March 31, 2006

Frinklin & Fred Baseball Preview: NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

As they move into the new Busch Stadium -the third one actually- the Cards return the same basic team that has won 100 games in each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately for the Cards and their fans, the Cards haven’t been able to close the deal, getting swept by Boston in the World Series two years ago, and falling to Houston in the NLCS last season. This would make St. Louis a team with serious World Series aspirations. Have they improved enough to get there and win?

No, I don’t think they have.

Look, the Cards will be good -maybe great- again this year, mostly due to a core of Jim Edmunds, Scott Rolen and the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols. If Rolen is healthy after an injury-plagued 2005, he and Pujols form the best infield corners in baseball, and nobody else is really close. David Eckstein returns at short, but he’ll have the well-traveled Junior Spivey as his new double-play partner. Edmunds has new running mates in the outfield, with Larry Bigbie and Juan Encarnacion replacing Reggie Sanders and the retired Larry Walker. Spivey and Mark Grudzielanek are a wash, but nobody knows how Bigbie will respond to being a full-time starter. The former Orioles prospect might end up sharing the job with So Taguchi anyway.

The Cardinals lose longtime starter Matt Morris in the rotation, he should be replaced by prospect Anthony Reyes or reclamation project Sidney Ponson. Cris Carpenter, defending NL Cy Young winner, and Mark Mulder top a decent rotation. Mulder is on a contract year. Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis are adequate bottom of the rotation guys. The Cardinals picked up former Met closer Braden Looper (to the joy of all Met fans) and Ricardo Rincon to set up Jason Isringhausen.

Outlook: They kept the nucleus, added some spare parts… basically the same team as the last two years. Figure on 90+ wins and a shot at the World Series.

FRED SEZ: Yawn. The Cardinals are the most boring near-great team in recent memory, more boring even than the Braves, who at least have the insufferably boosterish TBS announcers to remind us why we should hate them. I suspect this is because they play in St. Louis, the most boring major city in America. When your most famous landmark is a giant croquet wicket, you know you've got problems. St. Louis also manages to be miserably sticky and hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. It's a plaid polyester leisure suit of a city.

Having offended and alienated every reader of this blog who hails from the Gateway to Hell, as an olive branch I will now list my favorite things about St. Louis:

1. Cedric the Entertainer
2. Whitey Herzog

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure neither of them lives there any more. Oh, well. I'd better move on, so I can finish before a mob of angry St. Louis residents firebombs my house. Also, if I talk about the Cardinals any more, I'm going to need the assistance of No-Doz to finish this preview.

FRINKLIN REJOINS: Are we past the expiration date on this “best fans in baseball” stuff yet? All I need to know about the Cards is they’ve given us Bob Costas, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. Plus, Tony LaRussa’s an ass. Please go away.

2. Chicago Cubs

In 2003, the Cubs were an eyelash away from winning the NLCS and perhaps burying their curse. Since then, their partners in misery the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox have won back-to-back World Series. So, are the Cubs about to join them?

No, not really.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re closer then they’ve been, but the Cubs just don’t seem to have enough. The offense was inadequate last season, finishing 20th in runs. The Cubs have retooled the top of the order, importing slap-hitter extraordinaire Juan Pierre from Florida. Todd Walker would be a good second hitter, but Dusty Baker seems obsessed with getting rid of Walker and giving Neifi Perez at-bats. The Cubs are strong on the infield corners with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, but the outfield isn’t great. Free-agent signee Jacque Jones and rookie Matt Murton will flank Pierre.

The strength of this team is supposed to be the big three of Prior, Wood and Zambrano. Carlos Zambrano has certainly done his part, but the other two have been stricken with injuries. Both could miss the beginning of the season. Ryan Dempster fit into the closer role well and the Cubs overspent (pretty wildly) for set-up men Bob Howry and Scott Eyre.

Overview: 98 years and counting.

FRED SEZ: Wow, you have much more faith in the Cubs than I do. Prior and Wood have already gotten a head start on their annual trips to the DL, as they'll both open the season there. If they were horses, we'd shoot them. And outside of Derrek Lee, there's very little in the lineup to scare anyone. It's shaping up to be a long and miserable season on the North Side. I don't believe in curses, but someone needs to do something about the giant negative force field that hovers over everything this franchise does.

On the bright side, Wrigley Field remains a wonderful place to watch a ballgame, provided that one of the falling chunks of concrete doesn't hit you in the head. Wow, Cubs and Cardinals fans can agree on something for once: their hatred of me!

FRINKLIN REJOINS: I actually think this rough spring could help them. It shapes up well for them. Everything goes wrong, but they hover around .500 for a couple months. Prior comes back in May, Wood comes back in June; after the break they call up Felix Pie… it could happen.

