Two on Two: NL Central Preview
To continue our look at each of the six divisions, we move on this week to the National League Central. Here to help us in the analysis are J.D. Arney of Red Reporter and Alex Ciepley from The Cub Reporter.
Bryan: As an NL Central fan, I can say what bothers me about the division is the disparity that exists, almost representative of the disparity in Major League Baseball. Three of the last four years the division has been dominated by the three high-spending teams -- the Cards, Astros and Cubs. Is this something that might be fixed or will it take either a salary cap before the other three are legitimate contenders?
Alex: I think GM competence is the big factor in the division, not money. The Cubs have almost always been near the top of their division in payroll. And, for most of their time in the Central, they've struggled.
Rich: I don't think it is coincidental that the AL Central and NL Central both sport a number of "small market" franchises. Many of the teams in these two divisions simply don't have the resources available to them to retain and compete for free agents.
J.D.: I don't think a salary cap is necessary for the NL Central to see different teams contending. I think it's altogether possible that the Astros are about to go into a bit of decline, and there are things to like about the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates. The biggest problem with the NL Central is that all three of the second-tier teams thought that building a new stadium would be a panacea, when it clearly is not. I think now that stadium construction is finished for the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates, they'll all focus more on trying to build contenders because that's the only way to increase attendance for the next 20-30 years.
Bryan: Yes, the small-market teams are showing that the right order is a good team and then a new ballpark rather than the other way around. You have to spend money to make it, not tax the public, right?
J.D.: Absolutely. I'm pretty tired of teams blackmailing cities into financing their stadiums with promises of future success. Cincinnati's been through that twice now, with the Bengals and Reds, and it's failed twice.
Alex: Sure, though I think one (good team) and the other (new ballpark) have little to do with one another. If you have a good team, you're likely to get good crowds, no matter how bad the stadium. Look at Montreal in the '80s.
Bryan: Yeah, the Cubs were first place in the division in attendance.
Rich: Surprise, surprise. The Cubs are the largest market team in the NL Central.
J.D.: I think crying poverty is just a good way to excuse failure.
Bryan: When really, some of these good teams should be crying bad management/ownership.
Alex: I understand the point about the stadiums, I just think that the general incompetence of the Brewers, Pirates, and Reds is why they've not been successful recently.
Bryan: Yes, I agree Alex. J.D., would you say that the incompetence of the GMs or the small pocketbooks of the owners are to blame more?
J.D.: It pains me to say it, but all three of those teams have been run into the ground for one reason or another. I'd say the incompetence of front offices definitely. It's certainly a handicap to operate with a smaller budget, but quite a few teams have shown that it's possible to succeed on a shoestring. You have to be creative though, and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati have all spurned that route and instead gone the stadium route.
Alex: The Reds have been the unluckiest of the bunch, but their moves this offseason don't give one any confidence.
Bryan: Are you optimistic that a new regime and maybe some luck could turn things around?
J.D.: I think the Reds are going to need a great deal of luck, but I've seen things in the past year that do give me some hope. Dan O'Brien didn't draft the way I'd like, and he made some (very) questionable free agent moves, but he's still an improvement over Jim Bowden.
Rich: I think the Reds are the most fun-to-follow sub-.500 team in baseball. They have a collection of big-name talent that ranks among the game's best-known players (in the case of Ken Griffey Jr.) or most promising youngsters (Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns). If Junior and the Outfielders -- sounds like a '60s group out of Motown -- can stay healthy, it stands to reason that the Reds are going to put up a lot of runs this year.
J.D.: Dan O'Brien seems conservative to a fault, so I think he's getting off on having insurance in case one of the outfielders (or Sean Casey) is injured. However, if the Reds make it to the trade deadline relatively intact, and in striking distance then I think Pena's going to be dealt. I don't see Austin Kearns going anywhere because if he's healthy then he'll put up monster numbers. Everyone forgets how good he was in 2003 before Ray King sat on his shoulder, but he was among the league leaders in quite a few offensive categories at that point (April: .303/.431/.640; May: .287/.368/.455). I expect him to exceed virtually everyone's expectations this year because I don't think he's as fragile as people are making him out to be. His injuries have been completely of the fluky variety, not the chronic.
