MLB 2010 – National League Central


Part two of our 2010 preview brings us to the National League Central… one of the stranger places in baseball.

St. Louis Cardinals
What I expect in 2010: 89-73, playoffs

What they did in 2009: 91-71, playoffs

Key personnel changes: Let’s face it… the question here was all about Matt Holliday and whether they’d keep him or would be looking for outfield help to replace him. They got him to stay… think they will eventually keep Pujols… and the rest of the moves count as gravy. And it’s not a bad gravy… Brad Penny should be a solid back-of-the-rotation guy for them. (And given his past history, he certainly could toss up a surprise 15 wins or maybe even chew up 190-200 innings. (Would you believe he pitched 173 innings between Boston and San Francisco last year?)) The trouble is that in acquiring Penny they lost Joel Pineiro… the idea you should understand simply being that the Cardinals generally don’t seem to add or lose talent, they rotate it. (Yes… rotate. Holliday today could be considered… perhaps a slight stretch and increased dollars… what Rolen and Edmonds were yesterday.) Considering there was a very real concern that Holliday would leave, Bay would stay in Boston, and St. Louis wouldn’t attract any free agents… well… Holliday and Penny isn’t a bad result for them.

My expectations: Last year Wainwright and Carpenter combined to give them a simply outstanding beginning to their rotation. And while these two are once again fronting the staff, let’s not forget that Carpenter isn’t that far removed from health and durability concerns. (In the past eight seasons, I’m guessing Carpenter has made about half of the number of starts you would hope for.) In other words… alot of stuff went right for St. Louis in 2009, including the post-Holliday-acquisition surge.

In 2010, Penny is being projected as a contributor to the Cardinals pitching. In 2009, he was given every opportunity to contribute for Boston and didn’t. So, effectively, his 2010 efforts are based on his 2009 National League efforts and prior history. My guess is that he’s ok… but he’ll have to be since the Cards aren’t exactly deep in starting options.

Holliday and Pujols… well… geez… yeah, they have offense.

Wainwright and Carpenter should approach about 40% of the team’s victories this year. Yes… they need around 38-40 from the combination to make the playoffs, and I actually think they’ll get that if both guys make virtually all their starts. (Last year they got 36 wins from the pair out of 62 starts.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): The Cardinals are a very good National League team. They have a little bit of everything and a handful of superstars to separate them from the rest of this division.

That’s the good news.

The trouble begins when you start considering team depth and the ability to react to bumps and bruises.

They have zero ways to replace Wainwright, Carpenter, Holliday or Pujols if any of them miss significant amounts of time. My guess about Carpenter and 8 years of starts a few paragraphs ago? I was darn close. 2001 thru 2009 he made 172 starts. 32 a season would be 256. He’s averaging just over 21… and 21 a year is exactly what he’s averaged in 6 years with St. Louis. (In 2008 and 2009 he combined for exactly 32.)

I don’t see strong enough pitching to expect any winning streaks. (For example… check out Boston and you’ll quickly get the idea that a couple of 10-game winning streaks are quite possible. But here, after the big three, it kind of becomes hit and miss… hot and cold.) If they start out slowly, or fall behind by 5 games or so, I don’t see how they can get hot and make that up. They simply don’t have the horses for it.

Milwaukee Brewers
What I expect in 2010: 85-77

What they did in 2009: 80-82

Key personnel changes: I can’t say I love what the Brewers have done… but I have to admit, it’s pretty interesting. Jim Edmonds and Scott Schoeneweis are, in my view, signings with low risk with high reward possibilities. Doug Davis and LaTroy Hawkins could help this club in 2010. And since they were ready to severe ties with J.J. Hardy, trading him for Carlos Gomez isn’t a bad move. Heck, I even like that they got rid of Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall. Instead of a big splash, check out these moves and a couple of others, and you’ll see that Milwaukee might be in a position to have several small pieces make a significant difference.

My expectations: This club is going to score runs by the truckload. By the time we get to August, the only NL club that’s better at it should be Philadelphia. Yup… the Phillies… and that’s it.

And… umm… after that they’ve got nothing. Opposing lineups are going to love seeing the Brewers take the field, because they should light up Milwaukee’s staff brighter than the sky over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.

