Thursday, April 30, 2009

Der Nazi Zombies!

Dead Snow

One of my favorite sub-genres has always been Nazi-sploitation, and even more so, Nazi-Zombie films. Unfortunately there are only a handful around, and they are notoriously bad films. It is completely under-utelized genre that lends itself to some awesome story ideas. Here's a rundown:

Shock Waves (1977)
Zombie Lake (1981)
Night of the Zombies (1981)
Oasis of the Zombies (1981)

As you can see, for such a tantalizing sub-genre there are startingly few entries. Recently though, there have been a couple of new addition to the canon. Last year's staright-to-video effort Outpost and the latest from Sweden (which comes out this year) Dead Snow.

Dead Snow looks awesome. Go here and check out the trailer. It's super exciting to the see this classic sub-sub-genre being resurrected (har har) from the dead. I'll bet the success of Call of Duty WaW's "Nazi Zombie" mode - which is the greatest bonus game ever - has helped the (small) boom, color me excited. Regardless of what the catalyst is, this is good news for everyone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Clip of the Week

Dead Rising 2: "Chainsaw" Trailer

My gosh, I want to play this game.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Official Olympic Artichoke Forum

OA Forums

Don't forget to check out the Olympic Artichoke forums. You can get there by clicking on the button to the right, or just go HERE and get involved in all of our zany topics. Yeah, they're zany. Really though, we have a lot of top lists for you guys to get involved in and we want opinions on everything. We just thought it would be nice to have a forum for intelligent people to come together and share ideas, or make fart jokes. The choice is yours. Go. Now.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ill-advised Remake News

Two New Remakes on the Way!
Robert Rodriguez
Variety is reporting that the long rumored idea that Robert Rodriguez was going to helm (write and direct) a reboot of the Predator franchise is apparently valid. Rodriguez was once poised to become the next indie darling before squandering most of his good will on the likes of the Spy Kids franchise and the final film in his El Mariachi trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Now, I did really like Planet Terror and appreciated what Rodriguez and Tarrantino were doing, but even that doesn't give him a free pass, I'm still very skeptical of this. We'll keep an eye on it.

On another note, Rodriguez is also still working on getting Machete (you remember, one of the "fake trailers" in Grindhouse) made in to a feature as well (that one has been talked about since the release of Grindhouse).

The other bit of remake news? Oh, just that Ehren Kruger (Scream 3, Arlington Road) is gearing up to pen the remake of David Cronenberg's masterful Videodrome. Cronenberg is, at least currently, completely unattached. WTF? Where are these people coming up with these choices for remakes? Is it just abitrary, maybe they draw names out of hat? I don't know why anyone would think Videodrome needed to be punched up for a new audience. Here's what Variety said about the remake:
The new picture will modernize the concept, infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Clip of the Week

River Cuomo/ Rainn Wilson - One of Us

Yeah, that's Rivers from Weezer and Dwight from The Office covering Joan Osborne. Nice. You can skip to about 4:41 if you want to hear the song.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Films from the Crypt: Episode 3 - Captain America (1990)

Films from the Crypt: Episode Three - Captain America (1990)

Director: Albert Pyun

View the trailer

Starring: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin


Scheduled to be released in the Summer of 1990, to coincide with Marvel's 50th anniversary, Captain America eventually plumetted to American home video and cable in 1992. If you don't remember the movie, it's for good reason, because it is an entirely forgettable film. It's too bad too, because this one could've been okay. Early, on Ahnold, Dolph Lungdren, and Val Kilmer were up for the role of Cap and they were supposed to get a real budget to turn this thing into a Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, Jack Kirby is rolling over in his grave, giving screenwriter Stephen Tolkin the finger.

The film starts out promisingly enough with a group of Nazis that burst in to an Italian villa and start doling out pain via MP40s. They end up kidnapping wunderkind Tadzio de Santis, after wasting his entire family. After being subjected to Nazi experimentation, Tadzio eventually grows into that ugly menace, The Red Skull.