Rich: I agree with you, J.D. I think Kearns is apt to surprise a lot of folks this year, but I won't be among them.
Bryan: I think the Reds have a lot to get over, and expecting anything this year will be a disappointment for their fans. But there is some sign of pitching being developed.
Rich: Boy, I just don't see it, Bryan. The Reds were next to last in pitching in 2004. Eric Milton should help but not as much as one would expect from a starter with an $8.5 million annual salary. Ramon Ortiz wasn't good when he was good. What am I missing here?
J.D.: I can't really disagree when it comes to Milton or Ortiz (although I think both can do pretty good imitations of league average pitchers, which would help the Reds tremendously), but there is some talent coming along. Thomas Pauly and Richie Gardner are two names that don't get a great deal of publicity, but both are looking like they'll be solid major league pitchers. You look at their strikeout and walk rates last year (Gardner: 7.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 2.56 ERA at AA; Pauly 10.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.97 ERA at high-A), and they both look like really solid prospects that haven't gotten enough attention from prospecters, in my opinion. If the Reds can just develop one or two solid starters in the next few years -- years in which they still have Kearns, Pena, and Dunn pretty cheaply -- then they could find themselves in good shape.
Alex: While I've seen some writers get all in a tizzy over the Reds' potential improvement in 2005 -- and I myself think they could be okay -- I still think the Brewers are the bottom-dwelling team with the higher upside. Rob Neyer's recent column on Team Efficiency (via the Bill James handbook) indicated that this might be true as well: the James handbook points out that the Brewers were actually a "77-win" team last year, while the Reds were a "66-win" team -- a virtual flip in their actual records.
J.D.: I wrote a little about the Brewers a couple of weeks ago, and I just don't see them climbing out of the hole they've dug anytime soon.
Rich: The Brewers are on their way up. I'm not suggesting that they will be good this year, but there is cause for some optimism a couple of years out.
J.D.: They've got some good minor league talent, but their method of operation seems to be almost entirely draft dependent, and they really don't seem to draft well enough for them to have a sustained run. I could see them becoming quite good in a year or two and for a year or two, but I think that's the best Brewer fans can hope for.
Bryan: Prince is definitely the best of the three; it won't be long until he is right in the heart of that order. Weeks' struggles worry me, but I think he'll have a good year and allow the team to trade Junior Spivey. And while I might be a seller of Hardy, he's going to be an everyday player. Maybe Royce Clayton, but an everyday player.
Rich: Don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting that Hardy and Weeks will become the next Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. But Fielder certainly looks as if he would have fit right in there on Harvey Kuenn's Brew Crew ballclubs in the '80s.
Alex: ...and then trading those three. I actually applaud their trading methods more than anything else.
J.D.: I will admit that I'm a big fan of the Posednik for Lee trade. Most teams come out ahead when they trade with the White Sox though.
Rich: Trading Kolb for Jose Capellan is exactly the right type of move a team like the Brewers should make. What good is Kolb going to do them?
Bryan: I will say that I think Mike Maddux is now the second best pitching coach in the game. If they can recreate some offensive numbers of old, I think success is likely.
Rich: That's about as unlikely to happen as Carlos Beltran playing for the Astros this year.
Bryan: Does everyone look for the Astros to completely fall from grace this year?
Alex: I think it's become in vogue to unfurl the "Astros Suck" banner -- and I know I've been guilty of that bit of heraldry -- but, in actuality, I think their demise is a bit overblown. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt will again be among the best pitchers in the league. The offense has a lot of question marks, but it still has a good amount of talent.
Bryan: Yes, preventing runs won't be the problem, though I must say I won't be the one to reach on Brandon Backe in fantasy leagues this year. I think scoring is the issue here. Jeff Bagwell -- and I'm sorry to say this Alex -- won't be around forever.
J.D.: They've got to be worried about Lance Berkman as well.
