Today, we take a look at the 2009 NL Central division.
1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are turning into the Yankees of the Midway. Anyone they want, they go out and get. The Cubs, who slugged at a .443 percentage in 2008, went out at got Milton Bradley, who slugged a Ruthian .563 last year and was on his way to a MVP-type season before getting hurt. The team is deep in almost all positions and has All-Star names in almost every position; Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano and the afore-mentioned Bradley. CF is the only position that might have a camp battle; however skipper, Lou Pinella feels Kosuke Fukadome should be much better his second time around the league. If not, backup Reed Johnson batted .303, so no problems there. The rotation, also, is overwhelming. Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster could be solid no. 1 starters on almost any team in the league. Ted Lilly is a fine number 4 with 17 wins last year and the number 5 spot could go to either Sean Marshall or Jeff Samardzija—a nice problem for most managers to have. Overall, the Cubs should be easy winners of the NL Central. And they should be; this team was built to win much more.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
That World Series win sure seems like a long, long time ago. Since the Series win in 2006, the Cards have gone 164-160. Injuries to Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter have devastated this team, and still do. Mulder is gone and the Cardinals honestly don't know what they are going to get from Carpenter. The good news is that the Cardinals have 3 other pitchers that can do the job in Kyle Lohse (3.78 ERA) Todd Wellemeyer (3.71 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (3.20 ERA). They also have some options in the bullpen in Jason Motte, Chris Perez and Trever Miller. The question is, can the starters get the ball to them with the lead? At the plate, obviously, the Cardinals begin and end with Best-Player-Of-His-Generation candidate, Albert Pujols. If he's healthy, he will put up MVP numbers, guaranteed. Behind him, the Cardinals have always injured Troy Glaus, contact-hitting catcher Yadier Molina, and a bevy of talented outfielders. Rick Ankiel, in his first season put up solid numbers and showed athleticism in CF. RF Ryan Ludwick made the All-Star team and is a lock for right field. In left, the Cardinals can use 2008 starter Skip Schulmacher (.302 BA), or prospect, Colby Ramus, who has a legitimate chance to take the spot if he has a nice spring. In the end, barring significant injuries the Cardinals should hit the 86-win mark, as they did last year. And that's it.
3. Cincinnati Reds
Since 2003, the Reds have been stuck between 69 and 80 wins. This could be the year, they finally break that trend, and in the positive direction. The reason being, a commitment to blending talented youngsters in with the proven veterans. The rotation exemplifies that; youngsters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez join with vets Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo to form a solid front 4. 22-year-old Homer Bailey, youngsters Micah Owings and Ramon Ramirez are in the mix for the 5th spot. That judicious mix of youth and proven veterans continues onto the field, with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce looking to build off their solid rookie seasons. 25-year-old veteran Edwin Encarnacion continues to anchor the hot corner for the Reds. Those youngsters are mixed in with Brandon Phillips who has averaged 22 home runs and since coming to the Reds in 2005. Willy Taveras, brought in as a free agent will be competing with rookie Chris Dickerson for rights to the centerfield spot—either will bring a dose of speed to the outfield. Also vets will be in charge of the bullpen as 39-year-old Dave Weathers pairs up with 39-year old Arthur Rhodes to save games for the Reds. The Reds are trying to change from a team with big lumber (Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey) to one with youth and defense. So far, so good in 2009.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
You gotta give it to the Brewers. They truly rolled the dice in 2008. They knew they wouldn't be able to resign Sabathia and yet they traded for him anyway to pair with Sheets to go for it all last year. You have to respect that. Unfortunately, now he's gone, and the Brewers are poses to take a big step backwards. It isn't all about losing C.C. either. The Brewers batted only .253 as a team last year, and haven't done much to help in that department. They are hoping Rickie Weeks can perform like the 2006 Rickie Weeks (.279 BA) and not the 2007-2008 Rickie Weeks (.235 BA). Also if AA wunderkind Mat Gamel has an outstanding spring (which the Brewers are praying for), he might be on the Opening Day roster at 3B. The pitching has even bigger holes. Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra, if healthy form a nice 1-2. Past that are questions: Seth McClung? Chase Wright? Brandon Looper? Jeff Suppan? Not exactly CC and Sheets, is it? At least if they can get the ball to the 9th inning, aging but still potent Trevor Hoffman should provide some semblance of relief. While the Brewers have some nice parts—Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J. J. Hardy—maybe rookies Gamel and Alcides Escobar—it's not enough to duplicate last year's exciting playoff run.
5. Houston Astros
A team with schizophrenia. On the one hand, they have Carlos Lee (.314 BA, 28 HRs), Lance Berkman (.312 BA, .567 Slugging) Roy Oswalt (1.179 WHIP) and Wandy Rodriguez (3.54 ERA). On the other hand, the Astros are going into 2009 with Michael Bourne in CF (.229 BA—the guy Brad Lidge was traded for), Geoff Blum at 3B (.240 BA) and J. R. Towles behind the plate (.137 BA in 51 games). Ooof. Clearly this is a team in need of direction. Aside from a dominating Roy Oswalt performance of another sick night by Lance Berkman, the team doesn't have the parts need to win. Who pitches after Oswalt and Rodriguez? Mike Hampton who they signed for cheap, got hurt—surprise—and can't be counted on as even a no 3 starter at this point. No one else inspires any confidence. in fact, the Astros only has 1 prospect in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, so help isn't coming any time soon. The Astros have a few singular talents
that should keep them from being truly horrible, but they don't have nearly enough to go anywhere but 76 wins.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
What would the NL Central be without the Pirates at (or very near) the bottom. They've been either 5th or 6th in the Central since 2004—and haven't been as high as 3rd place since 1999. And truly sad is that the 2009 Pirates sound an awful lot like the 2008 Pirates. First, the Pirates rotation is still banking on improvement in their young pitchers. However, their young pitchers last year had the highest ERA (5.36 ERA) and the fewest wins from its rotation (33). However, they have a new pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan. hey Joe, ever hear of Sisyphus? In the field its' Nate McCluth in centerfield, Adam LaRoche at first, Jack Wilson at short, Ryan Doutimit behind the plate and a lot of "Just Another Guy" players. However, they Pirates are hopeful Steven Pearce and Andrew McCutchen can make their mark as rookies some time this season. Here’s hoping that small hope can be fulfilled.