SWOT Analysis - NL Central
Thanks to the Cubs dominance and the surprise Cardinals and Astros, the NL Central was one of baseball's best divisions in 2008. Here is how they appear to be shaping up this off-season.
Strengths: The Cubbies had the lowest starting pitching ERA in the National League last season and from the "rich get richer" department, are rumored to be far along in talks to acquire Jake Peavy. Peavy, Zambrano, Harden, Dempster, Lilly...wow.
This rumor gives me an opportunity to bring up one of the biggest threats facing the defending World Series champs that I omitted on Monday. Chase Utley will miss the first few months of the season while he recovers from hip surgery. Philly seems to recognize this threat, as they are in pursuit of Mark DeRosa, who would go to Philly as part of a three-team deal that would net the Cubs Peavy.
Weaknesses: Chicago's bullpen was just mediocre last season and they are about to lose Kerry Wood. The acquisition of Kevin Gregg at best allows them to tread water. Thanks to Japanese disappointment Kosuke Fukudome, the Cubs ranked 14th in the NL in right field OPS. Fukodome may bounce back but at this point, it appears to be a weak spot in an otherwise deep lineup. Replacing Jim Edmonds' production will be no easy task. Quietly, the all-time great hit .256/.369/.568 in 2008.
Opportunities: Adding Peavy, I mean, wow. Outside of acquiring Peavy, the Cubs should look to add outfield help. Reed Johnson, Felix Pie and Fukodome splitting time between center and right field sounds like a risky proposition. The Cubs should take a good look at the deep free agent outfield pool of talent.
Threats: If they do in fact deal DeRosa, hoping Mike Fontenot replicates his .305/.395/.514 season in 2009 seems like a trap.
Strengths: Milwaukee's young core of position players is championship caliber when hitting on all cylinders. Year over year, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Cory Hart and Bill Hall slipped badly in 2008 but I would expect bounce back from this group in 2009. I would expect the team OPS+ of 103 to tick up a decent amount this season.
Weaknesses: The Brewers ended 2008 with the second best starters' ERA in the National League but gone from that staff are 329 innings of 2.52 ERA pitching. C.C. Sabathia appears to be a Yankee and Ben Sheets will not be returning either.
Opportunities: 23-year old Yovani Gallardo gets a shot as the team's ace in 2008. I am not sure I would call that an "opportunity" for Milwaukee, but it sure is one for Gallardo.
With Sabathia now out of the picture, GM Doug Melvin will have to make sure he puts the $100 million or so he had allocated for him to good use. I am not sure re-signing Mike Lamb qualifies but let's see what else he has cooking.
Threats: The biggest threat to Milwaukee is that Melvin does not adequately address their starting pitching. With their pitching staff all but sure to take a few steps back, the threat of the offensive core not returning to their 2007 form looms as another threat.
Strengths: It doesn't get much better in the middle of any lineup than Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, who slugged .561 and .569 respectively in 2008.
Weaknesses: Acquiring Miguel Tejada has proven to be a disaster thus far. Amid, um, some confuision about his age that sparked controversy in 2008, Miggy was able to post just a .283/.314/.415 line last season. Tejada hurt but what killed the Astros more than anything was handing Michael Bourn (.229/.288/.300) their everyday center field and lead-off roles. Houston was dead last in the National League in OPS from both center and their lead-off hitter.
Opportunities: Houston is looking to dump Tejada but, surprise surprise, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for a rapidly aging shortstop with limited range who can no longer hit. If Hunter Pence could split the difference of his 2007 and 2008 batting average and on-base numbers, the Astros offense would be a lot better for it.
Threats: After Roy Oswalt, it is difficult to see how this rotation is going to function. Signing Mike Hampton doesn't seem to be the answer, either. Here's Ed Wade on the Hampton signing:
“A healthy Mike Hampton has always been a workhorse on the club. Mike just finished the season with Atlanta having not missed a start down the stretch in the second half of the season. ... I don’t think there’s any reason based on the performance at the end of the season, based on the medical information we gathered, for us to feel that he’s not going to be able to go out there every fifth day.”
You go, Ed Wade.
St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: The Cards led the NL in OPS+ and were second in total bases last season, thanks in large part to another MVP campaign from Albert Pujols. That lineup more or less returns but with one notable tinker. Khalil Greene should represent an upgrade over what the Cards got at shortstop in 2008. Expect St. Louis to pound the ball again.
Weaknesses: Here are three St. Louis regulars against left handed pitching.
AVG OBP SLG
Kennedy .270 .299 .297
Schumaker .168 .238 .185
Ankiel .224 .268 .448
Opportunities: Adding Greene and lefty reliever Trever Miller were two nice under-the-radar early off-season moves for the Cards and indications from the Bellagio are that they are not done. Another dependable starter would round out the Cards' staff.
Threats: St. Louis boasted one of the National Legue's most productive outfields last season, but all three of their starters are late blooming late twenty-somethings without much of a track record of producing like they did in 2008.
Strengths: Anchored by Francisco Cordero, the Reds return (and in fairness, also lose) some of the key pieces from one of the league's best bullpens in 2008. Despite playing at the Great American Bandbox, Reds relievers posted the third best ERA in the NL last year.
Weaknesses: Their team OPS+ of 93 was pretty terrible and with Adam Dunn no longer in the fold, it's hard to see how they improve off of that figure. Offense will be hard to come by for Cinci in 2009.
Opportunities: In 2007, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo combined for 442.3 innings of 3.97 ERA pitching. Last year the pair turned in 384.3 innings at a 4.78 clip. If these two return to form in 2009, and youngsters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto come back strong, this could be one of the better run prevention units in baseball.
Threats: The biggest threat is that, even with the addition of Ramon Hernandez, the Reds' offense is not even close to where it needs to be in order to field a competitive team. The pitching will have to come through in spades.
Strengths: Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit and perhaps even Andy LaRoche are all championship caliber regulars. Pittsburgh had more or less an average offense in 2008 and for better or worse, the offense will once again be the strength of this time.
Weaknesses: The Bucs pitching is astoundingly awful. Of their hurlers who started more than 10 games, just one, Paul Maholm, had an ERA+ north of 86. EIGHTY-SIX!?!? Four other Pirates pitchers combined for 20 starts and in those starts posted a 9.04 ERA in 85.6 innings.
Opportunities: Um, improved pitching? Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell just HAVE to get better, no?
Threats: If the start of Andy LaRoche's big league career (.184/.288/.272) is any indication of things to come, the Bucs offense will suffer greatly. Also, a full season without Jason Bay and Xavier Nady could unmask some deficiencies in their attack.