Baseball Analysts 2008 NL Central Preview
Due to a series of unforeseeable circumstances, we are going to break from our Two on Two format and simply go around the room with three of us. Al from Bleed Cubbie Blue has joined Marc Hulet and me. You can find the previous Two on Two's below:
Sully: Well guys, what do we think about the NL Central in 2008. Just like the American League Central, which pits Cleveland and Detroit as the only two teams one can really see winning it, in the NL Central we have Chicago and Milwaukee. I don't see Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston or even the consistently competitive St. Louis Cardinals mustering much of a threat to the Cubbies or the Brew Crew.
Al: This is the first time in a while that the Cubs go into the season as, legitimately, the favorite to win their division. And barring massive injuries, a collapse of any kind, or some sort of miracle year by Milwaukee (the only other team that's any good in the Central), the Cubs should repeat as division champions. This would be the first time in one hundred years that the Cubs qualify for the postseason in consecutive seasons, if it happens.
Marc: My first response after looking up and down the National League Central is that there are going to be some ugly, ugly seasons… especially for St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Houston. Who is going to start games for Houston and St. Louis? They each have one reliable pitcher - Roy Oswalt for the Astros and Adam Wainwright, one season removed from the bullpen, for the Cards. Aside from Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus – if he can stay healthy – who strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers? Pittsburgh is made up of a bunch of fourth and fifth starters and position players who would mostly be role players on championship teams.
Sully: The Cubs are the defending division champs and bring back an excellent rotation more or less in tact. No problems there, right?
Al: Cub starting pitching was the best in the division in 2007 and one of the better ones in the National League. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be the same this season. Rich Hill has one full season under his belt, Ted Lilly was one of the most consistent starters in baseball last year, and the Cubs are now dealing with a strange commodity, TOO MUCH starting pitching. Jon Lieber, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis are battling for two spots. One of them will not make it and will either go to the bullpen (unlikely) or be traded (probably).
Cubs defense has been steadily improving over the last year or so and this year, they will have an outfield with speed and plus arms at all three positions. Alfonso Soriano had 19 assists last year, the most for a Cub outfielder in more than 50 years. Felix Pie has a terrific arm and range and Kosuke Fukudome comes from Japan with a reputation for having a howitzer (he once threw out a runner at first on what should have been a clean single to RF).
Marc: Hands down, Chicago has the best and deepest starting rotation in the division… if not the league. One-through-three Carlos Zambrano (118 ERA+), Lilly (122 ERA+) and Hill (119 ERA+) are rock solid.
Sean Marshall (199 ERA+ in 21 games) and Sean Gallagher could probably be penciled in the No. 4 or 5 spots for a lot of teams but they could both be in the minors on opening day, if they're still in Chicago. Personally, I wouldn't trade either one in a Brian Roberts deal. Pitching is just too valuable – and delicate. Lieber, Marquis and Dempster are all aging pitchers who are, at best, No. 4 starters.
The bullpen for Chicago isn't too shabby either. Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, Bobby Howry, Michael Wuertz, and Scott Eyre should be solid one-through-five. I have been an advocate of Carmen Pignatiello's for a while and think he can be a solid second lefty out of the pen to make up for the loss of Will Ohman. Kevin Hart has looked good this spring and could be the sleeper pitching prospect to keep an eye on.
Sully: Chicago's offense was about dead average last season. Replace Jacque Jones with Fukudome, give the majority of the catching at-bats to Geovany Soto and keep Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez healthy all season and they should be a good bit better.
Al: This is where Cub fans grit their teeth and hope. On paper, the offense looks great -- Lee, Ramirez and Soriano can all hit 35-plus HR. But will they? Lee's HR power was down last year. Fukudome hit HR in Japan, but many Japanese players see their power drop coming to the US. Will the two rookies in the lineup -- Pie and Soto -- hit the way they did in Triple-A last year? If they do, the Cub offense will be a powerhouse. If not, they could struggle.
Marc: Count me as someone who thinks Fukudome is going to be a poor man's Hideki Matsui… not someone who is going to take a lot of offensive pressure off of Lee and Ramirez. People talk about his .400-ish on-base percentage but I think it's going to take a significant hit against better pitching in the majors.
I'm not sold on Soto at catcher; I think his breakout last year was partially due to it being his third go-around with Triple-A Iowa and he also had an unsustainable .415 BABIP. The worst part is that Chicago does not have a fall-back plan in place if Soto bombs… none of the other guys in camp can play regularly behind the dish at the major league level.
