Let’s take a look at the NL Central division and see how the teams stack up for the 2008 season as Chicago tries to defend their division crown.
National League Central
The Cubs’ pitching rotation will be anchored by their ace Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano can be somewhat temperamental and may not be a favorite in the clubhouse, but he can pitch. They need him to perform well for them to contend and defend their title. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill pitched well last year and will add depth to their rotation. Lilly won 15 games and Hill won 11, and they both finished with ERA’s under 4.00. The 4 and 5 spots in the rotation are up for grabs this spring as Lou Piniella decides between Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber, Sean Marshall and Ryan Dempster. Marshall pitched pretty well last year and is left-handed, so if he pitches well this spring he has a good chance to get in the rotation. However it shakes out, Chicago will be left with some depth in their starting pitching in case of injury.
A big storyline for the Cubs is whether Kerry Wood will be durable enough to handle the closer duties this year. Lou Piniella is also considering Kevin Hart for those duties as well. Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry, and Michael Wurtz pitched well last year out of the bullpen, and they shouldn’t have problems getting through the middle innings.
Settling their closer situation and the back side of the rotation is key for Chicago.
There is no shortage of power in their lineup as Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramiriz, and Alphonso Soriano pack a lot of punch. Lee will have to find a way to stay healthy and return to his 2005 form where he hit 46 home runs vs. 22 last year.
Everyone is anxious to see how their new right field import from Japan does in his first year in the majors. Kosuke Fukudome has displayed good defense and a good bat this spring and it will be interesting to see where Pinella puts him in the every day line up. He was a career .305 hitter in Japan.
The Cubs have some unsettled issues with their starting pitching, and the closer role. If they get those settled in a positive manner they should be fine.
Projected finish - 1st place.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals hope to bounce back after finishing 6 games under .500 last year. They will look to Adam Wainwright and Brandon Looper to bolster the top of the rotation. After that, they have a lot of question marks. Matt Clement is still not all the way back yet and didn’t pitch last year, and Joel Pineiro has shoulder problems and is coming along slowly. Brad Thompson and Todd Wellemeyer are in competition for a spot in the rotation. Wellemeyer pitched 63 innings last year with a 3.11 ERA. Their rotation is thin in general, and Wainwright and Looper are really not solid number 1 and 2 guys.
Jason Isringhausen will close this year and be effective as he normally is. Ryan Franklin and Russ Springer are their best middle to late inning relievers, and there is not much depth after that.
The main question for the Cards with regard to their every day lineup is the health of Albert Pujos. They can’t do without his regular production if they expect to contend. Scott Rolen is gone, and Troy Glaus takes his place at third base.
He only played 115 games last year and has had injury problems in the past, just like Rolen did, so it remains to be seen how effective he can be.
Cesar Izturis takes over at shortstop for David Eckstein, and Rick Ankiel is slated to be the everyday centerfielder. If Ankiel can put up the same numbers he did in 47 games last year on a consistent basis throughout the season, it will make a huge difference in their lineup.
Skip Schumaker will get an opportunity to be the everyday right fielder and has done well this spring.
The Cardinals will have to have a healthy Albert Pujos and their lineup will have to exceed expectations and stay healthy in order for them to protect their pitchers and contend. I don’t think they can do that over the whole season.
The rotation is average at best, but their bullpen isn’t bad; so if their starters can keep them in the game, they can win quite a few close ones.
Projected finish - 4th place.
The Brewers come in to this season knowing that if they can get steady starting pitching, they can win their division. Jeff Suppan disappointed last year coming over from the Cardinals, Yovani Gallardo is recovering from knee surgery and was one of their most consistent starters, and Dave Bush’s, and Chris Capuano’s ERAs were both over 5.
Ben Sheets is a legitimate ace and is the one sure thing in their rotation, if he can stay healthy, which he didn’t last season.
There will be competition for rotation spots as Manny Parra and Claudio Vargas try to win a spot as well as young righty Carlos Villanueva, who is considered a favorite.
Milwaukee will probably have an excess of starters when the season starts and may use them as trading chips to plug other holes.
Eric Gagne will close and it remains to be seen whether he can be effective throughout the year; so there are questions there. David Riske comes over from the White Sox and will help sure up their bullpen.
