Monday, March 22, 2010

2010 NL Central Preview

If you are looking for a top heavy division in sports, this is it. The NL Central is the exact opposite of its counterpart in the American League. This year, you have got two great teams in the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, while you have four clubs that will be irrelevant by early May.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Last year, we spent a lot of time discussing whether or not Albert Pujols could be productive without any protection in the lineup. It was actually a pretty big issue; that is, until they traded for Matt Holliday. Holliday finished the year by leading the team in batting average, RBIs and slugging percentage.

After signing a $120 million dollar contract, Holliday will stay apart of arguably the best 3-4 in all of baseball.

Outside of those two guys, the Cardinals lineup is a little soft. The key here will be Colby Rasmus. You will more than likely get a .300 batting average from lead off man Skip Schumaker; however, what Rasmus does in between him and Pujols could be the difference between scoring four runs a game and scoring seven runs a game.

Whatever the offense does is anyone’s guess, but Tony LaRussa knows what he is getting with his pitching staff. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are probably the second and third best pitchers in the NL (behind Tim Lincecum). In addition to those guys, the Cards have Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny. Penny may have looked terrible last year in Boston, but chalk that up to the superior hitting in the AL. I expect him to bounce back and be an effective third or fourth starter.

Prediction: 99-63

Chicago Cubs:

Welcome to year number 102 without a World Series title. It truly baffles me how the city of Chicago is so loyal year after year, but it is why I pull for them every year.

I look at this team and see one that has no reason to not make the playoffs. I’m treating last season as a fluke because of injuries and a few terrible seasons. When you lose your best pitcher and best hitter for significant parts of the season, you are but a shell of what you thought you could be. The example of that is if you saw the Cubbies when Aramis Ramirez was on the DL, and when he came back.

In addition to having a healthy Ramirez, they also get Geovany Soto minus 40 pounds. After going through the epitome of a sophomore slump, expect Soto to look more like he did during his 2008 rookie of the year campaign.

I have no idea what to expect from Alfonzo Soriano, but it is a smart move to drop him to seventh in the lineup. He will be under a lot less pressure there and it might revive his bat a little bit. Also, the decision to fill his spot with Ryan Theriot makes perfect sense as well and you could see him set a career high in OBP this year.

If Carlos Zambrano is healthy and effective, the pitching staff swings from average to pretty good. Ryan Dempster is a great second starter, and Randy Wells was one of the best rookie pitchers in the league. How Zambrano plays affects everything. A solid ace gives the rest of the staff confidence and that is exactly what Piniella needs. Big Z needs to be a leader and stay away from his infamous temper tantrums.

The only weakness is the bullpen, but it could be a giant one. The projected closer is Carlos Marmol, and even if you don’t see that as a problem, what is behind him isn’t very good either. As if Cubs fans need more stress in their lives. You could see the Cubs look out-of-house for options as soon as May.

Prediction: 95-67

Milwaukee Brewers:

Milwaukee comes into this season following an 80-win season in which they were disappointed because no post-season play was involved. However, the 80 wins made it the first time the franchise hit that mark three years in a row. This year, look for the Brewers to be right there again, as they are better than the Reds, Astros, and Pirates; but nowhere near the talent level of the Cubs or Cardinals.

At the plate, the Brew Crew has a heart that is filled with power. Prince Fielder hits 400 foot bombs with ease, and Ryan Braun is getting scary good. Other than those guys, the lineup gives Brewer fans a myriad of questions. Cory Hart, Carlos Gomez, and Ricky Weeks all disappointed for different reasons last year and if they can make an impact, the Brewers will be much better.

Out of that group, Weeks is the most likely source of production. The guy has always been oozing with talent, but has just been riddled with injuries. If healthy, he could be a great number two in the lineup to set up Braun and Fielder.

The pitching staff is very similar to the lineup in that after Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo, you don’t have a lot of great talent. Jeff Suppan has been a 4.50-5.00 ERA pitcher these past few years, and Manny Parra has been the model of inconsistency. Even if the lineup is more potent than anticipated, the back half of the rotation will prevent the Brewers from being serious contenders

Prediction: 80-82

Cincinnati Reds:

Ok, is it just me, or are you still trying to figure out why the most sought after pitching prospect in Latin America chose the Cincinnati Reds? What ever the reasoning behind it was, the Reds may have gotten a pitcher to anchor their staff for a decade.

Aroldis Chapman may have seemed like a longer term project as early as two weeks ago, but what he is showing in spring training is that he might be ready soon. Imagine a rotation led by him, Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey. That is what the future holds here.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what this season brings. Volquez will be gone almost the entire season, and those young guys will need time to evolve into great talent.

At the plate, the Reds have a group of players that are either over the hill, or under achieving. Guys like Orlando Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez are on the decline, but will be expected to be significant contributors despite only being good enough to be role players this late in their careers.

If you want to see my second group of players, look no further than Jay Bruce. I’m still very high on this kid, but he took multiple steps backwards last year. Considering that the Reds were counting on him big time last year, his .233 average was disheartening to see as a Reds fan.

The only guy to not be in these categories is first baseman Joey Votto, who had a superb season. However, it’s hard to get 100 RBI’s if no one wants to get on base

Prediction: 75-87

Houston Astros:

Have you ever looked at a lineup that makes you wonder how they score any runs at all? This is it.

It all starts at the top with Michael Bourn. I ’m not saying that he isn’t a good player, but he strikes out way too much to be in the lead off spot. Combine that with Kaz Matsui, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee all coming off terrible years, you have a giant question mark over your entire lineup.

If you are expecting me to say that the Astros will be ok though because of their rotation, think again. Besides Roy Oswalt, Houston doesn’t have a single guy they can count on. What is even more unsettling than that is the fact that Oswalt is starting to show signs of aging and isn’t as reliable as he used to be.

So, there you have it; a terrible pitching staff and lineup. If it wasn’t for the Pirates, Houston would be looking at 100 losses easily.

Prediction: 65-97

Pittsburgh Pirates:

If you are a Pirates fan, I’m sorry…I truly am. While perrenial losers like the Nationals and Orioles seem to be improving, the Pirates seem to enjoy trading every good player you develop in your farm system.

There is one reason to watch the Pirates at all, Andrew McCutchen. He’s a solid hitter, dazzling fielder, and is lightning quick. His potential might be limitless and if the Pirates are actually trying to build a winner, it should be built around him.

The addition Akinori Iwamura gives Pittsburgh stability at the no. 2 spot behind McCutchen, forming a pretty good top of the order. After them, the Pirates will rely on youngster Garrett Jones and injury riddled Ryan Doumit to knock them in.

That lineup is decent, but won’t be able to score 10 runs a game, which is what it might take to win. This pitching staff is very mediocre and doesn’t have a guy that seems able to be considered the ‘ace.’ Expect inconsistency from just about everyone and some midseason call-ups such as Daniel McCutchen, who had a 3.47 ERA in AAA last year.

Prediction: 59-103

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