Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 08, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 NL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Today we return to our 2006 previews, staying in the midwest. In our first installment of this feature, Aaron Gleeman and Cheat helped us preview the AL Central. Here to duke it out with Rich and Bryan are two very talented writers, Larry Borowsky from Viva El Birdos (a Cardinals blog) and John Hill via the Cub Reporter. Enjoy the latest segment...

Bryan: The NL Central has been, outside the AL East, the most predictable division in baseball for five years. In fact, only once has the top two not included St. Louis and Houston. The trend looks to be coming to an end, no?

Larry: I think the Cardinals are still pretty certain to hold one of those top 2 slots, but not so certain they'll hold the top slot. The Brewers look ready to challenge for a division title or wild card, and the Cubs' luck is bound to turn one of these years; if they can keep Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano healthy for 60 starts (and that's a big if, I realize) they could easily finish 1st or 2nd. I wouldn't expect Houston to win the division outright, but if Roger Clemens returns -- as Peter Gammons reports he will -- I don't see why they couldn't win 90 games and another wild card.

John: This time last year, most were completely writing off the Houston Astros, and that didn't stop them making it to the World Series for the first time in their history. So excuse me if I'm a little hesitant to be quite so bullish about any anticipated demise on the part of the Cubs' biggest rivals! That said, it does certainly appear that both the Cardinals and Astros will be weaker this year, and that consequently the division will be a lot more open. At the very least, I don't think the Cardinals will have run away with things again by the end of the May.

Rich: The Cardinals are clearly the class of the division. It's theirs to lose. The Astros, Brewers, and Cubs (that's alpha order and how they finished last year) have an outside shot at first place if everything goes right and the Cards slip for whatever reason.

Larry: The pitching staffs of the top four teams are pretty close. All four teams have strong 1-2 starters: Oswalt/Pettitte, Carpenter/Mulder, Zambrano/Prior, Sheets/Davis.

Bryan: Yes, other than the Reds, I think it's a division of pitching. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have offensive problems, but everyone has a deep staff.

Larry: I think the Brewers' offense may be pretty good. I was just looking their lineup over -- if Prince Fielder hits, there's not a weak link in the lineup.

John: In the long-term, there's little doubt about it, Fielder and Rickie Weeks will hit, and both will be tremendous assets to the organization. But the jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues is a hard enough one to make as it is even without taking into account that young players that strike out quite a bit seem to take the longest to acclimate to facing more advanced pitching. As a result, I personally wouldn't be surprised to see Fielder and Weeks find the going tough at first, to see them not contribute much. As for the rest of the lineup, it doesn't feature any weak links, but I don't think it features many particularly strong ones either. This year at least, I think it's likely to not be much better than an average offense, one that will keep them in games but that won't go out and win them outright.

Bryan: Well, as someone who follows prospects, the Brewers are a dream. I say offensive problems, but that's a stretch, what I mean is potential offensive problems. If they hit on all cylinders, this team will bash with the best of 'em.

Larry: I agree with you, Bryan. The Brewers have the best leadoff man in the division (Brady Clark) and they have good on-base ability throughout the lineup. I think Weeks is going to hit, and Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins are pretty established middle-of-the-order hitters. Not all-stars, but very productive. One caveat in regards to Fielder: 2 walks, 17 Ks in his September trial last year. If he falters, however, they can put Bill Hall in at third and play Corey Koskie at first.

Rich: Yikes. Hall hit well last year, but I'd be surprised if he put up those same numbers this year. Koskie is passable as a third baseman but would be a huge liability offensively as a first baseman.

Bryan: Well, Fielder is the one guy you don't have to worry about. He might start slow, he does so historically, but he is totally ready for the Majors. I worry more about Koskie, Damian Miller, and Clark bringing the rest down.

Larry: What's impressive about the Brewers is that they can just plug in Corey Hart if one of their outfielders goes down or plays badly. Does anybody think the Brewers might actually trade Carlos Lee in a midseason salary dump? They're almost sure to be in the wild-card race come July. But the rumors have flown about Lee being moved.

Bryan: No, they might as well take the draft pick at season's end, unless Hart's OPS at AAA is over 1.000 or something. But really, the reason to like the Brewers isn't the young, high ceiling offense but the deep, deep, deep rotation. Mike Maddux for divisional MVP?

John: There's no doubting Mike Maddux is one of the better pitching coaches in the game, but the most valuable person in the division? That's far too big a statement for me. I mean, come on, Albert Pujols?

