Wednesday, March 07, 2007

MLB Preview #5: NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals

David Eckstein SS
Juan Encarnacion RF
Albert Pujols 1B
Preston Wilson LF
Scott Rolen 3B
Jim Edmonds CF
Adam Kennedy 2B
Yadier Molina C

Chris Carpenter
Kip Wells
Anthony Reyes
Adam Wainwright
Braden Looper
Brad Thompson
Mark Mulder

The lineup shows virtually no turnover from the end of 2006, when the Cards rode some momentum into the World Series. The only change is Adam Kennedy, who is a negligible change compared to Ronnie Belliard. Eckstein and Kennedy came up together in Anaheim, so if anything the St. Louis defense improves thanks to familiarity. Predictably, Tony LaRussa's bench is very veteran-heavy. Journeyman catcher Gary Bennett will back up Molina. Aaron Miles returns to the team, this time as the utility infielder. Playoff favorite Scott Speizio returns as well, as do Chris Duncan and defensive specialist So Taguchi in the outfield.
Where the turnover comes for this team is the starting rotation. Mark Mulder is out until at least July, and Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis have bolted for other clubs. After Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells is the only established veteran on the staff. For all of Anthony Reyes' success in the playoffs, he carried a 5-8 record and 5.06 ERA in the 2006 regular season. Of course, Reyes has yet to make 20 starts in the Majors. Lost in the hulaballoo of Jonathan Papelbon moving from closer to the starting rotation is the fact that Adam Wainwright is doing the same. Wainwright has been groomed as a starter, so while he may not repeat his 3.12 ERA, he should still have decent numbers. The man filling the #5 spot is a surprise. Coming off of a year that essentially resurrected his career, BLooper will be asked to make his first start after 9 years after a reliever. The Cardinals can afford to move some relievers to the rotation, because they have faith in who's left in the bullpen. Jason Isringhausen is recovering from hip surgery, but should be back sooner rather than later. He'll be supported by the likes of ageless LOOGY Ricardo Rincon and the versatile Ryan Franklin who has logged 106 starts and 141 relief appearances in his career.

Houston Astros

Craig Biggio 2B
Chris Burke CF
Lance Berkman 1B
Carlos Lee LF
Morgan Ensberg 3B
Luke Scott RF
Brad Ausmus C
Adam Everett SS

Roy Oswalt
Jason Jennings
Woody Williams
Wandy Rodriguez
Brandon Backe
Ezequiel Astacio
Fernando Nieve
Jason Hirsh
Chris Sampson
Matt Albers

The Astros have a second baseman of the present in Craig Biggio, and a second baseman of the future in Chris Burke (who will play center after Willy Taveras was traded away). So it was interesting that second biggest offseason move was to sign Mark Loretta, a guy who's still better than most starting second basemen in the league. It will be interesting to see how Loretta is used. Granted, Biggio and Morgan Ensberg probably won't stay healthy all year. And while Adam Everett may be the second best defensive shortstop in the game, he carries a career on base percentage of .301. Of course, the Astros are rather thin in the outfield, outside of Carlos Lee, so Loretta could play first while Lance Berkman moves to center or right. In fact, I'd argue that that's there best lineup. But how will Mike Lamb and Eric Bruntlett, who both had respectable offensive years, fit into the mix? Will Jason Lane be the odd man out if he can't fight Lamb and Luke Scott for time in right? Or will Houston confuse everyone by keeping Orlando Palmeiro and/or Charlton Jimmerson on the roster?
The pitching rotation appears to be in good shape. After putting up a 58-56 record and 4.74 ERA in six years in Colorado, Minute Maid will look like the Polo Grounds to Jason Jennings. All Woody Williams did in 2006 was put up a 12-5 record at the age of 40. The last few spots may be up for grabs, but there are several capable players available to fill the spots. In fact, on paper this looks to be a marginally better team than the Cardinals. Of course, the games aren't played on paper. Brad Lidge will be back as Houston's closer, and all eyes will be on him. What caused his poor performance last year: confidence issues, or a windup that tips his pitches as he removes his throwing arm from the glove and brings it down by his hip? Lidge will again be setup by Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler, and Mark McLemore (no, not that Mark McLemore will again try to make the opening day roster.

