Perpetual Post NL Central Preview

Look, the back issues with Albert Pujols could well be nothing. But it’s scary as hell for a team that needs Pujols to be a playoff-caliber team.

Beyond Pujols, that lineup has a Matt Holliday who isn’t likely to approach his 168 OPS+ in last year’s time with St. Louis, along with some league-average hitters like Ryan Ludwick and Yadier Molina.

The pitching is superb up top, with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright, but Kyle Lohse/Brad Penney/Jaime Garcia isn’t overly impressive, and the bullpen is Ryan Franklin and lesser parts- to say nothing of the limitations of Franklin himself.

Still, no one should ever bet against Albert Pujols. The man beat Shaq on Shaq Vs. Just go see him when he’s in town, and pencil the Cards in for 85 wins.

JASON CLINKSCALES: There’s something to be said about stability and longevity; something that only the Redbirds have in this division. The offense will certainly be stronger with Matt Holliday into the fold for the long-run, protecting Albert Pujols (also moving Ryan Ludwick down the batting order).The underrated Yadier Molina meshes well with a pitching staff that always seems to need short-term fixes when Chris Carpenter is on the mend. They have a solid pitching staff, with minimal expectations for free agent signee Brad Penny to perform as the fourth starter.

St. Louis and Milwaukee have the top offenses in the division, but the Cards’ edge in pitching arms will give them the Central crown not because they’re an outstanding team (a good one, but not great), but because this division is under construction.

CHRIS PUMMER: I’ve got my concerns about the Cardinals’ rotation despite the presence of Wainwright and Carpenter. Lohse and Penny have to stay healthy and effective, and neither may be a good bet to do so. St. Louis might have to count on a surprise season from the talented Jaime Garcia, the so-so Kyle McClellan, or the enigmatic Rich Hill. Sorting this out might set them back a few games.

If Colby Rasmus takes a step forward and Ryan Ludwick plays somewhere between last year and his terrific 2008, this is by far the best lineup in the division. Felipe Lopez was a great late pickup as he gives the Cardinals insurance in case David Freese isn’t ready to take over third base, and could also step in if Brendan Ryan falters at shortstop.

I happen to like the Cubs team a lot. The offense is pretty sound with Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and what I expect to be a huge comeback year from Geovany Soto. Marlon Byrd is pretty solid in center, and Alfonso Soriano is healthy again.

The starters are pretty good 1-5, and the Cubs should probably be able to put together a decent enough bullpen, though a bounce back from Carlos Marmol sure would help. (That winning rally The Netherlands earned off of him in the WBC didn’t seem as impressive by the end of the season).

The offense and starting rotation give the Cubs 94 wins- and the bullpen will only give back six of them. That 88-win mark could take the division.

JASON CLINKSCALES: When I think of the Cubs of the last ten years, one word jumps out: neurosis. They remind me of the Mets; there’s something that hovers over the team and fan base that keeps their potential greatly unfulfilled. It may sound like an unfair assessment, but when the Southsiders (White Sox) break their hex before the Northsiders, it’s not that much of a stretch.

I laughed at Sporting News’ notion that this team will clinch the Wild Card this year, considering that few teams have ever won without leadoff consistency or a right fielder who wasn’t in and out of the manager’s doghouse (Kosuke Fukodome). However, with a new ownership group that promises changes a la John Henry and the Boston Red Sox to make the Cubs are perennial contender (not just an over-milked cash cow), the optimism would be more founded next season.

CHRIS PUMMER: The Cubs seem like a team that’s just managing to hold things together. They need one more big year from Lee, and one more healthy season from Ramirez, and one big bounceback from Soto, and even bigger one from Soriano, and … and …. and….

So it is the Northsiders begin the season with so many questions a year after so many observers thought they’d cruise to a division title.

As a rule of thumb, I don’t think you can project more than half a team’s questions to end with favorable answers. I don’t know if those sinkholes will be Marmol, Soto or Soriano playing poorly again, Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano missing big chunks of time again, Lee turning in a poor season like he did in 2008, Ted Lilly doesn’t come back from injury at full speed, or Byrd being the latest free agent to bust inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

Even if only half of those possible calamities happen to the Cubs, that’s still four holes they’ll have to fill. Add those to a suspect bullpen and a questionable keystone combination in Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, and this might not be a team with a winning record.

I’m not going to say Starlin Castro is going to be the next Luis Montanez. That’s something Cubs fans hope they don’t have to start thinking about this summer.

HOWARD MEGDAL: This is the third team that could win the division. I just thinking expecting them to, with so many things needing to go right, is a bridge too far.

The lineup is strong, with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder a fantastic 1-2 combo. But they need: Rickie Weeks to be healthy, Alcides Escobar to look as good in the regular season as he did in the spring and this winter, Casey McGehee to hit like he did in 2009, not like he did in any minor league season, and Carlos Gomez to figure out how to hit major league pitching. That’s asking a lot. And I haven’t even mentioned Randy Wolf staying healthy or Jeff Suppan remembering how to pitch.

Of these question marks, I expect affirmative answers from Weeks, Escobar, and possibly Wolf. I just don’t think that will be enough.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Good top-of-order bats, shaky pitching, shakier defense. The Brewers are such a top-heavy team; past Prince Fielder batting cleanup, this team doesn’t scare anyone. Though third baseman Casey McGehee impressed in his rookie campaign, it’ll be interesting to see how he performs against pitching staffs that now have a decent book and film library on him. Meanwhile, a full story has yet to be written for shortstop Alcides Escobar, the Brewers’ top-prospect that made J.J. Hardy – now with Minnesota – expendable.

If the pitching staff can’t get to reliever LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman, this is going to be a long season of questions about Fielder’s happiness in Milwaukee regarding his future contract status.

