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.
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.
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.
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.
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.