Our MLB predictions continue with the biggest division, the NL Central.
Money doesn’t solve all problems. But it sure helps.
That and a manger who’s not afraid to mix things up to find the right formula. After spending in the neighborhood of $350 million dollars—not including hiring Lou Pinella as their new skipper—in contracts last winter, the Cubs got off to a horrendous start, posting a 22-31 record by June 2nd. All that money spent, and that dismal record prompted Sweet Lou to make some changes. And changes he did make—like a mad scientist until he found the right mix. And ultimately, he shifted Soriano from center field to left, moved Jacque Jones from right to center, replaced Cesar Izturis with Ryan Theriot at shortstop and sending catcher Michael Barrett to San Diego following a mid-game fight with Zambrano. Following those changes, they Cubs got to .550 on July 2nd, and flew past the self-destructing Brewers to a 1st place finish in the NL Central.
So, after those growing pains, the Cubs seemed poised to take the Central this year. They easily have the best pitching in the division, earning a 4.04 ERA last year and led the NL with a .246 Opp. BA. Carlos Zambrano is their ace and is a stud (provided his head is screwed on straight). After him come two solid-plus lefties, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill. Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis are adequate 4th and 5th guys.
As if their spending spree last year, wasn’t enough, the Cubs went out this winter, and picked up 30-year-old Japanese outfielder, Kosuke Fukudome to solve one of their biggest problems, a lefty power bat. Named the 2006 Japanese Central League MVP, Fukudome (aside from having one of the all-time great names of baseball) hit .351 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs
Kerry Wood has taken over the closer duties and pitched well in spring training, earning a 2.84 ERA. Combing Wood with Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry give the Cubs a solid relief corp.
All of this talent isn’t cheap, and I didn’t even mention Derrek Lee or Arasmis Ramirez, who last I checked, don’t play for free. The Cubs want results. And this may be the year they get it.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: Carlos Zambrano's ERA has risen in each of the past three seasons.
Let me just say this so it roll around in your brain for a moment. Last season was the first time the Milwaukee Brewers had a plus .500 season since 1992.
So no matter how disappointing it was to fall behind the Cubs after leading the division for so long, it still has to be a positive season.
And there are other sunny spots too in last year’s failure. When staff ace went down (again) with injuries, Yovani Gallardo stepped up and showed he can be—if not the ace—a plus starter in the rotation. That is, when he comes back from the DL with a knee injury. Along with Carlos Villanueva, who showed good stuff, the staff rounds out with Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush, who had down years. AAA uber-prospect, Manny Parra, might be ready for a mid-summer callup. Also, Eric Gagne has been signed to a one-year deal to help finish off games. The Brewers are hoping that working with good game-caller, Jason Kendall will help the staff.
That said, runs will not be a problem for the Brewers. In 2007 they had the second highest slugging percentage in the NL, led by Prince Fielder, who almost twice as many Hrs as he did the year before, and had 30 more walks, and Ryan Braun, who had the all-time-best slugging percentage for a rookie, .634. Corey Hart, Bill Hall and Mike Cameron (once he comes back from a 25 game suspension) can also thump the ball.
The problem might be defense. Ryan Braun is a natural DH, compiling a dreadful .895 fielding percentage at third base. He shifts to left field where, hopefully he will do less damage. Taking over for him is former CF, Bill Hall, making room for Mike Cameron once he is back on the field. The Brewers were tied for 12th in the National League last year in fielding. The switches, Brew fans hope, would help improve on that.
If things fall right for the Brewers—Sheets stays healthy, Bush and Suppan bounce back, Fielder’s new vegetarian diet doesn’t detract from his power, Braun doesn’t drop fly balls—Milwaukee fans can celebrate the Brewers first playoff run in…forever. And that might be a reason to crack open a brew.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: Eric Gagne had a 2.16 ERA in 34 appearances for Texas, and then a 6.75 ERA in 20 games as a Boston Red Sox.
You have to wonder if everyone is on the same page in the Queen City.
For the first time in a long time, the Cincinnati Reds have a core of young stuff pitchers. Former no. 1 Baseball America prospect (the unfortunately named) Homer Bailey (21), Johnny Cueto (22) and Edinson Volquez (24) are all in the rotation or are not far away.
Then why hire rookie-hater Dusty Baker?
Never known as a patient, teaching manager, Baker is the master of the quick turnaround, getting the best out of veterans. But what the Reds need more than anything is some help for the rotation. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo make for a solid one-two punch, but past that and you’re in no-mans-land. The Reds' 4.94 ERA last season tied Florida for the worst mark in the NL. Clearly, ole Dusty has gotta get on his teacher’s cap and make nice with the youngsters if the Reds plan to go anywhere this season.
Hitting-wise the Reds are solid. LF Adam Dunn has a chance to go for his 5th straight 40-HR season. 2B Brandon Phillips is the only 2B not named Soriano in MLB history with 30 HRs and 30 SBs in the same season. Edwin Encarcion batted .289 and should improve. C Davis Ross is a hole in the lineup with a .203 BA, but threw out 41 percent of base runners and saves a lot of wild pitches.