Bryan: Yeah, I exaggerate, but his value has been well-proven with the improvements of Chris Capuano, Doug Davis, and many more. We really need J.C. Bradbury to do a Mike Maddux Effect.

John: Is their rotation really that deep? I don't think it is, yet it may well need to be. Their fourth starter is currently Tomo Ohka, and they have Dave Bush, Dana Eveland and Rick Helling battling it out for the final spot. I don't see much to get excited about there and the Brewers are only an injury to Ben Sheets away from having three of those four pitchers in their rotation behind Davis and Capuano. That's a cynical way of looking at things, certainly, but is Ben Sheets that much greater an injury risk than some of the Cub pitchers we'll surely come to speak of later in this discussion?

Rich: The Brewers will only go as far as Sheets takes them.

John: Few pitchers are paragons of good health, it's part of the job description, but over the last eighteen months alone, Sheets has suffered a torn muscle in his upper back related to the shoulder and undergone surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, plus that odd inner-ear infection. If he's not careful he'll get a somewhat undeserved reputation for being injury prone before too long.

Larry: Before we leave the Brew Crew, they meet a lot of Bill James' "leading indicators" of successful teams. One, they have a young everyday lineup. Two, they underperformed their Pythagorean W-L last year by three games, meaning they may be due for a bit of luck this year. And three, they scored fewer runs than would be predicted by the Runs Created formula, which again suggests they might have been a tad unlucky last season and due for a bounce. They won 81 last season; it's not that hard to see them at 90 in 2006.

Bryan: I'll admit, they are my pick to win the division. I like David Bush to break out a bit, Ben Sheets to stay healthy, and Carlos Lee could blossom into a star in his contract year. Milwaukee is looking up sans Selig.

John: I agree that things are looking up in Milwaukee, and that this ought to be the season that they finally get back above five hundred for the first time since 1992. I'm just wary that people are setting the bar too high too soon, and expecting the youngsters to carry them to a division title is I think out of the question, at least this year. For them to do it, literally everything would need to break their way.

Rich: I'm not looking for the Brewers to win the division, but I think they will challenge for the wild card.

Larry: If they do win, then maybe Mike Maddux IS the division MVP, but Pujols will not give it up without a fight. The man has a force of will (as we saw in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the NLCS) and it elevates the whole team's play. That said, the Cardinals are clearly vulnerable. The Brewers have a clean shot at them, but if the Cubs can get 60 starts from Prior and Zambrano -- and if Dusty Baker stops doing those things -- they could be troublesome, too.

John: On the face of things, I think the Cardinals have taken a pretty big step backwards this year. The return of Scott Rolen, perhaps to his best form, perhaps not, could give them three big bats in the lineup, one of them in my opinion the best player in the game. But beyond those three, the other being the aging Jim Edmonds, the supporting cast has really thinned out. Larry Bigbie, John Rodriguez, Juan Encarnacion, Junior Spivey - any other team and I'd feel sorry for them. Fact of the matter is that the only people that lineup's scaring now are Cardinal fans. What a far cry from just two years ago.

Rich: Well, we're all aging, John. At 35, Edmonds is still the best center fielder in the division. Granted, the Cardinals missed an opportunity to better themselves during the off-season, but we need to remember that they are working with a pretty big margin for error here.

Larry: If the pitchers perform, I think the Cardinals will still be right there, despite the weakened lineup. But Jeff Suppan has overachieved the last couple of seasons, and who knows if Mark Mulder is any good anymore. I wrote him off last June and he proved me wrong. He's pitching for a new contract; maybe that will motivate him.

John: I think it's pretty evident that the Cardinals made a big mistake in pulling the trigger on the Mark Mulder trade. Danny Haren is arguably already the better of the two, and that's not even considering the difference in salary, or the fact that the Cardinals also sent Daric Barton and Kiko Calero to Oakland.

Larry: It obviously hasn't worked out. I won't fault Jocketty for pulling the trigger -- he thought Mulder was the guy who could put the Cards over the top. He paid a high price to get him, rolled the dice and crapped out. But at least he played to win. I will allow him that.

Bryan: The Mulder trade represents a weakness in the La Russa/Jocketty-run front office, as they tend to devalue top-heavy pitching prospects. Here's to hoping Anthony Reyes doesn't face the same curse.

John: I could understand underutilizing Reyes if the Cardinals didn't have an obvious vacancy in the rotation, but the fact of the matter is that they do. Suppan is at best a league average pitcher, I don't think much more of Jason Marquis, and I think a lot less of Sidney Ponson, though it was a low risk gamble. Sending Reyes to the bullpen or back to the minor leagues sends the wrong message, and it might even cost the Cardinals a few games too.

