MLB Preview Bonanza: NL Central

Ugh…whenever I find myself waiting in a line or at an airport and I need something to do to keep my mind occupied for a little while, I try to name all the sports teams. This isn’t all that difficult for me at this point; I usually get them all. But my strategy is always to go division by division. And the NL Central always screws me up. Six teams? Every other division in major professional sports now contains five teams or fewer…except the NL Central. And so I always end up taking longer than usual to run through them: Let’s see…Cardinals, Cubs, umm, ugh, Pirates, who else? Having six teams in the NL Central throws off the whole attempt at scheduling in the NL. I know the Mets play their division foes 18 times, but how many times do Central teams play other Central teams? It’s not still 18, right? Is it only 12? Twelve seems too few, doesn’t it? Well, you know how many it is? There’s no standard. The Cubs, for instance, play the Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates 15 times, the Reds 16 times, and the Astros 18 times. This is the worst division in sports.

It wasn’t the worst division in the National League until recently, though. The Central had more representatives in the NLCS (eight) than the East or West in the Aughts. But only one of those teams–and ironically, the worst of them, the 2006 Cardinals–went on to win the World Series, and the Central hasn’t gotten a team out of the Division Series in the last three years. St. Louis is the favorite to repeat in 2010, but I’ve got other ideas.

CHICAGO CUBS

Last Season: 83-78

This Season: 90-72

This is basically the only reach in my predictions, and I’m reaching here for a few different reasons. The first is that the Cubs can’t, on pure talent alone, be as bad as they were for several stretches last season—and they still finished with 83 wins. The second is that Rudy Jaramillo might just be the most important assistant coach in Major League Baseball. I expect Jaramillo to help Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto rebound from bad years, Derrek Lee to have at least one more big season in him, and the division’s best rotation (1 through 4 with Zambrano, Lilly, Dempster, and the underrated Randy Wells) to lift the Cubs past the Cardinals.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY DOOMED THE CUBS’ SEASON THE MOST IN 2009? Last June, a couple friends and I (you may know them as the other writers of the blog) trekked out to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs battle the White Sox. It was our last day in Chicago. The game got rained out. Karma ensued.

YOU EVEN WORE A CUBS HAT THAT NIGHT, YOU BIGAMIST: That’s because it was raining, and I had forgotten a hat for the trip, and our friend in Chicago had only Cub hats and non-sports hats. Believe me, it was the best choice at the time. I totally had my Illinois hat prepped for the trip and forgot it. It won’t happen again.

DID YOU HEAR GEOVANY SOTO LOST 40 POUNDS? Yeah, and since I read it after I heard all Kyle Blanks went through to lose 15 pounds, it made Soto’s loss seem like even more of an accomplishment.

SO, BEFORE READING ABOUT BLANKS, YOU THOUGHT LOSING 40 POUNDS WAS PAR FOR THE COURSE? Not par, per se. Maybe just a birdie, though, and not the eagle I think it is now.

WHAT’S THE CRAZINESS BALANCE LIKE IN THE CUBS’ CLUBHOUSE LIKE NOW? The Cubhouse, if you will.

I WILL: Getting rid of Milton Bradley re-established the Cubs just on the proper side of the Craziness Threshold. Now, Carlos Zambrano is clearly the only legitimately crazy Cub, and he doesn’t feel pressured into out-crazying anyone. Unless Ted Lilly really steps his game up.

TED LILLY IS CRAZY? Best-kept secret in Major League Baseball.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN CUBS HISTORY IS: Ron Santo, if only for his epically primal “Oh nooooo” when Brant Brown dropped that fly ball in ’98.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Last Season: 91-71, NL Central Champs

This Season: 86-76

HOW CAN YOU BLASPHEME AND NOT HAVE THE CARDINALS WINNING THIS DIVISION? Sure, they added Matt Holliday for good, but they still lack quality hitters in the 1-2-5-6-7-9 slots.

WHAT ABOUT 8? Well, that’s where LaRussa will hit his pitcher for some part of the season. Just to prove he’s smarter than everyone else.

IS TONY LARUSSA SMARTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE? No. It’s really simple: The pitcher’s spot in the order will make more outs than any other spot, unless you’re starting someone atrocious offensively on an everyday basis. And so, you want that spot in the order coming up least. This isn’t rocket science.

AND BACK TO THE POINT AT HAND: ISN’T YOUR INITIAL POINT AWFULLY REDUCTIVE OF THE SKIP SCHUMAKERS OF THIS LINEUP? Schumaker isn’t a bad player; I’d point out his eyebrow-raising .341 BABIP last season if he didn’t have .300+ marks the two years before that also. But he is what he is: a borderline .300 hitter with little power that plays a substandard second base. He is no better than Luis Castillo, and Castillo is a pariah in New York and Schumaker is a nice little player in St. Louis.

SPEAKING OF BABIPS: Albert Pujols is SO good and hits SO many home runs that his BABIP last season (.299) was 28 points lower than his batting average. I didn’t know this was possible. He is the only National Leaguer with a qualifying number of at-bats for whom this is true, and there’s a 28-point difference!

