Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will look at a division each day this week and hold a conversation about the issues therein. Up next is our final installment: the NL Central.
David Brown: Five down and one to go. At last, Kevin, we've come to our last Big League Stew Divisional Preview. It's been a fun week, but it's about time to put our prediction pencils down and actually play some ball. We've saved the longest division for last — the NL Central has six teams in it, just like the old NL West.
The Cubs are going for their third straight title, which should just make Wrigleyville giddy when you think of seasons like 1985, 1990 and most every other year. But these are new times. Division titles aren't enough for Cubs fans. Nobody is settling for anything less than a World Series title. We both have the Cubs getting into the playoffs, but is this the season they win the whole thing?
'Duk: Everyone has the Cubs running away with this division and I'll agree that they're the solution, no matter what type of math you use to solve the equation. The naysayers will point to 2004 and say that was the last time everyone around Wrigleyworld was so confident and then say "Well, look what happened then!" The main difference, though, was that the 2004 Astros and Cardinals were fielding stacked teams capable of killing the dream. I don't see anyone else in the '09 division uprooting these Cubs, even though the Northsiders are maybe a couple of mishaps or injuries away from shattering the illusion that a playoff berth is a foregone conclusion. Relying on Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly continuing to pitch above their career averages makes me nervous, too.
As for predicting a World Series run, I've touched the open flame enough times to know that I shouldn't touch it again. How could any Cubs fan do such a thing after last year's sweep at the hands of Los Angeles? You know, let's see a few playoff wins first.
DB: Not being a Cubs fan, I feel free to predict just that. The Cubs just have too many weapons. The playoffs are a different animal. They forgot to show up against the Dodgers, but they're too deep in the rotation and lineup and back end of the bullpen to be challenged. Their question marks (Milton Bradley's health, Kosuke Fukudome's aptitude) just aren't that questionable. I might have gone ahead and picked the Brewers, if CC Sabathia were coming back and Ben Sheets were there and healthy and they had upgraded third base or second base or center field. But we can't say the Brewers are better in any of those spots, so how can anyone pick them to jump ahead of the Cubs? Nope, can't see it.
'Duk: There's something to be said for the crapshoot that is the playoffs. But you can't go on that monster roll if you're not standing at the table in the first place and you'd like to think that the Cubs might finally come through for a memorable October. Personally, I'd like to see Rich Harden stay healthy so that he can swap spots with Dempster in that order. Let's just say I'm not holding my breath. Here's also hoping that the Carlos Marmol-Kevin Gregg back of the bullpen works as well as GM Jim Hendry think it will.
As for who'll play the role of their best men, I'm selecting Dusty Baker's Reds for the honor. That may come as a surprise to some, but Johnnie B. always seems to have a little resurrection magic up his sleeve and he's holding a rotation that has a chance to be very, very good if he can hold back the reins and get some bullpen production. If Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto can start producing and cover for the lower half of that lineup, it's going to be a fun summer to be a Reds fan in Cincinnati.
DB: Almost, but I can't quite accept the Reds ascending to second place — they still strike me as too dysfunctional — but they're on the way up. Bruce is going to need to find a happy medium between his white-hot first week and whatever he did in July-August. No more Dunn and no more Griffey, which is OK if Bruce can handle the responsibility. I think he can. But if Gallardo stays healthy (a reasonable assumption) the Brewers shouldn't be any worse than last year's 90 wins. They blew it in the offseason by not improving, but they shouldn't slide the wrong way past the Reds.
'Duk: The great thing about having six teams in a division is that there's a lot of room for argument because there are so many possible permutations. (The bad thing is forgetting that the Astros are in it, send them to the AL West already.) Anyway, that Brewers' lineup is going to be good again, but I have a hard time seeing the pitching staff carrying the weight once you get past Gallardo. Sorry Wisconsin friends, your Crew is not going to approach 90 wins again, especially if Trevor Hoffman isn't around to close games. Eric Gagne is not walking through that door! (Kidding.)
DB: Hoffman will be back around. His injury and Ryan Braun's weak-sauce ribs bother me, too, even more than the bulk of the Brewers pitching staff. But they'll be comfortable in the first division, because the Cardinals, Astros and Pirates (yeargh!) are basement dwellers. I was looking at the Cardinals lineup. Never heard of the third baseman. SS can't hit. Second basemen is actually an outfielder. What the heck are they doing to the Cardinals fans?