Cut to America where our hero, the young, gimpy Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger - JD's kid!), is gearing up to join a covert US operation that will eventually lead Steve to become the most jingoistic hero of all. He is accepted into the program, and is injected with the super soldier serum, recently imported from Germany. For some reason the governments "secret lab" is inside a diner, and it gets infiltrated by a Nazi spy that kills the only person who knows the formula for the serum, Dr. Maria Vaselli. Dun-dun-dun!

Eventually Cap makes his way to Germany, thwarts the Red Skull, and is sent to Alaska via rocket, where he ends up getting frozen in the ice. Fast-forward to modern day, and ol' Ice Cap is discovered and thawed. After he's unfrozen, he goes to find his long lost love, she gets gunned down by the Red Skull's goons, and decides he has to stop him once and for all!

First of all, let me just go ahead and say it; this movie sucks. It is an absolute train wreck of a film that suffers from bad direction, acting, action, sets, writing, and production value. It would be hard to find another film that had so much potential that ended up being such a waste. The fights are so badly choreographed, it gives old episodes of the Power Rangers some legitimacy and the cinematograper couldn't have been over the age of 12.

Now, let me tell you why you should watch it. Have you ever wanted to see Captain America putter around the streets of Italy in a really tiny car? Ever wonder what any of these new Marvel films would look like if they had a $72 budget? Want to see what JD Salinger's son looks like? You've found your movie. And those are really the best reasons that I could come up for anyone wanting to watch this travesty. Actually, you don't to see a particularly dastardly Darren McGavin, so it's not all bad.

Unfortunately, if you do want to punish yourself and actually watch this thing, it may be easier said that done. As far as I know, the only home video format that Captain America has been released on is VHS. You can probably find it on eBay or Amazon if you want, but I wouldn't pay more than a couple of bucks for it.

(only because I did always want to see Cap in a little car)

*note: pictured is the theatrical teaser poster for the film, it never came to fruition.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Red 2 Blu

HD-DVD Trade-In Program

Here's a bit of good news for anyone that purchased an HD-DVD player, Warner Bros. are offering up a great deal for you. They've begun a trade-in program offering up their BDs for only $4.95 to you if you bought it on HD. Obviously, this is for Warner Bros. films. The best part? You only have to send in the insert from inside the case (the piece of paper) and you can keep the disc and case. How awesome is that? I've got five WB HDs sitting in front of me right now and for $25 (plus $6.95 shipping), I'm going to get to keep them and get them on Blu Ray. Excellent! Go on over right now to and get started!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Night of the Creeps Slithers to DVD

The Good News is Your Dates are Here, the Bad News is They're Dead

Earlier this month the news was reported that Fred Dekker's other piece of eighties greatness is finally making its way to DVD, after years of petitions and questions from fans. After the years it took to get Monster Squad, and then to hear nothing on the Creeps front for another two years, I began to wonder if we'd ever see it! No word on a Blu-Ray release yet, but we do know there is an HD transfer that has been used on cable television already. The word is there will be commentary and deleted scenes, including both endings. My VHS copy was beginning to wear pretty thin, so this is good news for me! Look for the DVD in October, just in time for Halloween.

If you've never seen Night of the Creeps, you are missing out on one of the best horror flicks of the 1980s. Tom Atkins plays a hard-nose cop looking for a little revenge on an alien parasite that zombifies its host. It's campy fun for the whole family! Think of Shivers meets Revenge of the Nerds and you've got a pretty good idea of what this movie is all about. Check out the IMDb page here. And, really, when the movie comes out, if you have not ever seen it, please do yourself a favor and watch it. Especially if you are a fan of Monster Squad. You're gonna be thrilled.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guitar and Video Games, Pt. 2

The Sequel!

In my first episode of Guitar and Video Games, I explored the current phenomena of "guitar games" that has taken the world by storm. I promised to take it back a few years, and show you where the marriage of musicians and video games began, and now I intend to fulfil that promise.

Early Games

1982 - Journey Escape - (Atari 2600) This is one Atari game that I feel under privileged for never having played. My goodness, who knew that Journey had their own video game? You actually play as all five members of Journey (not simultaneously) trying to escape a gig, attempting to bypass photographers and adoring fans to get to your "escape vehicle". This is the actual concept for the game. I can't imagine a kid not wanting this in 1982. Check out some footage here or I'm sure you can the rom somewhere.