Unless… of course… you’re expecting Randy Wolf and Davis to be this season’s version of Carpenter and Wainwright. I think the pair will be good… and will benefit tremendously from the offense supporting them… but I don’t think either will be getting any votes for awards at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, I think this club is in an amazingly similar position this year to what they have been in recent years… they need to acquire a player or two, and if they don’t they’re going to fall just short. (By the way… lights on Jeff Suppan for a moment. Dude is owed $14-plus million this year and may not be in the starting five. So if you think the Brewers can just absorb some contracts this year in the hopes of making the playoffs again, there are obstacles in the way. They already have dollars they may want to dump.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Ok… let’s say the Brewers step into the hot tub time machine and get some solid performances from Wolf, Edmonds, Hawkins and hey… look… it’s Gregg Zaun!

This division is not slammed closed.

One problem though is that pitching is not on the market. Halladay has been traded. Felix Hernandez signed an extension. There aren’t many free agents in waiting that clubs seem prepared to drop. Where could we find a starter for them? Let’s play blue sky a bit like we played with the Mets.

Dan Haren or Brandon Webb from Arizona? Doubtful, but I like the way you’re thinking.

Clay Buchholz from Boston? Possible, especially if we build around Prince Fielder in return (which could happen, since we know Boston might find Adrian Gonzalez too expensive and Milwaukee might just be interested in getting some low cost talent for once instead of getting players they lose right away). Of course, this one doesn’t work too well because then Milwaukee needs to get some offense back in the lineup, and Buchholz might not be any better than Wolf or Davis. (And, come on, I don’t think anyone expects Boston to find Gonzalez too expensive.)

Oliver Perez from the Mets? See? See what we’re looking at? This is where we arrive. When you combine what might be available along with what the Brewers realistically have to send in return while trying to remain competitive you get Oliver Perez. Oliver Perez!

Maybe Gil Meche will make it to the market (if he does his impression of 2007 and 2008 early in the year I suppose that one is possible). Doesn’t matter. The Brewers are not finding a Sabathia this season. I don’t think we’ll see a Lee or a Halladay out there. It would have to be a Roy Oswalt wants out type of situation… and try as I might, I can’t find a true ace worth the cost.

Hey… drop Suppan’s contract and you can afford to pay some people to stay… so there’s no true desperation here. Unfortunately it’s also a bit short of what they would love to see.

Chicago Cubs
What I expect in 2010: 84-78

What they did in 2009: 83-78

Key personnel changes: I don’t know what to think. They got rid of Milton Bradley (and there was much rejoicing), but took back Carlos Silva (hmm… pretty shaky since 2005, but a switch to the National League might be helpful). Jeff Gray was a nice pitcher in 2009… in a really limited sample size of 24 games and 26.1 innings, and he’s 28-years old. Is Xavier Nady a player that puts fans in the seats? Nah. And there you have the Cubs switching from 2009 to 2010 in a nutshell. Xavier Nady… nah.

My expectations: I remember a couple of years ago, I was listening to a sports show where the commentator said that we should not be upset or surprised with NFL quarterback Quincy Carter being Quincy Carter. The point being that regardless of what the Dallas media-hype built up around him… despite the projections and expectations… all Quincy Carter did was deliver exactly what everyone should have expected from Quincy Carter.

(Stick with me… the same Quincy Carter was actually drafted by the Cubs just under 15 years ago. Yes… seriously. You shouldn’t be surprised… I told you in the NL East column I’d be doing the homework and bringing you something different in perspective and information.)

As I look up and down this Cubs lineup, of course I’m tempted to expect the potential of big things in 2010… sleeping giants awakening from their slumber and all that.

But I have to ask… in the end, why should I expect Ted Lilly to be more than Ted Lilly? Am I really so crazy as to think Lilly can be Jon Lester or Tim Lincecum?

In 2009, Lilly delivered a 12-9 record with a 3.1 ERA. That was off of 170 innings pitched (and, since I need a place to mention this, he’s going to be out for about the first month in 2010, so 170 innings might be a good marker for him as a target for this season as well). Now if you check out his strikeouts and walks, consider how misleading wins and losses can be (especially with the 2009 Cubs), you might get the impression that Lilly is pretty darn good. And… honestly… he can be. But he’s not great. He’s going to win more than he loses, be at or just under 4 for his ERA, and he’ll last at least 6 innings in every start. That’s just wonderful. But…

Anyone expect Lilly to challenge Lincecum, Santana, Halladay, etc. for the NL Cy Young award? Anyone expect more from Lilly than average Lilly?

I don’t.

And you shouldn’t either.

That means this staff will be led by Carlos Zambrano. (Are you expecting him to be an ace? He needs to be for the Cubs to be successful.)

