Around the Bases Vol III: NL Central Preview

The last division we looked at was the NL West. Now, Around the Bases takes a peek at the NL Central.

From the end of the 2007 season to the end of the 2008 season, every team in the NL Central had improved, with the exception of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They somehow managed to have dropped a game. Even the Cincinnati Reds improved by 2 wins. Oddly, the St. Louis Cardinals went from six games under .500 (78-84) to 10 games over .500 (86-76), yet still managed to drop from 3rd place to 4th place in the division. Houston had an even bigger swing, going from 16 games under .500 (73-89) to 9 games over (86-75), and went from 4th to 3rd place in the division.

The Chicago Cubs, meanwhile, maintained their dominance of the NL Central division for the 2nd year in a row. That is where Around the Bases begins today.

2008: 97-64 (1st in NL Central)

Last season’s Cubs team finished 1st in the NL in runs, RBI, OBP, Slugging, and OPS. They finished 2nd in batting average (amazingly, out of their regular starters, only right fielder Kosuke Fukudome hit below .280) and 5th in HR, enroute to their best record since 1945 when they went 98-56. That season, they had the best record in baseball (only 16 teams then), but lost the World Series in 7 games to the Detroit Tigers.

In 2008, they had the 2nd best record in baseball, but didn’t make it past the Division Series, where they were beaten by the LA Dodgers. This time, there was no Bartman, no goat, only a better team, led by a suddenly reinvigorated Manny Ramirez.

This season, the outfield will benefit greatly by the addition of Milton Bradley (.321, 22 HR, 77 RBI in 132 games with Texas). We heard very little out of Bradley last season in the way of controversy. After a tumultuous 2006 and 2007 where he seemed to be in the news frequently, he appears to be finally maturing. The one remaining concern is that he tends to be injury prone. They also signed CF Joey Gathright, a free agent from the Kansas City Royals. Gathright will be an acceptable back-up if something happens to Bradley.

One of the strongest leadoff hitters in baseball, Alfonso Soriano, moves to leftfield from center where he played last season. The Milton Bradley acquisition caused a domino effect, moving Kosuke Fukudome from right to center, and moving Soriano from center to left. Last season, Soriano hit 29 HR with 75 RBI , despite missing 58 games with a calf injury. It was his 7th straight season hitting over 25 HR. Only the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez had more HR (32) batting lead-off last season.

The Cubs’ infield remains solid. 1B Derrek Lee (.291, 20 HR, 90 RBI), will put up some numbers, but he has never returned to the pre-broken wrist, .335, 46 HR, 107 RBI form that he was in during the 2004 season. Aramis Ramirez who finished last season tied for 4th among NL 3B in both HR (27) and average (.289), and 2nd in RBI (111) comes back to third base. There’s no reason not to think he won’t do at least the same again, since these numbers are right around his career averages. Where he really excelled last season was in walks. His 72 free trips last year were a third better than his career average of 48. The Cubs hope that this renewed patience at the plate continues.

The loss of 2B Mark DeRosa will hurt, and the pick-up of Aaron Miles from St. Louis will not ease the pain, at least not at the plate. Last season, DeRosa hit 21 HR (T-3rd for NL 2B) and 87 RBI (4th for NL 2B). Miles, on the other hand, hit 4 HR with 31 RBI, but he did have a .317 average.

And we can’t forget catcher Giovani Soto. Last season, Soto started strong right out of the gate and never stopped. He led all rookies in RBI (86), hits (145), doubles (35), OBP (.364). He finished 1st among NL rookies in HR (23), batting average (.285), slugging (.504), and OPS (.868). All of this earned him NL Rookie of the Year honors. The Cubs need him to have similar numbers, along with Lee, Ramirez, and others to have even better offensive numbers than last season if they still want to contend.

In an updated story from the Chicago Tribune, it appears that manager Lou Piniella is considering trying out some other leadoff hitters besides Soriano. Bradley, Fukodome, and newly acquired Miles were all mentioned.

Last season’s starting pitching was among the best in the NL. They finished 3rd in both team ERA (3.87) and WHIP (1.29), and 1st in batter’s average against (.242).

With the rotation they have this season, there’s no reason not to think that they won’t be even better this season.

Leading off the rotation is Big Z, Carlos Zambrano. His ’08 numbers (14-6, 3.91 ERA) weren’t his best, but his dominance on the mound cannot be understated. And his no-hitter that he tossed against Houston in Sept certainly helped his reputation.

Fighting for the ace position will be Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly, who both had 17 wins last season (T-3rd in NL). Dempster would have the edge, because he had only six losses compared to Lilly’s 9, and his ERA was far lower (2.96 compared to 4.09). Both have a good shot at a 20-win season this year.

The number 4 spot will likely go to Rich Harden, who was acquired from the A’s mid-season last year. Once he joined the Cubs, Harden went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts.

The interesting position this season for the Cubs will be the closer role. Now that the Carlos Marmol – Kerry Wood experiment is over (Wood was traded to Cleveland), Marmol may move up to the closer position with one of either Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin, or Jeff Samardzija as the setup guy. But, the Cubs recently picked up Kelly Gregg from the Marlins. Gregg has 61 saves over the past two seasons. So, Marmol’s role as closer might not be as secure as one would have thought.