1984 - The Thompson Twins Adventure - (Sinclair ZX Spectrum) A pretty standard, if aimless, graphic adventure game starring pop sensation The Thompson Twins (you remember them, they sang Hold Me Now). It was originally available for the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which seems to have been the drug of choice for nerdy Limeys in the eighties. Anyway, I'm sure that everyone reading this at one point in time has wanted to be a Thompson Twin, well I've got good news for you, someone has actually put this game on the net, if you have Java installed you can play it here. How exciting is that?

1985 - Beatle Quest - (Sinclair ZX Spectrum) Another game for the ZX Spectrum, this one is a little different. Beatle Quest is an unlicensed, DIY game made on an at home programming software called The Quill. This was a text adventure that was based on The Beatles songs, created by would be UK developer Garry Marsh. There's an original magazine review for viewing here. The prospect of actually getting bang-banged by Maxwell's silver hammer has me intrigued, but I'd much rather hit up Doctor Robert for some blow or something.

The 16 Bit Age

1990 - Michael Jackson's Moonwalker - (Sega Genesis/Arcade) This one I actually played as a kid, and am a better man for it. That's right, you star as Michael Jackson dressed like in the "Smooth Criminal" video and throw fairy dust or something (you couldn't hit people, that'd be wrong) at bad guys whilst doing dance movies. Every single level it's exactly the same thing. Every. Single. Level. If it weren't for the ability to grab your crotch (really) and the appearance of Bubbles the Chimp after you save all the children from the bad guys. Oh, did I mention that? Yep. You, Michael Jackson, are saving young children through out the game. That's your goal. Saving children. Just check out the video here.
What might be weirder than Moonwalker is the fact that Michael Jackson appeared as a secret character in Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 on the Sega Dreamcast. I mean it. Check out that video here.

1992 - Crüe Ball - (Sega Genesis) Ever wanted to play a virtual pinball game that has Mötley Crüe shit in it? Here's your chance, it's Crüe Ball! Originally set to be titled Twisted Flipper, and really only having a few passing references (aside from the menu screen music - which is the Crüe) to the band, leading a lot of people to speculate that perhaps the game didn't begin life with the band in mind. In all honest, the game is pretty much just a straight-forward pinball game that's mediocre at best, really not leaving you without much of an impression at all. Someone call in Dr. Feelgood, cause you'll need a good time after this game lulls you to sleep.

1994 - Aerosmith: Revolution X - (Arade/SNES/Playstation/Sautrn/Genesis) I'm sure everyone remembers this game. Revolution X was a pretty standard rail/light gun shooter in which you had to fight your way through several levels in order to save Aerosmith from terrorist organization NON. You did this by shooting CDs at them. I mean it, there were no bullets, just CDs, totally rad! The game was just the same as say Lethal Enforcers, except with a soundtrack consisting entirely of Aerosmith tunes. What's funny is that producers Midway actually set out to make a game based on Jurassic Park, but lost those rights to Sega and so decided to make a game based on Aerosmith instead. Good call, guys!

1995 - Rap Jam: Volume One - (SNES) Riding high on the coattails of the superior NBA Jam, here comes Rap Jam: Volume One (and, no, there never was a Volume Two). Playable characters included Coolio, House of Pain, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo, Warren G, Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature, and Onyx. Not a terrible list of old school rap celebs, but what really hurts the game is the stiff controls. If you really want to toss up a three as Coolio though, you can always download the ROM here.

The Final Batch

1999 - Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style - (Playstation) What an interesting idea this one is. Shaolin Style is a martial arts game featuring the members of the excellent rap group The Wu-Tang Clan. In the game, the Clan's sensai, Master Xin, is captured by the evil Mong Zhu's goons and it's up to GZA, RZA, and the gang to save him. Unfortunately, Mong Zhu ends up cutting the skin off of Xin's chest (because it has a tattoo that reveals the Clan's secrets, natch!) and killing him. This pisses off the Wu-Tang Clan...and they on a swarm. Lots of violence (including fatalities!), FMV, and the inclusion of exclusive Wu songs actually make this one a pretty good buy. I almost forgot to mention, Midway released an exclusive Wu-Tang controller (pictured) with the game!

