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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bold Predictions (NL Central)

Branded baseball's worst division in 2007, the pride(s) of the midwest suggested they had something to prove this offseason. Houston, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Chicago were all among the most active teams, both via trades and free agency. Meanwhile, it is also a division which is stockpiling young talent. Cincinnati's Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Homer Bailey, Pittsburgh's Steven Pearce, St. Louis' Colby Rasmus, and Milwaukee's Manny Parra are all among the most highly anticipated rookies of 2008. On paper at least, every team in the division except St. Louis looks better this spring than they did last fall, so let the prognostications begin!

6. St. Louis Cardinals

This offseason, though the Cardinals resigned Tony LaRussa, they lost GM Walt Jocketty and many of the remaining familiar faces from the 2006 World Champions. David Eckstein, the World Series MVP, signed with Toronto. Scott Rolen followed him in a trade for Troy Glaus, due to a much publicized falling out with LaRussa. Jim Edmonds returned to his native California in a trade for a mediocre prospect (David Freese). So Taguch, the fourth outfielder who gave the Cardinals 300+ good at-bats in each of the last three seasons, signed with the Phillies and Troy Percival, who came out of retirement and posted a 1.80 ERA in forty innings last year, signed with the Rays. To make matters worse, the Cardinals best remaining pitcher and best remaining hitter are both facing serious injuries. A reconstructive elbow surgery will keep 2005 Cy Young, Chris Carpenter, out until at least July and likely won't be fully rehabilitated until 2009. Albert Pujols, the 2005 MVP, is also suffering from an elbow injury which effects his throwing but not his hitting. He plans on remaining in the lineup to begin the season, but if the injury worsens or the Cardinals fall out of contention, he will probably shut it down early.

These significant losses, combined with the fact that the Cardinals didn't look to make any splashy free agent signings, suggest that Tony LaRussa and the redbirds are due to spend a very abnormal year in the NL Central cellar. There are a few reasons for optimism. Yadier Molina, only 25 and entering his fourth full year in the big leagues, showed signs last year that his offense is catching up with his immense defensive skills. Despite an injury, he matched his career numbers across the board and posted new highs in Average, OBP, and SLG. He was especially strong in August, when he hit .341 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. Cardinal fans can also get excited about young outfielders Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Brian Barton, and Colby Rasmus. Rasmus is among the best prospects in baseball and potential Rookie of the Year candidate as he will presumable take over for Edmonds in center field on Opening Day.

LaRussa and Dave Duncan will again be looking to assemble a rotation from spare parts. But the quality of the scrap is better than it was in 2007. From the group of Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro, Anthony Reyes, Braden Looper, and Matt Clement they will try to find three quality starters who will eventually slot in behind Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The success of this search will be essential to making the rebuilding process in St. Louis short and sweet.

MVP: Albert Pujols (will outperform all his teammates even if shut down in early August)
Cy Young: Adam Wainwright (2.71 ERA after the All-Star Break)
Rookie: Colby Rasmus (932 OPS at AA, at age 20!)
Sleepers: Anthony Reyes, Brian Barton, Yadier Molina

5. Houston Astros

The 'Stros had one of the most remarkable offseasons in recent memory. All told, they added eleven players who will likely start the season on the 25-man roster, while giving up thirteen players who will probably find homes with other big-league clubs. Now that it's all said and done, however, it's hard to see how Houston is significantly better. Sure, they upgraded at short with the addition of Miguel Tejada (who replaces Adam Everett). But that is the only obvious improvement. At third base, they gave up Mike Lamb for Ty Wigginton. Their career OPSs are almost identical (766 v. 776) in almost the exact same number of at-bats. Wigginton provides a bit more power, while Lamb is a more consistent hitter with better plate discipline. They both give you mediocre defense at a couple different positions. At second base, Houston replaced Astros' legend Craig Biggio with Kaz Matsui. Kaz should be a little better than Biggio has been for the past two seasons, but he is still a slap-hitting leadoff man with no power who plays decent defense. In the outfield, they gave up Luke Scott (.255-18-64) and brought in Micheal Bourn. Bourn had only 119 AB in his rookie campaign, but stole 18 bases in 19 attempts and he wasn't afraid to take a walk. He could be a remarkable leadoff hitter and allows Hunter Pence to move to right field, but he's very unproven and certainly won't replace Scott's power production. In the bullpen, Houston traded for Jose Valverde and Geoff Geary, signed Doug Brocail and Oscar Villareal, while they unloaded Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dennis Sarfate. It's a different looking bullpen, but I don't see how the results will be drastically better. Valverde is coming off a remarkable season (similar to the one Brad Lidge had in 2005), but, like Lidge, he has a history of inconsistency, wildness, and a susceptability to the long ball. None of the new middlemen are equal to the combination of Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler (traded to the Rays late last season), so the bridge to Valverde won't be any less rickety than it was before.

