Sweet Nasty MLB Preview: N.L. Central
1) Chicago Cubs – What if you had a division with the most teams in MLB and hardly anyone wanted to win it? Would it make a sound? No one knows when the Cubs will officially be under new ownership, but one thing’s for sure, they will win the NL Central.
THE SWEET: Pitching. Rich Harden is your 4th starter? That’s a rotation, my friends. Carlos Zambrano’s A stuff is as nasty as his attitude. Add Ted Lilly, a revitalized and healthy (and newly rich) Ryan Dempster, and youngster Sean Marshall and that is as good a 1-5 as there is in the NL. Doesn’t look like there is much back up, so this group needs to stay on the field. The additions to the bullpen in Kevin Gregg and Aaron Heilman help as much as another year of experience for Carlos Marmol and Jeff Samardzija. Facing this staff from top to bottom will be a tough task for any team.
THE NASTY: Combustibility. Not winning a World Series in 100 years is enough pressure for any organization, its fans, a city, etc. So you need a calming influence to captain the ship, right? Nah, pitch that fit, Lou! As if Pinella wasn’t fiery enough, enter Milton Bradley. The man blew his knee out throwing his manager out of the way so he could yell more forcefully at an umpire. Chris Brown thinks you have an anger problem, Milton. But he proved he could still hit in Texas last year, so he’ll be the right fielder. Let’s hope Pinella, Bradley, and the fans in the bleachers can coexist, or Rod Blagojavich won’t be the only one leaving Illinois.
PREDICTION: Another division title. Blah, blah, blah, say Cubs fans. Not exactly the title they crave. I just feel it would take a young, new, brash manager to lead the Cubbies over the biggest hump a franchise has ever faced. Think Ozzie Guillen, but with about 75% less crazy. And imagine the party in the streets of Chicago…
2) Cincinnati Reds – This team is ready to take the jump. They shed payroll last year, saying good bye to Ken Griffey and Adam Dunn, and, more importantly, saying hello to the new stewards of the Big Red Machine: Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and that young hungry pitching staff.
THE SWEET: Youth. They made almost no moves in the offseason because the seeds are already there. How can you not like the new core of talent in Cincy? Jay Bruce did everything but cure cancer in his 1st 2 weeks last year. He’s going to be special. Joey Votto is much more Sean Casey than Adam Dunn. In the band box known as the Great American Small Park, even Alex Gonzalez (no, the other one…) could be a HR threat. And watch out for Edwin Encarnacion’s contract year. Combined with Edison Volquez, a rebounding Aaron Harang, Brandon Arroyo (as a 3rd starter, where he belongs), and Johnny Cueto, the Reds are good on the mound for the next 5 years.
THE NASTY: Consistency. The dark side of youth. You don’t know what you’re going to get from a lot of these guys day in and day out. Is Brandon Phillips the .281, 30/30 man of 2007 or the, eh, .261, 20/20 of last year? Can Gonzalez and his slick glove stay on the field? Will all the youngsters take that big, next step? Who manages the Reds? When will Hollywood stop trying to jam Adam Goldberg down our throats? These are the questions that will hound the Red Stockings over the course of the 2009 season.
PREDICTION: The Reds will contend for the NL Wild Card and will be the team no one wants to face in the playoffs. Don’t rule out a midseason veteran pick up, particularly in left field, which could really spark this team down the stretch.
3) St Louis Cardinals – Originally, I had the Cardinals 4th. They didn’t make any significant additions, via trades or free agency. (And don’t say Khalil Greene. I said “significant”.) But they didn’t really lose anyone from last year, and almost made an interesting run in the dog days of summer. And they still have their two strengths: Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa.
THE SWEET: In Tony They Trust. Maybe being 1 year removed from falling asleep, drunk, at a stop light during spring training will help get this team off to a good start. They get Chris Carpenter back. They don’t know where or how he’ll pitch, but he’s back and that alone will lift the spirits of every player on the roster. And Tony, along with pitching guru Dave Duncan, finds a way to get the most out of every single guy.
THE NASTY: Who? The Cardinals have one of the most forgettable rosters in baseball. I just looked at it and I forgot half of them. Cardinals fans, quick, name half of the starting lineup and 3 starting pitchers. I’ll wait. ……….. Exactly. They need Ryan Ludwick to repeat his 2008 season. Need Troy Glaus to get healthy (there’s that laugh again…). They need Greene, Skip Shumaker, Chris Duncan, and Yadier Molina to make major offensive contributions and take the weight off of Pujols. And don’t start with Kyle Loshe. He is what he is – an innings pitcher with a 4.72 career ERA. He’s not a number 2 starter. That’s like asking Madonna to stop adopting kids. Over the age of 30, you are who you are.
PREDICTION: LaRussa is one of the best managers in the league and Pujols is a perennial MVP candidate. But why would he ever see a pitch he can hit with the line-up currently around him? Without a closer and a starting rotation shallower than a Kardasian, the Cardinals will have another year of staring up at the Cubs.
4) Houston Astros – Looking over their roster, Houston appears to be where promise and hope in baseball in the 90’s goes to die. Darren Erstad is still playing? Mike Hampton? Shut up. The worst contract in baseball history finally expired and the Astros think Hampton is just the starter they need to put them over the top? Manager Cecil Cooper should have his own magic show in Vegas after leading the team to an 86-75 record last season. He’ll need more than Seigfried, Roy, Montecore, Penn, Teller, and Danny Ganz to make this team competitive in 2009.
