The good old NL Central. Home of heartbreak (Cubs), horrible and historic teams (Pirates and Reds respectively, but you can switch them around frankly), hops (as in the Brewing ingredient), Houston and, well, the H-less Cardinals. Everyone has the Cardinals running away with the division this year, and based purely on their roster, they probably should. However, anyone who watches the division knows that Houston almost always makes a hard late charge, the Cubs, while still the Cubs, are loaded on paper and added hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, and the Reds, though not serious contenders for a while, have quietly assembled a very good squad. A runaway? I think not.
1. St. Louis Cardinals Projected Record: 89-73
Batting: B+ | Starting Pitching: B+ | Relief Pitching: B | Defense/Speed/Other: B+
For all my posturing above, the Cardinals should still win the division. They will not do it easily, and will not be able to coast, but they will still win the division. Carpenter and Wainwright at the top of the rotation is a luxury few teams enjoy, and although they lack a 5th starter, I would trust no one more than Dave Duncan to groom one this spring. Ryan Franklin will probably not be signed to another 1 year contract by Team Shut-It-Down, but he should still be serviceable. The bullpen is not fantastic, but it is more than solid enough to hold up, and maybe this is the year Jason Motte lives up to his hype in full. Despite lacking a 5th starter, the Cards have more or less stacked the deck when it comes to pitching.
The lineup is less set in stone, but they still have this guy who plays first base. I am blanking on his name. Oh yeah, Albert Pujols. He is the best player in the game and should have another monster season with new sidekick Matt Holliday giving Fat Albert some protection. The rest of the lineup is not one that strikes fear, but they are all consistent guys who do their job extremely well. That has been the Cardinals’ modus operandus over the last decade and it will continue to serve them well. They have put a ton of chips on Colby Rasmus (CF) and David Freese (3B) to step up and be the stars they seem, but if it does not go well, the Cardinals are not stacked with alternatives. Most teams depending so heavily on Colby Rasmus in center and David Freese at third would get a big question mark in my book, but I trust LaRussa on it enough that the question mark is greatly reduced. It is definitely still there, but a good manager eases qualms like that. We all know LaRussa likes to play with his lineup, but we will try to project it anyway just because we can:
- Schumaker (4)
- Rasmus (8)
- Pujols (3)
- Holliday (7)
- Ludwick (9)
- Molina (2)
- Freese (5)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
- Ryan (6)
Yeah, I always laugh about the starting pitcher hitting 8th, but it does make sense. LaRussa wants 3 guys to have a chance to get on before Pujols comes up, and technically speaking the 8-hole should be the least productive in the lineup anyway since it is the 9-hole guy’s job (or pre-leadoff as a elementary school coach of mine once called it) to turn the lineup over and set the table for the top of the order. I would not suggest this for every NL team, but while it is laughable and sometimes driven by LaRussa’s total-control personality, it is not a bad idea. The Cardinals will not run away and hide like everyone is projecting but given their experience, balance and consistency they should make the playoffs and win their division.
2. Chicago Cubs Projected Record: 82-80
Batting: B | Starting Pitching: B | Relief Pitching: C+ | Defense/Speed/Other: C
For a long time I toyed with putting the Astros, Brewers or Reds in second, but I could not do it. The talent is there, and unlike the Mets, it is not injuries that derail this squad as much as so-called curses and pitching. The Cubs rotation is littered with #2 and #3 starters disguised as something better against the Chicago skyline. For all his energy, Carlos Zambrano is no longer what can be fairly called a good pitcher, Wells has a lot to prove, Dempster and Gorzelanny have been alternating bad and good years and Carlos Silva is dependable. Unfortunately, the dependability means you can depend on is Silva continuing to decline. In his last 4 years, Silva’s ERA has been (starting in 2005) 3.44, 5.94, 4.19, 6.46, 8.60. At this rate, Silva’s ERA will be about accurate for a rating of 1-10 about how unhappy Cubs fans will be with the signing. However, I still have them second this year. Why you ask? Because a bunch of #2 and #3 starters can win you plenty of games, they will just not help you in the playoffs. The Cubs pitching will do just enough to keep them around while something else wins them games.