Hey… I know… Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano could do nice things. In short… there are pieces here.

The trouble is… most of them have expectations for big things when their records indicate otherwise.

And if you want further proof… Marlon Byrd. Once again Chicago spends the off-season acquiring an outfielder that is really going to deliver offensively and turn this thing around. (Because… you know… previous signings Soriano and Fukudome have the pitchers in the NL Central awake at night.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): In this case, alot of things could go right.

Lilly isn’t that far removed from a season when he won twice as much as he lost, and that was with a worse ERA than 2009. If Zambrano can return with just a decent season, they could present a tough duo for opponents by August. Silva gives them something they haven’t had for a while… the possibility of depth. Sure… their pitching drops off after Ryan Dempster in the three spot. But Dempster and Lilly weren’t bad in 2009, the team was. So if Silva offers anything and Zambrano bounces up a notch or two emotionally (in a good way)… well, we’ve got happy times at Wrigley.

Keep the injuries away and get some production from the batting order, and…

This club could run off streaks of wins and leave St. Louis in the mirror.

Cincinnati Reds
What I expect in 2010: 77-85

What they did in 2009: 78-84

Key personnel changes: For a club looking to move anyone on their roster, they actually accomplished very little. And yet… that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Why? Ok… you’re a GM. Quick… if allowed to pick any player from the Cincinnati roster, name one you would take. See? You can’t really think of one… can you? No fair saying “hold on”… no fair pausing a moment and then shouting out “Bronson Arroyo” and hoping I don’t laugh at the suggestion… that’s the point. If you want a first baseman, you’re calling San Diego, or maybe dusting off the address book to find the number for Milwaukee. (You’re not immediately thinking about Joey Votto… even though he wouldn’t be a bad thought.) If you want a pitcher, you might call Boston. (Although, being fair, winning the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes might prove very nice indeed.) If you’re the New York Yankees and you want something for free, history proves you’re calling Pittsburgh. But there just isn’t much of a reason to call Cincinnati. They’re not likely to part with what they do have, and everything else isn’t worth the call. And that creates a secondary problem… since nothing is there right now, it’s not exactly an attractive landing spot for free agents. And… yet another problem, an independent one compared to our first two… they don’t suck, so they aren’t looking to overpay anyone to come experience a summer in Cincinnati. When examining personnel changes, add all of this up to mean… no trades, no free agent signings, and places like Kansas City more likely to overbid for the middle-of-the-road roster fillers. They brought in Orlando Cabrera. They made a trade you and I don’t care about. Done.

My expectations: I’ve seen people saying that this is a club on the verge of breaking out and having a solid season. Thing is… I’ve heard that about the Reds every year since they traded for Griffey… and I mean, heard it every year. And it sure seems to me that all of those stud players that were supposed to assist in realizing that successful season back then… including Griffey… are now playing for other organizations or will be watching this season on television.

Cueto, Bailey and Arroyo should give them decent pitching, but even with good things to say about Cueto I can’t say any of them strike me as dominating, take the team on their back starters. (The first year in the majors usually eats players like Chapman for breakfast. How about if we don’t write him down for a 20-9 season? That ok?)

As if we haven’t seen this enough in the division, we even have an aging veteran expected to deliver big things… ladies and gentlemen, Scott Rolen.

Just seems a bit disorganized to me. I can’t recall Dusty Baker being a great manager of young talent, and this club needs to get alot from its young talent if they’re going to get within range of a winning record. I can’t recall Dusty Baker getting alot from unexpected sources, and this club… well… you know.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Let’s go back to Cueto.

In two seasons he’s averaged around 170 innings and way too many walks. He also comes into this season fresh off of turning 24, and he can put up around 7 strikeouts per 9 pitched.

Joey Votto gives them some reliability at the plate, and with Rolen pairs up nicely for some decent defense on the corners. Suddenly I’m listening to accusations I’ve been too skeptical. I mean… Jay Bruce could come around too… right? (Defense… pop in the batting order… hmm…) Sure… I could see this club getting enough surprises from young players to add to realistic expectations and actually win more than they lose. But… wait, new paragraph…

The Reds have a young player named Yonder Alonso. He’ll be about 23 when the season starts and has been delivering very good numbers in the minors. (Good average, high on-base, not a ton of power though.) Funny thing is… he plays first base. Hey… look at that… just like Votto! (Who happens to be one of the Reds best players. And… uh-oh… see what’s coming? Sure you do.) The Reds best young major league player (Votto, 26) plays the same position as one of their best prospects (Alonso, 22). And it has yet to be determined how they can get both of these guys on the field at the same time.

