2009 NL Central Preview: Cross to Bear

. Thursday, April 2, 2009
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Editor's note: "Cross to Bear" is the third of a seven-part series previewing the 2009 MLB season. Part Four, "Twin Killing,"spot-lighting the AL Central is below. Parts One and Two, spot-lighting the NL and AL East Divisions were published Monday, March 30. Parts Five and Six, spot-lighting the NL and AL West Divisions will be published Friday, April 3. Part Seven, covering season awards and postseason berths will be published Monday, April 6.

Last October's feel-good-story Tampa Bay Rays made a lot of people forget about the tale of woe enveloping Chicago's North Side. It also made people forget that this was the second-most competitive division in baseball. That's right, I'm talking about the NL Central...You heard me.

1. Chicago Cubs

Figures: 97-64, first place, lost to Los Angeles Dodgers in Divisional Series (3-0).
2008 headline: 100's a nice, round number.
2009 motto: Class schedule: Choke Artistry 101.

Key additions: RF Milton Bradley, P Kevin Gregg, P Aaron Heilman, IF Aaron Miles, P Luis Vizcaino, OF Joey Gathright.
Key losses: 2B Mark DeRosa (to CLE), P Kerry Wood (to CLE), OF Jim Edmonds (retired), P Jason Marquis (to COL), P Bob Howry (to SF), SS Ronny Cedeno (to SEA), Michael Wuertz (to OAK), C Henry Blanco (to SD), Daryle Ward (to CIN), Jon Lieber (retired).

Lineup: B+
This lineup gets even better once Cubs management can convince Alfonso Soriano that he's not a leadoff hitter. Derrek Lee's pop is just about gone (20 HRs) and so is his speed (8 SBs), but there are fewer guys who are more valuable to their clubs than the Gentle Giant. Even when he's making all-star games, I still don't think people realize just how good Aramis Ramirez is. As for Geovany Soto (.285, 23, 86), nothing more need be said. Milton Bradley hits lefties harder than he hits his w(the missing text has been claimed by the LAPD as evidence in an ongoing domestic violence investigation).
Rotation: B
No Cy Young predictions from Carlos Zambrano this season. A 7.28 ERA in August and September will do that. His shrinking strikeout rate is a reason for concern. Then again, it was the first time in three years that Round Mound of Barrett-face Pound kept his free passes below 100. Scary to think that Sean Marshall and Ted Lilly are the most reliable hurlers in the rotation. Rich Harden starting 25 games this season is about as likely Ryan Dempster repeating his 2.96 ERA.
Bullpen: B
Kerry Wood looked good in the pen last season before fleecing Cleveland out of $20.5 million. Kevin Gregg will have similar success as his replacement thanks in large part to Carlos Marmol. The Dominican fire-baller is unquestionably the best eight-inning man in all of baseball, holding opponents to a .135 batting average. The question is, who comes falls in line behind them? Jeff Samardzija? Aaron Heilman? Luis Vizcaino? Well, maybe not Luis Vizcaino.

  • With focus put squarely on postseason redemption, no one cares about the Cubs regular season. Unless they lose. In which case, Home Depot blows through its stock of rope a month earlier than usual.
  • When Zambrano breaks down, Dusty Baker's revenge will be complete.
  • Lou Piniella had better right this ship before the end of its third voyage with him at the helm. If not, a Tampa Bay Rays-like reclamation project will be the only type of gig he can land.
  • Jon Lieber's 401K must not be doing too well. The man's already launched his second career: school bus driver.
2. St. Louis Cardinals

Figures: 86-76, fourth place
2008 headline: Chicken salad out of chicken shitaki mushrooms
2009 motto: Now do even more with less

Key additions: SS Khalil Greene, P Trever Miller, P Dennys Reyes.
Key losses: P Braden Looper (to MIL), 2B Aaron Miles (to CHC), SS Felipe Lopez (to ARI), SS Cesar Izturis (to BAL), 2B Adam Kennedy (to TB), P Russ Springer (to OAK).

Lineup: B-
Let's take a moment to revel in the greatness that is Albert Pujols. If I wanted to start a franchise, he'd be the first guy I'd go after, even if he's 29-years old on paper and in his 30s in real life. Ryan Ludwick (.299, 37, 114) is the perfect example as to why. Rick Ankiel tried his damnedest to bring down the Red Birds NL-leading .281 batting average, by hitting .169 over the season's final two months before abdominal injury shelved him in early September. Speaking of guys who had their seasons cut short by injury, 2003 Rookie of the Year favorite Khalil Greene is going to benefit greatly from a change of venue. I'm just surprised that he's the best GM John Mozeliak could do after losing four guys who got significant playing time up the middle for St. Louis.
Rotation: B-
Chris Carpenter's "good" health is the only things keeping this from being one of the most pedestrian rotations in baseball. When he and Adam Wainwright start 30 games, they'll become a stellar 1-2 punch while also making Kyle Lohse look like one of the league's best No. 3s. Todd Wellemeyer might just be the most consistent starter in any four-spot, hurling 28 quality starts last season and only once allowing more than six runs. Then there's Joel Piniero, who Dave Duncan, try as he might, can't even help.
Bullpen: C+
Just because you don't know who they are doesn't mean they're that bad. Roll call! Jason Motte, who allowed one earned run and fanned 16 during an 11-inning September call-up. Dennys Reyes may look like he puts down six Moons over My Hammys ever morning, but he was a great left-handed option for the Twins. John Kinney hasn't allowed a run since Sept. 10, 2006. And the team's finally learned not to let Ryan Franklin anywhere near the ninth inning.

