August 28, 2014

2010 NL Central Preview

March 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The NL Central may not be the strongest division in baseball but the top four teams in for 2010 have all improved over what they were in 2009, at least on paper. There is some depth to this division that didn’t exist before and that should make for an exciting Summer.

St. Louis Cardinals

2009 Result: 91-71, 1st place in NL Central (lost in NLDS)
Notable Acquisitions: IF Felipe Lopez, RHP Brad Penny
Notable Departures: OF Rick Ankiel, RHP Joel Pineiro

Pitching and Defense: The Cardinals had the 4th best team ERA in the National League last year and they had two of the top three Cy Young Award candidates so it’s safe to say this team has some pitching. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are as good a 1-2 combination as there is in the National League. Kyle Lohse is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2009 season and Brad Penny is trying to carry over what he did for the Giants (4-1, 2.59 ERA in 6 starts) after he was jettisoned from Boston’s rotation. With reasonably good health, those four should eat quite a few innings and give the bullpen plenty of rest. Rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia won the 5th rotation spot in Spring Training.

The bullpen has plenty of depth but also a little bit of uncertainty because of closer Ryan Franklin’s shaky finish in ’09. For five months he was almost perfect but he struggled in September and has a history of fading in the 2nd half. Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs provide power arms in setup roles but they both have some improvements to make if they’re going to be counted on heavily. Lefties Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes were solid last year and should be just fine this year as well.

Tony LaRussa teams always take pride in being strong defensive clubs and this one, while not elite, figures to be pretty good with the leather. First baseman Albert Pujols, catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop Brendan Ryan are 2010 Gold Glove candidates. Center fielder Colby Rasmus is very good as well. Ryan Ludwick and Matt Holliday are capable outfielders, with Ludwick being the better of the two. Second baseman Skip Schumaker has improved at the positions since making the switch from the outfield for ’09 and he’s average or near-average in most respects. Third base will be the wild card position for the Cards. David Freese is the only natural third baseman expected to make the team and he should get the majority of the starts. Freese is solid with the glove and would probably be fairly labeled as “average.” Felipe Lopez will see time there as well but he is better suited to second base.

Offense: This is what sets the Cardinals apart from their NL Central counterparts. Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick give the team a great core of power and run production in the middle of the order. Everyone knows what Pujols and Holliday are capable of as they are both proven All-Stars but Ludwick is often underrated. He’s hit 59 home runs and driven in 210 runs over the last two seasons. Skip Schumaker is a capable leadoff man who has a .356 career on-base percentage, though he does struggle against lefties. Molina makes plenty of contact at the plate and is considered a “tough out” but he’s not much of a threat most of the time. Rasmus is a player on the rise who should see a significant increase in his production this year (see below for more details).

The 2-hole will be something of a rotating door for LaRussa in 2010 with Lopez, Ryan and perhaps even Rasmus seeing time there, though the team seems to prefer Rasmus in the 5-6 holes. Lopez has the bat and the patience to hit 2nd on the days he plays and Ryan, a decent contact hitter, figures to man that spot in other situations. Freese has plenty of power (36 HR in 664 Triple-A at-bats) but strikes out a lot and figures to share time with Lopez. He’ll hit some bombs but expect his .300+ minor league average to dip a bit in the big leagues.

On the Rise:

Colby Rasmus, CF – Rasmus is a dynamic talent who is set for a breakout year in ’10. Look for a .275 average with 25 home runs and 75-80 RBI from him this year. He has All-Star potential down the road a bit.

David Freese, 3B – The Cards are going to look for inexpensive production at third base for the next several years because of what they’ll be paying Holliday and Pujols. Freese can be a 20-25 home run guy.

Jaime Garcia, LHP – Won the 5th spot in the rotation this Spring despite entering the fray as the clear underdog. He wowed LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan with his poise, command and consistent delivery. Long term he can be a solid #2-3 starter.

