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Division by Division Preview: NL Central

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Division by Division Preview: NL Central

I’m calling it, right here, right now. The National League Central will pose zero threat to the other divisions in baseball. There is not a team in this division that should strike fear in the eyes of an opponent for a three game series, let alone in October. Last year, the division-winning Cubs would have finished no better then third in any of the other divisions in baseball, doing so in a division where half of the teams finished with only 73 victories.

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis struggled to field a healthy lineup in 2007 and they have started the 2008 season in similar fashion. Pujols is said to have a serious elbow issue (although his Spring does not represent this fact) and Carpenter is still shelved while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. However, this team is deep and plays in a division where there lacks any real dominant clubs.

The Cards pitching staff is the deepest in baseball. Although they lack a sure-thing legitimate star, each of starting five represent a quality arm. When you also consider the club will have Carpenter, Mulder and Clement back eventually, the club has plenty of options.

Conversely, the bullpen is one that is tough to get excited about. There really isn’t an arm that is particularly good, but as a collection, they are probably good enough. Adding an arm at some point in this season is as obvious of a statement as I will ever make.

Offensively, this is the best lineup the Cards have rolled out there in recent memory. Pujols finally has a power bat to protect him in the lineup, and the deep, talented and young outfield gives promise that this team will be able to put up some crooked numbers.

Major Addition: Lohse and Clement – These two will help solidify the Cards rotation, adding experience and depth. Consider the pitchers the Cards would be throwing out there until Carpenter and Mulder are healthy and tell me this duo isn’t the biggest acquisition.

Major Subtraction: Troy Percival – Kind of the reverse logic of Lohse and Clement, losing Percival will prove as a major hit to their bullpen.

Breakout Candidate: Brian Barton – If the former Indian is given an opportunity, which seems likely, he will make the Tribe pay for not giving him a real shot. Fact is, anyone with that strong of an on base percentage in the minors (.416) is doing something right at the dish.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

What a collection of young talent! The Brew crew has two formidable MVP candidates and others on the verge of breaking out. The rotation and bullpen are both deep and strong. Another thing people cannot underestimate is the strides they will make defensively. Consider in 2007 that Ryan Braun made a spectacular 26 errors, his replacement, Bill Hall, made 7 fewer in 2006 as a short stop and third basemen (while playing in more games). Furthermore, consider the addition of Mike Cameron, one of the best center fielders in the majors. Milwaukee ranked 25th in the majors in Defensive Zone Efficiency (a Baseball Prospectus statistic), at worst, the team will be in the top 20.

The bullpen appears to be one of the best, on paper that is. However, if there are any slip ups from Gagne or Turnbow, they have strong core behind them with Torres and Riske. Having that many pitchers with the track record of a closer and the ability to be a strong stopper is something that no other team has. Add in further depth, and as I will mention, run-offs form the rotation, this pen is ready for a long Summer’s battle.

Possessing a rotation that is as young and deep as the one the Brewer’s own is incredible. Had the team not shelled out big bucks for Suppan prior to last season, I would allow the argument that they have the best five in the majors. Alas, they did, and no matter how he performs, Suppan will get the ball every fifth day. Aside from that, Parra (whom I am the biggest supporter of) and Gallardo will give Central team’s nightmares all season long. Unfortunately, I believe Parra will begin the year in the bullpen and have a Liriano-like start to his career.

Young and deep, am I repeating myself? With a batting lineup full of potent weapons, the Brewers are going to out slug most teams in the National League. In fact, they may very well come close to performing at the level of an American League team. They have offensive weapons all over the diamond and only poor plate discipline can keep this club from making a serious impact in 2008.

Major Addition: Mike Cameron – The trickle down effect that Cameron will have defensively will presumably go unnoticed, although it shouldn’t. It will be the offensive leadership that Cameron will bring to the top of the batting order.

Major Subtraction: Johnny Estrada – Apparently I have a man-crush on Johnny, but I hate the fact that they replaced him with Kendall. Maybe for team chemistry it will make a difference, but Kendall is absolutely dreadful at all aspects of the game.

Breakout Candidate: Manny Parra – No, he is not even a candidate. Manny is my LOCK to breakout. Even before he was having a downright dominating Spring, I wrote about how much I expected out of the kid in 2008. That has not changed at all; in fact, he is starting to raise eyebrows all over now.

