Friday, February 24, 2006

Reason for Hope

Hang on a second. Let me find my rose colored glasses. There they are. Okay, now we're ready to go.

There is an awful lot of negative sentiment going around Cubs Nation at the moment. There seems to be nearly constant criticism of the Cubs off-season signings (or lack thereof), Dusty Baker's managing ability (or lack thereof), and Jim Hendry's ability as a GM (or lack thereof). But the truth is, things are not as bad as they might seem right now.

The Cubs were not as active in the off-season as fans had hoped they would be. Truthfully, I don't think they were as active as Jim Hendry thought they would be either. Even so, the Cubs are a better team heading into the 2006 season than they were heading into the 2005 season. Most notably, the bullpen is much better this year than it was last year. And in my mind, last year's bullpen was the most glaring weakness the Cubs had during a very disappointing year.

The Cubs are also going to have a top-of-the-order in 2006 that is much more productive than last year's 1-2 hitters. This should mean more baserunners, more speed, more runs, and hopefully, more wins.

Provided the starters stay healthy, the Cubs pitching should be better than last year and may even be as good as advertised. Carlos Zambrano should be as stout as ever, and if Mark Prior can put together an injury-free year, the top of the Cubs rotation could prove to be the best in baseball. Greg Maddux isn't getting any younger, but he's so darned smart that you have to believe that he'll have an effective 12+ win season. Kerry Wood likely won't see any action at the Major League level until May, but if he's healthy, he can only help the Cubs win. That leaves the number five spot in the rotation which may be filled by any number of people. Rich Hill, Jerome Williams and Angel Guzman are all possibilities, as is Wade Miller if he's healthy.

The Cubs are improved, and at the same time the Cards and Astros have taken a step back. The Astros are understandable. They needed to cut payroll and they lost (at least for a while) Roger Clemens. They're also getting a little long in the tooth (even without Clemens). I understand their need to step back and regroup.

I don't understand why the Cardinals weren't more active in the off-season. They lost Matt Morris, Larry Walker, Mark Grudzalanek and Reggie Sanders, and really didn't add anyone of consequence. Chris Carpenter is likely to not have the same kind of year he had in 2005 and Mark Mulder seems to be entering a downward spiral in his career. Yet, Walt Jocketty did very little to address any of these issues. This is especially surprising considering that the core of this team is just one year removed from a World Series appearance and they will be debutting a brand new ballpark in 2006.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are likely to have a neck-and-neck battle for the basement. Although Pittsburgh made some interesting off-season moves, it's doubtful that they will contend for anything higher than fourth or fifth in the division.

That leaves Milwaukee. The Brewers are heading in the right direction. They made some good moves over the Winter and they have some promising younger talent that is ready to contribute. They also have a strong pitching staff headed by Ben Sheets who is due for a breakout year. The perpentual also-ran Brewers just may be ready to contend.

I'm picking the Cubs and the Brewers to fight it out for the top spot in the NL Central. The Cards and Astros will be fighting for third, and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will also field teams.

So who will win the division? I believe the Cubs have the better team, but for some reason, every year they have trouble with the Brewers, even when the Brewers are not very good. This is a lot to consider, but I still need to make a pick. So here goes...

And the winner of the NL Central will be...wait, my glasses just fell off. What was I saying?


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