Sunday, March 25, 2007

Predicting the NL Central

In just over a week, the 2007 MLB season will officially begin. That means it’s time to make my annual prediction of how the NL Central should shake out.

First, I guess I should try to explain the miserable predictions I made last year. There were just a couple of things that went wrong. I overestimated the Cubs, underestimated the Brewers and Astros, wrote off the Cardinals as too old, and didn’t expect the Reds to do as well as they did. However, I did a pretty good job predicting the season the Pirates would have.

But last year is in the past. It’s a new day and my powers of seeing into the future are stronger than ever. Here’s what the NL Central will look like at the end of the 2007 season.

1. Chicago Cubs – The Cubs went on a spending spree in the off-season and completely rebuilt their 2006 team. On offense, they added Alfonso Soriano, Cliff Floyd, Mark DeRosa, and Darryle Ward. In addition, they re-signed Aramis Ramirez, who was arguably the best player available on the free agent market, and Derrick Lee should be healthy all year.

On the mound, the Cubs learned their lesson from previous years and they are not relying on Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. Instead, they added Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to their starting rotation and they are returning a bullpen that was one of the bright points of 2006. If Prior adds anything to the starting rotation or Wood adds anything to the bullpen, it will be gravy.

Going from worst to first isn’t unheard of, but it is rare. Even so, I’m betting that the $300 million they spent over the winter is enough to beat the odds and win the NL Central.

2. Milwaukee Brewers – To listen to most experts, the Brewers are all about pitching. The Brewers starting rotation is considered on of the five best in the NL and the best in the NL Central. Led by the oft-injured Ben Sheets, the Brewers rotation also includes Chris Capuano, former Cardinal Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Claudio Vargas.

What is often overlooked is the offense that the Brewers will be bringing to the park. Lead-off man Ricky Weeks was injured for a good part of 2006 and should be rejuvenated this year. Geoff Jenkins suffered through the worst season of his career in 2006 but should rebound for a big year. Bill Hall should have another good year and Prince Fielder should have an even better year as he matures. Add in J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart, and the Brewers should have a potent offense. In fact, they should be good enough to finsh second in the NL Central and battle for a wild-card berth.

3. Houston Astros – The Astros still have a good offense, particularly with the addition of left fielder Carlos Lee, but their pitching isn’t going to be as strong as in past years. Andy Pettitte is gone and it is unlikely that Roger Clemens will be back. That leaves Roy Oswald as the only premiere pitcher on the team. Former Rockie Jason Jennings and former Padre Woody Williams are both question marks, and Matt Albers is completely unproven. Wandy Rodriguez, on the other hand, may turn out to be a bright spot for the Astros. He still has a lot to prove, but looks like he may be the real deal. All tolled, the Astros will not have the guns to be a serious contender for the NL Central.

4. St. Louis Cardinals – I predicted the demise of the Cardinals last year, but I proved to be a bit premature. Even so, I feel confident predicting that the Cardinals will not finish any higher than fourth in the NL Central. Other than Albert Pujols,Scott Rolen and perhaps Chris Duncan, the Cardinals do not sport much offense. Jim Edmonds is a walking injury, and So Taguchi, Juan Encarnacion, David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy, and Yadier Molina don’t inspire much fear in opposing pitchers.

On the mound, Chris Carpenter will be back with a new contract. After Carpenter, the Cardinals are counting on Kip Wells, Al Reyes, Adam Wainwright, and Braden Looper. It will take career years from Wells, Reyes, Wainwright, and Looper for the Cards to even have a chance. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are often viewed as miracle workers, but even they do not have enough magic to turn this team into a contender.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates are a team on the rise. Young stars like Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and former Brave Adam LaRoche are exciting to watch. Young pitchers like Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, and Tom Gorzelanny form a solid rotation that will give opponents fits. The Pirates are too young to be serious contenders this year, but if they can keep their team together, meaning ownership will have to spend some money, they could return past glory to a once proud baseball city.

6. Cincinnati Reds – The Reds overachieved in 2006. They had a great (and unexpected) first half, but faded badly in the second half. Once again, Ken Griffey, Jr is starting the year at less than 100%. In 2006, Adam Dunn hit 40 HRs, but proved that he is a strike out machine, whiffing 194 times and hitting only .234. The rest of the offense is just as unremarkable.

The pitching is what made the Reds contenders last year, but don’t expect the same type of overachieving in 2007. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are both decent pitchers, but neither one is capable of carrying this team. The Reds will finish in the cellar in the NL Central.


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