On the Decline:

Ryan Franklin, RHP – Franklin can be expected to have a decent year as the Cardinals’ closer but he is unlikely to repeat his ’09 performance (1.92 ERA, 38 saves) considering he had all of 18 saves in his career before last season. Plus, he’s 37 years-old. Time isn’t always kind to pitchers.

2010 Outlook: Barring multiple injuries to significant players, the Cardinals are an easy pick to win the NL Central. Vegas odds have them as having the 2nd best shot, behind the Phillies, at representing the NL in the World Series. They have the top end starters, middle of the order bombers and bullpen depth to be one of the NL’s best teams. They won 91 games last year and they are clearly a better team this year.

Predicted Order of Finish: 1st in NL Central, 91-95 wins.

Chicago Cubs

2009 Result: 83-78, 2nd place in the NL Central
Notable Acquisitions: OF Marlon Byrd, OF Xavier Nady
Notable Departures: OF Milton Bradley, IF Jake Fox, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Rich Harden, RHP Aaron Heilman

Pitching and Defense: If they can keep the front end of their rotation healthy, the Cubs can contend for a playoff spot. Ace Carlos Zambrano pitched just 169 1/3 innings last year, missing time with some physical problems, and Ted Lilly is already set to miss a portion of the beginning of this season. Ryan Dempter is a workhorse who has win 28 games and tossed 406 2/3 innings since converting back into a starter for the 2008 season. When all is well, that’s a heck of a 1-2-3 combo. 4th starter Randy Wells was a revelation last season (12-10, 3.05 ERA in 165 1/3 IP) but it is fair to have concerns about what will happen to him in his second year. Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzelanny will open the season as the 4th and 5th starters with Lilly on the DL and there is no reason to believe either will get Major League hitters out with any consistency.

The Cubs have potential in the bullpen but there are questions to be answered for sure. Carlos Marmol takes over as the closer and he most certainly has the top-flight stuff to get the job done, but will he be consistent? Lefties Sean Marshall and John Grabow are very good, especially Grabow. Esmailin Caridad was good in ’09 when he arrived in Chicago and he’ll have a job to open this season but he has to prove ’09 was not a fluke. Jeff Samardzija lost out on the rotation competition with Silva and Gorzelanny, which isn’t good, but perhaps he’s better suited to the bullpen in the long run because of his big-time fastball. Losing Angel Guzman for the season to an injury created a serious hole to fill.

Derrek Lee is the only elite defender on the team. The defense up the middle should be better with new center fielder Marlon Byrd on board. Aramis Ramirez is solid at third base, when healthy, as is Ryan Theriot at short. Geovany Soto is okay behind the plate as well. Kosuke Fukudome is reasonably good in right field, though he will share the position with Xavier Nady who has to be viewed as a question mark in the field because of his elbow history. The question marks are at second base (Jeff Baker, Mike Fontentot) and left field (Alfonso Soriano).

Offense: If everyone is healthy this lineup will produce a lot more than it did last year when the team ranked 10th in the NL in runs scored. Ramirez is the key – if he’s in the lineup and producing this team can definitely score. Moving Soriano down in the order – finally Lou! – should help as well. The Fukudome/Nady platoon will will be just fine at the dish. Soto needs a bounce-back year though maybe expecting him to repeat his rookie year would be a big much. Theriot gets on base and Byrd brings energy to the lineup.

There is even some potential depth here. Baker has some pop in his bat so he and Fontenot should make for a respectable tandem at second base. Prospect Tyler Colvin destroyed the ball in Spring Training and made the team, though it’s hard to see where he’ll find a lot of at-bats unless someone gets hurt. Kevin Millar could make the team as well, provided some right handed pinch-hitting ability.

On the Rise:

Carlos Marmol, RHP – With nobody around to challenge him as the team’s closer, at least not right now, Marmol might just relax and pitch. He has top notch closer stuff and misses more than his share of at-bats. If he can work ahead in the count, look out.

