NL Central Preview
The Cubs made a number of moves, the most celebrated of which was grabbing manager Dusty Baker, whose primary impact on the club will be that they are no longer under Don Baylor. That alone could be worth 5 or 6 wins a season. But the Cubs made some other moves that will help the clubs fortunes as much or more. First, they upgraded the bullpen with the additions of Mike Remlinger and Dave Veres. Both are excellent relievers capable of closing should/when closer Antonio Alfonseca melts down. Second, they replaced Todd Hundley behind the plate with Damian Miller, who comes in with several years of learning from 2 of the most prepared pitchers in baseball. That experience should only help him focus 3 of the brightest young pitchers in the game - Matt Clement, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior - who together could register 750 Ks this season. Two other positive additions (albeit with a caveat) are Mark Grudzialanek and Eric Karros. The caveat is that those two spend the season as back-ups to rookies with far more talent, Bobby Hill and Hee Seop Choi. If Hill and Choi see the majority of at bats at second and first respectively, the Cubs' offense will pose a respectable threat to that of their high powered rivals, the Astros and Cardinals. However, if they struggle and Baker reverts to playing the underqualified vets most of the time, then the Cubs will struggle to score enough runs. Troy O'Leary's brief stay in Montreal showed enough promise to prompt the Cubs to sign him as insurance for oft-injured Moises Alou. Make no mistake, the Cubs have the talent and the depth to make a run at the division title. If they win it, with their big three at the top of their rotation, they are an excellent bet to make the World Series. Prediction: 88 wins, tied for 1st in the division.
Speaking of rotations, most people glance at the Reds starting staff, then avert their eyes in horror. But the fact is, they have some arms on the back end with Danny Graves, Paul Wilson and the enigmatic Bruce Chen. Pitching coach Don Gullett has worked miracles with reclamation projects like Pete Schourek, Pete Harnisch and Elmer Dessens; imagine what he could do with pitchers who have actual talent. Scott Williamson will take over as closer, but the Reds bullpen has less depth than it has in previous years, which could pose a big obstacle in the second half. The continued emergence of Luke Hudson, who was spectacular in the 2002 AFL, could alleviate some of the strain. The Reds should have no problem scoring runs this season. Brandon Larson looks promising at third base, and if Aaron Boone can settle in at second base, the line-up will have 7 players capable of hitting 20 or more home runs. Granted, it's not likely that Barry Larkin will rediscover the fountain of youth, but newly-acquired Felipe Lopez is a capable replacement should the injury bug rear it's head, so between them they should easily surpass 20 homers. If Junior Griffey claims of being fully healthy prove to be true, the Reds will boast one of, if not the most productive outfields in baseball, with Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns bracketing the corners and a large assortment of moderately productive 4th outfielders (Ruben Mateo, Jose Guillen, Wily Mo Pena) on the bench. Still, a weak front end of the rotation in a division dominated by power rotations will prevent the Reds from challenging for anything but also-ran. Prediction: 74 wins, 4th in the division
(Update: the Reds released Bruce Chen, which doesn't automatically turn the Reds' staff into a pumpkin... it will be more of a butternut squash.)
The Astros biggest move this offseason was a blockbuster: bringing in Jeff Kent. Although it displaces Craig Biggio to the outfield, it may not affect them defensively by that much as age has taken a toll on Biggio's infield range. That's not to suggest that Kent is good defensively; only that the impact of the change will not be that great. Of larger concern is what to do at shortstop, where the offensive potential of Julio Lugo is slightly favored to play more than the defensive prowess of Adam Everett or Jose Vizcaino. The rotation is young with the exception of Shane Reynolds, but potentially very good and very deep if Tim Redding, Kirk Sarloos and Brad Lidge can develop quickly. Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller are already excellent. The bullpen is solid but unspectacular until you get to the set-up and closer: Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner are the best such duo in the majors. The bench is passable and the Astros have a couple of decent prospects in the wings - OF Jason Lane and C John Buck will both be solid once they get their feet wet - who should help the cause no later than the All-Star Break. How quickly their young starters develop will determine how far this team will go. Prediction: 88 wins, tied for 1st in the division
(Update: The Astros added Bruce Chen, who is talented enough to force his way into the back end of the rotation. If that happens,it would close the gap with the Cubs in the arms race, making Houston the favorites to win the division.)
There's not a lot to like here. Despite his record setting number of strikeouts, Jose Hernandez was one of the Brewers most productive hitters last season, and they've replaced him with one of the least productive hitters in the game, Royce Clayton. They added John VanderWal, which should minimize the damage when Jeffery Hammonds gets injured, but they still have the problem of Alex Sanchez getting too many opportunities to display his .700 OPS in the outfield. The rotation will get a boost from the additions of Todd Ritchie and Matt Kinney, but as hard as Ruben Quevedo and Ben Sheets have been worked at such a young age, it is almost impossible to foresee them make it through the entire season without injury. The bullpen shouldn't be too bad as Mike DeJean wasn't a bad closer and Luis Vizcaino is ready to step in whenever they might need a good one. One of the most compelling stories this year will be the re-emergence of Brooks Kieschnick, who will try to catch on as both a reliever and a pinch hitter/part-time outfielder. He was one of the best two-way players in college history at Texas, where he was 16-4 as a pitcher, hitting .364 with 17 homers his senior season. It's a bit far-fetched, but it would be great fun to see him hit 20 homers and save 20 games in the same season. Prediction: 60 wins, 6th in the division.
The Pirates might be better, but not by much. The additions of Reggie Sanders and Randall Simon aren't bad moves unless the addition of Matt Stairs prevents Craig Wilson from getting 600 plate appearances. Wilson deserves to play full-time, or at least get the at bats for it and ideally, none of those three should be allowed to prevent him from doing so. Of course, it probably won't work that way with Lloyd McLendon's fascination with playing players who don't get on base. Jeff Suppan is the primary addition to the starting staff, but there could be more with Rolando Arrojo, Dennys Reyes, Julian Tavarez and Jeff D'Amico all signed this offseason. The bullpen is relatively settled, although there's not much there to get excited about. The Bucs have some decent talent on the way - Tony Alvarez may play his way into the mix in the outfield this season - but they are still many years away from contending. Prediction: 73 wins, 5th in the division
(Update: the Pirates signed Kenny Lofton, who will be the first decent lead-off hitter the Pirates have had since Omar Moreno. The Pirates may challenge the Reds for 4th place)
St. Louis Cardinals
If divisions could be won on paper, the Cardinals would be a strong favorite to win the Central just with their offense. However, JD Drew might be out until June and Scott Rolen's shoulder hasn't completely healed from offseason surgery, which could put undue strain on a mediocre bench. The rotation added Brett Tomko this offseason, but is he any better than Chuck Finley was? True, Finley might wait it out until the May 1 deadline and re-sign with the Cards giving them a solid 1-4, but that looks like a sizable "if". If Finley doesn't re-sign with them, 2 spots in the rotation will have to be filled with the likes of Garrett Stephenson, Jason Simontacci, Cal Eldred or Dustin Hermanson. Cris Carpenter will return from surgery in July, but if the injuries take too heavy a toll early in the season, that may be too late. Joey Hamilton could surprise if called to start, but it's hard to guess which Hamilton will show up - the brilliant stud with San Diego in 1994-95 or the guy who's been throwing balls at the catcher (as opposed to pitching) ever since. The bullpen is still deep despite the losses of Dave Veres and Rick White, but it does not have as much quality, especially with closer Jason Isringhausen opening the season on the DL. Prediction: 87 wins, 3rd in the division