Friday, April 01, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals
Pitchers: When the Cardinals were bounced out of the World Series in four straight by the Red Sox, one of the glaring weaknesses was a lack of front-line starting pitching. General manager Walt Jocketty was able to quickly move to acquire a much-needed staff ace, as the Cardinals traded for Oakland pitcher Mark Mulder (17-8, 4.43). Mulder faded a bit down the stretch last season, but the Cardinals don’t expect that to be a major issue. Mulder’s presence should take pressure off Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46), Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.41), and Jeff Suppan (16-9, 4.16). Carpenter is 29, but continues to improve, and Marquis has worked this offseason on developing a curveball and improving his stamina. Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) has been battling shoulder problems and might not be ready for Opening Day, but he will be a factor once healthy.

32-year-old closer Jason Isringhausen (2.87 ERA, 47 saves) was practically unhittable in 2004, but wasn’t always 100 percent. The Cardinals have a pretty deep bullpen in front of him, led by righthanders Julian Tavarez and Al Reyes, along with lefties Ray King and Mike Myers. King made 86 appearances, but the specialist only threw 62 innings, as he is often called out to get one or two lefthanded hitters out. One-time starter Cal Eldred, 37, has settled into a long relief role with the Cardinals, and he put up pretty good numbers in 2004 (4-2, 3.76 in 52 games).

Position players: Even with some changes, the Cardinals are going to field a pretty tough lineup. The new leadoff man is David Eckstein (.276-2-35), signed away from the Angels. Eckstein will find ways to get on base, he’ll steal, and he’ll score plenty of runs with the crew he has hitting behind him. It starts with Larry Walker (.298-17-47 overall in 82 games), who will need the occasional day off, but can still hit for average and good power. Superstar Albert Pujols (.331-46-123) can do it all with the bat (he’s a Triple Crown waiting to happen), and he’s really improved his defense at first base. Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen will have trouble duplicating his 2004 numbers (.314-34-124), but anything is possible when you’re hitting behind Pujols. Veteran Jim Edmonds (.301-42-111) is coming off his best offensive year, but at age 34, how long can he play at this high of a level both offensively and defensively? The Cardinals also have Reggie Sanders (.260-22-67) and former Cub Mark Grudzielanek (.307-6-23).

Overall analysis: Mulder lost some velocity towards the end of the 2004 season; many still wonder exactly what happened to cause it. Reports out of spring training are positive, and Mulder appears ready to go. As long as he’s healthy, the Cardinals are very dangerous. They’ll have the rotation ace they so desperately needed last year, and the complementary parts are as good as any rotation in baseball. With Walker, Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds in the batting order, you know the Cardinals will score bundles of runs. As long as they can hold down the opposition consistently, this has the look of a 90-95 win team and a division champion.

2. Chicago Cubs
Pitchers: The Cubs have one of the best rotations in baseball if their frontline starters are healthy. Unfortunately for the Cubs, that’s one big “if”, because both Mark Prior 6-4, 4.02 in 21 starts) and Kerry Wood (8-9, 3.72 in 22 starts) missed significant time last season, and both are already on the shelf this spring. Without them, the Cubs’ pitching staff becomes very ordinary, though third starter Carlos Zambrano (16-8, 2.75) could be the most talented pitcher on the staff if he can control his weight. Ageless veteran Greg Maddux (16-11, 4.02) returns in search of an 18th straight season with 15 or more wins. The Cubs also have Glendon Rusch (6-2, 3.47) available for spot-starting duty. Rusch had a 3.50 ERA in his 16 starts last season. If Prior and Wood can get it together and stay healthy, the Cubs’ rotation is good enough to carry them a long way.

The Cubs still haven’t completely sorted out their bullpen situation. It appears that they’ll open the season with flammable LaTroy Hawkins (2.63 ERA, 25 saves in 34 chances) as the closer, while former closer Joe Borowski serves as a setup man. Borowski is joined in that role by capable veteran Mike Remlinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Jon Leicester, and Chad Fox. Ryan Dempster could eventually end up as the closer if he ever gets his elbow right. Fox is coming off major surgery, but has the stuff to move into the closer role.