3. Houston Astros

Just think how this team would do if it could start quickly. In each of the past two seasons Houston has stumbled out of the gate and then heated up enough to squeak into the playoffs. Last year they hit a hot streak that carried them all the way to the World Series, where they… well, they were swept. But at least they got there.

I said this last year, but it sure seems this team’s window is closing. The Astro’s offense was pretty close to putrid last year, and the only big off-season improvement was Preston Wilson. They will –or should anyway- have Lance Berkman for the entire year and 3B Morgan Ensberg will try to build on a breakthrough 2005. Craig Biggio has officially entered the “ageless” category, slugging .468 as a 40-year old second basemen. His fellow Killer B Jeff Bagwell isn’t so lucky. His power has been stripped by injury, and he may be released or retire.

Speaking of retiring, the Astros get to play “Waiting for Godot” with Roger Clemens at least until May. Roger coming back would make a good rotation great. Even without the Rocket, the Astros have a top-2 that is the envy of most. Roy Oswalt has won 20 games each of the past 2 seasons, and Andy Pettitte won 17. Beyond those two though, quality drops off a cliff. Brandon Backe is adequate at best and both Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio, the expected 4th and 5th guys, posted 5-plus ERAs. Assuming Brad Lidge is over his World Series meltdown, the bullpen is set.

Outlook: With or without Clemens, this is a team on the way down. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Milwaukee pass them.

FRED SEZ: I agree that this team is on the way down. They won an awful lot last year with pretty much the same team, although at this point it looks like Clemens isn't coming back (although it's always possible that he will return, provided he only has to pitch home games with a minimum of six days rest in months with an "R" in them). I don't think they're wild-card worthy, but they certainly should have enough horses to beat the Cubbies' lame-armed wonders.

FRINKLIN REJOINS: Why is it so easy to forget how good these guys were coming down the stretch? I’ve predicted they’d fall on their asses each of the past two years. I’ve been wrong both times and here I go doing it again.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Tons of young talent, an aggressive and effective GM, a new owner and the return of classic uniforms: What more could a Brewer fan want? Well, wins would be cool. That’s coming. The Brewers finished with a non-losing record for the first time in 12 years. The leap from .500 to contention isn’t easy, especially with a division like this. The good news? The Brewers are young, and the Astros and Cardinals are older teams. This could be the team a year from now.

This season though, there will be some growing pains. The right side of the infield is new, with heralded prospects Rickie Weeks at second and Prince Fielder at first. Weeks struggled with a hand injury during his rookie year, but flashed an electric bat. Unfortunately he also flashed some awful defense, so a move to the outfield might be in store. Only 21,Fielder takes over 1B for the departed Lyle Overbay. Fielder has awesome power, but zero range at first. JJ Hardy, a second-year player himself, starts at short and Corey Koskie will man third.

Milwaukee is also blessed with a true ace in Ben Sheets. While he’s struggled with injuries the past two seasons, Sheets is a dominant starter. Two soft-tossing lefties, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano return after winning 29 games combined last season. The Brewers also continue to prove the fallacy of the Proven Closer. After Dan Kolb left for Atlanta, Milwaukee watched former Angel farmhand Derek Turnbow turn in a spectacular year. Kolb returns to set-up duties after a disastrous year with Atlanta.

Outlook:Close…. But not quite. This is a team on the rise, but I think Weeks and Fielder will need a year.

FRED SEZ: Thank you so much, Brewers. You ruined my childhood, left me wandering around in the baseball desert for years, muttering to myself about how losing builds character, cheering in vain for Pat Listach and Dave Nilsson and Teddy Higuera and B.J. Surhoff and Chris Bosio. Then Washington finally gets a team, I become a Nationals fan, and suddenly the "rebuilding" program actually pays off. You can just go to hell, Brewers. Go straight to hell.

Oh, yeah, this is a neat young team. They're a year or two away, but there's coming along. The bastards.

FRINKLIN REJOINS: I've always had a weird soft spot for the Brewers. I loved the Harvey's Wallbangers teams. Until my Dad told me they used to be the Pilots and how they raped the city of Seattle. Then I hated them for a couple years, but then it got to be sad, hating something as pathetic as the Milwaukee Brewers.

I don't know what that has to do with anything, but I think the Brewers are going to be really good soon. Sheets going to the DL again is slightly scary though.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates really aren’t any better than last year, but Cincinnati is terrible and that could be enough for Pittsburgh to escape the cellar. While that isn’t really anything to crow about, Pirate fans take wins wherever they can get ‘em.