2000 - Kiss: Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child - (PC/Dreamcast) The only first-person shooter to make our list, The Nightmare Child is based off of Todd McFarlane's Kiss: Psycho Circus comic book series. The story seems incredibly convoluted, and I'm not sure I understand it, but I believe you start out as a member of a Kiss cover band that receives some kind of super power and spend the game trying to stop the birth of a demon? This may be accurate, if not, who cares? Nobody played this game anyway.

Britney's Dance Beat - (Playstation 2) Very similar to games like Bust-a-Move, but featuring a pop princess, this game has a soundtrack of a whopping five songs by Britney that you have to beat by pressing the series of buttons that appear on the screen. I suppose that you are a dancer auditioning to be Britney's backup tour dancer or some such thing. All I really know is that this is a completely unexciting addition to this list. I remember it came out when I was working at Blockbuster and I don't think it rented out even once, and that was in the day when she and the PS2 were hot commodities.


There are other games that may be the missing link(s) between these games and games like Guitar Hero. Games like Parappa the Rappa, Bust-a-Move, and especially Dance Dance Revolution (thanks to it's massive popularity for a time and being able to make a peripheral a big hit) really foreshadow the "guitar games".

But the real unsung (guitar) hero here is GuitarFreaks, Konami's popular arcade game from 1998 that literally was the inspiration for Guitar Hero. So, there you have it, a rundown of the marriage between legitimate pop stars and home entertainment devices. It and Drum Mania started off a rock n roll revolution in Japan. GuitarFreaks just released their 16th edition last year!

It's safe to say that these games will be sticking around, and I am excited about the upcoming Guitar Hero: Smash Hits which will include 48 masters of songs from GH 1,2,3 and Rocks the Eighties for play in full band mode. Songs will include "Nothin' but a Good Time" by Poison, "Bark at the Moon" by Ozzy Osbourne, "Killer Queen" by Queen, and forty-five more. Gear up and get ready to rock for years to come.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2006, Pt. 2

I know I'm a bit behind schedule, but here's my list for 2006:

1. Deftones - Saturday Night Wrist
This is what it sounds like to hear the teenage angst behind "White Pony" simmer over time to form top notch alternative metal song writing. The boys from Sac-town have crafted their finest exhibition to date with this one. It still might only be the band's second or even third best record, but that just shows how good the Deftones are when they're on their game.

Stand-Out Tracks: Hole In The Earth, Pink Cellphone

2. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale

"Iron Man" is back with the best hip hop release of 2006. One of the best rappers of all time, Ghost has turned in a lasting performance with Fishscale that solidifies his legacy. This one had an extended stay among my most played albums that year, that lasted right at 8 straight months.

Stand-Out Tracks: Three Bricks, 9 Milli Bros

3. Silversun Pickups - Carnavas

My favorite alternative record of the year, this one grabbed me from the first time I heard "Well Thought Out Twinkles" on Lucy 54 on XM radio (now called Lithium54). A smooth blend of soft vocals, cool rhythms, and fuzzy guitars, I still enjoy hearing it when it pops up on my iPod.

Stand-Out Tracks: Well Thought Out Twinkles, Lazy Eye

4. Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
Creative without being boring, this record put southern gospel in bed with funk, hip hop, and soul. Danger Mouse and Cee-lo burst onto the scene with the inescapable "Crazy" and gave birth to THE hit single of the year, and one of the best pop songs in recent memory.

Stand-Out Tracks: Crazy, Gone Daddy Gone

5. Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam

Talk about a band that doesn't quit. The Modern Day Who (as I consider them), PJ keeps cranking out solid album after solid album. Their catalog is so loaded with all-timers that this effort may not get the credit it deserves as one of the group's best, and one of the top rock records of the year.

Stand-Out Tracks: World Wide Suicide, Life Wasted

6. Band of Horses - Everything All The Time
There is just something about this album that makes it feel both raw and orchestral. There is an unavoidable sad-bastard-ness to it, but listening to it doesn't bring you down. That's a very difficult effect to pull off, and makes it one of the best indie rock records of the decade.

