Friday, March 19, 2010

MLB Preview #5
National League Central

St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Skip Schumaker 2B
Colby Rasmus CF
Albert Pujols 1B
Matt Holliday LF
Ryan Ludwick RF
Yadier Molina C
David Freese 3B
Brendan Ryan SS

Adam Wainwright
Chris Carpenter
Kyle Lohse
Brad Penny
Kyle McClellan

One all world player (Pujols), one All Star (Holliday), one above average hitter (Ludwick), and average production from the rest of the lineup. That's the recipe for a division championship.

Predictably, Tony Larussa has stocked his bench with veterans, in this case Jason LaRue at catcher and Felipe Lopez and Julio Lugo in the infield. There's not much depth in the outfield, although presumably Skip Schumaker can move back there while Lopez or Lugo mans the keystone sack. Lopez and Lugo can become key pieces of this team, with the relative inexperience of all Cardinals infielders not named Albert Pujols. Also of note is that did include Mark McGwire in their prognostication. The 46-year-old "DH" is predicted to have 20 home runs and 155 strike outs in 300+ at bats.

The St. Louis rotation mirrors its lineup in that there are a few stars (2009 Cy Young contenders Wainwright and Carpenter) with average to above average support.

Closer Ryan Franklin may not repeat the breakout success. But if there's one place this club has outstanding depth, it's in the bullpen. (Remember that this club could afford to trade two future closers for half a season's worth of Mark DeRosa.) Franklin will be aided by Jason Motte, Dennys Reyes, and whichever young arms fail to capture the last spot in the rotation.

Milwaukee Brewers

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Rickie Weeks 2B
Corey Hart RF
Ryan Braun LF
Prince Fielder 1B
Casey McGehee 3B
Greg Zaun C
Carlos Gomez CF
Alcides Escobar SS

Yovani Gallardo
Randy Wolf
Doug Davis
Jeff Suppan
Manny Parra
David Bush

By trading JJ Hardy for Carlos Gomez, the Brewers essentially gave away one good bat for two good gloves. In getting Gomez, the Brewers got a player whose defense is comparable to the man he replaces, Mike Cameron. However, Gomez' bat still needs his work. (Based on current skill, the Twins were wise to give him up and keep Denard Span.) But by getting rid of Hardy, Milwaukee was also able to move Alcides Escobar's glove into the starting lineup. Now they must hope that Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, and Prince Fielder (and eventually Mat Gamel, when he replaces McGehee) can hit enough to balance the offense and defense.

The Brewers bench features three of my personal cheeseballs, infielders Craig Counsell and Joe Inglett, and outfielder Jody Gerut.

In the starting rotation, rising star Yovani Gallardo will be supported by a number of National League veterans. As always, the Brewers may need to add another starting pitcher or two if they want to make the playoffs.

The Brewers bullpen is a good mix of young and veteran talent. Trevor Hoffman is back as the team's closer, supported by LaTroy Hawkins, Claudio Vargas, Carlos Villanueva, and David Riske. Also looking to make the team after a cup of coffee last year is John Axford. Axford started his college career at Notre Dame before graduating from Canisius. (Man does this club like to stock up on former Irish, Indians, and Twins players or what?)

Chicago Cubs

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Alfonso Soriano LF
Ryan Theriot SS
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Geovany Soto C
Marlon Byrd CF
Kosuke Fukudome RF
Mike Fontenot 2B

Carlos Zambrano
Ted Lilly
Ryan Dempster
Randy Wells
Tom Gorzelanny
Jeff Samardzija
Carlos Silva

Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Geovany Soto are a good core to build around, but the rest of the pieces just aren't there. Marlon Byrd was a solid pickup, but he's no Matt Holliday. How long can the Cubs wait before they blow things up and start again with Starlin Castro and his contemporaries?

Like Byrd, Xavier Nady was a solid outfield pickup, and he'll likely platoon with Fukudome in the outfield. Returning for the Cubbies are Koyie Hill, Micah Hoffpauir, Jeff Baker, and Andres Blanco.

Chicago's rotation is in very good shape, at least, headlined by Zambrano, Lilly, and Dempster. Wells and Gorzelanny were two more good acquisitions, the latter yet another Pirates pitcher who struggled as a erstwhile ace but who should do quite well in the back of the rotation where he belongs. Jeff Samardzija does have a chance at a rotation spot at some point this season, but if he loses out to Carlos Silva at this point, The Shark should probably consider a return to the gridiron.

Carlos Marmol has settled in as the Cubs closer, despite lingering questions about his control. Marmol will be aided by John Grabow, Sean Marshall, Justin Berg, and whichever starters listed above do not make the rotation.

