Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Preview: NL Central

We're continuing our MLB Previews of each division, one by one. Now we're up to the NL Central.

I'm in one of those loopy moods today, so I'll do this in order of "Teams Least Likely to Win" first.

We know where this is going...

Astros... Man oh man, the Astros. Oswalt is one tweaked elbow from turning into a frog, Ed Wade may be gone, but his stench is still destroying the franchise. Goodness... Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman may pick up where they left off, but everybody else... ugh. Tejada won't be that great, Wigginton, Towles, Pence, Blum, oof, oof, oof, and oof... The Pitching just ain't all that either. This is a bad team, no way around it.

Yeah, they suck. While overall, they're awful, they have a couple of talented guys on the team. The biggest of the bunch is Nate McClouth who can occasionally sock it to 'em. I saw that first hand in an April night game at Dodger Stadium. McLouth belted a 3 run homer in the 9th inning with, I believe, 2 outs against Saito to power the Bucs to a win. That was just the beginning. McLouth went on to hit .276 with nearly a .500 slugging percentage, 26 Home Runs, and 94 RBI's in '08. What a tremendous breakout year for the blonde-haired knick knack in Center. Doumit, ADAM LaRoche, and Freddy Sanchez will be pretty decent this season, while not spectacular.

How then, is this team consistently in last place most of the time? Generally the pitching lets them down. It hard to believe too, because Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny were supposed to be the GOOD pitchers, but last year, both posted ERAs over 5. As Andrew Jacobsen says, "Yikes!" This year, I suspect both guys will be better, joined by Paul Maholm (3.71 ERA) and a cage match between Zach Duke, Jeff Karstens, and Ross Ohlendorf. The Pirates have a good GM for once, so they won't be lousy for long, but right now, I see them as a just below .500 club.

Isn't it funny how much easier it is for me to write NL previews? Uncanny. Moving on...

Reds... Another one of those deals where you just don't know how good their pitching will be. In theory their rotation should be very good, because they're going to get another year out of Volquez, Cueto, Harang, and Arroyo. Even Arroyo is underrated, if nothing else. His ERA was never great, but he's not supposed to be an ace to begin with, one, and secondly, he still winds up with around 150 Ks a year along with 200 innings a season. Innings eaters are very valuable over the course of a long year. Again, the bullpen will be solid. It ought to be, when they pay their closer 12 million! Goodness!! Cordero, the 12 million dollar man, is flanked by Arthur Rhodes, Jared Burton, Mike Lincoln, and Dave Weathers. Yep, I like the Reds bully.

You know, usually we just pencil in "great offense" for the Reds. Not this year. It might be a down year for the Reds bats. They used to have Dunn, Griffey, and Kearns all in the outfield. Now its Willy Taveras (really?!), Jay Bruce, and possibly Norris Hopper out there. Major downgrade, albeit a younger group. The Infielders are the better hitters. Joey Votto ought to maintain pace, Brandon Phillips is solid at 2nd, Edwin Encarnacion never met a pitch he didn't like, but he'll be pretty good. The pitching might be better than most years, but the lineup is weaker than usual. Despite this, I could see a Reds division championship. Do you believe it?!

Brewers... Most of you fellas are familiar with the Brewers, so I'll just summarize. Bullpen sucks, Rotation is shaky, and the offense is fantastic. The whole universe thought Fielder was leaving, but he instead stayed put. With that, you are looking at a deep lineup, with Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy, and Mike Cameron, you get a lot of tough outs. I have to admit, the entire rotation is guys who "could be good". Almost all of their remaining starters had ERAs at 4 or above last season. Not a positive sign when combined with a lousy bullpen. And Hoffman as closer? GOOD LUCK. I think the Brewers have potential to slug their way to a few wins, but how far they'll go remains to be seen.

Cubs... Basically the same team as last year, and while streaky, I still like the lineup. The ability to choke is beyond comprehension, so I simply throw that out, and look at how Cubbie hitters did in the regular year. I liked it. Lee, Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Soto, and to a lesser degree Theriot, and Milton Bradley. The biggest obstacle will be health.

Now as far as the rotation, it might be the best in the division. They have some very good starters. Zambrano, a full season of Rich Harden, Ted lilly, and Ryan Dempster are all pretty good. Definitely the deepest starting staff, when healthy, considering Aaron Heilman is in the wings as a 5th starter or a spot starter. The Bullpen isn't that bad... I loved bagging on it, but its really not terrible. Kevin Gregg will be interesting to watch, but I believe he's just setting up Carlos Marmol the closer. Combined, thats a decent 1-2 punch, depending on if Marmol can handle the role. I think he does, and I think the Cubs might be a good wild card team. I really really want to pick them to win the Central, but I can't. The Cubs normally don't even win back to back division titles... theres no way they win three in a row! I can't trust that team to stay healthy. Something will happen, maybe another goat curse or something.

Dave's Take: Again, most folks will pick the Cubbies to take this easily, and normally I would too, but... it's the Cubs. Instead I see possibly the Brewers or Reds taking it, but I'll give the edge to the Reds, because their pitching is so, SO much better. After that, the Cubs might be good for a WC, and while everyone else just plays out the string.


I'm hedging my bets here, picking Chicago to finish 2nd. AL West preview tomorrow!

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