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TeamBoone
03-12-2006, 01:43 AM
NL Central preview: Cards still on top
Dayn Perry / Special to FOXSports.com

We're in the midst of forecasting each of baseball's six divisions, and up this time is the NL Central.

Certainly, injuries or late-hour trades can change things before opening day, but here's how things stand now ...
2006 Predicted order of finish: NL Central

1. Cardinals
2. Brewers
3. Cubs
4. Astros
5. Reds
6. Pirates



St. Louis Cardinals

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 805 (3rd)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 634 (2nd)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 3.61 (2nd)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 3.17 (1st)

The Cards won 100 games last season and claimed the NL Central flag by a hefty 11 games. St. Louis is in for modest decline—mostly age-related decline—but they're still the best team in the division.

In 2005, the Cardinals offense was the best in the NL once you adjust for park effects. Back in 2006 are Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen's surgically repaired shoulder is holding up nicely thus far in spring training. Gone, of course, are Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, but keep in mind the duo combined for fewer than 700 plate appearances last season. They'll be missed, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Replacing Walker in right is Juan Encarnacion, who won't match Walker's bat, but he will provide capable defense and provide adequate numbers at the plate.

In left, the Cards will replace Sanders with some combination of Larry Bigbie, So Taguchi and John Rodriguez. Taguchi has the job right now, but St. Louis will eventually settle into a Bigbie-Taguchi platoon in left with Rodriguez soldiering on in his role as a top-shelf fourth outfielder. Once again, the Cards will rank in the top quartile in the NL in runs scored.

The rotation will once again be a strength. Chris Carpenter could regress from his Cy Young form of 2005, but he'll still be certifiable ace. Mark Mulder's groundball ways will serve him well, and Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis will be credible mid-rotation types. If healthy, Anthony Reyes will be a Rookie of the Year candidate in the fifth spot (and one of the best fifth starters in the game), and if he falters, Sidney Ponson can step in.

As you can see, the St. Louis bullpen was the best in the senior circuit last season. Gone are vital contributors like Ray King and Julian Tavarez, but replacing them are quality arms like Braden Looper and Ricardo Rincon. Ponson should be effective in a relief role, and more high-leverage innings for Brad Thompson will help the cause.

Overall, St. Louis isn't headed for another 100-win campaign, but their aging core is still good enough to carry the team to another title.


Milwaukee Brewers

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 726 (6th)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 697 (6th)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 4.02 (6th)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 3.87 (6th)

Better days on the horizon for the Brewers, and a second-place finish in 2006 will be a testament to that fact. They'll miss Lyle Overbay's glove at first, but rookie Prince Fielder will be good for 25 bombs and some NL Rookie of the Year hardware. The nifty third-base platoon of Russ Branyan and Wes Helms is no more, but Corey Koskie adds his Gold Glove-caliber defense to the mix. Expect skills growth and better numbers from shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks. Corey Hart and Bill Hall will be two of the better bench players in the game, and Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins will provide solid power numbers from the outfield corners.

In the rotation, Ben Sheets is one of the best starting pitchers in the game today. Injuries limited him to only 156 2/3 innings in 2005, but if he's healthier this year he'll contend for the Cy Young. Spots two through four are quite solid, and David Bush could emerge as a quality fifth starter. The bullpen, fronted by shutdown closer Derrick Turnbow, is a middle-of-the-pack lot.

Given a few breaks, Milwaukee could contend for a wild-card berth. However, even if that doesn't come to pass, this figures to be the best Brewer team in almost 15 years.


Chicago Cubs

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 703 (9th)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 714 (7th)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 4.17 (8th)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 4.24 (10th)

Last season, the Cubs had a chance to post a third consecutive winning season for the first time since the early '70s. Instead, the listless Cubs finished 79-83, placed fourth in the NL Central and lagged the hated Cardinals by a whopping 21 games.