BUT SERIOUSLY NOW, THEY’VE GOT THE BEST 1-2 IN THE LINEUP AND THE BEST 1-2 IN THE ROTATION IN THE NL! HOW DO THEY NOT WIN THIS DIVISION? OR EVEN THE WILD CARD? I don’t think you’re getting 62 starts from Wainwright and Carpenter in 2010, and their 3-4-5 in the rotation is significantly worse than last season with Joel Pineiro gone. Oh, and there’s no way Ryan Franklin has 38 saves and a sub-2.00 ERA this year. NO WAY.

YEAH, THAT WAS PRETTY RIDICULOUS: NO WAY.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN CARDINALS HISTORY IS: One of my two favorite non-Mets of all-time, Ozzie Smith. Nobody was better than the Wizard.

CINCINNATI REDS

Last Season: 78-84

This Season: 79-83

talk about a team nobody cares about: Well, before I finalized records and all, I figured the Reds for 77 or 78 wins—what I thought would be a marked improvement. And then I saw they won 78 last year, and I figured they’d be better than that, so I gave them 79.

WHY STOP THERE THOUGH IF YOU’RE SO SURE THEY’RE BETTER? Good question. Should I give them 80?

WHY CAN’T THEY COMPETE FOR A PLAYOFF SPOT? Whoa, cool your jets. I said they were better than last year; I didn’t say they were good. They have an excellent right side of the infield in Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips but beyond that, there are holes. They still don’t have a centerfielder (or really, a left fielder), and we’re all waiting for Jay Bruce to live up to expectations.

ISN’T IT KINDA FUNNY THAT THE REDS—THE REDS!—DON’T HAVE ENOUGH GOOD OUTFIELDERS ANYMORE? What’s even funnier is that Jim Bowden traded for all of them again in Washington. Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena…

THAT GUY LOVES OUTFIELDERS: If Jim Bowden were allowed to field a team with a pitcher, a catcher, and seven guys patrolling the outfield, he would.

THAT’S A BIT EXTREME: Josh Willingham, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Willie Harris…

I GET THE POINT: Yeah, not so extreme anymore, right?

PRETTY SOLID PITCHING STAFF, THOUGH, RIGHT? If things break right for them. Things breaking right includes solid years from Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo (Harang had terrible luck a season ago), improvement from Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey becoming a reliable top-line starter, and Edinson Volquez returning from Tommy John with something in the tank mid-season.

DO THEY NEED ALL THAT, OR SOME OF THAT? To contend, some; to make the playoffs, all. Nice bullpen, though.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN REDS HISTORY IS: How upset would our Cincinnati readership be if I said Chris Sabo? How do Reds fans feel about him? I always assumed they were kind of embarrassed by him because of the goggles, but he was good! You know, for a few years…

BACK WHEN A GUY LIKE TERRY PENDLETON WAS WINNING NATIONAL LEAGUE MVP: Right…TERRY PENDLETON!

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Last Season: 80-82

This Season: 76-86

WHAT’S THE GAP BETWEEN PUJOLS/HOLLIDAY AND FIELDER/BRAUN FOR BEST 1-2 OFFENSIVE PUNCH IN THE DIVISION/LEAGUE/BASEBALL? I’ll give you that they’re second in the division, I’ll give you second in the league, but they’re probably not second in all of baseball.

YOU GONNA GO WITH TEX AND A-ROD? REALLY? What? No. I was going with Kotchman and Bradley.

DO PEOPLE GET HOW GOOD PRINCE FIELDER IS? Brewers’ fans certainly do, which is why his impending free agency could be more damaging to the city of Milwaukee than that fall was to Andrew Bogut’s elbow. I refuse to link to that.

THANK YOU: Anytime, partner. But Fielder hit 46 homers last year, drove in 141, and still hit .299. His OPS+ was second only to Pujols, which is kind of like saying Pujols was second only to Bonds at the beginning of last decade. Prince Fielder is demonstrably better than someone like Ryan Howard, and I’m not entirely sure the East Coast Media knows that.

AND BRAUN? Ryan had the best OPS+ of any outfielder in the NL last season and, get this, stole 20 bases. Who cares if he’s an atrocious fielder?

SO WHY IS THIS TEAM IN FOURTH IN THE LOUSY CENTRAL? True, the Central is pretty lousy. But it’s not nearly as lousy as the Brewers’ rotation. Yovani Gallardo is very good but not yet a big-time No. 1 guy, they overpaid for Randy Wolf, and yet I’m pretty sure they had to overpay for Randy Wolf because what’s behind him is pretty nasty. Doug Davis, Dave Bush, and Jeff Suppan do not inspire confidence.

YOU KNOW WHO THAT STAFF COULD USE? CC Sabathia?

I WAS GONNA GO WITH 1982 CY YOUNG AWARD WINNER AND ONE-TIME PORTRAYER OF YANKEE SLUGGER CLU HAYWOOD, PETE VUCKOVICH: Yeah, him or Sabathia would help I suppose. Sucks that the Brew Crew was stuck in the AL then and Vuckovich couldn’t hit. Did you see that grand slam off Vaughn (6:45 mark)?

