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National League Central Preview: In Chicago, It’s Still Not “Next Year”

Good players

I’m not sure why, but this spring training season has gotten out of the way pretty quickly. Last year, it seemed to linger forever. But the first game is tonight, we are just one day away from “opening day” and three days away from the first 30-team schedule date. In anticipation of a new dawn for the greatest sport around — no arguments — I’ll be touching on each division with a not-so-thorough preview.

The Cincinnati Reds are charging for the first time in years, the Brewers have four legitimate stars and the Cubs are always hanging around. But this division still belongs to the team that possesses its best hitter, best manager and two best starting pitchers.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Chris Carpenter is healthy for now. When he is, he’s as dominant as almost anyone. When he’s not, it’s nice to have a second ace behind him in Adam Wainwright. The rest of the rotation doesn’t look great, but don’t forget how Dave Duncan has the Midas touch with pitchers. He did it with Kyle Lohse a couple of years ago. The newest project is Brad Penny. He had a couple of tough seasons before an impressive six-start stretch with the Giants last season. Now he lands in St. Louis and should be very serviceable as the team’s No. 4. Rookie Jaime Garcia earned the fifth spot.

The bullpen could be a sore spot if Ryan Franklin can’t repeat what he did last season and that’s going to be difficult. He was nearly untouchable before allowing seven earned runs in 9.1 September innings. He doesn’t record a ton of strikeouts, so he needs to rely on his control and defense. I don’t think he’ll completely blow up this season, but he certainly won’t have an ERA of less than 1.10 heading into the final month again. Jason Motte would be the first in line if anything were to happen to Franklin. He can miss a lot of bats, but he is the reason why Franklin was able to have so many saves. Motte was named the closer prior to the start of last season, but was clearly not ready for that stage. Overall, this is not a flashy-good pen. But it’s effective enough. And I give it extra points for containing one of the most bad ass names in baseball.

The lineup doesn’t make your mouth water past Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. But if Ryan Ludwick can continue driving in about 100 runs a year and Colby Rasmus puts all of his tools to work, the Cardinals have an extremely good outfield and a lineup with at least four dangerous bats. Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumacher aren’t much, but their jobs are simple: Play defense and just find any way to get on base in front of the team’s dynamic duo.

2. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs aren’t getting a great return on their investment. Aramis Ramirez will be paid nearly $16 million and he may be the team’s most valuable hitter if he can stay healthy. He missed 80 games last year. With about 150 games, there is no doubt he can be a major producer. But if he can’t, the drop to Chad Tracy is steep. Derrek Lee ($13 million) will turn 35 this season and we don’t know if he will put up numbers similar to his 2005 and 2009 seasons or those from his less-powerful 2007-2008 campaigns. Kosuke Fukudome ($13 million) is probably earning half of that at most. And worst of all, Alfonso Soriano ($18 million for this year and for EACH OF THE NEXT FOUR YEARS) shows no signs of regaining his once 40-40 ability. He has missed an average of 41 games in his first three years on the North Side, his legs are shot, his power is dwindling and he’s still swinging at all those sliders three feet off the outside corner.

Again, if all these players play like we know they can, the Cubs will have a formidable offense. But playing like we know they can seems very unlikely.

Alfonso Soriano is thinking up different ways to be disappointing this season

You often hear in the spring about how players are in the best shape of their lives, but Carlos Zambrano actually looks like the truth. It’s amazing to me that he is only 28 years old. He may no longer strikeout 200 batters, but he’ll keep his ERA to less than four and take care of a lot of innings. He is complemented by Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells. Then, with Ted Lilly missing at least the first month of the season due to injury, the rotation gets ugly. Specifically, Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva. There is no Carpenter or Gallardo or even a Wandy Rodriguez in the mix, but if Lilly returns strong, that’s four good starters.

The bullpen has received as much of an overhaul as any team in the game. John Grabow will be entering his first full season with the Cubs while the inexperienced Esmailin Caridad, Jeff Samardzija and Justin Berg will all take on big roles. Carlos Marmol is now the team’s unquestioned closer. He can be he can leave you speechless from one day to the next for completely different reasons. Mental approach and control — 200 walks in 307.2 career innings — will make or break his season. There will be a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks and a lot of nervous vibes throughout Wrigley Field while Marmol is on the bump.

3. Cincinnati Reds

I’m somewhat of a believer. I’m not putting the Reds in the playoffs, but third place and a good chance at a plus-.500 record is a big step forward. The Reds haven’t compiled a winning record since 2000. But there is a lot to like. On the infield, Joey Votto put up a .981 OPS last season and that’s no fluke. Brandon Phillips is one of the best offensive second basemen. Orlando Cabrera, who was signed for the equivalent a couple of gallons of gas in the offseason, is always underrated. He’s not a good fielder, but he’ll always post an offensive line close to .280-90-9-70-15. Scott Rolen’s body restricts his plate ability, but he still has a mean glove.