  • The problem with Tony La Russa pulling a rabbit out of a hat last season is that the fans and front-office types think he can do it again.
  • Chris Duncan, who I've always believed in, is very close to wearing out his welcome in left. Top prospect Colby Rasmus is a big reason why.
  • I know the outfield's crowded, but is moving Skip Schumaker to second base really the best option?
  • Speaking of 2Bs, when's it going to be Bo Hart Day at the ballpark?
3. Cincinnati Reds

Figures: 74-88, fifth place
2008 headline: Edinson Volquez was halfway there
2009 motto: Youth can serve

Key additons: P Micah Owings, C Ramon Hernandez, OF Willy Taveras, OF Jonny Gomes, P Arthur Rhodes, P Aaron Fultz, 1B Daryle Ward, OF Jacque Jones.
Key losses: OF Corey Patterson (to WAS), UTIL Ryan Freel (to BAL), P Jeremy Affeldt (to SF), P Gary Majewski (to PHI), C Paul Bako (to CHC), P Josh Fogg (to COL), P Matt Belisle (to COL), P Kent Merker (retired).

Lineup: B-
Yes, I know Adam Dunn isn't in the lineup anymore, but second-year men Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are going to pick up the slack. Edwin Encarnacion, this is your wakeup call: Either improve on your .251 batting average or 23 errors. One of them has to change. Brandon Phillips is a lock for another 20-20 season. Utility player extrodinaire Jerry Hairston Jr. is always an analysts' deep sleeper pick. Last season, he finally showed why.
Rotation: B-
This staff has a ton of upside. Aaron Harang won't go 6-17 again this season because he won't have the fourth-worst run support in the majors. Bronson Arroyo won't own a 4.77 ERA this season because he hadn't pitched that poorly since his sophomore season of 2001. Johnny Cueto won't be as wild because those rookie jitters are put to bed. And it won't matter how effective Micah Owings is because his bat (.318 average, five home runs, 21 RBI is 116 ABs) will makeup for most shortcomings on the mound. A small step back from all-star Edinson Volquez is the unit's only negative.
Bullpen: C-
Francisco Cordero has been a solid closer for years now, but having two 39-year olds setting the table sure is going to make it harder to maintain that sterling conversion rate. David Weathers and Arthur Rhodes are both on the dog end of middle-of-the-pack careers. Why not Mike Stanton? Hope their 4 p.m. side sessions don't interfere with mealtime.

  • Homer Bailey, who will start the season in the 'pen, was asked too much too soon, but enough coddling. It's time to throw him in the deep end.
  • Jeff Keppinger made Ryan Freel expendable. He, too, will play whatever position Dusty Baker pulls out of his magic hat.
  • a .500 season one out of every nine years is a terrible ratio. None in nine years is worse

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Figures: 90-72, second place, wild card winner, lost to Philadelphia in division series (3-1).
2008 headline: No toast for Yost
2009 motto: Relevance is exhausting

Key additions: P Trevor Hoffman, P Braden Looper, P Jorge Julio, IF Casey MeGehee.
Key losses: P CC Sabathia (to NYY), P Ben Sheets (free agent/injured), P Saloman Torres (retired), 2B Ray Durham (free agent), P Eric Gagne (free agent), P Brian Shouse (to TB), Guillermo Mota (to LAD), Gabe Kapler (to TB), Russell Branyan (to SEA) Joe Dillon (to OAK).

Lineup: B
This scorecard is a Sportscenter anchor's dream. "Prince crowns another fastball." "Ryan's speed shows he more than just Braun." "Corey plays with lots of Hart." "Hardy boy investigates holes in swing." That's not nausea you're feeling, it's truth. So's the fact that Mike Cameron is still a 20/20 player with good range in center, Jason Kendall is a doubles machine and Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks can't possible play worse than they did in '08.
Rotation: C+
Sabathia and Sheets left huge holes (literally) in this unit and no one come close to plugging them. Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush anchor this staff and that should frighten any Brewers fan. Yovani Gallardo may be ready to start full time, but their other budding ace, Manny Parra is not so long as he walks batters at a Zambranoesque rate. Braden Looper is a barely serviceable No. 5.
Bullpen: C
It's not that they lost great arms, they just lost a ton of average ones. After four pen pals took walking papers, the Brew Crew found themselves equally questionable replacements. Trevor Hoffman takes over for Torres as closer after posting his highest ERA since 1995. Carlos Villanueva has parlayed his 1.80 post-break ERA into a setup role. Mitch Stetter may be a better lefty specialist than Shouse, holding southpaw sluggers to a .158 average. Could be a promising group of relievers. Wait, Jorge Julio, David Riske and Seth McClung are also on the team? Nevermind.

