CHICAGO CUBS (1998: 792 runs allowed, 5th NL Central)

Steve Trachsel, R
Kevin Tapani, R
Jon Lieber, R
Terry Mulholland, L
Scott Sanders, R or Kurt Miller, R

Rod Beck, R
Terry Adams, R
Matt Karchner, R
Felix Heredia, L

Andrew Lorraine, L
Marc Pisciotta, R

Life after Kerry may not be as bad as some people are expecting. Sure,
Kevin Tapani’s 19 wins last year are a great demonstration of the value of
run support: he got it, and Mark Clark didn’t. Okay, it’s almost certainly
false hope that Terry Mulholland is going to somehow keep his under-three
ERA pitching regularly in the rotation, since he hasn’t had an ERA under
4.00 as rotation regular since 1993; in the wake of the injury to Terry
Adams, Mulholland is being temporarily assigned to the bullpen. Sure, every
year I keep guessing that this will be the year Steve Trachsel breaks
through. I still think it’s possible; he’s relatively young at 28, he’s
never had a major injury, and he has flashes of dominance. For better or
for worse, they’re all relatively durable by today’s standards, and I doubt
any of them will totally collapse. If anyone might bust out for a great
year, it’s Jon Lieber. His established level is about as good as either
Trachsel or Tapani, but his control and ability to dice up right-handed
batters could be especially important in games against divisional rivals.
The fifth spot in the rotation is still open, but it looks like Scott
Sanders is going to grab the job. He’s had an even worse-than-usual
hangover period from his stint with the Mariners, but he could still end up
being a modest surprise. He’s probably better suited to be the top set-up
man for Beck in the pen, but the Cubs will have to kick around Sanders or
Kurt Miller in the fifth slot until Jeremi Gonzalez heals up (probably
August). Overall, the Cubs should have four solid starters, but no one is
really a strong candidate to break through and have a great season.

In the bullpen, the Cubs’ problems are still pronounced. Bad back or not,
Rod Beck is neither a source of strength or weakness. The key will be
making him relevant. Matt Karchner continues to be bad news, and Terry
Adams’ persistent injury woes need to be tackled before the Cubs can even
figure out how to straighten him out. Felix Heredia could be more valuable
if he’s taken out of the lefty specialist role. That seems unlikely,
because Riggleman is almost robotic in his observation of platoon splits.
Who wins the last spot or two in the pen is less important than the
figuring out that they may have to start over and find four new relievers.

Cubs defense was a weak spot last year, and that probably won’t change
significantly. They were the worst team in the majors at turning the
double-play last year, and infield range with older players like Gary
and Mickey Morandini playing regularly is poor.
The outfield defense is weak; Henry Rodriguez and Glenallen Hill
will always require defensive replacements, while Sammy Sosa has
lost a step going into the gaps. Lance Johnson is no
longer a primo glove in center, and his weak arm is always worth taking
extra bases for Cubs opponents. There are a couple of reasons to hope for
improvement: Hernandez to Morandini to Grace could improve from playing
together for a second season, and adding Benito Santiago should be a
significant improvement behind the plate.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: fifth

CINCINNATI REDS (1998: 760 runs allowed, 3rd in NL Central)

Pete Harnisch, R
Brett Tomko, R
Jason Bere, R
Steve Parris, R
Steve Avery, L

Danny Graves, R
Scott Sullivan, R
John Hudek, R
Gabe White, L
Denny Reyes, L
Scott Williamson, R

On the DL
Denny Neagle, L
Stan Belinda, R

Reds pitching was solidly in the middle of the pack last year. After
trading for Denny Neagle and bringing in Steve Avery, the staff may improve
considerably. Much will depend on whether or not Neagle is healthy (he’s
expected to return from the DL a week or so into the season), and whether
he sticks around. That will depend on how competitive the Reds are by the
end of July; if they aren’t, he’s gone, and don’t be surprised to see Rob
cutting his teeth. Pete Harnisch is having back problems, but
effectively taking a year off in 1997 should still bode well for his
ability to toss 30+ starts and an ERA at least a half-run better than
league average. Brett Tomko is capable of breaking out this year; he was
relatively unlucky last season, when he wasn’t being badgered by his
manager. There’s been plenty of bluster about Jason Bere, but he still
isn’t pitching well, he’s still wild and hittable, and I’m basically not
buying the hype. Steve Parris is underrated but also relatively fragile;
he’s quite capable of having a good streak or two. Steve Avery is
temporarily in the rotation, and returning to the NL may be good for him.
In his case, the Reds should settle for mediocrity, and I expect he’ll get
Bere’s spot in the rotation for keeps by May. Overall, the rotation is
fragile, combustible, and may get broken up if the Reds aren’t competitive,
but the potential for a better-than-average group is there.