Andrew Cashner, RHP – Cashner is a hard throwing prospect who figures to impact the team at some point this season. The Cubs used him as a starter in ’09, his first full season of pro ball, but that was just to get him some innings. He was drafted as a reliever and his stuff, especially his velocity, screams “closer.”

Starlin Castro, SS – The next big star position player for the Cubbies, Castro will open the season as the starter at Triple-A Iowa as a 20 year-old. He hit .302 at High-A and .288 at Double-A as a 19 year-old in ’09 and he stole 28 bases combined. He has offensive upside and a great glove to go with it. Seems like he’ll take over in 2011.

On the Decline:

Alfonso Soriano, OF – Since signing with the Cubs before the 2007 season, Soriano’s numbers have been in steady decline. His batting average (.299-.280-.241), home runs (33-29-20) and OPS (.897-.876-.727) tell a story of decay for the 34 year-old.

2010 Outlook: The Cubs are clearly a better team than their 2009 showing would indicate but there are enough question marks with the 2010 version of the team to make it difficult to pick them them for the division title. A playoff push is definitely possible in the ultra-competitive National League this year and 90-91 wins isn’t out of the question, but it’s hard to find many areas where they’re better than their rival to the South in St. Louis.

Predicted Order of Finish: 2nd in NL Central, 86-90 wins.

Milwaukee Brewers

2009 Result: 80-82, 3rd place in NL Central
Notable Acquisitions: LHP Doug Davis, OF Jim Edmonds, OF Carlos Gomez, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, LHP Randy Wolf, C Greg Zaun
Notable Departures: OF Mike Cameron, SS J.J. Hardy, C Jason Kendall, RHP Braden Looper, IF Felipe Lopez

Pitching and Defense: Considering that the Brewers scored the 3rd most runs in the National League last year and finished 2-games under .500 I guess you could say their pitching held them back in ’09. Specifically, the starting pitching. The Brewers finished 15th in the NL in team ERA last year and if that doesn’t change significantly they’re going to finish right where they did in ’09.

Yovani Gallardo is the ace of the staff and he’s definitely got Ace stuff but he’s only pitched 320 innings in his career (185 2/3 last year) and that makes him a little less than a sure thing as aces go. He can be dominant, though, and that makes up for some of the uncertainty. Randy Wolf and Doug Davis were brought in to upgrade the rotation and they should do so, but by how much? Wolf was really good last year but he’s only won more than 12 games once in his career (2003) and he has a history of arm trouble. He’s their #2 starter and he profiles better as a #3 for a contender. Davis is consistently mediocre but he can be an innings-eater. Like Wolf, Davis profiles a spot lower in the rotation than the one he figures to occupy for the Brewers this year. The three remaining starting rotation candidates – Dave Bush (6.39 ERA in ’09), Jeff Suppan (5.29 ERA in ’09) and Manny Parra (6.36 ERA in ’09) – don’t exactly inspire confidence. Lefty Chris Narveson has had a strong spring and is a candidate to swipe the 5th spot as well once the Brewers need one. Suppan will open the year on the DL so Parra and Narveson, both out of options, will likely get first crack.

The bullpen, on the other hand, is very good. Trevor Hoffman continues to get the job done in the 9th inning. LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Coffey are solid right handed setup men. Mitch Stetter and Narveson (if he’s not the 5th starter) will be assigned the task of getting left handers out. Carlos Villanueva and Claudio Vargas are both versatile relievers who have live arms. This was one of the strength of the team last year and figures to be again in ’10.

Defensively, the Brewers are average at best. Center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Alcides Escobar are the only players who profile as good-to-excellent defenders. Corey Hart, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks are all average to slightly below average. Casey McGeehee is nothing to write home about, though he’s not terrible either. Prince Fielder is below average. Catcher Greg Zaun is okay behind the plate because he’s an experienced receiver but he’s not an imposing figure back there.

