Sunday, March 22, 2009

MLB Previews #5
National League Central

Chicago Cubs

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Alfonso Soriano LF
Ryan Theriot SS
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Milton Bradley RF
Geovany Soto C
Mike Fontenot 2B
Kosuke Fukudome/Reed Johnson CF

Carlos Zambrano
Ted Lilly
Ryan Dempster
Rich Harden
Sean Marshall
Aaron Heilman
Jeff Samardzija

The Cubs won 97 games last year, and they may have actually found a way to improve. The major addition is Milton Bradley. Bradley isn't capable of playing 162 games at DH, much less in the field, so Kosuke Fukodome and Reed Johnson will get their fair share of at bats. Still, the number of at bats for each will be below 600, and in the end that reduced workload should pay off for the Cubs. There's still some debate about Alfonso Soriano's ideal location in the batting order, but at this point in his career, his own comfort level is just as important as anything else.

The loss of Mark DeRosa and Ronny Cedeno makes Chicago exceptionally thin on the infield, especially if Micah Hoffpauir is given a roster spot. Hoffpauir can only play first base and left field. That leaves the utility infield responsibility to Aaron Miles and/or Esteban German. That's little comfort if Ryan Theriot or Mike Fontenot falter. In the outfield, Joey Gathright's speed will try to find some playing time, and at catcher, familiar faces Paul Bako and Koyie Hill will look to back up Geovany Soto.

The continuing theme of these previews is that two pitching aces equals playoff success. If all goes well for the Cubs, they'll have three in Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Harden. Ryan Dempster is a good complementary starter, leaving only the fifth spot in the rotation up for grabs. But there are more than a few capable candidates, including Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman, and Jeff Samardzija.

In the bullpen, the Cubs lost Kerry Wood and may have actually gotten better. Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg both have closing experience. Heilman, Samardzija, and Chad Gaudin are versatile players who can fill any role. And veterans Neal Cotts and Luis Vizcaino round out the staff.

Milwaukee Brewers

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Rickie Weeks 2B
JJ Hardy SS
Ryan Braun LF
Prince Fielder 1B
Corey Hart RF
Bill Hall 3B
Mike Cameron CF
Jason Kendall C

Yovani Gallardo
Dave Bush
Jeff Suppan
Manny Parra
Braden Looper
Seth McClung
Carlos Villanueva

The Brewers liked to bat the pitcher eighth at times, but you really can't blame them when they had CC Sabathia and Jason Kendall at the time. Kendall is back, but Sabathia isn't. Bill Hall and Mike Cameron may not be stellar hitters, but they're good role players in a lineup that features Hardy, Braun, Fielder, and Hart. Yes, I included JJ Hardy in that list - he doesn't get much hype, but he's a very good hitter for his position.

Milwaukee's bench is highlighted by Tony Gwynn, Jr. and the veteran Craig Counsell. But for a farm system that has produced (at the time) four quality infielders in Fielder, Weeks, Braun, and Hardy, the surprise is that their best third baseman and middle infielder may still be in the minors. The third baseman is Mat Gamel, who may struggle to stay at that position, and the middle infielder is Alcides Escobar, a shortstop who may supplant Rickie Weeks and second base sooner rather than later. All this after trading away top first baseman Matt LaPorta, too.

Now, the rotation will be a question mark. Yovani Gallardo may have fallen off of a few radars due to injuries, but he's still a talented young pitcher. But relying on converted relievers (Looper and McClung) and some other retreads may not be enough to eclipse the Cubs in this division.

In the bullpen, the Brewers will rely on a bevy of veteran arms. But that's better than the the plan they employed in 2008, marching out a steady supply of post-steroids washups (Eric Gagne and Derrick Turnbow to name a pair). Trevor Hoffman becomes the Milwaukee closer, aided by David Riske, Jorge Julio, and Mark DiFelice.

St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Skip Schumaker 2B
Rick Ankiel CF
Albert Pujols 1B
Ryan Ludwick RF
Troy Glaus 3B
Khalil Greene SS
Yadier Molina C
Chris Duncan LF

Adam Wainwright
Chris Carpenter
Kyle Lohse
Todd Wellemeyer
Joel Pineiro
Brad Thompson

Outside of Albert Pujols, St. Louis' infield is a question mark. Troy Glaus is always an injury issue, and as it is he won't be ready until mid-April. At shortstop, the Cards acquired Khalil Greene, a record-setting hitter in college who hasn't been able to replicate that success in the majors. Left without a second baseman, Skip Shumacher will try to climb the wrong way up the defensive ladder from outfield to the keystone sack. If Schumacher doesn't work out, St. Louis doesn't have many other options. In the outfield, Ryan Ludwick will try to prove he's not a one-year wonder, aided by Rick Ankiel and Chris Duncan, both of whom had respectable years last season.

The top name on the bench is Colby Rasmus, Baseball America's top National League prospect. Rasmus's defense is ready to be an everyday center fielder, and the question is whether his bat is up to speed. If not, he can still serve as a respectable defensive replacement at all three outfield spots. Meanwhile, backing up Yadier Molina is veteran National Leaguer Jason LaRue.

