Monday, February 20, 2006

MLB Preview 5: NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals

David Eckstein SS
Junior Spivey/Aaron Miles 2B
Albert Pujols 1B
Jim Edmonds CF
Scott Rolen 3B
Larry Bigbie LF
Juan Encarnacion RF
Yadier Molina C

Chris Carpenter
Mark Mulder
Jeff Suppan
Jason Marquis
Sidney Ponson
Anthony Reyes

Cardinals fans will see three new faces in the lineup this year. Both Spivey and Miles have been starters for the majority of their young careers. I'm assuming Spivey will get the nod based on potential, but Miles is very suitable backup. Encarnacion is too good to be a 7 hitter, but I know Tony LaRussa is a big fan of alternating left- and right-handed batters. That #6 spot may be Bigbie's to lose, though, as he hit only .239 in 272 at bats last year. As for the rest of the lineup? Not too shabby. Known for his flashy catches, Edmonds is actually underrated as a hitter. Rolen, meanwhile, will look to rebound from an injury-plagued 2005. The bench reflects the focus of this team: solid, professional players who get the job done. Catcher Gary Bennett was a starter in Montreal. Deivi Cruz is a veteran middle infielder. Hector Luna, who can play at least 6 positions, did a great job of filling in for Rolen last year. I wouldn't be too surprised if LaRussa finds a way to get him into the starting lineup. So Taguchi is a great defender at all three outfielder position. Rick Ankiel is on the 40-man roster as an outfielder.
The pitching rotation loses Matt Morris and gains Sidney Ponson. Ponson, once a rising star as Baltimore's ace, has struggled on and off the field over the past few seasons. Moving to the bottom of the rotation may help resurrect his career. With Carpenter, Mulder, and Marquis, St. Louis can afford to take that risk. The bullpen lost righty Julian Tavarez and lefty Ray King, but quickly replaced them with Braden Looper and Ricardo Rincon. Looper struggled as the Mets closer. A move to setup man could be just what the doctor ordered, but he will have to deal with the high expectations of a perennial pennant contender. Rincon has quietly become one of the best left-handed setup men in the game. Looper and Rincon will be setting the table for closer Jason Isringhausen, who is coming off of another stellar season.

Houston Astros

Willy Taveras CF
Craig Biggio 2B
Lance Berkman 1B
Morgan Ensberg 3B
Preston Wilson LF
Jason Lane RF
Adam Everett SS
Brad Ausmus C

Roy Oswalt
Andy Pettitte
Brandon Backe
Wandy Rodriguez
Ezequiel Astacio

The Astros struggled on offense last year. This year, they picked up hard-hitting Preston Wilson. Wilson has the power to enjoy hitting home runs over Houston's short left field porch, and the speed to enjoy hitting doubles and triples into the gauntlet that is center field. Houston will also need a healthy Berkman and a repeat of Ensberg's 2005 performance to stay afloat. Their bench features, of course, Jeff Bagwell. But there's also talented second baseman Chris Burke, who is learning to play left field in order to get some playing time. Mike Lamb is a decent backup at both first and third base. Young Eric Bruntlett will take over Luis Vizcaino's utility role. Veteran outfielder Orlando Palmeiro will be the team's primary left-handed pinch hitter.
Houston's pitching rotation starts out well, but goes downhill quickly. Oswalt is a true ace, and Pettite would still be a #1 starter on many teams. Backe has shown a tendency to play big in big games, but he's no star... yet. Rodriguez and Astacio both had ERA's over 5 last year, so they'll have to prove they belong as starters on a playoff-caliber team. One wonders if this still is a playoff-caliber team, though. Houston snuck into the wildcard with three aces last year. Essentially, you're asking Preston Wilson's offense to make up for the loss of Roger Clemens' pitching. In the bullpen, Brad Lidge is one of the best closers in the game. An old idiom states that closers have to have short memories. If that's the case, then Lidge's struggles in the 2005 playoffs are already behind him. Lidge will be set up by Chad Qualls, who hasn't gotten much acclaim for the steady job he's done over the past few seasons; Dan Wheeler, a member of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic; and veteran Russ Springer.

