March 08, 2005

Frinklin's Second Annual Baseball Preview: NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals
The Good
Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmunds are a pretty good place to start. Add in a full season -if he can stay healthy- of Larry Walker, and you have the best 2.5 in baseball. Pujols is the best righthanded hitter in the NL; Edmonds is the ultimate streak hitter, and Rolen is coming off a career year. He was a season-long contender for the NL MVPNNBB award. The pitching is improved over last year, swapping out Woody Williams for erstwhile Oakland A Mark Mulder. The price was steep, but picking up a 27-year old ace is worth it. Mulder should anchor the rotation, and will be followed by last year's reclamation project Chris Carpenter and longtime Card Matt Morris. Jason Isringhausen, while not on par with Eric Gagne or Mariano Rivera, is a quality closer.

The Bad
After their stud 2-5 hitters, throwing in Reggie Sanders, the Cardinals have a vastly changed lineup. The middle infield combo of Tony Womack and Edgar Renteria is gone, off to different sides of the Red Sox-Yankees war. Mark Grudzielanek will replace Womack. This change is a wash really; Womack will steal more bases, Grudzielanek will hit with a touch more power and higher OBP. Neither is anything special defensively. Former LA Angel David Eckstein replaces Renteria, the best SS in the NL the last few years. While a competent player, Eckstein is a serious downgrade from Renteria, both offensively and defensively. Longtime catcher Mike Matheny is gone as well, replaced by prospect Yadier Molina. This seems a wash, as both a quality defensive catchers who don't hit much. The bullpen has been weakened, losing Kiki Calero and Danny Haren in the Mulder trade and Steve Kline via free agency.

The Bottom Line
The Cardinals won't win 100-plus games again, but might be in a better situation to win a World Series. Providing Mulder acclimates to the NL and Carpenter can continue his career renaissance, the Cards now match up in a short series well. The infield defense is a concern though, as Eckstein can't match Renteria's range or arm. There are also some age questions in the outfield.

2. Chicago Cubs
The Good
Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux still make up the best four-deep staff in baseball. Prior is coming off an injury-plagued year, but Zambrano emerged as an ace himself. Maddux merely set a record by becoming the first man in baseball history to win 15 games for 17 seasons in a row. The Cubs should profit from their Red Sox-in-Exile middle infield of Nomar Garciaparra, who may have more to prove this season than any player short of Jason Giambi, and Todd Walker. Both are adequate defensive players, and dynamic hitters when healthy. The key there is "when healthy" for Garciaparra. With the departure of Sammy Sosa, power will come from the infield corners, Derrick Lee at 1B and Aramis Ramirez at 3B. Corey Patterson continues to develop in center.

The Bad
The Cubs, realizing that they needed to get more speed and situational hitting in the lineup, replaced Sosa with Jeromy Burnitz. Wait a minute... The man actually picked up for Sosa, Jerry Hairston, will play all over the field if he doesn't claim the LF job outright from rookie Jason Dubois. The defense was awful last year, and while Ramirez has improved at third, he's still only adequate. Thanks to injury, Nomar isn't nearly the SS he was in Boston. Lee, a former Gold Glover, is the Cubs best defender. As good as the rotation is, the bullpen is as bad. The Cubs will need to settle on a closer. LaTroy Hawkins, Joe Borowski and the now-departed Kyle Farnsworth all took a try last year and all failed, rather spectacularly in Hawkins' case. The best bet may be former starter Ryan Dempster, making his way back from arm troubles.

The Bottom Line
The Cubs were never as good as their press clippings last year. Prior and Wood were ineffective, the bullpen a disaster, and the clubhouse turned poisonous. Still, they finished with a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 34 years. Now that manager Dusty Baker has the Sosa-free world he craved, they should make it three. But don't look for this curse to be broken this year.

3. Houston Astros
The Good
This is another NL Central team with dynamite rotation. Roger Clemens returns after another Cy Young, Andy Petitte should be healthy, and Roy Oswalt won 20 games last year. Throw in playoff hero Brandon Backe and the rehabbing Carlos Hernandez, and the rotation is unquestionably the strength of this team. The bullpen is solid too, as closer Brad Lidge took over for the traded Octavio Dotel and quickly established himself as a premier closer. The offense is productive, but old and getting older. Adam Everett has proven himself a capable hitter and flashy gloveman in the field

The Bad
For a team with such a large and difficult-to-play centerfield, Houston sure doesn't seem to care about OF defense. With the departure of Carlos Beltran, the 'Stros seem set on playing 3 LF/1 B types. Lance Berkman, the everyday RF and the team's best hitter, is out with a knee injury the first few months of the season. Craig Biggio, who started in CF, then shifted to left when Beltran was acquired, could end up in CF or LF, but right now is slated to start back at second, with 2B prospect Chris Burke playing, you guessed it, LF. That would leave Jason Lane in CF, and utility OF Orlando playing RF until Berkman comes back. An alternate would leave OF prospect Wily Tavares in CF and Lane in RF, with Biggio and Burke swapping places. That would seem to make the most sense. Along with Everett and either Burke or Biggio, Jeff Bagwell will play first. He can still hit, but shoulder problems have robbed him of some pop. Brad Ausmus will continue on at catcher for the foreseeable future, as Houston gave up replacement John Buck in the Beltran deal

The Bottom Line
This is a team close to the edge. The pitching is still there, but at the plate and in the field they are severely lacking. They really need Tavares to step up from AA ball and claim the CF job, or they need to convince the Mets to trade Mike Cameron. Anything to improve that OF defense. Garry Hunsicker left during the off-season. He knew this team's window has closed

4. Milwaukee Brewers
The Good
Looking for a surprise team in the NL? Well.. maybe not surprise as in sneak into the playoffs, but the Brew Crew will be a better team this year and should finish .500 or above. Optimism stems from a young pitching staff led by a legitimate ace, and a bevy of young players ready to come up. Ben Sheets is the ace, and proof positive that a pitcher's won-loss record is not what you need to judge one by. He finished 12-14 despite being third in the NL in ERA. The Brewers posted a grand total of 19 runs in his 14 losses. Doug Davis is an effective #2, and they are followed by prospects, including Jose Capallan from Atlanta. The offense has been seriously upgraded with the pickup of Carlos Lee, stolen from the ChiSox for Scott Posednik. No offense to Podsednik who did lead the majors in steals, but Lee is an upgrade at the plate. Lee will slot in-between lefties Geoff Jenkins and Lyle Overbay. Chad Moeller and Damian Miller make up an effective catcher tandem.