It is a team which looks remarkably like the one which went 73-89 in 2007. Sure, the core of the lineup - Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Lance Berkman - is pretty intimidating, but Bourn, Pence, and rookie catcher, J. R. Towles remain unproven. More importantly, Houston did nothing to improve on their biggest weakness, the starting rotation. The four pitchers who are predicted to follow Roy Oswalt went a combined 27-37 last season, as Astros starters were 10th in the NL in ERA. On paper, it is among the worst rotations in the league, challenged only by the Nationals and the Marlins. If Houston thought they were building a contender for this season, that's a major oversight.

MVP: Carlos Lee (a perennial sure thing for 30 HR and 100 RBI)
Cy Young: Roy Oswalt (only Pedro and Johan have better W% among active pitchers)
Rookie: J. R. Towles (not much to get excited about, yet)
Sleepers: Micheal Bourn, Miguel Tejada, Wandy Rodriguez

4. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are a popular "sleeper" team this spring, and for good reason. They have a new manager (Dusty Baker), two front-of-the-rotation horses (Aaron Harang & Brandon Arroyo), a marquee free agent closer (Francisco Cordero), a legendary veteran (Ken Griffy Jr.), a bonafide slugger (Adam Dunn), the newest member of the 30/30 club (Brandon Phillips), and half a dozen top prospects (Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez). With Baker at the helm, the Reds will have something to prove and could make an assault on .500. However, they are still one shortstop and a couple of bullpen arms away from real contention. Great American Smallpark is an unforgiving place. Bailey, Cueto, Volquez, Matt Belisle, and even Arroyo will be subjected to some short outings. The young starters will have their meddle tested and the bullpen will get a lot of work. Cubs fans will remember, this is not necessarily an area of strength for Baker. The Reds will score a ton of runs in '08, maybe the most in the division, but they'll give up just as many.

MVP: Brandon Phillips (for what he does with the glove as well as the bat)
Cy Young: Aaron Harang
Rookie: Jay Bruce
Sleepers: Edwin Encarnacion, Norris Hopper, Jeff Keppinger

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates also have something to prove, although they haven't been getting nearly as much attention. The need to fend off the "Curse of Barry Bonds," in the form of their record-breaking 16th straight losing season. It'll be tight, but I think they have the tools to do it. Most importantly, an unappreciated starting rotation. The quartet of Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm are entering their third season in the big leagues, no longer as prone to the growing pains that will plague Bailey, Cueto, and Volquez (not to mention, the Pirates have a more forgiving ballpark). In their first two seasons they went 70-86 with a combined ERA around the league average. This year they will all be 25 or 26 with 300+ innings of major league experience. Both Gorzelanny and Snell showed the potential to dominate during stretches last season. Snell had a 1.64 ERA in his final five starts, while Gorzelanny started the season by going 6-3 with a 2.53 ERA in his first dozen starts. Snell finished 7th in the NL in strikeouts, tied with Carlos Zambrano and Cole Hamels (pretty good company!). As they find their rhythm more consistently over the course of a full season, the two could be among the better 1-2 combos in the National League. Duke, who made a great first impression by going 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in his rookie year, regressed in '07, largely due to injury, but when he returned from the DL in September he showed positive signs, posting a 3.86 ERA over 14 IP. Paul Maholm also showed his potential during the summer when he went 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA over a run of twelve starts. If this quartet, tutored by the crafty innings-eating veteran , Matt Morris, can take it to the next level in 2008, the Pirates will narrowly avoid a embarrassing entry in the history books. They will have enough assistance from the promising young offensive catalysts Jose Bautista, Nyjer Morgan, and Steven Pearce and the proven commodities like Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, and Jason Bay. Pittsburgh, not Cincinnati, will prove to be the "sleeper" team that dramatically breaks the .500 barrier, much as Milwaukee did in 2007.