Offense: As noted above, this was the 3rd highest scoring team in the NL last year despite Hart having a terrible season and losing Weeks to injury. Braun and Fielder are monsters in the middle of the order and it’s hard to come up with any 3-4 combinations that are better, though there are a couple of duos that can be considered their equal. They’ll mash again in 2010. Hart needs to rebound from a poor 2009 season. He’s going to wear glasses this year, which he says will help, but his batting average and home run totals have declined in each of his three full Major League seasons. Weeks can definitely be an offensive force but can he stay in the lineup and get 500 at-bats? Can McGeehee  (.301, 16 HR in 365 AB) be productive again? Some very interesting questions and if there are positive responses to those questions this offense will roll.

Gomez and Escobar are great glove men, but will they hit? Escobar hit .310 in the big leagues last year and has some speed so there is reason for hope there. Gomez can run…and that’s about it. He doesn’t walk and strikes out a ton with no power. Ouch. Given those facts, guys like Jim Edmonds and Jody Gerut could see significant at-bats in center field. They’re both solid reserves but neither is a real threat as a regular player these days. Zaun is a .251 career hitter with a little bit of pop, which is better than Jason Kendall, but he’s not a “threat” by any means.

Prospects Mat Gamel (3B) and Brett Lawrie (2B) could be factors at some point in the not-too-distant future but Gamel is hurt and Lawrie is blocked by Weeks.

On the Rise:

Alcides Escobar, SS – This guy has the tools to be a dynamic force at the top of the order and in the field. He may have some ups and downs this year but his long term future is bright.

Brett Lawrie, 2B – This guy can really hit and at some point soon he’s going to push his way into the mix somehow. Weeks could be a trade candidate down the road, or he could get hurt again, which would open the door for the best hitter in the Brewers minor league system.

On the Decline:

Jeff Suppan, RHP – The Brewers signed Suppan away from the Cardinals after the 2006 World Series and paid him $11 million a year for four years. In the first three years of that deal he’s 29-32 with a 4.92 ERA. That’s a lot of money for a below average starter. Now he’s hurt too.

2010 Outlook: The Brewers pitching looks better on paper than it did last year but they still have two holes at the back end of the rotation and starters in the 2-3 slots who belong in the 3-4 slots, respectively. They will hit and they will score a lot of runs but the competition within the division is getting tougher. Everyone except Houston and Pittsburgh appears to be a little better than they were last year, including the Brew Crew.

If a couple of pitchers are better than expected the Brewers can be a contender in the NL Central and in the NL Wild Card race. If anyone is worse than expected, they could finish 4th in the division.

Predicted Order of Finish: 3rd in NL Central, 81-85 wins.

Cincinnati Reds

2009 Result: 78-84, 4th in NL Central
Notable Acquisitions: LHP Aroldis Chapman, SS Orlando Cabrera
Notable Departures: OF Wily Taveras

Pitching and Defense: The Reds finished 7th in the NL in ERA last year and that was mostly due to a strong performance by the relief corps. Once again Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo will be the veterans who will be expected to eat innings and carry the load. Arroyo was okay last year, posting a 3.84 ERA in 220 1/3 innings. Harang wasn’t right all year and even though his ERA wasn’t terrible (4.21) his record was (6-14). He should be better than that this year. Johnny Cueto pitched a full season last year and held his own, though he needs to be more efficient and pitch deeper into games. Homer Bailey struggled for most of the ’09 season but seemed to figure things out in September/October, going 4-1 with a 2.41 ERA and striking out 42 batters in 42 1/3 innings. There is some serious upside with him if he can throw strikes and pitch ahead. Matt Maloney, Micah Owings, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman were battling for the 5th spot in the rotation late into the spring but the only one of relevance there for 2010 is Chapman. Whether it is April, May or June he’s going to be in the Reds‘ rotation because he’s too good to keep in the minors. The young Cuban touches 100 MPH with his fastball (from the left side!) and has a wicked slider as well. It looks like that was $30 well spent. Prospect Mike Leake is someone to watch as well – he is very advanced and has impressed in the Spring. He might eventually make one of the veterans at the top expendable, especially with Edinson Volquez coming back from Tommy John surgery somewhere down the line.