Larry: The one player who might give the Cards a real shot in the arm, Reyes appears ticketed for long relief. Marquis and Ponson are both question marks. There are no disasters-in-waiting on the staff, but it may not be a league-leader in ERA in 2006.

John: Wait, you're saying Sidney Ponson isn't a disaster in waiting? I can't agree with that, not unless you already think he's a disaster.

Larry: I think Ponson will simply eat innings and have a 4.50 ERA, which is only slightly worse than what Marquis and Morris did last year.

John: Well, Ponson is good at eating, they might as well put that to good use and feed him innings.

Bryan: Ponson is a good value signing, but it's just that. There's no risk to give him ten starts and see what happens, but Jocketty needs to make sure La Russa can get away from him if need be.

Larry: Obviously Ponson isn't the difference between success and failure in the postseason. At best, he'll provide the depth the Cardinals need to acquire a bat at midseason.

Rich: I don't see Ponson bringing a bat this summer. Either he pitches well and the Cards keep him or he bombs and has next to no trade value.

Bryan: My concern isn't really the rotation, which has enough depth to survive. The problem of the staff, I think, is the bullpen.

Larry: I think the middle relief will shape up. Either Reyes or Ponson will be there to provide bulk innings, and Brad Thompson can handle the 6th/7th; Duncan should be able to turn at least one of Adam Wainwright, Josh Hancock, Brad Voyles, etc. into a useful middle reliever. But the 8th and 9th innings won't be boring. La Russa will have to play matchups to the hilt, shielding Braden Looper (and Jeff Nelson, if he makes the team) from left-handed hitters and Ricardo Rincon and Flores from righties. Jason Isringhausen may be asked to get more 4-out saves this year, and he wasn't exactly unhittable in 2005. One weak link in that chain could cost the team a few games -- and in a tight race, that could be a big problem.

Bryan: Alright, let's talk a bit about the offense. Larry mentioned Rolen, and to me, he's the key. His health could be the x-factor of the division. Without him, who's the 3rd-best hitter, Encarnacion?

Larry: If he's healthy, then Encarnacion is safely stowed in a supporting role. If Rolen gets hurt or is not sound enough to be Scott Rolen, then there's nobody on the roster to pick up the slack.

Rich: There really wasn't anybody to pick up the slack last year, yet the team won 100 games.

Larry: It's going to be a 760-run offense at worst, as long as Pujols and Edmonds can play. And 760 runs will put them in the upper half of the league. If Rolen's good to go, then it's probably a 780- to 790-run offense, which puts them in the top 3 or 4. It's not as scary as it used to be, but don't forget they scored 805 without Rolen last year.

Rich: Exactly.

Bryan: Yes, the offense certainly has an advantage over the Cubs. Edmonds is that big difference-maker. The infields are pretty much the same offensively, but the Cubs abysmal outfield can't touch the Cards average one. That will be one difference maker between those rivals, before even talking about health.

Larry: And I would expect the Cardinals to acquire an outfield bat at some point. Luis Gonzalez will be available; Kevin Mench can be had.

Bryan: Yes, and Jim Hendry might be too stubborn to do so. Matt Murton and Jacque Jones will be really average, and Juan Pierre will be, well, Pierre. He won't see reason to make a trade, and will thus give that bat to the Cards.

Rich: Cubs fans would be better off counting crows than hits for Mr. Jones this coming year, especially those vs. LHP.

Bryan: It's a problem of roster construction that gives St. Louis the edge.

John: Strangely, I just can't bring myself to predict anything less than ninety wins for the Cardinals this year. I don't much like their offense, and I don't much like their pitching staff. But if there's a team in baseball not called the Braves that manages to always find a way, it's the Cardinals. If I wasn't quite so cold-blooded I could probably find a way myself to actually appreciate that about them. As it happens, I'm reptilian about it and really can't.

Larry: Well, let's talk about the Cubs. I always think they're gonna give the Cards a go and then health and Dusty Baker make me look like a fool. Will this year be different?

John: No. So, anyone got any thoughts about the Reds this year?

Bryan: Yeah, the key for Cub fans is always to downplay expectations, right?

John: Expectations, what are they again?

Bryan: I think the Cubs are merely a .500 team, and constructed just like that. The bullpen is solid, but there isn't a lot of room for it to be great. The rotation can be, but there is such little certainty in it. And, finally, the lineup doesn't invoke a lot of hope.

