Seamheads National League Central Season Preview
Chicago Cubs (2008: 1st place, 97-64)
Going into 2009, the Cubs are in the unusual position of having to defend themselves in the press despite having won the division twice in a row. The reason, of course, is that they failed to win one solitary playoff game in either 2007 or 2008. Last yearâ€™s sweep at the hands of the Dodgers was especially difficult to stomach, and led to widespread calls for reform. These were heeded by GM Jim Hendry, who managed to upgrade his roster without making any rash changes for changeâ€™s sake.
Chief among the Cubsâ€™ off-season moves are the departure of Mark DeRosa and the addition of Milton Bradley. Losing DeRosa will be a blow to the infield depth; Mike Fontenot steps in as starting second baseman, with free agent signee Aaron Miles spelling him and shortstop Ryan Theriot. Backing up the four corner positions will be Micah Hoffpauir, who has spent the last four seasons establishing himself as a dependable Triple-A hitter, and who performed well last year in two big league stints. The net effect is replacing one player (DeRosa) with two (Miles and Hoffpauir), and not necessarily for improved production. Any net gain will hinge on Fontenot, who has shown surprising pop at the plate but struggled somewhat in the field.
Bradley, on the other hand, could emerge as the most important free agent signing of the winter. Many balked at the three-year, $30 million price tag in a saturated corner outfielder market, but if he can stay healthy, heâ€™ll plug a major hole in the lineup and in the field.
Bradleyâ€™s installation in right moves last yearâ€™s new acquisition, Kosuke Fukudome, into a center field platoon with Reed Johnson. Many in the Windy City expect the Japanese import to replicate his 2008 first half numbers throughout this season; at any rate, among Bradley, Fukudome and Johnson, and with Hoffpauir in the wings, the Cubs should have plenty of options and at-bats in the outfield.
Added to the aforementioned are stalwarts Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, sophomore stud Geovany Soto behind the plate, and the aging but still dangerous Alfonso Soriano in left field. In sum, after outscoring their nearest N.L. competitor by 56 runs last season, thereâ€™s no reason the Cubs wonâ€™t do the same again in 2009.
On the hill, Chicago returns four members of a strong, well balanced rotation. Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster anchor the group, but probably the most talented pitcher is Rich Harden, whoâ€™s struggled with injuries. If he puts together a full campaign, the Cubs will have easily the strongest rotation in the National League. Gone is veteran Jason Marquis, to be replaced by lefty Sean Marshall.
The only real area of concern for the club is the front end of the bullpen. Kevin Gregg (recently named the closer) and Carlos Marmol will be able to handle the eighth and ninth innings, but it could be a struggle getting to them. The recently acquired Luis Vizcaino struggled with walks last year in the Bronx; if he can regain his 2004-2006 form, heâ€™ll be a major addition. Another key contributor could be Chad Gaudin, whoâ€™s failed to live up to the promise he first showed for Oakland in the first half of 2007.
Just as last year, the Cubs have no serious flaws, nor any serious competition in the division. The question remains whether or not their recent postseason failures have prepared them for an extended run in 2009.
Milwaukee Brewers (2008: 90-72, 7.5 games back)
Last yearâ€™s Brew Crew finished with their best record since 1992, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to eventual champs Philadelphia. Unfortunately, 2008 success is unlikely to be an indicator of the same in 2009 for this team, which has several serious question marks.
The most glaring holes in the roster are those vacated by 1-2 starters C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, both of whom declined to resign with Milwaukee. Expected to replace them are 23-year-old Yovani Gallardo and 26-year-old Manny Parra. Both pitchers, but especially Gallardo, have shown brilliance in the minor leagues and in short spurts with the big league club. Consider that Gallardo struck out 10.49 batters per nine innings in the minor leagues, while walking only 3.25, and thereâ€™s definitely potential for him to lead the staff. Parraâ€™s September struggles were well documented, but tend to overshadow the real success he enjoyed during the first five months of the season. Even with the two young pitchersâ€™ impressive credentials, it is by no means a given that theyâ€™ll be able to replace Sabathia and Sheets, who combined last year for a 2.52 ERA in 329 innings.
Second, and more important, is the fact that the last three men in the rotationâ€”Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Braden Looperâ€”are a pungent combination of old and ineffective. Of the three, only Bush has posted a WHIP under 1.30 in a single season as a starter; heâ€™s also the only one younger than 33. Milwaukee has no real options outside of these three; when one of them inevitably struggles, runs will be scored.
Last yearâ€™s Brewer bullpen was a curious establishment, ranking fourth in the N.L. in ERA, but 11th in strikeouts. Leading the way were Salomon Torres and Brian Shouse, neither of whom are returning. Instead, the nominal old man in the â€˜pen will be career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who last year posted the worst ERA+ of his career. Even assuming that Hoffman comes through as hoped, the front of the Milwaukee bullpen contains nothing but question marks and is a definite weakness for the team.