Milwaukee Brewers

Brady Clark CF
Rickie Weeks 2B
Geoff Jenkins RF
Carlos Lee LF
Corey Koskie 3B
Prince Fielder 1B
JJ Hardy SS
Damian Miller/Chad Moeller C

Ben Sheets
Doug Davis
Chris Capuano
Tomo Ohka
Dave Bush
Rick Helling
Ben Hendrickson

Milwaukee is already getting attention as a team to watch this year. If Houston truly has taken a step back, then the Brewers are in position to challenge for second place. The wildcard may be a ways off, but Milwaukee will have plenty of time to worry about that. The daunted young trio of infielders - Fielder, Weeks, and Hardy - is finally in place. Weeks and Hardy look like they're already ready for The Show. The only question, then, is Fielder. Sure, he'll be great someday, but is "someday" today? Fielder is replacing Lyle Overbay, who played surprisingly well these past few seasons. In a sense, this team's success could mirror the young Prince's this year. Clark is coming off of a breakout season at the top of the lineup. Lee surprised everyone by flirting with the triple crown. If Fielder can help Lee solidify the middle of this lineup, watch out for Milwaukee. Fielder isn't the only familiar name on this team, either. Tony Gwynn's son Tony is on the 40-man roster, but may not be Major League-ready. Jeff Cirillo will be a veteran presence coming off the bench, and insurance for Fielder's youth and Koskie's injury problems. Finally, how do you like these numbers coming off the bench: .291 average, .342 OBP, 17 HR, 62 RBI, 69 R in 501 at bats. Those are the 2005 stats of Bill Hall, who will be serving a utility role this year.
Those who know baseball know Ben Sheets has dominating stuff. But last year, Dale Davis and Chris Capuano also put up sub-4 ERAs. If this trio can repeat that performance, and if Milwaukee's offense can hold up their end of the bargains, the top of the Brewer rotation will see a big improvement on their combined 39-31 record from last year. Derrick Turnbow stepped in for the departed Dan Kolb as Milwaukee's closer, and Turnbow shined in that role. Kolb, back with the Brewers after a disastrous year in Atlanta, will now serve as Turnbow's setup man. After Turnbow and Kolb, there aren't any big names in the Brewers bullpun. However, a lack of big names doesn't necessarily mean a lack of success.

Chicago Cubs

Juan Pierre CF
Todd Walker/Jerry Hairson, Jr. 2B
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Jacque Jones RF
Matt Murton LF
Ronny Cedeno SS
Michael Barrett C

Carlos Zambrano
Mark Prior
Kerry Wood
Greg Maddux
Glendon Rusch
Jerome Williams
Rich Hill
John Koronka

Chicago's 2003 playoff run seems like a distant memory considering their recent performance. Will this year be a step forward, or yet another step back? That remains to be seen. Juan Pierre replaces Corey Patterson in center, giving the Cubs the true leadoff man they had been missing for some time. Of course, Pierre did have a subpar 2005, so his performance will be under the microscope. Derrek Lee is coming off of a career year. He seemed to be a lock for the MVP until the Cubs slipped out of the playoff race. He may not hit .330+ again this year, but past performance has shown he'll put up similar numbers in home runs and RBI. And, oh yeah, he does have 2 Gold Gloves in his trophy case. Jacque Jones is said to be just as good as Torii Hunter, but without all the hype. I'll let you decide if that's a good thing. It will be interesting to see how Walker and Hairston are used. Walker is said to be subpar defensively, and Hairston did have an OK year at the plate. I'd take Walker and use Hairston as a fourth outfielder, but hey, I'm not Dusty Baker. Speaking of Dusty, one of his favorites, Neifi Perez, is back. Perez will likely be used as insurance for young Ronny Cedeno, but I wouldn't rule out time at second for Neifi as well. Another youngster looking to make an impression is Matt Murton. When not spending his time as an assistant director in the Notre Dame band or cutting a CD, Murton hit .321 with 7 HR and an OPS just over .900 in 140 at bats. Not bad at all. Besides the aforementioned Perez, the Chicago bench features catcher Henry Blanco, who may have the best throwing arm of any catcher in the game, and John Mabry, who will likely serve as the left pinch hitting specialist. If Blanco could hit, he'd be a starter somewhere. Since he can't, the cagey defensive-minded catcher makes a perfect backup.
If only. If only this rotation can stay healthy, it's a great one. Truly, I don't think much more needs to be said than that. Perhaps the only question is who will be the fifth starter, the veteran Rusch or the young Williams. The bullpen was upgraded by throwing money at the problem. Converted starter Ryan Dempster will remain the closer. Scott Eyre and Bob Howry are the new additions who will set him up. Howry had a career rejuvenating 2005, following which he is arguably the best 8th inning reliever in the game.

