Wednesday, February 6, 2008

2008 Bear Down Baseball Preview: NL Central

The NL Central, this just so happens to be my specialty. I have been following the NL Central for awhile now, as I’m sure many of you are aware. For those of you who are unaware of the NL Central’s special little trivia, it is the only division with 6 teams rather than 5. The Brewers made their way into the Central in 1998 due to the additions of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks. With two new teams there were 15 in the NL and 15 in the AL, the numbers had to be even for interleague play so the Brewers were moved from the AL Central to the NL Central. How many of you knew that?

Last year was one of the more interesting in the NL Central, the (eventual division champion) Cubs started out extremely slow despite the huge bank buster off-season they had and the acquisition of Lou Pineilla as the manager. They were 10-14 out of the gates, whereas the nearby Milwaukee Brewers were 17-9. The Reds 13-13, Pirates 12-13 (the closest to .500 they would be all season), and St. Louis and Houston were both 10-15. 1 month later, the Cardinals got hot and jumped to 23-29 and 2nd place (cementing the Central as the least competitive of the 3 NL Divisions) and the Brew Crew was comfortably in 1st with a 31-24 record. Pirates and the Cubs were 7.5 games back and Houston was about to start their search for a new manager. The season looked pretty much over for everyone but the Brewers and their power hitting chubby 1st baseman Prince Fielder. But then June 29, 2008 (I was standing in front of the screen at the Embassy Suites Chicago, 600 North State Street watching it happen) The Cubs were against the ivy wall at Wrigley vs. the Brewers. They had been battling back all game (down 5-0 in the first) now down 5-3 in the 9th Theriot fouled out. Then with 1 out Soriano and Fontenot hit back to back singles against the MLB Saves Leader Francisco Cordero. Derrick Lee hit a sacrifice fly and scored Soriano to make the score 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth. Then Ramirez, who had struck out innings earlier to end the inning with RISP hit a 2 out 2 run jack right into the center field seats. As of the 28th the Cubs (38-39) were 7.5 games back of Milwaukee, the Cards were 10.5 back and the rest of the division was just hoping they didn’t get sent down to the minors. One week later the Cubs were 4.5 back and St. Louis was closing in as well. By the end of July the Cubs were 1 game back, and 5 ahead of the Cardinals. By the end of August the Cubs had passed the Brewers and were 1.5 games above them and 2 above the Cards. By the 21st of September the Cardinals had fallen out of the race and it was down to the Cubs and the Brewers. Though the Cubs, in attempts to give me a Heart Attack, starting fading at the end of the season (dropping 3 to Florida). They managed to finish 2 ahead of the Brewers and proceeded to lose to the DBacks in the ALDS.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: 2007 (68-94) 2008 Prediction (70-92)
It’s almost as if Pittsburgh says if we don’t change anything we can’t get worse. There is an almost non-existent farm system for the Bucs which translates to almost non-existent production in the Majors. I could go into depth with the off season moves, which there were a few, but they traded/acquired apples for apples of the same exact quality, texture, and taste. Bottom line, there are a few new faces in Pittsburgh, but don’t look for any maneuvering out of the cellar they have been in for the last 15 years. They have never won the Central and won the NL East in 1992. They have never won a Wild Card, and haven’t been to the World Series since 1979. They continually have one of the 3 lowest records, usually one of the 2, in the Central Division. Don’t look for any improvement in Pittsburgh.
5. Cincinnati Reds: 2007 (72-90) 2008 Prediction (74-88)
The Reds are going to improve, but even with an improved record, they still look to wind up in 5th place. If the Astros hadn’t acquired Tejada I would say the Reds were looking at 4th, but either way this doesn’t look to be their year. Dusty Baker is at the helm for the Reds, Baker has been successful before (NL Manager of the Year in 2003 with the Cubs, took the Giants to the World Series), but he is a patch job manager on a patch job team, Baker’s not the right fit for a team trying to rebuild completely. They can score runs, Top 10 in the 6 offensive categories mentioned in part one of these break downs (BA, R, OBP, SLG, OPS, and SB) but their pitching is near the bottom in every major category. They would be more competitive if they could find a way to only play 2 games per week and let Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang throw, they can’t Neither one of those guys is CY Young caliber to begin with, and it goes down, substantially, from there as far as Rotation and Bullpen quality. They did sign the aforementioned Francisco Cordero (of the Brewers) so if they can take a lead into the 9th they should walk away with a win, most of the time. Their bats can score runs, but it’s the fact that getting the 24 outs to make it to Cordero is the problem in Cincy.