'Duk: Jeff Passan asked the same question at the beginning of last season (and subsequently got killed by Cards fans), but then Tony La Russa put together one of his best managing efforts ever, wringing 86 wins out of that lineup. For that reason, I feel a bit uneasy about projecting St. Louis for fourth. Last I checked, Albert Pujols hadn't demanded a trade, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick are capable of putting up big numbers and the Chris Carpenter/Adam Wainwright duo has the potential to be a decent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation (and here's where I tack on the "if healthy" tag we've used 672 times in these previews.) The concerns you mentioned concern me too, but let's just say I'm ready to eat crow once the Cards prove to be better than my Reds and Brewers picks for second and third.
DB: Does crow taste different than cardinal? I applaud La Russa's job last year, and that of Dave Duncan, probably the sport's best pitching coach. But coaching only gets you so far in this sport. Willie Shoemaker doesn't win all those races if he's mounted on nags. The Cards got too many nags. You worry about them putting together another improbable victory total but I worry I give them too much credit to be better than the Astros. Houston probably has the league's worst third baseman (with apologies to Geoff Blum, the man who won Game 3 of the 2005 World Series) and center fielder. No apologies to Michael Bourn. You, you're not good. They have the world's oldest shortstop/catcher combo. They're also relying on a Pavano-esque comeback from Mike Hampton, plus solid seasons from Brian Moehler and Ramon Ortiz. C'mon, 'Stros.
'Duk: Yes, Houston's pleasures are going to be limited to watching Fat Elvis and El Caballo mash and Roy Oswalt prove that his tractor bonus was worth every penny. I wrestled with the idea with putting the Pirates ahead of them, but just like you said with the Royals in the AL Central preview, it's hard to make that quantum leap in thinking when it comes to Pittsburgh.
DB: I'll parrot your thoughts (get it?) about the Buccos. Did you say your ROY was Andrew McCutchen? At first, it was Pedro Alvarez. Should we just preview the Pirates minor league system? It appears likely that both with see the inside of PNC Park this season at some point. I have several questions about the Pirates. One, will their outfielders combine to hit 30 homers? If Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss each start 150 games, I say, "Nope." Morgan will be good for three. Moss for 11. McLouth for 15. Another question: Is it wise to put so much stock in the LaRoche gene pool? Adam usually takes three months to get going, and Andy — now, I don't know him — but based on his dreadful samples, I'd say he lacks confidence at the major league level. His minor league numbers are encouraging, but he's just overmatched in the bigs. Hopefully, your Pedro Alvarez will be ready to come in sooner rather than later. Do we have to talk about the pitching staff? I'm not sure there are five major leaguers ON the staff. Maholm, Capps, Grabow. That's it. The others are interchangeable with the waiver wire.
'Duk: Count me among the disappointed that Tom Gorzelanny was never able to continue the semi-success he had a few seasons ago. I can't imagine that the Pirates will be worse than their 67 wins in 2008, but maybe that's because Freddy Sanchez was serving up some Pirate Punch when we had him on the Stewcast last week. Obviously I'm placing my ROY picks on faith in the fact that either McCutchen, Alvarez or both will be called up from AAA sooner than later. I was also impressed by Paul Maholm's performance (206 IP, 3.71 ERA) last year and if some of their other pitcher can just learn to be consistent, the Buccos will at least have something to build upon — or trade to the Yankees or Cubs near the trading deadline. Despite my restrained optimism, I don't think there's any question the losing streak will continue in Steel City. Can I drop the ceremonial first "When's Steeler training camp start?" of the season? Pretty please?
DB: Restrained optimism? How about just restraints? Because you're cuckoo. I say there's no way these guys don't lose 100. Oh, it's going to hurt real bad crossing the Clemente Bridge this season. The only thing to hope for is a smooth negotiation with Scott Boras over Stephen Strasburg. And Steelers season doesn't begin or end — it just continues — you know that.
'Duk: But of course. My mistake.
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NL Central predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Cubs, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Cardinals, 5. Astros, 6. Pirates
DB: 1. Cubs, 2. Brewers, 3. Reds, 4. Cardinals, 5. Astros, 6. Pirates
NL Central MVP
'Duk: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
DB: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
NL Central Cy Young
'Duk: Edinson Volquez, Reds
DB: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
NL Central Rookie of the Year
'Duk: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
DB: Chris Dickerson, Reds