Decisions… decisions…

Houston Astros
What I expect in 2010: 74-88

What they did in 2009: 74-88

Key personnel changes: The Astros were in a brutal spot this off-season. Let’s face it… without a ridiculous change of their roster, they weren’t going to compete with St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago for the full season. (I suppose anything’s possible, but we’ll get to that.) As far as personnel, that positioning in November of 2009 means you either throw your money away trying to sell tickets and create an attraction or, sit still while hoping to develop a couple of players and hope folks will understand. Unfortunately, with Roy Oswalt not getting any younger, getting folks to understand isn’t easy. Now, all of that set out as an explanation… voila… check it out, no real moves! They traded for Matt Lindstrom, signed a ton of minor league deals, and stood their ground. Can’t say it’s good… but it’s not too bad. Some times doing nothing is the best thing of all.

My expectations: Get this… with St. Louis understood as better when healthy, but facing questions… the Astros might have the best starting pitching in the division. Oswalt isn’t quite past his prime years. (I know…I know… he’s 32. I’ve been watching it happen while he’s been on the trade radar the past few seasons… and it really hardly seems possible to think of him as on the other side of the hill.) He’s still an ace. Wandy Rodriguez is nicely paired with him. And then there’s Brett Myers. Come on… in the Central, that’s not too shabby. That trio could give you 90-plus starts. Can you guarantee me 90-plus from Carpenter, Wainwright and Penny?

Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee give them some names in the batting order, and Hunter Pence is coming along.

Lindstrom might be the closer when we get to April.

And all of those bright spots will keep a couple of clubs behind them in the division. Well… at least one of them behind them. But it’s not going to be enough to keep pace with the big guns in front. And unfortunately, while you might be able to argue that they could spend for the right piece, I don’t know of anything in the farm system that they could let go of to get it. And even if they did, that piece might get them to 80 wins. It’s not getting them to the playoffs.

Welcome to limbo.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): The answer here is go wrong.

The Reds could be better than I expect… which would solidify fourth place for them. And, much like my comments about the Cardinals being unable to support long winning streaks, the Astros are going to struggle to win 5 out of any 10 played. In fact, they’re not comparable to the Cardinals because they’re worse… so let’s say they’ll struggle to win 4 out of every 10.

Pittsburgh Pirates
What I expect in 2010: 60-102

What they did in 2009: 62-99

Key personnel changes: Obtained Akinori Iwamura from Tampa. Signed Bobby Crosby, Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, Ryan Church and Javier Lopez to one-year deals.

My expectations: I’m too low here. This club could very quietly approach 72 to 74 wins on the year.

Very quietly.

See… I still don’t see any starting pitcher that will be good enough to win consistently with this club behind him. Zach Duke is fine… but look back at what I said about Milwaukee. There’s no pitching on the market this year… Duke could bring back some good pieces in a trade. Consider him gone.

I like the way Iwamura plays… steady and solid, usually delivering more than you would expect… and it looks like Pittsburgh has some of that all over the place in other players as well. (Career numbers… 344 games over three seasons, with an injury last year shortening his efforts in Tampa… have the 31-year old Iwamura at .281 with a .354 on-base percentage. Great? No. But not a part of a good team.)

The trouble is, when you scrape away all of the filler, you absolutely can win with Iwamura playing for you every day. But not if he’s your star. And around the Pirates roster are lots of Iwamura-like players… nice, not great… and there are simply no stars.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): When Andy LaRoche and Craig Hansen went to Pittsburgh in the Manny – Bay sweepstakes, there were some people that basically said if either of those guys becomes what once was predicted for them, the Pirates are better off for getting in the middle of it, because no way were they keeping Bay long term.

Neither has.

If things are going to go right in 2010, that’s the kind of thing you’re looking at.

30-34 starts from Zach Duke because he didn’t get traded.

Strong seasons from players like Brandon Moss.

Head-turning efforts from Ross Ohlendorf and Garrett Jones.

I’m reaching here, but you get the point. Generally speaking, the worst of teams can break 60 wins and stay below 100 losses. These Pirates are slightly better than the worst of teams. But very rarely out of 162 chances to do so will the Pirates be putting the better man on the mound, or sending the better batting order to the plate.

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