TMS Baseball Preview: NL Central

In the weeks preceding Opening Day, we here at the Saloon will be previewing each major league division and giving a brief rundown of the in's and out's of each team heading into the 2007 season. This week, with the help of Chaim and the Governor, we take a look at some familiar ground, the National League Central.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

1. CHICAGO CUBS
2006: 66-96 (6th)

So Long: P David Aardsma, 1B John Mabry, OF Juan Pierre, C Jose Reyes, P Glendon Rusch

Welcome: P Neal Cotts, 2B Mark DeRosa, OF Cliff Floyd, P Ted Lilly, P Jason Marquis, SS Tomas Perez, OF Alfonso Soriano, OF Daryle Ward

PROJECTED LINEUP
C - Michael Barrett
1B - Derrek Lee
2B - Mark DeRosa
SS - Cesar Izturis
3B - Aramis Ramirez
LF - Matt Murton
CF - Alfonso Soriano
RF - Jacque Jones

Starting Rotation - Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill, Mark Prior, Wade Miller
Setup - Scott Eyre, Bob Howry
Closer - Ryan Dempster/Kerry Wood

Obviously this is a homer pick, but how could we not have the Cubs as #1? There's not a single team in this division that is head and shoulders above the rest, and given Chicago's massive spending spree, I think it's easy to say that this roster is improved from last year.

The most important key for the Cubs will be stability in the pitching rotation. Last season, 15 different pitchers took the mound as a starter. Compare this to 11 starting pitchers in 2005 and only 7 in 2004. Hopefully, the newest signings, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis will provide that stability.

The one surefire positive outlook is that no matter what happens in '07, they can't possibly be shittier than last year........can they?

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: OF Alfonso Soriano - How could it not be? Alfie is one of the biggest names to make a splash on the Northside recently. His bat and speed will be a huge asset in the lineup and his Dominican background has helped him create a bond Felix Pie, and possibly be a mentor to the up and coming prospect.

Race to the DL: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood - After Monday's game, I think Prior has the inside track here.

Here's Looking at You Kid: OF Matt Murton - Moral and contractual obligation make a Thunder Matt mention mandatory. I would naturally suggest that Thunder Matt pull a Tonya Harding and take out Cliff Floyd's knee to ensure more playing time, but I think Floyd can injure himself quite sufficiently on his own, thank you very much. All felony assault charges aside, when the dust settles, Thunder Matt should see about the same amount of AB's as last year at the minimum, with increased productivity in every category.

FOR MORE READING
Goat Riders of the Apocalypse
The View From the Bleachers
Bleed Cubbie Blue
The Cub Reporter


2. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
2006: 83-78 (1st)

SO LONG: 2B Ronnie Belliard, P Jason Marquis, P Jorge Sosa, P Jeff Suppan, P Jeff Weaver

WELCOME: P Ryan Franklin, 2B Adam Kennedy, P Russ Springer, P Kip Wells

PROJECTED LINEUP
C - Yadier Molina
1B - Albert Poopholes
2B - Adam Kennedy
SS - David Eckstein
3B - Scott Rolen
LF - Chris Duncan
CF - Jim Edmonds
RF - Juan Encarnacion

Starting Rotation - Chris Carpenter, Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright, Kip Wells, Braden Looper
Setup - Ricardo Rincon, Randy Flores
Closer - Jason Isringhausen

Blah. I debated on whether I even wanted to put them second. They get the #2 slot solely on the weight of their World Series title last season. If any team ends up being a disappointment this season it's the Deadbirds. Their biggest offensive upgrade this offseason was Adam Kennedy and aside from Poopholes, is there anyone in that lineup that opposing teams should really be worried about? Edmonds is running on fumes, and Rolen has some pop every now and then when his vagina doesn't hurt.

Their pitching situation is just as iffy. Don't get me wrong, Anthony Reyes has the makings of a stud and Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper may be able to adjust just fine to a full-time gig in the rotation, but with Chris Carpenter the only sure thing, you can actually say the Cubs rotation looks more solid at this point.

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: OF So Taguchi - Why the hell not? So is by far the greatest Japanese outfielder in the National League.

You Just Make It Easier For Us to Hate You: 1B Albert Poopholes - Look, we all hated him already, but that was more out of jealousy since he's such a brilliant hitter. But then the surly bastard opened his mouth this offseason, coming off as a pompous ass. Suddenly Jim Edmonds seems like an absolute doll.

You Must Be 'This Tall' To Ride: SS David Eckstein, 5' 7" - We have nothing to add here. Just wanted to beat this dead horse of a joke a little more.