That something else is Rudy Jaramillo. Never have Cubs fans been so excited about a hitting coach. You know the hitting juggernaut that has been camped at the Ballpark in Arlington for the last few years? That was the work of Rudy Jaramillo. Just last year, he squeezed 17 HRs out of Andruw Jones in 82 games. If he can do that, he can do anything. He builds confidence in players and their swings and should be given a ton of credit for accelerating the growth of guys like Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Nelson Cruz. What Dave Duncan is to pitching coaches, Rudy Jaramillo is to hitting coaches. Maybe he can even ger Alfonso Soriano to hit over .270. The Cubs will not contend for a championship because they lack pitching, but they can make a run at a wild card berth with their outstanding hitting and just enough pitching.
Lou Piniella has already stated his lineup, but I do not like it so I am changing it. Throw a base at me for it, Lou.
- Theriot (6)
- Soriano (7)
- Lee (3)
- Ramirez (5)
- Nady (9) when not healthy, insert Fukudome)
- Byrd (8) (note: another Jaramillo guy, look at his stats before Texas and during, they are startling. Link provided)
- Soto (2)
- Fontenot (4)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
This is a really solid lineup, and add a hitting coach who can make guys explode and you have, potentially, one of the top run-scoring teams in the majors. Soriano does have a reputation for being uncoachable, but if he opens up to Jaramillo and lets him fix his swing and attitude then the Cubs could be a dangerous team. Not dangerous enough to make the playoffs, but dangerous.
3. Cincinnati Reds Projected Record: 81-81
Batting: B- | Starting Pitching: B | Relief Pitching: C- | Defense/Speed/Other: C+
Yes sir, the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds have quietly assembled some really good young talent with solid veterans and should be able to make a run at not only .500, but maybe at a wild card spot. I would not bet on it, but they have that kind of potential. You may not have heard of all of their players, but by the time you are done with this section you will know why I am bullish on the Reds this year. Drew Stubbs is a good defensive centerfielder with speed to burn, and a solid average. Prototype CF. Jay Bruce (RF) is a guy who has not lived up to his considerable hype yet but has all the tools to be an outstanding player. If he can hit even .270 he will put his team in a great position to win. Plays pretty good defense, great potential at the plate, really good arm, a potential 5 tool guy. Chris Heisey is a rookie left fielder who, according to some, should be the ROY favorite heading in. Speed and power all over the place with this guy and he has all the tools to keep it going. The other guys you have probably heard of: Brandon Philips, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera, Ramon Hernandez. That is a good looking team. If the young outfield can hit the ground running, the Reds could even give the Cardinals a run for their money. The lineup should look something like :
- Stubbs (8)
- Bruce (9)
- Philips (4)
- Votto (3)
- Rolen (5)
- Heisey (7)
- Hernandez/Hannigan (2)
- Cabrera (6)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
That is a pretty good lineup. Good balance, plenty of speed and pop, and no really weak spot. Plenty to like there and not too many guys who are due for a big drop off. The big hurdle for the Reds will be pitching. However, that hurdle is not as bad as it would seem to the casual observer. Edinson Volquez is out for the first half of the year recovering from Tommy John Surgery, but in his stead, Cueto, Harang, Arroyo and Homer Bailey should be able to hold down the fort so to speak. I am not ready to consider Bailey ready as of yet, but he has always had the tools to be an outstanding pitcher. Arroyo and Harang have been somewhat inconsistent, but if they can put it together, the Reds have a chance to be within striking distance when they get Volquez back. If they can be less than 10 back when they get Volquez, they should be in decent shape to make a run. However, I do not think Harang and Arroyo will have it together soon enough to really make a serious push, but if they pitch well and Bailey finally figures it out, the Reds could have a shot at a wild card berth.
One area of concern is the bullpen. Francisco Cordero should be good again, but Nick Masset and Arthur Rhodes are less than ideal setup men for a team with aspirations. I also would remiss if I did not mention Aroldis Chapman, the young Cuban who the Reds swooped in to sign from the bigger markets. He has got some electric stuff, but I would be astounded if he ended up in the majors this year. Most likely will start in High-A or AA and could potentially be in line for a September call up to the bullpen if the Reds are in the running. Remember Aroldis Chapman even if you do not hear his name until late august.
4. Milwaukee Brewers Projected Record: 76-86
Batting: B | Starting Pitching: C+ | Relief Pitching: A- | Defense/Speed/Other: B
The Brewers went and got the leadoff man they had lacked for so long, all while filling a need and opening up the shortstop position for Alcides Escobar. With Carlos Gomez’s arrival come big expectations in Brew City of things to come for the Brew Crew. They went out and signed Randy Wolf and Doug Davis in an attempt to strengthen the rotation and clearly want to win now, not later. No one is more vital to this success than Carlos Gomez. The clearly talented CF has struggled to get on base, basically neutralizing his speed before he can even use it. If the Brewers are going to win this year, they need Gomez to hit at least .270 and need timely, though not necessarily bulk, production from guys like Casey McGehee, Rickie Weeks and whomever ends up winning the starting catcher job. If that happens, their lineup goes from a 2 man wrecking crew to a full lineup of guys who can hurt you accompanied by those two huge bats. Corey Hart, someone who I am not especially a fan of, needs to bounce back if the Brewers are going to make a run. I have the Brewers 4th because I doubt the ability of the new guys and young guys to come in and produce, and I doubt the old pitchers (Jeff Suppan, Doug Davis, randy Wolf, Dave Bush) will hold up and pitch well. Add to that the fact that Carlos Gomez is far more likely to hit somewhere around .240 or .250 than .270 and you do not have a recipe for success. On the bright side, Yovani Gallardo is a legitimate ace that will be around for years to come. He has an electric arm, and had the numbers to prove he has moved from prospect to ace last year. The pitching will be ok, but will fade late. I guess that is better than the offense that will tease fans into thinking it is really good before not doing enough. The lineup will be similar to last year with:
- Gomez (8)
- Hart (9)
- Braun (7)
- Fielder (3)
- Weeks (4)
- McGehee (5)
- Escobar (6)
- Kottaras (2)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
If we were in a vacuum, and you could just move guys to new positions without adjustment periods and it affecting their focus, I would move Ryan Braun back to third and replace him with Jason Bouregois in left, but that is not that case, so the Brew Crew are stuck with Casey at the third. I like Alcides Escobar to potentially break out, but not enough to negate McGehee, Hart and Kottaras’ combined poor hitting. One strong point of the Brewers that will help out its old starters, though, is its outstanding bullpen. They are not necessarily names you would recognize, but Todd Coffey was outstanding last year, Mitch Stetter will get out any lefties you need and a rejuvenated Trevor Hoffman is at the back to slam the door shut. I like the Brewers this year, but I do not like how many weak spots they have. Barring a trade to acquire a third baseman or catcher, they will feel the pain of 4th place.
