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March 30, 2003
NL Central Preview
This will be a transition year in the NL Central, as the teams that have been at the top for years cede control to a pair of up-and-comers. Don't worry, though: Those of you desiring sameness can still take comfort in the Brewers.
I'm going with the Reds because of their upside, especially offensively. They have 15-homer power at every single lineup spot, and should be among the league leaders in OBP, led by young studs Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. The key to the Reds' chances, however, is getting late-1990s performance from the bulk of their payroll. Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin have to get 800 at-bats between them, and be the kind of hitters they were when they signed their big contracts. That means .280/.375/.550 from Griffey and a .370 OBP from Larkin.
That kind of production is necessary because the pitching is questionable. It always seems to be for the Reds. They have a rotation loaded with #3 and #4 guys, backed by a deep bullpen filled with pitchers who can get strikeouts. Scott Sullivan has to be healthy and effective to replace Danny Graves' innings in the pen and bridge the gap from the six-inning starters to Scott Williamson.
I've never been a big fan of Bob Boone, but his openness to new ideas is winning me over. He's made Graves a starter, he's shown a willingness to consider a four-man rotation, he's experimented with, or gone through with, three or four position changes, most notably moving his son, Aaron Boone, to second base. If the Reds have a clear-cut edge on the Cubs than makes up for the Cubs' better rotation, it's in the dugout.
The Cubs have more talent than the Reds do, but they also have more Dusty Baker, and that will be the difference. Already, we've seen the problem with hiring a manager who prefers veterans, as Baker will open the season with Mark Grudzielanek (career OBP of .324) and Alex Gonzalez (career OBP of .306) at the top of the lineup, passing over Bobby Hill (career OBP of .327, .358 after last year's All-Star break) in the process.
The Cubs may yet overcome Baker, and if they do, it will because of their great rotation. Mark Prior, two years removed from USC, is my pick for NL Cy Young. Maybe he doesn't win it, but he'll certainly be a candidate, likely providing 230 innings with an ERA in the 2.00s and more than 200 strikeouts. Behind him, the Cubs have three other power right-handers in Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano.
After you get past the dysfunctional top of the order, the Cubs have a fairly good offense. They'll get power from all six spots, and if Corey Patterson shows even modest development--you decide what to call five walks in 56 at-bats this spring--the Cubs will score enough runs to win. They need Patterson as much to cover the ground between Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa as to put runs on the board, so he's going to play.
Overall, though, I keep coming back to Baker, who has already gotten rid of Bobby Hill, slid Shawn Estes in front of Zambrano and moved Hee Seop Choi into a platoon role. There's enough talent in the organization to win, but it may be wasted on winning the PCL.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals would probably be the safe pick, given their great defense and lineup core. I just can't look at that pitching staff and feel any confidence. Only Matt Morris and Steve Kline are reliable; Woody Williams has been great as a Cardinal, but for just 28 starts in eight months, and with Jason Isringhausen out to start the year, the bullpen is a collection of retreads that makes the Reds' staff look brand-name.
The biggest problem is the rotation, which consists of Morris and a bunch of guys who might be healthy or effective, but are unlikely to be both. Grand larceny in the theft of Scott Rolen aside, there's little in the farm system that can be used to add pitching during the season, so what you see is probably what you get.
At the plate, the Cards have fewer questions. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Rolen are about as good as it gets in the NL, and Edgar Renteria gets a little bit better each year. If J.D. Drew ever gets healthy--I have a macro for that sentence, by the way--the Cardinals will have a championship-caliber offense. I can't shake the idea, though, that this is the season in which Edmonds and Rolen combine to miss 100 games, and there's nothing on the bench or in Memphis that can cover that.
I think Dave Littlefield has done a great job of acquiring talent, both for the major-league team and the organization. For a team that had an awful bench in 2002, employing Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs and Reggie Sanders for less than three million bucks in 2003 is a pretty good coup. All three players can help any team.
That said, those players don't fit this team, with its need to play Craig Wilson and its logjam at first base. As bad an idea as playing Brian Giles in center field was, it's not like Lofton is a good flycatcher anymore, so he doesn't help much, either. It's a case where each move, individually, is completely defensible, but taken together--along with the Randall Simon acquisition--they represent an opportunity to cheat a young player out of playing time while creating a headache for Lloyd McClendon.
In a weaker division, the improved depth might be enough to get the Pirates fringe-contender status. Their defense in the infield is very good, as Pokey Reese and Jack Wilson are the best DP combination no one cares about. The pitching is deep, if unspectacular, thanks in part to the booty from the Todd Ritchie trade, Kip Wells and Josh Fogg. Kris Benson showed signs in the second half that he might be close to a full recovery as well, which would give the Pirates their best rotation since the early 1990s.
The guy to watch is Jason Kendall, two years removed from thumb surgery. If his power comes back, he'll have a chance at emerging from albatross status. If it doesn't, the Pirates will be paying $10 million a year for Brian Harper Lite, and that's not something any team, much less a true small-market team, can afford.
With apologies to Bill Simmons, can someone please let Drayton McLane know that forkectomies are covered by most major medical plans? The sooner he gets one done on his aging team, the sooner the Astros can leverage the right arm of Roy Oswalt into playoff appearances.
More than half of the BP staff thinks that the Astros are going to win this division, and I have absolutely no idea how. I see two above-average players in Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman, one aging star who will probably stay above average in Jeff Bagwell, and five positions where this team makes the Brewers look pretty good. Name I Can Never Remember Field is something like 430 feet to deep center with a mogul and a rat's maze back there, and the Astros think moving a 37-year-old second baseman who can't run anymore out there is going to be a good thing? The nicest thing I can say about the left side of the infield is that it doesn't take long to type their names, and Richard Hidalgo is recovering from the rare BP cover jinx/bullet wound exacta, so it's hard to be optimistic.
I love the Astros pitching staff, at least the guys not rejected by the Tigers and Reds, and the organizational belief in short right-handers pays off this year both in the rotation and bullpen. But the guys standing behind the mound don't comprise a championship team, and the NL Central is no longer there for the taking by the first team to 85 wins.
I swear that I could have had this column done four days ago, but I've been racking my brain trying to figure out what to say about the Brewers. They're not young, they're not talented, they're not interesting...not even in a morbid way. They're just boring. Royce Clayton and Eric Young up the middle? Wes Helms and John Vander Wal in the lineup? If a baseball team loses in a spaceship and no one watches, does the game count?
This is an awful team representing an awful organization, and it could lose as many as 112 games in 2003. The Brewers need three or four good drafts to even look like a real franchise.