The Brewers return the same offense in 2009, with studs Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun surrounded by an array of moderate underachievers in Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy. Hall, who put up a line of .225/.293/.396 last season, may be supplanted by prospect Mat Gamel, while Weeks is being pushed by young shortstop Alcides Escobar. The former would certainly help shore up an improving Milwaukee defense.
Despite one of the best hosts of young talent (Gallardo, Parra, Braun, Fielder, Gamel, Escobar) in the National League, itâ€™s not clear how the pieces fit together in this lineup. In the short term, their uncertain pitching situation will likely be a drag on the potent offense, limiting the teamâ€™s overall success and making a playoff berth seem unlikely.
Houston Astros (2008: 86-75, 11 games back)
After muddling through the last two seasons, thereâ€™s no real reason to expect the Astros to contend in 2009, and certainly not against Chicago.
After Roy Oswalt, the rotation is a mess. Wandy Rodriguez has potential that, so far, has gone unfulfilled. He had his best year so far in 2008, but pitched only 138 innings due to a groin injury. Brian Moehler is a 37-year-old with a career ERA+ of 95, and nominal number three Brandon Backe was positively shellacked last season, leading the league in home runs and earned runs against. The Astrosâ€™ solution, incredibly, was to bring in Mike Hampton, who â€˜bounced backâ€™ last season from two years on the shelf by going 3-4 in 13 starts. He was limited by an all-too-predictable stint on the disabled list, this time for a strained pectoral muscle. The bullpen, with closer Jose Valverde and graybeard Doug Brocail, is decent, but just how much damage control will they be asked to do?
Offensively, the Astros still feature their usual assortment of boppers, led by Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada. None of those three are getting younger. Berkman and Lee had strong numbers in 2008, and have the advantage of playing a less demanding defensive position. Tejada, on the other hand, slugged just .415 (lower than Kaz Matsui or Mark Loretta), and was one of the poorest defensive shortstops in baseball. Even if he really is just 35 years oldâ€”an open questionâ€”heâ€™s clearly on the decline, and it may not be a graceful exit.
In truth, the only fun for Astros fans this summer might be watching the precious few young players continue to develop. The best of the group is Hunter Pence, who draws rave reviews from everyone around him as a hard-nosed, old school player. His production fell off a touch in 2008, but he still hit 25 home runs, and made only one error in the outfield. J.R. Towles was largely dismissed last season after a wretched beginning, but it would be unwise to overlook his consistently stellar minor league numbers. Michael Bourn, the prize of the Brad Lidge package, needs to seriously cut down on his strikeouts; if he canâ€™t manage to get on base more than 29% of the time, his speed wonâ€™t matter quite as much.
In the field, Bourn and Pence will cover a lot of ground in the outfield, but Tejada and Matsui are as poor a double play combination as youâ€™ll find. In the end, the â€™09 Astros are eminently unexciting, and should remain in the middle of the pack throughout the season.
St. Louis Cardinals (2008: 86-76, 11.5 games back)
After a strong first half which placed them just 4.5 games back of the division-leading Cubs, the 2008 Cardinals faltered down the stretch. The season featured surprising performances from several players, most notably Ryan Ludwick (.299/.375/.591) and Todd Wellemeyer (team-high 134 strikeouts, 115 ERA+). Their success in 2009 will depend upon how well those men, and others, can follow up on excellent campaigns.
As usual, all discussion of the St. Louis lineup starts with El Hombre. Pujols finally got his first MVP award thanks to a 190 OPS+ and nearly as many doubles (44) as strikeouts (54). He led an offense which rapped out more hits than any other in the National League; among his key cohorts were Troy Glaus, whoâ€™s out until May with an elbow injury, and the surprising outfield trio of Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Skip Schumaker.
This season, with the departure of second baseman Adam Kennedy, Schumaker is being asked to move into the infield for the first time since his college days. For such a move there is little precedent, especially at the major league level and certainly not in such a short time frame (two months). Last yearâ€™s double play combination of Kennedy and Cesar Izturis provided little offense, but were excellent at run prevention. The current pairing of Schumaker and Khalil Greene will likely be the oppositeâ€”and that is to assume that Greene rediscovers his 2006 form. Factoring in the absence of Glaus at the hot corner, the infield defense will be markedly inferior to last season.
This could prove problematic for the Cardinalsâ€™ pitching staff, led by Chris Carpenter. As mentioned above, last yearâ€™s staff thrived off unexpected contributions from retreads Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse. Both return, along with Joel Piniero, on whom no good luck rubbed off. Including ace Carpenter, who has hardly pitched at all since his masterful 2006 season, itâ€™s a fragile staff with question marks aplenty. The closest thing to a sure bet is Adam Wainwright, who went 11-3 last year. Like the Astros, the Cardinals will struggle to create more runs than they concede.
