I hope you turned your clocks back, friend, because it's finally time for us to turn our gaze towards the Walkoff Walk annual divisional previews. Daylight ain't the only thing you'll be saving if you peek back at 2008 and 2009's versions. Boy, did we miss the mark in almost every way possible! But at least we had fun being wrong, no?
Previously, Liakos looked into the plight of the AL Central. It was a hoot. Today, we stay in Middle America but flop over to the National League once again.
If the National League Central was one of your family members, it'd be the oft-ignored doughy 45-year-old male uncle that everyone assumes is gay, only to shock and awe the clan on Thanksgiving when he shows up with a 22-year-old Norwegian model, a Porsche, and a fine Armani suit. And then he leaves before dessert because nobody put out his organic cranberry, mint and tangerine sauce.
What does that have to do with the NL Central? Well, we tend to push our biases towards the coastal teams in the NL, your Phillies, your Dodgers, etc, and just assume that the winner of this flyover division will struggle to the gate with a mediocre record and fade early in the Division Series. But watch out, because you never know when Tony La Russa will show up to your house, wearing a big grin, toting his cranberries.
Make with the previews:
6. Houston Astros
- Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez are good enough to win 20 games. Well, combined, with the lackluster offensive support expected.
- They probably won't be spending $100 million to field a losing team in 2010. The projected payroll is about $90 million, down from last year's high-priced squadron of squalor. Still, those former Phillies players do not come cheap, Eddie. Would I be surprised to hear Ed Wade convince Dickie Thon and Von Hayes to come out of retirement and don Astros jerseys? No.
- Houston still has Momma and Poppa Bush sucking face at Minute Maid Park to inspire and arouse the fanbase. Yecch.
- Their best player has an ouchie in his knee-spot. Lance Berkman may not make Opening Day. If fans are lucky, he'll be in full form by the Day After Opening Day, but without The Big Puma, the 'Stros offense rests firmly on Hunter Pence. Poor, misdirected Hunter Pence.
- Leadoff man Michael Bourn will probably regress to a not-very-good on base percentage. Fella overachieved and posted a heady .366 BABIP in '09 to accompany his career-high .354 OBP; chances are he'll revert to his career average of .327. Pair him with Kaz Matsui and the big bats won't have as many runners to drive in.
- New manager and former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills' resumé is about as impressive as former Astros manager Cecil Cooper, in that they both batted left-handed as players and have never been in my kitchen.
Predictions: 74-88 record. Carlos Lee's daily diet of four steaks and two pounds of spare ribs cause him to have coronary bypass surgery by July. Brett Myers goes 1-0 with a 8.27 ERA against his former team and 5-16 with a 2.83 ERA against the rest of the league; considers his season a miserable success. Team hosts "Jesus Day" on September 29th where every fan dressed in a robe, beard and sandals wins the right to ride a burro around the warning track after the game.
5. Milwaukee Brewers
- Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are monsters. Perhaps the best 3-4 hitter combination in baseball, these two gents could combine to smack 100 homers and drive in 300 runs...if only the Brewers could afford to surround them with talent. Instead, surrounding them in the lineup with Gregg Zaun and Jim Edmonds is like wrapping a Christmas present in rotten garbage.
- They have the coziest relationship between fans and ownership around. Brewers ownership has provided many, many ticket discounts and deals for Milwaukee fans, who will continue to show up to games despite a mediocre 2009 season. These folks tailgate like champions and aren't afraid to tell you about it.
- Yovani Gallardo is ready for his closeup. Yo Guy is finally healthy, has a full solid season to build on, and wants the ball for Opening Day. Cy Young worthy? Probably not. But it will be a relief for Brewers fans to see Yo Guy on the mound in the first game instead of last year's choice, Jeff Suppan.
- Speaking of Soup, here is the rest of the Brewers rotation: Jeff Suppan. Randy Wolf. Manny Parra. Dave Bush. I'm no expert on evaluating pitching talent, or projecting pitching performance, but even I know a group of stinkers when I sees 'em. This stinks. Like your uncle's cranberry, mint, and tangerine dressing.