Larry: Couldn't Pierre have a .370 OBP playing in Wrigley?

John: Juan Pierre isn't going to be a problem for the Cubs this year. I have little doubt he's going to hit a lot of singles, he's going to steal a lot of bases, and he's going to get caught while he's at it plenty of times, too. He's going to catch balls in center field that his poor reads and routes give him no right to get to, and his arm is going to be of less use than a balsa wood battering ram. But he won't be a problem. The center field position will be filled, and on the whole, adequately so. Juan Pierre, for me, actually sums up the current state of the Cubs very well: on the whole just adequate and overly expensive.

Bryan: John, I'm really curious what your thoughts are about this pitching staff. Is there any chance for a full bill of health? I doubt it.

John: There's no chance of a full bill of health, but that's the same with almost every pitching staff. Injury is a part of the game, particularly on the pitching side of things.

Rich: Dusty rode his Big Three hard down the stretch in 2003. He may have ruined Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Well, maybe not ruined them. But we'll never know just how good Wood and Prior might have been had they been handled properly.

John: All the same, the situation with the Cubs these last few years has been farcical - besides Chad Fox, who hardly counts, and Mike Remlinger, I honestly can't remember the last time the Cubs suffered an injury to a pitcher who wasn't absolutely crucial to the team's success at the time (a quick check says Todd Wellemeyer spent nearly two months on the DL in early 2004). At some stage, surely, the Cubs will be able to get a fully-functional Zambrano, Prior and Wood on the mound at the same time, and instead it'll be John Koronka maybe that's taken out by an unfortunate line drive. But until that happens, though the Cubs have better pitching depth this year, easily the best in the division, the Cubs aren't going to win anything. The depth is great, but this offense needs a staff strong enough to pick it up, put it on its back and literally carry it. That means all three of our aces really need to be out there.

Larry: As a baseball fan, I would like to see what those guys could do in a full season. The signs from spring training aren't all that encouraging regarding Prior, and the latest I've heard is that Wood won't be back until May 1 at the earliest. In all honesty, I hope Chicago's pitchers are healthy. It'll make for a very exciting division.

Bryan: Confidence in Kerry, for most Chicagoans, has eroded. Something is mechanically wrong, and like Corey Patterson, I have a feeling he's too stubborn to fix it. Mark Prior has a chance at a full bill of health, but unless something dramatic changes, I don't think Kerry Wood does.

Rich: Listening to Steve Stone while watching Wood pitch was a can't miss for me. Maybe Stone and Baker should have switched places all these years?

Bryan: Don't tell the Cubs that, Rich, you'll have to start dodging punches. If Dusty Baker's one strength is motivation -- though I'm not sure it is -- the thought behind Stone is that quality would be his weakness.

Larry: Do the Cubs have lineup problems or simply a Dusty problem? They finished second in the league in slugging last year but were about 10th in OBP -- and not for lack of decent on-base skills on the roster. Does Hendry recognize this problem at all? And do you guys think anything can be done to change it, short of firing Dusty?

Bryan: For Dusty Baker to succeed, a General Manager needs to set him up not to fail. Jim Hendry hasn't, putting people like Neifi Perez on a team, giving him a chance to play. The team will have better OBP this year, but they are a few injuries from falling on their face. Murton and Ronny Cedeno will help, Pierre should provide a big lift, but it is by no imagination a good offense.

John: If anything, it's not just a Dusty problem, but a Cubs problem. The organization doesn't seem to believe in the importance of on-base percentage, instead concentrating much more on contact skills, power potential and the ability to catch the ball.

Larry: I've heard they are pursuing Tony Graffanino to play 2B. Would that provide any encouragement?

Bryan: It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Graffanino would simply be piling on top of Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston. It would really be odd if the Reds and Cubs entered the year with six combined capable (though that's a strong word for Tony Womack) second basemen.

John: Not at all, because the majority of Cub fans as I can see are at the very least satisfied with Todd Walker, who, while not great defensively and prone to saying a few stupid things, has a very solid bat for a second baseman.

Larry: But Dusty doesn't like him. Or doesn't seem to.

Bryan: I mentioned the Reds 2B problem, guys, and it's really just a bit in a damning resume that led to Dan O'Brien's firing. Before he left, he finally fixed the OF/1B logjam by acquiring mediocre pitcher Dave Williams, adding to the mediocrity and filth that makes up the pitching staff.

Rich: I'm not so sure O'Brien fixed that logjam. Cincy still has four outfielders plus it looks as if Scott Hatteberg might start at first base.