TOO HIGH: Not too high…too hard!

HOW COOL WOULD IT BE TO BE A BREWERS’ FAN JUST FOR BOB UECKER? Even better than being a Padres’ fan for Dick Enberg. Brian Anderson is a pretty good TV guy, too.

YOU EXCITED FOR THE ALCIDES ESCOBAR ERA? Escobar is the reason Milwaukee traded J.J. Hardy to Minnesota and is another great infield prospect the Brewers have developed this decade, along with Hardy, Braun, Fielder, Matt LaPorta, and Mat Gamel. It’s too bad LaPorta is in Cleveland and Rickie Weeks hasn’t really worked out. Still, if this team could get a decent back of the rotaton…

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN BREWERS HISTORY: Forget Robin Yount; I never saw him play. Forget Vuckovich, because I already mentioned him. I’m going with Paul Molitor.

HOUSTON ASTROS

Last Season: 74-88

This Season: 70-92

REMEMBER WHEN THE ASTROS USED TO BE GOOD? One of the byproducts of the six-team NL Central is that the teams that finish in the heart of its order every year (3-4-5) are utterly forgettable and ignorable. The Astros have been stuck in that quagmire for three consecutive years, and they’re much closer to escaping it into last than they are into second.

BUT THEY HAVE LANCE BERKMAN AND CARLOS LEE AND HUNTER PENCE AND ROY OSWALT! AREN’T THOSE GUYS ANY GOOD? They’re alright, I guess. All have struggled with injuries, however, and Berkman, Lee, and Oswalt are sitting on the wrong side of their careers. We’ve seen their peaks, and they’re not getting there this year.

IS OSWALT STILL A GOOD VALUE AT $15M? Oswalt signed that five-year/$73M contract on his 29th birthday in 2006, and for a few years it was considered one of the best bargains in baseball. Oswalt would finish that ’06 season in the top five of the Cy Young balloting for the fifth time in six professional seasons, but he hasn’t been that high since, and Houston hasn’t been competitive. It wouldn’t stun me to see him on the market in July.

ROY OSWALT WAS 29 IN 2006? He turns 33 this August.

ARE YOU JUST DOWN ON HIM BECAUSE OF HIS “MEDIOCRE” 2009? It might be a bit of an overreaction on my part. But I think Roy Oswalt is more of a great No. 2 in a rotation than he is a good No. 1. I don’t think you’re winning the World Series with Roy Oswalt as your ace anymore.

WHO GETS HIM IN JULY? The same team that should have gotten him last year: the Minnesota Twins.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN ASTROS HISTORY IS…: Back when my brother and I played wiffle ball in our backyard and held needless player drafts to determine our teams, I always made sure I wasted a high pick on Jeff Bagwell, just so I could mimic his stance.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Last Season: 62-99

This Season: 67-95

CAN THIS BE THE ONE PREVIEW OF THIS PIRATES’ SEASON NOT TO ALLUDE TO THE 1992 NLCS LOSS TO THE BRAVES? Absolutely not! If anything, I wanted this to be the preview of this Pirates’ season that alluded to the 1992 NLCS loss to the Braves. But then, Will Leitch beat me to it.

FINE, DOUG DRABEK, STAN BELINDA, SID BREAM, FRANCISCO CABRERA…: Both at the time and in retrospect, the toughest sports loss of the 1990s. And I can’t think of anything from the 2000s that came all that close.

YOU’VE MENTIONED RAIDERS-PATRIOTS BEFORE: True, but that has more of a “Looking back at where the franchises went afterward” feel to it. The Pirates’ loss was so traumatic because everyone knew that was the end for that team, that it was staring rebuilding in the face. And as Leitch wrote, “Pirates fans were devastated that night. But they couldn’t possibly have been devastated enough.” He’s right.

BUT REALLY, NOTHING SINCE 2000 COMES CLOSE? You know what the closest thing the Aughts had to this loss was? The 2003 NBA Draft Lottery, when it came down to the final two—Cleveland or Memphis—except that Memphis only kept the pick if it were No. 1. I mean, that’s all or nothing. And that’s as close as the Memphis Grizzlies will come to NBA relevance. They can win an NBA title and still not be as relevant as they would have been had they landed LeBron James. Remember this when they move to Europe.

TIM’S FAVORITE PLAYER IN PIRATES HISTORY IS: I don’t know why, but whenever I think of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I think of Jeff King.

JEFF KING IS YOUR FAVORITE PLAYER IN PIRATES HISTORY? You’re right; I forgot they were around before 1990. Let’s go with Roberto Clemente—the only famous individual who died early whose reputation seems to be the same as it would have been had he not died early.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on April 20, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    A)Good call on the Cubs B)When you weigh that much, 40 pounds isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds…take it from a the wrestler.

    Reply

  2. […] as I realize now, by any tangible mark in the standings. This, of course, is the same way I felt about the Cincinnati Reds, and we saw how that turned out. Que […]

    Reply

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