Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NL Central Preview - McManus

I decided to craft a little NL Central preview to educate all of you mopes - because I'd much rather cheer alongside an educated baseball fan base. So, without further ado, here's my view from the couch regarding where the Central teams stack up. First, a couple of pre-season thoughts:

Best Off-Season Acquisition: Alfonso Soriano, Cubs

Not saying this was a great signing for the long term (I think the Cubbies are going to regret the last 2-3 years of that deal), but for 2007, no newcomer will have a greater impact than Soriano. The Cubs are getting a guy who hit 46 bombs, stole 41 bases, and hit nearly .280. He's miscast as a leadoff hitter, and miscast in CF, but he'll hit - that's for sure. He could easily go for 50 homers in Wrigley. Nagging question: was he just playing for a contract? I say no.

Runner Up: Jeff Suppan, Brewers

A professional pitcher for a team that needs a guy they know can take the ball every fifth day. Will show the young guys on the staff what it takes to be a winner. Carlos Lee will also have a large impact on Houston...but $100 million?

Worst Off-Season Acquisition: Jason Marquis, Cubs

What did a 6 + ERA get a starting pitcher last off-season? 3 years, $21 million, that's what. He does hit, however. Somehow, he won 14 games last year. He had been a fairly serviceable starter prior to last year, and it could just be one terrible year..but 33 starts with a 6.02 ERA? Not a good trend.

Runner Up: None

Maybe Alex Gonzalez on the Reds. I'm not even sure which Alex Gonzalez they got, but it doesn't matter - they both suck.

Best Starting Pitching: Milwaukee Brewers

Even considering that this comes from a biased observer (me), this isn't even close. The Brewers have established starting pitchers from 1-4 and a "power arm" (Doug Melvin's term, not mine) manning the 5 spot in Claudio Vargas. They have a #1 in Sheets who is as dominant as any pitcher in baseball when he's on. They picked up Jeff Suppan to stabilize the middle of the rotation, and Dave Bush is primed for a breakout year. And if Vargas falters, or Sheets gets hurt, the Brewers have a couple of options at AAA to fill the spot, including a personal favorite of mine, Carlos Villanueva.

Gone are the days of Rickey Bones as the staff ace for the Crew

Runner Up: Cardinals

Hard to pick a second place. The Reds have a solid 1 and 2 in Harang and Arroyo, the Cubs have Zambrano, Ted Lilly (another overpaid starter) and a lot of potential in Rich Hill, the Astros picked up Jason Jennings to go along with Oswalt (but lose points for starting a guy named Wandy). That being said, the Cardinals are the pick, based on performance and potential. Carpenter is an ace, and Adam Wainwright is a future ace (at least he better be - he's holding down a rotation spot on my fantasy team). Anthony Reyes looked like Cy freaking Young against the Brewers last year, and Kip Wells has always been a decent pitcher when he's not hurt (don't laugh - it's true).

Best Bullpen: Cubs

This is pretty much by default. The NL Central bullpens are a collective disaster. The Reds and Pirates don't have a closer, the Astros have a closer who was a complete head case last year with an ERA north of 5, the Brewers' closer melted down last year and has been replaced by a guy who had his own early season meltdown as a get the idea. Oh, and the Cardinals are converting two of their relievers (Wainwright, Looper) into starters. So even though the Cubs have their own shaky closer in Ryan Dempster, they at least have major league arms in Howry, Ohman and Eyre down there to eat up innings. Oh, and Kerry Wood might be a bullpen guy too...if they reattach his arm in time for opening day.

Paging Dr. Andrews, Kerry Wood is on line 3.
Runner Up: Brewers

This is based purely on potential. Cordero was lights out after the trade from Texas, and he's in a contract year. Turnbow has shown the ability to be a dominant reliever - just not in the last 3 months of last season. Matt Wise can get people out with that changeup, but I wonder if he's a one trick pony that the NL Central has figured out. Don't sleep on Elmer Dessens.

Best Everyday Lineup (Fantasy Baseball): Cubs

The middle infield is a little questionable (never been a big Cezar Isturis fan), but Soriano, Lee, Ramirez, J. Jones, Barrett, etc. is an AL East type lineup. Not a fun team to pitch to - I wonder why they don't give Matt Murton an everyday job, however. He's a nice player.

Best Everyday Lineup (Real Baseball): Cardinals

The Cardinals have the right combination of stars and role players to win ballgames. And they have Albert Pujols. The best player in the league. That tips the scales.

