NL Central Preview

NL Central Preview

NL Central Preview
By Josh Jacobs

Moving right along in our second segment of divisional coverage in the Majors, the NL Central brings with it a crowded six teams all looking to take a large piece of the pie.

Listed as a 10/11 favorite to take the division, the Chicago Cubs return to the table boasting some very viable offensive options. As is the case on a season-to-season basis, the starting rotation and bullpen will hold the key to jockeying with the Mets and/or Phillies in the NL East, and the group of young talent in the West.

Without giving too much away in the introduction, let’s begin from the very top.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (85-77, -981)


The only divisional winner to accumulate a negative bankroll on the season, Chicago enters 2008 top heavy with lumber and a bit suspicious on the mound.

First the power at the plate.

Led off by lofty Alfonso Soriano, Lou Piniella has his work cut out for him in deciding a balanced attack after the No. 1 spot in the lineup. The player in question to supply Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez with runners in scoring position is shortstop Ryan Theriot. Since joining the Cubbies in 2005, Theriot has displayed speed, but a .266 BA last season might undermine newly acquired Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome (signed a $48 million, four-year deal) and his place in the order.

As for hurlers, no need to worry about Carlos Zambrano and southpaw Ted Lilly, who combined for a 33-21 record with a 3.89 ERA. All eyes will be on the tail end of the rotation and relief spots.

How effective will reliever turned starter, Ryan Dempster be when placed somewhere within the rotation? Remember that Dempster hasn’t started in a Major League game since 2005, where he recorded a 5-3 record with a 3.13 ERA.

And the final verdict on a concrete bullpen is still in the works.

Coming up on his 10th year in the league, reliever Kerry Wood will find himself sharing duties with Bobby Hawry and Carlos Marmol. If there’s a spot on the team that should worry Chicago backers and fans, it’s what performance the pen will produce.

As spring training continues to press, the feeling in Chicago is that a highly potent offense should be able to carry most of the load that pitching might leave behind.

There’s no doubt that the consensus is riding on the Cubs to stay pretty even (record wise) with out of division New York and Philadelphia, but do they have enough in the pen to tread deep into the post-season?

Cincinnati Reds (72-90, -1525)

Showing up to the ballpark as a predictable player in the Central, bettors were at least graced with an impressive 88-68-6 ‘over’ record last season (54% on the ‘over’). And when I say predictable, not registering a .500 record or better since 2000 has been good reason to set a less then optimistic future.

Offensive production was not the main problem in ‘07, ranking 9th in the NL with a .267 BA, 7th in runs at 783 and 8th in on base percentage at .335. Brandon Philips, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. (played in 144 games last season) will all return with the intention of producing big numbers from the plate. With the exception of first baseman Joey Votto most likely taking the starting job, the same core of players remains intact.

Behind starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, the Reds are basically riding on a hope and a dream. Acquiring right-hander Josh Fogg from Colorado was a good addition, but will it be enough to support the backend of the rotation that threw for a combined record of 21-26 with a 5.23 ERA (this included pitchers who made at least nine starts – Belisle, Lohse, Livingston, Bailey)?

Shortly after the World Series, Cincinnati made its best move when it agreed to sign shutdown closer Francisco Cordero (44 saves in 2007). There’s no question that Cordero is a stud in closing out contests, but we turn back to the starting rotation. Unless the boys who begin the game can hold down leads, what good is an outstanding closer who doesn’t get the save opportunity?

Saving the best for last, manager Dusty Baker couldn’t resist sitting out another season. Taking the Reds’ job, Baker has a lot of work in-front of him.

Overall, this club is a solid offensive producer with speed around the base path (ranked 8th in steals in the NL last season). It’s a matter of sorting out a starting rotation and bullpen that will have Baker staying up late nights.

Bodog.com has listed Cinci at 15/2 odds to take the Central Division, while a far reaching 25/1 odds have been set to take the NL Pennant.

Houston Astros (73-89, -1781)

The list of guys dumped from last year is staggering. Talk about a fire sale.

Getting shortstop Miguel Tejada in exchange for five players, including Luke Scott, was the most famed dealing of the off-season for the club, but the Astros aren’t without some gapping holes, specifically in the rotation.

Youth is the name of the game this season. At the catcher position, reports that Brad Ausmus will finally step down as a starter looks to be legitimate. Filling in will be 24-year-old J.R. Towles. Towles has been described as a player possessing great defensive skills behind the plate. Surely, they’ll be a marinating period for the youngster but Houston is banking on this kid to be the real deal.

Power from Carlos Lee is guaranteed, baring any earth shattering injury, and Ty Wigginton, Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence, in conjunction with Tejada, should all contribute to an improved offensive group.

As is the case with many teams in the Majors, pitching problems rear their ugly head in Houston.

Starting pitcher Roy Oswalt has a career record of 112-54. There’s no doubt that Oswalt can fit into any teams starting rotation as a bonafide ace. But then the problems arise.

Southpaw slinger Wandy Rodriguez is far from being an effective No. 2 pitcher in the rotation. Mix in the rest of the crew (Brandon Backe, Woody Williams and journey man Shawn Chacon), and the Astros appear to be in position to repeat 2007’s numbers (12th worst in the NL with a 4.68 ERA, 12th worst with a .273 BAA and 11th worst with a WHIP of 1.42).

Houston is currently hovering at 10/1 odds to take the NL Central.

Milwaukee Brewers (83-79, -507)

Brewer fans rejoice, your team is projected to be a contender in back-to-back seasons.

