Time for the second to last preview before Sunday night’s opening game. This one will focus on the NL Central. You can check out the other four previews here: AL East, AL Central, AL West, NL East. Also, while you’re at it, check out this Jim Thome bobblehead. Notice something wrong? Now on to the previews.
The Houston Astros finished the 2008 season 86-75 record. To me, they didn’t do a whole lot to upgrade their team. They’ll get a full season of Carlos Lee, which will help. Miguel Tejada has put the legal issues behind him (still that small issue of probation), Hunter Pence will be a season more mature, and then there’s Lance Berkman. They signed Ivan Rodriguez for a year, who is an upgrade behind the plate. Even with a decent offense, I don’t think team has a chance to beat the Cubs.
Their pitching staff is anchored by Roy Oswalt. Past that, Wandy Rodriguez is a candidate for a break out year. Mike Hampton is in Houston on a one year deal, but as a Braves fan, I’ll be mad if he makes more than four starts. Beyond that, the Astros are lacking and that will hurt them when it comes to facing Albert Pujols and the heart of the Cubs order. If the stars align, this team could make a run. I just don’t see it happening.
I was high on the Cincinnati Reds last year and I’m not going to fall for it again. I thought Aaron Harang was a star, Homer Bailey would come along, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto would join Adam Dunn in the heart of the order. I thought Edwin Encarnacion was poised for a bust out year. Basically, only Jay Bruce and Joey Votto proved to be good picks. Harang went 6-17. Dunn was shipped to Arizona. Encarnacion went .251/26/68 (not terrible.) Edinson Volquez broke out and went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 Ks. He’s a star.
I don’t want to convince myself that the Reds will be good again, but I’m still not convinced that they’re a bad team. Bruce and Votto get full seasons, Volquez and Johnny Cueto will get better. Harang can’t be that bad again (assuming he doesn’t get traded). I’m going to temper my expectations for them, but look out, this team is a sleeper.
The Milwaukee Brewers were a surprise last year. They traded for CC Sabathia and made a run for the playoffs. Ultimately, they came up a bit short, but still won 90 games. I’m not expecting this to happen again. Sabathia bolted for the Yankees and their second best pitcher, Ben Sheets, in hurt and without a job. Jeff Suppan is the definition of average, and Manny Parra and Dave Bush will have to carry the load. That is not a recipe for success.
Their lineup is promising, however. They have Prince Fielder and JJ Hardy on the infield, plus Rickie Weeks, if he can ever live up to the hype. Ryan Braun will look to improve on his 37 homer campaign on ’08, but he’ll have to stay healthy. If this teams gets the pitching they need, they could make a run at the Central.
The St. Louis Cardinals are a bit of a mystery to me. They’re good, not great. they have Albert Pujols, who is great, and then a bunch of players who I really don’t know how to gauge: Rick Ankiel, Yadier Molina, Ryan Ludwick, even Troy Glaus. I have no idea what to expect from any of these guys in 2009. Ryan Ludwick hit 37 homers in 2008. I would be shocked if he comes close to that again. Yadier Molina hit .216 in 2006 and then posted a line of .304/7/56 last year. Who knows what to expect.
Their pitching staff is kind of the same. Kyle Lohse had a career year last year, going 15-6. Adam Wainwright was 11-3 when he was healthy. Chris Carpenter is trying to make a comeback after essentially missing the last two years. The whole team is a giant question mark, in my opinion.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are terrible. They haven’t had a winning season in 17 years. That’s not changing this year.
The Chicago Cubs are the best team in the division. They’ve now gone 101 years without winning a World Series, but they’ll have another decent shot this year. Their rotation is strong, if they can remain healthy. They will have a full season of Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly. That’s a formidable pitching staff. Plus, they got rid of Jason Marquis, which can only mean good things. Kevin Gregg was recently named the closer, so all you Carlos Marmol fans will have to wait a bit.
Their Cubs’ lineup looks just about the same as it did last year, except for the addition of Milton Bradley. He’ll add some left handed pop to that lineup as long as he can stay healthy. The murderous righties of Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano will still crush the ball, regardless. This team should win the division losing in some tragic fashion in the playoffs.
So here are the meaningless predictions for the NL Central.
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Houston Astros
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds
6. Pittsburgh Pirates.
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