Friday, April 03, 2009

NL Central Preview: Can the Cubs Three-Peat?

My Prediction:
1 – Chicago Cubs
2 – St. Louis Cardinals
3 – Milwaukee Brewers
4 – Cincinnati Reds
5 – Houston Astros
6 – Pittsburgh Pirates

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are strong favorites in the NL Central once again. They’ve kept together most of the key players from 2008, while other teams in the division are either taking a step back or just struggling to stay in place.
The team is returning its top four starters in Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden. It’s a strong group, although there are concerns about Harden’s ability to make 20 starts, let alone 30. The team also took a big step back at closer, losing Kerry Wood to free agency and replacing him with trade acquisition Kevin Gregg. The Cubs have clearly overrated Gregg, due to his status as a Proven Closer. They’ve still got a great safety net in Carlos Marmol, but the Cubs will see a big difference between Gregg and the departed Wood.
Chicago has a unique depth to their offense.

Last year the Cubs led the league in runs scored, despite the fact that no one on the team received (or deserved) strong MVP support. In other words, nobody on the team was great, but a lot of people were good. The 2008 team remains mostly intact, adding in right fielder Milton Bradley. Bradley is a fine hitter, but there’s some concern about keeping him in the lineup, particularly as he won’t have the option of DH-ing like he had with Texas in 2008. And of course, there's his prickly personality, which has created problems with umpires, announcers and team management throughout his career. The Bradley contract is a calculated risk, but the potential reward is significant.
The biggest worry facing Chicago this year is that they’ve lost a good deal of their depth. The damage was done with the trade that sent Mark DeRosa to Cleveland. Not only was DeRosa a better second base option than anyone the Cubs have now, he was a great insurance policy all over the diamond. He would have been especially valuable for the Cubs this year given Bradley’s injury history. If Bradley were injured, DeRosa could shift to the outfield without the team losing a lot of offense. As it is, the Cubs will be stretched if injuries hit, either in the outfield or the infield.
Right now the team is planning a center field platoon of Reed Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome. That’s not bad, but the team is exposed if either man has to play full-time. Especially since their backup outfielder is Joey Gathright, whose acquisition has to be considered a significant mistake. Bradley and Alfonso Soriano have to carry the outfield offense, because the alternatives aren't very promising.

In 2008, Jim Hendry and Lou Pineilla did a fine job of putting together a great offense with quantity rather than quality. This gave Pineilla a free hand to platoon players, cover injuries and assemble lineups according to matchups. A great deal of that freedom will be gone in 2009, as the team’s backup plans aren’t what they were last year.
Luckily, the NL Central isn’t what it was last year. It’s hard to say that any team has really improved, which gives the Cubs extra breathing room. If they fail to win the division, it will be one hell of a story.

St. Louis Cardinals
If anyone has a real chance to dethrone the Cubs, it’s St. Louis. They’ve got a solid offensive punch, good starting pitching depth, and two good, young closer options. It will be difficult to get it all together, but then the Cards overcame a lot of difficulty last year to win 86 games.

The Cards' average of 4.81 runs per game was fourth-best in the NL. Just staying at that level would be fine, but it won't come easily. Ryan Ludwick needs to prove that his 2008 campaign (299/375/591)* wasn't just an outlier. And the team needs Rick Ankiel (264/337/506) to stay healthy and productive and maybe even add something to his raw power. The third outfield spot isn't set in stone. The best bet may be for the Cards to elevate top prospect Colby Rasmus, who may be ready to break out in the big leagues. Chris Duncan will get some playing time, but with the uncertain status of his bionic neck, it's just guesswork to say how much.
* -- Slash stats indicate (Batting Average/ On-Base Percentage/ Slugging Percentage)

The heart of the St. Louis offense comes from the infield corners. Albert Pujols is great, obviously. Troy Glaus does a good job at third – that challenge trade for Scott Rolen really worked in the Cards' favor – but word is now that he'll be missing the first two months of the season to injury. In his absence, most of the at-bats will probably go to David Freese, who's shown some decent work in the minors but won't likely replace Glaus' offense.
GM Jon Mozeliak tried to improve the middle infield by trading for Padres shortstop Khalil Greene. Greene should enjoy moving out of roomy Petco Park, as power is his main calling card. The problem is that that's about all he has; Greene is good when he hits 20+ homers, but when he doesn't, it gets ugly (like in 2008: 10 HR and a 213/260/339 batting line). At second, the Cards will try converted outfield Skip Schumaker. Schumaker's bat plays much better in the middle infield, but his defense is a work in progress.
Speaking of which, defense could be the team's downfall. Ankiel is solid in center and Yadier Molina is golden behind the plate, but the only other plus defender they have is Pujols. This could be, as I said, the team's deciding factor, because their pitching staff is going to need all the help it can get.
It seems like pitching coach Dave Duncan can turn straw into gold. Granted, the work done by Todd Wellemeyer, Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro and Braden Looper (now with Milwaukee) may not be considered "gold," but so far they've defied the most optimistic expectations. The trouble there is that now they have to prove that the Duncan magic has staying power.

