NL Central Preview

11 03 2008
CHICAGO CUBS
2007: (85-77), 1st place
Biggest Strength
Many of the NL Central previews have been stating that the Cubs starting pitching will be the biggest strength of the year. Most of this is because of depth, not overall talent. After Carlos Zambrano, there is a drop-off to the number-two starter. Chicago’s biggest strength is their offense, not their pitching. With the likes of Derrick Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and rookie-slugger Geovany Soto, the Cubs will have a lot of firepower to offset bad days from their starters. If Felix Pie can produce like he did in Triple-A Iowa and Brian Roberts becomes a Cub before Opening Day, Chicago’s offense will be scary-good. Look for the offense to improve from last year’s lackluster start to the ’07 season.
Biggest Weakness
As their lineup stands right now, Chicago’s biggest weakness lies in their middle infield. Mark DeRosa and Ryan Theriot may have been nice stories last year, but they are average players at best. Chicago’s defense up the middle last year certainly left something to be desired, which is why Brian Roberts is an almost-certainty at this point. Roberts will help solidify the middle infield for the Cubbies, while allowing Alfonso Soriano to move down in the lineup a bit. If Roberts does not come to Chicago, however, that part of the infield will be a weakness to be exploited by other NL Central teams.
Breakout Player
Geovany Soto. I gave some thought to Kosuke Fukudome for this award, but it would be hard to consider a proven Japanese player to be a “breakout” player in the bigs. The Cubs are expecting him to rake. Geovany Soto, on the other hand, has the potential to add some real pop behind the plate for Chicago. He’s one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball right now. In 18 games with the Cubs last season, Soto hit 3 HR and hit .389/.433/.667. Sure it was only 18 games, but the kid proved that he can handle big league pitching just fine.
Biggest Bust
Ryan Dempster. He wants to be in the starting rotation very badly, and I have heard from multiple sources that he has an inside track for the job. That makes absolutely no sense for the Cubs, however. The last time he was a starter, he played for the Cincinnati Reds and posted a lovely 6.54 ERA in 20 starts. Chicago fans try to say that it was because he was young, but Ryan had been in the majors for five years prior to that. Even in the past two seasons, Ryan Dempster has had a 4.80 and 4.73 ERA. No wonder the Cubs are trying to get him out of the closers spot. I just think that Dempster would be much better fitted to be a middle relief type of pitcher, not a starter.
Projected Finish
Expect the Cubs to be good again this season, but the lack of a middle infield presence and a questionable back end to the starting rotation will push them back to second place.
Record: (88-74)
Finish: 2nd place
MILWAUKEE BREWERS
2007: (83-79), 2nd place
Biggest Strength
Milwaukee’s biggest strength is clearly their offensive power-laden lineup. Prince Fielder led the National League with 50 home runs. Ryan Braun collected the NL Rookie of the Year with 34 HR and 97 RBI, and he didn’t join the Crew until May! Add the likes of Corey Hart (24 HR), J.J. Hardy (26 HR), and Mike Cameron (21 HR), and Milwaukee is clearly not looking for any sources of power for next season. If Rickie Weeks is able to replicate the final month and a half from ’07, the Brewers could have the best lineup in the National League.
Biggest Weakness
Milwaukee’s biggest weakness has been said to be their starting rotation and their bullpen, and I think that there is some truth to those assessments. Those aspects, however, pale in comparison to Milwaukee’s inability to win on the road. It is amazing that a team that was 51-30 at home last season could be 32-49 on the road. In 2006, Milwaukee was 27-54 on the road. Ned Yost has no answer to why the Crew cannot win on the road, and neither do I. It has to be psychological or something to do with the Bermuda Triangle. I have no idea. The Brewers will need to learn to win on the road this season though in order to challenge the Cubs for the division title.
Breakout Player
Rickie Weeks. I know this is very unoriginal, and I highly considered Manny Parra for this spot. I think that Ned Yost will be stubborn this spring, however, and send Parra to Triple-A and give Chris Capuano, Dave Bush, and Claudio Vargas time to prove themselves in the rotation. When they fail, however, Parra should be called up and pitch very well. Weeks, on the other hand, is completely healthy for the first time in two years, and he looks to recreate the magic he created during the last month and half of the ’07 season. He will never bat for a very high average, but he gets on base in rather crazy amounts. Plus, if this spring is of any indication, Ned Yost looks to have Rickie run a lot more once getting on base. Rickie already has 5 stolen bases this spring. If Rickie can stay patient at the plate, he has a change to break out in a big way this season.
Biggest Bust