Position players: After 13 years as a mainstay in the lineup and a beloved figure in Chicago, outfielder Sammy Sosa was dealt to Baltimore. The split was necessitated by a rough 2004 season that ended with Sosa leaving the locker room early on the final day of the season. Without Sosa in the lineup, the Cubs actually have a chance to get better (Sosa hit just .253 last year). A lot of it depends on the production of new leadoff man Corey Patterson (.266-24-72, 168 strikeouts). Patterson has good speed and a nice swing, but his strikeouts need to come down for him to be effective out of the leadoff spot. Todd Walker (.274-15-50) looks to be effective as an everyday player, as Mark Grudzielanek has moved on. With Nomar Garciaparra (.308-9-41 overall), Aramis Ramirez (.318-36-103), Derrek Lee (.278-32-98), and Jeromy Burnitz (.283-37-110 in Colorado) in the middle of the order, the Cubs should be able to generate some offense (provided Burnitz thinks he’s at Coors Field all the time; he hit .244 away from Denver last year).

Overall analysis: Besides the obvious fears regarding the health of Wood and Prior and the closer situation, the Cubs have a pretty solid team. The lineup is good, with the possible exception of a left field platoon of Todd Hollandsworth, Jason Dubois, and Jerry Hairston, Jr. Dusty Baker knows how to win, but he needs a combined 55-65 starts out of Wood and Prior for his team to have any real chance of overcoming St. Louis in the Central. Realistically, however, it’s hard to expect any more than the 43 starts the two combined for last year, and that won’t be enough.

3. Houston Astros
Pitchers: There is no shortage of veteran leadership at the top of the rotation, as 42-year-old Roger Clemens has returned for at least one more year. The 2004 Cy Young Award winner (18-4, 2.98) showed he still has plenty in the tank. Clemens is joined by Roy Oswalt (20-10, 3.49) and a returning Andy Pettitte (6-4, 3.90 in 15 starts), who is coming off major elbow surgery. Youngster Brandon Backe (5-3, 4.30) was impressive in a second-half callup, and he pitched well for Houston in the playoffs. The Astros are undecided on their fifth starter, but it will be either Brandon Duckworth (1-2, 6.86 in 19 games) or Ezequiel Astacio (13-10, 3.89 in AA). They don’t need a fifth starter until April 16, so manager Phil Garner has time to make up his mind.

With Brad Lidge (1.90 ERA, 29 saves in 33 chances, 157 strikeouts in 95 innings) available to shut the door every night, the Astros feel they have a big advantage over Central Division rivals. While they certainly do, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to have the bullpen depth to get leads into the ninth inning so Lidge can slam the door. Holdovers Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, Chad Harville, and Mike Gallo are joined by Pete Munro and possibly Russ Springer in the relief corps. If they can find the right combination of arms for the seventh and eighth innings, the Astros will cut into the 23 blown saves they gave up last year, most of which happened before Lidge became closer.

Position players: Outside of not having decided on a starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, the Astros are set on offense. Veterans Craig Biggio (.281-24-63) and Jeff Bagwell (.266-27-89) are back, but both saw their numbers decline a bit last year. Biggio is 39 and Bagwell 36, so further decline is anticipated. Lance Berkman (.316-30-106) is on the shelf for the first part of the season with a knee injury, so with Carlos Beltran now a Met, the Astros don’t have a lot of established punch to work with. They’ll need big years out of holdovers Morgan Ensberg (.275-10-66) and Adam Everett (.273-8-31), along with youngsters Chris Burke and Jason Lane. 23-year-old Willy Taveras (.335-2-27, 55 stolen bases in AA) appears to be the favorite to lead off and start in center field, but Garner has reservations about having a player jump from AA and immediately become a starter.