Bryan: Any reason for optimism in Cincy?

Larry: Not for a while. They do have some of the most interesting young players in the division. Felipe Lopez looks good, ditto Edwin Encarnacion. Looks like Wily Mo Pena will be a good roto player if not necessarily a good real-life hitter.

Rich: I'm not high on Pena at all. He struck out 224 times while accumulating 42 walks in approximately 700 plate appearances the past two years. PECOTA can fawn all over him as it wants, but I think he is overrated and unlikely to become a star player.

John: I'm not entirely sure Felipe Lopez' bat is for real, given his historical propensity to strike out and he's also a butcher of a shortstop.

Bryan: If ever there was a team that should be willing to sacrifice some defense for some above-average offense, it's the Reds. As a hitter, it seems Lopez, Jorge Cantu and Jhonny Peralta all broke through last year and enter the year with a lot of doubts, despite solid (if stagnated) minor league records. He's a good offensive player that probably won't get better than he was last year.

Larry: Their players draw a lot of interest. Austin Kearns, Pena, Lopez, and Adam Dunn are all pretty coveted. And Dunn's contract is considered to be highly moveable. So perhaps there's an opportunity to restructure the talent on that team.

John: The changes for the Reds have to come first via the farm system, and the outlook on that front isn't particularly bright at all. Trading away Adam Dunn isn't likely to be a profitable move for them.

Larry: Anybody think they can move Ken Griffey Jr.?

John: If there's even a chance of it, the Reds ought to be all over it. He's expensive, awful defensively, and it's only a matter of time, surely, before he gets injured again.

Bryan: Yes, but I'm not sure the return will be worth it. Kearns needs to come out of the gate hot, and then Krivsky can trade him and insert Chris Denorfia into the outfield.

Larry: Bryan, what do you think of Homer Bailey?

Bryan: For the Reds to be successful, the changes need to come from the farm system, like Bailey. This team needs to find a way to keep young pitchers healthy, and maximize their potential. It has been awhile since they've done that. Bailey's arm is fantastic, but this organization needs to change its methodology before I'm a full-fledged believer.

Larry: They do have a new owner who has ties to the Cardinal organization. If nothing else, I think a change in philosophy is in the offing in Cincinnati. Whether or not they will execute remains to be seen, but I would expect a new process of decision-making at the very least.

Bryan: The Reds are, like a lot of teams in baseball, simply a few years away. That's really the easy way to conclude, right?

John: Do you think enough of the Reds' system to say that they're only a few years away, Bryan? Or, do you have faith in their new GM to maintain a strong lineup while simultaneously finding all the pitching, and that's essentially about nine or ten members of that staff, that they need?

Bryan: Well, I'm stretching the word "few," John. It's a weak system, and a creative GM will need to work a lot of magic to fix this team.

Larry: With the wild card, one only needs to cobble together 88 wins to make the playoffs. And that can be done with a couple of decent trades, one free-agent pickup, and an unexpected year from one prospect. I could easily see them being competitive again by 2009 -- why not?

Bryan: After seeing what Doug Melvin has done in Milwaukee, I'll believe anything.

Rich: Oh, the Reds can be turned around. But it won't happen overnight, and it won't be easy. It's gonna take time and patience. Unfortunately, most of the talent at the big-league level is at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, the pitching staff could be the worst in baseball, and the minor-league system is bereft of talent.

Bryan: The Pirates are another team a few years away, but seem to be the opposite of the Reds. There is a lot of hope in a young pitching staff that showed promise in 2005, but the offensive foundation isn't there. Your takes on the Bucs?

John: Put it this way, I'd rather be the Pirates than the Reds right now.

Larry: Why are they throwing money at Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Hernandez and Sean Casey?

Bryan: You beat me to that question, Larry. I mean, did Dave Littlefield and Allard Baird come up with winter plans together? Spending money on overrated veterans is a sorry game.

John: That's not really a fair comparison. The Pirates are in a much more favorable situation relative to the Royals. On the pitching side of things there's a lot of promise, with Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Sean Burnett. At some stage they're going to need to create an offense for these guys, and it's tough to put one together overnight. They should really start making preparations now.

Larry: Which is why the Casey and Burnitz signings were so mystifying. They need to find out of Brad Eldred can play.

Rich: I already know the answer. Eldred can't play. At least not at the major-league level. He'd make a good slow-pitch softball hitter, but that's about it.

Larry: And they need to create a trade market for Craig Wilson, or else stick him in left and take the .850 OPS. But he does them no good on the bench.