Francisco Cordero leads a deep, versatile bullpen that was one of the best in the NL last year. Nick Masset has emerged as a quality power setup man and Arthur Rhodes is a savvy veteran lefty. Daniel Rey Herrera gets lefties out, too, and the Reds have quality depth in Mike Lincoln, Jared Burton, Carlos Fisher and Owings as well if he’s not starting.

The Reds‘ infield defense looks pretty solid. Joey Votto and Scott Rolen are good at the corners, Brandon Phillips can be spectacular at second base and Orlando Cabrera is serviceable at short. Jonny Gomes leaves quite a bit to be desired as a defender in left field but with Chris Dickerson and Laynce Nix around that’s not a major concern. Drew Stubbs is a good defensive center fielder – Dickerson isn’t bad there either – and Jay Bruce is a good right fielder. Ramon Hernandez is okay behind the plate, though not as good as he was a few years ago. Overall the Reds‘ defense shouldn’t hold them back.

Offense: This is where things get interesting for this team. If they get some consistent offensive production – they were 11th in runs scored in the NL last year – they can be a contender in the division and for the wild card. Votto is an elite hitter who could put up some scary numbers if he gets some support. Phillips is the key there – he needs to be on his game at the plate this year. Count on a big year from Bruce. He’s relaxed a bit this year and should make more consistent contact, leading to better overall numbers. Gomes mashes when he plays, especially against lefties, but he figures to share a lot of time with Dickerson and maybe Nix. Stubbs is an intriguing combination of power and speed but his questionable ability to make contact – and avoid strikeouts – raises a bit of a red flag.

Rolen and Cabrera are nowhere near the offensive players they used to be but they have their days. Neither will provide much power but they put the bat on the ball and can provide some leadership to a young team. Hernandez has some pop, but like Rolen and Cabrera his best days are in the past.

The interesting thing about this team is that they have some high quality offensive prospects on the verge of pushing for big league jobs. Todd Frazier can flat out hit but he doesn’t have a position year (OF-2B-3B have all been tried). Yonder Alonso has elite offensive ability, even better than Frazier’s, but he’s a first baseman blocked by Votto. They’re going to try him in the outfield this year. Chris Heisey is an interesting outfield prospect who tore through the minors last year, though his upside may be limited. Juan Francisco is a third baseman with tremendous power, though his defense is still a question.

On the Rise:

Jay Bruce, OF – Turns 23 just before Opening Day, a fact that people seem to forget sometimes. 30 home runs and 85 RBI aren’t out of the question for him this season.

Homer Bailey, RHP – All this guy needs to do to be a successful big league pitcher is throw strikes. He’s nasty.

Aroldis Chapman, LHP – No doubt about it, this guy is a phenom. Lefties who throw 100 MPH don’t come along often. His dominance in Spring Training was the story of Reds camp.

On the Decline:

Scott Rolen, 3B – He can still pick it at the hot corner but shoulder injuries seem to have sapped most of his power. If he can’t hit 20 HR in Cincy this year he can’t do it anywhere.

Orlando Cabrera, SS – Still a decent player but there’s a reason nobody pursued him all that heavily during the course of the offseason.

2010 Outlook: This is an interesting transition year for the Reds. The overall talent in the organization is as high as it has been in years and in 2011 this team will be a legitimate contender. Too many things have to go exceedingly well for them to contend in the division or for the wild card this year but they will be one of the most entertaining teams in baseball to follow.

Dusty Baker isn’t the manager who will take this team to the next level but his contract is up after this year and a change may be coming. Walt Jocketty appears to be doing in Cincinnati what he did for the Cardinals for all those years.

Predicted Order of Finish: 4th in NL Central, 80-84 wins.

