Monday, April 13, 2009

NL Central Preview

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs and their fans have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the 2009 season ever since they were rapidly dismissed by the Dodgers in a 2008 Wild Card match up. While the Cubs are loaded with talent, North-siders expecting another 97 win season are probably going to be disappointed.

On the surface, the Cubs lineup looks absolutely stacked. Leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano is one of the elite power/speed players in the league, but with an OBP below .350 he should really be hitting lower in the lineup. Shortstop Ryan Theriot should be hitting first and setting the table for the bashers hitting behind him. Speaking of those bashers, Derrick Lee, Milton Bradley and Aramis Ramirez look like they could be the best 3-4-5 in the NL, but they don't come without warts. Among those warts: All three are on the wrong side of 30, Lee and Ramirez appear to have diminishing skills and Bradley has only been over 450 ABs once in his nine year career. And of course there is the concern that Bradley has fought (either physically or verbally or both) with all of the following: managers, umpires, GMs, fans, teammates, announcers and the police. These should be more than small concerns for Lou Piniella. One concern Piniella doesn't have is his catcher. Geovany Soto established himself as one of the game's elite young talents in 2009 and should slide into the middle of the Cubs lineup if anyone stumbles. Kosuke Fukudome and Mike Fontenot leave a lot to be desired at the bottom of the order, especially considering one of these spots could have been filled by Mark DeRosa, had he not been traded to Cleveland.

The Cubs starting rotation also has a lot of luster, but isn't the most trustworthy group. Carlos Zambrano can unquestionably pitch like an ace, but is legitimately nuts, not exactly a trait you want from your #1. Ryan Dempster's transition from closer to starter in 2008 was much, much better than could have been expected and I would not expect Dempster to post another sub 3.0 ERA, well,... ever. Rich Harden has ace stuff, but has only posted one season with more than 128 innings in his 6 year career. Ted Lilly is the about as reliable as they come and, frankly, the Cubs would be much better off if they had 5 Ted Lillys.

The Chicago bullpen is solid and doesn't seem to be as shaky as the rest of the team. Recently crowned closer Kevin Gregg has a solid track record and has been lights out in spring training. Carlos Marmol is the best setup man in the game and gives Lou Piniella an option to get out of almost any late inning jam. Lanky righty Jeff Samardzija had an effective rookie season, while Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin and Neal Cotts bring plenty of experience to the Cubs bullpen (that's what you say about guys when they aren't exactly good)

Projected Record: 88-74

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds 2009 season will ultimately be decided by whether or not their young talent finally takes the step from elite prospect to elite major league player.

The offense has plenty of pop in the middle of the order with Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion all having 30+ home run potential. Ideally, Votto and Bruce, both in their second full year in the bigs, would continue their development and allow manager Dusty Baker to slide Brandon Phillips up to the number 2 hole to better utilize his speed. New comer Willy Tavaras will be a terror on the basepaths if he can actually get on base more that 30% of the time, a pretty pathetic number considering Tavaras has zero power. Ramon Hernandez comes over from Baltimore to take the catching duties and has the possibility of adding 20+ homers. Alex Gonzalez plays shortstop... and I was going to rag on him, but he did hit .272 with 16 homers in 2008, which for the number 8 spot in the NL aint that bad.

The Cincy rotation is pretty solid and has the potential to be great. Aaron Harang ran into some trouble in 2008, but I would expect him to return to form as the Reds ace in 2009. Edinson Volquez is the present and future of the Reds rotation and with another year of seasoning could be mentioned in the same sentence as the Santanas, Lincecums and Peavys of the NL. The other young fireballer of the Reds staff is Johnny Cueto who, like the Reds young hitters, could be really dominant if he takes the next step. Bronson Arroyo will eat up some innings and Micah Owings may be adequate, but if either of these guys stumble expect big-time prospect Homer Bailey to get the call up from triple-A.

The Reds bullpen is seasoned (see: old) and without much potential. Francisco Cordero is coming off a successful first season as the Reds closer and is a reliable 9th inning option for Dusty Baker. Primary setup men David Weathers and Arthur Rhodes were both born in the 1960s. Not sure I could put a lot of faith in them.