Bryan: Besides Jason Bay, there is no real lock on the club for a future division-winning ballclub starter. That puts this front office way behind the pack.

Larry: So why don't the Reds and Pirates get together? Send one or more of those young arms to the Reds in exchange for Kearns or Lopez or Encarnacion.

John: The Burnitz and Casey signings aren't particularly wise, but a pretense at respectability could potentially make it easier to attract the caliber of player they clearly need, as well as keep the fans around. As such, I don't think it's a completely misguided policy.

Bryan: Sort of the Detroit Tigers recent approach, John? I can see that, and it's one reason I so desperately hope Mark Cuban buys this team. It's a wonderful park, a baseball town.

John: Well, the Detroit Tigers took things to extremes: Magglio Ordonez, Troy Percival, Pudge Rodriguez. Those are expensive mistakes. The Pirates are being a lot more conservative, and that's the right way to go about things.

Bryan: Alright, that's fair. Let's talk about 2006, though. Is there any upside for 80-85 wins, or is this team just caught in the same boat they have found themselves in?

Larry: The division is too tough. They've got 70 games against St Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee.

John: There's no upside for 2006 for the Pirates as far as I'm concerned. This is a two-tier division now.

Bryan: Yes, I don't see it either. But let me ask one final question, so Pirates fans don't hate me. Jason Bay. Is he the new Brian Giles, which is the most underrated player in baseball?

Larry: Bay is a great, great player. The Todd Helton of the NL Central. Put him in Coors, he'd post similar numbers, I think.

John: I can see that. Still, I think last season may wind up being the best that Jason Bay ever has.

Bryan: I guess we can just hope the Pirates don't give him a Todd Helton-esque contract and hang themselves.

Rich: Bay is underrated in the sense that he was 12th in the MVP voting last year when, in fact, a strong argument could be made that he deserved to finish in the top five. What's not to like? He played every game, hit over .300 with almost 100 BB while going yard 32 times and stealing 21 bases in 22 attempts.

Bryan: While Bay is just running into his prime, a former NL Central superstar, Jeff Bagwell, is running away from it. A lot of people seem to put stake in Bagwell's health as a reason for Houston winning or not winning a lot of games. I don't see it. I see Roger Clemens as that X-factor. Thoughts?

John: Right now the difference between Jeff Bagwell and a replacement player is next to nothing, so no, in terms of wins, I don't see it either.

Larry: They don't need Bagwell. Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg provide enough of an offensive core to support that pitching staff. Clemens will probably be back, and Houston will probably contend. Berkman's health is more of a factor, I think. Once he returned to the lineup last year, they scored pretty well.

John: Right, the Astros just don't need Bagwell, but mainly because he isn't particularly good any more, and he's extremely expensive. They do need more offense, though.

Bryan: Berkman's injury was a freak one, so he should be fine. My worry, if I liked Houston, would be when Craig Biggio and Andy Pettitte might start to decline. It has to be soon, right?

Larry: Pettitte looked better than ever last year. I think he could pitch at a high level for a few more years. And Biggio is a young 40. He's not an all-star, but as a 2B he still merits a starting job.

John: Last year will end up being the best year Andy Pettitte ever has, mark my words. Neither the numbers nor the stuff is there to support that kind of performance from him.

Rich: I disagree with you on both fronts, John. Pettitte has excellent stuff and his numbers stacked right up there with the best, especially once you adjust for the fact that he is a lefty working in a ballpark that is highly favorable to right-handed batters.

Larry: Do you guys think Pettitte still be good enough to form the corps of a contending staff for the next few years? That seems a pretty safe bet to me.

Bryan: I don't think so. I wrote off this signing when they made it, and I'll retract that statement (after having lost a bet to Rich, I should mention). But remember, this is a guy who used to be injured a lot, and if he goes on the DL, and Roy Oswalt does too, this team is not very good.

Rich: ...if, if hooray!

Larry: There was a lot of smoke regarding a Jose Contreras to Houston deal. That would be a very significant acquisition if it happened. And Contreras is bound to be dealt somewhere, isn't he?

Bryan: I could see it happening quickly if Clemens decides against returning, or going to Texas.

John: Oh my, what a phenomenal rotation they would have with Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte, Contreras and Brandon Backe, whom I like more than most.

Larry: Backe sure kills the Cardinals. Especially in October.

Bryan: It seems as if you both seem to like the Astros more than I do. It's a good lineup and rotation, I'll admit, but very volatile. After watching the Cubs for a few years, I treat volatility with kiddie gloves.