3. Chicago Cubs

Shouldn’t last years division winners who improved their team be higher on this list? Sure, you can put them there. But the fact is, I’m not sold on their rotation and I worry about injuries again getting the better of this team.

The bullpen should again be strong for the Cubs as they have three pitchers who are all capable of shutting the door at any point and time. Injuries must be a concern as Howry is getting up there in age and Wood is Wood (or some sort of other very brittle fiber).

Like the Brewer and Cardinals, the Cubs have depth in the starting rotation, which will result in either a trade, or a simple shuffling of arms. The problem, it doesn’t look as though the Cubs have that every fifth day ace. Most would have agreed that Zambrano was it entering 2007, but Rich Hill appears to be the better bet in 2008. However, I worry about Hills durability, as he seems to have issues going deep into games.

Offensively, the Cubs are stacked. But they are also getting up there in age and are quite brittle. Only one player played in 150 or more games in 2007. In addition to that, the club is below average in getting on base. The addition of Fukudome will undoubtedly assist in that area, but coming off of elbow surgery at age 31 is not the most appealing formula in my opinion.

Major Addition: Kosuke Fukudome – Right field has not been the definition of stability for the Cubs over the last few years. However, Fukudome’s Japanese League numbers look eerily similar to that of Kaz Matsui. Either way, the addition should make a noticeable improvement to the Cubs.

Major Subtraction: Passing of Time – While not old, this team has shown its age in recent years with the amount of games missed.

Breakout Candidate: Carlos Marmol – This kid technically broke out in 2007, but I believe this is the year he truly puts his name on the map. The Cubs would have been served well in bringing in a veteran closer to mentor Marmol.

4. Cincinnati Reds

I actually REALLY like this team. I think they have a talented and deep rotation that is capable of big things. They of course have some outstanding power with an interesting core of youth on both sides of the ball. If this team is managed correctly (which is the same burning question everyone is asking) the Reds could easily be fighting it out with the Brewers for second in the division.

As mentioned, the rotation is talented and deep. It also has a great deal of youth on its side, which bodes well for potential breakouts. Harang and Arroyo will be top of the rotation innings eaters who will put up above league average numbers (at least combined). The wild cards are in the remainder of the rotation where the future of the Reds organization will prove whether or not they are for real. Cueto has been brilliant thus far in spring training, Volquez has been better then expected and Bailey is still trying to adjust to the majors. Currently, Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus has them ranked Volquez, Cueto and Bailey, so it will be interesting to see how things pan out, although it is just as likely that all three do not make the Opening Day rotation as even one or two do. This is Dusty’s team after all.

The bullpen will get a substantial boost with the arrival of Francisco “That’s fun to say!” Cordero. This unit is fairly deep with a nice amount of options to set up Cordero. I personally look for Majewski to take over a primary set up role with the club and to prove his worth after the Reds paid a lot to bring him to Cincinnati in 2006. With that said the Reds have their best bullpen in years and will finally have no issues in handing a lead to it. Although, this is Dusty’s team!

Offensively, this club has as much power as anyone in the league. The most impressive part of that is how young they are. In fact, outside of Griffey Jr. the Reds have a lineup of hitters whom are still in their primes. If you also consider super-prospect Jay Bruce, the Reds are in perfect condition for some very positive progress. The most interesting battle going on for the Reds this season is going on between Freel and Dusty. It will be fun to see what trades the Reds make this season in an attempt to win it all.

Major Addition: Francisco Cordero – Even if Francisco is not the closer he is being paid to be, the affect he will have on the rest of the bullpen will make him worth every penny.

Major Subtraction: Josh Hamilton – By default, he is the Red’s biggest loss. Admittedly, the Reds will benefit more from trading away Hamilton, then if they would have kept him around. That said, with Griffey’s age and Dunn’s expiring contract, the Reds may have been better served biting the bullet this season given the ballpark they play in.

Breakout Candidate: Edinson Volquez – While most are hot on Cueto breaking camp with the team or feel this is the year for Encarnacion (I am among them), I feel Volquez is going to go under the radar and have a very surprising season for the Reds. In fact, I’m thinking he’ll have a Fuasto Carmona like impact.

