Posted by: Nate | March 26, 2008

2008 Baseball Preview: National League Central

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Chicago Cubs
2.    Milwaukee Brewers
3.    Houston Astros
4.    Cincinnati Reds
5.    St. Louis Cardinals
6.    Pittsburgh Pirates

Breakdowns:

1.    Chicago Cubs
The defending NL Central Champs look strong again this year in a division that looks to be relatively hotly contested and will probably once again come down to the end of the season before one of these teams separates themselves from the pack. I’m thinking that team will be the Cubs.

Keys to Success:
The play of Derek Lee at the plate will be a big key in their success, as will the play of “newcomers” Felix Pie and Kosuke Fukudome. Pie had some time in the bigs last year with the Cubs, but this will be his first full season as a starter and he is going to need to show that he can consistently get on base in order to utilize his speed. Fukudome is the team’s big off-season signing from Japan where he was a very accomplished hitter. If he can translate that hitting prowess to MLB pitchers and make a seamless adjustment to life in America he will be a key contributor to the Cubs playoff aspirations. Lee was having a good year last season before injuries derailed him and he will be looking to bounce back to form. It wasn’t long ago that he was considered one of the premier bats at 1B.

One of the main reasons I like the Cubs to win the NL Central is their bullpen. The arms they have in there are better than most anyone else in the division and if Kerry Wood can stay healthy (admittedly a big if, given his history) then flamethrower Carlos Marmol remains in the setup role and makes the endgame options for Chicago rock solid. Throw in a strong contingent of other relievers like Bob Howry and not many leads will escape this club. I also really like Lou Pinella as a manager and I think he will do a good job keeping everyone focused and motivated throughout the season. If things start to slide, expect one of his trademark ejections to fire the club up.

Major Off-season Moves:
The Cubs were not very active in the off-season, although they did make a couple of moves that could pay huge dividends. In their big move they signed OF Kosuke Fukudome to a four-year contract and he comes over from Japan. They re-signed Kerry Wood to a one-year deal and will see if he can remain healthy and be the team’s closer. Also in the end of a tumultuous era, the Cubs didn’t re-sign Mark Prior, making him a free agent after an injury-marred tenure with the team. In a depth move to flush out the rotation/bullpen they also inked RHP Jon Lieber to a one-year contract.

2.    Milwaukee Brewers
Offensively I love the Brew Crew and think they have a really dangerous lineup of hitters that should again have them in the top of the pack in the NL Central as they were last year. Their issue though, as it was last year down the stretch, is pitching. I see their arms as being weaker over the long haul then that of the Cubs, and that will ultimately have them coming up short.

Keys to Success:
Health and consistency will be huge for the Brewers this year. The last two years have seen 2B Ricky Weeks be plagued by injuries and stunt his development. If he can blossom this year into the threat he can be if healthy that will be a major plus. JJ Hardy and Cory Hart were also terrific at times last year, and then disappeared for long stretches and their consistency will be paramount to helping last year’s Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder carry the offensive load. The move of Braun to LF from 3B and Bill Hall into his spot, with Mike Cameron taking over in CF should help them a ton defensively as well. As unreal as Braun was at the plate last season, he was equally atrocious at third, and Hall wasn’t winning any Gold Gloves in Center either. All around this should cut down on their errors and help their pitchers a good deal.

On the pitching front, health will again be an issue. “Ace” Ben Sheets has been plagued by injuries in recent years and they will need him to be able to contribute this year to keep pace with the Cubs. I don’t see it happening personally, as I think he is vaulting into the Mark Prior mold of constantly injured. Young stud Yovanni Gallardo is starting the season on the DL after arthroscopic knee surgery and will need to quickly round back into form and demonstrate he can be dominating for a whole year.

Their biggest question marks in my eyes though is in their bullpen, which was one of the major stumbling blocks at the end of last year for them. Derrick Turnbow is great in stretches, but when he blows up, he blows up big time. Several years of rocky performances make me not trust him. Closing games out is the much-maligned Eric Gagne. He pitched masterfully the first half of last year of Texas’ closer, and then stank up the joint in Boston’s bullpen to an unimaginable level. I feel that the Brewers way overpaid for him and that the allure of his dominant 2002-2004 run is the only thing keeping teams interested. The rest of the relief corps is largely cast-offs and expendable guys from other clubs (David Riske, Salmon Torres, Seth McClung) and as a whole this unit scares me.

Major Off-season Moves:
The major target for the Brewers this year was their bullpen, and while a lot of moves were made, I don’t know if they are going to pan out. They signed LHP Randy Choate to a one-year contract, acquired RHP Guillermo Mota from the New York Mets in exchange for C Johnny Estrada, picked up RHP Salomon Torres from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for RHP Marino Salas and RHP Kevin Roberts and signed RHP David Riske to a three-year contract. If some of these moves work out (Mota most likely) the bullpen could be much improved but I remain skeptical. To replace Estrada behind the dish they signed free agent C Jason Kendall to a one-year contract and to improve the CF defense they inked OF Mike Cameron to a one-year contract with a club option for 2009.

