NL Central Links: Piniella and the Cubs, Big Z, Votto's Feud, and more

In hope to bring you more content and keep up with news around the division, Alex and I will be compiling the biggest stories swirling around the Cards division rivals. This week: The Cubs managing position is a magnet and a black hole, Big Z returns to the rotation, Joey Votto continues ripping the Cubbies, and some more on the growing basement of the NL Central. [...]

Chicago Cubs

Let’s start with the biggest rivals (historically not this season). The Cubs had quite a week, losing seven straight and doing so in embarrassing fashion. The Cubbies lost to Colorado 17-2 and watched the Rockies set some records in the process. If that wasn’t enough, days later Milwaukee drilled Chicago 18-1. The slide ended any hope for Chicago, which could have jumped back in the race with a hot streak. Instead, their season is over. And that was just the warm up for the big stories surrounding yet another lost season.

Johnette Howard says managing the Cubs is The Best Worst Job in Sports. The criteria, it seems, is that the job is attractive because of one huge “What if,” but the pressure and history of losing is so immense that no one has succeeded in decades. Coaching Brett Favre or the Cleveland Cavaliers post-LeBron with Dan Gilbert’s guarantees along with leading the New York Knicks all make the list. But Favre is only one player and he will retire eventually. No one took Gilbert seriously and everyone knows the Cavaliers are a loser. The difference between them and the Cubs: No one cares about the Cavs. The Knicks are the closest challenge to the Cubs, but 102 years is much longer than 37. The Best because taking the Cubs to World Series glory would make you a sports legend forever. The Worst because well, there have been plenty to try and none have succeeded.

In other Cubs news, Carlos Zambrano will return to the Cubs rotation. But this isn’t a happy return with excitement that Big Z will find his dominance on the mound again. This move is about pushing him out the door. And it’s hard to fit a big head and bigger contract through a tiny door called interest. Zambrano wants to think his return is a new beginning and about helping bring a World Series to Chicago, but that’s crazy talk. Zambrano is being auditioned for teams around the league to set up a trade and salary dump for the Cubs. Chicago wants a fresh start and it can only have that if Mr. Zambrano is giving someone else headaches.

Cincinnati Reds

From the old rival to the new one. In 2010, the Reds are the Cardinals biggest and worthy opponent. Cincinnati currently holds a half game lead over St. Louis in what has been a seesaw act since April. The Reds just won’t quit with their all-around solid team. A mixture of young and old in the lineup and the rotation has made for an exciting revival of baseball in Cincinnati.

Joey Votto has been the MVP for the upstart Reds. He wears a chip the size of a boulder on his shoulder and that competitive nature has made him a superstar this season. He was originally passed over for All-Star Game despite an MVP-caliber season. And Votto doesn’t forget when he’s slighted. The latest target fueling the slugger is none other than the Chicago Cubs. Even when they’re dead, they’re causing problems. Admittedly, Votto stirred this pot by himself and he’s only stirring faster now, but still…

Steve Engbloom of FanSided’s own Blog Red Machine took a look at Mr. Votto’s hatred for Chicago going into the Reds-Cubs series Friday. It all started three years ago when the Cubs were the big dog in the division and the Reds were the typical Reds of this decade.

That all reverts back to 2007 when Votto was a September rookie call-up and the Cubs clinched the NL Central in Cincinnati. In a post from C. Trent Roscrans of, Votto explains that not only was he irritated about the amount of Cubs fans in attendance, but their behavior as well.

“I still remember that now, I remember them looking at the scoreboard and Cubs fans cheering and everyone in the stands wearing blue,” Votto said. “I still remember that and it meant a lot to me. I guess I should probably let it go, but I’m not an easy forgiver.”

Can’t say there’s much there but motivation is a powerful tool that doesn’t always make sense. It’s more of a shot at Cincinnati for allowing the Cubs fans to take over their home park. The Reds fans have returned this year, but in the dark years, they clearly didn’t have interest in the team.

Votto actually enjoys playing the role of the villain. Votto refuses to sign autographs for Cubs fans. I actually like this. Players today love to pow wow in the outfield before the game like they’re best friends and Votto won’t even make nice with the other team’s fans.

Milwaukee Brewers

And the basement begins. The Cubs also live down here too, but they are pretty interesting to follow right now with Lou leaving and Zambrano returning. The Brewers aren’t actually that pathetic but they are still nine games under .500 and that’s bad enough. It also makes them pretty boring.

The biggest news coming from the Brew Crew was that Corey Hart signed a three-year extension with the team. The Brewers have failed to break through in the division for a while now (only winning the Wild Card with CC Sabathia in 2007), and it appears they’re destined for mediocrity in the near-future, but they signed Hart who isn’t a consistent player to a big deal based on his All-Star performance through July this year. Milwaukee is hard to figure out and could be headed down a dangerous path. Overpaying players like Hart and possibly Prince Fielder is a big mistake — one that has the Cubs in rebuilding mode only years removed from a division title.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates own the NL Central basement. They have been cellar dwellers seemingly since Barry Bonds skipped town and picked up the syringe. Year after year, Pittsburgh trades their best players and young talent in return for nothing. Winning doesn’t seem to be a concern to the Pirates despite the Steelers winning tradition. The Pirates once had a winning tradition with the 1970s “We Are Family” teams, but that’s a distant memory now. Now, Bucs fans can just count the K’s and log the losses perhaps until a new owner comes to town. Pittsburgh should be getting a petition ready for Mark Cuban to buy the team. Cuban lost his bid for the Texas Rangers today and was kept in the dark when attempting to buy the Cubs last year. Cuban is a Pirates fan and he would certainly make them into a winner with his money and attitude. Now all Pittsburgh needs is for their owner to take a hike.

Anyway, Pat Lackey wonders why the Pirates didn’t stay the course and trade Garrett Jones at the deadline.

And Rum Bunter gives us the Batting Stance Guy imitating Pedro Alvarez. At least there are some fun topics surrounding this hopeless team.

Houston Astros

Last and certainly least is the Houston Astros. The Stros have fallen fast and hard since making an appearance in the 2005 World Series. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retired. So did Roger Clemens. Andy Pettitte bolted for New York. Morgan Ensberg now works for ESPN and has his own blog. And Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were traded in deadline deals to the Phillies and Yankees. A lot has changed in Houston.

Losing is now this franchise’s story. While the Pirates and Cubs have worse records, the Astros future is bleaker. Houston has one of the worst farm systems in baseball and did little to stock it when giving away Oswalt and Berkman. Wandy Rodriguez is the only talent left on the roster. I mean, Brett Myers was dubbed untouchable. You know you’re in trouble when your team refuses to use a big year by Myers’ standards to get young talent.

To make a terrible season worse, three Astros minor leaguers received 50-game suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs. They tested positive for Methylhexaneamine, an inhalant that can be used for nasal decongestion but can be used like amphetamines and ephedrine.

“The chemical structure is similar to amphetamines and ephedrine,” said Catlin, whose Los Angeles laboratory provides drug testing for Olympic sports, minor league baseball, the NFL and NCAA. “In this class of drugs, everything depends on the dose. Take enough of it and your heart rate and blood pressure will go up and you can die.”

Amphetamines are illegal without a prescription. An official at one of Arnold’s companies told The Post the substance was legal because it could be found in nature. Ephedrine, also found in nature, was banned from the dietary supplement market after Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in 2003 died after using it.

Players need to stop using drugs. It’s not only cheating and disgraceful, it can be fatal.

Tags: Brett Favre Carlos Zambrano Corey Hart Garrett Jones Joey Votto Lou Piniella NL Central Pedro Alvarez

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