Stand-Out Tracks: The Funeral, The Great Salt Lake

7. Justin Timberlake - Futuresex/Lovesounds

This is sexy pop music at its best. The JT/Timbaland combo is basically untouchable when it comes to fresh beats, smooth samples, and singable hooks. Justin does an "Off The Wall" Michael Jackson impression for a new generation. He brought sexy back.

Stand-Out Tracks: Sexyback, What Goes Around, Summer Love

8. Mastadon - Blood Mountain
This young Georgia-born metal outfit is not-so-quietly assembling one of the best overall catalogs in heavy music. In my not-so-humble opinion, this record is their finest work so far. It's as hard and heavy as music got in 2006.

Stand-Out Tracks: Colony of Birchmen, Sleeping Giant

9. Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
Smooth rhymes about riding a skateboard around town. What's not to like. It sounds like the best parts of Kanye and Pharrell with 90% less braggadociousness. This record has some of the smoothest hip hop beats of the last 5-6 years, and is still fun to listen to today.

Stand-Out Tracks: Kick Push, Pressure

10. Teddybears - Soft Machine
I dare you to listen to this record without moving your feet or at least nodding your head. It simply can't be done. This band of Swedes have made an electro pop album that I just couldn't get enough of in '06.

Stand-Out Tracks: Automatic Lover, Cobrastyle

Clip of the Week

Clip of the Week

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2005, Pt. 1

Top Ten Albums of 2005

Time to bring back the Top Ten Albums (by decade). This time, we take a visit all the way back to 2005. Enjoy and don't forget to post your own lists!

1. The Decemberists - Picaresque - The Decemberists third album is my absolute favorite. Showing off his ultra-literateness, singer-song writer Colin Meloy and company soar to new heights. Hell, even the title of the record is a literary term. Picaresque was recorded in an old church somewhere, and I could definitely see that. Meloy steers this ship on its trek, with theatrics and unparalled imagery that take the listener on a creative journey from parades to suicides.

Stand Out Tracks: The Mariner's Revenge Song, We Both Go Down Together, On the Bus Mall

2. Paul McCartney - Chaos and Creation in the Backyard - Chaos is definitely McCartney's best album in years. 2001's Driving Rain was good, with shades of wonderful, but Chaos really takes that spare formula and takes off with it, creating one of the most personal albums of his career. Of course, the addition of Nigel Godrich as producer doesn't hurt a bit.

Stand Out Tracks: Friends to Go, How Kind of You, Too Much Rain

3. Sage Francis - A Healthy Distrust - Sage is back once again in brash, grandiose fashion. He stills comes hard with his anti-hate and overtly political messages, but this time with even more swagger than before. Sure, it's heavy handed, and it's didactic, but it's also well refined, articulate hip-hop. That's not an easy thing to find today.

Stand Out Tracks: Slow Down Gandhi, Escape Artist

4. Kanye West - Late Registration - If Sage Francis is brash, Kanye West is downright narcissistic. With co-producer Jon Brion at the controls, Kanye's sharp tongued, occasional brilliance is elevated into something not seen since The Blue Print, a tongue-in-cheek rapper that spits venom with rare skills, all backed by phenomenal beats, loops, and samples.

Stand Out Tracks: Crack Music, We Major, Hey Mama

5. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois - I doubt that Sufjan's vision of capturing America on fifty different records that are representative of each state is ever actually fulfilled, but what is sure is that Illinois is a great achievement at capturing that enigmatic je ne sais quoi of Americana on one record. When my friend and I road tripped it up to Chicago (to watch the Cubbies, natch), this album was thoroughly worn out. The fact that it fit so well as a soundtrack while actually traversing the state of Illinois is a testament to the power of the record.

Stand Out Tracks: John Wanyne Gacy Jr., The Seer's Tower

6. Ben Folds - Songs for Silverman - Songs for Silverman is a well crafted, sentimental meoldoious piano pop album that harkens back to the 1990's when Folds was set to take up the nerdiest rocker mantle. Songs for Silverman is a little more grown up than say Whatever and Ever Amen, featuring tracks about Folds' young dauther ("Gracie") and even a heartfelt eulogy for the late Elliot Smith ("Late").

