Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League Central.
The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series for what seems like a hundred years, which can be hard on a franchise, not to mention a sport that, like all of them, is healthiest when the large-market teams at least show up once in a while.
David Stern would shave his head, scribble tats from his wrists to his neck and run the point at Madison Square Garden if it would make the Knicks contenders again. Fortunately, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have saved Bud Selig from similar notions.
As far as the Cubs are concerned, the baseball landscape perhaps has never been more inviting. And, it should be noted, might never be again. The Cubs play in the worst division in baseball, and squarely in the worst league in baseball, which will continue other than the days Johan Santana pitches.
Doesn't that sound like the Cubs' kind of year?
First impression: For a team that a winter ago spent $300 million, and whose payroll a year later just might threaten $120 million, there are an awful lot of questions here. Of course, that has as much to do with how far the dollar goes than what Jim Hendry does with his, but still. In Lou One, the Cubs gained 19 wins over Dusty Four, won the division, and made a three-and-out postseason appearance, which counts as significant progress. And a return to the playoffs – they haven't played in consecutive Octobers in, let's see, oh, a century – is a fair expectation. Yet, in the shadow of spring training, there's still plenty to think about. Ryan Dempster will be a regular starter for the first time in 4½ years, or since his Tommy John surgery. Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood or Bob Howry – or two of them, or all three – will be the closer. Until further notice, center field is a Felix Pie affair, Mark DeRosa is the full-time second baseman and Geovany Soto the catcher. There is still a chance Hendry could make a trade for Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, but you'd only do it to add a leadoff hitter, and then where does that leave Alfonso Soriano? The leadoff spot is far better to Soriano than he is to it, and it remains mystifying that a man with his power and run-production potential could be so resistant to middle-of-the-order at-bats.
Competition: The back end of the rotation – after Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill – will be a run-off between Dempster, Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber and, perhaps, Sean Marshall. It seems unlikely they signed Lieber without designs on giving him one of the starting spots. It is unclear what they would do with Dempster were he to compete as a starter all spring and then not make it. Marquis, whose ERA rose two runs in the second half last season, could be traded by the end of camp.
Healing: Soriano blew out his quad in early August, returned three weeks later and had a huge September (14 home runs, 27 RBI), so there was no reason to believe his .143 batting average in the NLDS was anything but Arizona Diamondbacks pitching. But, something to think about: The Cubs play their first six games of the season at Wrigley, and 14 of their first 20, and 34 home games by June 1, meaning a lot of cold days and nights for Soriano's balky quad.
Next: Unless Marlon Byrd or someone like him is coming, the time is now for Pie, the wispy left-handed hitter Cubs fans have been waiting on for a while. He batted .215 (with a .271 on-base percentage) over 177 at-bats last season, about the time everyone fell in love with Sam Fuld. Pie will be 23 in early February.
First impression: Maybe it's time for the Reds to settle down, pick a direction and go with it. They haven't had a winning season since 2000, haven't been to the playoffs since 1995, and have just that one appearance since the Lou Piniella World Series in 1990. Meanwhile, the only constant has been change. Since 2003, they've had six managers (Bob Boone, Ray Knight, Dave Miley, Jerry Narron, Pete Mackanin and, now, Dusty Baker). Bob Castellini, the CEO for two-plus years, followed seven years of Carl Lindner and 14 of Marge Schott. GM Wayne Krivsky is coming up on his two-year anniversary; his predecessor, Dan O'Brien, lasted three seasons, and Krivsky has a year left on his contract. Related, Castellini hired former St. Louis Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty to occupy some space between the CEO and GM offices, so it's probably fair to assume Castellini won't have to look too long or hard if Krivsky falters. It seems the Reds are so constantly in transition they aren't ever long in one place, other than near the bottom of the division. This winter's theme was pitching and the winner was Francisco Cordero, who turned 44 saves with the Milwaukee Brewers into a four-year, $46-million contract with the Reds, a potentially meaningful intra-division swing. They also gave up fan favorite Josh Hamilton for Edinson Volquez, a 24-year-old right-hander with a decent fastball who has been so-so in small parts of three seasons for the Texas Rangers. The Reds also are hoping to turn Jeremy Affeldt back into a starter.
Competition: Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are potentially as strong a 1-2 in the rotation as any in the division. And, like most places, it gets hairy from there. Matt Belisle, who had his moments last season but gives up a lot of hits, probably fits in somewhere. Krivsky has said he wouldn't have made the Hamilton trade if he didn't think Volquez would be in the rotation. That could leave the fifth spot to Affeldt, Homer Bailey, Matt Maloney or Johnny Cueto. There's more action in center field, where it might be time for Jay Bruce, the Reds' first-rounder in 2005. He'll battle Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper.
