Previewing the NL Central


It’s time to take a closer look around the rest of the division.  Now that we’re just about a week away from the start of Spring Training, most roster shaping has been completed, and we’ll have a pretty good idea of who we’ll be competing against in the Central.

In 2007, The Milwaukee Brewers got off to a hot start, but fell on their faces during the stretch run, handing the division crown to the Chicago Cubs.  The Cards were still in the race going into the final month, but came up well short when all was said and done.  The Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds finished a game apart for fourth and fifth in the standings, while the Pittsburgh Pirates finished last, with the worst record in the National League.

What about this year?  It looks like the Brew Crew and the Baby Bears are favored once again, with the Cards projected to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.

First, let’s take a quick look at the Cubbies.  They’ve added to their already potent offense with the pick up of outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, their first Japanese player in franchise history.  He, along with Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, and young catcher Geovany Soto, should provide plenty of pop for the cursed club.  They’ve added veteran starting pitcher Jon Lieber as well.  The rotation should continue to impress in ’08. Lieber joins staff ace Carlos Zambrano, Rich Hill, Ted Lilly, and former Cardinal, Jason Marquis. Look for the Cubs to be right there at the end.  Skipper Lou Piniella, now in his second year with Chicago, will surely have his team in contention for the division title again.

Milwaukee had a very good team in ’07.  Now that the youngsters have another year under their belt, they should be able to stay focused for the entire season.  Their offense will once again be led by first baseman Prince Fielder, who hit 50 home runs last season. Newcomer Mike Cameron will join Fielder, Ryan Braun, Bill Hall, and J.J. Hardy, as the run producers in the lineup.  The Brewers should have a healthy Ben Sheets atop their rotation, followed by some combination of talent and durability in Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, Carlos Villanueva, and others.  The Brewers also added Eric Gagne to assume the closers role.  He and Derrick Turnbow could prove to be as effective as the Cards’ eighth and ninth inning duo last year.  There’s no reason to think that Milwaukee won’t take the ’08 race right down to the wire.

The Houston Astros have just as tough a lineup as anybody.  J.R. Towles should take the reigns at catcher after hitting .375 in 40 at-bats last year.  Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Hunter Pence, and Ty Wiggington should have no trouble driving in runs in Playskool (I mean Minute Maid) Park.  Besides their new-look left side of the infield, two other everyday players have joined the Astros.  Both Kazuo Matsui and Michael Bourn are capable of batting leadoff.  Houston’s pitching, however, doesn’t look so great.  Other than ace Roy Oswalt, the rotation appears to be a short list of mediocrity.  If we as Cards fans have learned anything from last season, it’s that you’ll only go as far as your starting pitching will take you. While the Astros will certainly score a lot of runs in ’08, they’re likely to allow a lot too.  I’d guess they’ll finish well behind Chicago and Milwaukee.

It’s tough to gauge what to expect from Cincinnati.  The Reds have some talented ball players. Most are carryovers from last season when they couldn’t put it all together. They’ll again be led by the bats of Adam Dunn, Brandon Phillips, and Hall of Fame bound Ken Griffey Jr.  The starting rotation, which includes Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Homer Bailey, doesn’t look too bad either.  With manager Dusty Baker now calling the shots, maybe Cincinnati can make it an interesting race.

Then, there’s Pittsburgh.  They haven’t had a winning season in 15 years, and did virtually nothing to improve their club this offseason.  They hope outfielder Jason Bay can have a bounce back year.  Despite the good arms of Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, the Pirates are projected to finish in the cellar once again in 2008.  But, you never know.  That’s why they play the games.

Where do the Cardinals fit?  That’s a question that’s impossible to answer.  Last season, the Cards had a never-ending list of injuries, including a career ending one to Juan Encarnacion.  Combine that with the death of pitcher Josh Hancock, the arrest of their manager in Spring Training, and the substance abuse that kept Scott Spiezio off the field, and the Redbirds should have finished last.  They didn’t.  The NL Central was a three horse race all the way to September.  No manager gets more from his players than Tony La Russa.  So any team with him at the helm has a shot.

“People are looking at other clubs and liking them better than ours,” La Russa said.  “But I look at our club and see some real possibility.”

While the Cards lost a few fan favorites, they’ve also added a couple of intriguing guys, and you can never count out a team that has Albert Pujols.  For a closer look at the club, check out my other ’08 Outlook posts:  the infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen.

Any way you slice it, the upcoming season should be an exciting one.  I can’t wait!