Interesting Trivia: Weird Al" Yankovic, who directed Folds' video for "Rockin' the Suburbs," contributes backing vocals to "Time."

Stand Out Tracks: Gracie, Late, Trusted

7. My Morning Jacket - Z - This is one of my favorite My Morning Jacket records. Jim James' voice is really on display here, shinging as it does on tracks like "What a Wonderful Man". A lot of groovy pop stuff mixed with southern style rock and roll proves to be a good mix when it comes from these Kentuckians.

Stand Out Tracks: Wordless Chorus, What a Wonderful Man

8. Queens of the Stone Age - Lullabies to Paralyze - Though Grohl didn't come back this time around from his stint on Songs for the Deaf and despite the fact that Nick Oliveri was fired from the band, Lullabies to Paralyze, is still a hard-rocking, bass thumping album to groove out to. Seriously infectuous, the album is full of great hooks to keep you coming back.

Stand Out Tracks: Tangled Up in Plaid, Burn the Witch

9. Animal Collective - Feels - Animal Collective are a pretty strange band that know how to put together a record. Most bands today don't make records, they compile singles together on album, but it's really hard for me to listen to anything on Feels out of context. You really miss out on the completeness of it that way. The album starts out with what are as close to straight forward pop songs as Animal Collective does, and then morphs into a more organic, ambient beast that kind of lumbers at you like the ghost of some dream you once had. The records finishes with a the perky "Turn in to Something", and I don't think that's by accident, as the album truly is a process of metamorphisis.

Stand Out Tracks: Bees, Grass, Banshee Beat

10. Circa Survive - Juturna - Call me crazy, but I really like Circa Survive. These Pennsylvania rockers get my blood pumping. Sounding more than just a little like At the Drive-In, Circa Survive is a punky, experimental band lead by Anthony Green, former singer of the defunct This Day Forward. For my money, Juturna is one of the best albums of 2005, and it just feels like it needs to be listened to on a summer drive, maybe one with no destination.

Stand Out Tracks: Holding Someone's Hair Back, Stop the Fucking Car

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cobra Commander!?

From Gi Joe: The Rise of Cobra

So, recently there have been some action figures from the upcoming film Gi Joe: The Rise of Cobra popping up on eBay, not the least disturbing of which is this Cobra Commander figure. Look, I didn't freak out when I heard that my beloved bafoon was going to be played by 3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I didn't get mad when I found out that Larry Hama was no longer attached to the picture in any way, shape, or form. But this? Really, this is the best they could do for Cobra Commander?

I assumed they would go for the easy way with the classic blue hood. Maybe they thought that was too "Klan-ish", who knows. But what about the metal face-plate? Couldn't they at least have gone that route? For the love of everything unholy, he looks like some kind of retarded scuba diver here! He is absolutely unidentifiable as Cobra Commander. Hollywood is really testing my patience on this one.

And what's with the guns that the figure comes with? Is that a rocket launcher that shoots green lazer beams? Some kind of reject accessory from the Eco Warriors line? And on the photograph to the left of the figure, it looks like he's got some kind of futuristic cutting torch. This really worries me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Seinfeld Cast Reunite

Seinfeld Cast on Curb Your Enthusiasm

So, this news is from about a month ago, but I just now noticed it. I'm a Seinfeld freak, so I really do feel the need to post it.

Apparently this fall, all four of the major cast members will be involved in a story arc on Larry David's HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, David being one of the creators of Seinfeld. This will mark the first time the cast has been together in nearly eleven years (!), hard to believe that the show has been off the air that long. As of now, no date has been set for the episodes, nor for the start of Curb's seventh season, but look for it this fall! You can check out the Variety article here.