Houston Astros

2009 Result: 74-88, 5th in NL Central
Notable Acquisitions: 3B Pedro Feliz, RHP Matt Lindstrom, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Brett Myers
Notable Departures: LHP Mike Hampton, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, C Ivan Rodriguez, SS Miguel Tejada, RHP Jose Valverde

Pitching and Defense: The Astros starting rotation is very strong at the top with Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez with the potential for getting some moderate production in the 3-4 spots. Brett Myers is the 3rd starter but he’s hardly been a model of consistency as a Major Leaguer. He had a couple of nice years as a starter in ’05 and ’06 but has bounced around and/or been hurt the past three seasons. If he can log 200 innings he’ll probably be an asset though. Bud Norris is the 4th starter and he has plenty of upside as a power pitcher. He’ll get some strikeouts but walks were an issue for him last year. Felipe Paulino and Brian Moehler are also candidates to start, though neither figures to be a significant presence. Then again, how many 5th starters qualify as a “significant presence?” Paulino is younger than Moehler and has better raw stuff, making him the better choice among the two.

The Astros go from having one of the better closers in the NL (Jose Valverde) to having a couple of guys who weren’t exactly lights-out last year battle for saves. Matt Lindstrom throws in the mid to upper 90’s and has the classic closer appearance but he posted a 5.89 ERA last year and only struck out 39 batters in 47 1/3 innings. Guys who throw as hard as he does need to miss more bats than that. He was better than that in ’07 and ’08 so perhaps there is hope. Brandon Lyon was a useful reliever for Detroit last year but his performance varies a good bit from year to year. Tough to tell what you have in him. Jeff Fulchino was really good last year and Sammy Gervacio was dominant in 29 appearances, so if the other two struggle the Astros may have in-house solutions late in games. Alberto Arias is solid too, giving the ‘Stros some depth in the pen. Tim Byrdak is a capable left handed specialist.

The Astros team defense has been less than spectacular the last couple of years but they’re doing what they can to fix that. Pedro Feliz (3B) and Tommy Manzella (SS) are clearly better defenders than the men they’re replacing. Michael Bourn can chase down just about anything in center field and Hunter Pence gets the job done in right. Lance Berkman is probably a bit underrated with the glove at first base, though his knee problem could limit his mobility this year. Kaz Matsui holds his own, as will Justin Towles and/or Humberto Quintero behind the plate. Carlos Lee is awful but that’s why he plays left field. They’ve improved in this area over the last 12 months and that could help them get a little better.

Offense: If healthy, the guys in the middle of the Astros’ lineup can really mash. Berkman is a great all-around hitter but the physical problems seem to be coming up more often and that’s a bit scary because without him this lineup is very ordinary. Lee is a high-end run producer who hits for power and drives in runs (99+ RBI in 6 straight seasons) consistently. Pence may not be the most disciplined hitter but he hasn’t seen his best days yet – he’s got 30 HR and 100 RBI potential. Bourn did a nice job improving his OBP last year and if he repeats what he did in ’09 Houston will be fine in the leadoff spot. Nobody else appears to be much of a threat. Matsui doesn’t have any pop and his career OPS is just .712. Feliz hasn’t been a factor as a hitter since back problems hit him a couple of years ago and even before that he was subpar for a corner infielder. Even in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Philly he only managed 26 home runs in more than 1,000 at-bats. Manzella is a glove man by trade who makes some contact but doesn’t offer much else. Towles is a .188 Major League hitter in 234 at-bats and while he was better than that in the minors nothing about his performance down there would make you think he’s going to be a factor on offense. He might get better but not enough to be called a “threat” at the plate.

Here’s the problem – if Berkman, Lee and Pence don’t produce at optimum levels this team won’t score. If any of them miss a significant amount of time (Berkman had spring knee surgery and may not be ready for the start of the season) or struggle for a period of time, they’re going to scuffle. Even when healthy they have what may be the weakest 6-7-8 in the NL and that’s saying something when the Pirates are in your division.

On the Rise:

Bud Norris, RHP – He may be a little erratic at times this year but if he throws strikes he has the stuff to be a winner at the big league level and maybe eventually develop into a good #2 starter.