Rich: The Killer B's may kill the Astros this year rather than the opposition.
Alex: I only hope that the Astros worry, worry, worry about Berkman, and decide he's not worth the investment. I hope the Astros worry about Berkman so much they fail to offer him a contract.
Bryan: You want him in Cubbie blue?
Alex: He'd look mighty good in left field for the Cubs come 2006.
J.D.: How about that Cubs outfield? Kind of the Achilles heel, isn't it?
Alex: Don't say the word Achilles around a Cubs fan, J.D.
Alex: Corey Patterson could go either way -- I've seen projections all over the place. Ron Shandler thinks he's a huge risk, but BP seems to think he may be about to explode into an All-Star.
Rich: Now that's one outfielder I do like.
Bryan: I just hope he's out of the leadoff hole. It's funny, I was happy with the idea of a Hairston-Patterson-Dubois outfield, but now it looks like it will be Hollandsworth-Patterson-Burnitz.
Alex: Jason Dubois is their second-best hitter in the outfield...and he'll be in AAA. That's what he gets for having an option left! I don't like Hairston at all. I like...can you guess...AUBREY HUFF.
Bryan: I don't think Aubrey will be dealt until next winter, when the Cubs have already found something else.
Alex: You're probably right. Tampa Bay actually should trade Huff this year, when his value is highest, but when do the Devil Rays actually do something that makes sense?
Bryan: You know Jim will go get somebody at the deadline.
Alex: Hendry has proven himself adept at the "big deal," so I'd be surprised if he doesn't pull out a trick or two this season. It's just the small details that cause the problems.
Bryan: Maybe that he signed Jeromy Burnitz?
Alex: I'm not a fan of Burnitz, but it wasn't a horrid pickup under the circumstances.
Rich: Let's face it, the Cubs are only going to go as far as their pitching takes them. If they stay healthy and pitch like they are capable of, even Steve Bartman won't be able to derail them this year.
Alex: Why are Mike Wuertz, Jon Leicester, Todd Wellemeyer, and Sergio Mitre fighting for one bullpen spot? Those are the types of pitchers that you use to fill in the back of your bullpen cheaply and effectively, not Ryan Dempster.
Bryan: Yes, I like Leicester a ton, and he's just never going to see the ninth.
J.D.: Ahh, Ryan Dempster, what a fun guy. I attended a game where he gave up nine in less than four innings to the Phillies. Great day.
Alex: Yeah, he was awesome in Cincinnati.
Bryan: Yes, and now talk is that JoeBo is going to get his job back.
Alex: Well, there's an article out on cubs.com that says he is hitting 90 mph again. If so, then that would be most of the way back (better than last season), but I don't know if it is enough. He walks a thin line with his stuff; he's a pitcher who does need the extra mphs on his fastball to be effective. I think Wuertz is the best of the lot.
Bryan: OK, we're showing our Chicago bias. Will this matter, or will the Cardinals dominate this division again?
J.D.: I think last season for St. Louis was one of the flukier ones I've ever seen to be honest.
Rich: I don't understand why the Cardinals' season would be categorized as a fluke other than it was perhaps unexpected. They had a trio of players -- Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen -- who were among the best in the league last year. If not for Barry Bonds, you could easily make a case on behalf of all three for MVP honors.
Alex: I agree, Rich. The numbers supported their wins. This wasn't a team that got lucky in the number of runs saved/runs scored.
Alex: Last year's version was a team in which many risks turned to gold and bad signings turned out well.
J.D.: Yeah, but you look at how healthy they were, especially their pitching. Maybe that's a comment on their team health staff, but generally you're going to have people go down at some point. Their five starting pitchers all pitched over 180 innings.
Alex: Yes, you're right. I thought of them as a healthy team, but I also thought of them as a team where Chris Carpenter went down. Rolen and Pujols played through injuries.
Bryan: "Played through" being key there. If that doesn't happen again, the Cubs could walk into the playoffs.
Rich: Hold on, Bryan. Dusty Baker's Cubs don't know how to walk.