3.    Houston Astros
The Astros also have a potent offensive team with a strong mix of veterans and youngsters. They have been perennial contenders in recent years but slid a bit last year, and if they don’t get some pitching depth soon, that slide could continue. I see this as being an up and down year for them and the better their starters are, the better they’ll do.

Keys to Success:
The play of Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, J.R. Towles and Miguel Tejada will be the key to how well the Astros offense plays this year. With the other veterans (Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Ty Wiggington) you know what to expect but the production from these four will be interesting to track. Pence was red hot as a rookie and in the NL ROY discussion until he broke his hand last season. If he continues to rake, and all indications are the he will, Houston has a strong piece to ass to the already potent mix of vets. Bourn and Towles are rookies who have a lot of potential and if both can adjust to playing in the majors will be strong contributors offensively. Towles especially can be a big upgrade over Brad Ausmus, who struggled mightily with the bat last year, hitting .235. Tejada, coming over from Baltimore in a trade this winter needs to show that he isn’t at the beginning of a decline. His range has been called into question and one of the reasons for the trade was his unwillingness to move to 3B. Offensively, he has been strong for numerous years, especially from the SS position, but at 32 he could start to dip a bit.

The rotation and bullpen has strong headliners in Roy Oswalt and Jose Valverde but after that each has questionable depth. The ability of pitchers like Brandon Backe and Woody Williams to be effective over the long haul and Oscar Villereal and Geoff Geary to pitch lots of high leverage innings remains to be seen. To me it seems inevitable that some AAA arms will factor into the pitching mix at some point during the season, and after their off-season of trades I just don’t see the organizational depth to produce quality innings.  This doesn’t even begin to cover the prospect of significant injuries either.

Major Off-season Moves:
One of the more active teams this winter, the Astros pulled off a number of trades and signed some decent free agents. Their first move removed their much maligned closer from the team as they acquired OF Michael Bourn, nonroster 3B Michael Costanzo and RHP Geoff Geary from the Phillies in exchange for RHP Brad Lidge and SS Eric Bruntlett. They then made a move to replace him picking up RHP Jose Valverde from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for INF Chris Burke and RHP Juan Gutierrez and RHP Chad Qualls. In their other big trade of the off-season they filled their new SS hole and traded for Miguel Tejada from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for OF Luke Scott, RHP Matt Albers, LHP Troy Patton, RHP Dennis Sarfate and 3B Mike Costanzo.  Completing their new DP tandem is free agent signee Kazuo Matsui. In pitching depth moves they signed free agent RHP Doug Brocail to a one-year contract, acquired RHP Oscar Villarreal from the Braves in exchange for OF Josh Anderson and signed RHP Brandon Backe to a one-year contract.

4.    Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are an interesting group with some strong veterans in Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Gonzalez and some up and coming type players like last year’s breakout player Brandon Phillips, young pitchers Edinson Volquez and Jonny Cueto and big bats Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. It will be interesting to see how Dusty Baker doles out playing time and manages the rotation. If the cards fall right, this could be a very strong team in a few years time.

Keys to Success:
Brandon Phillips had a career year last season, Adam Dunn was his usual homer-mashing self and Griffey Jr. played in 144 games. These guys are the real keys to the offense so they need to be able to replicate their production from last year, which is something that is easier said then done – especially for Phillips. Youngsters Votto and Bruce could contribute if given an opportunity, but veteran friendly manager Dusty Baker is likely to go with Scott Hatteberg at 1B and some combination of Corey Paterson/Ryan Freel/Norris Hopper in CF. Whether or not that is the best option remains to be seen.

Rotation wise they are decent, but there are question marks as with many clubs. Harang is their clear ace and he has been strong for several seasons. Behind him are Bronson Arroyo, Matt Belisle and Josh Fogg who have had varying degrees of success over their careers and on any given day can be solid starters. The fifth spot appears to be between Volquez and former hot prospect Homer Bailey, with the edge going to Volquez and his strong spring so far. Volquez and fellow minor-leaguer Cueto could be huge boosts to this rotation should they get playing time due to injury or ineffectiveness. This looming competition should help the rest of the rotation stay sharp and focused all year.

In the bullpen they are hoping big free agent acquisition Francisco Cordero can stabilize the back end of the bullpen and then ex-closer David Weathers and Mike Stanton provide a strong bridge to him. Their staff last year had one of the worst ERA’s in the league and they will need to improve upon that if they hope to do any better.