The Pirates aren’t a total disaster area. They do have a nice potential 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Zach Duke won’t continue to post sub-2.00 ERAs, but he should be a good #2 starter for some years to come. Oliver Perez has the stuff to be an ace, but must rebound from a lousy year punctured with temper tantrums. The third starter, Kip Wells, is one of those aggravating stuff-types who never seem to be as good as scouts say they should be. Wells suffered a very scary - and very odd - arm injury and won't be back until the All-Star break. The rest of the rotation and the back end of the bullpen is up for grabs. Mike Gonzalez, another lefty, should close. Again, he has electric stuff and finished with a nice 2.70 ERA despite a 58/31 strikeout-to-walk-ratio.

The Pirates don’t have much offense. They have Jason Bay, who has turned into a fine hitter. His OPS was .962 last year, and just imagine what he’d hit if he had any protection whatsoever. This season the Pirates import Sean Casey from Cincinnati and free agents Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa to strengthen the lineup. All are excellent makeup guys on the downside of their careers. Casey won’t hit for much power away from the Great American Ballpark, but if he repeats his .377 OBP it should be worth it. Past the three vets and Bay, there isn’t much. SS Jack Wilson came crashing down to earth with a sub-.300 OBP, and his double-play partner Jose Castillo flashed some power potential. The defense up the middle with Wilson, Castillo and CF Chris Duffy is excellent.

Outlook:The Pirates haven’t had a winning year in 13 seasons. In about nine months it will be 14.

FRED SEZ: The Pirates have some neat young players, and some people might think this is cause for hope in Steeltown, but Pirates fans know better. Years of bitter experience have taught them the same lesson I learned in my wretched childhood of Brewer fandom, namely: There is no heavier burden than a great potential, and hope is a cruel joke that God play on the downtrodden. It's like when you were in high school, and every so often a pretty girl would give you a sweet look from across the hallway, or you had a nice conversation with her after French class, and you began to think you might have a chance with her. Of course, this was not true; there was no way she would go out with you. And you were never going to have a date for the dance. Not now and not ever. For you, my friend, were a loser. A simple fact of life.

If you were popular in high school and have no idea what I'm talking about, I hate you.

FRINKLIN REJOINS: Boy, you find more to like than I do here. Duke and Perez could be great, but then I'm old enough to remember Mets fans screaming about Wilson, Pulsipher and Isringhausen.

6. Cincinnati Reds

This team looks like a train wreck. The Reds have one thing going for them: power. If Ken Griffey, Jr, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns could stay healthy, the outfield could account for 90-110 homers alone. Add SS Felipe Lopez and his 23 dingers, plus youngster Edwin Encarnacion at third and this could be a good –if slightly all-nothing- offense. Beyond that, the Reds are pretty awful. Only Kearns in right and catcher Jason LaRue are even average in the field, and either Tony Womack (ugh) or Rich Aurillia (double ugh) will man second. The mess with Dunn pretty much encapsulates this team. The Reds traded Sean Casey to the Pirates, opening first for Dunn and LF for Wily Mo Pena. Then they switched Dunn back to left in order to clear first for… Scott Hatteberg?

But wait, we haven’t even talked about the pitching yet. Aaron Harang, Eric Milton, Bronson Arroyo, Dave Williams, Paul Wilson and Brandon Claussen. Somewhere in there you’ll find Cincy’s starting rotation. Milton, in the first year of his free-agent contract, was beyond pitiful, giving up 40 homers and sporting a lovely 6.47 ERA. Harang is the “ace” of the staff after his 11-13 record. The bullpen is slightly more settled, with David Weathers and Kent Mercker setting up closer Todd Coffey.

No, I don’t know who that is either.

Outlook: Awful bordering on horrific. The Reds new owner and GM have a ton of work to do.

FRED SEZ: My God, this team is awful. I thought the Nats had some holes, but man, we've got nothing on this crew. At least you've still got that great chili. And WKRP. And Jerry Springer. And periodic race riots. Um.

Tell you what, Reds fans: You can have Jim Bowden back if you want. In fact, you can have him back even if you don't want, because we're through with him in DC. We'll even pay for the bus ticket to send him back to Cincy.

FRINKLIN REJOINS: Yeah, not even the Reds are dumb enough to take Bowden back. I can't think he could do any worse than what they have though


Even though I think Milwaukee isn't quite there yet, I'm going to be a dewy-eyed optimist and pick them ahead of Chicago and Houston. I wish I knew how to quit you, Brewers. (And since all the teams I pick to do well inevitably crash and burn, when you finish fifth, consider that my revenge.)

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati should have a lively race to the bottom. Call it the Sean Casey Memorial Battle of the Basement. God knows those fans need something to get excited about.

1. St. Louis
2. Milwaukee
3. Houston
4. Chicago
5. The ghosts of Roberto Clemente, Willie's Stargell's Family, the Big Red Machine and the entire decade of the 1970s
6. Pittsburgh
7. Cincinnati

Previously: NL East

Posted by Frinklin at March 31, 2006 11:06 PM | TrackBack
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