Two on Two: NL Central
Another Friday, another Two on Two. Today it's the NL Central and we have two of the best on these here internets accompanying us for the preview. Jeff Sackmann, most famously of Brew Crew Ball and the invaluable Minor League Splits, joins us. Also contributing is Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos, a tremendous site devoted to coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals. The previous installments can be viewed via the following links.
Sully: Thanks guys for joining us as we preview the NL Central. It promises to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball to call this season. What are your introductory thoughts on the division? What's exciting about the NL Central in 2007?
Larry: It's a wide-open division. World Champs or no, the Cardinals are no longer perceived as invincible. The Cubs and Brewers have caught up to them talentwise, and if the Astros get Clemens back they may be right in the mix. Even the Pirates have a chance to play some meaningful late-summer games.
The most interesting thing about it, in my mind, is the wealth of young starting pitchers. Every team has at least one young hurler with a chance to make a big impact either this year or next. I would include on that list Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright, Rich Hill, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Homer Bailey, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva . . . . who'm I leaving out?
Sully: Looks like a pretty comprehensive list to me, Larry. I am most excited about the Milwaukee Brewers. They seem to have been going about team-building "the right way" for a market of Milwaukee's size but people have been saying that for a while now. Is this finally the year that they put it together and contend? That to me will be the most fun storyline to watch in the NL Central.
Jeff: If you think the 2006 NL Central was bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Sure, the Brewers and Cubs will be improved, but the talent drain from the rest of the division is bad news. The division winner will win more than 83 games, but I wouldn't be shocked if the fourth place team (remember, that's out of 6) doesn't crack 70.
Rich: You know what is interesting about the NL Central to me? The lack of quality relief pitchers. Quick, name the closer for each team in this division . . . OK, I'm still waiting. Unless Brad Lidge returns to form, I guess Francisco Cordero would be the best of the rest. Cordero's not terrible but his ERA isn't going to be remotely close to the 1.69 mark he put up with Milwaukee last year. As a result, to answer Sully, I guess the excitement in the Central in 2007 will be the number of games blown in the ninth inning. If you're a fan of one of these teams, be sure to stick around for the whole game.
Sully: What's everyone thinking about the defending World Series Champs this season?
Larry: The Cardinal defense is one of the overlooked aspects of their dominance this decade, and it remains among the best in baseball. That's a good foundation to build upon. The starting rotation should improve through sheer inertia . . . and by "sheer intertia," yes, I'm referring to Braden Looper. Last year Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder combined for a 6.40 ERA in 289 innings. If the Cards merely find someone to give them replacement-level performance out of the same innings in 2007, they'll save 30 runs. If they do better than replacement, they could save 50 runs. I think you'll see the Cardinals back in the top 4 in NL run prevention this year.
Jeff: I don't know, Larry, I think Walt Jocketty better have something up his sleeve. If everything breaks right, a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes, and Looper could be fine, but I wouldn't bet a spare nickel on everything breaking right. Wells will be the difference-maker: he's a nice gamble at $4 million, but note that the other $4 million injury-rehab gambles are being slotted into other rotations as #5 starters. If the Cards are going to top last year's win total, they'll need another solid starter, and however optimistic you want to be about Mulder (I'm not very), that guy will have to come from outside the organization.
Sully: I am sensitive to the lack of depth point, Jeff, but I think the rotation is fine and agree with Larry that the defense remains very strong. I am really high on Wainwright and think he is poised to build off of his ridiculous post-season relief run and become a very good starter. Of course the rotation's gain is the bullpen's loss and that's where I question St. Louis's run prevention unit.
Rich: As I mentioned, there isn't much relief when it comes to the bullpens in the NL Central and the Cardinals are going to be in big trouble if Jason Isringhausen doesn't come through for them. The Redbirds have a bunch of arms down there, some of whom are decent situational guys, but they might come up a bit light in the eighth and ninth innings with the uncertainty surrounding Izzy and Looper and Wainwright now in the rotation.
