With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 4, we look at the National League Central …
Cardinals: They will enter the season without a big lefty bat off the bench. That starting rotation is shaky 3-5. I’m having trouble identifying a true setup man in that bullpen. And I don’t know how much I trust Ryan Franklin to do it all over again as the closer. But baseball can be a simple game sometimes, so I’m not going to complicate the Cardinals’ situation. They have arguably the best 1-2 combination at the top of the rotation with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and arguably the best 3-4 combination in the middle of the lineup in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Questions answered. The Cardinals are the best team in the division. It’s not just because of that, though. They have a great manager in Tony La Russa, and they have some nice pieces around those four studs. All those other problems, they can be addressed through in-season trades, as general manager John Mozeliak has proven he’s capable of pulling off (see: Holliday). La Russa admitted Thursday his club is a little thin heading into the season — especially with some of their Spring Training injuries — but they’ve been “thin” before and won. This year should be no different.
Cubs: Lou Piniella basically has one more shot to turn those lovable Cubbies into champions. Can he do it? I don’t think so. I know last year’s team was severely hurt, but I just don’t see enough on that club to be able to compete in this division. Main power threats are Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and an Alfonso Soriano who could barely bend over anymore? Rotation aces are Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster? Closer is Carlos Marmol? I just don’t see enough. There’s a lot of question marks among those names. If healthy, though, I do think they’ll stay in contention, mainly for the Wild Card, and I like the fact they essentially swapped Milton Bradley for Marlon Byrd. But Soriano’s contract — he’s got $18 million coming annually through 2014 — is eating away at them, and they’re relying on too many unproven and/or volatile guys for me to be a believer. Maybe year 103 is the lucky one, Cubs fans.
Brewers: I don’t feel like they have enough to be legitimate factors, but I sure like this team. They’ll be fun to watch, and it isn’t just because of their choreographed celebrations after Prince Fielder home runs (though that of course plays a factor). Fielder and Ryan Braun is one of the best middle-of-the-order combinations in baseball, and one nobody really ever talks about. And I like that rotation. Sure, they overpaid for Randy Wolf (proud owner of a three-year, $29.75 million contract). But you have to overpay in that market to get arms like that. Wolf, along with Yovani Gallardo, Doug Davis, Dave Bush and Manny Parra make this a more-than-formidable bunch. The back end of that bullpen is pretty set with LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman. And keep your eyes on new shortstop Alcides Escobar and new center fielder Carlos Gomez. It amazes me how general manager Doug Melvin can keep fielding competitive teams while facing the elements each offseason. Nice (though not great) team.
Reds: Many are picking the Reds to be the surprise team of baseball, and I can see why. But I don’t think they have enough to get past the Cardinals in this division. Still, that starting rotation is nice with Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. The bullpen isn’t bad, either, with guys like Arthur Rhodes, Francisco Cordero and Nick Masset in the back end. There are questions in that starting lineup, though. Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera will have to turn back the clock, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips need to keep producing, Jay Bruce needs ;to be better, and somebody needs to step up and become a reliable leadoff man. That’s too many things that have to go right. Aroldis Chapman will eventually play a big factor in that starting rotation — or maybe the bullpen? — but he needs more time.
Astros: In every sense of the word, the Astros are your run-of-the-mill average ballclub. Bullpen? Average. Starting rotation? Average. Offense? Average. Defense? Average. I like the hiring of Brad Mills, who will run a tighter ship while being more well-liked than Cecil Cooper (it’s hard not to be, frankly), and I’ve already seen first-hand the impact new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has had on the staff. The additions of Brett Myers, Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz were fine, but nothing that’s going to put this team over the top. I love Ed Wade, but I think the Astros are going to have to pick a direction soon. Are they going to push all their chips to the middle of the table and push to be a World Series contender now? Or are they a club that will look to build up its farm system to really contend down the line? Right now, it seems they’re stuck in the middle, and that will reflect on their record. 81-81 finish? Probably a good gauge.
Pirates: It goes without saying that the Pirates will struggle. They did a nice job last season of ridding themselves of salary and getting some nice pieces in return before the Trade Deadline, as they strive to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. (Wow, has it really been that long?) They have a lot of work to do before they’re back on top, though. It is going to be fun to watch Andrew McCutchen for a full season, and Garrett Jones could be poised for a big year. But I don’t know about Jeff Clement at first base and Ryan Doumit catching, nobody else in that lineup really sticks out at me, and the rotation and bullpen is very weak. Keep your eyes peeled on two prospects, though: third baseman Pedro Alvarez and catcher Tony Sanchez.
— Alden Gonzalez