4. St. Louis Cardinals: 2007 (78-84) 2008 Prediction (77-85)
The Cards have Albert Pujols, who’s as good a run producer as anyone in the league, as much as I hate him. Not that he’s a bad guy, but he’s a Cub Killer. Unfortunately for fans of the Micro-managing LaRussa and Co., there isn’t much of anything around Pujols, and the man simply cannot Home Run 4 times a game, I hope. Troy Glaus could be a great pick up for the Cards and Cesar Izuris has a lot of upside. The losses of Eckstein, Rolen, and Edmonds put more pressure on Pujols. The pitching could be good but too bad for them Chris Carpenter could miss half of the season and the other strong members of their rotation are coming off injury shortened seasons, or in the case of Matt Clement, 2 seasons since he last pitched. Isringhausen in the ‘pen is one major bright spot for the Cards as he is one of the top closers in the game. The Cards have the tools their just not ready yet.
3. Houston Astros: 2007 (73-89) 2008 Prediction (80-82)
Miguel Tejada, with or without the ‘roids/HGH talk following his name in the Mitchell Report, is a damn good ball player. He will definitely improve the sometimes Anemic Astros Offense. The line-up will have the bats of Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Hunter Pence to help Tejada carry the offensive load. Things will look different to those in Minute Maid Stadium because the 20 year centerpiece of the ‘Stros, Craig Biggio, will not be in attendance, at least not on the field, he took on a greater role as clubhouse leader last year after the loss of Jeff Bagwell. Now this team won’t have either in the clubhouse. They made more than a few nice offseason acquisitions but it will take awhile before the chemistry builds, meaning a possible late season, too little too late, rally, but most likely the early season slow start will put them in a deep enough hole. Their pitching, other than Roy Oswalt, wasn’t that good to begin with, and they lost Brad Lidge, but the addition of Jose Valverde is big. Another case of if they can put enough runs on the board to lead after 24 innings, they should feel pretty secure. They will be finishing the season pretty hot, and 2009 could be a year to keep an eye on Houston.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: 2007 (83-79) 2008 Prediction (84-78)
The Brewers have the hitting, especially for power (2nd in the NL in SLG., 3rd in OPS.) Their major problem, and it could mean this is one of the last years the make any kind of run, is their top heavy salaries. 2/3 of the team’s payroll is locked up in 4 players, the top 2 of whom are way overpaid (Jason Kendall 11.57 M, Eric Gagne 10 M). That doesn’t bode well for a long haul. The good news in Milwaukee is that this could be a year where the long haul doesn’t matter. The late season swoon of last year can be avoided by a young team with more experience, particularly that experience. If the Gagne gamble works out it will make up for losing top closer Francisco Cordero to the rival Reds. If Gagne performs like he did most of 2007 in Boston, especially with the newfound Mitchell accusations, it could be one of the biggest busts in franchise history. They have a back-up plan at closer, but not for the $10M hit. They beefed up an already good rotation keeping Sheets, Bush, and Suppan on board and having 4 or 5 good arms to choose from including Chris Capuano. Guillermo Mota in the ‘pen is a solid addition but the loss of Jenkins and Mench in the outfield, and in the line-up will hurt. Mike Cameron should be a good fit in the outfield. The question will be if the young talent can hold up down the arduous stretch, added leadership in Cameron and Kendall could be the difference for the slugging Brew Crew.
1. Chicago Cubs: 2007 (85-77) 2008 Prediction (91-71)
The Cubs struggled early in 2007 as I mentioned earlier and had a stellar Summer going 34-20 in June and July. They, as a usual Cub staple, had a very strong rotation and a competent, though frustrating at times, bull pen. Ryan Dempster was not very comfortable in the closing role and cost the Cubs a few games. In the last half of the season the Cubs bullpen improved dramatically with Kerry Wood showing he still has some gas in the tank and Carlos Marmol having in incredible year. His only setback came in high pressure situations on the road in the playoffs, which should be expected by a rookie. With a year under his belt 2008 could be a good year. The Cubs lived last year with a top-heavy, and lopsided line-up. All of their contributing bats were right handed and once they got past Ramirez (batted 4th most of last season) it was hit and miss (pun indended) for the bottom 5. Key acquisitions include Kosuke Fukudome who will provide a powerful left-handed bat at the top of the line-up for the Cubs, and will stretch the batting order out a little bit. Soriano proved his worth with 33 Home Runs last season, the bulk of which came in June and August and as the lead-off. Though his batting average (.299) is a little low for a lead-off hitter he finished 2007 as the team leader in almost every offensive category (HR, 3B, R, and SLG.) and Derrick Lee and Aramis Ramirez can clear the basses as they are both successful in hitting for power and average. They also added former Cub Ace Jon Lieber back to the line-up. Lieber knows Wrigley and should have a solid year there. C Geovany Soto, who batted .389 coming up in September is a strong offensive addition and he has veteran Henry Blanco to help learn how to call good games. The only offensive hole is the young Felix Pie, but he will be a good defensive CF and looked good in winter ball in the Dominican. The Cubs bench has guys like Matt Murton and Ryan Theriot who will help give the starters some rest. The only real downside of this year will be the added pressure of the 100 year anniversary since their last World Series as well as the team ownership up in the air. Hopefully, Piniella can focus his troops away from that, and so far he is doing a good job and the guys on the team are aware that they aren’t 100 years away, only the franchise, so the media’s added pressure isn’t on them individually.