- Rickie Weeks misses J.J. Hardy like a fat kid at fat camp misses fat cake. The Brewers traded Hardy to the Twins and will replace him at short with rookie Alcides Escobar. Weeks says he'll "hurt a little because he and Hardy were close and that they've talked during spring training." Stop snickering! Separation anxiety is no laughing matter.
- Did I mention I don't care for Gregg Zaun?
Predictions: 76-86 record. Team sells record 3.3 million tickets, sells record 23.4 million beers, and spends a record $59.25 million cleaning the ballpark bathrooms. Corey Hart gets traded to the Diamondbacks mid-season for a octabong to be named later. Trevor Hoffman saves 8 games and retires in August to pursue a career harassing John Smoltz via email.
3. (tie) Pittsburgh Pirates
- The patron saint of my heart: Andrew McCutchen. Sure, he lost the NL ROY award to Jesus freak Chris Coghlan but young Andrew's name will be on the backs of many a shirsey in Pittsburgh this summer. For good reason, too: he's got 30-30 potential and could just as easily fill the #3 slot in the lineup as he could lead off.
- They've got three good young pitchers. Maybe they're all fourth starter quality on a contender, but Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton all possess the stuff to earn their keep and maybe, just maybe, turn the Pirates around in 2010. Don't sleep on Ross Ohlendorf, either. Seriously, don't sleep on him, the WoW office has a day bed if you're tired.
- Rinku and Dinesh are quietly kicking ass, taking names.
- After McCutchen and power-bat Garrett Jones, the Pirates offense consists of cast-offs and question marks. Big things are/were forecast for Jeff Clement, Lastings Milledge, Jose Tabata, and Andy LaRoche, all former Top 100 Prospects. It's going to take a miracle for each of these gentlemen to get their act together simultaneously. But even if that gets delayed until 2011, it's not such a bad thing.
- Their biggest offseason acquisition was Aki Iwamura. He's an above-average fielder and he'll slot in nicely to the second position in the batting order. But really, Pittsburgh is going to need marked improvements from members of their weak 2009 offense to contend.
- There exists a myth among certain Pirates fans that ownership is purposely being non-competitive to save money. While the Pirates may have made some questionable moves in their not-too-distant past, there is no question that the current team management is making money-saving moves in order to build a contender from the bottom up, in the same model as the Rays. Yes, Pittsburgh cannot afford to hang with the Bostons and New Yorks and Los Angelesesses of the world, but they can afford to be smart and lock up young talent.
Predictions: 81-81 record. Team rejoices at the first non-losing season since Jim Leyland's butts littered the home dugout at Three Rivers. The Pirates final home date sells out in anticipation of possible .500 record, marking just the third sell out of the year (Opening Day and HEIST). Pirates sign Elijah Dukes next week, release him in May, and re-sign him in July only to trade him to the Mets for a PTBNL. Manager John Russell learns how to quilt.
3. (tie) Chicago Cubs
- Hey, Wrigley Field is a fun place to visit and drink! Sometimes they play baseball there, too.
- Ryan Theriot has all the makings of a honest-to-goodness leadoff hitter. His OBP tumbled a bit to .343 last season but could easily bring that back up if he stops hacking at pitches outside the strike zone and gets his patience back. Walks good, strikeouts bad, Ryan.
- Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster are a tidy trio of starters. They can strike batters out and could easily each win 15 games (if healthy). They're no Carpenter/Wainwright, but they're capable enough of pushing a team towards a Wild Card.
- Carlos Silva might be the fifth starter. Give this man 90 innings in Wrigley Field and he might give up 30 home runs. Fella rarely walks a batter, but he also rarely strikes 'em out. Silva is a one true outcome kind of guy: homers, homers, and more homers.
