The National League Central in 2009


In previous years, I’ve used the six divisional columns to predict records and make comments about the teams. This year, I’m debating the records part. There will still be a summary column… so I’m thinking of putting records over there if I do them.

For now… let’s take a look at the NL Central. The listing of teams is in the order I’m predicting the division to finish…

This is one troubled division. Seriously. Full of questions.

Look… the Cubs are the clear favorite. And yet going in to the last weekend of March, Lou Pinella still hadn’t decided on a closer… the team doesn’t know what to do with Kosuke Fukudome… and they signed Milton Bradley, who would have been a huge risk for a team that could use him as a designated hitter.

There you have it folks… a highly paid designated hitter on a team that will play more than 150 of their regular season games in National League parks... the clear favorites.

Exciting division.

Chicago Cubs ~ How much would you pay Ryan Dempster? Twist my arm and… well… I suppose $13 million a year for four sounds about right actually. Considering what Sabathia, Burnett and Lowe got, this one is in the right zip code. But if you asked me to name the pitchers I would give more than $10 to $12 million per season over multiple years to, it would take me quite some time to get down the list to Dempster. And here’s why I ask that… keep in mind, they spent the money to keep Dempster. Because they also…

Gave Milton Bradley, an injury-prone liability that, as I just mentioned, is probably suited for use as a designated hitter if you want him to get into more than 125 games, a three-year deal to play in the league without a designated hitter option.

Traded Jason Marquis (not a bad idea) for Luis Vizcaino (also not a bad idea, but yawn).

Brought in Aaron Heilman (second yawn, but I suppose worth a shot).

Signed Joey Gathright. (Stop the yawning. This one is a head-scratcher. For all his speed and potential, he sure seems to be available all the time. In fact, if you called the Cubs right now with the roster of your AAA team in hand, I bet they’d consider including him in a trade. Go ahead. Call.)

And all of these moves and more accomplished… well… a whole hell of alot of nothing.

This team is no better than they were in 2008, and management this year might actually be facing more questions coming out of spring training than they did in March of 2008. Sure… they added Milton Bradley. Nice. Who’s playing when he gets hurt? Gathright?

Is that too harsh?

Probably. So… I’m sorry.

Hold on a second… no… I’m not sorry. If Bradley made their offense better… didn’t letting Kerry Wood go make their bullpen weaker? The focus there seems to be on Kevin Gregg. Not a hideous choice, but Gregg bounced from California to Florida and now to Chicago. His career WHIP is 1.32… career ERA is 4.00… his strikeout to walk ratio is barely better than 2 to 1… and, he has 62 career saves (most of those in 2007 and 2008). Nothing obscene in any of those stats, but hardly dominating folks. So when the Mets are bringing in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, and the Angels are landing Brian Fuentes… how is it the supposed best team in the National League lets Kerry Wood go and brings in Kevin Gregg? (As of late March, Gregg still hadn’t cemented his spot as closer.)

Ok… moving on… if adding Vizcaino brings the pendulum in the other direction and their bullpen is better again… didn’t giving up Marquis take depth away from the rotation?

Swell… then adding Heilman… I should stop… I could play this game all afternoon. Let’s just circle around and get back to Dempster.

See… Carlos Zambrano has been declining for a couple of years (202 strikeouts in 223 innings in 2005… 210 in 214 in 2006… 177 in 216 in 2007… and 130 in 188 in 2008… uh-oh, this doesn’t look good for him)… and Bradley played 126 games for Texas last year, mainly as a DH (it was the first time over 100 games played in a season since 2004). So Dempster, as an example of contributions from the full roster and not from those dominating stars and supposed big-splash additions, is a nice place to look.

While I admire some of his work… and 2008 was a very good season for him… the last time he made over 30 starts was 2002. In 11 seasons of big league action, he’s had 4 seasons with a winning record… 4 seasons of over 150 innings pitched (all were 200+ seasons too)… 4 seasons with an ERA under 4.70… and you see where I’m going. Being fair to his first season of play and taking it out, in 11 seasons he has actually had 4 good ones and 6 not so good ones. That’s a 40% shot for good in 2009. (And… oh… just 1 of those 4 good seasons took place in a Chicago uniform.)

This club is going to get hot and lap the competition in the Central division. And unless some of these other clubs turn in some unexpected surprises, I expect the Cubs to build up a great record as a result. But, when we get into October, if you like the Cubs, you might want to cross your fingers.

Milwaukee Brewers ~ What’s not to like about J.J. Hardy?

He’s young… he plays well… he’s showing improvement… and he’s relatively unknown to the average fan.

Welcome to Milwaukee. Land of pleasant surprises… where good things happen, but great things are just out of reach.

After the 2006 season, Jeff Suppan… lord knows how… hit the market and was sort of, kind of, in demand. Milwaukee lost… I mean won… Milwaukee won his services. He’s gone 22-22 in 65 starts, pitched about 384 innings, and the remaining numbers are really, really weak. Hey… 65 starts! He may not be good… at least he’s there!

So in the middle of the 2008 season, the Brewers trade for the big guy… Sabathia. They’re going for it folks! And if they don’t get there… and if they don’t sign him… at least they got some choice draft picks. (Well… yeah… at least until the Yankees go out and spend a kajillion dollars on higher rated free agents and the formula means no first round pick in return for losing him.)