Dave Bush. Ned Yost loves his “bulldog mentality” and I cannot deny that he can grow a mean mustache, but his production has slipped a little very year since getting to the majors in 2004 with Toronto. Bush has been one of the most solid pitchers for Milwaukee until last season, when he posted a 5.12 ERA. Yost seems utterly committed to giving a starting spot to Bush, and the starting rotation could suffer for a few weeks until Manny Parra is called up to fill that spot. Bush could be a very effective member of the bullpen, as he did close in college. Dave Bush has been projected to bounce back this season, but I think Brewers fans will be disappointed.
Projected Finish
Expect the Brewers rotation to improve this year, as Chris Capuano and Jeff Suppan simply cannot struggle as much as they did last season. Ben Sheets looks to be completely healthy for the first time since 2004, and the super-charged offense should give the revamped bullpen just enough runs to work with down the stretch. I will admit that I obviously have a pro-Brewers bias, but I did not project the Brewers to win the division last season. The Brewers will have it in them this year.
Record: (89-73)
Finish: 1st place
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
2007: (78-84), 3rd place
Biggest Strength
On a team that does not have very many strengths to begin with, it is difficult to pick a biggest strength. Their biggest strength is Albert Pujols and Jason Isringhausen. No matter the year and no matter the talent around them, those two will continue to be dependable and produce without question. Albert’s health has been a concern this spring, but he’s been very dependable throughout his career in terms of durability. I expect Pujols and Isringhausen to continue to put up their usual numbers and give St. Louis a couple rocks to lean upon throughout this season. Not to mention that Tony LaRussa will get everything he can out of his 25-man roster.
Biggest Weakness
Starting Rotation. With Mark Mulder sidelined until mid-May and Chris Carpenter out until after the All-Star break, the staff’s ace will be Adam Wainwright. There is nothing to complain about here, as Wainwright is a very good pitcher and can more than hold his own in the big leagues. The problem comes after Wainwright. The Cardinals then have Braden Looper and Joel Pinero. Looper posted a 12-12 record last season, but his peripheral stats suggest that he’s ready to regress towards the mean and be an average #4 starter. Joel Pinero has consistently gotten worse since 2001 when he started for the Seattle Mariners. Anthony Reyes would then be the #4 starter, and he posted a fantastic 2-14 record last season. He showed a lot of promise in 2006, but imploded with a 6.04 ERA last season. The rotation will then be rounded out by either Matt Clement or Brad Thompson. Nothing to get excited about here. If Carpenter and Mulder can come back, stay healthy, and pitch well, the starting rotation can improve drastically. That is a big if, however.
Breakout Player
I am going to be unoriginal and pick Adam Wainwright for this. I did think about Colby Rasmus, but he’s too young to be counted on for a breakout performance. Besides those two, who am I going to pick? Albert Pujols? I suppose Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel could be considered, but Adam Wainwright could become a stud for the Cards this season. In 202 IP last season, Wainwright posted a 3.70 ERA, which is much more than respectable for a second year pitcher. His strikeout rate is a little low compared to his strike out total in 2006, but I expect that to improve this season. He proved to be very durable last season with 32 starts, and he will prove more than capable of taking the ball every fifth day and giving the Cardinals a chance to win.
Biggest Bust
Rick Ankiel. Rick provided the MLB with perhaps the best comeback player story of the year last season, but his hype is no just too big to handle coming into this season. In his second month in the big leagues, his stats continued to drop off a bit, and one could argue that he simply came into the big leagues at a time when he was seeing the ball extremely well. I’m not arguing that Rick is not a good hitter, because he is, but I am arguing that he will not live up to expectations in ’08. That fact classifies Rick Ankiel for the biggest bust category. He’ll be an average outfielder this year, but not spectacular like people expect.
Projected Finish
St. Louis no longer has an elite starting rotation, nor do they have lots of pop in their batting order despite the addition of Troy Glaus. Tony LaRussa will do all he can to get a .500 season out of these guys, but I just do not see it working out that way. The Cards just have too much working against them at this point.
Record: (74-88)
Finish: 5th place
HOUSTON ASTROS
2007: (73-89), 4th place
Biggest Strength
Offense. Houston has the potential to be a dangerous offensive team this season, mostly because of Minute Made Park. The acquisition of Miguel Tejada could provide some pop if he can rejuvenate his career with a change of setting. Brad Ausmus will finally be pushed back to a reserve role in favor of rookie catcher, J.R. Towles. Towles raked after a September call-up and could finally give Houston an offensively competent catcher. Carlos Lee will still be an RBI machine, and Hunter Pence and Lance Berkman will continue to put up numbers in a very hitter-friendly park. A relatively unheralded pick-up could be Michael Bourn, as he gives Houston a lot of speed at the lead-off spot. The offense could be merely average this year, but I expect Houston to score a bit more than people expect.