FOR MORE READING
Viva El Birdos
Cardinals Diaspora
That's a Winner


3. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
2006: 75-87 (4th)

SO LONG: 3B David Bell, 3B Jeff Cirillo, P Doug Davis, P Rick Helling, P Dan Kolb, P Tomo Ohka

WELCOME: P Greg Aquino, SS Craig Counsell, C Johnny Estrada, P Jeff Suppan, P Claudio Vargas

PROJECTED LINEUP
C - Johnny Estrada
1B - Prince Fielder
2B - Rickie Weeks
SS - J.J. Hardy
3B - Corey Koskie (on paper)
LF - Geoff Jenkins
CF - Bill Hall
RF - Corey Hart

Starting Rotation - Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas
Setup - Matt Wise, Derrick Turnbow
Closer - Francisco Cordero

Milwaukee is my pick to be the team to most likely pull a Detroit in '06 move and make a serious run. That of course is going to rely heavily on their stars and stars-to-be staying healthy. Prince Fielder should improve upon his first full season in the majors last year. He'll be turning just 23 this year and has a bright future ahead of him. Meanwhile infielders Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy, the veritable Trammell and Whitaker of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars, will try to stay healthy and live up to their potential.

The rotation should be decent with Capuano, Bush and Suppan in the middle, but it's up to staff ace, Ben Sheets to come back after two straight injury-plagued seasons, and lead this team.

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: SP Ben Sheets - Like I just said, Sheets will need to be healthy all year for the Brewers to really compete for the title. If he does, the potential is there to be one of the best pitchers in the majors.

Please Wait Until Everyone Has Been Served Before You Get Seconds: 1B Prince Fielder - What can you say? The boy is living large. What's misleading is his speed. The guy stole 7 bases last season! That's 5 more steals than papa Cecil had in his entire career.

You Sir are no Craig Counsell: Tony Graffanino - With Corey Koskie still hampered with post-concussion syndrome (can we lobby to have that named "Troy Aikman Disease"?), Counsell and Graffy will duke it out for a chance to get some serious playing time at 3B. Both will probably come off the bench in utility roles though, as youngster Ryan Braun will make a serious push to take over the hot corner.

FOR MORE READING
Brew Crew Ball
Brewers Bar
Al's Ramblings


4. HOUSTON ASTROS
2006: 82-80 (2nd)

SO LONG: 1B Jeff Bagwell, P Taylor Buchholz, P Roger Clemens (maybe?), P Jason Hirsh, 3B Aubrey Huff, P Andy Pettitte, P Russ Springer, OF Willy Taveras

WELCOME: P Miguel Asencio, OF Richard Hidalgo, P Jason Jennings, OF Carlos Lee, 2B Mark Loretta, P Brian Moehler, P Rick White, P Woody Williams

PROJECTED LINEUP
C - Brad Ausmus
1B - Lance Berkman
2B - Craig Biggio
SS - Adam Everett
3B - Morgan Ensberg
LF - Carlos Lee
CF - Chris Burke
RF - Luke Scott

Starting Rotation - Roy Oswalt, Jason Jennings, Woody Williams, Fernando Nieve, Wandy Rodriguez
Setup - Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler
Closer - Brad Lidge

Carlos Lee, you son of a bitch. Couldn't you have gone to a team outside of the division, or even better outside of the league? Instead you head down to division rival Houston where you'll continue to give the Cubs nightmares. In 63 games against the Cubs, Lee is sporting a .318 average with 19 home runs.

The biggest knock to the Astros is their rotation. Oswalt is golden, but to replace Pettitte and possibly Clemens, Houston brought in Jason Jennings and the deceptively old Woody Williams (he's 40?), to fill the gap. At least Jennings has experience in pitching at a hitters park.

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: 1B Lance Berkman - After playing about 2/3 of his games there last year, the retirement of Jeff Bagwell means Lance will have his first full season at first base. This should allow him to continue his monster numbers he put up last season.

Most Likely to Get Into a Hunting Accident with Dick Cheney: RP Brad Lidge - His aim ain't so good. Paging Mr. Wheeler.

The Wade Boggs: 2B Craig Biggio - Given to the guy who continues to play solely to achieve a statistical milestone that is widely considered to be a Hall of Fame benchmark, regardless of whether or not it stunts the growth of promising young players with superior talents. That milestone of course being "hit by pitch".

FOR MORE READING
The Astros Dugout
The Juice Box
The Crawfish Boxes


5. CINCINNATI REDS
2006: 80-82 (3rd)

SO LONG: 3B Rich Aurilia, P Brandon Claussen, SS Royce Clayton, P Ryan Franklin, P Jason Johnson, P Scott Schoeneweis

WELCOME: 3B Mark Bellhorn, OF Jeff Conine, SS Alex Gonzalez, OF Josh Hamilton, P Brian Meadows, P Kirk Saarloos, P Mike Stanton

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

Starting Rotation - Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, Kirk Saarloos
Setup - Rheal Cormier, Gary Majewski
Closer - Dave Weathers/Mike Stanton

Looking at this team, I'm trying to figure out how they won 80 games last year. They really didn't do much to improve this offseason, although the virtual no-risk, high-reward gamble of snagging a cleaned-up Josh Hamilton is intriguing. Looking at this rotation, you've got two guys that are no worries in Harang and Arroyo, but it dramatically goes downhill from there. Trying to pick the best option for #3 starter from Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse and Kirk Saarloos, is like trying to pick between Keystone, Busch or Hamms. None are very good, and all of them carry the risk of giving you the shits in the morning.