Chicago just needs to give Pie the shot in centerfield. I think he can handle it… I've seen the guy play and he has some rough edges but the talent is obvious. Sam Fuld is a great fifth outfielder but they're asking for trouble if they think he can play regularly… and I doubt they do. Maybe they should look into someone like Toronto's Reed Johnson to help out in center on a platoon basis.
Al, what do you make of Milwaukee's pitching and defense?
Al: The Brewers' pitching and defense are the single biggest reason that they finished second in 2007. Ryan Braun was so bad at third base that the Brewers had to go sign Mike Cameron, so that Braun could move to LF and Bill Hall back to 3B. Their bullpen was horrendous; despite Francisco Cordero's 44 saves, he had several spectacular blown saves, and their setup relief was poor. With Cordero gone, they have to count on Eric Gagne, who's not the Gagne of five years ago.
Sully: In Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo and Dave Bush, I think they have three starting pitchers that represent a championship caliber front-end. In Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano, Manny Parra and Carlos Villanueva I think they have the back end and depth to mitigate the effects of the inevitable Sheets injury stints. Al is right to point out the problems defensively and in the bullpen, but the starting pitching is solid.
Marc: It's a battle between Cincinnati and Milwaukee for the second best starting rotation in the division. Milwaukee has more experience and a little better depth, but Cincinnati has a higher upside with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. Last season Milwaukee's pitchers allowed 4.79 runs per game (R/G) and Cincinnati's allowed 5.27 R/G in a tough park to pitch in. My feeling is that Gallardo and Parra are closer to taking their games to the next step than Bailey and Volquez.
The loss of Cordero is going to hurt Milwaukee but I don't think he's going to save 44 games again for anyone. My instinct is that Gagne's days of domination are over and Derrick Turnbow is not a reliable back-up option. Gagne should be good enough, though, to gut out 30 saves. The Brewers probably have 10 or 12 guys in camp who could legitimately start the year in the bullpen; that's nice depth as long as some of those guys don't get lost on waiver claims or to free agency at the end of the spring… but none of them are difference-makers.
Al: The Brewers can hit. And hit, and hit, and hit. They have excellent young hitters up and down their lineup, capped by Braun, who drove in 97 runs in only 113 games in 2007, and Prince Fielder, who became the youngest player ever to hit 50 HR in a season. And that's not even counting guys like J. J. Hardy and Corey Hart, who became solid regulars. Milwaukee finished fifth in runs in 2007; they could be even higher-ranking this year.
Sully: I would say that Jason Kendall might hurt this Brewer lineup but how far is there to fall off of Johnny Estrada's 2007 effort? A big key for the Brew Crew will be Rickie Weeks, who quietly put together a .251/.422/.488 second half last season. If he can fulfill his promise and put together a big year, Milwaukee will push Chicago for the division.
Marc: Milwaukee's offence generated the most runs per game in the Central Division last year (4.94 R/G) and this season should be even better, as all the young players have another year of experience under their belts. Fielder and Braun will probably regress a bit offensively but I expect others to pick up the slack. Hart… the boy may be poised to break out of the box. I also think Hall will rebound offensively now that he is back in the infield.
Count me as one of the few that thinks Weeks will not break out and that he is going to be a classic underachiever. It's just a feeling I've had since he was drafted second overall in 2003. In more than 1,100 at-bats he's hitting under .250 and there has been very little progression, although his OPS has gone up the last three seasons. I'd love to be proven wrong. I have mixed feelings on Hardy… I think his overall offensive breakout was for real, but I don't think the power surge was... if that makes any sense.
Sully: St. Louis is a team that just does nothing for me. They have become a mediocrity laden, uninspiring bunch. Wake me up when Colby Rasmus gets to town.
Al:The Cardinals are on the Let's-Reclaim-A-Sucky-Pitcher plan. This began last year with the acquisition of Joel Pineiro, who admittedly didn't do too badly (6-4, 3.96 in 11 starts). Now, they've added Matt Clement and Kyle Lohse to this motley collection of starting pitchers. Jason Isringhausen is still a pretty good closer at age 35, but how many games will he even get a save opportunity?
If Albert Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' defense will be less than mediocre (to say nothing of their offense).