CHRIS PUMMER: I’m probably higher on the Brew Crew than either Howard or Jason. The defense will be spotty, but Escobar and Gomez might be even better with the leather than noted glovemen Hardy and Mike Cameron were at their respective positions last year. And Escobar, not known for his offensive upside, probably can’t give Milwaukee less with the bat than Hardy did last year.

The additions of Wolf and Doug Davis patch a couple of huge holes in the rotation after Yovani Gallardo, and with Manny Parra and Dave Bush there’s at least material to work in the last two spots before swallowing hard and sticking Suppan back out there again.

If the upgrade to Gregg Zaun from Jason Kendall behind the plate can take back what McGehee might give up during his sophomore campaign, this will be a capable offense. And if McGehee begins to look hopeless, like a one-year flash in the pan, Mat Gamel isn’t an awful fallback option. Especially since his bat still has some big potential.

Extra pieces Gamel, Jim Edmonds, Jody Gerut and Craig Counsell might provide a big boost for the Brewers.

HOWARD MEGDAL: It’s kind of hard to see why the Reds finished just 78-84 last year. The lineup includes the highly underrated Joey Votto, the terrific offensive and defensive second baseman Brandon Phillips, a young, impressive Jay Bruce in right, and… well, that’s why they finished 78-84.

But all three of the aforementioned are back, and so is Jonny Gomes, with Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen, though shopworn, likely upgrades over Paul Janish and Adam Rosales in 2009 (59 and 64 OPS+, respectively).

The bullpen is terrific, while the starters include Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, who won’t likely surprise, and Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, two young pitchers who just might. Add in the talented Aroldis Chapman, and 90 wins and an NL central title seems within reach.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Yeah, Dusty Baker is not the favorite manager of a lot of baseball fans, but he’s making do with the youngest team he has even helmed. Outside of Scott Rolen and Ramon Hernandez, this is the Central’s youth movement; hoping that Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips become Southern Ohio’s Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. I watched a few of their games through Extra Innings over the past two years and saw a team that could use one more power hitter to take the offensive burden off of Phillips, their dynamic second baseman.

There may not be a sleeping Big Red Machine lying in wait, but Cincinnati has enough young players that they work themselves out of their offensive funk (bottom ten in nearly every team offensive statistic in 2009).

CHRIS PUMMER: Not everyone panned the Scott Rolen pickup last July. Adding the third baseman and giving him a team-friendly extension looks like a pretty smooth move for GM Walt Jocketty now that the Reds might be a contender.

Though Votto might be the only star in the lineup, gone are the big black holes in production that the Reds played most of last year with at shortstop (Janish), third base (Rosales) and center (Willy Taveras).

With Rolen and Cabrera joining Votto and Phillips in the infield, an improving Jay Bruce will be joined in the outfield by enough useful pieces to make it a productive unit. That includes Drew Stubbs, who might disappoint Baker by not stealing as many bases as Taveras, but will make up for it by not having to steal first.

The Reds will need better seasons from at least a couple guys in the rotation to make a run, however. And for sure they can’t afford to see Bailey or Cueto join Edinson Volquez in Dr. James Andrew’s waiting room.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Ugh. I love Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn sure is fast! Maybe Roy Oswalt isn’t as much in the decline phase as people think? Carlos Lee spends much of the time hitting, rather than fielding?

This looks like the worst team in baseball in 2010 to me.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Remember when the baseball world pointed and laughed at the New York Yankees for depleting their farm system to bring in aging veterans rendered ineffective in the insanity of The Boroughs? Yeah, I did that, too, but at least we knew that they had a core group of proven players to work with. The Astros thought they could replicate the model, but met drastic results.

A while back, Dan Szymborski, Chris Needham and Chris Pummer spoke on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Ed Wade’s tenure as general manager, but the decisions do come from the top. If owner Drayton McLane has learned the error of his ways in chasing the shiny new toy on the floor, the Astros can dig themselves out of their hole without too much impediments. Maybe this team will overachieve with the a refreshed air from new skipper Brad Mills over the canned Cecil Cooper, but not enough for those now-classic late season runs under former manager Phil Garner.

CHRIS PUMMER: I don’t know that there’s anything else to say. I hope they don’t rush Jason Castro and end up ruining the young catcher. Who is their shortstop?

There’s enough talent here to win more games than the Pirates, or maybe anyone else in the division who might have every possible thing go wrong for them. But the Astros will somehow find a way to be less interesting than any such team.

I boldly predict: The Pirates will make a run at a winning record. They will fall short, but the action will be intense!

I boldly predict: Lastings Milledge, .280/.360/.440! Andrew McCutchen, an All-Star, and not just because of the failures of the other Pirates! Andy LaRoche, building on last year’s strong finish! Ryan Doumit, healthy! Ross Ohlendorf, legit starting pitcher!

But Garrett Jones will probably come back to earth somewhat. Bobby Crosby doesn’t fill me with confidence at SS, nor does Jeff Clement at 1B. Charlie Morton is a fourth starter?

By all means, visit PNC Park. But don’t reserve your playoff tickets just yet. Pittsburgh is going in the right direction, but remember- they made wrong turns for nearly two decades.

May (insert deity here) help you.

CHRIS PUMMER: I tried to make a case that the Pirates could avoid losing 95 games last year. That seemed like a modest, yet realistic expectation.

Since I still owe Chris Needham a lot of pudding cups as a result of this foolishness, there’s no way I’m sticking my neck out there for them again.

This team actually looks worse to me than it did a year ago. I’d like to see the Pirates make a run at relevance, and even think GM Neal Huntington has them on the right track. I just don’t think this is their year.

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