Ultimately I see the Reds having some more growing pains this year, but growing enough to be on the happy side of .500 for the first time since 2000.

Projected Record: 84-78

Houston Astros

The Astros were a slightly better than average team in 2008 and didn't do a whole lot to get better in 2009. I could break down their pretty decent lineup or tear apart the unreliability of their pitching staff, but is that really necessary? Wouldn't that just be wasting both my time and yours? Of course it would, but I'm doing it anyway.

The Houston lineup is pretty good and will probably keep the Astros in alot of games. The top of the lineup is shaky at best, with Kaz Matsui leading off and Michael Borne hitting second. If Matsui can keep the anal fissures under control this season (sidebar: seriously, did we really need to know that Matsui missed alot of 2008 games due to that particular ailment, I mean, couldn't the Astros have just lied and said it was a hernia) and if Michael Borne can actually get on base once in a while (a pathetic .288 OBP in 2008), they are probably goning to score alot of runs. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman hit in the middle of the Astros lineup and do it very, very well. Both Lee and Berkman slugged over .560 in 2008 and both hit for plenty of power without sacrificing average. Superstar-in-the-making Hunter Pence will have a cushy spot in the lineup hitting behind Lee and Berkman, and if he shows any more development he will be a top tier player in the NL. Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez and Geoff Blum are unreliable options at the bottom of the lineup (not to mention defensive liabilities) and the Astros need to start getting replacements ready.

The Astros pitching situation will probably be the team's Achilles heel in 2009. Roy Oswalt has been terrific in his eight year Houston career (never posting an ERA higher than 3.54 and racking up six seasons with more than 14 wins), but there isn't a lot after that. Wandy Rodriguez developed nicely in 2008, but as any fantasy player knows, he can't be trusted on the road... a characteristic I'd rather not have in my #2. Brian Moehler would be a nice #5 starter for the Astros, but he's going to have to pitch like a middle of the rotation guy, since Houston has Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton at the back of their rotation. Even the most optimistic GMs would have a hard time penciling Ortiz or Hampton in for more than 25 starts , so I'm not quite sure what Houston is doing here.

The Houston bullpen is decent to above average, but even if they are incredible I don't see the Astros as a playoff caliber team. Jose Valverde is a quality closer, really nothing we didn't know. Other bullpen options Tim Byrdak and Doug Brocail are were both terrific in 2008, but are definitely fighting father time. Other relievers (Chris Sampson and Wesley Wright) aren't really worth discussing and, like I said above, it doesn't really matter anyway.

Projected Record: 78-84

Milwaukee Brewers

The 2008 Milwaukee Brewers had an opportunity to win a World Series title and they took it. They traded stud prospect Matt LaPorta for a four month rental of CC Sabathia who used a 1.65 ERA and a 11-2 record to propel the Brew crew into the playoffs. Of course then CC had a(nother) playoff collapse and Milwaukee was easily dismissed by the eventual champion Phillies, but, hey, gotta give the Brewers credit for taking a shot.

Turns out taking a shot was the right move for the Brewers organization. Ace Ben Sheets was headed to free agency in 2009 as was not going to be resigned by Milwaukee even before he needed elbow surgery. Young gun Yovani Gallardo spent most of 2008 recovering from a torn ACL and he will probably continue to develop in 2009, but probably won't be a lights-out ace for another year or two. The rest of the Milwaukee rotation is far from playoff caliber. Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Dave Bush would all be nice end of the rotation inning eaters, but you really don't want them starting 80% of your team's games.