THE SWEET: Individual Talent. This team has plenty. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman would headline the All-Underrated team. Roy Oswalt is one of the top stoppers in the National League. Miguel Tejeda…um…no longer has that whole lying to Congress thing hanging over his head. So…uh…No, wait! He was an MVP. 7 years ago, but he was an MVP. And there is some exciting youth here, like Hunter Pence and even Kaz Matsui. And speedy Michael Bourn, who stole 41 bases last year….And hit .229. In the lead off spot. And they traded Brad Lidge to the Phillies to get him. Um…yeah. Which brings me to…
THE NASTY: Gaping Holes. This team is so holey, Sarah Palin would like to hold hands with it before a debate. Not only is the lead off batter coming off a .226 season. Their 3rd baseman just had open heart surgery and their starting catcher was all but holding his helmet out in front of the stadium before WBC games, begging for anything he could get. And that’s the position players! The rotation goes a little somethin’ like this: Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez (of the 37-42, 4.79 ERA in their career Rodriguezes), Hampton (who was terrific the last time he wore an Astros uniform…in 1999), Brian Moeller (who managed 11 wins last season for the ‘Stros…no, really! Maybe Cecil Cooper was more of an alchemist than magician last year, turning poo into gold.), and Russ Ortiz (WTF? Russ Ortiz!?!?! Who was out of baseball last year? Who has won 2 more major league games than I have in the last 3 years? That Russ Ortiz? Yup. Last year’s NL All-Star starter Ben Sheets and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez don’t have jobs, but Russ Ortiz does. That’s the world we currently live in.) There you have it. The starting rotation for the 2009 Houston Astros. I don’t even have time to go over the bullpen, but put it this way, LaTroy Hawkins is the anti-alchemist.
PREDICTION: I wonder if Oswalt can sue for non-support. Maybe he can make it a class action suit with Berkman and Lee. They’d bring Tejada, but we saw what happened last time oaths were involved.
5) Milwaukee Brewers – Last year, the Brewers went to the playoffs for the first time since Laverne and Shirley was on the air. Enjoy that, Brewers fans. The awesome 1-2 punch of CC Sabathia and Sheets is gone. But everyone else is back. Except for closer Sollaman Torres, who abruptly retired. Oh and Eric Gagne. Wait, that should go in the Sweet column…
THE SWEET: Line up. No pitcher wants to face Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder back-to-back. Cory Hart has locked down right field. It’s the feast-or-famine-foursome of JJ Hardy, Mike Cameron, Bill Hall, and Ricky Weeks that can either make this line up a nightmare or a breeze. There are very few positional battles here, and that consistency should help.
THE NASTY: Pitching. (I’ve used “Pitching” a few times now. How about something else?) Throwing the baseball to batters. That will not be a strong suit for this team. The Brewers were very high on Yovanni Galliardo last year, before he blew out his knee covering first. So less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery, congratulations Yovanni! You are now the ace of the staff! But it’s not hard to believe when the competition for the job came from Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, Braden Looper, and Dave Bush. Maybe one of those guys cracks the 5th spot on the Cubs. Maybe. And an aging (and starting the year on the DL) Trevor Hoffman doesn’t have cavernous Petco Park behind him. Fasten your seatbelts…
PREDICTION: If things break right, the Brewers could win a lot of 8-7, 9-6, 11-8 games. But more likely, they’ll be on the other side of them. Every day, manager Ken Macha and the Brew Crew should thank God that the Pittsburgh Pirates are in their division to provide a soft landing in the Central and prevent a last place free fall thud.
6) Pittsburgh Pirates – Sorry, Bucos. This is not the year the Jolly Rodgers flies proudly and triumphantly. And by triumphantly, I mean, not in last place. Even if I Slap Chop my expectations way, way down (“You are going to love my nuts, though.”), this team is a tongue and is going to get clamped down on by the rest of the league.
THE SWEET: Low Expectations. There might be a sign on the wall, leading to dugout that says, “Beyond these steps lies a path that can…ah, screw it. Do what you can.” The Pirates made wholesale changes to the team at the trading deadline in 2008 that helped bring in some young talent, lowered expectations even further, and helped the Dodgers and Red Sox make the playoffs. Win, win, win, right? And 3 game winning streaks are hard to come by at PNC Park. Nate McLouth is a good little player. Same for Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Ryan Doumit (the most over rated draft pick in fantasy baseball this year, btw), and all of the other top prospects from other organizations that the Pirates have collected once the contending team lost patience and faith in them. There’s some talent here, but can they maximize it and make it grow?
THE NASTY: 16-and-counting. That’s how many straight losing seasons Pirates fans (or should it be “fan” by now) have had to endure. President George H. W. Bush was in office. No one had the internet. And Barry Bonds could actually fit in a Toyota Camry. (The top selling car in 1992 – a little research for you, via the internet. How did we even live in 1992?) It’s almost mean to expect this team to break that string. And worst of all, they are out of real stars that they can trade to get more prospects. So…this is it for a little while. If the Prates were smart, they would slash the jersey sales in half and cultivate a fan base again. And $1 beers couldn’t hurt either.
PREDICTION: Look, I can make lots of jokes at this team’s expense, but the bottom line is they are at least 3 years of development away from even being mentioned next to the word “contending”. Here’s hoping they can make a run at .500.