The Cardinals pitching rotation may not feature any big names, but they did find success last season. If Chris Carpenter can return anywhere near is Cy Young form - and some think he can, that will only help this ballclub.

The rotation may have to carry the pitching staff, however, with all the questions in the bullpen. The closer spot is still up in the air, and may go to Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte, Chris Perez. Also fighting for bullpen spots are veterans Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes.

Cincinnati Reds

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Willy Taveras CF
Chris Dickerson LF
Jay Bruce RF
Brandon Phillips 2B
Joey Votto 1B
Edwin Encarnacion 3B
Ramon Hernandez C
Alex Gonzalez SS

Aaron Harang
Edinson Volquez
Bronson Arroyo
Johnny Cueto
Micah Owings
Homer Bailey
Ramon Ramirez
Daryl Thompson

Perhaps indicative of this club's manager, only three players in this lineup posted an OBP over .320 last year - Joey Votto, Edwin Encarnacion, and Chris Dickerson - and Dickerson did so in only 31 games. This team has talent with Bruce, Phillips, and even guys like Ramon Hernandez, but if that club keeps making outs, there's little hope for them.

The key name on Cincinnati's bench is Jeff Keppinger, who performed admirably at shortstop when Alex Gonzalez went down last year. Jerry Hairston, Jr. is a valuable piece who can play several positions. Other names fighting for bench spots fit into the Dusty Baker mold well, sacrificing OBP for speed or pop. Those names include Norris Hopper, Jacque Jones, and Jonny Gomes.

Cincinnati's rotation has some talent, and that talent was somewhat masked by the team's overall poor performance last year. Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Johnny Cueto all lost over 10 games, but posted ERAs under 5. Edinson Volquez had a spectacular season, going 17-6 with an ERA of 3.21. Even slight regression would still lead to a solid season for Volquez. The final spot in the rotation will go to one of a pair of guys who have trouble translating their talent into production in the majors. Micah Owings, the PTBNL in the Adam Dunn trade, and Homer Bailey both come with tons of hype but few good results in the show.

The Reds bullpen features three quality names with save experience. Francisco Cordero is the closer, supported by Arthur Rhodes and former Cincinnati closer David Weathers.

Houston Astros

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Michael Bourn CF
Kaz Matsui 2B
Miguel Tejada SS
Lance Berkman 1B
Carlos Lee LF
Hunter Pence RF
Ivan Rodriguez C
Geoff Blum 3B

Roy Oswalt
Wandy Rodriguez
Brandon Backe
Mike Hampton
Brian Moehler
Chris Sampson
Alberto Arias

Houston is returning six offensive starters from last year, and now adds Ivan Rodriguez. But Pudge isn't the offensive powerhouse he once was. Still, Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada, and Carlos Lee still are. The main question in the lineup may be why Lance Berkman, who once patrolled center field for the Astros, is now at first base while Carlos Lee, never an asset on defense, is still in the outfield.

The bench consists largely of aging retreads, including Darrin Erstad, David Newhan, and Jason Michaels. Aaron Boone would be on that list if it wasn't for a heart condition that will force him to sit out 2009. The infield is thin, with starting third baseman Geoff Blum currently listed as the primary backup at second and third.

Houston's ace is Team USA's ace, Roy Oswalt. Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez had decent seasons in 2008, but the rest of the rotation is questionable. Mike Hampton was decent when healthy, and Brian Moehler had a solid season for a back-of-the-rotation starter. But Brandon Backe has a career ERA over 5 and Russ Ortiz didn't pitch in the Majors in 2008.

Houston has traditionally produced quality closers and setup men from their organization. This year, they'll use imports to man the back end of their bullpen. Jose Valverde will close, aided by veterans Geoff Geary, LaTroy Hawkins (Oswalt's WBC teammate), and Doug Brocail.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Nyjer Morgan LF
Freddy Sanchez 2B
Nate McLouth CF
Ryan Doumit C
Brandon Moss/Erin Hinske RF
Adam LaRoche 1B
Andy LaRoche 3B
Jack Wilson SS

Paul Maholm
Ian Snell
Zach Duke
Russ Ohlendorf
Jeff Karstens
Virgil Vasquez
Phil Dumatrait

Last year, Pittsburgh made a statement that they want to be good in the future, instead of being perpetually mediocre in the present. Nate McLouth may not repeat his success from last year, but he's still established himself as a Major Leaguer. In that way, he's followed in the footsteps of Freddy Sanchez. As a full time player, Ryan Doumit may be that man this year. Adam LaRoche is a steady hitter. While brother Andy's prospect status has lost some lustre, he's still a few years away from his prime.

Pittsburgh has some decent talent in their starting rotation, even with Tom Gorzelanny back down in the minors. As with most teams with poor offenses, you can't judge the starting pitchers by their win-loss records. Look for a big year from Ian Snell after he proudly represented Puerto Rico, the homeland of his stepfather and his wife.

Pittsburgh's bullpen is highlighted by returning closer Matt Capps. Capps will be supported by John Grabow, Tyler Yates, Chris Bootcheck, Evan Meek, and Donald Veal, a rule V pickup from the Cubs organization. Oh, and there's also Rinku and Dinesh.