  • Without CC Sabathia, who will sit across the aisle from Prince Fielder to balance the team plane? Who'll play seasaw with him. Who'll he ride to work with?
  • What kind of butter-injected "vegetarian" foods is Prince Fielder gnoshing on?!
  • Completing the trifecta, we all see the similarities between Prince and his dad Cecil. Lets hope dancing isn't one of them.
5. Houston Astros

Figures: 86-74, third place
2008 headline: April through June is just preseason
2009 motto: April through June is not preaseason

Key additions: C Ivan Rodriguez, P Mike Hampton, P Russ Ortiz, OF Jason Michael, IF Jason Smith.
Key losses: 3B Ty Wigginton (to BAL), P Randy Wolf (to LAD), C Brad Ausmus (to LAD), IF Mark Loretta (to LAD), IF Jose Castillo (to WAS).

Lineup: B-
You remember group projects in school where two people would do all of the work and the other handful would get to take equal credit? Well Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are those two people and Geoff Blum is not. Houston's No. 3 and No. 4 hitters are RBI machines, shocking when you consider that Kaz Matsui and Michael Bourn have been hitting ahead of them. Pudge Rodriguez is no upgrade here. He's just another guy who's allergic to walks. In fact, the aforementioned No. 8, No. 1 and No. 2 hitters in the Astros' lineup combined to draw fewer free passes than Berkman amassed on his own.
Rotation: D
I slammed the Orioles for having a 34-year-old Japanese rookie as their No. 2 starter. Sorry, 'Stros fans. Mike Hampton is a worse wingman. He's totaled 25 starts over the last four seasons. And for those of you who think the arm issues of '06 and '07 are behind him, a 2.81 batting average against says otherwise. Maybe he and Russ Ortiz will simultaneously tear one another's labrums in what could only be described as the worst game of arm wrestling known to man.
Bullpen: B
If you want to accuse me of being unfairly hard on the Astros by slotting them fifth in the division, you might be on to something. I just don't want to watch another 35 chest-pounding, primal-screaming, sweat-soaked Jose Valverde save celebrations. The guy is just so intense when he's on the mound. If he's that tweaked to lock down a 5-2 victory over the Nationals, what's he going to be like throwing the ninth in a Houston playoff game? We'll never know. Other than that, LaTroy Hawkins heads a list of capable veterans.

  • HOK Sport Event Venue architecture group, the brilliant minds that brought you Minute Maid's center-field hill and flagpole, officially changed its name yesterday to Populous. All of you who want to complain to/thank the group for putting Michael Bourn's health at risk, send letters to Populous at 300 Wyandotte St., Kansas City, MS, 64105.
  • The Dodgers pilfered the Astros roster in the offseason. Not sure who's better off there.
Pittsburgh Pirates

Figures: 67-95, sixth place
2008 headline: We mortgaged our future for our future
2009 motto: We know we're not fooling anybody

Key additions: IF Ramon Vazquez, IF/OF Eric Hinske, P Virgil Vasquez, OF Craig Monroe, C Jason Jaramillo.
Key losses: 1B Doug Mientkiewicz (to LAD), OF Jason Michaels (to HOU), C Ronny Paulino (to PHI), IF Luis Rivas (to CHC), IF Chris Gomez (to BAL), C Raul Chavez (to TOR).

Lineup: D+
There will be too many growing pains here. Ryan Doumit will be the only guy flirting with a .300 average. Adam LaRoche is the only other guy in this lineup who would start for more than half of the teams in the MLB. Nate McLouth tanked big time after making the all-star team. There's no intrigue surrounding Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. You know what you're going to get from them and it's not good. Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss have a ton to prove in their first full season with the ballclub. Nyjer Morgan is a speedster at the top of the lineup who can hit for average. Staying healthy (86 games in two seasons) is a different matter.
Rotation: D
Paul Maholm is a No. 3 starter on most clubs and that's a compliment. Mainly because he's the only guy in the rotation with an ERA under 4.50. Ian Snell, Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny have all displayed flashes in their young careers, then reality sets in. Ross Ohlendorf rounds out this circle jerk of suck, but it's not his fault. He'd be in the minors on any other team. Then again, so would the three guys in front of him.
Bullpen: D-
Matt Capps is a stone-cold stud. Then there's everyone else. They're young and have been rushed into something their not ready for. Broken record much? I almost feel like I'm cheating on a college essay, repeating the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways. Funny, that's where most of these guys should be.

  • Manager John Russell should have one of the safest jobs in sports. Zero expectations will do that.
  • I could have said this the last few seasons: it's a damn shame such a great-looking ballpark houses a terrible-looking team.
  • I'm a Zach Duke fan. If three more people drop out, fan club bylaws will require us to disband. Stay strong Elite Eight.
  • Cross promotion idea: WWE at PNC. Do you Snell what the Rock is cookin'.