Lohse is the most durable of the bunch, taking the ball every turn, but his 3.78 ERA last season was more than a little lucky. And while Wellemeyer did a masterful job of handling nearly 200 innings after years of short relief work is amazing, can we really count on another 190+ innings of sub-4.00 ERA pitching?
These guys are the core of the pitching staff, along with Adam Wainwright, who should be back and effective after making just 20 starts last year. But the real difference-maker is Chris Carpenter. With a healthy Carpenter, the Cardinals might well have won the Wild Card in 2008. The same holds true for 2009, although it's uncertain what the still-healing ace will bring to the table. He's already ahead of where the Cards expected him to be, and if he can provide just 25 starts it could get the club into October. But will he be as effective as he was in 2005 and 2006? Early signs from Florida are good, but it's hard for me to expect him back at ace level after sitting out for two years in his mid-30's.

The Cards stand as good a chance as anybody of being the surprise team of 2009. But it will take a Herculean effort from the medical staff to keep Carpenter, Glaus & Co. healthy and productive. Add in a bullpen short on depth and a suspect defense, and I think the Cardinals will have to settle for second place.

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers had an amazing season in 2008. This was a city and a franchise that needed to see October baseball again, and it was a great ride, even if it was derailed prematurely in the NLDS. It seems like a tough act to follow, and when you look closely at what the Brewers have lost, it seems like a really tough act to follow.

The Brewers enter 2009 trying to replace C.C. Sabathia's 130.2 IP (1.65 ERA, 128 K) as well as Ben Sheets' 198.1 IP (3.09 ERA, 158 K). It took two starting pitchers throwing the best ball of their lives for the Brewers to make the playoffs in 2009. Without them, the team doesn't stand much of a chance.
However, they'll get some of that production back with a healthy Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo, who has ace potential, could pick up the ace mantle left by Sabathia. But it's hard to see him throwing a lot of innings, with age and a lost 2008 both playing a part in that.
Backing up Gallardo is mostly the same disappointing rotation that prompted the trade for Sabathia in 2008. The Jeff Suppan contract is already looking like a bust, which shows what happens when a "pitch-to-contact" guy gets stuck with the Brewers' defense behind him (4.96 ERA). Dave Bush is a solid #3, and the team could see some good work put in by Manny Parra, but this is the team's big weakness heading into 2009. Adding Braden Looper (4.16 ERA in 33 starts in 2008) will help – but not heal – this ailing rotation.
In the bullpen, the team dealt with the premature retirement of Salomon Torres by signing all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. The Brewers knew that Hoffman was near the end of the line, but they may not have realized just how near. Hoffman has benefited from the friendly confines of Petco Park, and the move to Miller Park won't help much. Plus, the 2008 version of Hoffman just wasn't fooling batters like he used to and didn't have much margin for error. As if that weren't bad enough, he'll be starting the season on the DL, exposing the Brewers' lack of bullpen depth.
The lineup is still as potent as it was last year, with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun leading the way. But the team needs to see improvement from shortstop J.J. Hardy and right fielder Corey Hart if they're going to offset the damage done to the pitching staff. And Rickie Weeks . . . well, there's really nothing left to say about Weeks, except that if he doesn't make a breakthrough this year he could either be moved to center field or moved out of town.

The Brewers had their magic moment in 2008, but it will have to last for a while. Because until the team gets better pitching to back up Gallardo, they're not going to keep up in the NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds
I've noticed many writers picking the Reds as a potential breakout team in 2009. I can see why. They've got an impressive starting rotation and two young studs, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, filling out the lineup. The reason I'm not so positive about the Reds is that they've lost Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr., and they're giving that pitching over to Dusty "The Mangler"

The Reds' lineup got considerably thinner when they traded away Dunn and Griffey. Bruce can help by improving upon his rookie season (254/314/453), but the outfield just isn't the same. The team signed Willy Taveras to play center under the misguided notion that he's a leadoff man (career .331 OBP). True, he stole 68 bases last year, but he's never stolen more than 34 in any other season, and his offense is actually even worse than you'd think just looking at his OBP (his career SLG of .337 is criminal for someone calling themselves an outfielder). The left field spot will probably be a shared responsibility, but none of the candidates (Chris Dickerson, Jerry Hairston, Jonny Gomes) are likely to make the Queen City fans forget Dunn.
The starting rotation is good, but in Baker's hands, health concerns abound. Giving young pitchers to Dusty Baker is like giving your collection of rare books to Edward Scissorhands. Of all the starting pitchers in baseball, the Reds had three of their starters rank in the top 20 in Pitcher Abuse Points last year. Bronson Arroyo, at least, has shown he can hold up under this kind of stress. Aaron Harang, too, is a bit of an iron man, although even he was no match for the Dust-inator after this outing.
But there is no excuse at all for Dusty putting Edinson Volquez through the wringer. At least in 2003, Dusty was killing Mark Prior and Kerry Wood so the Cubs could win a pennant. In 2008, Volquez threw at least 110 pitches in six of his last ten starts (and an unconscionable 121 pitches once), despite the fact that the Reds were already out of the race, and that Volquez was just 24 years old. 22-year-old Johnny Cueto fared little better; he ranked 16th in the NL in PAP (Volquez was 11th). Cueto also had a 120-pitch outing, a torturous six-inning no-decision against the Padres in late July. Both Volquez and Cueto got worse as the season wore on, with Volquez especially suffering. We often talk about a manager getting the most out of his pitchers. But that doesn't mean we want a manager who keeps bending them until they break.

