1) Chicago Cubs
In my mind, three things point to the Cubs winning the NL Central this year. First of all, pitching makes teams great, and this staff has Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, and Glendon Rusch. ‘Nuff said.
Secondly, with the Red Sox finally winning it all, isn’t the clock now ticking on this franchise? And finally, I’m a firm believer in clubhouse chemistry. Sammy Sosa can jack them out like few others, but he was a malcontent who abandoned his team. He’s in Baltimore now, and the rest of the squad seems pretty tight-knit. If you’re looking for a fourth reason, well, most of this division is a joke.
They’ll miss the run production from Sosa and Moises Alou, so hopefully Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee can become 30-homer, 100-RBI guys this year. Jeromy Burnitz should drive in some runs, and Nomar is playing for a long-term deal. Corey Patterson needs to improve his OBP, and Jason DuBois has limited bat, but improves the outfield defense.
The bottom line in Chi-town is this: the Cubs have a bunch of question marks on offense, certainly. But heir pitching is superb, and their bullpen is decently deep. The latter will allow them to stay in games they’re struggling in because of the former. That, and you just gotta believe karma is on their side now, don’t you?
2) St. Louis Cardinals
It’s hard to pick the Cubs to win the NL Central when you consider that the Cardinals were league champs last year, and return the two best corner infielders in the game — Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen — as well as adding LHP Mark Mulder from Oakland (and his .659 winning percentage).
Still, the Cardinals lost table-setter Edgar Renteria to the Red Sox, and Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders, and Larry Walker are only getting older (and more brittle). The rotation is deep and consistent, but doesn’t even touch the Cubs’ version — Matt Morris is healthier now, and could win 15 games. Chris Carpenter missed the World Series, providing him with intrinsic motivation to return. His command is excellent, and he’ll pitch right behind Mulder.
Mark Grudzielanek has bounced around more than some people change socks, but he’ll provide some slap hits in the bottom of a deep lineup and allow the front guys to drive him in; he might also be a good DP man with David “Mini-Me” Eckstein. The Cardinals are getting older, but their rotation and order are both loaded, and their manager might be the best in the game.
All of them would love to return to the Fall Classic and win it, and in the always-hot NL Central, they’re no strangers to pennant races. If the Cards get off to the same start they did last year, there’s no way Chicago can keep up. If they start with an average April and May, though, the Cubs’ pitching will put them over St. Louis come August and September.
3) Cincinnati Reds
In a division loaded with good pitchers, is it really a good idea to pick the Reds third? They’re arguably the most pitching-starved team here. Paul Wilson and Eric Milton “anchor” their rotation, and the first phrase of this sentence should terrify any Cincinnati fan. Danny Graves was a relatively dependable closer last year, but it’s questionable how often the team will actually need him.
Still, we went with the Reds in third for a variety of reasons. Most notably, conventional wisdom would put the Astros here, but it’s entirely possible the Astros will be 20 games under .500 on June 1st and may never recover. The Brewers and Pirates have good young talent, but by July 31st, will any of it be in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee?
The Reds, meanwhile, have an assortment of bats. Adam Dunn, according to a Sports Illustrated article from years back, can “hit the ball a country mile.” Sean Casey is a producer, and, ahem, the team does have Ken Griffey Jr. If Griffey can stay healthy — the biggest “if” in baseball right now — he’ll hit 30 home runs, and Willy Mo Pena can be trade bait for another pitcher.
Joe Randa, who in my mind is a poor man’s Travis Fryman (or a rich man’s Eric Hinske) can still hit ‘em deep, and D’Angelo Jimenez and Felipe Lopez can be solid at the top of the order if they improve their OBPs. In sum, the Reds have a lot of pop, and might finish in a similar situation to the Orioles — slugging out wins 10-7 and losing games 11-10 the next night.
4) Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are a long-running joke, but they have a chance this year to take some small steps back towards the Molitor and Yount days — if they hold on at the trading deadline.