Cincinnati Reds

Tony Womack 2B
Felipe Lopez SS
Adam Dunn 1B
Ken Griffey, Jr. CF
Wily Mo Pena LF
Austin Kearns RF
Edwin Encarnacion 3B
Jason LaRue C

Aaron Harang
Dave Williams
Eric Milton
Brandon Claussen
Paul Wilson
Matt Belisle
Elizardo Ramirez
Justin Germano
Michael Gosling

Notably absent in this lineup is Sean Casey, recently traded to the Pirates. The move allows the talented Wily Mo Pena to move into the starting lineup, and also (perhaps unfortunately) allows Austin Kearns to stay there. Tony Womack takes over for D'Angelo Jimenez - that may be a toss-up at this point. In the world of good-hitting shortstops, Felipe Lopez is a name you may start hearing more often. He'll be playing next to young Edwin Encarnacion. Perhaps Cincinnati's strength is its depth on the bench. Ryan Freel, who stepped up to the plate 369 times last year, is a poor man's Chone Figgins. New addition Scott Hatteberg can allow Dunn to move back into the outfield when necessary, and he can fill in for Encarnacion at third. Rich Aurilia can theoretically play every infield position. Backup catcher Javier Valentin, Jose's brother, is a good hitter, and may once again see some time at first base if his bat is hot enough.
The rotation features three OK-but-not-great youngsters in Harang, Williams, and Classen; Milton, a former star trying to get back to his winning ways; and the veteran Wilson, whose performance on bad teams has lead to a decievingly poor career win-loss record. Harang and Claussen, former super-prospects, did turn in the best performances of any Reds starters last year. The bullpen features a slew of dependable no-name veterans. After the departure of Danny Graves, David Weathers stepped in at closer. This year, he'll be supported by Grant Balfour, Kent Mercker, Ryan Wagner, and Rick White.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Chris Duffy/Jody Gerut CF
Sean Casey 1B
Jason Bay LF
Jeromy Burnitz RF
Joe Randa 3B
Jose Castillo 2B
Jack Wilson SS
Humberto Cota/Ryan Doumit C

Oliver Perez
Kip Wells
Zach Duke
Paul Maholm
Sean Burnett
Victor Santos
Ian Snell
John Van Benschoten

If this team wants to get any better, it needs to start developing some young talent. However, for every Duffy and Castillo, there's large wads of money being thrown at the likes of Casey, Randa, and Burnitz. Granted, they're all good clubhouse guys, and should prove to be solid veteran leadership. But one of those types of players is enough. Really, these guys are best as role players on a pennant contender. If you're a Pirates fan, then, perhaps your best hope is that a few greedy win-now teams have some solid young talent to trade in return for one of these veterans. With all that being said, is it really that bad of a lineup? No, I guess not. Actually, no matter how you order Casey, Burnitz, and Randa, they should be the necessary pieces to help Bay develop as a hitter. Castillo had a decent 2005 season. Wilson is fun to watch defensively; anything he does at the plate is a bonus. Of course, this is a guy who had 201 hits in 2004. Duffy is listed as the starter in center. But, Jody Gerut was driven out of Cleveland after he felt he wasn't being paid enough. If that truly was the case, I don't see how his ego could handle settling for a backup role on a perennial celler-dweller. The Pittsburgh bench does feature some versatile players. Craig Wilson can play catcher and both corner infield and corner outfield positions. Former Boston super-prospect Freddy Sanchez can play anywhere on the infield except first base, and he did hit .291 last year.
If Pittsburgh wants to become a good team, they'll also need to hold onto their trio of young pitchers in Perez, Wells, and Duke. The Pirates often end up trading their good pitchers to a pennant contender, as common logic seemed to dictate that they'd do so much better if they'd ever get out of Pittsburgh. Well, starting with Duke, who went 8-2 with an ERA of 1.81 in 2005, Pittsburgh will have to find a way to keep their young guns in town if they want to turn the corner. Duke, meanwhile, will have to find a way to avoid the sophomore slump. It doesn't take long for Major League hitters to adjust to a pitcher. How long will it take Duke to adjust to those hitters? Mike Gonzalez will step in as Pittsburgh's closer. He'll be set up by Damaso Marte, who was an absolutely dominating lefty until Ozzie Guillen decided he couldn't get along with the reliever. Also in the pen are veterans Salomon Torres and Roberto Hernandez, and converted starter Ryan Vogelsong.