Last season, the NL Central was horrendous. In 2006, the season was horrendous. To be blunt, the NL Central is not a good division.
To be fair, the Cubs and Brewers had records over .500, but the division still holds the Cardinals, Astros, Reds and Pirates. Can any of these teams jump the .500 barrier and make the Central a competitive, quality league?
1. Chicago Cubs
Kosuke Fukudome joins a middle-of-the-road order with the ever-dangerous Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Derek Lee. Around them are questions including the young Geovany Soto and Felix Pie, and the fast but powerless Ryan Theriot. They should hit their share, but it’ll come in waves. The pitching is a strength, led by longtime ace Carlos Zambrano and lefties Rich Hill and Ted Lilly. Ryan Dempster is new to the rotation, and it’s uncertain how he’ll perform â€” ballpark him with 9 wins and a 4.80 ERA. Kerry Wood is the new closer, but Carlos Marmol is right behind him (and might take over at some point). Injuries remain an issue, but in the Central, the Cubs have the right horses to take it.
Predicted Finish: 89-73
2. Cincinnati Reds
Every few years, the Reds make a run at the throne, but don’t quite make it. This year is that year, but promise holds for the future. The offense is big and brawny, with Adam Dunn leading the charge. Ken Griffey Jr. still has the juice to hit 25 homers, especially in that ballpark. Added to the fray this year is Joey Votto, a standout hitter who should club 25-30. Brandon Phillips had a breakout year as one of the top 2B in baseball. Aaron Harang is a true ace, but after him there’s a crapshoot. Bronson Arroyo will reach 10 wins and maybe a 4.00 ERA. The rest of the rotation will be messed with throughout the year. The bullpen is stacked with names, but what will they give them? Francisco Cordero is nice, and Jared Burton will be a hot play in the setup role. They’re a good looking team and should stay in the race until September 1. Then, who knows?
Predicted Finish: 83-79
3. Milwaukee Brewers
Last season was a joyous one until September, as a slick-hitting offense rallied a city. Ryan Braun was unbelievable â€” a full season would’ve had him around 55 HR and 150 RBI with a .340 clip â€” but can he duplicate? I say it’s a small slip backwards. Prince Fielder is the centerpiece, and he should knock around 50 dingers. JJ Hardy played out of his mind last year and will likely get close to 20 HR again. It’s a nice lineup, full of power, speed and contact hitting. Expect them to be just as good in 2008. The pitching, however, is mediocre. Ben Sheets will try to stay healthy â€” if he does, expect 16 wins and a 3.70 ERA. After him it’s Jeff Suppan and the injured Yovani Gallardo, who is a stunning youngster. The bullpen is the weakness with new closer Eric Gagne and setup man Derrick Turnbow, both known for their blow ups. They say bad pitching will waste a good Phillies team â€” no, bad pitching will waste a good Brewers team.
Predicted Finish: 81-81
4. Saint Louis Cardinals
Oh how the mighty have fallen. The Cards have removed the heroes of 2006 and have replaced them with a one-hit wonder (Rick Ankiel), a has-been (Troy Glaus) and a defensive-minded squib hitter (Cesar Izturis). The real problem, however, is Albert Pujols’ impending season-ending surgery. He’ll undergo it at some point this year, ending the dream for good. Chris Duncan will hope to erase any problems, but he can’t do it alone. The pitching is hanging on Adam Wainwright to develop into an ace and Chris Carpenter to return mid-season. Kyle Lohse should give 11 wins and a 5.02 ERA to the effort. The bullpen isn’t bad, with Ryan Franklin setting up Jason Isringhausen. Injuries should show this team’s real side, but the fans will continue to show and cheer.
Predicted Finish: 76-86
5. Houston Astros
Ed Wade came into Houston and turned the team upside down. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman remain, but now have Miguel Tejada, who despite the drug problems, should settle into the lineup nicely as a third option. Hunter Pence is a future star, but won’t duplicate 2007. Michael Bourn â€” our favorite role player from the division champs â€” will lead off the team and patrol the hill in center. A tall order for Bourn; I hope he succeeds. The rotation is Roy Oswalt and pray for excessive heat. Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez won’t give you much more than what they have the past few years. The bullpen is weak outside of new closer Jose Valverde, the one good move Wade made this offseason. Offense will win games, but pitching will lose more.
Predicted Finish: 71-91
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Oh look, the Buccos in last place! And why not? The offense has Jason Bay, but who else â€” Adam LaRoche? Jack Wilson? Nate McLouth? Freddy Sanchez? It’s not looking pretty in the ‘burgh. They have a slew of nice hitting prospects, including Steven Pearce, but they won’t see time yet. That’s a shame â€” it’s time to rebuild. The pitching staff isn’t much better, but there’s always promise in Ian Snell, Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny. Toegther they’ll put up nice ERAs, but not nice win-loss records. Damaso Marte is the stud in a mediocre bullpen. Maybe the pitching staff will boost this team to fourth or fifth place, but it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n’ roll.
Predicted Finish: 65-97