Healing: Ken Griffey Jr. last season played 144 games, the most since 2000, his first season in Cincinnati. Alas, it concluded in mid-September with a groin injury, ending a second-half fade in which he had seven home runs and batted .266. He is expected to be healthy for camp, but keeping Griffey on the field and productive will be one of Baker's primary concerns.
Next: The Reds could open the season with rookies at first base (Joey Votto, who batted .321 and had 17 RBI as a September call-up) and center field (Bruce, Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year).
First impression: The Astros have somehow turned their only World Series appearance into a decline to irrelevance, culminating in Phil Garner and Tim Purpura losing their jobs. Fortunately, irrelevance, given a little money and creativity, doesn't have to last long in the NL Central. The Cubs went from worst to first in 2007. The year before, the St. Louis Cardinals ran 83 wins all the way to a parade. Even these Astros, who were 13th in the NL in runs and 12th in ERA, hadn't lost all hope before late August. So, Ed Wade, in his second incarnation as a big league GM, reworked the Astros from the middle out. J.R. Towles is expected to start at catcher, replacing veteran Brad Ausmus, who becomes Towles' backup. Wade traded for shortstop Miguel Tejada (about, oh, 20 minutes before George Mitchell's report hit and several weeks before the FBI investigation), traded for center fielder Michael Bourne and signed second baseman Kaz Matsui. He also acquired closer Jose Valverde, replacing Brad Lidge, who had been dealt to Philadelphia. There remains the issue of starting pitching after Roy Oswalt, so they'll need a bounce-back season from Woody Williams and full health from Brandon Backe, at the very least. The Astros likely fall in with the Reds and Cardinals, behind the Cubs and Brewers.
Competition: Four pitchers – Chris Sampson, Jack Cassel, Felipe Paulino and Runelvys Hernandez – have a shot at the final rotation spot. And the back end of the bullpen, behind Valverde, Oscar Villarreal, Geoff Geary and Doug Brocail, is unsettled.
Healing: The Astros don't appear to have any injury problems. Oswalt, bothered by an oblique strain late last season, and Sampson, who had elbow soreness come and go in the second half, are expected to be ready for camp.
Next: Towles, near as anyone can tell, became the first Astros player to advance from Class A to the major leagues in the same season. A decent catch-and-throw guy, Towles has always hit, and batted .375 for the Astros in 14 September games.
First impression: The Brewers had their grow-up season, the one where a talented and green team can't figure a way to win on the road and then dies over a few hot August weeks, so that even a decent September can't save it. They actually spent seven days over the final month in or tied for first place, and 121 days there over the entire season. Ultimately, they blew all of an 8½-game lead and then some, however, so the franchise's first winning season in 15 years amounted to little more than another long winter. And, nothing's quite so long as a long Milwaukee winter. But, they come back a year older, perhaps a year wiser. If Eric Gagne does what he did in Texas and not what he did in Boston, then perhaps the Brewers don't miss Francisco Cordero so terribly, and they make another run at the club's first postseason appearance since 1982. Prince Fielder hit 50 home runs, Ryan Braun was Rookie of the Year, Corey Hart drove in 81 runs, Ben Sheets made 24 starts, his most in three years. They won 83 games, which doesn't sound like much, but it was progress, and they did it while lugging Bill Hall, their best offensive player the season before and one of their worst a year later. After a lot of milling around and over-thinking, the Brewers did the right thing and moved Hall back into the infield, where he'll relieve Braun at third base. Braun (and his 26 errors in 112 games at third) goes to left field.
Competition: It looks like Carlos Villanueva has a rotation spot to lose, meaning Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas and Chris Capuano will settle the fifth spot. Sheets, Jeff Suppan and Yovani Gallardo are set, one through three.
Healing: Capuano had his right labrum repaired after the season, but shouldn't be behind come camp. The Brewers only hope that this rights Capuano, who made 69 starts, pitched 440 1/3 innings and won 29 games in 2005-06, then went to pieces last season. New center fielder Mike Cameron will be a healthy scratch from the Brewers' first 25 games after repeated violations of the stimulant portion of MLB's Joint Drug Agreement. Tony Gwynn Jr. probably gets the early playing time.
Next: Gallardo, the right-hander from Mexico, will turn 22 two weeks into spring training. After arriving in mid-June, he was the Brewers' best pitcher down the stretch, allowing seven earned runs in 40 innings from Aug. 31 on.