The bullpen is somewhat up in the air, but not in a bad way. Jack McKeon
has stated that he wants to use Danny Graves as his closer, but don’t be
surprised if it’s still effectively a closer by committee situation. That
may change after
the All-Star break, as flamethrower Scott Williamson may get handed the job
at that point. Gabe White is a durable, rubber-armed lefty, and it looks
like Denny Reyes will get to pitch in long relief most of the year, before
eventually going back to starting. After how much the Dodgers overworked
him down on the farm, the Reds are right to be cautious with him. Scott
Sullivan may break down after two years with a heavy workload, and John
Hudek is wild and homerun-prone, but as middlemen go, they’re adequate. The
pen is neither a major source of strength or a weakness, with its most
notable feature being its small price tag.

Reds outfield defense is going to improve this year. Mike Cameron is an
outstanding defensive player in centerfield, which should do wonders in
terms of limiting the damage Dmitri Young does in either corner of the
outfield when he plays. Jeffrey Hammonds and Michael Tucker both play a
corner well. Greg Vaughn isn’t going to get much credit, but he isn’t
immobile or a serious problem. Neither Eddie Taubensee or Brian Johnson are
great catchers, but they aren’t Lenny Webster either. In the infield, the
Reds can probably expect improvement on the corners, in that Aaron Boone
has good range and anticipates the deuce well, and Sean Casey almost has to
improve from last year’s near-immobility. Barry Larkin has lost more than a
step at short, however, and that may explain the decision to play Pokey
at second, as a sort of overcompensation. The Reds may turn to a
platoon of Jeff Branson and Mark Lewis, which won’t help defensively. Reds
pitchers will only really have Cameron to thank on a consistent basis, and
I don’t see Reds defense as an asset.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: second

HOUSTON ASTROS (1998: 620 runs allowed, 1st in NL Central)

Shane Reynolds, R
Mike Hampton, L
Jose Lima, R
Sean Bergman, R
Chris Holt, R

Billy Wagner, L
Jay Powell, R
Doug Henry, R
Xavier Hernandez, R
Scott Elarton, R
Trever Miller, L

Much has been said about how badly the Astros are hurt by Randy Johnson‘s
departure, but I don’t completely buy it. Maybe I’m being overconfident in
Larry Dierker, but so far, it looks like Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton
are solid, Jose Lima is in the right ballpark with the right manager, and
if Sean Bergman collapses (very possible) or Chris Holt isn’t really
healthy (also possible), the Astros will be able to promote Scott Elarton
from the pen. Yes, Elarton is in the mix for a rotation spot right now, but
Dierker has said that if Holt is healthy (and he has been so far), Elarton
will return to the pen, especially if the Astros can’t find that extra
reliever they’re shopping for. The Astros do have the benefit of a great
pitcher’s park, a great offense, and one of the game’s better managers to
limit whatever struggles their rotation may endure.

The Astros’ pen is a source of concern for the time being. Although Billy
Wagner is outstanding, and the relatively unheralded addition of Jay Powell
gives them a very good right-handed alternative late in games, persistent
arm woes plague Xavier Hernandez, and Trever Miller has been miserable in
camp. Doug Henry has turned himself into a solid middle reliever, and as
long as Elarton is in the pen, the Astros can afford to yank a struggling
starter early and get three or four quality innings in long relief from
him. Looking forward to what might happen in the next few months, don’t be
surprised if the Astros end up trading for a left-handed reliever to
supplant Miller.

