3/1/2006 12:06 PM
Central Divisions Preview
Matt Watson

Last week I previewed each team in the American League and National League East divisions, and this week I'm continuing with a look at the two Central divisions. I'm sticking to the most important questions that fantasy owners want to know, "Who are the new guys?" and "Where are the sleepers?"

National League

Chicago Cubs

New guys: The Cubs filled holes at the top of their order and in center field by acquiring Juan Pierre from the Marlins. His average was a little down last year, but he should bounce back and do what he usually does - hit close to .300 with a lot of steals. Wade Miller is on everyone's back burner since he's recovering from shoulder surgery and won't be able to pitch before May, but if he can bounce back and start 20-25 games with numbers like what he put up in 2004 (3.35 ERA, 7.3 K/9), he'll be a very productive fantasy pitcher. At the very least, leaving the AL and returning to the NL will help lower last year's 4.95 ERA.

Sleepers: At the tender age of 22, Ronny Cedeno hit .355 (.403 OBP, .518 SLG) with eight home runs and 11 stolen bases over 245 at-bats for Triple-A Iowa. After earning a promotion to the big leagues, he proceeded to hit .300 with one more home run and steal over 80 at-bats with the Cubs. Even with Neifi Perez on the roster, he has a clear path to the starting second base job and could turn in a solid all-around showing. Matt Murton is also getting his first chance to be a big-league regular in left field. He hit at least .320 at every stop last year, including .342 at Double-A West Tennessee and .353 at Triple-A Iowa.

Cincinnati Reds

New guys: The Reds traded Sean Casey for David Williams, which probably makes Casey feel pretty bad about himself. The only thing Williams has going is that he's left-handed, but he hasn't been anything special over his big-league career and will probably struggle at the Great American Ball Park. Tony Womack will offer some speed off the bench at left field and second base, but he's well past his days of being an impact player.

Sleepers: Even though Adam Dunn has converted to first base full time, the Reds still have a glut of talent in the outfield. Rookie Chris Denofia put forth a fine showing at Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville last year and should make the team as a reserve. Given Ken Griffey's and Austin Kearns' injury history, he could end up logging some serious playing time this year.

Houston Astros

New guys: Preston Wilson answered some of his critics by staying healthy long enough to collect 520 at-bats last year, and he proved he can still be an effective power hitter with 25 home runs and 90 RBI. His days running wild on the base paths are long gone, but it's within reach for him to finish with 30 homers and 100 RBI if he stays healthy hitting in the heart of Houston's lineup.

Sleepers: Jason Hirsh may not make the rotation out of spring training, but he's definitely a young starter that all NL-only fantasy owners need to know. He dominated at Double-A Corpus Christi last year, posting a 2.87 ERA with 165 strikeouts and just 42 walks over 172 IP. He's not quite the power pitcher you'd think he'd be given his size - he stands 6-foot-8, 245 pounds - but he has nice movement on his pitches and could arrive in the big leagues for good by the All-Star break.

Milwaukee Brewers

New guys: The Brewers acquired third baseman Corey Koskie and starting pitcher David Bush from the Blue Jays over the winter. Koskie missed much of last year with a broken thumb, but if he manages to stay healthy he'll provide a solid presence in the lineup and on the field. Bill Hall may steal at-bats against lefties, but Koskie is expected to handle the majority of the playing time. Bush pitched a bit better than his 4.49 ERA suggests last year, and simply arriving in the NL should help take at least half a run off that mark.

Sleepers: It's difficult to call them "sleepers" with a straight face, but second baseman Rickie Weeks and first baseman Prince Fielder are about to embark on their first full seasons as big-league regulars and could manage to exceed even the highest expectations. The sky is really the ceiling for those two, who could easily emerge as top three options at their position within a couple of years.

Pittsburgh Pirates

New guys: The Bucs traded for Sean Casey and signed Jeromy Burnitz over the winter to add a solid veteran presence in the middle of their lineup. The two players complement each other well - Burnitz is a power-hitting slugger whose average leaves something to be desired, while Casey is a sweet-swinging first baseman who never managed to hit for as much power as you'd like. Together, they'll solidify the middle of the lineup.

Sleepers: Mike Gonzalez was very solid as a left-handed setup man last year, but is he up for the pressure of closing? The Pirates think so, especially after watching him strike out well over 10 batters per nine innings each of the past two seasons. The fact that he's a first-timer will suppress his value at the draft, but he could end up being as good as any of the second-tier closers. Ryan Doumit is also a good guy to target in your draft - if you nab him as your second catcher, you'll have more upside than most teams at the position in your league.

St. Louis Cardinals

New guys: The two-time reigning division champs turned over two-thirds of their starting outfield and one-half of their middle infield. Juan Encarnacion will take over right field from the retired Larry Walker while a combination of Larry Bigbie and So Taguchi will take over left field from the departed Reggie Sanders. Encarnacion has never topped 100 RBI in a season, but if he can stay healthy, there's no reason why he can't do that this year hitting behind on-base machines Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Junior Spivey should be the new starting second baseman after he goes through the motions this spring to hold off Aaron Miles and Hector Luna. Spivey has never lived up to his breakout season in 2002, but he's in as good a position as ever to succeed as the likely No. 2 hitter in this potent lineup.

Sleepers: Anthony Reyes is not a lock to make the rotation out of spring training, but it's only a matter of time before he convinces Tony La Russa he belongs. He's clearly one of the top pitching prospects in the game, showing excellent strikeout ability and control last year at Triple-A Memphis while posting a 3.64 ERA with 136 strikeouts and 34 walks over 129 IP.

Check back next week as I wrap things up with a look at the American League and National League West divisions.

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Matt Watson covers fantasy baseball for The Roto Times. His columns appear every week of the MLB season.
Note: I didn't include the American League Central preview because it becomes a very very long post. But you can see it by clicking here: http://www.rototimes.com/index.php?s...20060301120635