Thursday, March 26, 2009

Health Concerns Abound in the NL Central

Just about every team in the NL Central has a big time slugger. In St. Louis it is possible "Next One" Albert Pujols, in Milli-wau-kay it is the Fat Man Prince Fielder, in Houston it is the Big Puma Lance Berkman, in Chicago it is the injury prone Alfonso Soriano, in Cincy it could very well be Joey Votto, and in Pittsburgh it is nobody. With all of these big bats in the same division, it appears as if the winner of the NL Central will come down to pitching, supporting cast, and injuries. Taking all of these factors into account, I see the Chicago Cubs once again taking the NL Central division, if they can survive the injury bug.

I see the St. Louis Redbirds finishing second in the central this year and challenging for the NL Wild Card. Any team that has as great a player as Albert Pujols, who is certain to have an amazing statistical season this year, and as talented a manager as Tony LaRussa can contend no matter what. They also have a good supporting cast with Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Chris "I lost the ball in a thundercloud" Duncan and Yadier Molina. The real question with the Cardinals is pitching. Can Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright build on last year's success? Can Chris Carpenter come back from such a devastating injury? Or will he forever be labeled injury prone? Can new closer Jason Motte shoulder the load? I think Lohse and Wainwright will do well, but not much can be expected from Carpenter any more. The Cardinals will compete, but I don't think they have quite the fire power to surpass the Cubs this year.

The Reds are an interesting team and I have them finishing third as the NL Central reshuffles a bit this year. With young pitchers Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez showing great promise and pitching well in the WBC, the Reds have a solid foundation to build on. Now, if Aaron Harang "brain" can pitch like he did two years ago the Reds would be in business. With some wiley vets like David Weathers and Arthur Rhodes in the pen, and Coco Cordero shutting the door in the 9th the Reds look like a pretty solid staff. They will need a breakout year from several of their hitters if they want to fulfill this prophecy however. Joey Votto will have to fill in for the loss of the Big Donkey, and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce will each have to play as well as they did last year. Other than that, the Reds have mostly journeymen filling out their lineup. The Reds might be one of those teams this year that gets off to a roaring start, then fades in the late summer months. The pieces are in place though.

Pittsburgh is my surprise pick to finish fourth in the NL Central this year. Their young staff of Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf (where's Matt Morris?) could turn some heads in the central this year. They also have a proven closer in Matt Capps, though he is battling the injury prone label as well, and a decent pen with John Grabow and Craig Hansen throwing some heat. The Buccos lineup has some up and comers with Nate McClouth, Ryan Doumit and the "Gruesome Twosome" Andy and Adam LaRoche. While I doubt very much that they can make the playoffs, I think that this is the year for the Pirates to climb out of the cellar.

Houston's motto for this year should be "now or never". Unfortunately, I think it will be never for them. With 6 of their starting position players well into their 30s, the window is closing for the 'Stros. Though their lineup is well old for the most part, they can still hit. Berkman is coming off of a career year, Pudge strutted his stuff in the WBC, and young gun Hunter Pence is close to becoming a franchise player. No, Houston will never have a problem putting runs on the board, but preventing them will be hard. Behind Roy Oswalt is a vast wasteland of pitchers. Wandy Rodriguez might be decent, but he is not very comforting as your #2 starter. Jose Valverde can slam the door in the ninth, but who's gonna get it there? Nobody. Expect the Astros to be well under .500 this year and play in a lot of 10-9 games. They will finish 5th.

Now for the least improved team: the Milwaukee Brewers. Milli-wau-kay may be Algonquin for "the good land", but good the Brewers will not be this year. The Brewers took a run at it last year, and I give them credit for that, but now they are a shell of what they were. Their two front end guys in CC Sabathia and "Injury prone king" Ben Sheets are both gone, leaving them Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, Carlos Villanueva, Manny Parra and Braden Looper as starters this year. These guys are all #3 starters at best. Yikes. They also signed the ancient one Trevor Hoffman to be their closer. Double yikes. While no one can deny that the Brew Crew have a great lineup with the Fat Man, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart, their pitching is god awful. Maybe dead last in the central is too far for them to fall, but I can't see them doing well at all this year. They are like the Texas Rangers of the past few years, all offense and no pitching.

Last and obviously not least, I like the Cubs to win the NL Central again this year. The Cubs lineup is pretty stacked with Derek "DP" Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, Geovany Soto and Ryan "You Can't Quiet" Theriot. Not to mention the power that the Big Z brings with him every 5th day. Speaking of which, the Cubs also have the best rotation in the NL central with Zambrano, Ryan Dumpster, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly and Sean Marshall. Their bullpen is pretty sharp too with Jeff Szamardzija (sic), Kevin Gregg, Chad Gaudin and Carlos Marmol. The biggest question for the Cubbies will be injuries. Of all the names I just mentioned several (Soriano, Bradley, Zambrano and Harden) have been officialy labeled "Injury Prone" by yours truly. I have gone so far as to refer to Rich Harden with pictures of a robotic or prosthetic arm to illustrate his fragility. However, last year he showed me something by pitching very well down the stretch and in the playoffs. If the Cubs can stay healthy, they are head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the NL central. I see them using their bench well when some guys are injured and overall staying fairly healthy to win the NL Central. The real test will be to see if they can win in the playoffs.

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