovany Soto at catcher and the rogues' gallery of options the team ran through last year is significant ... Don't hold any high hopes for Ryan Dempster as a member of the starting rotation ... The biggest difference-maker in the batting order is Felix Pie, whose success or failure could mean the difference between making the playoffs.

Cincinnati Reds

2007 W-L Record: 72-90
2007 pW-pL Record: 75-87
Strengths: Impact Rookies
Weaknesses: Poor player evaluation, back end of the pitching staff
Biggest Change from '07: Jay Bruce
One Reason:

One reason the Reds will win in '08 is that the addition of Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, and a healthy Homer Bailey could shoot them up to contender status easily. And the core guys surrounding these rookies isn't too bad after all. With Harang-Bailey-Cueto-Arroyo-Volquez, the Reds could have their best starting rotation in recent memory. And impact players like Bruce and Votto are surrounded in the lineup by Adam Dunn, Brandon Phillips, Ken Griffey, and Edwin Encarnacion.

One reason the Reds will lose in '08 is that it's a lot to expect that all these rookies become All-Stars at the same time. Homer Bailey went into 2007 with breakout potential, but he didn't reach it. That's not his fault, necessarily, it's just a face of life with rookies. As good as Jay Bruce is, he may not start the season hitting like an All-Star. The Reds will, without doubt, be a better team in 2008, but it's a lot to ask for them to jump from 72 wins to 88 or so all at once.

The Reds' baseball ops team is still not at the top of my list, but they avoided any major catastrophes this offseason. The signing of closer Francisco Cordero helps the team, but he's such a risky investment that it could still turn out poorly for the team ... Other than that, the team has wisely stuck with the top rookies they have on hand, trading Josh Hamilton (who's not any kind of sure thing) to make room for Jay Bruce) ... the return of Ryan Freel to a super-utility role is the best move for everyone involved, including Freel ... the worst things the Reds could do right now is to trade some of their A-prospects for Oakland pitcher Joe Blanton. Blanton is a decent innings-eater, but if you put him in the Cincinnati ballpark, he's not likely to be any better than Bailey or Cueto, even considering the growing pains the latter will undoubtedly suffer. The only way the front office could torpedo their chances at Wild Card contention in 2008 is to pull the trigger on a Blanton trade that loses Bruce, Bailey, or Cueto for a C-level starter ... For the sake of everyone involved, let's hope that Dusty Baker just stays out of the way and doesn't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory ... The Reds would be well-told to address their gaping holes at shortstop (Jeff Keppinger?!) and catcher (David Ross).

Houston Astros
2007 W-L Record: 73-89
2007 pW-pL Record: 72-90
Strengths: A slim handful of above-average players
Weaknesses: Everyone else, including the front office
Biggest Change from '07: Miguel Tejada
One Reason:
One reason the Astros will win in 2008 is by bribing their opponents.
One reason the Astros will lose in '08 is that Wandy Rodriguez is their #2 starter.
Last season, Miguel Tejada (who turns 32 this season) hit 296/357/442. That's pretty good for a shortstop, except that Tejada earned -15 FRAA, one of the lowest marks for an AL shortstop. He should get a boost from moving to the NL, where the short porch in Minute Maid Field will give him a power boost, but his defense will be a liability, as the Astros have stubbornly insisted he stay at shortstop rather than moving him to third. That, plus his advancing age, declining offense, and rumors that he's actually older than his listed age, make him something less than a grand prize of the offseason hot stove. Tejada's EQA last year was .270, which isn't bad, but isn't even All-Star level. Combine that with his offense, and the Astros gutted their already-bare cupboard of prospects for something less than they thought they were getting. Oh, and after six straight seasons of 162 games, Tejada finally dropped off to 133 last year. Is he an improvement over Adam Everett? All in all, yes. Is it enough to add the 15 wins necessary for the Astros to contend? Not on your life ... I'm seriously wondering if the Astros can actually find five living human beings to start games for them. After Roy Oswalt, we've got Wandy Rodriguez, Woody Williams, and a recovering Brandon Backe. It would take an elite offense to contend with that starting rotation ... Speaking of which, the Astros have Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, and perhaps Miguel Tejada as hitter who we can reliably predict to be above-average. Not great, mind you -- just above average. Kaz Matsui will get comfortable with replacement level at second base, ditto for Ty Wigginton at third, and Michael Bourn will show what happens when a fourth outfielder is stretched as a starter. And the Brad Ausmus/J.R. Towles platoon at catcher is just scary ... Some have referred to the Astros as having the worst minor league system in baseball, because after Hunter Pence's graduation to the majors, there's just not much there. That's bad news for a club that needs big help from a variety of different positions and can't afford to fill all those holes on the free agent market. Plus, they're soon going to be dealing with the big-money years from the Berkman, Lee, and Oswalt contracts just as they're starting to decline. Normally, this would make them prime candidates for a trade, but unfortunately, the Astros front office has deluded themselves into thinking that they're contenders. And that is the real bad news with this team ... Look for a lively race between Houston and Pittsburgh for last place.