Larry: Offensively, there's little margin for error for the Cards. If Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds all don't stay healthy - and in Edmonds' case, "healthy" means 500 plate appearances - things could go south in a hurry. I think Chris Duncan will regress to the mean but still remain above average - OPS in the .825 range. Ultimately, the Cardinal lineup will probably need a midseason transfusion. Jocketty has about $10 million in payroll slack, and I have a feeling he's going to be spending it on a corner outfielder sometime in July.
Sully: I have some real concerns about this Cards offense. I don't see Rolen and Edmonds staying consistently healthy and when you take a look at that offense after the main triumverate, I mean wow. It's gonna really suck wind.
Jeff: It's hard to be too negative about an offense anchored by Pujols and Rolen, but there aren't a lot of other bright spots. Especially for as long as Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion are out (or in the lineup, and hurting), there are only two real threats in the lineup. The Cards scored more runs than anybody else in the division last year, and may do so again on the strength of Prince Albert's contribution, but it would take Braden-Looper-is-my-5th-starter style optimism to figure on an improvement from last year's 4.85 runs per game.
Rich: The offense should be about the same as last year, maybe a tad better. Pujols went on the DL for the first time in his career and missed 18 games. Edmonds and David Eckstein both went down for more than a month in the second half. Duncan didn't join the club until late May and only appeared in 90 contests. Other than Rafael Belliard, who will be replaced by Adam Kennedy, everybody is back. It seems to me that the offense should be just fine.
Sully: Are we as mixed on Houston's offense as we are with St. Louis?
Rich: The Astros had the lowest batting average and the second lowest slugging average in the NL last year. As great as Berkman is, he's not going to improve upon his outstanding season in 2006. Carlos Lee will add a boost - maybe even a big boost - and Morgan Ensberg might bounce back a little bit. But the rest of the lineup is pretty pathetic. I'm not buying into Jason Lane and his five home runs this spring. And don't tell me about Luke Scott. He will be known as Luke the Fluke before the summer is out.
Larry: At least they have now committed to Chris Burke; he should help. Obviously, so will El Caballo. With Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett bringing up the rear they're never gonna lead the league in runs scored, but I can see them putting 40 or 50 more runs on the board this year over last.
Sully: The only hope for this offense is an injection of Hunter Pence at some point this season. He raked all Spring Training and appears ready to contribute in a big way. As for the rest of the offense, as others have mentioned, it's Berkman, Lee, Ensberg and then not a whole lot to get excited about.
Jeff: I am with you guys here, and actually see Houston's offense much like I do St. Louis's. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman aren't quite the equals of Pujols and Rolen, but they're darn good. Unfortunately, the catcher, shortstop, and second baseman have to bat, too. I love Craig Biggio, but at the moment, what I love most about him is his ability to keep the Astros far out of the race; most painful for Houston is that there are at least two guys in the lineup likely to contribute less than Biggio.
Rich: The trio of Roy Oswalt, Pettitte, and Clemens was Houston's strength the past few years. If Houston gets off to a slow start, as I suspect, then it might be more difficult than ever to entice The Rocket to join the team. A 40-year-old Woody Williams no longer pitching in the safety of Petco Park could be a disaster waiting to happen in Minute Maid. 150 innings with an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.50 is all I would expect from Williams. And if that is Houston's #3, well, it won't matter how well Oswalt or even Jason Jennings perform this year.
Jeff: It doesn't matter how many Jason Jennings's you add, you're going to get worse if you lose Andy Pettitte and, most likely, Roger Clemens. The bullpen remains strong, and may even be better than last year's version, but the rotation is weak as is, and is completely unprepared for a single injury. Sure, there are warm bodies to take the mound, but none of them are going to make the fans in Houston very happy. Troy Patton may get an audition, but he's no Yovani Gallardo or Homer Bailey; he probably won't contribute until '08.