Things figure to be mildly better in 2006, but this isn't a playoff team. Derrek Lee — who should've been the NL MVP last season — will regress just a bit, and the rest of the punchless Cubs offense hasn't been notably improved over the winter. Their corner outfielders — Matt Murton and Jacque Jones — both have platoon issues, and center fielder Juan Pierre is only a glancing improvement over Corey Patterson. Also, there's a strong chance that veteran-loving Dusty Baker will give far, far too many plate appearances to the likes of Neifi Perez and Marquis Grissom.

The Cubs' chances in 2006, of course, depend on the health of the rotation. The last time Mark Prior and Kerry Wood each worked at least 200 innings in a season, Chicago came within sniffing distance of the World Series. However, the odds of the duo turning that same trick in the upcoming season are remote.

Wood, who worked only 66 innings last season, underwent shoulder surgery last August and knee surgery late last month. Also, rumors of a Mark Prior shoulder injury (first reported by Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus) are starting to get some legs. Prior's spring workouts have been limited, and the Cubs have openly wondered whether he'll be able to make his first turn in the rotation this April. In other words, not good on both fronts. Given the Cubs' weak offensive attack, they need a healthy Prior and a healthy Wood. So far, they've got neither.

The bullpen will be improved — Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry will help — but the depth isn't there. Also, Ryan Dempster will need to show much better control if he's to get by as a closer. On the whole, this team isn't a serious threat.


Houston Astros

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 693 (11th)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 609 (1st)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 3.46 (1st)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 3.63 (4th)

Last season, the Astros were carried by the front of the rotation. Roger Clemens, of course, is mulling retirement, and even if he does re-sign with Houston he won't be able to pitch until May 1 because the club failed to offer him salary arbitration. Even so, he's in for a regression back to demigod status. Pettitte may also suffer a modest decline in 2006, and the back of the rotation is a soft spot. The bullpen will be a source of strength (provided Brad Lidge holds up), but the offense is 31 flavors of awful. If Jeff Bagwell shows mercy and retires, that will allow Jason Lane back into the lineup, but that won't be enough. Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman are strong talents, but overall Houston won't be able to score enough runs to compensate for the rotation's low-grade decline.


Cincinnati Reds

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 820 (1st)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 889 (16th)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 5.38 (16th)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 4.75 (13th)

It's not often you see a team that finishes first in the league in runs scored and last in the league in runs allowed in the same season.

Now that Sean Casey has been foisted off on the Pirates, there's no more troubling outfield bottleneck. Health, of course, will be vital. Austin Kearns and Ken Griffey Jr. both have fairly grim injury histories, so that's something to consider. Promising youngster Edwin Encarnacion should make progress with the bat at third, but it's vital that manager Jerry Narron not do the unforgivable and start Tony Womack ahead of Ryan Freel at second.

On the pitching side of things, well, these are the Reds. The fly-balling Eric Milton will continue to be woefully miscast in that ballpark, and Aaron Harang is an ace only in the most notional of senses. There's no one particularly inspiring in the bullpen, so overall Cincinnati won't be able to keep runs off the board. Still, a great team to see if you have seats in the outfield and enjoy souvenirs.


Pittsburgh Pirates

2005 Runs Scored (NL Rank): 680 (14th)

2005 Runs Allowed (NL Rank): 769 (13th)

2005 Starters' ERA (NL Rank): 4.63 (14th)

2005 Bullpen ERA (NL Rank): 4.06 (8th)

Since contention is utterly and completely out of the question, here are some things for Pirates fans to pay attention to in 2006 …

1. Will Oliver Perez get back on track and pitch as he did in 2004?
2. Will the Pirates' other promising young lefties — Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Sean Burnett—also meet with success?
3. Will GM Dave Littlefield do something out of character and flip some vets at the deadline for useful prospects?
4. On the farm, will top hitting prospects Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen make progress this season?

Perhaps those topics will distract Bucs Nation from a second consecutive last-place finish.

http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/5384626

deltachi8
03-12-2006, 05:49 PM
it's vital that manager Jerry Narron not do the unforgivable and start Tony Womack ahead of Ryan Freel at second.

amen, brother...amen.