Larry: The Astros though are the anti-Cubs -- overachievers. Last year they were 15-30 toward the end of May, and they had every excuse to quit. Bagwell out for the season; Berkman injured; very low pre-season expectations. Somehow Garner got them going again and for the second straight year they rose from the dead. I figure they'll find a way to get themselves into position by September.

Rich: Just as the Brewers are tied to the right arm of Sheets, I think the Astros need Clemens if they are serious about playing more than 162 games this year.

Larry: Over the last four months of the year they played .632 ball and had the best record in the NL (74-43, 3 games better than St. Louis) and best run differential (+128). And then they went 7-3 in the playoffs against StL and Atlanta. If Clemens comes back in mid-June (as rumored), that entire team will be back -- and will have added Preston Wilson and possibly a healthier Bagwell.

John: I'm still just worried about that lineup. Outside of Berkman and Ensberg, it's pretty miserable, no?

Bryan: I like Jason Lane quite a bit, and some see something in Preston Wilson that I don't. Really, I just think it's too bad Chris Burke has been nudged out. It's not a good offense, probably fighting with the Cubs and Brewers for 3/4/5 in the division.

Larry: There are worse lineups. The Astros are above league-average hitters at first (Berkman), third (Ensberg), and second (Biggio). One loud bat in the outfield would go a long way. I don't think Wilson is it, though. But again, with their arms, who needs runs?

Bryan: Alright, so the consensus is positive about the Astros. Let's finish it up here, guys, with your predictions, 1-6.

Larry: Cards with 93 wins, Brewers 90, Astros 88, Cubs 85, Pirates 72, Reds 67.

Rich: With respect to predicting win totals in these previews, I'm always a bit amused when I see every division averaging more than 81 per team.

Bryan: I actually have the Brewers winning the Central by a game over the Cards in the final weekend. The Astros and Cubs battle it out for .500, with the Cubs winning 83, and the Astros an even .500. Pirates fifth, Reds last.

John: I actually struggle to see a 90-win team in the division. But I'll go with Cardinals at ninety wins, the Astros at 89, the Cubs at 88 and the Brewers at 87. Obviously, both the Pirates and Reds will be way below .500.

Rich: I like the Cardinals, followed by the Brewers, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, and Reds. If I'm wrong, it's probably because I have the Astros too low. So, Roger, what will it be?


As much as I liked your AL central preview, I was equally disappointed in your NL central preview. Perhaps its because I have followed this division with interest(first as a miserable reds fan, and for the last three years as an astros fan) since its creation in 1994. You were right about the Reds entire organization being made-over, because even the 1995 team that won the division riding (besides Barry Larkin) Reggie Sanders, Ron Gant, David Wells, and John Smiley was completely exposed by the Braves in the NLCS. I will never forget how Sanders struck out some 15 times in that series. They have not fielded a decent team since then, and will not until the organization proves that it can develop young pitchers. I think you guys sell the Brewers short; so many times in hindsight people talk about teams being "a year away". I know your resident Cubs fan sells his team short, but as an outsider, I think the Cubs will be the class of the division. If Clemens comes back (which he will) My Astros will be a factor (suprised nobody mentioned Brad Lidge) because he is that teams MVP. If he gets another 40 saves (only reason he cant is if offense doesnt give him leads), they will contend. I also felt you didnt suck up to Biggio enough (He has been the face of that franchise since the early 90's) and believe him to be a hall of famer. Its a shame Bagwell has to end this way, because he is also a hall of famer. Wily Taveras hopefully will develop into a very consisten leadoff hitter, and maybe Burke will find his way back into the line-up.

It looks like you guys are joining the national media with a bad case of short term memory loss. Who won the NL pennant last year? I don't understand why experts never give this franchise any credit. The Astros contend EVERY year and basically have the same team that went to the World Series last year and came within one game the year before. If Clemens was such a big factor to their success then why did they have a losing record in the games he started last year? The Astros have flaws (as every team in the NL does), but you are wrong to dismiss them as a .500 team this year. The players on their roster play well together and play baseball the right way.

I'll take the Brewers by a hair over St. Louis, mostly because the Cards' offense is all tied up in three guys who are injury risks. Contrary to what you guys seem to think, I wouldn't be shocked if they were the only teams over .500 in the division. And it's about a 1-in-35 shot that the Cubs crack 85 wins, let alone 88.