Larry: Like the Cardinals, the Astros don't get enough credit for their defense; as long as their pitchers just keep the walks and home runs in check, the team should keep runs off the board reasonably well. Should Clemens come back, the Astros rotation will be as good as any in the division - but without that rather large equalizer, it looks pretty shabby. Williams doesn't seem like a good fit for the park, and any rotation in which Wandy Rodriguez holds tenure needs help.
Sully: I don't think defense can help this rotation. Oswalt is fantastic of course, but there is so little there after him that it is hard to portend anything but a lot of opposing players crossing the plate, especially at that ballpark.
Like the Cards and 'Stros, the Reds are another top-heavy team. On the run-prevention side, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang constitute a nice 1-2 and Homer Bailey is awfully promising but it gets pretty grim after that.
Jeff: It's easy to get excited about a near-future triumverate of Arroyo, Harang, and Bailey, but in the meantime, there'll be a triumverate of Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, and someone else equally uninspiring. The back end of the rotation may be better than it was last year (if only because it's hard to be worse), but Arroyo may find it hard to replicate last year's success against a league more familiar with his offerings. In deference to my many friends who inexplicably root for the Reds, I'm not going to bring up the bullpen.
Rich: Adjusted for Cincinnati's ballpark, the Reds (106 ERA+) actually had one of the best pitching staffs in the league last year. Other than throwing lots of strikes, I'm not quite sure how they pulled that off. But Arroyo is unlikely to repeat and Harang can't get too much better than what he showed last year. And who are all these relief pitchers Wayne Krivsky acquired? Quantity, yes. Quality...uhh, no.
Larry: When he added Arroyo last spring, it looked like Krivsky had a plan: convert surplus bats into stable arms. And at midseason, when "The Trade" went down, it seemed like part of a larger pattern of transactions; I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was the acquisitions after The Trade - the 87 DFA'd pitchers Krivsky picked up - that changed my opinion of him. Now it looks like he's just throwing darts at the wall. I think it's the worst pitching staff in the division; Arroyo and Harang can pitch for anyone, but beyond them I don't see anybody I'd want on my team. The atrocious defense obviously doesn't help.
Sully: Is the team any better offensively though? I love Adam Dunn and all, and I guess Edwin Encarnacion is ok if the low-obp/decent slug type is your thing but I don't see this club putting up a whole lot of runs. It's never good when the loss of Rich Aurilia represents a genuine hit to your productivity outlook.
Jeff: I am so underwhelmed by Krivsky. His stopgap approach to first base makes sense with Joey Votto on the way, but is there some shortstop uberprospect I'm not aware of? How about an outfielder who they're willing to grant some playing time? Griffey in right field could be league-average or worse; Ryan Freel in center every day is almost a contradiction in terms: Cinci will always be one spectacular catch/injury away from Josh Hamilton, starter. Or something else equally unappealing.
Rich: Home runs and walks. Walks and home runs. The Reds were second in the league in both categories in 2006. Sounds like a bunch of Adam Dunns in that lineup. But the truth of the matter is that there isn't a whole lot beyond Dunn. You can stick a fork in Griffey. He was a great player but is now in the decline phase of his career. I think he may fall hard, and I wonder if Jerry Narron will have the guts to bench him. David Ross will not come close to matching his output last year. He murdered lefties, yet it says here that opposing teams will figure him out and his production will plummet in '07. On the positive side of the ledger, I happen to like Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips, two youngsters who provide some upside.
Larry: Jeff Conine, Bubba Crosby, Alex Gonzalez . . . 'nuff said. I'd rather talk about the Milwaukee Brewers, a far more interesting club than the Reds. They boast an impressive starting staff with Ben Sheets, Dave Bush and Chris Capuano being the best frontline trio in the division, and maybe the league. I don't know why Carlos Villanueva isn't in the rotation - he'd be a #3 on a lot of staffs. Claudio Vargas and Jeff Suppan aren't very good, but they're considerably better than the average team's #4/#5 starters. Assuming the bullpen holds it together this year and Sheets remains healthy, the Brewers staff should be the class of the Central.