Ben Sheets is the ace. He struck out 18 in a game last year, almost hurled a perfect one, and was easily one of the top ten pitchers in baseball. In the off-season, he had a herniated disk removed from his back, and without the pain, he should win 20 this year. Danny Davis finished 12-12 last year, and worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux to reduce his reliance on the cutter. Davis and Sheets are a nice left-right complement at the top of the rotation, and the lineup has some balance too.
Geoff Jenkins, an ultimate fantasy sleeper, might rack up 35 homers and 125 RBIs this year. Carlos Lee, an off-season grab, would have led the ’04 Brewers in homers and RBIs. Russell Branyan and Lyle Overbay are both high-risk, high-reward type of guys: Overbay hit .344 through July of ’04, and .245 after.
There’s no true replacement for the runs that Scott Podsednik created, but Damian Miller is the team’s first legitimate catcher since Dave Nilsson — remember that name? People made a big deal that he was Australian, but the bigger deal was that he actually handled the staff well. Miller will do the same, helping the younger guys in the rotation, as well as an inexperienced bullpen that might have trouble after the loss of Dan Kolb to the Braves.
If Milwaukee doesn’t sell the farm at the deadline, look for them to be similar to the Tigers — a below .500 team looking to contend in ’06.
5) Houston Astros
GM Gerry Hunsicker “retired” (he’ll probably get the Nationals’ job once a new owner is in place) in the thick of the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes, handing the reins to longtime assistant Tim Purpura. Purpura fumbled the handoff, and Beltran went to the Mets. At the same time this was all happening, Lance Berkman tore his knee in a church football game, and Jeff Kent went to the Dodgers. Where does this leave the Astros? Well, they won’t be one game away from the World Series this October.
Roger Clemens returned. He’s 42, and that would normally cause me to doubt him, but let’s be honest — what basis would I have? He’ll win 15 games and strike out 200 flailing young hitters. If Andy Pettite can return to form (which might match Griffey’s health as the biggest “if” in baseball), and Roy Oswalt can put up 17 wins (he had 20 last year), this is a great rotation. Brandon Backe, a local boy who shone in the playoffs last year, gets a staff spot alongside youngster Carlos Hernandez.
The front five is capable of 60 wins, which would be excellent, because the lineup needs some work. Berkman won’t be back until early June, which means 70 percent of the Astros’ RBI total from last year won’t be in uniform for the first 60 games. Bagwell and Biggio are getting old, and their best chance for a Fall Classic probably just passed them by — they’re working alongside young talent like Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Adam Everett, and Orlando Palmeiro now. These guys will all pan out — Burke is a former No. 1 pick — but probably not until 2009 or 2010.
If the Astros can hammer out some wins in the first two months, they might put themselves in contention for a wild-card stretch run; they certainly have the pitching staff to do so.
6) Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates haven’t posted a winning season since the early Clinton administration, when Barry Bonds was in the lineup. So was Andy Van Slyke, the ultimate “Where are they now?” player. Honestly, who didn’t love AVS? We get nostalgic just thinking about that 1991 NLCS.
Again, the organization is currently hapless, but has bright spots. Oliver Perez is only 23, and one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. Lefties regularly take a day off against his high-90s fastball, wicked slider, and floating curve. Kip Wells, the number-two starter, has some good stuff, and Josh Fogg has been likened in some respects to Greg Maddux.
Here’s the problem, though: you know NL Cy Young candidate Jason Schmidt? He was a Pirate once. So was the Mets’ potential ace Kris Benson. And yea, Bonds too. Oh, Aramis Ramirez also. Are we missing anyone? If the Pirates hold on to any of these guys in July, they’ll build a promising future. If not, we’ll keep seeing the Pirates’ all-stars in different unis.
Jason Bay and Jack Wilson are two promising youngsters in the lineup, which is good considering Benito Santiago — signed to ease the departure of Jason Kendall — must be 80 years old by now. Craig Wilson led the team in homers, but wore down later, and Ty Wigginton needs to be more productive after coming over from the Mets. Jose Mesa throws hard out of the pen — how often will they need him?
We can’t pick the Pirates any higher until they show a commitment to their future, not just fielding a team for the sake of their legacy.
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