Biggest Weakness
The starting rotation. There is no question that Roy Oswalt is a bona fide stud. There is a monumental drop off to the number #2 starter, however. Wandy Rodriguez posted a 4.58 ERA, and that is…less than desirable to say the least. He has been a disappointment to Houston fans, but he still has the ability to turn it around. After those two, things get really ugly. Woody Williams, Brandon Backe, and Chris Sampson are projected to round out the rotation. Woody Williams’ 5.27 ERA from last season may regress towards his career average (4.19), but he’s now 41-years old. His best days are unfortunately behind him. Brandon Backe is coming off an injury plagued season, in which he only pitched 28.7 innings. Even in 2006, Backe only pitched 43.0 innings. And you thought Ben Sheets was injury prone…
Breakout Player
Michael Bourn. The 25-year old center fielder played solid baseball in 105 games with the Philadelphia Phillies last season, posting a .277/.348/.378 offensive line. J.R. Towles is the most common candidate for Houston’s breakout player, but Michael Bourn should improve his offensive skills this year. In 119 at-bats, Michael only struck out 21 times. With his blazing speed, he can put a lot of pressure on a defense, and his defensive skills are fantastic. In two years, he has yet to make an error in the outfield, and his speed allows him to make up a lot of ground very quickly. In Minute Maid Park with the mound out in center, his speed will be of utmost importance.
Biggest Bust
Kaz Matsui. Kaz enjoyed career numbers in the thin air of Colorado, and he collected a big payday to go to Houston. The Astros are banking on getting his career high averages, but they must not have looked at his splits from last season. Kaz batted .330 in the friendly confines of Coors Field, but hit a measly .249 away from Colorado. He slugged .482 at home, but only .333 in away games. How are those numbers going to translate to Houston? Especially when he only hit .272, .255, and .200 between 2004 and 2006 with the New York Mets. The Kaz Matsui signing is one of the worst off-season moves of any team in all of baseball. Speed does not warrant a $16.5M contract.
Projected Finish
Houston’s offense certainly has the ability to put up some major numbers this season, but without a starting pitching staff, the runs will not matter. The bullpen has improved immensely with the acquisition of Jose Valverde and Doug Brocail. Still, Houston will not have enough pitching to get over .500 this season.
Record: (76-86)
Finish: 4th place
CINCINNATI REDS
2007: (72-90), 5th place
Biggest Strength
An explosive offense. There is no question that Cincinnati can put up a boatload of runs, and they can do it in a hurry. With players like Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., Brandon Phillips, and Edwin Encarnacion, Cincy will hit plenty of home runs. The Reds also have a plethora of young talent that can help them at the plate this season. Joey Votto showed that he’s ready for big league pitchers last season, as he absolutely raked hitting .321/.360/.548 in 84 at-bats. Norris Hopper is an interesting option in center field, but he would just be a stop-gap until the highly-touted prospect, Jay Bruce, gets a chance to show his stuff in the bigs. Cincinnati’s defense should challenge Milwaukee and Chicago’s offenses for the best in the NL Central.
Biggest Weakness
The starting rotation. Have you noticed a trend with starting pitching yet in the NL Central? After their stud, Aaron Harang, the Reds have tons of questions in the rotation. Bronson Arroyo came down to earth last year, and questions abound after that. Homer Bailey seems to have a lock on the third spot in the rotation, and if he can come together, he’ll be a stud. He struggled with inconsistency last season and with nagging injuries, so Bailey’s production in ’08 is anyone’s guess. Young Johnny Cueto could secure a spot in the rotation as well. There are just too many questions and too much inconsistency to consider their starting pitching anything but a weakness.
Breakout Player
Johnny Cueto. Johnny has been absolutely lights out this spring, and Dusty Baker has said that he likes the way Cueto handles the starting job. He may not have quite the ceiling that Homer Bailey has, but he’s shown more control and more of an ability to get hitters out. In Triple-A last season, Johnny’s ERA was 2.05. Dusty Baker does not dish out praise to young players unless they truly deserve it. Look out for Johnny Cueto this season.
Biggest Bust
Francisco Cordero. Before saying that choice is just because he chose to leave Milwaukee this year, hear me out on this choice. Cordero greatly overachieved last season compared to his career averages, and at $10.5M per year, Francisco’s expectations may just be too high to meet. His WHIP was only 1.105 last season, but his career average is 1.354. In Milwaukee, Cordero converted 86% of his leads into wins, but he only averages 83% for his career. He will still be an above average closer in the National League, but he will not be the elite closer that they paid for. At $10.5M per year, Francisco Cordero is a bust unless he performs like he should be paid that much. Unfortunately, Cincinnati will be disappointed.
