Saturday, April 01, 2006

NL Central Preview

The 2006 Baseball season gets underway tomorrow night, and for Cubs fans, the action gets underway Monday afternoon when Carlos Zambrano will take the mound in Cincinnati against Aaron Harang. The off-season moves have been beaten to death by Cub fans and media alike, and I’m just ready to get to some games that mean something. Rather than continue to do that, I thought I’d run down the way I view the teams in the NL Central and make my best guess as to how the teams will finish.

*Cubs – I’m not sure what I can add here that hasn’t been beaten to death ad nauseum before. The Cubs have some hitting talent with Pierre at the top of the order and Lee/Ramirez in the middle. What we get out of Murton and the 4-man middle IF monster of Neifi/Cedeno/Walker/Hairston will determine if we’re a good offense or just an average one. On the flip side, what we get out of Prior/Wood will determine whether we have one of the better rotations in the league, or one of the worst. We start the season with one of the worst..sorry to say. Also the bullpen has to be better. Can Howry/Eyre help that, or will they the be 2 more in the line of Cubs’ FA signing busts?

*Reds – I’ve always had sort of a soft spot in my heart for Cincinnati, but they’re not good at all. Sure, Adam Dunn is a big league hitter, but after that it’s quite murky. Can Griffey and Kearns stay healthy? Can Ryan Freel rebound off his awful spring? Why in god’s name are they starting Hatteberg? I do like their young 3B Encarnacion… but he’s not going to be enough. Their pitching is even worse. Aaron Harang is about the only pitcher on the staff who I think would make the Cubs pitching better, and that’s saying something. Arroyo? Yuck. Claussen? No thanks. Paul Wilson/Eric Milton? Puke. Their bullpen is a disaster too..with Cubs rejects such as David Weathers and Kent Mercker being counted on to provide quality innings. Don’t hold your breath Reds fans, and for God sakes, look out below.

*Astros – Will Roger Clemens come back to the team? If the answer is no, I just don’t see them being all that good. Sure they still have Oswalt and Pettitte at the front of the rotation, but the back 3 are Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, and Ezequiel Astacio. That’s a 5th starter, and 2 raw arms who didn’t exactly impress in spot duty last season. The bullpen should be pretty solid with Backe, Qualls, and Wheeler finishing out games. Jeff Bagwell is all but gone, and Craig Biggio might be in his final season. The killer B’s are just about at the end of the line. Of course there’s a new Killer B in Lance Berkman who leads the offense. For them to be successful, he has to stay healthy. Morgan Ensberg will need to duplicate his 2005 success for the Astros to go far.

*Brewers – The Brew Crew is definitely the youngest team in the division. ¾ of their Infield are under the age of 25, with Cecil’s boy getting the nod at 1B this year, with 2nd year guys JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks up the middle. All have the potential to be regular all-stars. The corner OF spots are manned by 2 former All-Stars in Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins. Jenkins was one of the best hitters in the NL in the 2nd half of the year last year. I really like their offense. If Ben Sheets can get past his latest shoulder setback (expected to keep him on the shelf until mid-April), then their rotation will be pretty good as well. Sheets joins 2005 surprises Doug Davis and Chris Capuano in the rote along with one of the hottest pitchers of the spring, former Blue Jay Dave Bush. If Derrick Turnbow closes games even remotely well as he did last year, Milwaukee could have something.

*Pirates – This offseason the Pirates made a conscious decision to go with youth in regards to their pitching staff, and I think it was a good idea. Youngsters Paul Maholm and Ian Snell will join 2nd year man Zach Duke and the enigmatic Oliver Perez in the Pirates rotation. Closing games for Pittsburgh will be hard throwing lefty Mike Gonzalez. I like him a lot, and think he has some serious potential. Pittsburgh decided there was no point in paying for retread pitchers when their kids could do just as well or better for a heck of a lot less money. However, Pittsburgh did not apply this strategy to their offense. Signed to a 5M/1yr contract was Jeromy Burnitz. Beernuts isn’t anything special anymore, as his 2005 Cubs campaign proved, and he’s getting paid a heck of a lot more than Craig Wilson when both could likely have produced about the same. It looked like Pittsburgh was finally going to give Big Brad Eldred a chance this year. Sure he strikes out a lot, but man does that guy have power. Instead, they decided to send Dave Williams (a serviceable pitcher for sure) to Cincy for Sean Casey and his bloated contract. So now Eldred is blocked, and small market Pittsburgh is paying Casey 8 million dollars this year for him to hit .280 with no power. But he’s a character guy! I don’t wanna hear it when they cry poor after making moves like that one.

*Cardinals – Oh, the Cards. They got Rolen back for a full season (they hope), so that’s an upgrade. They’re replacing Matt Morris in the rotation with Sidney Ponson. That’s not an upgrade. They added Braden Looper to the pen. He’s an upgrade. They replaced Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker with Larry Bigbie and Juan Encarnacion. That’s not an upgrade. They replaced Grudz at 2B with Junior Spivey. That’s not an upgrade. I don’t think this year’s team is as good as last years at all. But they still have phat Albert, Edmonds, Rolen, Carpenter, Mulder, Izzy, and LaRussa. That will probably be enough.

Projected order of finish…

1. Cards
2. Brewers
3. Cubs
4. Astros
5. Pirates
6. Reds

Flip flop the Brewers and Cubs if we get more than 50 combined starts out of Wood and Prior. If we get less than 25..flip flop the Cubs and Astros. The Cardinals are ripe for the taking this year, I just don’t think any other team in the division has the talent to do it. No WC out of this division this season either.