First impression: It is one thing to be a team without hope, quite another to be that team in the NL Central. Welcome to Pittsburgh. Near as I can tell, this was a franchise so humiliated by a 15th consecutive losing season, so adamant to change course, so determined to re-establish a relationship with a long-numbed fan base, it went out and signed … Chris Gomez and Jaret Wright. Neal Huntington, fresh from under the wing of Mark Shapiro, is the new GM. And, rather than turn the joint over, he's been patient. Dumbfounded, perhaps. But, patient, because he had little choice. Outfielder Jason Bay can be had, but he's coming off a poor season and has knee issues, so that might have to wait a few months, perhaps until the trading deadline. In the other corner, Xavier Nady has more immediate value. The San Diego Padres have been most aggressive. Huntington has – and will continue to – listen to offers for shortstop Jack Wilson, catcher Ronny Paulino and starter Matt Morris, as well. Meantime, a year after the Pirates didn't pitch or hit well (but did have one of the better defenses in the league), its management appears content to let another season play out. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny were better than adequate at the top of the rotation and Matt Capps and Damaso Marte were fine at the back of the bullpen. It was pretty messy in between. And maybe Adam LaRoche and Bay and Wilson and Freddy Sanchez and Jose Bautista and Nate McLouth are all poised for one big, happy, collective breakout season. But, maybe not.
Competition: For a team that lost 94 games and is going on its 16th consecutive losing season, the Pirates are set everywhere but in the bullpen and in center field. McLouth and Nyjer Morgan will compete in the spring to start Opening Day. Taken as a whole, McLouth did not have a particularly impressive 2007, but he showed good left-handed pull power in the second half. Morgan is superior defensively and batted .299 in 107 September at-bats.
Healing: Half the roster seems to have left last season limping or aching from something. Only Chris Duffy, last season's opening-day center fielder, appears to be carrying anything into this one. He had off-season shoulder surgery and probably will be behind come spring training, then start the season in the minor leagues. Bay (knee), Wilson (concussion), Sanchez (shoulder), Paul Maholm (back) and Ryan Doumit (ankle) are healthy again.
Next: Eventually, Andrew McCutchen is expected to settle the center-field competition. He's most often compared to a five-tool Ron Gant and could arrive as early as this summer.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
First impression: Like so much of the rest of the division, the Cardinals concluded 2007 with more losses than wins and so a gnawing sense the world wasn't quite right. Out went Walt Jocketty, the GM and builder of a World Series champion. Out went two-thirds of MV3 – third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds were traded, breaking up the triad led by Albert Pujols. Out went shortstop David Eckstein, the World Series MVP, who was allowed to depart as a free agent. The Cardinals were in full rebuild, without exactly uttering the word. John Mozeliak took over for Jocketty and slowly reshaped the team, even as the team reshaped itself; Chris Carpenter, the Cy Young winner in 2005 and a reasonably close third in '06, will miss at least half the season because of Tommy John surgery. The Tony La Russa-Rolen feud reached critical mass, meaning at least one would have to go. Turned out, the country wasn't big enough for both of them. Rolen was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Troy Glaus. Also, left-hander Mark Mulder, recovering from his second shoulder surgery in a year, won't return until May, optimistically. And Albert Pujols is talking about going easy on his tender elbow. Eleventh in the league in both runs and ERA, the Cardinals return with Cesar Izturis at shortstop, a full season of Rick Ankiel in right, questions in center field and serious questions on the mound.
Competition: As of this second, the center-field depth chart holds names such as Rick Ankiel, Skip Schumaker, Brian Barton, Colby Rasmus, Joe Mather and Cody Haerther. Ankiel probably goes there, with Ryan Ludwick in right and Chris Duncan in left. Adam Kennedy, who was hurt part of the time in his return to St. Louis and awful the rest, could be on a short leash at second base. Aaron Miles isn't far back. And the rotation gets a bit muddy after Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper and Joel Pineiro. Presumably Anthony Reyes and Matt Clement fill in until Mulder and Carpenter return, but Reyes was 2-14 last season and Clement is coming off surgery himself.
Healing: Just about everybody has a little something. Among those not yet mentioned, Duncan had offseason abdominal surgery and Glaus, on top of steroids accusations, had a bum left foot. Right-hander Josh Kinney, who had Tommy John surgery a year ago and hasn't pitched since the 2006 World Series, could be pitching again in mid-March. The roster has gotten thin enough for the Cardinals to even consider bringing in Juan Gonzalez for a look.
Next: Rasmus is a 21-year-old outfielder with the tools to become a 30-homer, 30-steal big-leaguer. If he plays well in camp, Rasmus could wind up in center field, moving Ankiel to right.