Marc: Let me sum up St. Louis' pitching potential in one word: Painful. The club's No.1 starter is a guy who was a reliever in 2006, allowed more hits than innings pitched in 2007 and walked 70 guys (3.12 BB/9). Sure Adam Wainwright has potential (and, now, some financial security) but he's not the guy I'd want to be pinning my hopes on – not yet anyway. Braden Looper is another guy thrust into a starting role in 2006 and struck out 4.47 batters per nine innings last year – yikes. And he could be your No. 2 starter. Both Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer played better for St. Louis in 2007 than anyone could reasonably have hoped. Pineiro is injured and Wellemeyer has a career BB/9 of 5.62. I doubt he finally figured out how to throw strikes at the age of 29.
Sully: Is Cesar Izturis enough to get this offense where it needs to be?
Al: Very funny, Sully. I repeat what I said above: if Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' offense will be less than mediocre. In fact, I might even call it an "expansion team offense" without Pujols. If St. Louis starts out badly -- and I expect them to -- and Pujols' elbow is still bothering him by, say, Memorial Day, I'd expect him to bite the bullet, go under the knife, and be ready for 2009.
Marc: You have Pujols, Glaus and maybe Chris Duncan and that's it. I'd be shocked, though, if Glaus makes it through the season... I've watched him hobble pretty badly the past two seasons. And St. Louis fans really need to be concerned about Pujols' injuries... he could have a blowout at any minutes, or he could be perfectly fine. You never know but he is such an important figure on the team; everything revolves around Albert.
Rick Ankiel is a dark horse but seems to have serious confidence issues and is prone to significant slumps. Beyond Duncan (115 OPS+) and Ankiel (120 OPS+) there is nothing in the outfield. Skip Schumaker and Joe Mather are fourth outfielders. St. Louis was lucky to get Ryan Ludwick's one good season but he'll probably go back to having trouble hitting .220 (he has a career 98 OPS+).
Sully: Anyone have anything nice to say about Houston?
Marc: As far as pitching goes, Roy Oswalt is great… a true No. 1 starter, but Houston lacks a No. 2 guy and Wandy Rodriguez is at best a No. 3 but probably realistically he is a No. 4 guy. His ERA+ last season was only 96. The sad collection of Chris Sampson, Woody Williams and Brandon Backe are No. 5 guys who could be asked to pitch as high as the third slot in the rotation. The Astros best pitching prospect Felipe Paulino probably could have helped out at some point this season but he has a pinched nerve and will be out for while… He thinks as much as three months. And he's going to need more minor league seasoning after that, so you can write him off for 2008.
In the bullpen, former Arizona teammates Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal have been reunited after separate trades this winter. Valverde is coming off an awesome season but he has always been inconsistent. And he's walked almost four batters per nine innings in his major league career. Villarreal is an OK set-up guy but is better left to the six or seventh inning. Geoff Geary was a nice pick-up but he allowed 289 hits in 267 innings in his career with Philadelphia and things are not going to get any easier pitching in Houston.
Al: Roy Oswalt.
That's about all you can say about the Houston pitching staff. And Oswalt's human now, not the 20-game winner he was in 2004 and 2005. Sure, the Astros got a good closer in Valverde -- but just as with St. Louis, how many games is he going to get the opportunity to save? Woody Williams is probably the #2 starter on this staff. That's frightening.
Sully: There's a lot to like about this offense. They are pretty much covered with very good hitters at the corner outfield spots, the corner infield spots and shortstop. If Manager Cecil Cooper does the right thing and gets J.R. Towles the majority of the time behind the plate, that will help as well. I have concerns about Michael Bourn and for the life of me don't understand the Kaz Matsui acquisition.
Marc: The Astros have a solid outfield with slugger Carlos Lee, rookie sensation Hunter Pence and speedster Bourn. It's a nice mix of power, speed, contact and defence. I am a supporter of Bourn and think he'll steal 50 bases this season in Houston and be an effective hitter – at least league average for a centerfielder. He's shown some improvements with his patience at the plate in spring training… hopefully it's not just a tease.
From all reports Miguel Tejada has looked terrible this spring, at the plate and in the field. With his name also having been mentioned in the Mitchell Report, I think it could be an ugly, ugly season for him and I wouldn't expect that much of an offensive contribution… maybe some homers but a low average.
Al: For every Lance Berkman, there's a Mark Loretta. For every Tejada, there's a Brad Ausmus. For every Lee, there's a Matsui. For every Pence, there's a Ty Wigginton. The Astros were 13th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They won't be last this year, but they'll be close.
