Thursday, February 18, 2010

2010 Baseball Preview: NL Central

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-Digger's Daily-

St. Louis ran away with the Central division title last year. Chicago fans suffered another disappointing season after their Cubs couldn't live up to division favorite status. Milwaukee's pitching staff didn't survive the loss of CC Sabathia & Sheets. Excitement filled the air in Cincinnati. Too bad it didn't translate into wins. Houston's demise may take years to correct. Pittsburgh's future is finally looking bright with excellent young talent.

2010 will be a very competitive season for NL Central teams. Time for a brief look into how these teams shape up heading into spring training (in order of '09 standings).

St. Louis Cardinals (91-71):
Key additions: Brad Penny.
Key losses: Rick Ankiel, Mark DeRosa, Troy Glaus, Khalil Green, Joel Piniero, Todd Wellmeyer, John Smoltz.
I have to admit when I'm wrong. I didn't give the Cards any shot heading into 2009. Thanks to a very strong pitching staff, St. Louis ran away with the division. Pitching remains strong. I'm not sure about their lineup beyond Pujols & Holliday. Plus, no solid left handed bats are to be found. Left side of infield defense doesn't scare anyone on paper offensively or defensively. Not retaining DeRosa was a monumental mistake. LaRussa's managing skills will be put to the test again this year. No reason to think this proven manager will fold. However, there's a circus-like atmosphere already swirling as the Cards hired steroid junkie Mark McGwire as batting instructor. This guy should be banned from major league ballparks nationwide.
Projected rotation: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny, ???
Bullpen: Ryan Franklin was outstanding in his first full season as Cards closer. Middle relievers must be sharp again to secure wins or it could be a long year.
Forecast: Cards or Cubs in '10? Cards do not impress me on paper but this won't stop them from proving me wrong again. One more move might be in store to solidify infield defense.

Chicago Cubs (83-78):
Key additions: Marlon Byrd, Kevin Millar, Xavier Nady, Carlos Silva, Chad Tracy.
Key losses: Milton Bradley, Neal Cotts, Kevin Gregg, Rich Harden, Aaron Heilman, Reed Johnson, Aaron Miles.
Cubs were high on most lists heading into '09. They never got in gear. Mark DeRosa was sorely missed. Internal squabbles, nagging injuries, porous pitching and horrible team chemistry doomed Chicago. The bad actors are gone. Cubs are ready to contend. Lineup is very strong. Rotation remains competitive. Late inning pitching remains a major question mark. Cubs will rise or fall on how well (or not) they protect late inning leads.
Projected rotation: Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Randy Wells, ???
Bullpen: Marmol is Chicago's new closer. Competition for bullpen roles is wide open.
Forecast: Tough to call right now. A few are returning from injuries. Bullpen slots yet to be determined. Cubs will challenge but fans shouldn't be thinking World Series. Especially after 100+ years of near futility.

Milwaukee Brewers (80-82):
Key additions: Doug Davis, LaTroy Hawkins, Randy Wolf, Greg Zaun.
Key losses: Mike Cameron, Frank Catalanotto, JJ Hardy, Jason Kendall.
Milwaukee never had any chance of success last year in my book. Not after getting rid of their best pitchers. Not when their lineup continues to make bad outs (strikeouts do not advance base runners). Defense was suspect. So, what's changed for this season? A better rotation. Overrated JJ Hardy is finally gone. Coaching staff hasn't been effectively teaching young Brewers hitters to be patient, to put the ball in play, to keep pressure on opponents. Milwaukee lives and dies by the long ball. It's not enough to count on raw power for 162 games when so many other areas are lacking. Interesting side note. Why did Milwaukee go after lefty starting pitchers when most Central teams have heavy right handed hitting lineups?
Projected rotation: Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Doug Davis, Jeff Suppan, David Bush.
Bullpen: Trevor Hoffman returns after a stellar '09 campaign. Bullpen is looking strong in all areas. A nice strength to have heading into '10.
Forecast: 2010 should be a better year for Milwaukee. Dangerous and powerful lineup has hopefully matured if these guys are to legitimately challenge for Central crown.

Cincinnati Reds (78-84):
Key additions: Orlando Cabrera.
Key losses: Willy Taveras.
Cincinnati's biggest achilles heel is Great American Ballpark. It offers no home field advantage. I believe it's a disadvantage for home team pitching staff. It will also be very hard convincing any #1 starter to become a Red. Hitters love playing here. But, managers will go crazy unless ground ball pitchers are finally brought into town. Don't hold your breathe. On the plus side. Reds are young energetic club. They should produce plenty of runs in 2010. Question is... how many will they surrender?
Projected rotation: Aaron Harang, Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, ???
Bullpen: Francisco Cordero returns to close. All other bullpen jobs up for grabs this spring.
Forecast: Reds are probably a .500 team at best right now. Outfielders are one of NL's weakest groups on paper. Reds not ready to challenge.

Houston Astros (74-88):
Key additions: Pedro Feliz, Brandon Lyon, Gary Majewski, Brett Myers.
Key losses: Miguel Tejada, LaTroy Hawkins, Jose Valverde.
Astros stuggled all year long in '09. They never got their game on track. Starting rotation was horrible. It doesn't look much better right now either. Lineup is above average but it's hard to win when trailing game after game. Looks like another year of playing from behind.
Projected rotation: Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, ???
Bullpen: Matt Lindstrom, closer? Really? All bullpen roles to be settled before game 162. Not looking good.
Forecast: Doom and gloom.

Pittsburgh Pirates (62-99):
Key additions: Ryan Church, Neal Cotts, Brendan Donnelly, Octavio Dotel, Akinori Iwamura,
Key losses: Mike Capps.
Pirates last winning season was 1992. The streak continues but their future is looking brighter. A few good young starting pitchers. Good young OF. Infielders are big question mark. So is finding someone with a winning attitude to lead this team. It's doubtful this squad will reach .500 but I expect them to play spoilers.
Projected rotation: Zack Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, ???
Bullpen: Dotel's arrival is welcomed with open arms for a team unable to get key late inning outs.
Forecast: Pitchers hold the key. Pirates are a long way from challenging. 2010 could be the year Pittsburgh begins earning respect. If not, then it's time for management to step aside.

Stay tuned... AL West on deck...

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