- Wow, is this offense getting old and crusty. First baseman Derrek Lee and the entire starting outfield are on the wrong side of 30, with Fontenot and Theriot one year away. Time is a bitch, and this group makes the typically elderly Red Sox look like a bunch of whippersnappers.
- No manager is more on the verge of coronary failure than Lou Piniella. I'm not saying he'll have a heart attack in the dugout, but I'm not saying that he won't, either.
Predictions: 81-81 record. Odd, isn't it? Were the Cubs and Pirates to both finish with a cousin-kissin' .500 record, we'd have two completely divergent opinions on the concept of a 50-50 split. In Pittsburgh, fans would finally feel a sense of accomplishment, having put an end to nearly two decades of losing. In Chicago, fans would riot knowing that nearly $150 million in payroll couldn't even produce a Wild Card contender, let alone a division winner. Quite the dichotomy, eh?
2. Cincinnati Reds
- Aroldis Chapman has a sinking two-seamer, a 102 MPH fastball, and a wicked good ropa vieja recipe that will make every Cincinnatian forget about Skyline chili. The Cuban emigre may not break camp with the Reds but the tall lefty could whiz through the minors and make his big league debut this year.
- Joey Votto is the Canadian equivalent of Albert Pujols. He may not have all the bells and whistles but he comes with government-sponsored healthcare and his own hockey sweater. Fella missed 30 games last year due to depression and/or dizziness, which is sad. Let us project a full season of powerful contributions from Votto, because frankly, we like him.
- Willy Taveras is gone, daddy, gone.
- Unlike Votto, I am not going to project that the Reds will get a full season out of third baseman Scott Rolen. Probably because he's still trying to get through "The Jungle". Outside of Votto and Brandon Phillips, the Reds have little depth in the infield. Remember, they voluntarily employ Aaron Miles.
- Edinson Volquez is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto are so young and dainty, I shudder to think of the kind of damage that could be wrought by mismanagement of these fellas. Poor Dusty gets a bad rap for hurting pitchers' arms; he wouldn't be able to do all that damage if he had some higher-ups putting innings limits/pitch count limits on them. Dusty's not a bad leader of men, he's just bad at strategy. You can mitigate the strategy part.
Predictions: 83-79 record. Bronson Arroyo's band opens for Christopher Cross and UB40 at the Five Thirds Arena. Catchers Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez post identical .270/.338/.397 lines in exactly 352 plate appearances each and both change their name to Frank after the season ends. Reds build on their 2010 success by signing eleven free agents and then losing 100 games in 2011.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
- They are the 'haves' in a division bogged down with 'have-nots'. They have Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwight, Albert Pujols, and Matt Holliday, all of whom stand head and shoulders above any of their counterparts in the division.
- Colby Rasmus will have a full season in center field to prove his worth. The youngster is ripe for a breakout year and hitting ahead of Pujols and Holliday in the lineup should help out his offense. Defensively, it's at least better than putting Rick Ankiel out there.
- Tony La Russa is an evil genius. He may come off like a dithering Italian animal rights activist, but he's secretly calculating ways to double switch your ass back to the stone age. Plus c'mon, take a look at the rest of the managers in this division. La Russa would eat them for breakfast but they're not made of tofu.
- It's almost a guarantee that they are going to trade Albert Pujols for Ryan Howard. I mean, it's a given at this point. The trade just makes too much sense to not pull the trigger. A slam dunk. Yep.
- Offensive question marks at third base (David Freese) and shortstop (Brendan Ryan). Neither of these gents is going to win a Silver Slugger award, but Ryan is there for his glove and Freese is just a kid with a funny name.
Predictions: 92-70 record. A division title and a chance to win the National League pennant, which they don't. Pujols wins the MVP. Keith Law leaves Carpenter and Wainwright off his Cy Young ballot and causes the city council of St. Louis to publicly denounce home cooking and novels. Skip Schumaker hits five triples in one game and refuses to donate his spikes to the hall of fame, saying they are "forged by Satan" and "impossible to pry off his feet".