Sammy Gervacio, RHP – Not sure if he’s a future closer or not but he’s got great stuff. If Lindstrom and/or Lyon struggle I’d love to see him get a shot in the 9th inning.

Jason Castro, C – The Stanford product is the Astros catcher of the future and that could mean later this year. 2009 was his first full season of pro ball and he hit around .300 combined at High-A and Double-A while also showing some power potential. Castro figures to be a plus offensive player behind the dish.

On the Decline:

Lance Berkman, 1B – Take this notation with a grain of salt. Berkman is still an outstanding middle of the order hitter, maybe even an All-Star, he’s just not the 35-45 HR guy he was 2-3 years ago. He’s got power, he’s got patience and his average should bounce back a bit from last year but injuries in back-to-back years scare me when it’s a power hitter entering his mid 30’s. It wouldn’t be surprising if he had another 4-5 years as a productive middle of the order hitter, he just doesn’t appear to be what he used to be.

2010 Outlook: The Astros need to catch a lot of breaks to improve on their 2009 record. There is some upside here but where there is depth – the bullpen – there aren’t many long track records of success. If Myers and Norris are consistent they just might have enough pitching to hang around a bit and the defense, as mentioned, is better than it used to be. If either of those two pitchers struggle, things could get ugly and the bullpen could get worn out.

The problem is that they really only have three high-end hitters and that leaves little room for error. Facing Feliz, Towles and Manzella followed by the pitcher will make a lot of opposing pitchers smile. Their farm system isn’t exactly loaded with high end prospects either, though there are a couple like Castro and Jordan Lyles who can be really good. There isn’t exactly a ton of help on the immediate horizon.

Predicted Order of Finish: 5th in NL Central, 70-74 wins.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2009 Result: 62-99, 6th in NL Central
Notable Acquisitions: OF Ryan Church, IF Bobby Crosby, RHP Octavio Dotel, 2B Akinori Iwamura
Notable Departures: RHP Jesse Chavez

Pitching and Defense: The Pirates have several guys in the rotation who qualify as workhorses but nobody really has top of the rotation stuff. #1 starter Zach Duke was solid last year, posting a respectable 4.06 ERA in 213 innings, but he’s a #3 starter on a good team. Ross Ohlendorf and Paul Maholm are useful Major League pitchers but they both profile as #4 starters and they’re sitting in the #2-3 spots in Pittsburgh. Charlie Morton has a lively arm and looks like a big league pitcher but his control has been a problem throughout his pro career and on most teams would not be in the starting rotation. Daniel McCutchen is another guy who has the “look” of a big league pitcher but again, like Morton, there aren’t many franchises that would have him in the rotation at this point. Prospect Brad Lincoln should be able to work his way into the rotation at some point this year, barring a really disappointing effort in the minors.

The bullpen is no certainty either. Octavio Dotel is the closer but it’s a job he hasn’t really held since he notched 36 saves back in 2004. His stuff is electric, though, and he gets a ton of strikeouts so there is a chance he could do a solid job for the Bucs. Joel Hanrahan has a great arm as well and he did a nice job for Pittsburgh last year (1.72 ERA in 33 games after coming over from Washington) but he’s been too up and down in his career to be able to count on him. Other right handed relievers include Evan Meek, Brendan Donnelly, Steven Jackson and D.J. Carrasco. Nothing to get excited about there. Javier Lopez and Jack Taschner were the top lefties in camp during the spring.

Andrew McCutchen and Akinori Iwamura are solid defenders, with McCutchen having the ability to be outstanding, but nobody else stands out. Jeff Clement is a catcher learning to play first base, Ryan Doumit is a catcher who might be better off at first base and Garrett Jones is a first baseman playing right field. Lastings Milledge is a good athlete but he’s an average defender in left. Ronny Cedeno isn’t terrible but again, nothing but average. Same for Adam LaRoche at third. This group isn’t awful but it’s also not the kind of group than can save a lot of runs for a starting rotation that doesn’t miss many bats.