MVP: Adam LaRoche (raised his average from .239 before the break to .312 after)
Cy Young: Ian Snell (more strikeouts in '07 than Felix Hernandez or Matt Cain)
Rookie: Steven Pearce (.333-31 HR-113 RBI at A, AA, AAA in 2007)
Sleepers: Zach Duke, Jose Bautista, Andrew McCutcheon

2. Milwaukee Brewers

A unheralded team, loaded with power, featuring 11 regulars under the age of 30, surprises everybody and nearly catches a Chicago powerhouse in the season's final weeks. Sound familiar? Of course I'm talking about the 2005 Cleveland Indians. The following season, 2006, the Indians were heavily favored to win the AL Central, or at least make the playoffs. Instead, the young team, feeling the pressure, got off to a dreadful start and finished six games short of .500. The Brewers' management have tried to prevent a similar backslide by bringing in veterans like Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall, as well as retooling the bullpen which was a source of anxiety for Ned Yost in 2007. However, Milwaukee is still relying on the oft-injured Ben Sheets to anchor a starting rotation which is still in the making. If youngsters Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra live up to their potential and some combination of Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, and Jeff Suppan give the Brewers 25 wins and 400+ innings, they'll give the Cubs a run for their money. But too much has to go perfectly for the Brewers to be a good bet to win the division. The upshot of the Cleveland analogy, however, is that there's a lot of promise on the horizon. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, J. J. Hardy, Bill Hall, Gallardo, Parra, and Bush are all under contract until at least 2010 and the Brewers have more big-league ready prospects - namely Tony Gwynn Jr. and Matt LaPorta - waiting for their opportunity.

MVP: Prince Fielder (He doesn't turn 24 until May!)
Cy Young: Yovani Gallardo (2.20 ERA in last 8 starts, injury will limit innings not effectivity)
Rookie: Manny Parra (some consider him Gallardo's equal)
Sleepers: Eric Gagne, Bill Hall, Matt LaPorta

1. Chicago Cubs

It would seem, they are division winners by process of elimination. Not so much based on what they have as what their competitors don't. The Cubs proved this theory last season when they rallied to win the Central largely because Milwaukee and St. Louis collapsed. The Cubs had a prolonged power outage in the first half, lost Soriano for a month, had dugout fist fights, were booed repeatedly by their own faithful, didn't settle on an everyday centerfielder until July, didn't settle on an everyday catcher until the postseason, and used about a hundred different starting lineups, but still had enough talent to scratch out an NL Central title. They made themselves better with the addition of Kosuke Fukudome during the offseason and can realistically expect better production from Soriano, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, Geovany Soto, and Rich Hill than they got last year. The key will be the health and effectiveness of a bullpen which was outstanding in 2007. Thanks largely to Carlos Marmol and Bobby Howry, the Cubs were 2nd in the NL in reliever's ERA. Ryan Dempster may be moving from closer to the rotation, which will put more pressure on those two, as well as Kerry Wood, Micheal Wuertz, and Scott Eyre. Pinella leaned heavily on the 'pen during his first year as Cubs manager, particularly Howry and Marmol. If they are going to be rolling on all cylinders come October, he will have to be comfortable calling on several other arms as well.

MVP: Derrek Lee (16 HR, 40 RBI, 941 OPS after the All-Star Break)
Cy Young: Carlos Zambrano (allowed 1 earned run in 12 innings with Soto behind the plate)
Rookie: Kosuke Fukudome (an on-base maching who'll hit between Soriano and Lee/Ramirez)
Sleepers: Sam Fuld, Kevin Hart, Jon Lieber

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