Sully: I agree with the crux of your point here, Larry, but I would stop short of best front three in the NL. I think Philly and Arizona trump them in that regard. Nonetheless it's a very good staff with some impressive young arms ready to contribute. I think the defense may leave a bit to be desired.
Rich: Boy, Sully, you're really hot to trot for Arizona's starters. Unless Randy Johnson miraculously turns into the Big Unit of old, I don't see all that much to get excited about beyond Brandon Webb. If Sheets is healthy and throws 200 innings, I believe Milwaukee's rotation will be among the best in the league. Sheets, Capuano, Bush, and Suppan form a solid foursome, and I would be pretty comfortable with Vargas or Villanueva as my fifth starter, especially knowing that Yovani Gallardo might be good to go this summer.
Jeff: Especially after this week's acquisition of Elmer Dessens, no team in baseball has a deeper group of ready-now starting pitchers. That's necessary with Sheets's injury history, but even with the possibility that Sheets doesn't make 30 starts, it gives the Crew a layer of insurance it didn't have in 2006. The defense is still probably below average, but a full season from J.J. Hardy at short and Bill Hall in center ought to improve those two important spots.
Rich: Did you say Elmer Dessens? He's 35 now and hasn't started more than 10 games since 2003. I think he is nothing more than a mediocre middle reliever. Elmer might be more valuable to the team than Brady Clark but that's not saying much.
Larry: I think this offense looks plenty good on paper; lotta balance, no serious holes. They appear primed for a major step forward, but I thought the same thing last April and the Crew only improved by 4 runs over the previous season.
Sully: Prince Fielder, Hall and Rickie Weeks make for a fine offensive core and the filler has potential. Johnny Estrada, J.J. Hardy and Corey Koskie - remind me why Ryan Braus is down again? - may drag the O down a bit but I think overall it looks solid. Corey Hart and Geoff Jenkins will be the wildcards, and if either one should falter, the serviceable Kevin Mench waits in the wings.
Jeff: Their offense depends on the continued development of Hardy and Hart, but Milwaukee has a good chance of having above-average hitters at seven of eight defensive positions. If Braun convinces the club he can pick it at third base (or, as is more likely, that he'll hit so well it doesn't matter), that could be eight of eight. Unlike most of the other teams in the division, the Brewers don't have one main offensive stud, but they aren't hamstrung by the likes of Brad Ausmus or Jack Wilson, either.
Sully: It really is amazing how simply eliminating terrible offensive players really goes a long way.
Rich: Like its pitching, Milwaukee's offense is more solid than anything else. I'm not crazy about the third basemen the Brewers are going to throw out there, but every team has a weakness or two. Speaking of weaknesses, how do we see Pittsburgh this year?
Jeff: Losing Mike Gonzalez is going to hurt. Unlike most teams who trade an established closer, the Pirates don't have a youngster chomping at the bit to claim the job; they've got Salomon Torres and a bunch of guys you probably don't want in the game when your team has a one- or two-run lead. The rotation is equally uninspiring; this could be Ian Snell's year, but it's more likely that he'll settle in as a mid-rotation guy, just Zach Duke is seeming to do. This isn't a bad starting five, and it's a heck of a unit when measured against its cost, but it isn't going to put Pittsburgh in the running for anything but fourth place.
Larry: Call me crazy, but I like their staff a lot. When Zach Duke is only the third-best pre-arb pitcher on your staff, you've got some talent to work with. Too bad Dave Littlefield is what he is . . . there's material to be excited about here.
Sully: Yeah, I think I am more with Larry here than Jeff. Duke is solid, and Snell, Tom Gorzellany and Paul Maholm all figure to keep the Bucs in a lot of games. Jeff is dead on with respect to the bullpen concerns, however. Damaso Marte and Matt Capps have live arms, but there is little to get excited about after that. All in all, I think this Pirates pitching staff will hold up ok though.