Overall analysis: Garner has a real challenge this year. The Astros rode Clemens, Beltran, and Lidge to a playoff spot with a great second-half run. To duplicate that, they need a number of things: Pettitte needs to be healthy, Clemens must be sharp, the bullpen has to be able to get leads to Lidge so he’s not overworked with a multitude of two-inning saves, and the offense needs to find a way to score runs without Beltran and without Berkman for a time. It won’t be easy to do it, unless Biggio and Bagwell find the fountain of youth. The Astros still have a chance to finish second, but they’ll need the Cubs to falter. If things go bad in a hurry in Houston, they could find themselves in the bottom half of this division.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
Pitchers: The Brewers are set in the first two positions in the starting rotation, but the other three jobs are still up in the air as we approach Opening Day. The ace of the staff is Ben Sheets (12-14, 2.70, franchise-record 264 strikeouts), who emerged last year as one of the best pitchers in the National League. Doug Davis (12-12, 3.39) serves as the second starter. The rest of the rotation will probably change at least a couple times during the season, as the team tries to find the right combination of arms. Victor Santos (11-12, 4.97; 3-9, 5.97 after the All-Star break) tailed off last season, and didn’t have a good spring, so there’s a chance he could lose the third position in the rotation. Chris Capuano (6-8, 4.99) had injury problems last year, but has looked good this spring, as has probable fifth starter Gary Glover (2-1, 3.50 in four games).

The trades of Danny Kolb and Luis Vizcaino left the closer’s job open, as well as the primary setup role. It appears that Mike Adams (2-3, 3.40) will take over as closer, with the Brewers relying on righthander Justin Lehr and youngsters like Matt Wise and Julio Santana, along with veteran Ricky Bottalico in setup roles. Bottalico has experience as a closer, though it’s become clear this spring that the Brewers don’t want to use him in that role.

Position players: This is where general manager Doug Melvin is hoping for noticeable improvement in the team’s play. After the All-Star Break, the Brewers scored just 259 runs (15th in the NL) and had a miserable .237 team batting average (16th). Melvin hopes the addition of former White Sox masher Carlos Lee (.305-31-99) is the tonic. Lee, a righthander, will bat between lefties Lyle Overbay (.301-16-87) and Geoff Jenkins (.264-27-93). The Brewers are also hopeful that some work done on hitting fundamentals by journeyman third baseman Russell Branyan (.234-11-27) will help him cut down on his strikeouts. Branyan is projected to platoon at third with Wes Helms, who is trying to battle back from a miserable season (.263-4-28 in 92 games). Melvin signed veteran Damian Miller (.272-9-58 in Oakland) to become the everyday catcher. Brady Clark (.280-7-46) takes over as the leadoff man and starting center fielder for Scott Podsednik, who was traded to the White Sox in the Lee deal.

Overall analysis: The Brewers have a chance to make some noise this season (by their horrific standards, that means finish .500 or slightly better). They’ll need their young pitchers to step up in a hurry, and the offense needs contributions from bottom-of-the-order guys like Miller and rookie shortstop J.J. Hardy. It appears Hardy is the only prospect who will start the season on the big club, meaning that barring injury, it will be a little while longer before we hear from guys like Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, and David Krynzel, who have established themselves as the future of this club. If Houston falters, the Brewers have a chance to sneak into third, but fourth place is a more likely destination. Things are definitely looking up in the Brew City.

5. Cincinnati Reds
Pitchers: There is some reason for optimism in Cincinnati, as the Reds think they’ve solidified the top of their starting rotation. After years of arm problems, Paul Wilson (11-6, 4.36) has returned to the top of his game. He’s joined by former Phillie and Twin Eric Milton (14-6, 4.75), who was signed as a free agent. Milton’s ERA was hideous, but he found ways to win games thanks to some tremendous run support. Also added to the rotation in the offseason was former Angel Ramon Ortiz (5-7, 4.43), who was bounced between their rotation and bullpen and, it seemed, fell out of favor with manager Mike Scioscia. Ortiz is a former 16-game winner who has the ability to back up Wilson and Milton. Aaron Harang (10-9, 4.86) and former Yankee farmhand Brandon Claussen (2-8, 6.14) round out the rotation. Harang was impressive at times last season, while Claussen really struggled with the Reds, allowing 115 baserunners in just 66 innings.

Danny Graves (3.95 ERA, 41 saves in 50 chances) still anchors the bullpen. Graves, 31, isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but he relies on a deadly sinker to get hitters out. The Reds signed former Angel Ben Weber, who missed most of last season with carpal tunnel syndrome, in hopes that he could regain his strength and velocity. Righthanders Ryan Wagner and Jose Acevedo are joined by lefthanded veteran Kent Mercker in the bullpen.