In the outfield, Chris Dickerson and Jonny Gomes make up a respectable speed-power platoon in left. Center fielder Drew Stubbs will bat first and can be a 20-20 player this year. The big key for the offense is whether Jay Bruce, who people thought would be the next Natural, can up his average about 40-50 points, because .223 isn’t going to work.

The talk about the pitching rotation has centered around Aroldis Chapman, but forget about him for while. He’ll start the year in the minors. The rest of the group is not as good as the Cubs’ rotation, but Bronson Arroyo is coming off the second-best season of his career and Aaron Harang will pitch a lot of innings, even if he gives up a lot of hits. Johnny Cueto has an electric repertoire and maybe Homer Bailey is finally fulfilling his potential after a positive September.

Plus, if this staff is able to keep the Reds in the race long enough, they’ll not only have Chapman by midseason, but maybe a former Cy Young candidate in August.

Francisco Cordero will save 35-40 games again. Arthur Rhodes has pitched surprisingly well for the past two years and he is still getting it done against lefties. Past that, I’m not very confident about this bullpen.

I think the Reds have a lot of the pieces to be a playoff team. They aren’t a very young team, but they need another year or two to put it all together.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder will always provide fireworks. The rest of the lineup holds a lot of quality players who have underperformed. Rickie Weeks finally started to come around last season, but a wrist injury ended it in May. He has hit well this spring and can be a 25-25 player. Corey Hart is better than his numbers from last year and Mat Gamel will help out when he returns from injury in about a month. For the good of the offense, manager Ken Macha must move Carlos Gomez out of that two hole. He will end a lot of innings and force Braun to leadoff too often.

Randy Wolf allowed 24 home runs in 2009, but if he repeats that season, the Brewers won't complain

Jim Edmonds made the team, which always reminds me of this.

Yovani Gallardo is an ace in my mind, but the pitching behind him is not enough to stick with the top half of the division. Randy Wolf will be hard pressed to recreate his career-best season (in some respects ) of 2009. Then it’s a bunch of average pitchers with Doug Davis, Dave Bush and Manny Parra. Statistically, the Brewers had the worst rotation in the majors last season. Wolf is a nice addition, but it’s not nearly enough.

How many people realize that Trevor Hoffman had a sub-2.00 ERA last year? It will not be the bullpen pitchers who hurt this team. Todd Coffey, LaTroy Hawkins and Claudio Vargas are all coming off good seasons.

5. Houston Astros

With Lance Berkman out for a few weeks after knee surgery, the Astros’ opening-day infield, going counterclockwise from catcher, will likely consist of J.R. Towles, Geoff Blum, Kaz Matsui, Tommy Manzella and Pedro Feliz.

Yikes.

Even when Berkman returns, it’s not like he’s going to hit 35 homers and drive in 120 runs. He has been dogged by injuries for almost all of the past calendar year and he’s not a physical specimen by any means. The team’s best healthy hitters are Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, who especially needs to play over his head to pick up the slack from the rest of the offense. The bench is weak and, even worse, there is very little help on the way.

Roy Oswalt will start on opening day, but Wandy Rodriguez is now the best pitcher on the staff. Last year was the first season since ’03 in which Oswalt failed to pitch 200 innings. His strikeout numbers are falling, but Rodriguez has the ability to get 200 Ks. And Wandy is extremely good at home.

OK, so the top of the rotation is solid. Unfortunately, the rest is shaky at best. Brett Myers has been declining for each of the past three years. Bud Norris can be a successful power pitcher, but Felipe Paulino wouldn’t be starting any games on 20 other teams. The bullpen is headed Matt Lindstrom, who beat out Brandon Lyon for the closer’s job with a near-flawless spring. But considering how Lindstrom still hasn’t completely learned how to control his power stuff and that the team is paying Lyon $5 million for each of the next three years, the job will probably change hands before long. That’s just what this team needs: More instability.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s not all bad though. Andrew McCutchen is growing into stud status. Akinori Iwamura is a decent two-hole hitter. Although unlikely, if Garret Jones can carry over last year’s success over to a full season, we’re looking at a possible 40-20 season. Ryan Doumit was one of the game’s best offensive catchers in 2008. The rest of the lineup is filled with burnouts with good pedigrees, including Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement. Prospect Pedro Alvarez will add to the power soon.

The pitcher will bat eighth in this lineup. People say it’s to help give McCutchen more RBI chances. But let’s be honest: Most pitchers are probably more dangerous at the plate than Ronny Cedeno and his .593 OPS from last year.

Sure, the pitching isn’t great. Or good. Or even promising. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm are the top two starters. It’s rounded out by Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen. Ugh! Octavio Dotel isn’t that great of an upgrade from Matt Capps, but … oh, that’s enough.

Look, the Pirates will finish in last place. They have some true talents, but give it at least another few years before they really start to advance.

It'll be another drab year for the Pittsburgh faithful, but they do have the very entertaining Andrew McCutchen to watch

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