Taylor's Twins Talk

Focusing on the Twins, with a few ramblings on other things that catch my attention

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pre-Pre-Season Predictions: NL Central

This is the third in a series of posts providing an extremely early look at the 2008 MLB season. My previous posts covered the NL West and the NL East. While I recognize that there is still much to be done this off-season (free agent signings, trades, position battles during spring training), it is still interesting to see the shape of teams as they stand now.

This series will continue each Monday through February 18, which is also the day that the Twins will hold their first pitchers and catchers workout. I hope you enjoy reading the series, and when my predictions are woefully wrong 10 months from now, you can make fun of me mercilessly if you so desire. The actual numerical predictions for the NL Central can be found at the bottom of this post, after a capsule summary of each of the teams.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs

Projected Rotation

1.) Carlos Zambrano
2.) Ted Lilly
3.) Rich Hill
4.) Jason Marquis
5.) Jon Lieber

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Ryan Dempster/Bobby Howry
2.) Carlos Marmol
3.) Kerry Wood
4.) Michael Wuertz
5.) Bobby Howry/Ryan Dempster

Position Players
C - Geovany Soto
1B - Derek Lee
2B - Mark DeRosa
3B - Aramis Ramirez
SS - Ryan Theriot
LF - Alfonso Soriano
CF - Felix Pie
RF - Kosuke Fukudome

Forgive me if I'm not blown away by the Cubs rotation -- although it's better than you might think it is upon first glance. Carlos Zambrano is, of course, one of the best pitchers in the National League when he's on his game, and now that contract issues aren't going to be affecting his performance he should be even stronger. After that, things get a little sketchier with lefties Ted Lilly and Rich Hill, although both of them delivered sub-4.00 ERA's last year. If they can continue to perform at that level, they could be alright. I have little faith that either Jason Marquis or Jon Lieber will have ERA's under 4.50, so the bullpen should be ready to perform when those two are on the mound. Speaking of the bullpen, it also doesn't do much for me. For one thing, who's going to close? Ryan Dempster is currently being listed as a starter, and Bobby Howry got the second most saves on the team last year -- does that mean Howry's the guy? My guess is that both will be in the bullpen, and that Dempster will actually close. The only guy on the list who gets me all that excited is Carlos Marmol (and maybe he should be given the closer role) -- beyond that, I don't know that I'd take any of them (even former phenom Kerry Wood).

The lineup has strong spots (Soriano, Ramirez, and Lee) and weak points (I'm not sold on Felix Pie, Mark DeRosa, or Ryan Theriot). The wildcard is Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese import whose performance will be pivotal to the Cubs playoff hopes in 2008. If the corner foursome of Soriano, Ramirez, Lee, and Fukudome produce at high levels, the Cubs will be very competitive. If Fukudome doesn't pan out, however, or if one of the established veterans has a down season, it will be tough for the Cubs to score runs.

Cincinnati Reds
Projected Rotation

1.) Aaron Harang
2.) Bronson Arroyo
3.) Mark Belisle
4.) Homer Bailey
5.) Jeremy Affeldt

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Francisco Cordero
2.) David Weathers
3.) Jared Burton
4.) Jon Coutlangus
5.) Todd Coffey

Position Players
C - David Ross
1B - Scott Hatteberg
2B - Brandon Phillips
3B - Edwin Encarnacion
SS - Alex Gonzalez
LF - Adam Dunn
CF - Ryan Freel
RF - Ken Griffey, Jr.

I like Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo at the top of this rotation, although it's a weaker 1-2 punch than the Cubs have with Zambrano and Lilly. Beyond that, it's rough sledding. Homer Bailey seems to have potential, but he wasn't that great last year (5.76 ERA in 45.1 innings). Matt Belisle also posted a plus-5.00 ERA -- but he was a starter all season and pitched 177.2 innings, making it a good deal worse. Then there's recent addition Jeremy Affeldt, who was a reasonably good reliever last year but seems to be destined to be a starter for the Reds. I'm not sure how that's going to work out. The bullpen was bolstered by the signing of closer Francisco Cordero, but after that there are a bunch of guys who were pretty bad last year, including David Weathers who has seemingly been around forever. Can Gary Majewski or Bill Bray or Todd Coffey come back from horrid years to help out the club? I wouldn't count on it.