- Jordan M.
Sulphur Springs, TX

Saturday, April 4, 2009

MLB 2009 Season Preview - NL Central

NL Central Champions - Chicago Cubs
100 years. That’s a long time to wait for anything. For Cubs fans, that’s how long they’ve waited since the team’s last World Series win. But, this year’s squad sports arguably their best shot to reverse the Curse of the Billy Goat.
This is a team loaded with talent all across the diamond. The lineup is one of the best in the National League headlined by outfielder and 40-40 candidate from the leadoff spot Alfonso Soriano. Behind Sori, All-Stars Derek Lee, Geovany Soto, Aramis Ramirez, and Milton Bradley provide a lot of bat. The starting rotation is one of the elite corps in baseball with All-Stars Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly, as well as Rich Harden, acquired in a trade with Oakland at last year’s trade deadline, who many scouts feel is among the most talented pitchers in the game when healthy (unfortunately, that hasn’t been very often in Rich’s career). The bullpen is both deep and good. Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol will battle back and forth most of the year for the closer’s job, Luis Vizcaino, Neal Cotts and Chad Gaudin are solid contributors out of the ‘pen, and Aaron Heilman should rebound to previous form as a legitimate bullpen arm after his exile from the Mets.
Taking everything into account, I feel like if the Cubs are ever going to win another title, this team is the one that could do it. But, North Siders aren’t going to hold their breath.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Top positional prospect Josh Vitters is one of the best hitters in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, perennial All-Star third baseman Aramis Ramirez is blocking Vitters path to the majors for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, 2009 full-season rookie Jeff Samardzija is poised to be a big-time arm for Chicago. After being called up last July, “Shark” showed enough in limited action that manager Lou Piniella said, “He’ll never see the minors again.” Samardzija throws a high-90’s fastball, splitter, slider, and changeup, giving him the perfect pitch set to excel both as a starter and reliever. He’ll see consistent action as both all year.

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brew Crew made a splash at the 2008 trade deadline by acquiring defending Cy Young ace C.C. Sabathia in exchange for top hitting prospect Matt LaPorta. Well, Milwaukee essentially gave up LaPorta’s big bat for a 3 month rental. This offseason, CC and former ace Ben Sheets (presumably) departed in free agency. That level of pitching is hard to replace for any team. The good news, though, is that LaPorta was just one piece in a very strong crop of young, talented players that have come up through the farm system in the last few years. Since 2002, the Brewers have cultivated a pair of big hitting corner outfielders (Corey Hart & Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun), a complete infield (1B Prince Fielder, 2B Rickie Weeks, SS J.J. Hardy, 3B Bill Hall – with highly rated prospect Matt Gamel on the horizon), and a young ace-in-making (Yovani Gallardo). Their bullpen is still a bit of an issue – maybe they should “home grow” some relief help. Carlos Villanueva and Jorge Julio are the best of the bunch backing freshly signed closer future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, but Julio and Hoffman are running on fumes at this stage in their respective careers. Behind Gallardo, Dave Bush and Manny Parra both have shown promise as big league starters, but Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper are two guys just lucky to have a job in the majors. When it’s all said and done, I think this team will compete for a Wild Card berth, but ultimately, fall short based on needing a few more years for the group to gel and develop more. Look out for 2010-2011 though
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Hall and Hardy (which sounds like either characters from a buddy-cop movie or a bad 80’s pop duo) had both better be on watch for their jobs. Venezuelan shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar (which sounds like the bad guy drug lord from the aforementioned buddy cop movie) projects as a Rafael Furcal-type with a high batting average and a slick glove. Third base project Matt Gamel looks like a potential liability in the field if he stays at the hot corner, but Bill Hall is not exactly Gold Glove material to begin with. Gamel would also be an improvement offensively, but he may end up moving to first if the Brewers continue considering trading Prince Fielder for top flight pitching help. Either way, he could be making his presence felt this year.

St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa always finds a way to make sure his team is competitive even without having the same level of talent as other teams. This year, he’ll have extra work to do because the roster isn’t very deep. All-World first baseman Albert Pujols is the best baseball player I’ve seen since young Griffey in his prime. He is one of a very short list of players that I’ll always stop to watch if their team is on TV. Outfielders Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick have been surprising top offensive contributors over the last couple of seasons. Trading for San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene in the offseason helped improve the infield offense pretty significantly over Cesar Izturis from ’08. Catcher Yadier is arguably the best of the Molina Family of Catchers. However, the pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. The bullpen is above average, but nothing spectacular. Newcomer Jason Motte is a fireballer as closer, and Ryan Franklin, Dennys Reyes, and Kyle McClellan are all capable relief options. The starting rotation of Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Chris Carpenter, and Joel Pinerio is a ho-hum bunch at best. Ultimately, unless LaRussa can get this team to exceed its potential, a 3rd or 4th place finish in the division is a safe bet.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Redbirds’ highly touted prospect Colby Rasmus is considered almost unanimously by scouts as one of the 3-4 best in youngsters in baseball. He should get a chance to play full-time at some point this season if he can play well enough to unseat Chris Duncan in left field (Ankiel and Ludwick are basically etched in stone for the time being), he has the talent not only to help out this year, but to be an All-Star caliber player for years to come. Think J.D. Drew without the injuries or baggage.

