NL Central Preview
Here’s my take on the teams of the National League Central.
Chicago - The Cubs finished 17.5 games behind the Cardinals last year and this year they hope having a healthy Derrek Lee, a newly acquired Alphonso Soriano and 3rd base slugger Arimis Ramirez will allow them to power to a better finish. If healthy - that trio could top well over 100 HR between them. However, the real key to the Cubs season is how they fare outside the NL Central. Last year the Cubs were .500 within their division (42-42) whereas they were a miserable 20-43 against the NL East and NL West. The sluggers will make this a more entertaining team but if Chicago is to improve against the East and West then pitching holds the key. Carlos Zambrano was the only starter to start 30 games last season (Sean Marshall was second on the team with 24 starts and this year he's not even in the rotation). If a team is holding up its hopes to the success of newly acquired Ted Lilly and a return to health of Mark Prior and maybe Wade Miller - then those hopes may be in vain. Like many - I'm curious if Felix Pie is the real deal or the next Lastings Milledge. I think this season we'll find out the answer to that question.
Cincinnati - The Reds play in a launching pad of a park (Great American Ball Park) but they are trying to make pitching the keystone of their success. The Reds recently wrapped up starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo to long term deals and they traded for Kirk Saarloos formerly of the A's plus they have prospect Homer Bailey waiting in the wings. The addition of Alex Gonzalez at short will help the pitchers but his bat is just another uneven hitter in the batting order. Their 1st baseman can't hit for power, while their left fielder has never hit above his weight and the centerfielder is the subject of injury pools across the country. Just making things interesting will be a win for the Reds this season.
Houston - The Astros hope that the 3-4 combination of Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee will add some pop to the offense and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that if Carlos Lee can stay healthy this year then Lance Berkman will win the NL MVP. The two big questions for the Astros are obviously whether Roger Clemens will re-sign with the club but also how Phil Garner will find 500 AB for both Mark Loretta and Craig Biggio - two players that are too good to be on the bench for any stretch of time. Even without Roger Clemens - the Astros will be very competitive team this year. It is very possible that both the NL MVP (Berkman) and NL Cy Young (Roy Oswalt) will come from the Astros this season.
Milwaukee - The Brewers .258 team batting average was the 4th worst in MLB last year. The upgrade at catcher to Johnny Estrada should help greatly with that. Someone will have to explain to me what the Brewers were thinking in regards to their infield. Their budding star they move from short, to 3rd and now to the outfield. They have a young second baseman Rickie Weeks but they offer Tony Graffanino arbitration and sign Craig Counsell. What were they thinking?
Pittsburgh - The Pirates had a winning record in the second half of the season last year and they have added power at 1st base in Adam LaRoche. Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez make this an interesting team but the Pirates aren't winning anything.
St. Louis - I think it will take a mid-season trade for a top starter to allow St. Louis to make the playoffs this year. The Cardinals have Chris Carpenter and then a huge drop off. They lost Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver who was very strong for them down the stretch. They added Kip Wells. Do I have to say more? I predict that St. Louis does not make the playoffs this season.