As long as the pitching stays healthy, and Milton Bradley doesn’t revert back to his old, unhinged self, the Cubs should be in a great position to win at least 95 games and take the division again. Once they get into the post-season, however, it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll do.

2008: 86-76, (4th Place, 11.5 GB)

Yes, it’s true that the Milwaukee Brewer’s finished 2nd last season (90-72), but after losing starters C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and not adding any value to their rotation, this team will be lucky to win 75 games this season.

So, we’re going to look at the St. Louis Cardinals instead.

It really is unbelievable to think that this team was 10 games over .500 last season and still finished 4th in the division. As a team, they finished first in the NL in average (.281), and 2nd in the NL in both OPS (.783) and OBP (.350). They finished 6th in HR (174), and 4th in RBI (744) and runs (779). Overall, a very good offensive year by any standard.

Last season, Pujols let the team in HR (37), RBI (116), average (.357), and OPS (1.114). Now that the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has admitted cheating from ’01-’03, the next great hope we have to save the game is Cards’ 1B Albert Pujols. And he is well on his way to the elite status. According to ESPN’s research department, Pujols is the only player in baseball history to have at least a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and 99 runs scored in each of his first eight big-league seasons.

Many people, including me, feel that his two NL MVP Awards (’05, ’08) are at least two less than what he should have on his mantle. He came in 2nd in NL MVP voting twice, losing both times (’02 and ’03) to Barry Bonds. And in ’04, when he came in 3rd in the voting, Bonds came in first and a now very questionable Adrian Beltre, came in 2nd. Keep in mind that Beltre had 48 HR, 121 RBI, 200 hits, and batted .334. His previous highs, prior to that was: 26 HR, 99 RBI, 166 hits, and .290 average, spread out over several different seasons.

During the off-season, the Cards lost both starting SS Felipe Lopez (6 HR, 46 RBI, .283), starting 2B Adam Kennedy (2 HR, 36 RBI, .280), and backup 2B Aaron Miles (see Cubs above), but gained former San Diego Padres All-Star SS Khalil Greene (10 HR, 35 RBI, .213). Greene last played on July 30th, when he broke his hand punching a locker. In 2007, Greene hit 27 HR with 97 RBI, both career highs, but hit a low .254.

Replacing Kennedy, who was released by the team a few days ago after being unable to satisfy his trade request, is going to be a bit more interesting. It appears that manager Tony LaRussa plans on giving former outfielder Skip Schumaker a shot at the position. Schumaker (8 HR, 46 RBI, .302, 163 hits) played all of last season, and in fact, his entire 4-year career, in the outfield. Of course, LaRussa has a “Plan B”. That would be Joe Thurston., who was traded from the Pawtucket Red Sox in a minor league trade last August. In 66 Major League at bats over a four year period, Thurston has 0 HR, 2 RBI, and 15 hits, for a .227 average.

To make matters even more dicey for LaRussa, he also isn’t going to have 4-time All-Star 3B Troy Glaus for at least the first several weeks of the season. Glaus had shoulder surgery in January and will need some serious recovery time. Stepping in for Glaus will be rookie David Freese. Freese does have some major potential. Last season in Triple-A Memphis, Freese, batted .306 with 26 home runs.

The outfield will consist of former pitcher Rick Ankiel (25 HR, 71 RBI, .264), Ryan Ludwick (37 HR, 113 RBI, .299), and Chris Duncan (6 HR, 27 RBI, .248, in 76 games). Last season, Ludwick came in 2nd to Pujols in nearly every major offensive category.

Pitchers Adam Wainwright (11-3, 3.20 ERA), Kyle Lohse (15-6, 3.78), Todd Wellemeyer (13-9, 3.71), and Joel Pineiro (7-7, 5.15) all return from last season. Missing will be pitcher Braden Looper (12-4, 4.16), who was lost to free agency. Moving back into the starting role, at least temporarily, depending on his performance, will be Brad Thompson (6-3, 5.15). Last season, Thompson spent time as both a starter and a reliever. If he doesn’t do well as a starter, he could find himself right back in the pen.

The Cards also lost the services of former closer Jason Isringhousen to the Tampa Bay Rays, via free agency. Last season, Izzy had already lost his job as the team’s closer, and only racked up one entire save. This was nothing like his ’04 season, when he led the league in saves (47). They also lost reliever Russ Springer (2-1, 15 holds, 2.32) to free agency. Springer is expected to be prominently used for the Oakland A’s this season.

The team hasn’t had much luck with closers the past couple of years. Last season’s closer, Ryan Franklin (6-6, 3.55), had a team high 17 saves, with 8 blown saves. This season, LaRussa is going to give 2nd year player Chris Perez (3-3, 7 saves, 6 holds, 3.46) a shot. That is, unless the team signs a veteran closer sometime between now and the start of the season.

Overall, this team really doesn’t look too bad, especially compared to most of the rest of the division. Their record may not improve, but they could easily find themselves finishing 2nd or 3rd in the standings at season’s end.