A starting rotation led by Ben Sheets (12-5, 3.82 ERA) and Jeff Suppan (12-12, 4.62) is just the tip o the iceberg. Signing relievers Salmon Torres (from Pittsburgh), David Riske (from Kansas City) and Seth McClung (from Tampa Bay) is predicted to be an improvement over the pen that halted Milwaukee’s advancement last summer.

The only questionable call was brining in unpredictable closer, Eric Gagne for a $10 million price tag. After witnessing a total collapse with Boston, Gagne remains a huge question mark with his new squad.

In the batter’s box, a righty dominated club will once again be led by Prince Fielder (119 RBIs), Ryan Braun (.324 BA with 97 RBIs) and Corey Hart (81 RBIs). The largest hole in the batting order will come from third baseman Bill Hall and lefty backup partner Craig Councell, who struggled to reach base against right-handed hurlers (.234 BA with 31 strikeouts).

Highly touted youngster Matt LaPorta seems like a viable option with his infield skills, but reports indicate that the University of Florida graduate will likely end up with another organization before the end of the ‘08 season.

With the second best record versus NL Central teams last season, expect the Brewers to take a similar path in 2008. Chicago will surely give Milwaukee a run for its money, but backers should remain positive that a pitching staff of this caliber combined with run production from the plate should see this club bank better profit then a -507 deficit from last season.

Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94, -1663)

It looks like another season of rebuilding for Pittsburgh (doesn’t it always seem like the Pirates are trying to reconstruct the roster), but this time around some key changes have been made. Instead of signing recycled veterans for high prices, upper management seems to have a new plan in place.

With bright futures in the works for Jason Bay and Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh will look to parlay its youthful talent in a possible exchange for a bundle of prospects and a restocking of its farm teams (although I personally believe these two have a secure home in Pitt). It seems that the Pirates are always wheeling and dealing, and not always for the best. But there’s no doubting that midseason trades will develop, for the good and/or bad.

First baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Freddy Sanchez should continue to help out in offensive production, but don’t expect these two players to remain with the team for seasons to come. Best described, these two players are fillers for 2008.

For the Pirates to nail the ‘over’ 68 ½-games that many books have set, starters Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, a bullpen anchored by southpaw slinger Damaso Marte, John Garabow and closer Matt Capps will all have to work in unison. With 2007 serving as his breakout year, Gorzelanny threw for a 14-10 record, while maintaining a respectable 3.88 ERA.

There’s no sugar coating this Pirate club. Continuing to look for the right pieces to set in place will take time, but it’s quite possible that Pittsburgh will see 70 wins this season.

St. Louis Cardinals (78-84, -473)

Going on two years removed from reaching the “Promised Land”, taking the 2006 World Series title, St. Louis enters a murky 2008 season.

Staring at a mortal 77 games on the ‘over/under’, books and sports analysis are predicting a Cards team facing detrimental forces.

There’s no doubting that slugging superstar Albert Pujols and starting pitcher Adam Wainwright are the faces of the organization, it’s what lies beneath the surface that will ultimately determine the fate of St. Louis.

Stepping up to the plate, we can’t expect players like Yadier Molina, Adam Kennedy, Cesar Izturis and Rick Ankiel to rock the scoreboard.

Good news, and support, does come from signing Troy Glaus, who was acquired from Toronto in exchange for Scott Rolen. However, Glaus is coming off a turbulent 2007, which had the 31-year-old third baseman playing in 115 games, batting .262 with 62 RBIs and a low 20 HRs (compared to seasons past, registering 30 or more long balls).

With the exception of starting pitchers Joel Pineiro and Matt Clement, who where both added to the roster in the second-half of last season, the rotation and pen are relatively unchanged.

The biggest concern comes from a week infield and an outfield best classified as influx.

While the Cardinals are looking at 7/1 odds to snatch first place in the NL Central by season’s end, much higher 16/1 odds to take the NL Pennant adds more substance to the not so bright state of St. Louis.

Handicapper Predictions

Kevin Rogers - The popular pick in the NL Central will likely be the Cubs, who I believe will come out on top for the second straight season. No other team in the division has the balance in their rotation like Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, and Marquis, to go along with their lineup.

The Brewers will once again make a push, but with Ben Sheets' history of injuries, it will be interesting to see if Claudio Vargas and Jeff Suppan can pick up the slack.

A team to keep an eye out for is the Reds, with Dusty Baker at the controls. If Bronson Arroyo can get off to a better start than he did last April, along with Aaron Harang anchoring the rotation, the Reds could be a sleeper in the NL Wild Card Race.

Brian Edwards - I have to go with the Cubs based on their starting pitching. Don’t be surprised if Carlos Zambrano wins the Cy Young, while Rich Hill and Ted Lilly should win at least 15 games apiece. With Alfonso Soriano and Derek Lee, you have two of the best bats in baseball.

St. Louis could definitely win the loop if things bounce its way, but how confident can any bettor be in the health of Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder? Obviously, if either or both pitchers spend an extended period of time on the DL like they did last season, the Cards will be in a world of hurt.

Milwaukee is my sleeper in this division, but the Brewers don’t have much room for error. In other words, they can’t afford any key injuries, and Ben Sheets has to – for once! – stay healthy an entire season and be the ace of the rotation.

Edwards' Predicted order of finish:

1-Cubs
2-Cardinals
3-Brewers
4-Astros
5-Reds

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