As for the lineup, I'm skeptical. Brandon Phillips hit 30 homeruns last year, but can he really be expected to do that again? Even 20 homer second sackers are somewhat rare. Adam Dunn will hit his homers, but will he get any other hits? And can Edwin Encarnacion build on a solid 2007 and develop some more power? My biggest questions are saved for a now 38-year-old Junior Griffey, who had a really nice 2007 season. Will he stay healthy, or will he fall apart again? Incidentally, he's just 6 homers away from 600, so look for that milestone in April (or possibly May). I think the Reds will score runs, but not nearly enough to overcome an unimpressive pitching staff.

Houston Astros
Projected Rotation

1.) Roy Oswalt
2.) Wandy Rodriguez
3.) Brandon Backe
4.) Woody Williams
5.) Felipe Paulino

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Jose Valverde
2.) Doug Brocail
3.) Geoff Geary
4.) Oscar Villarreal
5.) Chris Sampson

Position Players
C - Brad Ausmus
1B - Lance Berkman
2B - Kaz Matsui
3B - Ty Wigginton
SS - Miguel Tejada
LF - Carlos Lee
CF - Michael Bourn
RF - Hunter Pence

Roy Oswalt is as good as they come at the top of the rotation, but there are a lot of question marks after that. Woody Williams is an aging veteran who flat out wasn't very good in 2007. Wandy Rodriguez is younger and has some promise, but he also was only so-so last year. After that, we hit the relatively unproven Backe (fewer than 50 starts) and the extremely unproven Felipe Paulino. The bullpen will now be anchored by new closer Jose Valverde and ageless wonder Doug Brocail. I've also listed Chris Sampson as a reliever (because the Astros website has him listed as such), but he was primarily a starter last year. He would probably be the first alternate if a starter gets injured or if Paulino can't hack it.

There's a lot to like in the Astros lineup, especially with the addition of Miguel Tejada, who should thrive both from the general change of scenery and the move to the National League. Hunter Pence seems to be an emerging star, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are already very solid contributors, and Ty Wigginton, Kaz Matsui, and Michael Bourn won't hurt the team. This should also be the year that Brad Ausmus starts to move aside in favor of J.R. Towles. All in all, this is a very good lineup top to bottom, and if the Astros get any help at all from their pitching staff, they should win a good number of ballgames.

Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Rotation

1.) Ben Sheets
2.) Jeff Suppan
3.) Yovani Gallardo
4.) Dave Bush
5.) Chris Capuano

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Eric Gagne
2.) Derrick Turnbow
3.) David Riske
4.) Brian Shouse
5.) Carlos Villanueva

Position Players
C - Jason Kendall
1B - Prince Fielder
2B - Rickie Weeks
3B - Bill Hall
SS - J.J. Hardy
LF - Ryan Braun
CF - Mike Cameron
RF - Corey Hart

The starting rotation is a bit of a question mark at the end because neither Dave Bush nor Chris Capuano had very good seasons in 2007, and there are a number of younger players (like Carlos Villanueva) who could find their way into the rotation in 2008. Ben Sheets remains a solid ace at the top of the rotation, and Gallardo has potential -- but as currently configured I'm not sure how strong this rotation is. The bullpen strikes me as dangerously borderline. Eric Gagne looked finished when he was with Boston last season, yet Milwaukee made him their closer. Derrick Turnbow has been subpar of late. Whose going to be the hero in this bullpen -- Salomon Torres? Randy Choate? Guillermo Mota? We'll see.

The lineup is pretty solid overall. Fielder, Weeks, Hardy and Hall could be a great infield (although I'm not sold on Hall, despite a few good seasons that he's put up). Ryan Braun moves to the outfield, where he should be able to continue hitting like a beast without being such a defensive liability. Jason Kendall may even have been a good signing for the Brewers (he hasn't been as horrible offensively as I had thought). Even the signing of Mike Cameron wasn't horrible, although he'll miss the first month of the season. Some Brewers fans are angry about the Cameron signing because it means moving Bill Hall from CF to 3B and Ryan Braun out to LF, but as I already said, Braun was a really, really bad third baseman. I think this makes the team substantially better, and I really like this offense. It should be fun to watch!

Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Rotation

1.) Tom Gorzelanny
2.) Ian Snell
3.) Paul Maholm
4.) Matt Morris
5.) Zach Duke

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Matt Capps
2.) Damaso Marte
3.) John Grabow
4.) Franquelis Osoria
5.) Juan Perez

Position Players
C - Ronny Paulino
1B - Adam LaRoche
2B - Freddy Sanchez
3B - Jose Bautista
SS - Jack Wilson
LF - Jason Bay
CF - Nyjer Morgan
RF - Xavier Nady

I actually like the Pirates rotation. There may not be any truly outstanding pitchers in this mix, but Gorzelanny, Snell, Maholm, and Duke are all interesting. Matt Morris is a veteran presence who was acquired last year for no particular reason, but he actually could be somewhat helpful in anchoring the staff. The bullpen is interesting, with Capps and Marte solid up front and then a whole lot of inexperience. In other words, expect a lot of frustrating non-wins for some reasonably good, young starters.

The lineup seems to lose talent as soon as it gains it. Jason Bay is the newest Pirates star rumored to be on his way out via trade, and that wouldn't surprise me at all. Nonetheless, the Pirates did develop Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche seems to be settling in nicely. This lineup lacks depth, however, and its hard to see the likes of Ronny Paulino and Xavier Nady driving in a lot of runs. It looks like another long year for Pirates fans.

St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Rotation

1.) Adam Wainwright
2.) Braden Looper
3.) Joel Piniero
4.) Matt Clement
5.) Anthony Reyes

Top 5 Bullpen
Closer - Jason Isringhausen
2.) Ryan Franklin
3.) Russ Springer
4.) Randy Flores
5.) Tyler Johnson

Position Players
C - Yadier Molina
1B - Albjert Pujols
2B - Adam Kennedy
3B - Troy Glaus
SS - Cesar Izturis
LF - Chris Duncan
CF - Rick Ankiel
RF - Skip Schumaker

Are the Cardinals kidding with this rotation? Adam Wainwright isn't bad, but Looper, Piniero, Reyes, and a rehabbing Clement? Whoa. I don't even know what to say, things are so bad. The odds on more than 2 of these guys posting ERA's under 5.00 this season have to be pretty low. the bullpen is a bit better. When healthy, Jason Isringhausen is still a solid closer. Franklin and Springer provide some depth. Beyond that things get a little patchier, but I can't fault the bullpen all that match. Of course, as bad as the rotation is I would expect the bullpen to get a whole lot of work, and that might not be a positive.

Pujols is as good as it gets at 1B, but after that things get a little rougher. Troy Glaus should pound the ball some in place of Scott Rolen, but there are pretty much no other established major league hitters in this lineup (well, hitters who will actually hit for average, that is). This seems to me to be what it looks like when a team fails to notice that things are falling apart rapidly and doesn't address looming issues. The simple presence of Pujols and Glaus should ensure that the Cardinals score some runs, but this is not an impressive lineup.

1.) Houston Astros (88-74)
2.) Chicago Cubs (86-76)
3.) Milwaukee Brewers (84-78)
4.) Cincinnati Reds (77-85)
5.) St. Louis Cardinals (73-89)
6.) Pittsburgh Pirates (71-91)

I think any of the top 3 teams in my predictions could end up winning the division if things broke right for them. I think ultimately each of these teams is pretty seriously flawed in various respects, however, so everything going right would probably still mean a sub-90 win season. The bottom of this division could be pretty brutal -- I'm guessing Pittsburgh will be the worst this year because of their very weak lineup, but it's possible that the Cardinals pitching (which, as I said above, is awful) could prove a more significant liability. I'm rooting for the Cubs or the Brewers, because I think both would make for an interesting story -- but sadly I don't think either will end up even getting a sniff of the playoffs. The NL West and the NL East were fun to right up because there were a number of very good teams, but the Central has promise but nobody really ready to run with the big guns in the National League.



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