Cincinnati Reds

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Drew Stubbs CF
Orlando Cabrera SS
Joey Votto 1B
Brandon Phillips 2B
Scott Rolen 3B
Jay Bruce RF
Chris Dickerson/Jonny Gomes LF
Ramon Hernandez C

Aaron Harang
Bronson Arroyo
Johnny Cueto
Homer Bailey
Aroldis Chapman
Justin Lehr
Matt Maloney
Edinson Volquez

Cincinnati made some "win now" moves in acquiring Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen, despite the fact that they weren't that close to being contenders before the moves were made. Regardless, the Reds have managed to upgrade both their offense and defense in the process. The Reds defense was also improved by naming Drew Stubbs the starting center fielder. Not only is Stubbs a stud center fielder, but he also assures that Jay Bruce stays in right field, where he will be more of a defensive asset. In left, Cincinnati can play Chris Dickerson for defense and Jonny Gomes for offense when need be. Oh, and speaking of studs, Joey Votto is a machine at the plate.

Veteran Aaron Miles will be the utility infielder, although expect to see some time from Paul Janish as well. After a brief but impressive stint at shortstop in 2009, Janish expected to have the starting job locked up this year - until the Reds acquired Cabrera. So Janish may be playing with something to prove. Also playing with something to prove are Wladimir Balentien and Laynce Nix, who are fighting for the fourth outfielder spot. Balentien is no longer a top prospect, and now he must prove that he's not Cincinnati's next Wily Mo Pena.

Cincinnati's pitching rotation may not have any great starters, but it does have quite a few very good ones. The team will receive a much-needed shot in the arm when Edinson Volquez returns from his injury and Aroldis Chapman is ready for the majors. Until then, Huron High School product Matt Maloney will fight for one of the last rotation spots.

In the bullpen, Francisco Cordero will be supported by veterans Mike Lincoln and Arthur Rhodes, and hitting sensation Micah Owings.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Andrew McCutchen CF
Akinori Iwamura 2B
Garret Jones RF
Jeff Clement 1B
Ryan Doumit C
Andy LaRoche 3B
Lastings Milledge LF
Ronny Cedeno SS

Paul Maholm
Zach Duke
Russ Ohlendorf
Charlie Morton
Kevin Hart

It will be a long, slow, process rebuilding the Pirates, but things are starting to move in the right direction. The additions made in the past few months - Iwamura, Clement, Milledge, Cedeno - were minor but positive. That wasn't always a given for the Pirates in the past. The biggest move may have been to name Andrew McCutchen a starter; the center fielder is due for a breakout this year.

The bench is made of young-ish veterans who struggled as starters, but who should do just fine in replacement roles. That list includes Brandon Moss and Ryan Church in the outfield and Bobby Crosby in the infield. Of course, the interesting thing will be to see how long the Pirates can keep top prospects Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez off the field.

As mentioned above, the Pirates rotation is normally staffed with players more comfortable as fourth or fifth starters. But players like Paul Maholm and Charlie Morton will try to be the exception to the rule this year.

Like his mentor Mark Shapiro, it appears that Pirates GM Neal Huntington isn't quite sure how to put together a bullpen. Instead of relying on the arms already in the system, Huntington went out to acquire Octavio Dotel, Joel Hanrahan, DJ Carrasco, and Frontier League veteran Brendan Donnelly.

Houston Astros

Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Michael Bourn CF
Kaz Matsui 2B
Lance Berkman 1B
Carlos Lee LF
Hunter Pence RF
Pedro Feliz 3B
JR Towles C
Tommy Manzella SS

Roy Oswalt
Wandy Rodriguez
Bud Norris
Brett Myers
Felipe Paulino
Brian Moehler

Call the Astros the "Cardinals Lite." Like St. Louis, Houston is a team based on a few stars surrounded by role players, as opposed to a balanced set. But Houston's stars and role players just don't match up with the Cards'. Adding someone just because they were a World Champion (Feliz) doesn't help when he was one of the weaker starters. The position to watch here is the starting catcher spot. Will it go to JR Towles, the top prospect from a few years ago, or Juan Castro, the top prospect of the future?

Coming off the bench to man all three outfield spots will be Jason Michaels. On the infield, Geoff Blum and Jeff Keppinger will fight over playing time and the correct spelling of their first name. Keppinger can see increased playing time in the middle of the diamond if either Manzella or Matsui falter.

At least the Astros have two legit aces to ride in Oswalt and Rodriguez. But whose idea was it to put Randy Wells, Randy Wolf, and Brett Myers in the same division? For whatever reason, I always get those three guys confused.

Complementing the Oswalt-Rodriguez one-two punch is the one-two bullpen punch of closers Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom.