NL Central Predix: Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum…

Michael Cox

You’ll have to excuse me for a second — I caught about five minutes of American Idol, and apparently the Numa Numa guy is on there.

…OK, I’m good.

The Central came into its own last year as the best division in the majors, and not just because it has 20 percent more teams. In the wake of the Cards’ anticlimactic Series drubbing, it’s been forgotten that they had the best record in baseball in 2004. The Midwest clearly needs to work on its hype skills.

But this year begins with a power cut: Carlos Beltran heads east; Sammy Sosa heads to the AL, and, well, the Brewers are still there. How’s this affect the balance of power?

1. St. Louis Cardinals

…Not a lot, really. The Cards happened to keep the best of their league-leading offense intact — Barry Bonds’ extended absence leaves Albert Pujols the best active player in MLB. Aside from a middle-infield downgrade, there’s no reason to believe that the Redbirds won’t continue to put up les nombres tordus (c’mon, Les Expos are gone and I have to use my mangled French somewhere). There’s always the chance that Larry Walker will snap in two at any moment, but that makes things exciting.

On the tossing side, the addition of Mark Mulder actually leaves the rotation slightly less suspect than last year, and if Mulder and Matt Morris can stay healthy they’ll hold down their end of the bargain. Expect Tony La Russa to make lots of pitching changes. (That’s not a reflection of the staff…it’s just what he does.)

2. Chicago Cubs

Underachievers last year, we come to find out that it was all because Dusty Baker’s mind was clouded by his hatred for Sammy Sosa. Well, that and the top two starters’ periodic injuries — and whaddya know, they’re hurt again now!

Every single commentator on the planet, stathead and otherwise, will tell you the health of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior is the difference between playoff contention and Cub fans marching up Addison with torches and pikes, and I’m not going to be any different. Except for the marching part — the fans’ll curse a lot and call in to talk radio, then line up for 2006 bleacher tickets.

Sosa has been on the decline for a while now, so although he’s still of considerable value, his absence won’t have the impact that it would have had a couple of years ago. Or as talk-radio callers in Chicago put it: “Don’ let dat door dere hit yer ass on da way out, Sammy.” Unfortunately, if the Sosa-less Cub offense were to surprise this year, that surprise would be of the unpleasant variety. Pray for Wood and Prior. You atheists too.

3. Houston Astros

This is a team who hit on almost all cylinders last year, meaning that all it takes is for a piston ring to go missing for the engine to break into tiny pieces. Beltran was probably the piston ring. It’s a brittle engine in the first place, with an injury-prone, inconsistent and just plain aging lineup, and an injury-prone, inconsistent and ju…er, the rotation’s like that too. Someday, someone’s going to go to the well one too many times with Roger Clemens, and when they do, I sure hope they don’t massively overpay him…oops.

Morgan Ensberg could surprise, but you can almost hear Jimy Williams calling up to the GM’s box asking for a new third baseman every time Ensberg comes to the plate. And none of these guys are going to impress anyone in the field. Last year might be as close to a blaze of glory as it gets for the Killer B’s. (Do you think they’ll still be referring to themselves as the Killer B’s when they’re living in the retirement community, like the Mandelbaums on Seinfeld?)

4. Cincinnati Reds

It’s two “n’s,” one “t”…oh, sorry. What can be said about the Redlegs (besides the fact that it’s fun to call them the “Redlegs,” that is)? The most interesting thing I’ve observed this year is how little people refer to Ken Griffey Jr. when they assess this team. I mean, when you get less ink than Joe Randa, that’s gotta hurt.

Speaking of Randa (see, I’ve done it myself), he’s typical of the offensive strategy here: tuck in some random guys around Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and Sean Casey. Rich Aurilia is another example of a diminishing-returns vet who’s still trading on his glory days hitting near Barry Bonds in the SF lineup.

The Cincy pitching is a smidge upgraded, swapping Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz into the rotation for last year’s abysmal Cory Lidle and Jose Acevedo. This team could conceivably do a lot better than this, but there are just too many “ifs.” And Griffey puts the “iffy” in “if,”…uh…

5. Milwaukee Brewers

The bottom of the division is “pick ‘em” territory. Neither the Brew Crüe nor the Bucs (as in, “waiting for the revenue-sharing Bucks”) has bothered to pour many resources into their teams, despite having their respective cities pony up for new ballparks. I mean, at least the Reds had the decency to overpay for Milton. As attendance bottoms out in Milwaukee, at least Bud Selig can breathe a sigh of relief that they will no longer be burning him in effigy.

At least there are two good reasons to buy a bleacher ticket at Miller Park and then move up into an empty box seat: Carlos Lee and Ben Sheets. There will also be money to be won in the “when will they be traded” pool (I’m down for Lee on June 23 to the Cubs). The Brewskis managed to get Lee for Scott Podsednik, which is no mean feat, but aside from putting a few more butts in seats, it won’t really amount to much.

There is a definite attempt at true rebuilding here, but it takes a while to rebuild when the previous owner took a sledgehammer to the foundation.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

In 2005 the Pirates’ ownership are apparently hoping that retirees will mistakenly think they’re buying tickets to that boat ride at Disneyland. It’s got water, it’s got pirates, and posting an “abandon hope, all ye who enter” sign at PNC Park wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

A team who trades the face of their team for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes (and ultimately Rhodes for Matt Lawton), then turns around and plugs Benito Santiago into the vacant catcher spot, isn’t thinking about the future. Jose Mesa — same deal. It’s just a mess, with a few low-cost “names” to bring in a fan or two, and filler. Even their best hitter (Jason Bay) and ace (Oliver Perez) would be second-tier on most other teams.

Barring a Mariners-style collapse elsewhere, I see the Buccos in a pitched battle with the Devil Rays and Royals for worst record in the majors. And living in a city that was in the running last year, in a twisted kind of way, there’s actually something to be said for that.

about the author

Michael Cox spent the winter working with the medicine ball. Offer to work his abs with ineffectual punches to the gut when you e-mail him from our Contact Us page.

Published March 30, 2005

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