Sunday, April 02, 2006

Prediction: NL Central

The Cardinals have been the class of the field the past few years. They have had great offensive players, great defense, and a world-class manager and GM duo. They have also had very impressive pitching performances over the past few years. Most notably was the performance of NL Cy Young Award Winner Chris Carpenter in 2005.

Having said all of this, the Cardinals of 2006 are a different breed from teams of the recent past. Their pitching will be at least a notch lower in 2006 as compared to 2005. Carpenter will likely not have a year to equal his Cy Young year, Matt Morris, a Cardinal favorite, is now with the Giants, and the Cards are relying on Sidney Ponson, which is likely to backfire on them. Cardinal position players are also not what they used to be. Albert Pujols will probably still be a monster, but Scott Rolen is a question mark, Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders are both gone, Jim Edmonds (one of my favorite players) is getting a little long in the tooth, and the Cards don't have a left fielder to speak of. In a nutshell, the Cardinals have come back to the pack.

The Astros have also come back to the pack. Jeff Bagwell is gone and will be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field. Roger Clemens will not be with the team at the beginning of the year and may not be part of the team at all. The Astros should be good, but not as good as they have been over the past two years. They also don't have the financial flexibility they have had in the past, so don't expect any mid-season trades, ala Carlos Beltran, to get them over the hump.

The Brewers were good last year and will be better this year. Doug Melvin has done a terrific job building a competitive team on a limited budget. Ned Yost has done a great job with a lot of young, inexperienced players, not to mention his handling of the pitching staff. Expect the Brew Crew to compete for the NL Central in 2006.

The Cubs were a big disappointment in 2005. Injuries to their starting pitchers combined with a very weak bullpen and an inconsistent offense led to a year of underperforming. Happily for the Cubs, things should be better in 2006. Although 2006 is starting with both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the DL, that should be a short-term problem. The Cubs bullpen is significantly improved, particularly with the signing of Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry. On offense, the Cubs added a true lead-off hitter when they traded for Juan Pierre. The Cubs will be better and should be at or near the top of the Division come October.

The Reds have been better on paper than they have been on the field. Maybe it's very basic to say, but the Reds should be better than they are. Part of the problem is a rather weak pitching staff, both starters and relievers. As in years past, the Reds should be able to hit the ball, but probably not enough to compensate for the runs given up by their pitching staff.

Pittsburgh is an interesting team. I don't expect much out of them in 2006, but they seem to be heading in the right direction. Decent pitching, some bright spots among their position players, and a commitment from the front office to build for the future without breaking the bank. Expect an "interesting" season from the Pirates.

When the 2006 season comes to a close, here's what the NL Central standings will look like:

1) Chicago Cubs
2) Milwaukee Brewers
3) Houston Astros
4) St. Louis Cardinals
5) Pittsburgh Pirates
6) Cincinnati Reds

Next time: The AL West.


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