Should Colby Rasmus earn a starting spot, heâ€™ll help shore up the outfield defense, and rookie closer Jason Motte should handle effectively any leads that are given to him. It remains unlikely, though, that enough of the teamâ€™s concerns will be resolved for them to challenge for a postseason berth.
Cincinnati Reds (2008: 73-88, 23.5 games back)
The Reds are similar to the Brewers in having a strong young core surrounded by a mediocre group of filler veterans. Unlike the Brewers, though, theyâ€™ve bid farewell to two of their top hitters from this time last year, Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn. Any advantages gained by keeping those two men off the field on defense will likely be counteracted by the loss at the plate.
The lineup has several bright spots, starting with phenoms Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips showed some power, if little plate discipline, and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion posted his highest OBP yet. Outside of those four, though, the starting eight is unsightly: Willy Taveras in center, Chris Dickerson in left, Alex Gonzalez at short and Ramon Hernandez behind the plate. Talented as they are, itâ€™s doubtful that the young Cincinnati stars can lug so much dead weight.
The real story of the season for the Reds is in the starting rotation, one of the strongest in baseball. Nominal ace Aaron Harang looks to rebound from a poor 2008 campaign in which he served up 35 home runs, second-most in the National League. More buzz surrounds youngsters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, both of whom were among the top pitchers in the division a year ago. Cueto, like Harang, surrendered too many home runs for his own good, but is just 23 years old; Volquez, meanwhile, was second in the league in strikeouts, and had an ERA+ of 140. Fourth starter Bronson Arroyo has been bombed in spring training, and the final slot will go to either Homer Bailey or Micah Owings. After coming in fourth in the N.L. in strikeouts a year ago, the staff should be able to at least match that in 2009.
The bullpen is anchored by former Brewer Francisco Cordero, who saved 34 games a year ago and struck out more than a batter an inning. Behind him are lefty Bill Bray and righty Jared Burton, who were the two strongest members of the bullpen last year according to ERA+. Manager Dusty Baker will do well to have those three handle as many high leverage situations as possible, as the other alternatives (Arthur Rhodes, Mike Lincoln, Dave Weathers) are less promising.
The keys for the Reds in 2009 are, first, for at least a few of the second tier position players to exceed expectations, and second, for the starting rotation to handle enough innings to limit the bullpenâ€™s workload. Should they accomplish these two things, the Reds could be a surprise playoff contender, especially if Bruce and Votto live up to their billing. If not, itâ€™s likely to be another slow season in Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh Pirates (2008: 67-95, 30.5 games back)
Last and, in all likelihood, least, come the Pirates, who despite a change in management have more problems than they can shake a stick at. The starting rotation is led by Paul Maholm, who is a second or third starter in a perfect world. Still only 26, heâ€™s lowered his WHIP in each of the last two seasons and had his best campaign ever in 2008. Ian Snell and Zach Duke are prospects gone wrong, but are no doubt better than back-enders Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens, both acquired in return for Xavier Nady. In the bullpen, Matt Capps is a solid closer for a team that rarely needs one; lefty John Grabow is a nice piece, but has struggled with control (37 walks in 74 innings in 2008).
The Pirate pitchersâ€™ struggles are actually due in large part to a porous defense behind them; in 2008, only Cincinnati (.674) had a worse Defensive Efficiency Rating than Pittsburghâ€™s .676 (although on the other hand, the Piratesâ€™ Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 4.84 was the worst in the league by far). Middle infielders Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez would be elsewhere if GM Neal Huntington had his druthers. The LaRoche brothers, Andy and Adam, are more promising. Third baseman Andy especially is expected to rebound from a rotten get-to-know-you (.157/.227/.232) after coming aboard in the Jason Bay deal.
The brightest light for the Piratesâ€”as long as Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez are still percolatingâ€”is catcher Ryan Doumit, who was smartly extended after a breakout 2008 season. The 27-year-old switch-hitter led the club in all the important rate stats, and only struck out 55 times in 431 at-bats. Further promise is to be found in the outfield, where Nate McClouth won an ill-deserved Gold Glove largely on the strength of his offensive numbers (26 home runs, 94 RBIs, 23 steals in 26 attempts). Heâ€™s likely to move to left field when McCutchen is deemed ready, ousting the over-matched Nyjer Morgan. Brandon Ross, also acquired for Bay, will be given a chance to prove himself in right field.
Anyone whoâ€™s been following baseball in the Steel City for the past year knows that things are on the uptick. Unfortunately, itâ€™s a long way up from the bottom, which is precisely where the Pirates have resided for going on two full decades. The young players will certainly provide some excitement, but there will be growing pains aplenty, especially when the inevitable call-ups commence. In the short term, poor pitching and defense will keep Pittsburgh mired in the basement.