NL Central: Preview and Predictions

Lyell MarksCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2008

Last year, the NL Central was full of late-season drama and a heartbreaking end to the Brewers' surprising insurgency.

This year, the contenders have reloaded, and some of the second-tier teams are preparing for the future. Here is the way I see the division falling into place:

Chicago Cubs

With easily the strongest rotation in the division, the Cubs adressed some offensive needs in the offseason, going overseas to land Kosuke Fukudome—who will need to have a strong season to keep the bleacher bums from abusing his name.

Youngsters Felix Pie (CF), Ryan Theriot (SS), and Geovany Soto (C) will all be counted on to complement the dangerous heart of the order that will feature Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Aramis Ramirez.

The rotation is solid as well, with Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Hill in the first three slots. All three could reach the 15-win mark this season.

Jason Marquis, Sean Marshall, Ryan Dempster, and Jon Lieber will compete for the final two spots. Look out for youngster Sean Gallagher, who could move into the rotation by midseason.

Prediction: First place (98-64).

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds—yes, the Reds—are looking to turn heads in 2008.

While most are counting them out because of their porous rotation, Cincinnati has some promising arms coming up through the system. Aaron Harang is one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball, and will be the key to leading the Reds' playoff chase.

Bronson Arroyo and newly-acquired Josh Fogg are likely the only players with guaranteed spots in the rotation. Homer Bailey and Matt Besile will be pressed hard by good-looking youngsters Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez.

If some of the young pitching can gel, the lineup will have no problem supplying runs. Look no further than the catalyst Brandon Phillips, who has resurrected his career in Cincinnati. A constant speed threat, Phillips has 30-30 potential and is still improving.

Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. fill out the middle of the lineup, but mega-prospect Jay Bruce will be a household name by the All Star break. Bruce is a five-tool prospect, and his arrival has Reds fans optimistic about the future. If he can beat out Ryan Freel for the starting centerfield position, he could reach the 30 HR platou as a rookie and hit over .300.

Signing closer Fransisco Cordero helps an anemic bullpen, which blew quite a few games last season. David Weathers will move back into a setup role—which he is better suited for. Young arms Jared Burton and Marcus McBeth will be key factors if the Reds are to improve their flawed bullpen.

Prediction: Second place (95-67), and the Wild Card.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers were the feel-good story of last season, but they could have some trouble repeating their success.

The problem lies in their rotation, which is prone to injury and, shall we say, "well traveled."

Ben Sheets rarely makes it through a full season, while Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush could be hurt by Miller Park's tendency to yield the long ball. Carlos Villanueva, Chris Capuano and Claudio Vargas will compete for the final two spots.

The lineup will feature a deadly 3-4 combination of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, who could realistically combine for 90 HRs—seriously!. I don't see J.J. Hardy having the kind of year he did last season, and I think Rickie Weeks will finally be exposed. The Brew Crew are counting on big years from too many unproven players, which will likely result in them missing the playoffs.

Eric Gagne, recently signed as the closer, will be interesting to watch. David Riske and Solomon Torres are both waiting in the wings if he falters.

Prediction: Third place (80-82).

Houston Astros

The Astros have a promising lineup, but the pitching staff is iffy at best. Roy Oswalt comes into camp as the only starter with a secure hold on his job.

Brandon Backe will attempt to come back from injury, while Woody Williams and Wandy Rodriguez will try to improve on poor performances last year. Chris Sampson and Jack Casset will be in competition for the fifth and final spot, but neither one will make much contribution this season.

The Astros don't have many arms coming up through the system, so a trade may be needed if they are to stay in contention.

The lineup has a promising blend of young and veteran talent headlined by Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and the youthful phenom Hunter Pence. Miguel Tejada came over in a trade from Baltimore, and should enjoy the short porch at Minute Maid, if he can shake the steroid controversy. He could also solidify a very dangerous middle of the order.

Michael Bourn will bat leadoff and steal 50 bags this season if he stays healthy. Young catcher J.R Towles will finally put an end to Brad Ausmus's reign in Houston, and could be in for a solid offensive year.

But altogether, I just don't see the Astros getting anything out of their pitching staff. The lineup will be very productive, but a pour rotation and weak depth in the bullpen will keep Houston far from the playoffs.

Prediction: Fourth place (75-87).

St. Louis Cardinals

2008 could be a humbling year for the Cards, who will be searching all year for a combination of reliable arms to replace the injured Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder. Until they return, their rotation will be hammered by everyone in the Central.

Only Adam Wainwright looks to be capable of winning more than 12 games this season. Braden Looper, Joel Piniero, Matt Clement, Anthony Reyes, and Brad Thompson will all look to earn a job in spring training.

The emergence of Rick Ankiel's offensive ability was a pleasant surprise last year, and should continue in 2008. Ankiel could easily hit 35 HRs in a full season. Top prospect Colby Rasmus should start on opening day and could be a ROY candidate. Chris Duncan is a solid run producer and could have a big year.

The key for the offense will be Albert Pujols returning to form and getting production from the role players like Adam Kennedy and Yadier Molina.

But without any sort of established rotation, the Cardinals will struggle mightily despite a strong offense. It will be a rebuilding year that could see a fire sale at the deadline.

Prediction: Fifth place (65-97).

Pittsburgh Pirates

There is little optimism in Pittsburgh this year, but hope is on the horizon, as the Pirates have a plethora of young talent waiting in the minors.

This season, however, Jason Bay and Adam LaRoache will be counted on for the majority of the offensive production. Rookies Steven Pearce and Nyjer Morgan should be starting by midseason.

The rotation has a lot of upside, but is also very inconsistent. Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell emerged last season as reliable pitchers and will be complemented by Zach Duke and Matt Morris. Paul Maholm has a hold on the final rotation spot, but John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington will be given the chance to earn it.

The bullpen is also young and will likely struggle. Matt Capps will not have many opportunities to get saves, but should do well when handed the lead.

Prediction: Sixth place (55-107).

Let me know what you think. Also, what division would you like to see a preview of next?


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