The 2008 NL Central was primarily a two team race between the
newly Piniella'd Cubs and the Yostastic Brewers. The Brewers trailed by just two games on June 1. Pitching trouble and manager drama shipwrecked the Brewers, until the acquisition of CC Sabathia and the late late late firing of Yost vaulted them over the Mets in the final week for the Wild Card. The Astros also made a late run at respectability.
The Central saw a proliferation of stellar young arms, (unfortunately one of them is on a team managed by Dusty Baker) and career years from two of its biggest stars. The divisions most visible team went pretty much to wire to wire but flamed out in the playoffs to a team from the much maligned West. What does 2009 have in store for the heartland? Let's rush to the middle.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
- Catcher Ryan Doumit may be the most underrated hitter at the position. Played in 116 games last year, hitting 15 HRs and OPSing at at .858. Adam LaRoche is also good for about 25 HRs out of the first base spot.
- Nate McClouth rounded into one of the NLs best all around outfielders last season. He covered a ton of ground in center and popped 26 HRs.
- Closer Matt Capps is solid on the rare occasion he gets a save chance
- Ian Snell still has some of the best stuff in baseball. He got off to a lousy start last season and was atrocious on the road all season. He started to show signs of his old self in his last 12 or so starts. Expect him to bounce back fully this year.
- The rest of the staff includes the disappointing Tom Gorzellany and Zach Duke, and young Ross Ohlendorf and Paul Maholm. One of the league's most underwhelming.
- The holes left by power hitting OFs Jason Bay and Xavier Nady are replaced by the decidely less powerful Nyjer Morgan and and Brandon Moss. Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson are nowhere near the hitters they once were.
Don't be fooled by the fact that I have 4 goods and only 3 bads. We're still talking about the Pirates, a team that lost 95 games last season and made no noticeable improvements to the major league club. Expect a 17th consecutive losing season, by a comfortable margin.
Prediction: 68-94 record; The team calls up Rinku and Dinesh midseason only to discover they returned to India months ago; 4 fans in section 362 start "Hinske's Pinskys" where they dress like Eric Hinske and recite Robert Pinsky poems.
5. Houston Astros
- Roy Oswalt was stellar again last season and has been lights out so far this Spring. He had a a 4:1 K/BB ratio and threw 208 innings. They'll need him to be one of the best in the league again, and barring injury, he'll deliver.
- Lance Berkman appears to be entering a second prime. He's backed in the lineup by Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, also 25 HR guys. Don't rule out a Miguel Tejada comeback year either.
- Not to be redundant, but let's look at the rest of this rotation. Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Frickin' Hampton, Brandon Backe and Brian Moehler. Oof.
- If Miguel Tejada doesn't have a bounce back year, which could happen since he may be 51, the infield is light on offense outside of Berkman. Miggy, Matsui and the Blum/Boone platoon can all field but will likely lack plate production.
A lot of people may think this is low, but the Astros pitching is seriously lacking. Besides Pence (who has a predilection for hurting himself), the offensive catalysts are older and a single injury to one of them would be a major setback.
Prediction: 75-87 record; Cecil Cooper is sued for copyright infringement after debuting his new wallpaper instruction show, "Hanging With Mr. Cooper."; Kaz Matsui loses his virginity; I start pronouncing J.R. Towles' name correctly.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
- Walkoff Walk favorite Manny Parra returns for a second year with the big club. I'm expecting 300 IP, with 304 Ks, 6 BBs a 0.0048 WHIP and a 10-11 record.
- Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are still in the fold. With Mike Cameron and Cory Hart the heart of the lineup is very solid. At the plate, anyway.
- Hey look, another lousy rotation after #1. Braden Looper, Dave Bush and Yovani Gallardo, come on down! Sheets, Sabathia say "See ya, suckers." Looks poisonous.
The Brewers team is pretty much the same as 2008, but without Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia. Those are pretty big buts (and butts). Braun and Fielder can't really play much better than they have and aren't enough to carry a team with a rotation like this. Sorry krautheads.
Predictions: 79-83 record; Bill Hall buys a marmoset; Ken Macha gets his nipples sanded off trying to refinish a hutch.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
- Heart of lineup has a ton of power. After Albert Pujols, almost certainly the best hitter in baseball, they have Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and (when healthy) Troy Glaus. That's going to net you about 125 HRs.
- Chris Carpenter may return to help out a patchwork rotation now entering it's second year of patchworkiness. When healthy, Adam Wainwright was stellar.
- Two rotation spots are still held by Mssrs. Lohse and Piniero. Lohse had a career year last year that he will need to duplicate just to be a capable #2 starter and Piniero stinks. It's also questionable whether Todd Wellemeyer can duplicate his late season success.
- New starting SS is Khalil Greene. Most experts are counting on him having a bounceback year but I'm not sold. Skip Schumaker also needs to adjust to 2B.
I was shocked by the relative success of this rotation last year and will only be a believer if they find success again. Ryan Ludwick's season last year was an outlier, he's going to be 31 this year. Nothing about this team says to me that they'll be much better than last year.
Predictions: 82-80 record; Snack machine in clubhouse gets Gardetto's Snack Mix; Joe Mather takes pictures of his wang, texts them to you.
2. Cincinnati Reds:
- The rotation has the potential to be one of the league's best. Endindson Vozquez has ace stuff, and Johnny Cueto showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie. Barring you know what, that's an explosive 1-2. Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are question marks (especially after I heard one from one of baseball's most prominent reporters that he thinks Dusty may have permanently killed Harang's arm), but with two highly capable pitchers in Homer Bailey and Micah Owings battling for the 5th spot, they have options.
- The top of the lineup has two speed guys in Taveras and Hairston and three young guys with power in Votto, Phillips and Bruce.
- Defense improves with addition of Alex Gonzalez at short.
- Team had the 8th best bullpen ERA in baseball last year and added the efficient Arthur Rhodes.
I mostly kid. Players like playing for Dusty and if he manages to keep this team in the race for a good part of the year he'll get some MoY consideration. People like Dusty, and I like this team. Maybe lightning will strike.
Predictions: 89-73 record; Juan Encarnacion buys a 1998 Ford Escort just to keep his shoes in; Joey Votto and Jay Bruce compare biceps an NL regular season record 7199 times surpassing Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark's 1989 record; Locusts.
1. Chicago Cubs
- The rotation is the best in the division. Zambrano, Harden, Dempster and Lilly are a strong 1-4.
- Carlos "Nice" Marmol makes the transition to closer. He's succeeded as both a middle reliever and set up guy, and should be good in the 9th.
- The addition of Milton Bradley to Soriano, Lee, Ramirez and Soto also puts the lineup in elite company and in even better shape than last year when they had the 5th most TBs in baseball.
- The productive Mark DeRosa was replaced by the less productive Aaron Miles.
- Fukudome must improve on last season to fulfill expectations.
The Cubs seem to have it all to win the divsion by a comfortable margin for the second straight year. I won't comment on anything beyond, but know that I don't believe in curses.
Prediction: 99-63 record; Ryan Theriot finally throws out his Christmas tree towards the middle of June; Lou Piniella finally sees Titanic and hates it; Team doctor recommends players begin eating actual bear food.