Projected Finish
The Cincinnati Reds could surprise a lot of people this season, especially if Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey can produce like they are capable of performing. The Reds will not be short on runs throughout the season, and their bullpen has been improved over the off-season. They should reach .500 this year, but they could challenge for more if everything falls into place.
Record: (81-81)
Finish: 3rd place
PITTSBURGH PIRATES
2007: (68-94), 6th place
Biggest Strength
Young starting pitching. I would not consider their starting rotation as a whole a strength, as Paul Maholm and Matt Morris leave much to be desired. Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Zach Duke are all young, live arms that Pittsburgh will try to build their future around. Snell is the real gem of the bunch, and I expect his peripheral stats to improve this year. Gorzelanny pitched 60 more innings in 2007 than he did in 2006, and he has complained of shoulder soreness ever since September. It is likely that the Pirates organization pushed Gorzelanny too hard last season, and they will pay for it in ’08 unless they limit his innings early in the season. Duke had a fantastic rookie year, but he imploded last season to the tune of a 5.53 ERA. I fully expect Duke’s numbers to get lower, but obviously nothing near his 1.81 ERA he posted in 2006. He’ll be a solid, middle of the rotation lefty for Pittsburgh over the next few years.
Biggest Weakness
Everything else. The offense is pitiful, with the exception of Jason Bay (if he can rebound after a poor ’07) and Adam LaRoche (but most likely not until the second half of the season, like always). Jack Wilson will not be able to keep up his .296 average from last season, as he only has a .269 career average. Freddie Sanchez will continue to get hits, but have no power and no one after him to bring him home. Xavier Nady will most likely be traded before the trading deadline, but he can provide some pop in the middle of the lineup. The bullpen, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing behind Matt Capps and Damaso Marte. Capps is the “closer of the future,” but they’ll have issues getting in situations where they can use him.
Breakout Player
Nyjer Morgan.  Ian Snell is the obvious choice for Breakout Player, but I thought I’d be a little creative here.  It is important to understand that Morgan will never be an all-star, but he can get the job done in center field. Morgan hit .299 with a .359 on-base percentage for the Pirates last season. He is battling Nate McLouth for the starting job, but he deserves to win the job. With his great speed and only recording 19 strike outs in 107 at-bats, he puts a lot of pressure on the opposing defense from the lead-off spot. He will only be 27-years old this season, and Pittsburgh would be wise to give the young man a chance to show his stuff in center. He will never be a power threat, but his defense is above-average because of his speed. He is obviously a stolen base threat, even though he could work on his jumps. He only had a 70% conversion rate last season, so he needs to straighten that out. McLouth offers more pop in the bat than does Morgan, so he will probably get the starting nod. Pittsburgh should think about giving Nyjer a shot, though. He could raise some eyebrows with his speed.
Biggest Bust
Matt Morris. Matt will make $9.5M this year. Does anybody honestly think this is a good idea? He’s been absolutely shelled this spring, and he posted a 6.10 ERA last season. I am still confused as to why the Pirates even traded for him last season, but his best seasons are clearly behind him. His WHIP has steadily been increasing the past three years, and his strike out rate has gone down in the same span. He’s no longer the pitcher that was an All-Star in 2001 and 2002. I would not be surprised to see Matt displaced from the starting rotation during the season, or perhaps even traded (not that the Pirates would get much in return).
Projected Finish
The Pirates will again find themselves in the cellar this season, unless something crazy happens. Their starting pitching is average, at best, and their offense and bullpen are well below average. Last place is just calling their name. Their stadium is nice though. At least they have that going for them.
Record: (65-97)
Finish: 6th place
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3 responses

11 03 2008
NL Central Preview | Major League Baseball News

[…] XBox Blog – Everything XBox! placed an observative post today on NL Central Preview […]

11 03 2008
Henry

Nice preview! I actually think that Kaz Matsui can reproduce his numbers from last year though. Maybe he’s just a late bloomer.

8 04 2008
Extra innings, extra special « BrewersNation

[…] this kid lived up to reality.  I would like to point out that before the season even started, I picked Johnny to be the breakout player of this Reds […]

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