Offense: Oof. This lineup is awful. The Pirates finished dead last in runs scored last year and they’ll be hard pressed to even repeat what they did in ’09 (636 runs scored). Iwamura, a guy who hit .290 with 1 home run and 9 steals, is the leadoff man. That makes some sense because he gets on base at a good clip but he’s not exactly a “table setter.” McCutchen will hit second to start the year and the way things look he just may end up hitting third for the Pirates by the end of the season. He is an electric talent and, honestly, the only Pirates player worth getting excited about. Jones is the #3 hitter. Yes, a 28 year-old with a total of 391 Major League at bats is hitting third. He tore the cover off the ball last year (.888 OPS, 21 HR in 314 AB) so he’s the only possible option.

Doumit figures to be the cleanup man and he’s a pretty good hitter for  a catcher but not really the cleanup type. Also of note, Doumit has played more than 100 big league games just once since breaking in in 2005. Now we’re left with Clement (.701 career OPS), LaRoche (.666 career OPS) and Milledge (.727 career OPS) to fill out the 5-6-7 spots and Cedeno (.626 career OPS) to hit 9th, after the pitcher. Apparently manager John Russell thinks having Cedeno hit 9th will give McCutchen more RBI opportunities in the 2-hole. Hard not to laugh, isn’t it?

The good news is that there may be a few prospects on the way who could give Pirates fans some hope. 3B Pedro Alvarez, OF Jose Tabata and C Tony Sanchez should be around to help out soon.

On the Rise:

Andrew McCutchen, OF – This guy is a really exciting player who will be a fan favorite in Pittsburgh for a long time, if they don’t wind up trading him. Could be a 20-30 guy this year.

Pedro Alvarez, 3B – He’s got the best power bat in the organization, including the big leaguers, and it’s tough to think that LaRoche will hold him off for long. The Buccos need his HR power.

Jose Tabata, OF – He’s had his share of off-the-field problems and maturity issues but he’s a talented player. If the team’s first base options flame out and Tabata hits well at Triple-A he could force his way into right field with Jones moving back to first base.

Brad Lincoln, RHP – He doesn’t project as a future ace at the moment but he’s got more upside than Morton or McCutchen and could pitch his way to the big leagues with a good start at Triple-A.

On the Decline:

Akinori Iwamura, 2B – He’s 31 years-old and his days as an everyday player are numbered. In fact, it would be shocking if he were an everyday player in 2011. He’d make an excellent reserve infielder on a good team.

2010 Outlook: Not good. The best thing the Pirates can hope for are good starts by their best prospects in the minor leagues. That way they can get those players to the Majors at some point in May, June or July and give fans something to latch on to for hope. The future is what the Pirates need to be selling in 2010, especially with almost everyone else in the division getting better from ’09 to ’10.

Long term it all depends on just how good these prospects wind up being. If Alvarez, McCutchen and Sanchez develop into impact big leaguers then the team has something to build around. If not, well, things will continue to go as they have for the past two decades.

Predicted Order of Finish: 6th in NL Central, 58-62 wins.

Kevin Wheeler is the host of Sports Open Line on News Radio 1120, KMOX in St. Louis. Sports Open Line airs weekdays from 6-8 PM CT and can be heard outside of St. Louis at www.kmox.com.

In addition to his work on the air at KMOX, Kevin is also a hitting & catching instructor for All-Star Performance (www.all-starperformance.net) in St. Louis and performs the same duties for the St. Louis Gamers travel program (www.stlgamers.net), working with former Major Leaguers Scott Cooper and Matt Whiteside.

He began his radio career in December of 1995 working for the One-On-One Sports Radio Network (which became Sporting News Radio in 2001). The Kevin Wheeler Show was heard overnights on Sporting News Radio from 2002-2005. During that same period he was the Sporting News’ Minor League expert and a contributor to the Sporting News Fantasy Source publications.

Before embarking on a career as a member of the media and as a coach, Kevin served as a backup catcher at the University of Miami, FL where he received a degree in Broadcast Journalism in 1994.

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