Sully: Cincinatti's an interesting team with a stud hitter in Adam Dunn and one of the very best starting pitchers in the game in Aaron Harang. They also boast a number of enticing youngsters. Let's start on the run prevention side. Marc, you have touched on them already but let's talk about the Reds a bit more.
Marc: Every time I get really excited about the Reds' potential, I remember one thing: Dusty Baker. He's not a bad manager but I can't stress enough how wrong he is for this team.
There isn't a starting pitcher in the central that I like more than Harang. He is a workhorse who knows how to get batters out and survives being a flyball pitcher in Cincinnati. Interestingly, half of the flyballs put into the air against Harang are hit to centerfield – the deepest part of the park. For me, Bronson Arroyo is an OK second fiddle. Ideally, he's a No. 3 starter but he's better than his 2007 record of 9-15 indicates.
The additions of Josh Fogg and Jeremy Affeldt are not going to help Cincinnati trim the 5.27 runs allowed per game, especially if they're in the rotation. Fogg's ERA+ has never surpassed 97. I also think Cincinnati is going to rue the day they gave Josh Hamilton away for Volquez… he's just so darn inconsistent. He's turning 25 this year and hasn't proven anything. Cueto… I don't know what to expect from him this year. He's looked good in the spring and could be ready sooner than I – or anyone, really – anticipated.
Early I said I wasn't a fan of the Cordero signing, but he is the best closer in the division – at least until Marmol establishes himself. David Weathers has been good but he's 38 now and shouldn't be relied on as a set-up guy. But the other guys behind him are going to give up a lot of runs.
Al: It's hard to prevent runs when your ballpark is a launching pad. Harang tries really hard, and was one of the best pitchers in the NL last year. But the Reds staff allowed the second-most HR in the NL in 2007. That's not likely to change under the "aggressive" management style of Dusty Baker.
Cincinnati defense could be good -- or it could be injured much of the year, which it was in the second half of 2007.
Sully: This is an offense, where, if each player played his very best for one season together, it would be remarkable. There is nobody bad per se at any position but injuries loom large and questions surround players like Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion. These guys might be very good. They might not be.
Al: Prediction: Adam Dunn, who has never walked fewer than 100 times in a season (in a full year) in his career, will draw 80 or fewer in 2008, as Dusty Baker's managing style has him up there being hackalicious. I'll also be interested in seeing what Corey Patterson, who was either helped or hurt by Baker with the Cubs (depending on what story you're believing this week), does as the starting CF in Cincinnati.
The Reds finished 7th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008. They ranked 6th in the NL in walks in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008.
Marc: I like Cincinnati's offence, but I'd like it better if they'd trust starting jobs to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce… and I don't think that is going to happen in April. Phillips is good… but his numbers are probably going to slip from last year's. Encarnacion should be better this year, which will pick up the slack. If you take out April and June, he had a very nice season and more consistency will come with age and experience.
An outfield of Ken Griffey, Dunn and Bruce (ed note: Bruce has since been sent down) will generate a lot of runs, and I like Corey Patterson as the fourth outfielder – but not the starter in center. Yeah, Dunn scrapes .250 but he has hit at least 40 homers the last four seasons and he has walked at least 100 times five out of the last six seasons. He has also averaged 100 runs scored and 100 runs driven in over the last four years. Griffey is a nice complimentary player in the outfield, but he is definitely no longer a star, even if he remains healthy. He has posted OPS+ of 99 and 119 the last two years. Patterson has only posted an OPS+ over 100 once in his career and that was in 2003.
Al: The Pirates have a surprisingly good young pitching staff. Though they were nearly last in the NL in 2007 in ERA, between Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, they've got three pitchers 26 and under (two left-handed) who could have breakout years this year. If Zach Duke ever recovers his 2005 promise, and if whatever remains of the carcass of Matt Morris can produce, the Pirates could move rapidly up the pitching food chain.
Defensively, Jack Wilson's pretty good. Um, yeah. That's the ticket. Jack Wilson.
Marc: The Pirates actually have a better starting rotation than Houston and St. Louis. Snell is a nice No. 1 for them, but he would be a No. 2 on a lot of teams. He's only 26 so he should continue to get better. The Pirates lack a No. 2 guy but they have an OK collection of guys to fill out the rotation with Duke, Gorzelanny, Maholm Morris – although why they took his contract, I'll never understand.