The Bad
With the trade of Dan Kolb to Atlanta, the closer currently is Mike Adams, who went 0-3 in save opportunities. Nothing past Sheets and Davis is set in the rotation. Junior Spivey was hurt most of last season, and his backup from 2004, Keith Ginter, was sent to Oakland for Redman. If Spivey can't make it, either utilityman Bill Hall or prospect Rickie Weeks will take over. A rookie, JJ Hardy, will man short, even though he missed most of last year. Third is a mess, with Russell Branyon, who if given 500 at-bats might hit 50 HR and K 200 times, battling Wes Helms, who hasn't played particularly well at either first or third in Milwaukee. Podsednik will need to be replaced in center, either by utility outfielder Brady Clark or prospect Dave Krynzel Krynzel might not be seen until mid-season, but the Brewers would like him to grab the job and leave Clark available for all three OF positions.

The Bottom Line
This is a team on the upswing, with new ownership and a bevy of prospects in the pipeline. Hardy should start at short by Opening Day, Rickie Weeks should join him by the All-Star break, with Prince Fielder with an ETA of about May 2006. The outlook for this season is good too, surely better than it has been in years. The fleecing of Chicago for Lee is a masterful move.

5.Cincinnati Reds
The Good
The Reds have 4 quality outfielders, providing Ken Griffey Jr. stays healthy. Admittedly, that really hasn’t been an option recently, but the Reds counter with Wily Mo Pena. There has been some talk of moving Griffey to right so Pena could play center full time. While he’s still raw, Pena had a breakthrough last year, finally coming through on some of those Sammy Sosa comparisons. Rightfielder Adam Dunn finished with 46 HR last year and broke Bobby Bonds’ strikeout record. The Reds are solid at the corners, with Sean Casey and Joe Randa. While they lack an ace, the Reds have assembled a collection of #3 starters with Eric Milton, Paul Wilson and ex-Angel Ramon Ortiz.

The Bad
In a division with Mark Prior, Mark Mulder, Kerry Wood, Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Ben Sheets, #3 starters aren’t going to cut it. The Reds are also counting on someone from a group that includes Brandon Claussen, Aaron Harang, Josh Hancock, and Luke Hudson to claim the fourth and fifth rotation slots. Danny Graves comes of a shaky year as the closer, and the bullpen as a whole was awful last year, finishing ahead of only the Rockies in ERA last year. They patched the problem with vets Ben Weber and David Weathers, both of whom had lousy years themselves. The Reds also have no real replacement for longtime captain Barry Larkin at short. Former Philly farmhand Anderson Machado was supposed to be the guy, but he’ll miss the season. That leaves Felipe Lopez or utility players Luis Lopez and Ryan Freel as options, or youngster Ray Olmedo.

The Bottom Line
The Reds are treading water right now. They have improved the rotation somewhat, though the idea of Ortiz and Milton pitching in the Great American Smallpark is dangerous. They have to do something to fix the glut of outfielders. Griffey is the wildcard; if healthy, he can still carry this team for stretches.

That’s a big If.

6.Pittsburgh Pirates
The Good
The Pirates are assembling a nice pitching staff. Oliver Perez is emerging as an ace, and Josh Fogg and former A Mark Redman complement him nicely. The key is #2 starter Kip Wells, who seemed to regress last year. A solid four is necessary in this division, and the Pirates might have it. Jack Wilson is coming off a career year offensively with 200 hits. Wilson also lives up to his Jack Flash nickname in the field. Jason Bay is the defending Rookie of the Year, hitting a robust .282 .358 .550.

The Bad
This is a bad team at the plate. Beyond Wilson, Bay and 1B/RF Craig Wilson, there isn’t much that will do much damage, especially against the pitchers in this division. Matt Lawton is slotted to play the OF and lead off, which could help, but there are dead zones at C, 2B, and CF. Rob Mackowiak is a nice utility piece capable of occasional power. The bullpen was better than expected last year, but any ‘pen relying on Jose Mesa has to be suspect.

The Bottom Line
Twelve straight losing seasons, and about to be 13; Pittsburgh and its fans deserve better than this. They may not get it soon, as this team can pitch but really can’t hit. Bay was old a rookie, so he might not get much better, and Wilson will almost certainly come back down to Earth.

Posted by Frinklin at March 8, 2005 07:46 PM

I think Houston will finish last. I don't think their pitching will be as good as it looks now (Clemens & Lidge will disappoint) and they'll struggle to score enough runs to off-set this. They're getting older and not a whole lot better.

Posted by: John at March 10, 2005 07:30 AM

I also think Wigginton will hit 25 homers for Pittsburgh this year. They'll still finish no higher than 4th.

Posted by: John at March 10, 2005 07:31 AM

Houston is on the edge. Beyond Clemens, Oswalt and Lidge all they have is question marks, and you never know if age will suddenly catch up with Roger.

As for Wiggington, yeah, I could see a productive power year, though it won't help much.

Posted by: frinklin at March 13, 2005 10:05 AM
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