5. Houston Astros Projected Record: 75-87
Batting: C+ | Starting Pitching: C | Relief Pitching: C- | Defense/Speed/Other: D+
As I said with the Reds and Brewers, you could switch these three teams around and I would not put up a huge argument. The ‘Stros always make a late season surge and it is entirely possible they will finish 3rd in the division, but given the circumstances, I would not bet on it. They have a 26 year old rookie at SS, Kaz Matsui at 2nd and a virtual rookie behind the plate in J.R. Towles. Add that to question marks about Roy Oswalt for the first time since he established himself and relatively poor starters after Wandy Rodriguez and the Astros are fighting an uphill battle. Also under the category of uphill battle is Michael Bourn. He posted a career high .286 batting average last year, but you should not expect him to repeat his performance. He strikes out a lot, had a very lucky BABIP (batting average on balls in play. average for league is .300 and he was a bit above that), had a low OBP, and was hitting pop flies at about the same rate as he was hitting line drives. All of these are very bad signs and will bite into his fantastic 61 SB from last year. Without Bourn to spark the lineup, it will once again be Lee and Berkman trying to do it all and will have little choice but to try to do so. Just not enough pop at the back of the lineup. The lineup will be something like:
- Bourn (8)
- Matsui (4)
- Berkman (3)
- Lee (7)
- Pence (9)
- Feliz (5)
- Towles (2)
- Manzella (6)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
Adding to the Astros problems are the concerns about Roy Oswalt and just overall depth of pitching. Oswalt may not be fully back to form yet, and after the Magic Wandy, the Astros are relying heavily on Brett Myers, Bud Norris, and Felipe Paulino to pick up the rest of the rotation, not something even the biggest gamblers and outlaws associated with Texas would bet on. I like Matt Lindstrom to be the closer that every fantasy team picks up, but I cannot get too excited about their bullpen either. They could make a run, but it would certainly be defying the odds.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates Projected Record: 73-89
Batting: B- | Starting Pitching: D+ | Relief Pitching: C | Defense/Speed/Other: B
The Pirates will be alright this year. Unfortunately, alright for the Pirates still means last place in a competitive division. They are loaded for the future and the faithful at Pirate Bay can only hope they choose to hold onto this crop of prospects. Andrew McCutchen is a baller in every sense of the word, Lastings Milledege is oft-troubled, but undeniably talented, and Garrett Jones is coming off a year in which he was just crushing the ball. The Pirates have a lot to look forward to if they decide to hand on to this group of players, something that is realistically unlikely at best. However, while it lasts, Pirates fans should enjoy Andrew McCutchen because he is the next big thing in baseball. A true 5 tool guy, young, and does not skimp on any of the tools. He has speed for days, power like few guys his size, a great glove, arm and bat. You could not ask for too much more out of a prospect. However, hitting will not be the problem for the Buccos. Their pitching looks pretty bad going in and they are one or two injuries away form having one of the worst ERAs in the majors. We will take a deeper look at the shallow rotation, but for now let’s focus in on the lineup:
- McCutchen (8)
- Iwamura (4)
- Doumit (2)
- Jones (9)
- LaRoche (5)
- Milledge (7)
- Clement (3)
- Cedeno/Argenis Diaz (6)
- Starting Pitcher (1)
Akinori Iwamura will not do anything too impressive, but expect an average around .300. Garrett Jones should keep his power numbers, but it is more than likely that he will hit closer to .250 than .290 like last year. There is hope in Pirate Bay, but one cannot help but reminisce on what the Pirates would look like if they had not dealt off their pieces. Here’s a painful little section for the Pirates fans out there:
- Andrew McCutchen (8)
- Nate McLouth (9)
- Jason Bay (7)
- Garrett Jones (3)
- Ryan Doumit (2)
- Freddy Sanchez (4)
- Jack Wilson (6)
- Adam LaRoche (5) (I know he did not play 3rd, just making a point)
Poor Pirates. Oh, and so it cannot be said I did not mention it, the pitching staff consists of Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke, Daniel McCutchen and Charlie Orton. It could be worse, but not by too much. I will give them a chance to surprise people this year as far as Maholm, Ohlendord and McCutchen, but there is not a ton to be hopeful about in Steel City this year.
Fake Divisional Awards
Comeback Player: Geovany Soto
MVP: Albert Pujols
Cy Young: Chris Carpenter
Biggest Disappointment: Milwaukee Brewers
Young Player to Watch: Andrew McCutchen and Aroldis Chapman (if he comes up)