You so want to give this club applause for trying. They’re making trades… they’re signing players and taking chances. (They also signed Eric Gagne… I didn’t say all of the attempts were gems… but again, they are trying.)

Add Hardy to Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and there are still some solid pieces in place here. 2009 could be another good season… and one where a tweak or two gets them into the playoffs. I just wonder if they’ll pull the trigger on a trade, or if they’ll be scared off by recent returns and reach October wondering what might have been.

St. Louis Cardinals ~ Any time you start reviewing a roster with the name Albert Pujols, you really should pay attention. This club makes good on that concept too… with alot of items that could work out just fine, or may make for a terrific fire sale around July 25th.

Khalil Greene was brought in to help solidify a middle infield that at times last season might have done better by laying a couple of gloves on the ground and just hoping they stopped a ball or two from getting to the outfield.

I don’t love the rotation, but Wainwright, Carpenter, Lohse and Pineiro are serviceable enough names. (And the group is honestly better than serviceable if Carpenter can figure out how to stay on the mound. If they can get 170+ innings from him, the world will look much better in St. Louis. Of course… he hasn’t hit 16 innings in either of the past two years.) Last season Todd Wellemeyer delivered an unexpectedly strong performance. Sure… 13-9 doesn’t sound amazing, but 190+ innings and 32 starts was not an effort anyone would have predicted. So maybe no love… but it certainly has some potential.

Now… think about this one…

Let’s say that rotation does manage to deliver a middle-of-the-road effort and stay healthy for most of the year. Are you with me on that?

Ok then… Pujols.

See… this club should score plenty of runs. I’m thinking in the neighborhood of 5 per game. I’m thinking that they could be in the neighborhood of 90 wins.

The problem is… the navigation system they are using to arrive at those 90 wins involves Carpenter… and his 21 innings over the past two years. Not exactly the most reliable navigation system to install.

Cincinnati Reds ~ This team may have the most balanced and underrated starting rotation in baseball. Please note… I didn’t say one of the best rotations… I didn’t say very good rotation. I said balanced and underrated. Unfortunately… the more I read… the more I see it being linked to expectations. And, for the team, that’s just silly talk.

Fronted by Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo as names you’ll recognize, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto return to the rotation. They could wheel out a batting tee for their fifth starter and get more production than they did from that slot last year. They have pitching, even if it doesn’t scare you.

The trouble in Cincinnati is simple to see though. While the starting rotation doesn’t present many questions… and while the bullpen should be at least average… they have no offense and their defense is worse than that.

Let’s just move on.

Houston Astros ~ Some comedian… you have to be a clown or a comedian to come up with this one… decided that bringing in Ivan Rodriguez was a sign the Astros were going to fight and contend in this division over the course of 2009.

(Memo to the bartenders… there’s a guy to cut off at table 1.)

This version of the Astros would have a hard time taking a division title in a girls’ fast pitch league provided one of the girls’ teams could run a lefty starter or two out to the mound each time through the rotation.

Look, when you have Roy Oswalt on your team, that’s a good beginning. The guy is going to kick off 32 games for you, average about 7 innings per start, and even when you stink he’ll put up 15 or more wins.

Nice? Heck… that’s great.

Unfortunately, after him, there isn’t much at all in Houston that doesn’t stink.

That batting order and defense is getting old folks. Don’t believe me? Ok… quick… how old is Carlos Lee?

I know you might not believe the answer, so I’ll give you a couple of seconds to think about that question. I will take that time to point out that while a very good hitter, Lee’s best career stretch was the roughly 60 games he spent in Texas after his 2006 trade… just before hitting free agency.

In fairness, Lee has always been pretty reliable actually. Last season’s 115 games played could probably be viewed as misleading since he has played in 150 or more every year except two since 2000. The trouble is… most people don’t think Lee will continue to be reliable. They think he’ll be missing more and more time. And if that’s the case, then this club is in even more trouble than I think. Because in June, Carlos Lee will celebrate his birthday by turning 33.

Yes… he’s 33.

Folks… Mike Hampton wasn’t signed because the Astros were taking a chance… they’re actually counting on him! (Personally… I think the girls in the division are going to light him up like Disney World in December.)

Pittsburgh Pirates ~ I had a great time in Pittsburgh last year. Dad and I flew out and caught ballpark tours and games in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.


After sharing that with you, I don’t know what to say.

Eric Hinske?

Love the guy… great team player. One of those people you have to have on your roster in order to win. But moving this team up and over the 80-win mark? Umm… sorry… not with the other 24 roster spots filled like this one is.

Nate McLouth?

Are you serious? Nate McLouth? Let me tell you what I think, in my limited knowledge, about Nate McLouth. He’s a nice player, very good 2008, and I’m sure he’s just a terrific kid. But over the course of his entire career, he will never be the best outfielder on any team that has a winning record.

All of that said, there are some interesting players out here. Ryan Doumit turned in a very solid season last year… but they have to get more than 116 games behind the plate from him.

And that’s the story with this club. Is Craig Hansen really good? Sure… could be… but he hasn’t been consistently good over the course of his career, so let’s hold off on being really good. And the same goes for McLouth and Doumit and so many others. You can tell me they’re quality players, and a look at the numbers says maybe… just maybe you might have a point. But is good in comparison to the Pittsburgh roster, right now, good in comparison to the rest of major league baseball?


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