Position players: If 35-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr., can stay healthy, the Reds have the pieces in place for a high-octane offense. Griffey (.253-20-60) lasted 83 games last year. The Reds also have 23-year-old Wily Mo Pena (.259-26-66), 25-year-old Adam Dunn (.266-46-102, 195 strikeouts), and 24-year-old Austin Kearns (.230-9-32) available to play in the outfield. Mainstay Sean Casey (.324-24-99) is back at first base. With the retirement of Barry Larkin, the Reds will have a new starting shortstop for the first time in about a hundred or so years. The honor on Opening Day will likely go to Felipe Lopez (.242 in 79 games), but Anderson Machado will eventually have a chance to take that job once he recovers from a knee injury suffered in winter ball.

Overall analysis: While the Reds have some nice young talent, it doesn’t appear they have the talent or depth to compete, even in a somewhat weakened NL Central. Wilson and Milton are shaky as a one-two in any starting rotation because both are prone to giving up home runs. The rotation has some potential, but it’s not deep. The same can be said for the bullpen, where Graves needs to cut back on his workload to be more effective as the closer (too many long outings last year). The Reds don’t boast much consistent hitting in their lineup. Dunn, Pena, Ryan Freel, Griffey, Kearns, Lopez, and Jimenez all need to cut down on their strikeouts and improve their batting averages. The Reds appear to have some nice parts in place, but they won’t go anywhere until they can improve their pitching and defense.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Pitchers: No one ever doubted the stuff possessed by 23-year-old Oliver Perez. But it wasn’t until he adjusted his mechanics before last season that he was able to pitch with the control and confidence of a future star. Perez (12-10, 2.98, 239 strikeouts in 196 innings) was the best pitcher on a team of pitchers that, for the most part, underachieved terribly in 2004. Kip Wells (5-7, 4.55) battled injuries and Josh Fogg (11-10, 4.64) battled control problems. Wells throws hard, while Fogg is more of a slop-thrower. Fogg really needs to have maximum control of all his pitches to be effective. When he’s a little off, it can get ugly. Fogg has won 33 games in three years, though, so the Pirates know he can pitch. Mark Redman (11-12, 4.71 in Oakland) was acquired in the Jason Kendall trade. Redman will need to throw strikes to be effective, as he doesn’t have the overpowering stuff of Perez.

The Pirates believe their bullpen will be a strength again in 2005. Veteran closer Jose Mesa (3.25, 43 saves in 48 chances) continues in his dual role of closer and mentor. The 38-year-old has been through it all in his career, and the young pitchers on this staff look up to him. Setup man Salomon Torres tied for third in the National League with 84 appearances, and he is capable of pitching on back-to-back days (and being effective doing it) when necessary. Brian Meadows, John Grabow, and Mike Gonzalez will also work extensively out of the bullpen.

Position players: What was once a promising lineup featuring stars like Brian Giles and Jason Kendall is now a less-promising lineup featuring 2004 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Bay (.282-26-82), and not much else. Matt Lawton (.278-20-70 in Cleveland) will probably bat leadoff, followed by shortstop Jack Wilson (.308-11-59). Streak-hitting first baseman Craig Wilson (.264-29-82) needs to be more consistent at the plate, and cutting down on his 169 strikeouts of a year ago wouldn’t hurt much. The Pirates signed ageless Benito Santiago (.274-6-23) from Kansas City to take over for Kendall as the catcher. Tike Redman (.280-8-51) needs to improve his defense and baserunning, but it looks like he’ll start in center field.

Overall analysis: It doesn’t seem like this franchise has a defined direction. They have some young talent, but they also went out and signed Santiago, traded for Lawton and Redman, and brought Mesa back to be the closer again. Every team needs veterans, but the Pirates have some young players that they would probably benefit from playing over veterans who aren’t going to carry this team very far. Perez is a future star, and could win 20 games if he gets run support. He’ll be the bright spot on this team if they falter, and he has Cy Young stuff if the team plays better. With the Brewers having improved and the Reds looking to be a little better, it’s hard to see the Pirates finishing out of the basement in the Central, even if they do improve a bit over last year.

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