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March 14, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Divisional offensive outlook for 1999

by Christina Kahrl

CHICAGO CUBS (1998: 831 runs, .267 Equivalent Average)

Starters (with projected Equivalent Average)
C Benito Santiago .247
1B Mark Grace .292
2B Mickey Morandini .264
3B Gary Gaetti .243
SS Jose Hernandez .271
LF Henry Rodriguez .277 / Glenallen Hill .277
CF Lance Johnson .265
RF Sammy Sosa .307

Bench/Alternatives: SS Jeff Blauser .268, C/UT Tyler Houston .252

When everything broke the Cubs' way in 1998, they still wound up with only the third-best offense in the division. Now that spring's coming and we can call a pumpkin a pumpkin again, there are reasons to believe that this offense will be hard-pressed to remain third-best. First off, the 1999 Cubs are old enough to push the current Orioles or the early-80s Angels for all-time historic oldness. The lineup will have serious on-base problems, and Lance Johnson is nobody's good idea of a good leadoff man. Brave talk in Chicago has the Cubs excited about having Gaetti and Santiago for the season (not to mention some bragging about how this year's Cubs lineup could set a team record for homeruns, topping last season's mark of 212). Talk's cheap, even in this golden Age of Consultants. Home run rates are probably going may continue to drop in the NL (don't laugh, but rates in 1998 were a decline from where they were in the mid-90s), so put me in the camp of people who don't see Sammy thwacking 60 or more this year.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: third

CINCINNATI REDS (1998: 750 runs, .261 EqA)

C Ed Taubensee .285 / Brian Johnson .252
1B Sean Casey .302
2B Pokey Reese .223
3B Aaron Boone .249
SS Barry Larkin .316
LF Greg Vaughn .298
CF Mike Cameron .266
RF Dmitri Young .299

Bench/Alternatives: OFs Jon Nunnally .276, Mike Tucker .275, Jeffrey Hammonds .269, 2B/3B Mark Lewis .243, 2B Ralph Milliard .255, UT Chris Stynes .260

The building blocks of a very potent offense are in place, and the Reds should score more runs, perhaps finishing as the second- or third-best offense in the division. Much will depend on Jack McKeon's selections in the outfield and who he gives jobs to at second and third. If he chooses the best baseball player for the job in center (Cameron) and the best offensive player for the job in right (Young), he'll have made the biggest potential positive impact on the team. If he diddles around, like he did last year with Nunnally, or worse yet, if he lets Pokey Reese play every day, he'll have undone much of that good. A lot will depend not on where anyone bats, but who bats, and how regularly. They could help themselves considerably if they find a good third baseman, or if Jim Bowden scores a solid leadoff man on the trade market should Cameron not shake off miserable 1998.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: fourth, but if they're contending July, they'll pass the Cubs

HOUSTON ASTROS (1998: 874 rus, .279 EqA)

C Mitch Meluskey .309
1B Jeff Bagwell .339
2B Craig Biggio .308
3B Ken Caminiti .311
SS Ricky Gutierrez .245
LF Richard Hidalgo .268
CF Carl Everett .272
RF Derek Bell .283

Bench/Alternatives: C Tony Eusebio .239, LF Lance Berkman .313, LF Daryle Ward .298, INF Bill Spiers .288

Although you might think the Astros are in bad shape after losing Moises Alou, Sean Berry, and Brad Ausmus, they aren't. Coming off a year when the Astros were the NL's best offense, things are very fragile, in that the Astros have the opportunity to repeat as the league's best offense, but there are also several things that could go wrong. An outfield combo of Everett, Bell, and Hidalgo isn't as strong as you want, but the Astros have two excellent young hitters in Berkman and Ward, either of whom could step in and take over left field. Admittedly, Ken Caminiti is looking fragile, but few teams have reserves as capable as Spiers or Russ Johnson available should he go down. Mitch Meluskey could end up being the fourth-best offensive catcher in the league (behind Piazza, Javy Lopez, and Kendall), or he could struggle, leaving the Astros with an adequate platoon of Tony Eusebio and Paul Bako. But I'm on the bandwagon of believers that if there's an organization that can change gears and take best advantage of available talent, it's the Astros. They can try whatever works while banking on continuing greatness from Biggio and Bagwell.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: first (possibly without even adjusting for the ballpark)

