It’s Friday so that means my 2007 preview series continues. If you’d like to see what I have to say about the other division’s I’ve covered, you can read about the NL West and the NL East. Next Friday we’ll finally start to get into the American League and see how they will fair in 2007.
This week’s topic: National League Central
Before we dive into the individual teams, I want to start out by saying that this is hands down the most difficult division in baseball to pinpoint where everyone will place. Not only do they have more teams than any other division in the game, but they also have the most teams with common strengths and weaknesses. The NL Central also has another distinct characteristic. For me, any one of the six teams could walk away with the division crown and it wouldn’t shock me. That’s saying a lot about them. So looking at the central, here’s how I see it shaking down:
1.) CHICAGO CUBS
If the Cubs stay healthy and play to their abilities, then they will run away with the division. That’s the bottom line. They have too much talent on this team, especially offensively, for them not to. The addition of Alfonso Soriano (.277/.351/.560, 41 SB, 46 HR, 95 RBI) to the lineup was the biggest signing by any team this off season. You know what you are going to get from him as he is one of the only men in the game able to reach 40-40-40 (2B-HR-SB). If the addition of Soriano isn’t enough, a healthy Derrek Lee may be even bigger. Lee’s freak injury that made him miss all but 50 games in 2006 shouldn’t be a problem at all this upcoming season. The Cubs look for him to return to his Triple Crown threat numbers of 2005 in which he hit .335/.418/.662 with 46 HR and 107 RBI. Then to make things worse for opposing pitchers, the Cubs also re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez who despite a very slow start and no one hitting around him, still hit .291 with 38 bombs and 119 RBI. When healthy, the Cubs lineup is heads and shoulders above the rest of the division.
The question mark to this team that could end up being their downfall is their pitching. Aside from ace Carlos Zambrano, nobody really knows what to expect. The Cubs signed free agents Ted Lilly (15-13, 4.31 ERA) and Jason Marquis (14-16, 6.02 ERA) to help fill out the rotation. Lilly should enjoy his move from the AL East now that he won’t have to face the Red Sox and Yankees lineups numerous times per year. Marquis on the other hand bounced over from the Cubs arch rival St. Louis Cardinals so he knows most of the players he will continue to face. The largest question mark of all the starters is what the Cubs will get from Mark Prior. Prior is the wild card in this equation. If he can return to his form of 2003, the Cubs will not only win the division, but you can also pencil them in for the World Series. If he continues to be plagued with injuries, just chock it up to another player who’s true potential will never be fully realized.
2.) Houston Astros
The Astros went into the off season with one glaring need. They desperately needed a big right handed bat for the middle of their lineup to help protect Lance Berkman. They did just that when they signed free agent Carlos Lee who year in and year out puts up huge numbers. Lee blasted 37 homers and drove in 116 RBI between Milwaukee and Texas. While those are big numbers, it pales in comparison to what Lee is capable of doing in hitter friendly Houston. With a short porch in left field, don’t be surprised if Lee knocks out 50 or more home runs this season and gives much needed protection for Berkman. If Morgan Ensberg can return to his 2005 numbers (.283, 36 HR, 101 RBI) and put behind his 2006 (.235, 23 HR, 58 RBI), the Astros lineup should be able to put up some runs which has been a big problem for them the past few years.
Where the Astros are solid is their rotation. The off season saw a large chunk of the top of their rotation head north. But the Astros addressed this issue and brought in Jason Jennings (9-13, 3.78 ERA) from Colorado and Woody Williams (12-5, 3.65 ERA) from San Diego. Williams is coming off a very solid season last year and should fit in nicely to the rotation. Jennings on the other hand finally will be out of the grips of the horrible pitcher’s nightmare known as Coors Field. Despite being in Colordao, Jennings was able to overcome the thin air and post a respectable 3.78 ERA in 2006. Many have wondered how he would do outside of Coors and it looks as if we will finally be able to see how good he can be.
3.) Cincinnati Reds
A lot of “experts” are saying that the Reds will be a disaster this year. I personally don’t think that will be the case. Sure they have become a team that lives or dies by the home run, but last season they finally were able to mix in some very good pitching. Within the past week, the Reds offered contract extensions to their two surprise pitchers from last season. Aaron Harang finished the year tied for a league best 16 wins, a 3.76 ERA, and a league leading 216 strike outs. The other man to step up was right hander Bronson Arroyo who finished with 14 wins, a 3.29 ERA, and 184 strikeouts. These two men were pleasant surprises and helped carry the Reds to compete for the Central division and wild card. The Reds ended up fizzling out late last summer, but still finished third in the division. These two men are crucial pieces to any hopes the Reds have in 2007.
4.) Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have been slowly putting together a very, very scary offense. The combination of Ricky Weeks (after recovering from injury), Prince Fielder, newly resigned Bill Hall, and top prospect Ryan Braun (who should join the club at some point this season) has made the middle of this Brewer lineup something to reckon with. With the continued injury problems of third baseman Corey Koskie (and no other third baseman on the roster), it shouldn’t be long before the young slugger Braun joins the lineup. For the young Brewers lineup to succeed, they will need to cut down on strikeouts as they seemed to be cursed by that last season. Hopefully this will soon pass after they all have gained another year of seasoning.
Pitching is one place the Brewers have always struggled in cultivating their own talent. It seems anytime they have a young, talented pitching prospect they end up getting hurt. That’s why its important for their ace Ben Sheets (6-7, 3.82 ERA) to stay healthy and lead this staff. They did go out and try to bolster their rotation by signing veteran Jeff Suppan fresh off his post season heroics. The only chance the Brewers have this season in the wild card or division hunt is if their rotation can stay healthy and be effective as we know the lineup will be able to put up some runs.
5.) St. Louis Cardinals
Now I know having the defending World Series champs finishing 5th in their division the following season is a bit of a stretch, but if you think about it, they barely won the division last season and if anything, have gotten worse rolling into 2007. Of course they always have the x-factor with Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, but after them the rest of the lineup just isn’t that intimidating. Jim Edmonds’ numbers continue to dip as he continues to age and they really don’t know what to expect from Preston Wilson.
The same can be said about the rotation as after Chris Carpenter, there is just a list of question marks. Way too much is riding on whether or not Kip Wells (their number two starter) can live up to his hype. So far he hasn’t and the Cardinals can’t afford to have their season riding on such an inconsistent 2-5 starters. One thing that they do have going for them is that this is a franchise (like the Braves and Twins) that simply put, knows how to win. They are going to need to pull out the stops in 2007 in order to make it back to the post season especially in a division where every other team has improved.
6.) Pittsburgh Pirates
Now here’s a team that despite having a ton of talent will probably end up at the bottom of the division. You do have to tip your cap to them as they knew they needed a left handed power bat for the middle of their lineup, so what did they do? They went out and traded for Adam LaRoche in a move I loved. Now you have a very talent middle of the lineup with some combination of Freddy Sanchez (.344, 85 RBI), Jason Bay (.286, 35 HR, 109 RBI), and LaRoche (.285, 32 HR, 90 RBI), plus the ready to break out catcher Ronny Paulino. If they can get leadoff man Chris Duffy to realize his potential and get on base for them, this will be a very fun team to watch.
The rotation also has some young players who are on the verge of coming into their own. Zach Duke (10-15, 4.47 ERA) and Ian Snell (14-11, 4.74 ERA) have both shown great flashes of talent and just need to bring down their ERA a little. This should go a long away in picking up more wins as they now have a stronger offense to help carry the load.