Alex: I don't think Pujols and Rolen are too big a risk though. I'd be much more concerned about the other two Big Boppers. Iron Men Edmonds and Larry Walker.
Rich: Come on now, Alex. Edmonds may not be an Iron Man but Jimbo isn't the injury risk that everyone makes him out to be. Do you realize that he has played 150 or more games in three of the past five years? He actually ranks fifth among all center fielders in games played during the 2000s.
Alex: Come on right back, Rich. Even our deepest crushes can't blind us to the realities of life. Realities like...aging. Edmonds has shown an ability to play through aches and pains, and you're right -- he's played often recently -- but he's no spring chickadee. Like all good things, or at least like all bleach-streaked showboats, he can't last forever.
Bryan: I almost forgot about Walker. Full season of him now, too. Walt Jocketty definitely deserved that raise of his.
Alex: I think that the Cards take a step back -- maybe a 10-15 game step back -- but they will still make the playoffs easily. Mark Mulder's great, but is he better than Dan Haren or Woody Williams at this point? Didn't both Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan pitch over their heads?
J.D.: The Cardinals are a lot like the Braves. Everything they touch turns to gold.
Alex: I'm actually just bitter about the Cards' pitching last season.
Bryan: One thing Ken Rosenthal noted was that the Cards had more groundballs than anyone else last year and, believe me, they are losing a ton of range up the middle.
Bryan: I know you guys thought if no one else mentioned it we might not talk about it, but we can't just forget about the Pirates. In my opinion, this team is marginal at best, terrible at worst. I feel like Dave Littlefield is just waiting for the trade deadline, desperate to trade Kip Wells and Matt Lawton. I'm just not sure their draught will ever end.
J.D.: It's really a shame the Pirates' offense is so dismal because they've got some very interesting pitching. In a year or two, they could have two bona fide aces in Zach Duke and Oliver Perez -- but it seems as if it's going to be wasted because of their lack of offense. If they ever decide to spend money, they could probably get good in a hurry because offense is generally cheaper than pitching. But I can't really envision a world where Pittsburgh signs big-name free agents.
Rich: Do you realize that the Pirates haven't fielded a .500 ballclub since winning the NL East in the first three years of the 1990s? A dozen years and not one in which they won as many games as they lost.
Bryan: Simply put, they have to be the worst-run team in the Majors.
Rich: Well, it just seems like the Pirates are always rebuilding. Renewing Jason Bay's and Oliver Perez's contracts sure isn't going to win them any points either.
J.D.: Do you guys think the Wild Card will come out of the Central again?
Alex: I think the Wild Card is more likely to come from the NL Beast this year.
Bryan: The NL East? Gosh, no. The Cubs are far better than any team there, in my humble opinion.
Rich: What do the Cubs have to do with the Wild Card, Bryan? I know you are going to pick them to win the division.
J.D.: I could see the Wild Card coming from the East. I was actually surprised that it didn't come from there last season.
Alex: I'm picking the Cubs for last this year. I'm tired of having any expectations...65 wins is a goal! I think the Cubs win in 2008. A tidy 100th anniversary party.
Bryan: Alright guys, let's close this out with some actual predictions. I'll lead it off: Cubs, Cards, Astros, Brewers, Reds, Bucs.
J.D.: Well, while you're thinking, Rich, I'll go with the Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Pirates, Brewers.
Alex: I say Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, Brewers, Pirates, Reds.
Rich: Put me down for the Redbirds and Cubs 1-2. No way any of these other teams finish first or second. I'll pick the Astros for third but with a record right around .500. Pirates fourth. Reds fifth. Brewers dead last once again.
So, for the second straight week, it looks like Bryan is by himself in the divisional prediction. The official Baseball Analysts consensus has the Cardinals on top, followed closely by the Cubs. The Astros, despite most of the roundtable participants expecting a reasonable regression, are projected to place third.
Outside of J.D., the Reds, Brewers and Pirates are picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth. While we hope promising farm systems and new regimes will even out the division, color us skeptical. Dollars don't always have to be the determining factor in success, but a lot more sensibility will be needed than what Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have shown in recent years.