MILWAUKEE BREWERS (1998: 707 runs, .251 EqA)

C Dave Nilsson .282
1B Sean Berry .284
2B Fernando Vina .261
3B Jeff Cirillo .298
SS Jose Valentin .266
LF Geoff Jenkins .252
CF Marquis Grissom .249
RF Jeromy Burnitz .290

Bench/Alternatives: INF Mark Loretta .280, 2B Ronnie Belliard .272, 1B Kevin Barker .262, OF Rich Becker .265, OF Scott Krause .275

Even with the expectation that Marquis Grissom is going to bounce back slightly from his godawful 1998, and even with Sean Berry's bat replacing Mike Matheny's now that Nilsson is being moved back behind the plate, this is still a weak offensive team. Fernando Vina isn't a good bet to maintain his newfound status as a solid leadoff hitter, which creates problems for the rest of a weak lineup. Take note that they could easily replace their expected keytstone combo of Vina and Valentin with an upgrade of Belliard and Loretta. If there's a team that needs to remind itself of its recent history (remembering where Jeromy Burnitz came from), and trading either Vina or Valentin or both for the best available young hitter to plug into left field, it's the Brewers. Sean Berry should be a solid fill-in until Kevin Barker comes of age. The Brewers will probably score about as many runs as they did in 1998, with their only consolation coming from the knowledge that's easily more than the Pirates.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: fifth

PITTSBURGH PIRATES (1998: 650 runs, .240 EqA)

C Jason Kendall .296
1B Kevin Young .275
2B "Punch" Benjamin .232
3B Ed Sprague .238
SS "Judy" Meares .221
LF Brian Giles .294
CF Brant Brown .278
RF Jose Guillen .253

Bench/Alternatives: 2B Warren Morris .255, 3B Aramis Ramirez .269, 3B Freddy Garcia .255, SS Abraham Nunez .216, OF Chad Hermansen .278, 1B Ron Wright .262

You wouldn't have thought it would be easy for an organization to take the league's worst offense and find a way to make it worse, but miraculously enough, the Pirates have done it. If they stick with this infield, they'll have a hard time scoring 600 runs. They'll almost certainly be the worst Pirates offense since the Slammin' Sammy Khalifa Pirates of 1985. Hell, the unlamented departure of the mostly harmless Tony Womack actually cost them their best-hitting middle infielder with any major league experience, although Warren Morris would be an improvement. A palace coup by the minor leaguers would put a significantly better team on the field, but the Bucs must be angling to get the Pennsylvania state legislature to rescind public funding for a new stadium, because this lineup has the talent to easily rack up 100+ losses.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: sixth. Last in the majors. Potential for historically significant badness. Able to play games in a half-hour, if the other team didn't have to bat. The team every pitcher should ask to get his rehab work against.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (1998: 810 runs, .271 EqA)

C Eli Marrero .252
1B Big Red .360
2B Carlos Baerga .237
3B Fernando Tatis .281
SS Edgar Renteria .263
LF J.D. Drew .336
CF Ray Lankford .318
RF Eric Davis .302

Bench/Alternatives: 2B Pat Kelly .266, INF David Howard .213, INF Adam Kennedy .249, SS Brent Butler .266

Although there's really only one fight for a regular job (second), there are more question marks than you'd think. Will Drew really be this good this fast? Will McGwire poke sixty or more again? Will the real Fernando Tatis please stand up? Will Eric Davis be able to play 130 games? Will the manager check his ego at the door and stop goofing off with the pitcher in the eighth slot? The Cardinals should figure out that Baerga is done, but it may take them 30 games. The potential disaster is if Tony LaRussa honors a past promise and hands the job over to David Howard. Howard's greatest claim to fame is going to be that he did not play for the 1999 Pirates, despite all of the requisite banjo-hitting skills. Even with problems at second (easily resolved with any of the alternatives to Howard and Baerga listed above), the offense will hardly be the problem as long as Lankford and Davis can stay healthy. If the Cards have to count on Darren Bragg or the mummified remains of Willie McGee if either of Lankford or Davis miss as much as a month or more at a time, then they'll have major offensive problems. I think McGwire's got as reasonable a shot as anybody historically could at topping sixty again, but it'd be a bit much to expect a run at his own record. And yes, Drew really is the real deal.

Projected offensive rank in NL Central: second, with a good shot at scoring more runs than the Astros

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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