Cincinnati Reds

Ryan Freel RF
Alex Gonzalez SS
Ken Griffey, Jr. CF
Adam Dunn LF
Scott Hatteberg/Jeff Conine 1B
Brandon Phillips 2B
Edwin Encarnacion 3B
David Ross/Javier Valentin C

Aaron Harang
Bronson Arroyo
Eric Milton
Kyle Lohse
Matt Belisle
Elizardo Ramirez
Bobby Livingston
Kirk Saarloos
Homer Bailey

With both Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns gone, utilityman Ryan Freel will settle in in right field. Unless, of course, a challenger comes out of spring training. Former top pick Josh Hamilton has spent as much time over the past few years fighting drug addictions as he has playing in Tampa Bay's minor league system. (Tampa Bay, who has also drafted Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, apparently feels that it needs to look past character issues and just take any talent it can get.) As a Rule V pick, Hamilton must stay on Cincinnati's 25-man roster for the entire season, and he may just earn his keep. Hamilton has been hitting the lights out in spring training, including some reportedly mammoth shots. Or maybe both Freel and Hamilton will play in the same outfield. Between Griffey's tendency to get injured, and Dunn's ability to play first base, the Reds have decided to go with a very deep outfield rotation that includes the additions of Bubba Crosby and Jeff Conine, and returner Chris Denorfia. Like the outfield, the infield will feature some familiar names. The Alex Gonzalez playing shortstop is the one who played for Boston last year and Florida in the years prior (as opposed to the one who played for the Cubs via Toronto). Brandon Phillips is expected to have a big year at the plate, even in spacious Great American Ballpark. Hatteberg, Conine, and Dunn will rotate at first, or so I would assume. Juan Castro will again be the utility infielder, unless Jeff Keppinger can push him from the spot. If the Reds carry three catchers, as they usually do, Chad Moeller will be backstop #3.
Aaron Harang had a 2006 that has laid the groundwork towards becoming a major league ace. Bronson Arroyo flourished after the move to the NL and a pitcher's park. Milton, Lohse, and Saarloos have the name recognition, but if they can't get the job done, it won't be long before Homer Bailey sees the mound in Cincy. Bailey was the number one pitching prospect in the game until he was recently passed (in some people's minds, at least) by New York's Phillip Hughes. Continuing the Reds theme of name recognition, closer David Weathers will be set up by Rheal Cormier, Gary Majewski, and Mike Stanton.

Milwaukee Brewers

Rickie Weeks 2B
Tony Graffanino/Ryan Braun/Craig Counsell/Corey Koskie 3B
Geoff Jenkins LF
Prince Fielder 1B
Bill Hall CF
Johnny Estrada C
Corey Hart RF
JJ Hardy SS

Ben Sheets
Chris Capuano
Jeff Suppan
Claudio Vargas
Dave Bush
Zach Jackson
Carlos Villanueva
Ben Hendrickson

The Brewers don't look as promising as they did a year ago, but they may still be able to compete in this division. Third base is a question, especially with Corey Koskie's injury. The Brewers can go with veteran infielders Graffanino or Counsell, or they could give top prospect Ryan Braun a shot. Adding Braun to Fielder, Weeks, and Hardy would of course complete THE MOST GAMMONSESQUE INFIELD EVER EVER EVER. Allowing for Hardy's contribution to that infield is the decision to move Bill Hall to center field on a "permanent" basis. Of course, he'll probably be needed elsewhere at some point, and in reality he's only keeping the spot warm for Tony Gwynn, Jr. (or Brady Clark if he decides to start hitting again. Corey Hart looks to get the full time nod in right, moving Geoff Jenkins back to his natural position in left. But Kevin Mench will compete with both of them for at bats. The edition of Johnny Estrada strengthens this lineup, and he will be backed up by former scab Damian Miller.