Best Defense: Cardinals

Rolen, Eckstein and Kennedy are good infielders. Pujols won a Gold Glove last year, but I always think that's a reward for his offense more than his defense. Edmonds is still a great CF. Encarnacion is decent. And Yadier Molina has a cannon at catcher (he better - he hit .216 last year).

Runner Up: Pirates

They actually led the division in fielding percentage in 2006, and didn't get any worse by adding Adam LaRoche, who is nifty around the bag at first. Jack Wilson is a slick SS.

All this adds up to prediction time. Here goes:

1. Cardinals - 87 wins

Not because Tony LaRussa is their manager (despite bonus points for the DWI story of the spring, with the skipper falling asleep WITH THE CAR IN DRIVE). Not because they got better in the offseason (they didn't). But this is still the team to beat. Their lineup isn't the most visually impressive (see: Cubs) but every guy in there knows what he's supposed to do, and it adds up to a winning ballclub. Eckstein is the most annoying player in MLB, but it's no mistake that he's been a World Champion on two different teams now. Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds and Encarnacion can knock in the runs, and their pitching staff is anchored by the best starter in the NL over the past 2 years and an experienced closer. They underachieved during the regular season last year - and ended up winning the World Series.
2. Brewers - 84 wins

Three major concerns: defense, too many batters striking out, and health. Suppan is a groundball pitcher, and already this spring his infielders have been kicking the ball around behind him. They have a converted SS/3B playing CF, one of the three most important defensive positions on the field. And Hall, Jenkins, Prince and Rickie all strike out way too often, leading to lots of unproductive outs. Still, there is talent here, with good depth on the bench and in the minors for the positional players and pitching staff. The starting staff is the division's best...if they stay healthy. And that's been a major problem for this team. Sheets, Hardy, Weeks, Jenkins, Koskie - all missed major time in the last couple of years due to injuries. If they get wiped out again like last year, this is a 75 win club again. Here's hoping they can stay healthy and put it all together.

3. Cubs - 81 wins

They spent a lot of money, but I'm not sure they really fixed all that much. They needed a leadoff hitter and centerfielder who can get on base and set the table for Lee and Ramirez, instead, they got a converted second baseman/left fielder (who made tons of errors last year)with a career OBP of .325 who is better suited batting third or fourth in a lineup. They spent $63 million on two starters who are, frankly, average pitchers at best. They hired a manager with a notorious short fuse who is going to have to deal with unrealistic expectations from the fans and media (they think this is a 90 win club). I look for a Sweet Lou meltdown by Memorial Day. Maybe not quite a Lee Elia meltdown, but a meltdown nonetheless. The whole thing could work spectacularly...but I don't see it. The Cardinals put together a team. The Cubs are going more of the Peter Angelos route. History has shown us which approach works better.

Sweet Lou, during happier times.

4. Astros - 79 wins

Carlos Lee brings a much needed bat, they traded for Jason Jennings, who put up very respectable numbers at Coors Field, but this team is sort of treading water. The early part of the season will be dominated by the will he/won't he Roger Clemens story. [Side note: We know how grating the whole Brett Favre retirement/comeback story gets each year. Imagine if Favre didn't make up his mind until Week 4 of the NFL season. Yeah - brutal living in Houston until the Rocket makes a decision.] Berkman and Lee give them two serious threats in the lineup, but the latter part of the rotation and the bullpen leave a lot to be desired. Plus, in years past, this team has forgotten how to hit for seemingly weeks on end. Lee will help there, but the pitching isn't good enough this year.

5. Cincinnati - 75 wins

I was dead wrong about the Reds last year. They hung around until the final weeks in the putrid NL Central. I'm not seeing it this year. Their starters, after the top 2, are a collective train wreck. They should just release Eric Milton and let Homer Bailey sink or swim. Phillips and Encarnacion are nice young infielders, and Adam Dunn will put up Rob Deer type numbers for you, but overall, there just isn't much here. 75 wins seems to be about right for them this year.
6. Pittsburgh - 71 wins

I actually sort of get where the Pirates are going now. They have Bay and now LaRoche to build around on offense, and are grooming lots of young starting pitchers. They might have a bit of a plan. But it won't happen in 2007. Too many guys competing for everyday jobs that nobody has ever heard of.
I'm just kidding. The Pirates have no plan. They will peddle Bay for a bunch of prospects within 2 years.

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