I am worried about Duke though. He's only 25 but he's regressed the last three years. If they can use him as the No. 4 or 5 guy, maybe he'll be OK. Gorzelanny, who turns 25 this year, is an underrated lefty who posted an ERA+ of 112 last year and 117 in 2006. Morris is a placeholder who has been league average or below for the past four seasons. I was a huge fan of his when he first came up but he's done. Maholm is another guy who should be a No. 5 starter… he's been below average in both of his two full seasons in the majors. But he doesn't turn 25 until mid-season and he's a former No. 1 pick so I wouldn't give up on him… yet.
This rotation is going to give up a lot of runs, but they should also provide innings. The staff allowed the third most runs per game in the league last year (5.22 R/G) and they're probably no better in 2008… But lucky for them Houston and St. Louis are worse. Pittsburgh also has youth on its side.
Marc: Adam LaRoche was pressing last year when he came to Pittsburgh and I think he'll have a big year. He hit .239/.324/.439 before the break and .312/.371/.482 after. I also think Jason Bay will rebound and those two will form a nice one-two punch. If Jose Bautista can hit 20 homers this year, he'll offer some protection for Bay and LaRoche. Freddy Sanchez is a nice guy at the top of the order but I wish he'd take a few more walks and improve that on-base percentage… it's very reliant on his batting average. Regardless of who the Pirates throw out in center – Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, or Nyjer Morgan – they're going to end up with basically the same output.
Steven Pearce is a sleeper for this club. If he can handle the outfield, I think he could have a pretty nice offensive season. He held his own last year and showed an ability to hit the ball without trying too hard to hit a homer every time up.
Al: The Pirates scored one more run than the Astros in 2007. That's surprising, since Houston had big boppers like Lee, Berkman and Pence, and the Pirates had... well, Bay on the decline, leadoff men who didn't get on base, and no one with more than 21 HR, 77 runs scored or 88 RBI.
This is likely why the Pirates lost 94 games last year. Still, I think that someone (LaRoche sounds about right, Marc) will break out and have a big year in 2008.
Sully: Now I would love to hear some surprises coming out of the Central in 2008. Mine? I say the Cards end the year at least 20 games under .500. They're bad.
Al: The real question mark, I think, is whether the Reds will have the "Dusty Baker effect". In both of his managing jobs, he took a 90-loss team and turned them around by more than 20 wins, making the playoffs with the Cubs and missing by only one game with the Giants (and winning 103 games in doing so). If the Reds suddenly start playing well under Baker, they could be a surprise team.
I don't expect this, but it COULD happen.
Marc: The major surprise could be that Pittsburgh is better off than Houston and St. Louis. Houston has zero depth and no pitching. St. Louis has little depth and no pitching. Pittsburgh has some starting pitching – although they won't wow you – and I think their offence is going to be more consistent game-in and game-out than Houston and St. Louis… although the Pirates lack an impact hitter.
Sully: How about awards candidates? I will take Harang in the running for the Cy, Pujols and Braun for MVP and Bruce for ROY should he ever make his way back to the Queen City. Fukudome could well take ROY as well.
Al: The Cubs have two ROY players -- Soto and Fukudome, who is eligible even though he's 30, since this is his first year in the majors. Bruce might have had a chance to be ROY, except not with Dusty Baker managing. Bruce will spend the summer in lovely Louisville.
Obviously, the Brewers have MVP candidates in Braun and Fielder.
Perhaps this is the year that Zambrano will have that ONE big year that all Cub fans have been hoping for and he'll be a Cy Young candidate. One sleeper from an up-and-coming team who might surprise is Gorzelanny. And I like Gallardo a lot -- the Brewers have a keeper there. He may be a couple years away from Cy Young contention, though.
Marc: I'll pick Towles in Houston because he's a good hitter playing in a hitter's park, he plays a premium position and his biggest threat to playing time is Ausmus.
As for MVP I think I'd have to take Aramis Ramirez… especially if the Cubs win the Central. He's been really consistent over the last couple of years (138, 135, 126, 129 OPS+ the last four years) and he's flown under the radar. If the Cubs are really good this year, people will take notice.
Zambrano gets a lot of attention, but what about Harang in Cincinnati… He's a horse (two straight years of 230-plus innings). He threw more innings, struck out more batters and had a better ERA+ than Zambrano last year, but Harang gets no love.
Sully: Predictions, guys?
Marc: I'll go out on a limb and be a little controversial and say: Chicago | Milwaukee | Cincinnati | Pittsburgh | Houston | St. Louis
Sully: I like the same order as you guys but I will flip Milwaukee and Chicago. Weeks goes nuts this season. Thanks, Al, for contributing. It was fun.