The Brewers bullpen doesn't make it any easier to project the Brewers back into the NL playoffs. Carlos Villanueva takes over as the closer temporarily while Trevor Hoffman is injured, and with three career saves is far from a sure thing in the ninth inning. The rest of the 'pen is alot like Villanueva: unreliable. Seth McClung has a career ERA over 5.0, David Riske has lights out stuff... sometimes and Todd Coffey is about as average a middle reliever as you are going to find. To make matters worse, the Brewers have exactly one lefty in the bullpen: Mitch Stetter and his 31 career innings. Yeah, Brewers fans, be very nervous if Ryan Howard comes up with 2 runners on in the eighth inning.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, the Brewers offense can score a lot of runs. The lineup remains unchanged from 2008 and should continue to develop in 2009. Lead off man Ricky Weeks just doesn't get on base enough with a career batting average of 0.245. The Brewers really need to find a better solution at the top of the lineup, since they have plenty of guys that can drive in runs hitting after Weeks. JJ Hardy and Corey Hart have swapped between the #2 and #5 spots for a couple years and both supply plenty of power, but neither is the OBP monster Milwaukee needs at the top of the lineup. Bashers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are both capable of 40+ home run seasons and could put up huge RBI numbers if Brewers ever find a more conventional options at the top of the lineup. At the bottom of the lineup, Mike Cameron and Bill Hall have, surprise, surprise, more power, but just don't hit for a high enough average. If the Brewers are ever going to become an elite offensive team, they are going to have to trade in their slow pitch softball approach for more of a station-to-station philosophy.

Projected Record: 80-82

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates haven't won more that 70 games in the any of the last four seasons (no joke, look it up, it's a train wreck). And while I think they might be headed in the right direction, I'm not willing to commit to a full review of the 2009 squad. So here are your quick hitters:

Lineup: Sub-standard by any evaluation, Nate McClouth and Adam LaRoche are the only reliable bats, youngsters Nyjer Morgan, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss may be there someday, but that day will not be in 2009.

Rotation: Maholm looks like the real deal, Duke and Snell could be the base of a good rotation if they ever make the leap from quad-A players. Russ Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens are not major league quality.

Bullpen: Yep, they've got one, it's okay.

Projected Record: 74-88 (good news Pirate fans, if I'm right you get a review next year!!!)

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are going to be the surprise team of the NL. While I can't exactly put my finger on why, I think it has alot to do with Tony LaRussa and his career 0.534 winning percentage, 5 pennants and 2 World Series titles. A future Hall of Famer, LaRussa is both a great motivator and terrific in-game tactician and is a tremendous asset on the St. Louis bench. With several pieces appearing to be in place, expect LaRussa to guide this team to a big season.

The Cardinals lineup is reliable and should improve in 2009. Skip Schumaker enters his 2nd full big league season and will be a good table setter for the St. Louis offense. Schumaker hits for a nice average, but does need to draw a few more walks and steal a few more bases to be really effective. Former pitcher turned basher Rick Ankiel is out of position hitting in the #2 spot, but should see plenty of meaty pitches with proverbial MVP candidate Albert Pujols hitting third. Speaking of Pujols, there is really nothing I can write that you don't already know about him. He hits for power, he hits for average, he's putting Hall of Fame type numbers and at the age of 29 he should be in the prime of his career. Chris Duncan is slotted in the enviable position right behind Pujols and is one of the Cardinal's big question marks, since he has never played a full big league season. Ryan Ludwick will look to follow up his massive 2008 campaign and should solidify the St. Louis lineup if he can stay healthy for the second year in a row. The bottom of the Cardinals lineup has potential, with Khalil Greene escaping the hitter unfriendly Petco Field and David Freese making the jump to the majors after a 26 HR, 0.305 season in AAA.

The St. Louis starting rotation looks solid, if unspectacular. Adam Wainwright isn't a lights out ace, but if he can stay healthy, he will give the Cardinals a chance to win every game he starts. Kyle Lohse is coming off a career year and has pitched very well in 2 starts so far, but should still make Cardinal fans a little nervous in the #2 spot. Todd Wellemeyer is another "effective"-type pitcher coming off a great first season in a starters role. Chris Carpenter is a huge wild card with only four starts in the last two years, but will be a huge boost to the Cardinals rotation if he stays healthy.

The Cards bullpen looks to be better than the unit that undermined the club in 2008. The live-armed Jason Motte slides into the closer role after posting tiny ERA and WHIP numbers in 2008. Ryan Franklin is back in the setup role after struggling as a de facto closer in 2008 and should be more successful without the ninth inning pressure. Lefthanders Dennys Reyes and Trevor Miller join the Cardinals for 2009 and should give Tony LaRussa two veteran options for late game matchups.

Projected Record: 93-69

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