If the Reds' pitchers can handle the stress, they could end up with a winning record in 2009. But even if they do, they'll have to do it with a lineup where Bruce and Votto's only real support comes from Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion. Stranger things have happened, albeit not often.

Houston Astros
The Astros won 86 games and finished 3rd in 2008, surprising by finishing in third place for the Wild Card. But the team is deluding itself if they think they can keep this up; they were extremely lucky in 2008 and are going to get worse before they get better.

The Astros are built upon Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt. Everything else is filler, except for a couple of decent bats in the lineup. This is a problem that has been looming for years; even when they won the pennant in 2005, they did it with a team that had a big gap in talent between the superstars (Berkman, Ensberg, Oswalt, Clemens, Pettitte) and everybody else.
Backing up Oswalt in the rotation will be (likely) Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. The only person here who is likely to be healthy and effective at the same time for any great stretch is Rodriguez, who finally managed a decent season last year at age 29. Moehler is just barely hanging on, and Hampton is so brittle that he might as well come with peanuts. And poor Russ Ortiz hasn't been anything but awful since 2004. The presence of a surprisingly good bullpen (Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins, and Doug Brocail) isn't much help, since they won't be given very many leads to save.
The lineup is only somewhat more promising. Berkman and Lee will get an assist from Hunter Pence, who had a decent 2008 (269/318/466) but is going to have to make better contact if he wants to succeed. Miguel Tejada isn't anything like his old self, but he proved in 2008 that he could still hold down an everyday job (283/314/415). Having Kaz Matsui at second base isn't a total loss. But having Geoff Blum at third and Michael Bourn in center field pretty much is a total loss.

The Astros have quietly been one of the most successful franchises in baseball since the 1980's. But that era has come to an end. And considering present ownership, reform isn't on the agenda. The Astros will have to fight just to stay out of last place.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are pretty hopeless, yes, but they're getting better all the time. And, miracle of miracles, they're actually working under some semblance of a plan for the first time in a decade. The results are already showing in the minor leagues, but it will take some time to make over the troubled big league roster.

There's something to like about starting pitchers Paul Maholm, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzellany. If only the Pirates could get all three pitching well at the same time. Even if they did, though, no one's ceiling is higher than "pretty good." Backing them up will be Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, Zach Duke and Sean Burnett. That's not much to inspire confidence in Pirates fans, but look on the bright side: none of them is Russ Ortiz.
The Pirates' lineup could be decent, but that comes a lot of "ifs," "buts" and "maybes." Middle infielders Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson are fan favorites for their style of play and solid defense. But Wilson offers little outside of that defense, and Sanchez is a guy who needs to bat .300 to be worthwhile. The corners will be manned by the LaRoche brothers. First baseman Adam is reliably inconsistent; he will get off to a terrible start before roaring back in the late summer, finishing with decent numbers (270/341/500 last year). Third baseman Andy has a higher ceiling but is less of a sure thing; he was supposed to be ready for the majors when he came over from Los Angeles, but in 49 games with the Pirates, he hit a miserable 152/227/232. I guess the good news is that he can only get better.
Center fielder Nate McLouth was the only one left standing in the outfield after the Pirates traded away Jason Bay and Xavier Nady last year. He has to prove that his 26 HR are the real thing; otherwise, he's just a fourth outfielder. McLouth did win a Gold Glove last year, which can only be considered a poor attempt at a joke by the voters.

But lest you despair, Pirate fans, consider how much better the future looks now. The team's General Manager, Neal Huntington, is a clever man who knows that rebuilding requires going through some tough years. Gone are the days when the Pirates would spend their money on mid-level free agents, win 70 games, and then start all over again while the farm system decayed. Now Pirate fans can get excited about the future of Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Bryan Morris. It's not a lot, but it's a start. And a few years down the road, they just might start looking like the Pirates of old.

The Cardinals might be able to surprise everybody if they can get their players back healthy. The Brewers could surprise if they add some pitching, and the Reds might be able to ride their starting rotation to a surprise victory. But really, this is the Cubs' division to lose. With their depth as well as their ability to upgrade, nobody else can match them.

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