• Passan: Gazing into the crystal ball
MLB Division Predictions: NL Central
Team (Projected 2006 Record)
Houston Astros 94-68
Overview: Miserable starts the last two seasons forced the Astros to play out of their mind down the stretch. A lineup with more punch thanks to the maturity of Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane, and the acquisition of Preston Wilson, should take care of that. So long as the Astros can find at least one palatable starter to go with Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Brandon Backe – Roger Clemens, perhaps, or prospects Jason Hirsh or Fernando Nieve? – the Astros should be among the best teams in the NL.
St. Louis Cardinals 91-71
Overview: A team without holes the last two seasons enters this season with questions. Who replaces Mark Grudzielanek at second base? Can So Taguchi bring the pop Reggie Sanders did in left field? Will Braden Looper be an adequate substitute for Julian Tavarez? Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter is back at the top of the rotation, and Sidney Ponson tries to come back at the bottom, though Anthony Reyes is waiting to replace him. A healthy Scott Rolen makes the Cardinals a playoff team.
Milwaukee Brewers 89-73
Overview: Everyone's chic playoff sleeper is about a year away. Give Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks time to develop on the right side of the infield, and give Doug Davis, Chris Capuano and Derrick Turnbow time to prove they were more than one-year wonders. The Astros are getting old and the Cardinals vulnerable, and if manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Mike Maddux keep at it, they're heirs to the division title.
Chicago Cubs 81-81
Overview: Kerry Wood was hurt last year and Mark Prior is this year. The Cubs' lineup has the potential to be anemic. GM Jim Hendry and manager Dusty Baker are under fire. And to add insult, the White Sox won the World Series. Still, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are at the corners, and Juan Pierre is bound to take enough pitches to again make him one of the game's best leadoff hitters. Average sounds about right.
Pittsburgh Pirates 75-87
Overview: The Pirates, much like the Royals, spent money this offseason to, in part, quell the talk about them pocketing revenue-sharing dollars. And, like the Royals, they didn't do so foolishly, taking on short-term contracts and planning to devote big money to their young players. There are some good ones. Pitchers Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny – 132 big-league innings among them – will comprise 60 percent of the rotation. Keep an eye on young closer Mike Gonzalez, a Billy Wagner clone.
Cincinnati Reds 66-96
Overview: When GM Wayne Krivsky acquired Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena this week, it was the first step in revamping a pitching staff that had Aaron Harang as the No. 1 starter and still doesn't know its closer (Todd Coffey?). With Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and second-year third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who has looked tremendous all spring, the Reds will put up runs. Right now, though, Krivsky has plenty of work to do in his first season.