Chicago Cubs

Alfonso Soriano CF
Mark DeRosa 2B
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Clifford Floyd LF
Michael Barrett C
Jacque Jones RF
Cesar Izturis SS

Carlos Zambrano
Ted Lilly
Jason Marquis
Rich Hill
Mark Prior
Wade Miller
Shawn Marshall
Angel Guzman
Carlos Marmol
Juan Mateo
Kerry Wood

I normally loathe the idea of batting Alfonso Soriano leadoff, but he did have a career high .351 OBP last year. And the Cubs don't have many other options, unless they go super-Moneyball and put Michael Barrett in the top spot, or elect to go with Matt Murton (not this Matt Merten) over Clifford Floyd (or over "fan favorite" Jacque Jones). But this is a nice lineup as it stands - especially when you can afford to bat Barrett sixth - unless you consider that they need to find a way to play four left fielders (Floyd, Murton, Soriano, and Jones). Soriano in center is sure to be an adventure, considering a) the wind at Wrigley and b) it's Alfonso Soriano. But other than that this team shakes down pretty well. For all the complaints over the Mark DeRosa signing, he did put up an .813 OPS, 13 HR, and 74 RBI in a full season of work last year. It will be interesting to see if Ronny Cedeno can even make this team after the emergence of Ryan Theriot. And it will be interesting to see how new manager Lou Pinella balances Barrett's top-of-the-line offense with Henry Blanco's top-of-the-line defense. (Hey, Barrett did play two games at shortstop for Montreal in 1999.)
After Carlos Zambrano, the rotation gets interesting. A thin pitching class led to big money for Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, but can they be #2/#3 starters on a pennant-contending club? Assuming Rich Hill has the 4th spot locked up, who from the "cast of thousands" (to borrow a term from a beloved local celebrity) will emerge at #5? (Tangent: When Minnesota had the first overall pick in the draft a few years back, they were berated for passing up Mark Prior in favor of some local high schooler named Joe Mauer. But you know what they say about hindsight, sweetheart - everyone's got one of those.) The bullpen is in good shape, and returns a bunch of recongnizable names, including Ryan Dempster, Neal Cotts, Scott Eyre, and Bobby Howry. Some guy named Jeff Samardzija made the 40-man roster (and was invited to the big league camp, and was named the #80 prospect by Baseball America...), but he may have to settle in in the minors with Rocky Cherry. (And not only his his name Rocky Cherry, but his full middle name is "Ty." Gotta love baseball.)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Chris Duffy CF
Freddy Sanchez 3B
Jason Bay LF
Adam LaRoche 1B
Xavier Nady/Jose Bautista RF
Ronny Paulino C
Jose Castillo 2B
Jack Wilson SS

Zach Duke
Ian Snell
Paul Maholm
Tom Gorzelanny
Tony Armas
Bryan Bullington
John Van Benschoten
Shawn Chacon
Shane Youman
Marty McLeary
Sean Burnett

Finally, the Pirates make an addition that isn't overpriced and washed up. It cost them a star young reliever and a good shortstop prospect, but Adam LaRoche is a step in the right direction. (His brother is arguably better, but that's a story for another day.) If Xavier Nady can get healthy, then the run of Sanchez, Bay, LaRoche, Nady, Paulino, and Castillo actually looks pretty good. Jack Wilson (from Jimmy Clausen's hometown) was always known as a good field, no hit shortstop, but his bat appears to be improving just a little. And Duffy will have some competition (relatively speaking) from Nate McClouth and Jody Gerut (if Gerut's knees decide to start working again). Paulino's backup is Ryan (god_)Doumit.
The rotation starts with Zach Duke. After him... well... Ian Snell has a nice Dugout screen name... and Chacon is never as terrible as some people think... and Armas is supposedly having a good spring... and Gorzelanny and Van Benchoten are still supposed to be decent prospects. I'm not sure who will assume closer duties for the Pirates, but they do have Salomon Torres (who has become a good reliever 15 years after he was labeled a top starting prospect) and Damaso Marte, and John Grabow is coming off of a good season.