Cincinnati Reds
This team is confusing to me. They have some good pieces in place, but then they just never can seem to put it all together at the same time. I like the Reds. I do. Their outfield of Jay Bruce (the top overall prospect in baseball prior to last season) along with newly signed centerfielder Willy Tavares and rookie Chris Dickerson is one of the most athletic units in the National League. Their infield boasts two of my favorite young players in Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto. The pitching rotation has a chance to either be really good or really bad with ace Aaron Harang due for a bounce-back year, and young guys Edison Volquez (fresh off an All-Star selection last summer), Johnny Cueto, Micah Owings, and former top pitching prospect Homer Bailey all ready to have good years. “Coco” Cordero is one of the best closers in baseball. The bad news is that recent history tells me that this team, despite its potential to be fairly good, will likely still not finish higher than 4th in this really deep division.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: Cincinnati is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to their farm system. Their top youngster, first baseman and hitting machine Yonder Alonso, is backlogged by incumbent starter Joey Votto. Unless the team decides to move Votto either to a new position or another team (highly unlikely), Alonso may be waiting in the wings for a while. His talent, however, needs to be in the big leagues soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s been a long, long time since this team was even mediocre, let alone good. It’ll be much of the same this year in Steeltown, but the future is starting to shape up nicely for this downtrodden franchise. Centerfielder Nate McClouth had a real breakout last season and made the All-Star team. The brothers LaRoche (first baseman Adam and third baseman Andy) look like they’re finally starting to click at the major league level after years of potential. Catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit really turned it on last year to finish with an average over .300 for the season. Two-time All-Star Freddy Sanchez had a down year last year, but is still only two years removed a batting title. The pitching staff reeks of potential with all 5 starters (Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, and Jeff Karstens) being under 30 years old. John Grabow and Craig Hansen are a solid young base for the bullpen in front of 25 year-old closer Matt Capps. This team has a little ways to go, but the future, for once, looks bright in Pittsburgh.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: The Pirates have at least two elite level prospects on their hands, both of whom rank among the top 20 overall prospects in baseball. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is a legit 5-tool player who oozes with ability. He has plus-plus-rated speed, hits for both power and average, and uses his athleticism to patrol the outfield with the best of them. He reminds me a little bit of an unpolished, young version of a certain other Pirates outfield prospect from a while back. I think his last name was “Bonds”. Left-handed power hitting third baseman Pedro Alvarez was the #2 overall draft pick in the 2008 draft, and is already looking like not only an everyday player, but a bit like a Dominican Wade Boggs. Obviously, both kids are for real, and, if Pirates management has a clue, they’ll both see significant action this season.

Houston Astros
Everything is bigger in Texas…except for the upside of this team. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are perennial All-Stars. Hunter Pence is one of my favorites. Kaz Matsui and Michael Bourn are nice players, but the rest of the lineup is crap. Outside of Roy Oswalt (who started looking like damaged goods in the WBC, by the way) and closer Jose Valverde, the roster is nearly void of pitching. I really don’t have much else to say. I know the ‘Stros finished 3rd last year, but I feel like that was an aberration. A lack of pitching depth will ultimately prove to be this club’s Achilles heel, and they’ll finish in the cellar in ’09.
HELP IS ON THE WAY: 2008 top draft pick Jason Castro may still be a couple years away, but his plate discipline is something that most young hitters struggle to grasp so early. Defensively, he can get lost at times and allow some passed balls and stolen bases, but he has the physical tools to be able to get better. Think Ramon Hernandez with more patience.
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