Pitching is the scary part, especially the bullpen, where the Reds tied for 14 in the NL with only 34 saves with a “Hey, you wanna pitch?” approach to saving games. To remedy that, the Reds signed Francisco Cordero to be The Man out of the pen. Along with solid set-up man, David Weathers, Cincinnati’s pen should improve this year. It can’t get any worse.
Like the Yankees, the Reds are a team with a mix of a talented, but a little too old vets (Ken Griffey) and a little too young kids (Bailey). If Baker can commit to the kids, and not protest when the next ones come along (Jay Bruce, Joey Votto), in a couple of years, the Reds might have something.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: Ken Griffey Jr. played in 144 games, his highest total since 2000.
The Astros are anyone’s guess. They could be the surprise team. They could stink on ice.
The talent is there. Roy Oswalt is a stud. Miquel Tejada, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are a scary 3, 4 and 5 for any opposing pitcher. And Jose Valverde led the leagues in saves last year for the Diamondbacks.
But the losses have been daunting as well. The rotation seemingly never recovered from petite and Clemens’ defection back to New York. And Biggio and Bagwell have taken the identity of the team to their retirements.
Though the Astros have traded a bunch of their future faces of the team for Tejada and Valverde, they do have some pieces to look forward to. LHP Wandy Rodriquez is close to putting it altogether as a solid no .2 starter. Although he has a 9-13 record with a 4.58 ERA, he also has 158 SO in 182.2 IP. Also Brandon Backe, who pitched for the first time in over a year last September showed the Astros he could be a piece of the puzzle, earning a 3-1 record and a 3.77 ERA.
In the field the Astros are trying to change their image. They traded for Michael Bourne from the Phillies. Bourne, a threat to steal every base he comes across is penciled in at centerfield and leadoff. Hunter Pence, who played very well in his rookie season last year, can also run and has been given the green light this season. Rookie catcher J. R. Towles batted .375 during a callup last September and stole 14 bases in three minor leagues last summer.
As I said, the Astros can be anywhere from the surprise of the NL. Or they could be a complete bust. We’d place them squarely in the middle of those two. A .500 record sounds about right.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: Rookie J.R. Towles struck out just once in 44 plate appearances during his September call-up.
St. Louis Cardinals
One season after inexplicable winning the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinal fell back to earth. The shocking part was how they did it.
It wasn’t just that they fell apart on the field, which they did, ending up 78-84. It was that the players fought with the manger. The manger had some bad feelings towards the front office. The front office argued amongst themselves. And all this ended up in GM Walt Jocketty getting fired, and longtime Cardinals Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen getting traded and World Series hero David Eckstein allowed to leave.
And somehow all this change occurred, but somehow didn’t make the Cardinals much better. They didn’t find anyone to replace Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter, both out with injuries until further notice. They didn’t find anyone to protect Albert Pujols, himself injured. And Troy Glaus is already dinged up. Even with the departures of Edmonds and Rolen, the Cardinals remain among the oldest teams in the majors.
And the rotation leaves much to be desired. Last season, the Cards had a 4.65 ERA, good for 11th in the NL. Pitching coach needs to give the rotation some of his Kool-Aid until Carpenter and Mulder can come back. Two of the guys who might need extra doses of said Kool-Aid are Brandon Looper (4.94 ERA) and Anthony Reyes (6.04 ERA), who the Cardinals are counting on to hold on until their aces return.
St. Louis fans are excited by the good spring some of the Cardinals had. They shouldn’t. Once games that count start, the Cards lack of both pitching and hitting will sink them to the bottom of the NL Central.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: Reliever Russ Springer allowed only six of 27 inherited runners to score.
As bad as the Cardinals are, they still get to look down on the Pirates.
The Pirates haven’t had a winning record since 1992, the days of Jim Leyland, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. They won’t clear that mark this season, either.
But there is hope. The Pirates have cleaned out the whole system, their front office, their farm, and their manager. And with the new staff comes a new philosophy—one of consistency and teaching youngsters how to play. Their promotion of minor league pitching coach to the same role in the bigs, as well as the hiring of former catcher to the role of manager seems to confirm that philosophy.
The only problem with this is that immediate help on the 2008 field just isn’t there. The hope is that the Pirates young pitching can find its way and fulfill some of its promise. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny was 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA last season, while right-hander Ian Snell was 9-12 with a 3.76 ERA. Closer Matt Capps converted 18 of 21 save opportunities with a 2.28 ERA in 2007 and is just 24. However, Zach Duke, after going 1.81 in 2005 has declined….and quickly to a 3-8, 5.53 ERA last year.
At the plate, the story is much the same. Adam Laroche, brought in to add some power, didn’t hit his 6th home run till June. Face of the franchise, Jason Bay seemed desperate and batted only .247. The Pirates were third in the NL in batters LOB with 1119.
General manager Neal Huntington has asked for patience from the Pirates dwindling fan base. "It could have been easy to blow up [the roster]," he says, "but as we look at it, studied it, we felt like patience was the best approach."
The Pirates fans have been waiting since 1992. They won’t wait much longer.
Sound Smart To Your Friends: The Pirates had an average of 1.17 double plays turned per nine innings, the highest rate in the majors.