Previewing the 2010 National League Central
The Cardinals succeeded in 2009 on the excellent pitching of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Pineiro, along with Albert Pujols carrying an otherwise below-average offense. They added Matt Holiday midway through the season, and he took off upon leaving Oakland and returning to the National League. The Cardinals will look a little different in 2010, particularly in the infield. Albert Pujols is the best hitter, the best player in the game and probably won’t get too much help from his infield mates. David Freese is the presumed third baseman, taking over for the departed Mark DeRosa and the ineffective Joe Thurston. They signed Felipe Lopez to back up every position on the diamond, and I have a feeling he’ll be seeing his name on the lineup card quite a bit. Colby Rasmus begins his second full season in the major leagues and is a prime candidate for a breakout season. The pitching staff has question marks also. Carpenter is always a question mark; when he pitches he’s a stud but he might fall apart at any time. The Cardinals signed Brad Penny for the back of their rotation, and the bullpen has question marks too; counting on Ryan Franklin again might be dangerous, and they traded two young bullpen arms to Cleveland for DeRosa last summer. They are the clear favorites in this division but it wouldn’t surprise me if any of the next three teams caught them in 2010.
Last year Milwaukee lost Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia, and it showed. Coupled with a knee injury that took away most of Yovani Gallardo’s season, their starting rotation was among the worst in the league, and the bullpen didn’t provide much relief. The position players performed admirably, well enough to again be considered for a playoff spot, but they gave up too many runs. They shipped shortstop J.J. Hardy to Minnesota for Carlos Gomez, who will take over for Mike Cameron in centerfield. Alcides Escobar will take over full-time for Hardy at shortstop; defensively, all four of these players are very good, but the Brewers will miss the bats of Hardy and Cameron. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are one of the most devastating 3-4 combinations in the league, and I think Milwaukee will score plenty of runs again in 2010. They added Randy Wolf to join Gallardo at the top of the rotation. The back of the rotation is riddled with question marks, and the nicest thing I can say about the bullpen is that it’s experienced. Counting on 38-year old relievers is not a foolproof plan, but it is Milwaukee’s in 2010. If they get some breaks (big year from Casey McGehee, bounceback season from Corey Hart), they could contend for the division title.
The Cincinnati Reds seem like a popular sleeper pick every year, and this year I’m tempted to buy, but I still see too many issues with both the lineup and the pitching staff. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips make up a terrific right-side of the infield, and the left side of Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera are still above average (although it would have been better in 2004). They are counting on some kids to man the outfield; Jay Bruce has established himself as a major league hitter, but now needs to establish himself as a major league star to live up to his billing. The rotation will be without Edinson Volquez following his Tommy John surgery, at least through the first half of the season, and will again count on Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo to pile up innings. Sometimes dazzling and sometimes bewildered, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey possess the talent to be dominant starters, but have not put all of the pieces together yet. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman may not make the team out of spring training, but will help at some point during the season, whether in the rotation or the bullpen. There is potential for the Reds to win something like 88 games and steal a playoff berth; however, I think there are still too many questions still for them to be considered serious contenders.
The Cubs came into 2009 having moved DeRosa and obtained Milton Bradley, and along with some changes to the pitching staff, the result was a disaster. By signing Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, and Ryan Dempster to monsterous contracts, GM Jim Henry has really removed all flexibility with respect to the roster. He signed Marlon Byrd to play centerfield, moving Fukudome back to right. The infield didn’t change, and the rotation looks a lot like it did in 2009 (except Carlos Silva is around…not good). The bullpen has been average for the past couple of years, and didn’t really improve. I think the Cubs finish behind the Brewers and Reds because a lot more things can go wrong for these guys than the two younger teams.
Hey Pittsburgh, welcome to 5th place! Thanks to Houston beginning to blow up their roster, the Pirates have a shot to get out of the cellar. They have finished with a losing record 17 straight seasons, since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco. They’re still going to be pretty bad, but inching toward 0.500 should be the goal for this group. Their GM, Neal Huntington, understands that when you are losing 95 games a season, you need to deal anything on your roster that doesn’t have long-term value. Unfortunately, he’s collected prospects in terms of quantity, not quality. Many of them will be on the roster in 2010, but not enough will contribute to wins. The outfield of Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen (WOW), and Garrett Jones should be very good again in 2010; it will be interesting to see if Milledge can live up to his top-prospect hype and Jones can repeat his unexpected 2009. The rotation, led by slightly above-average pitchers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke, will probably need to glued together all year, and the bullpen will mostly likely be an unmitigated disaster also; Octavio Dotel is not the answer for a team that will lose 90 games. There is some hope in Pittsburgh, with a lot prospects knocking on the door; if they will actually help, and if ownership is actually committed to winning, are major questions standing in the way of respectability.
The Houston Astros…uh, the outfield is okay. Lance Berkman can hit. This team needs to be torn down to the bare bones, and management is disillusioned into thinking the 25 guys they have can win games; otherwise, why would they spend to bring in Pedro Feliz, Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon, and Matt Lindstrom? Carlos Lee makes a lot of money and can still hit, but he should be a DH. Michael Bourn surpassed most expectations for him, finally learning to get on base and do damage with his legs (after all, you can’t steal first). Berkman will miss the beginning of the season, and is starting show his age; he’ll turn 34 during the season. Wandy Rodriguez turned in an excellent 2009, getting more ground balls, cutting his walk rate, and allowing fewer home runs while striking out the same number of hitters. The rest of the rotation, not including Roy Oswalt, is below average and the bullpen is too. The Astros haven’t won recently because management has tried to patch the team together in a misguided attempt to make the playoffs; because of this, they aren’t in a position to be good again anytime soon, and it could be a couple of long years for Astro fans.
2010 Projected Standings