Opening day is right around the corner! The ridiculous World Baseball Classic has forced Major League Baseball to extend Spring Training to a painfully long period of time equal to about a quarter of a full season. Here's to hoping that there are no ill effects from all of this.
As I look at the central division in the National League, I can't help but predict what I think will happen. Teams are dwindling down to a point where roster spots are becoming pretty clear. After looking at what each team brings to the table, here is my "unofficial official" prediction of what the NL Central will look like at the end:
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Now, you may think I am being a "Cub homer" by predicting another first place finish, but that's not it. They simply have the best team on paper by a wide margin. Barring multiple injuries (which we know can happen as it did in 2004 and 2006) the Cubs should repeat as division champions. I go NO FURTHER than that in my predictions. The Cubs need to prove they can handle postseason pressure before I will predict anything else. Now I'm not saying that they will make the playoffs and then be a one-and-done team again. You Cardinal, White Sox and Brewer homers can "predict" that all you want, but we all know it's a brand new season once the playoffs begin, and the Cubs aren't cursed to lose as you would like to believe. Still, though, I will give my reasons for each of these picks.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates - I don't think anyone is predicting anything other than a last place finish for the hapless Pirates. Frankly, its a good thing that town has the Steelers because it's a lost cause when it comes to baseball. In 2008, the Pirates finished with a 67-95 record, third worst in the National League, and did little to improve their team for 2009. Matt Capps is a serviceable closer, but how often will he get the ball with the game on the line? Their pitching staff is very weak, although Paul Maholm is a workhorse who had a very respectable 3.71 ERA last year in 31 starts. After that, it's guys like Ian Snell and Zach Duke who can't seem to put anything together. Their offense boasts solid hitters Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit but very little else.
5. Houston Astros - Oh how the mighty have fallen. In 2004, the Astros were within a game of the World Series. In 2005, they won the NL pennant. In 2006, they barely missed a third straight postseason appearance. Now look at this team. What do they have? Well, they do have a very potent offense that touts Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, and now Ivan Rodriguez. Where they lack is in the pitching. Roy Oswalt is an ace, no doubt about it. After that, though, it doesn't look good. Their projected number two starter is Wandy Rodriguez, who is stellar at Minute Maid Park but lousy on the road. Brandon Backe, who I personally thought had a great career ahead of him after seeing his 2004 and 2005 playoff performances, had a 6.05 ERA in 2008 in 31 starts. Mike Hampton looks to be penciled in for the rotation, but he hasn't played anything close to a full season since 2004 when he started 29 games for Atlanta. It's not looking good in the state of Texas.
4. Milwaukee Brewers - Yes, I believe last year's NL Wild Card representative will fall and fall hard. Why? The two biggest reasons this team made the postseason are gone: CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. They have been replaced by Braden Looper and Yovanni Gallardo (who did pitch last year, but only four games due to injury). Gallardo has the stuff to be very good, but after that, the starters are very mediocre at bast. Jeff Suppan followed his successful run in St. Louis with two disappointing seasons in a Brewer uniform. Looper, Dave Bush and Manny Parra will all win some games, but none are overwhelming. Now, on the offensive side, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun would make any team better. Add Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy to the emix, and you have a pretty good offensive club. But like the Astros, this pitching staff is going to be tested, and the history of the individuals in that starting staff is not favorable.
3. Cincinnati Reds - This is where I may get burned come season's end. Some are saying that this year's Reds are going to be like last year's Rays. I don't think they are there just yet. This is a much improved team, and while they finished 2008 with a 74-88 record last season, Aaron Harang had an awful year. Turn his numbers around, and this is an over-.500 club. If he bounces back, and the rest of the staff (Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto) continue to produce, this team will be tough to score runs off. Where it gets a bit tricky is the offense. The Reds added speedster Willy Taveras to lead off, but Taveras had a dismal .308 OBP last season. He has to get on base in order to make a difference. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are leading the offensive charge, but will sophomore slumps hit either player? After that, there isn't anything to really write home about. This team will need to win a lot of low scoring games to be able to contend, but they have the starting staff that might be able to do that.
2. St. Louis Cardinals - Yes, Cardinal fans, I truly believe that the Redbirds are the second best team in the National League Central. Any team with Albert Pujols should contend, but the Cardinals of the past two seasons have not been serious threats after September 1. Perhaps the loss of Chris Carpenter was part of the problem, although it was the bullpen who blew more than 30 saves last year. The Cardinals rotation is hoping for a repeat in the performances of Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse while praying that the health of Carpenter and Adam Wainwright (who I personally think is the best pitcher on that staff) holds up for an entire season. If that happens, this team will win ballgames. But what about the bullpen? Chris Perez and Jason Motte are expected to be late inning saviors, and nobody knows how they will turn out. The offense, aside from Pujols, is also solid. Ryan Ludwick is coming off a great season, and Rick Ankiel is a Scott Boras client in his contract year. I predict 40 homers and a near .300 average from Ankiel given those circumstances! Troy Glaus should come back by May and provide more power, and Colby Rasmus will have a chance to show what he's made of.
1. Chicago Cubs - That's right, they are the best team, and I'm not being biased here. Cardinal fans have even (begrudgingly) admitted that this division is the Cubs' to lose. The pitching staff (even without the addition of Jake Peavy) is one, if not THE best in the National League. Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg will provide a great 1-2 punch at the end of the bullpen. The offense is extremely balanced, especially wiht the addition of Milton "can I stay healthy for a full season" Bradley and Mike Fontenot, who will be the starting second baseman. The Cubs are the team to beat, folks. And they have the depth to handle a hiccup or two throughout the season. Not to mention, the July 31 trade deadline has resulted in some of GM Jim Hendry's best work, so who knows what will be available this year.
Just my opinion.