Milwaukee Brewers

2007 W-L Record: 83-79
2007 pW-pL Record: 83-79
Strengths: Same cast of characters from last year
Weaknesses: Quantity in the starting rotation may not result in quality
Biggest Change from '07: Perhaps a full season from Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra?
One Reason:
One reason the Brewers will win in '07 is defense. By signing Mike Cameron to center field and shifting Bill Hall to third and Ryan Braun to left, the Brewers will drastically improve their fielding. There's also the prospect that Rickie Weeks will improve at second. This will have the added benefit of strengthening the pitching staff, especially soft-tossers Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush.
One reason the Brewers will lose in '07 is pitching. The Milwaukee lineup as it stands is one of the best in the NL, if not the very best -- but there's a lot of risk in that pitching staff. Ben Sheets isn't a sure thing for 30+ starts, Manny Parra is just making the move into the rotation, and just today news came out that Yovani Gallardo will be out for four weeks with an injury that could limit him somewhat. And those are the good options. The replacements for these guys are Suppan, Bush, Claudio Vargas and Chris Capuano.

The Cameron signing is the sort of low-risk contract that teams like the Brewers should always be on the lookout for. Even if Cameron is only so-so offensively, he improves the defense dramatically just by being there ... The Brewers will win the division if Sheets and Gallardo go 180+ innings ... Picking up a catcher couldn't hurt.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2007 W-L Record: 68-94
2007 pW-pL Record: 70-92
Strengths: Strong new executive leadership
Weaknesses: Same ol' franchise of despair
Biggest Change from '07: New leadership
One Reason:
One reason the Pirates will win in '08 is . . . OK, I try to be optimistic, but I have my limits.
One reason the Pirates will lose in '08 is why stop now?
Another losing season gives the Pirates 16 in a row, tying them for the major league record (they would be tied with the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies) ... The Pirates should actually be something better than dreadful; their 1-2-3 of Tom Gorzellany, Ian Snell, and Paul Maholm is pretty impressive. But while they do have one or two prospects headed to the bigs, the offense basically stinks.

St. Louis Cardinals
2007 W-L Record: 78-84
2007 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Strengths: Albert Pujols, bounce-back year from young rotation, Colby Rasmus
Weaknesses: Utter lack of depth, uncertain health of Chris Carpenter, Middle Infield
Biggest Change from '07: Loss of Rolen and Edmonds
One Reason:
One Reason the Cards will win in '08 is that their pitching staff will unexpectedly gel together just enough to support a decent offense centered around Albert Pujols.
One reason the Cards will lose in '08 is they've got gaping holes in their lineup and no sure things in their rotation.
This is the bottoming out of a team built to win in the short term since 1998 ... The health of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter could mean the difference of 10 games in the win column ... Troy Glaus may not have the starry history of Scott Rolen but, over the short term, he's a better bet. And he's also stayed pretty healthy, which you can't say for Rolen ... Hopefully Tony LaRussa doesn't plan to throw any other teammates under the bus in front of a horde of reporters ... I'll be watching carefully to see the effect of the absence of Walt Jocketty ... (Sing along) "I've got Chris Carpenter and a pocket-full-of-miracles, pocket-full-of-miracles, pocket-full-of-miracles ..."

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