Major Off-season Moves:
Their major move this winter was to sign free agent RHP Francisco Cordero to a four-year contract to be the closer, and subsequently defined the reliever market. In an interesting move they acquired RHP Edinson Volquez and LHP Danny Herrera from the Rangers for OF Josh Hamilton, last year’s feel good player of the year and a former #1 overall pick. They also signed LHP Jeremy Affeldt to a one-year contract and RHP Josh Fogg to a one-year contract to bolster their pitching staff and provide more veteran experience.

5.    St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals appear a long ways removed from their World Series win in 2006 with a number of prominent players moving on and a lot if significant injuries. 2008 looks like a bleak year in St. Louis, however, depending on the health and rehabilitation of some of their players they could finish as high as 3rd in the division in my opinion. Only time will tell how their fortunes play out.

Keys to Success:
The health of Albert Pujols; if he plays a full season at his full ability, this team will be a lot better than many people expect. He has a tear in one of his elbow ligaments and bone spurs in the same elbow that may eventually require elbow reconstruction surgery. He elected to continue treating and strengthening it over surgery, and if it can hold up to the rigors of an MLB season then he’ll help the Cardinals be a strong team since he is the centerpiece of their offense. Of further interest will be the play of Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus. All three of these players have demonstrated the ability to hit home runs and be big producers offensively, but all come with question marks. Can Ankiel and Duncan be effective over a full season or was their production merely fairy tale? Will Glaus’ change of scenery help his health and allow him to return to form? I’m thinking that Glaus will probably be all right but that the other two will struggle keeping a respectable batting average.

Their pitching staff is essentially just one big question mark. With ace Chris Carpenter out until August at least, someone needs to emerge from the sizeable pack of possible starters and give them some innings. They just locked up Adam Wainwright to a long-term deal so obviously they see something in him, and I think he will be decent. I have little to no faith in Kyle Loshe, Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and the rest of that motley crew. Ultimately, the rotation will be their undoing with or without Albert. We haven’t even mentioned that their closer, Jason Isringhausen, has a degenerative old man hip that he recently had surgically repaired.

Major Off-season Moves:
In a pair of moves that sent out former team icons, the Cardinals traded OF Jim Edmonds to the Padres for Minor League 3B David Freese and acquired 3B Troy Glaus from the Blue Jays in a straight swap for 3B Scott Rolen. To try and bolster their rotation they signed RHP Matt Clement and RHP Kyle Lohse, each to a one-year contract.
Not technically “moves” per se, but one of the reasons they Cards need so much pitching help is the growing list of injured pitchers they have: RHPs Chris Carpenter (right elbow), Matt Clement (right shoulder), Joel Pineiro (right shoulder) and Josh Kinney (right elbow) and LHPs Mark Mulder (left shoulder) and Tyler Johnson (left shoulder) were all placed on the 15-day disabled list recently, with many of them unable to pitch for months at best.

6.    Pittsburgh Pirates
This club has a lot of issues that it needs to address and needs to take a page out of the Rays playbook and start stockpiling a farm system and trade veterans for younger players and/or draft picks in an effort to fully rebuild and turn this franchise around. They haven’t been to the playoffs since Barry Bonds left town in the early 90’s and this season will be no different.

Keys to Success:
Jason Bay needs to rebound from his disappointing 2007 season and get back to the averages he had from 2004-06, when he hit .290 and hit 30 home runs. If he can do that, the Pirates offense drastically improves and it makes the lives of the batters around him much easier. They are solid up the middle with Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez (if he is healthy) and Xavier Nady and Adam LaRoche can hit for power as well. It’s just a matter of them putting it all together and getting above-average performance for a whole season from some of the other players, which I don’t see happening.

Some bright spots for Pittsburgh are the back end of their bullpen, where closer Matt Capps is very good and Damaso Marte is a strong left-handed reliever who should be a good setup man. Tom Gorzelanny is a good pitcher, but certainly not “ace” material. The other starters, with the exception of Matt Morris, are all decent and can be dominant on any given day but are largely too inconsistent to be formidable.

I see this as an organization that needs to trade some if it’s pieces (like Bay) and get some youth in return to build around Capps, Gorzelanny and Snell for arms and guys like Sanchez and Wilson.

Major Off-season Moves:
In an effort to get younger they acquired RHPs Marino Salas and Kevin Roberts from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for RHP Salomon Torres. In an effort to perhaps catch lightning in a bottle the Pirates signed RHP Hector Carrasco, LHP Casey Fossum and RHP Jaret Wright to Minor League contracts with invitations to Spring Training, hoping one of them can turn back the clock and not be terrible. Similarly they inked RHP Byung-Hyun Kim to a one-year contract and claimed RHP Ty Taubenheim from Toronto off waivers. In some other depth moves they signed 1B Doug Mientkiewicz to a Minor League contract and acquired RHP Tyler Yates from the Atlanta Braves for nonroster RHP Todd Redmond.

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