I'm not sure what the big hype is about the Brew Crew. Let's not forget that this organization has not had a winning record (.500 in '05 does not count)since the Sr. Bush's administration. The starting rotation is mediocre beyond Sheets and no one has proven themselves with the bat besides Lee and Jenkins. I may be crazy but that lineup just does not scare me. The Stros and Birds have been the class of the NL Central since its creation and 2006 will be no different. The Redbirds will win this again with ease but this year the wild card will not be from the Central unless Clemons decides to come back during the season. And that has me scared for the Redbirds in October, again. Great discussion by the board though!

I have to agree with the above comment about underestimating Houston. While they are clearly not a flashy team to get excited about, it cannot be denied that the Astros are projected to fall back every season, and every season they still finish first or second in the division.

Here is the reality. There are two teams in the majors that get disrespected every offseason - Houston and Atlanta. Every year is the year that is going to end. The fact of the matter is, the media gets overexcited about acquisitions and names. Houston and Atlanta always lose this battle because they are not usually major players in free agency. However, there are no teams that develop their own major league talent than these two. They consistently man their rosters with players who have no name power but come up big (for Houston - Backe, Burke, Bruntlett, Lane, etc.) They simply have discovered the formula for winning.

Plain and simple, the lineup will produce more runs this year. A full season of Berkman will be huge, Lane should mature, Wilson will help somewhat, and even with a Ensberg or Biggio letdown, things should be better off. Burke is an ex-factor as he seems to be growing up in a hurry and will probably get 300-400 ABs as a super utility guy. Do not underestimate Bagwell either if he is able to play. The power may not be there like it used to be, but he is a veteran presence with an eye at the plate who will still get on base at an above league-average rate and come up with timely hits.

Clemens is a huge factor here, but let's not forget that the team did not do well with Roger on the mound last season - he was not responsbile for the wins. Oswalt and Pettitte can match any duo in the majors, and Clemens would be the icing on the cake.

Finally, while Clemens would be a major midseason acquisition, do not count the Astros out if he does not return. THey have slowly put the chips together to make a big splash at the trade deadline if they need to (Dontrelle Willis?).

Good discussion, but don't fall into the annual "mediocre Astros" trap.

In law school students early learn the lawyer's standard answer to just about any question: "It depends..." That's my analysis of the Central this year--and it really sums up the one above overall. If everyone's healthy and stays that way, though, go with the Cardinals.


You say, "The starting rotation is mediocre beyond Sheets."

False. Last year, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano combined for 66.9 VORP. Neither the Cubs nor the Cardinals could match that. These two don't get a lot of publicity, but they are a damn good 2-3.

I like the Brewers a lot, I have them picked to finish 2nd in a close race, but I don't have as much faith in Davis or Capuano. Capuano allows a lot of baserunners for a guy who won that many games. I haven't delved into it at all, but it looks somewhat suspect.

Re-reading my post, I realized that I didnt offer any real predictions. 1st Brewers 89-73, 2nd Cubs 85-77 3rd (Alas) Stros 83-79 4th STL 79-83 5th Pitt 71-91 6th Cincy (Terrible) 63-99

Capuano's high WHIP is mitigated somewhat by a great pick-off move that erases guys on base and largely eliminates the stolen base as a threat.

The Brewers staff may not have the same upside as, say, the Cubs, but they've got two quality pitchers in Sheets and Davis and three steady average-to-above-average guys at the back end, along with an above-average pen. In some sense this is similar to their lineup: nothing too sparkly (yet), but no big holes, either. Well worth $20 at 10-1 for them to win the Central a month ago.

Much as I feel the Cards aren't what they were, I think it's foolhardy to project them as a sub-.500 squad. I think that would take breakdowns from at least 3 out of the following four: Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, and Carpenter. That's possible, but I don't see it as neccessarily likely.

Also, I think the Brewers are very volatile. They could score 850 runs and win 95-100 games, or they could score 750 and win 75-80. But they should be a hell of a lot of fun for a few years to come.

I don't think a good pick-off move neutralizes concerns about a high WHIP. Nobody steals on Chris Carpenter and if he had a 1.38 WHIP I'd be concerned too.

Well... The Reds are showed ZERO respect in every way by EVERYONE in this discussion. Remember what I now say and show the "shocking stockings" some love at the end of this season..... I'll wager whatever you want that the Reds don't end up any worse than 3rd in the division and I see them as maybe even higher than 3rd.... I'm ready... any takers among you "experts".. email me for bets...

I have a great feeling the brewers will do good this year. 3 pitchers in Sheets, davis, and capunano will lead to a lot of success. The rookies must do good for them to compete for the division. Preview:Cards,Brewers,Astros,Cubs,then pirates/reds.