Rich: Other than Snell, this staff doesn't miss a lot of bats. The lefties all pitch to contact and can be effective if they throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard. Snell could be a sleeper this year. How many people realize that he struck out more than one batter per inning in the second half? I like him and wouldn't be at all surprised if he lopped off at least half a run off his ERA in 2007.
Jeff: The Pirates have yet another top-heavy offense, only theirs isn't as good as St. Louis's or Houston's. Jason Bay can hang with the best of them, but it would take a best-case scenario from Freddy Sanchez or Adam LaRoche to create a 1-2 bunch as good as, say, Berkman and El Caballo. Like the rotation, some of the other position players are very productive relative to their cost, but the Pirates have one too many holes filled with average or worse guys making the minimum. Those players are important for any team, but Dave Littlefield is going to find his group of former C+ prospects taking him all the way to 70 wins again this year.
Larry: LaRoche helps, I guess. Bay can hit. But I don't see where the runs will come from.
Sully: Too harsh, fellas. Ronny Paulino and Xavier Nady are both decent players and as you mention, Bay, Sanchez and LaRoche are solid, too. This is by no means a great lineup but combined with the fair pitching, I see the Bucs as more of a 75-80-win club than a 70-win one.
Rich: Maybe 75 but I would be surprised if the Pirates won 80. They are a good bet to improve upon their 67 victories, but I still think they will be closer to last than first.
Sully: Onto the Cubbies. We waited this long to get to them because they finished in dead last in 2006 but many have them as the NL Central faves going into 2007. Did Jim Hendry simply do the drunken sailor thing in the last year of his contract or did he make some real improvements? The truth probably lies somewhere in between but what of these Cubs in 2007?
Larry: Neither Ted Lilly nor Jason Marquis seems like a good fit for the ballpark, and neither Alfonso Soriano nor Cliff Floyd seems like a good fit for the positions they'll be asked to play. Rich Hill seems like a pivotal guy; if he throws as well as he did in the second half last season, I think the Cubs will have enough pitching to make a serious run at it.
Jeff: The Cubs are certainly going to be the most improved team in the division this year, and that will in large part be due to the changes in their rotation. On the other hand, they're likely to get 30 starts from Jason Marquis. Marquis, Lilly, and Carlos Zambrano are known quantities; what will make or break the Cubs comes from the other two spots in the rotation. Rich Hill could become a solid #2 or #3, but it's foolish to raise expectations too high for a guy with only 20 major league starts under his belt. And, of course, there's always the Mark Prior factor: the range of plausible outcomes for him ranges from Cy Young contention down to zero innings for the big-league squad.
Rich: Yes, Marquis is a known quantity. That's the good news, I guess. But I suspect that we will never again see the pitcher who put together back-to-back ERAs of 3.71 and 4.13 in 2004 and 2005. Sure, Marquis is unlikely to be as bad as he was in 2006 (6.02) - I mean, if he is, he won't remain in the rotation all year - but his peripherals lead me to believe that he will be more of a liability than an asset. With respect to Prior, I'm betting on the "don'ts." As a USC grad, I'm rooting for him. However, other than his name, I just can't see any reason for optimism at this point.
Sully: I think the Rich Hill factor that Larry points out really will make or break this team's chances. If he pitches like he did in his first bunch of Big Club starts, the Cubs will plod. If he is average, the Cubs will have a shot at the division. If he does his September 2006 Randy-Johnson-circa-1997 routine, the Central is all Cubbies.
Jeff: The Cubs offense is the exact opposite of Pittsburgh's: where the Pirates have a bad offense that is nonetheless productive relative to its cost, the Cubs ought to have a good offense that is too expensive. Soriano, of course, will be a huge improvement, even if the Cubs will be paying him too much in 2012. A full season from Derrek Lee may be even more important to Chicago's chances than the addition of Soriano. There's no doubt that the offense will drastically outperform last year's; the concern is that, somehow, the Cubs will need to gain about 20 wins to give themselves a shot at the title. If Soriano, Lee, and Aramis Ramirez all live up to reasonable projections, that puts 20 wins in sight, but it's a tall order no matter how many changes you make.
