Thursday, February 28, 2008

2008 Previews: NL Central

Chicago Cubs
2007: 85-77 1st Place; Lost in NLDS 0-3

In a story you'll hear mentioned every time the Cubs play on National TV, it's been 100 years since the last World Series victory for the Cubs. Gone from the outfield are Jacque Jones and Craig Monroe. In are Felix Pie and Kosuke Fukudome (quite possibly the dirtiest name in baseball since Rusty Kuntz ). Fukudome is comparable to Ichiro with a little lower average, but more power. He will do well in the leadoff spot for the Cubs. He should score a lot of runs this year with Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Derrick Lee following him to drive him in. In addition to Pie, praise has been given to Ryan Theriot. With David Eckstein out of the NL Central, it seems writers will have a new champion of, gritty gutty baseball. Translation, he's a little white guy that runs hard, but isn't that good. The young guy to watch will be catcher Geovany Soto who was the MVP of the Pacific Coast League this season, and is a likely Rookie of the Year candidate. The rotation looks pretty solid with all 5 starters from last year returning. Only Jason Marquis was the only starter with an ERA over 4. The real story of the spring will be who will be the closer. Ryan Dempster is back in middle relief and the job will go to Kerry Wood, Bob Howry, or Carlos Marmol. If Wood if he can show he can throw a high velocity fastball consistently, it will be his job to lose. Another situation to watch is Mark DeRosa. Acquired from the Braves to start at 2B, he has been sidelined with a heart arrhythmia. Could Soriano be moved back to his old position and leftfield filled with a Matt Murton/Daryle Ward platoon? Stay Tuned.

Pivotal Player: Kerry Wood. A healthy power arm makes any team better, especially coming from the back end of the bullpen

Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Edward Campusano. The Tigers Rule 5 pick last year is back with the Cubs after an injury

Cincinnati Reds

2007: 72-90 5th Place

Dusty Baker is in town...Bases prepare to be unclogged! Seriously with Dusty encouraging him to swing away, Adam Dunn could break 200 strikeouts in a season. With Dusty in Cincy fans also have to fear a Ne!f! signing as well. But before I start making toothpick jokes, let's look at the Reds. To help the pitching staff, the Reds signed Josh Fogg and Jeremy Affeldt from Colorado, and traded for Edinson Volquez. To get Volquez they gave up Josh Hamliton. Which seems like a risk with a fragile Ken Griffey, but the Reds have one of the best outfield prospects in Jay Bruce ready to go if Griffey gets hurt. Also it will interesting to see if this is the year Homer Bailey can make to jump to full-time MLB pitcher after going 4-2 in 9 starts last year. The Reds have a pretty good 1-2 punch in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, so any help from spots 3-5 would push the Reds into contention in a weak division. The only thing stopping them, is the bullpen. To bolster it Fransisco Cordero was brought in. The only problem, Gary Majewski and Todd Coffey are still in it.

Pivotal Player: Ken Griffey. On the verge of 600 career HRs. The Reds need his Hall of Fame bat in the line-up to be successful

Non Roster Invitee of Note: Kent Mercker. You know you're bullpen's in trouble when a 40 year old non-roster invitee might be a good option.

Houston Astros
2007: 73-89 4th Place

First Miguel Tejada's name comes up in the Mitchell Report, then Hunter Pence forgets where a glass door is. Not a good past month for the Astros. After Roy Oswalt there's more bad news in Houston's rotation, not one guy with a sub 4.5 ERA or 10 wins. And other than Jose Valverde, there isn't a reliable arm in the bullpen. They still have lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, but not much else. Craig Biggio got out at the right time, it's going to be a long year in Houston

Pivotal Player: Roy Oswalt. If Houston stands any chance, he's going to have to put up Cy Young winner numbers to help the team complete

Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Brian Moehler. Somehow this guy survived playing for the Tigers from 1996 to 2001, and still has a chance to pitch in the Majors

Milwaukee Brewers
2007: 83-79 2nd Place

The Brewers return a majority of the team that nearly clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 1982. Prince Fielder also reported to camp a newly declared vegetarian. I give it about one or two well hit balls landing on the warning track before he goes back to pounding cheeseburgers again. The two major pieces gone are Geoff Jenkins and Fransisco Cordero. Replacing them are Mike Cameron (when he returns from a 25 game PED suspension) and Eric Gagne. Cameron is a bit of an upgrade from Jenkins if only for his glove. Gagne is a bit of a large risk than Cordero. The Brewers are hoping they signed the Gagne that pitched for the Rangers, not the one that bombed for the Red Sox. Another interesting move is placing NL ROY Ryan Braun in LF and moving CF Bill Hall back to 3B to make room for Cameron. As Long as Braun keeps hitting the crap out of the ball I don't think any fielding problems will come into play. Plus Braun did have 26 errors at 3rd last year, so maybe the move to the outfield will help out the fielding percentage. As for pitching staff, if Chris Capuano can come back healthy it would be a huge boost. Otherwise they might need help from hard-throwing prospect Manny Parra.

Pivotal Player: Eric Gagne. The bullpen will be the deciding factor on whether the Brewers finish 1st or 3rd. Gagne is the most important arm in the bullpen.

Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Laynce Nix. The former Ranger CF might make the team if Tony Gwynn Jr. struggles

Pittsburgh Pirates
2007: 68-94 6th Place

The Bucs are fielding the exact same team at 2007's. The one thing the team has going for them is a bunch of good young arms in starters Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm. If these guys all take a step up the Pirates could flirt with 80 wins.

Pivotal Player: Tom Gorzelanny. A big year for him, and he bears mentioning among the elite arms in the NL

Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Doug Mientkiewicz. Never has one man milked so much out of the final out of a World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
2007: 78-84 3rd Place

If I were an opposing team, every time the Cards take the field I'd have Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" blaring from the speakers. Scott Spiezio's drunken escapades and subsequent cut, are just another issue drawing attention to Tony LaRussa's track record as Cards manager. But I'm a vindictive and mean-spirited person, so most teams would take the high road...except maybe Philly. The big move of the off-season was trading oft-injured Scott Rolen, for always-injured Troy Glaus. I guess LaRussa's trying to bring back the drugstore clubhouse atmosphere of his late 80's Oakland teams, by bringing in another guy with PED ties in Glaus. That's Glaus, Ankiel, Franklin, and non-roster invitees Juan Gonzalez and Ron Villone if you're keeping score. No wonder LaRussa wanted Barry Bonds. All cheap shots aside, other than Adam Wainwright, there is not one quality starting pitcher on the roster. Yes, Kip Wells is gone, but he's been replaced with Joel Pineiro. The similarites between "Pinerio" and "Pinata" are not lost on opposing batters. The team does have power with Albert Pujols and Chris Duncan. But it's not enough to complete, even in a weak division.

Pivotal Players: Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder. They need to return healthy and back to pre-injury form, otherwise Tony LaRussa could be looking for a job by October.

Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Juan Gonzalez. As mentioned previously, he is attempting a comeback...just to quit on his third different team.

Final Standings:

Cincinnati will make it interesting early, but falter down the stretch. In the end it boils down to a two horse race between the Cubs and Brewers, the only teams in the division to finish over .500. A stronger bullpen gives the advantage to the Cubs for the second straight year.

1) Chicago Cubs
2) Milwaukee Brewers
3) Cincinnati Reds
4) St. Louis Cardinals
5) Pittsburgh Pirates
6) Houston Astros

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