5. Houston Astros

If one wanted to make an argument that the ‘Stros is built in the same way that the Cubs are, I would not debate that person. Truth be told, I considered ranking the Astros as the forth best team in the division, with the Cubs being fifth and the Reds jumping to third. Alas, I cannot dodge a wrench. That said the Astros are old, REAL old, and weak defensively—REALLY weak.

Their pitching staff is one of the worst in the majors. They have an ace in Roy Oswalt, and that is essentially it. The remainder of their players can, at best, be defined as spare parts and would most likely have a tough time making the rotation of any other ball club. Consider for a moment, the Astros’ third best starter, Shawn Chacon. I personally like Chacon, but for some reason, the Astros prefer Woody Williams. I believe that is enough said.

The bullpen is no better then it was in 2007. Swapping Lidge for Valverde was a parallel move, where the front office must have thought that the quantity of saves a reliever accumulates is entirely a reflection of their ability. Similarly, the Astros figured swapping with Qualls and Geary would make their team better-I don’t see it.

Offensively, there is a lot to like about the Astros lineup. However, this is an old club with most of the players exiting their prime. While Bourn and Pence offer some hope, neither are capable of carrying this lineup if age catches up to the stars. Additionally, I am not sold on Towles having much of an impact and I wonder how well a rookie catcher (a 24-year old at that) can organize and handle a pitching staff.

Major Addition: Michael Bourn – As much as I like Miguel Tejada’s bat, I worry that the difference between him and Everett defensively is going to take away everything that Miguel’s bat adds. With that said Michael Bourn should be an offensive catalyst for the Astros as he will take over the role in the lineup that was previously held by Craig Biggio.

Major Subtraction: Adam Everett – Aaron Gleeman wrote an outstanding piece on Everett after the Twins signed him to a one year deal in December. I am in no place to argue against this. Conclusion, the Astros pitching staff will miss Everett.

Breakout Candidate: Michael Bourn – After never a career as a backup and a minor leaguer, Bourn will finally get his shot at 600 at bats for the Astros. Considering there is next to nothing behind him, no matter how terrible he plays, he will get a lot of at bats. I anticipate Bourn to be among the league leaders in steals, accomplishing little else.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are still four to five from being truly competitive, not only within the division, but in baseball as a whole. Unfortunately, the work that has been done to the team to this point will be done in vain as essentially every player on the current 25 man roster will not be with the team when they are competitive. Then why haven’t they made trades of players whom are at essentially their peak values-I’m looking at you Freddy Sanchez. If you think about it, are 12,000 fans really purchasing tickets to see Sanchez? Or maybe they are buying those tickets to see a 68 win team that they wouldn’t support a 58 win team? Clean house, and start from scratch.

The rotation is young and talented. However, they are neither young enough nor good enough to carry this team into being a contender for years to come. I wouldn’t expect the Pirates to start shipping off Snell, Gorzelanny and Maholm already, but it wouldn’t hurt to start sending out feelers.

The bullpen, like the rotation, has a fair amount of promise. It is both young and talented. However, the team will not have many leads to protect and will consequently be using quality arms in meaningless situations. This is another situation where the team should begin to look four or five years down the road rather then a year or two.

I can not sit here and write about the Pirates lineup without again mentioning that the club really should be without half of the players they are currently going out there with. In fact, I am still scratching my head as to why the club did not roll the dice on Dallas McPherson. That said, this lineup is too weak top to bottom for an opponent to at all worry about facing them. In fact, this lineup is the equivalent of Mike Piazza’s arm.

Major Addition: None – This is not a bad thing though. Consider the free agent or trades the Pirates have made in recent years that were supposed to get them into the playoffs. Now consider how terrible those moves were and the fact that they didn’t even come close to working out. Not making a move was the best move to make.

Major Subtraction: None – Again, the club kept everyone that wasn’t a free agent. Although they would have been better served making some trades, letting Chacon and Armas walk was an outstanding (and obvious) decision.

Breakout Candidate: Capps/Snell – Both players already technically broke out. However, both still have a lot of room to grow. According to Dave Rouleau, Ian has ditched two of the pitches that allowed for him to have such success in the minors. Look for Snell to slowly work those pitches back into his repertoire and take some major steps forward. Capps, on the other hand, got his first taste at closing in the bigs logging 18 saves. Given the full time role at closing in 2008, maybe he can pile up close to 40 saves and become a trade target of the Astros.

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