They also picked up Guillermo Mota to add depth, but I consider that a negative given how he did with the Mets last season.
There are no questions about the Brewers as far as their hitters go. Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, and Bill Hall round out a pretty good infield. Corey Hart and Ryan Braun supply a lot of power in the outfield. Braun hit 34 homers in 113 games last year and hit over .300, and Hart hit 24 dingers and batted .295 in 140 games.
In between them is Mike Cameron, who is a very good centerfielder and will help their defense.
I don’t think the Brewers’ pitching is good enough from top to bottom to win the division, but they can contend for a wild card. They have the bats, and their fielding should be better as well. They were close to the bottom of the league in that category.
Projected finish - 2nd place.
The Astros are trying to improve on their 4th place finish of last year and have made changes to their team. Roy Oswalt is unquestionably the ace of the staff and they are hoping that Brandon Backe (only 43 innings pitched last year) and Wandy Williams can improve and give them more stability in their rotation. They are also expecting Chris Sampson to improve from his 4.59 ERA from last season.
Jose Valverde saved 47 games for them in 2007, so they are set there. Doug Brocail, Oscar Villarreal, and Geoff Geary will handle the rest of the relief duties. Brocail is the best of the group, and if Villarreal and Geary can be better this year, their bullpen will be set.
Miguel Tejada joins Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee to make a formidable middle of the lineup for Houston.
Ty Wiggington will occupy third base, and they will go with youngsters Hunter Pence (.322 avg., 17 homers and 69 RBI’s in 108 games) and Michael Bourn in the outfield. How that pans out over the course of the season will have a big effect on Houston’s record.
I think the Astros will surprise some this year and win more games than expected. They have some young talent mixed in with their veterans, and although their pitching should be better, they probably won’t win the division.
Projected finish - 3rd place
The Reds come into this season looking to improve upon their 5th place finish of last year. For that to happen Bronson Arroyo has to have a bounce back season, and Aaron Harang has to pitch like he did last year to strengthen the top of their rotation.
After that, the pitching is weak. Jeremy Affeldt probably won’t get a spot following an awful spring. Josh Fogg and Matt Belisle both had ERA’s over 5.00 last year, and there is really no one else that is proven.
If Harang and Arroyo don’t perform, then they are in trouble once again.
Francisco Cordero is a proven closer, and David Weathers will handle a lot of the set up duties. Weathers was pretty effective closing last year so they do have some insurance in case Cordero goes down. After Jered Burton, they are pretty thin and untested in the bullpen.
Once again they will depend on the bats of Ken Griffey Jr, Adam Dunn, and Brandon Phillips to bail them out of anything their pitchers get them into, which has not been a winning formula.
The Reds just don’t have the pitching depth to get over the hump, and their relievers will not be able to bridge the gap in the middle innings over the long haul to make up for that. They will need surprising performances from players I am not expecting it from in order to improve.
Projected finish - 6th place
The Pirates hope to avoid the cellar this year, and they will be depending on some of their young arms to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Tom Gorzelanny heads up the rotation and he was 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA. Ian Snell pitched well and logged over 200 innings with a 3.76 ERA.
They need Zach Duke and Paul Maholm to step up and be more effective than they have been. Matt Morris returning to the form he had in St. Louis in 2005 would help also.
Matt Capps did an adequate job closing last year. Demaso Marte posted good numbers out of the bullpen and looks to build on that. After that they will need some of their young and inexperienced arms to come through. This is the weakest part of their team and it has to improve if they are going to finish higher than last year.
Their lineup is actually pretty good. Jason Bay looks to be more of a force this year as his numbers tailed off last season. Jack Wilson and Freddie Sanchez are solid, and Adam Laroche won’t hurt them at first base.
Another speedy youngster, Nyjer Morgan, looks like he will get his shot in centerfield. Technically it is a competition between he and Nate McLouth, but Morgan should prevail as the starter, and he looks like he is going to be a good major leaguer.
If the Pirates get a little pitching, and I think they will, they can avoid the cellar; but I don’t think they will do much better.
Projected finish - 5th place
On deck, the AL Central Preview