Sully: All good points, Jeff, and I just have one additional item to add. Michael Barrett has very quietly been a top-flight catcher for multiple seasons now. Outside of Brian McCann and maybe Josh Bard, there is not another catcher in the NL I would prefer.
Rich: I'll take Russ Martin, thank you. But your main point is well taken. Barrett is underrated offensively, and he helps elongate Chicago's top-heavy lineup. I'll take the unders on Jacque Jones hitting .285 and 27 HR this year. The former Trojan does have one advantage though: the Cubs are going to overdose on right-handed pitchers, and ol' Jacque has been known to hit them pretty well.
Larry: They're gonna score a lot of runs, obviously - best offense in the division. Their on-base skills are still a little thin, but it could be a 215-HR offense. Lou Piniella seems likely (more so than Dusty Baker) to find enough at-bats for Matt Murton.
Sully: What will be the biggest surprise in the NL Central in 2007?
Jeff: It's perfectly correct to forecast a three-team race among the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs, all hovering around 85 wins, but that won't happen. Something will go massively wrong for one of those three teams (as with the Brewers or Red Sox last year), and one of those teams is going to finish below .500.
Rich: Craig Biggio won't get his 3,000 hit until September. Management will grow tired of Biggio's lack of production, call up Hunter Pence, and switch Burke to second base before the All-Star game. Biggio will ride the pine for a couple of months, then get one last shot in September after the Astros have been given up for dead.
Sully: I say Ronny Paulino joins the MLB elite catcher ranks. He's 26, coming off a decent year last season and raking this Spring.
Larry: The Pirates will stay on the fringes of the race for most of the year.
Rich: Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the Central? I see Albert Pujols as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP, but I can see the writers going Justin Morneau on us and voting for Alfonso Soriano if the Cubs win the division. There are a number of quality Cy Young candidates in this division, headed by Carpenter, Oswalt, Sheets, and Zambrano. Forced to choose among this foursome, I will go with Carpenter. There are a number of prospects who are on the verge of the big leagues but nobody who is likely to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. With that in mind, put me down for my man Pence.
Jeff: Pujols ought to win the MVP, though once Bill Hall proves he's a Gold-Glove center fielder, he'll get his share of votes. If Sheets is healthy - especially if he's pitching for a team that gives him more run support than he got in 2004 and 2005 - he's my pick for CYA, though when you factor in Sheets's injury problems, the safest bet is probably Oswalt. There are plenty of aces to choose from: I wouldn't be shocked if Carpenter or Harang took home the prize, either. The Jackie Robinson Award will go to Yovani Gallardo, who will go Jered Weaver on the league after a mid-May callup. On that score, I brook no argument.
Larry: The usual suspects: Pujols, Berkman, and Derrek Lee for MVP, with Soriano, Rolen, Aramis Ramirez and maybe El Caballo on a second tier. For the Cy Young: Carpenter, Oswalt, Zambrano, Harang, Sheets. Rookie of the Year . . . I don't see any strong contenders for this season, to be honest. Ask me again in 2008, I might have a different answer.
Sully: I don't have a whole lot to add to this one other than to say I think Berkman may have a sniff at the MVP award if he goes bananas and Pujols stumbles. What about order of finish? I really believe this is Milwaukee's year to make the jump from promising club, to legitimate contender. They're there. Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati.
Jeff: I'm on record elsewhere giving first place to the Cardinals based on my trust in Walt Jocketty, but the last month has changed my position: 1. Brewers 2. Cubs 3. Cardinals 4. Reds 5. Astros 6. Pirates.
Larry: St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
Rich: I second Larry's picks. If I'm wrong, I believe the Brew Crew leapfrogs the Cardinals. The Cubs have an outside chance, but I'm more skeptical than not.