The Central looks strong going into 2008, and it looks improved. There is a good chance that the NL Wild Card this year will go down to a playoff again with strong teams in all 3 divisions.


Anonymous said...

how can you say the Brewers are a one shot deal ? the contracts you talk about Kendall Gange etc are 1year deals no long term contacts. maybe before you make a statment like that you should do your homework?

Dom said...

It also has to do with the fact that the Brewers won't be able to keep the young talent. Milwaukee is the equivalent of a mid-major in professional baseball and while their fans are good, and the stadium in nice, the bottom line is they will always be the team that is having a surging year and young talent. So when I say that they're a one shot deal it has some to do with those guys, especially if they perform well enough they will most likely be around again. In 2009 Prince is arbitration eligibile and he's gonna want a paycheck after being the offensive leader on a team and making less than half a mill. A lot of young talent, which they do have, means that they're all going to want pay-days, big pay days, and their going to want them in the near future. So this year is their best chance. Milwaukee will never put together a dynasty, the money isn't there.

Anonymous said...

the Brewers gave Kendall a $4.25 million deal not 10mil+.

I think this blogger is just jealous that the brewers run a real organization and don't have to throw 200 mil at free agents

Dom said...

You are correct, when I said he was making 10+ I was misinformed and it was his 2007 salary which was so high. And before you bust on the Cubs for paying it last year I'll point out that the Pirates and A's were paying most of it for the Cubs last year. Thanks for reading. Also don't be angry when they aren't able to extend Prince Fielder next season.

Aaron said...

Aaron Harang isn't Cy Young caliber? Are you kidding? You can't claim to be an NL Central "expert" and make claims like that...