1) Chicago Cubs: In our mind, three things point to the Cubs winning the NL Central this year. First of all, pitching makes teams great, and this staff has Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, and Glendon Rusch. Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½Nuff said. Right now, their staff is injured and depleted, but can you imagine these guys fully healthy and throwing well in August? It’s scary. Secondly, with the Red Sox finally winning it all, isn’t the clock now ticking on this franchise? And finally, we’re firm believers in clubhouse chemistry. Sammy Sosa can jack them out like few others, but he was a malcontent who abandoned his team. He’s in Baltimore
now, and the rest of the squad seems pretty tight-knit. They’ll miss the run production from Sosa and Moises Alou, so hopefully Aramis Ramirez
and Derrek Lee can become 30 HR, 100 RBI guys this year. Jeromy Burnitz should drive in some runs, and Nomar is playing for a long-term deal. Corey Patterson needs to improve his OBP, and Jason DuBois has limited bat, but improves the outfield defense. The bottom line in Chi-Town is this: the Cubs have a bunch of question marks on offense, certainly. Their pitching is superb, and their bullpen is decently deep. The latter fact will allow them to stay in games they’re struggling in because of the former fact. That, and you just gotta believe karma is on their side now, don’t you?
2) St. Louis Cardinals: It’s hard to pick the Cubs to win the NL Central, when you consider that the Cardinals won the whole NL last year, and return the two best corner infielders in the game — Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen — as well as adding LHP Mark Mulder from Oakland (and his .659 winning percentage). Still, the Cardinals lost table-setter Edgar Renteria to the Red Sox, and Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders, and Larry Walker are only getting older (and more brittle). The rotation is deep and consistent, but doesn’t even touch the Cubs’ version — Matt Morris is healthier now, and could win 15 games. Chris Carpenter missed the World Series, providing him with intrinsic motivation to return. His command is excellent, and he’ll pitch right behind Mulder. Mark Grudzielanek has bounced around more than some people change socks, but he’ll provide some slap hits in the bottom of a deep lineup and allow the front guys to drive him in. The Cardinals are getting older, but their rotation and order are both loaded, and their manager might be the best in the game. All of them would love to return to the Fall Classic and win it, and in the always-hot NL Central, they’re no strangers to pennant races. If they get off to the same start they did last year, there’s no way Chicago can keep up. If they start with an average April and May, though, the Cubs pitching will put them over St. Louis come August and September.
3) Cincinnati Reds: In a division loaded with good pitchers, is it really a good idea to pick the Reds as third? They’re arguably the most pitching-starved team here. Paul Wilson and Eric Milton “anchor” their rotation, and the first part of this sentence should terrify any Cincinnati fan. Danny Graves was a dependable closer last year, but it’s questionable how often the team will actually need him. Still, we went with the Reds in third for a variety of reasons. Most notably, conventional wisdom would put the Astros here, but it’s entirely possible the Astros will be 20 games under .500 on June 1st and may never recover. The Brewers and Pirates have good young talent, but on July 31st, will any of it be in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee? The Reds, meanwhile, have an assortment of bats. Adam Dunn, according to a Sports Illustrated article from years back, can “hit the ball a country mile.” Sean Casey is a producer, and, ahem, the team does have Ken Griffey Jr. If Griffey can stay healthy — the biggest “if” in baseball right now — he’ll hit 30 home runs, and Willy Mo Pena can be trade bait for another pitcher. Joe Randa can hit Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½em deep, and D’Angelo Jimenez and Felipe Lopez can be solid at the top of the order if they improve their OBPs. In sum, the Reds have a lot of pop, and might finish in a similar situation to the Orioles — slugging out wins 10-7 and losing games 11-10 the next night.
4) Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers are a long-running joke in sports, but they have a chance this year to take some small steps back towards the Molitor and Yount days — if they hold on at the deadline. Ben Sheets is the ace. He struck out 18 in a game last year, almost hurled a perfect one, and was easily one of the top ten statistical pitchers in baseball. In the off-season, he had a herniated disk removed from his back, and without the pain, he should win 20 this year. Danny Davis finished 12-12 last year, and worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux to reduce his reliance on the cutter. Davis and Sheets are a nice left-right complement at the top of the rotation, and the lineup has some balance too. Geoff Jenkins, an ultimate fantasy sleeper, might rack up 35 homers and 125 RBIs this year. Carlos Lee, an off-season grab, would have led the ’04 Brewers in homers and RBIs. Russell Branyan and Lyle Overbay are both high-risk, high-reward type of guys: Overbay hit .344 through July of ’04, and .245 after. There’s no true replacement for the generating of runs that Scott Podsednik created, but Damian Miller is the team’s first legitimate catcher since Dave Nilsson — remember that name? Miller should help the younger guys in the rotation, as well as a young bullpen that might have trouble after the loss of Dan Kolb to the Braves. If Milwaukee doesn’t sell the farm at the deadline, look for them to be similar to the Tigers — a below .500 team looking to contend in ’06.
5) Houston Astros: GM Gerry Hunsicker “retired” (= he’ll probably get the Nationals’ job once they get a new owner in place) in the thick of the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes, handing the reigns to long-time assistant Tim Purpura. Purpura fumbled the handoff, and Beltran went to the Mets. At the same time this was all happening, Lance Berkman tore his knee in a church football game, and Jeff Kent went to the Dodgers. Where does this leave the Astros? Well, they won’t be 1 game from the World Series this October. Roger Clemens returned. He’s 42, and that would normally cause us to doubt him, but let’s be honest — what basis would we have? He’ll win 15 games and strikeout 200 flailing young hitters. If Andy Pettite can return to form, and Roy Oswalt can put up 17 wins (he had 20 last year), this is a great rotation. Brandon Backe, a local who shined in the playoffs last year, gets a staff spot alongside youngster Carlos Hernandez. The front five is capable of 60 wins, which would be excellent, because the lineup needs some work. Berkman won’t be back until early June, which means 70 percent of the Astros’ RBI totals from last year won’t be in uniform for the first 60 games. Bagwell and Biggio are getting old, and their best chance for a Fall Classic probably just passed them by — they’re working alongside young talent like Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Adam Everett, and Orlando Palmeiro now. These guys will all pan out — Burke is a former No. 1 pick — but probably not until 2009 or 2010. If the Astros can hammer out some wins in the first two months, they might put themselves in contention for a wild-card stretch run; they certainly have the pitching staff to do so.
6) Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates haven’t posted a winning season since the early Clinton administration, when Barry Bonds played for them. Again, the organization is hapless, but has bright spots. Oliver Perez is only 23, and one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. Lefties regularly take a day off against his high-90s fastball, wicked slider, and floating curve. Kip Wells, the No. 2 starter, has some good stuff, and Josh Fogg, at the three-spot in the rotation, has been likened in some respects to Greg Maddux. Here’s the problem, though: you know NL Cy Young candidate Jason Schmidt? He was a Pirate once. So was Mets’ possible ace Kris Benson. If the Pirates hold on to any of these guys in July, they’ll build a promising future. If not, we’ll keep seeing Pirates’ All-Star teams in different unis. Jason Bay and Jack Wilson are two promising youngsters in the lineup, which is good considering Benito Santiago — signed to ease the departure of Jason Kendall — must be 80 years old by now. Craig Wilson led the team in homers, but wore down later, and Ty Wigginton must be more productive after coming over from the Mets. We can’t pick the Pirates any higher until they show a commitment to their future, not just fielding a team for the sake of their legacy.