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: SP Homer Bailey - This is the least sexy team I've seen so far, so I'm going with a guy that most likely won't even crack the rotation heading into Opening Day. Bailey (shown right) is touted as the next big pitcher from the long line of aces hailing from Texas. He even plays up the Texas stereotype. Check out this entry from a Baseball America article in 2004.
David "Homer" Bailey Jr. is the real McCoy. He drives a Ford F-150 diesel pickup truck, wears boots and a cowboy hat and spends his free time hunting in the woods back of his father's egg farm. "Right now it's wild boar season," he says. "I cut the tusks out and keep a collection in my room."
Christ, how did the Astros not get this kid? That description seems a little odd since he looks like Debra Winger in that photo.

Mr. "My First Home Run Was a Joke": C David Ross - Ross hit his first career home run September 2, 2002 off former Cubs/Diamondbacks 1st baseman Mark Grace. The Dodgers were beating Arizona 19-1 and Grace came in to provide pitching/comic relief in the 9th.

Seriously? This Guy?: OF Josh Hamilton - No seriously, DO you remember this guy? The top overall pick in baseball by the Devil Dogs a few short years ago, he was can't miss prospect if there ever was one (apologies to Brien Taylor). Then he went all Britney Spears on us, getting tattoos in crazy places and ingesting any drug that was put in front of him. Now he's trying to win a spot on the Red's roster and as of this writing is mashing the ball like a drunken Babe Ruth, minus the drunkenness. Assuming he makes the team, with only Ken Griffey ahead of him on the depth chart, it's only a matter of time before Junior tweaks something and he gets his shot.

FOR MORE READING
Red Reporter
Reds (and Blues)
Red Hot Mama


6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
2006: 67-95 (5th)

SO LONG: OF Jeromy Burnitz, P Mike Gonzalez, 3B Joe Randa

WELCOME: P Tony Armas, C Einar Diaz, SS Jose Hernandez, P Yoslan Herrera, P Dan Kolb, 1B Adam LaRoche, OF Luis Matos

PROJECTED LINEUP
C - Ronny Paulino
1B - Adam LaRoche
2B - Freddy Sanchez
SS - Jack Wilson
3B - Jose Bautista
LF - Jason Bay
CF - Chris Duffy
RF - Xavier Nady

Starting Rotation - Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Tony Armas, Tom Gorzelanny
Setup - Dan Kolb, Damaso Marte, Matt Capps
Closer - Salomon Torres

Ever since Sid Bream slid under Mike Lavalliere's glove on that balmy October night in Atlanta (I'll use 'balmy' for the sake of exposition and drama) it seems as if the Pirates have been on a downward spiral. Well, not so much as "seems", as they really have been. 14 straight losing seasons. With another season of Tracyball forthcoming the Pirates look to make it 15.

They did, to their credit, beef up the roster a bit, trading for Adam LaRoche and resigning local hero Freddy Sanchez. They also appear to have bypassed the free agency practice of 'signing crappy veterans we have no intention of keeping, in an effort to trade them at the deadline' (see: Jeromy Burnitz (whoops!), Kenny Lofton, Matt Lawton, Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Mark Redman...need I go on?) They seem committed to their youngsters and they will only go as far as their young pitching staff will allow them to go. If Zach Duke pitches like its 2005 and Snell and Gorzelanny fulfill their promise, the Pirates might have a legitimate shot at .500. Otherwise it will be another year of assuming the role of 'scrappy spoilers'.

PRESEASON AWARDS
Mr. Sexy Time: OF Jason Bay - Trading the fading Brian Giles for the rising star Bay is one of the few good moves GM Dave Littlefield can put on his resume. Though it still doesn't offset dealing Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton for a case of Old Style and a deep dish pizza.

Operation Shutdown II (I'm Serious This Time, Don't Tempt Me!): OF Chris Duffy - After a bizarre meltdown last year where he refused to report to AAA ("There's no crying in baseball!"), Duffy quietly had a solid second half, stealing 23 bases. If the Pirates are to have a shot at achieving their first winning season since the Doug Drabek Era, Duffy is going to need to get on base. A lot.

Seriously? This Guy?: SS Jose Hernandez - This guy must know some deep, dark Jim Tracy (whispering) secrets to still have a job. One of the steadfast rules of Tracyball is that Jose Hernandez must be guaranteed a roster spot.

FOR MORE READING
Honest Wagner
Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?
Raul Mondesi's House

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