Defensively, the Astros look like a strong team. Outfield defense will be
strong with both Richard Hidalgo and Carl Everett on the field, pending the
arrival of Lance Berkman for left field. Derek Bell continues to be
overrated defensively, but he isn’t a serious problem. The infield defense
will feature the usual good work from Bagwell and Biggio on the right side,
and continued adequacy from the left side; Ricky Gutierrez is neither
brilliant or bad, while Ken Caminiti will probably pull off the
occassionally spectacular play to cover for his declining range. Given the
choices of Meluskey, Bako, or Eusebio behind the plate, none of them are
going to kill the running game or make people remember Johnny Bench, but
none of them have serious problems behind the plate. Overall, Astros
defense looks relatively strong, although not as good as the Cardinals
could be.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: first

MILWAUKEE BREWERS (1998: 812 runs allowed, 6th in NL Central)

Scott Karl, L
Steve Woodard, R
Jim Abbott, L
Bill Pulsipher, L
Brad Woodall, L

Bob Wickman, R
Chad Fox, R
Eric Plunk, R
Al Reyes, R
David Weathers, R
Mike Myers, L
Valerio De Los Santos, L

Rafael Roque, L
William VanLandingham, R

On the DL
Cal Eldred, R

It’s a good thing the Brewers have a talented bullpen, because they’re
going to need it, again. Scott Karl looks hurt, and his effectiveness has
been steadily declining. Jim Abbott looked fine last September, against
weak lineups from the Royals and Twins. Much as I’d like to see him
succeed, he’s a good candidate to flop. Bill Pulsipher should hand his job
to somebody else by June, and Cal Eldred may not be very good, even if he
heals up. It says volumes about this team that William VanLandingham could
win a spot in the rotation. Although Rafael Roque has earned a crack at the
rotation, he has an option to burn, so I’m betting that Brad Woodall gets
first shot at the fifth slot. It isn’t all bad news: Steve Woodard could
have a breakthrough season this year, and is as good a pick as any to be a
token Brewer in the All-Star game. After several collapses, I expect the
Brewers’ rotation will have Roque and top draft pick Kyle Peterson in it
after the All-Star break.

The bullpen is a different matter altogether. Although Bob Wickman isn’t
your prototypical closer, he’s good for 70 or 80 quality innings, however
Phil Garner chooses to use him. Chad Fox and Al Reyes can be dominating at
times, and Eric Plunk is a useful middle reliever. David Weathers was
surprisingly effective as a mop-up man and long reliever last season;
restricted to relief work, I suppose it’s possible again, but he’s been
extremely bad over the course of his career. Mike Myers is a handy
situational reliever, and De los Santos has one of the best lefty fastballs
in baseball. Although Garner overused his pen last year, there’s enough
talent here for him to spread the work around, to try to restrict the
damage done by the rotation.

Brewers defense is interesting, in that it’s always hard to tell where
pitching ends and fielding begins; the Brewers have a bad rotation, but
several players with excellent defensive reputations. Jeff Cirillo and
Fernando Vina really are outstanding defensive players; both have good
range and outstanding anticipation on the double-play. Either of Jose
or Mark Loretta are adequate at shortstop, although for different
reasons: Valentin has good range, while Loretta is more reliable. Sean
should be an improvement at first over Dave Nilsson or John Jaha. The
outfield was horrible last year, but the hope is that Marquis Grissom‘s bad
buttocks are healed up so that he can run and gun in center again. There’s
not much to be done for Jeromy Burnitz or Geoff Jenkins, so if Grissom can
do anything to recapture even a sliver of his former glory, this pitching
staff could use it. Behind the plate, the Nilsson experiment won’t be
helpful defensively.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: sixth, again, but there’s
potential to pass the Cubs if they shake up the rotation early enough.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES (718 runs allowed, 2nd in NL Central)

Francisco Cordova, R
Jason Schmidt, R
Pete Schourek, L
Jose Silva, R
Chris Peters, L

Rich Loiselle, R
Jason Christiansen, L
Mike Williams, R
Elmer Dessens, R

Kris Benson, R
Marc Wilkins, R
Todd Ritchie, R
Jim Dougherty, R
Jason Phillips, R
Jeff Tabaka, L
Scott Sauerbeck, L

Basically, things are wide open in the bottom half of the rotation. Kris
Benson may not open the year in the rotation, but Chris Peters is hurt,
Jose Silva is always potentially hurt, and I’m not sold on Pete Schourek
being a good risk, great playoff start for the Red Sox or no. However,
Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova could both be just coming into their
own, and Silva’s up-side if he does stay healthy is very good. Benson will
almost certainly get an opportunity, most obviously if the problems in the
bullpen lead to a return to the pen by Peters.

The bullpen is potentially a disaster, especially in the wake of trading
Riccardo Rincon to the Indians. Rich Loiselle has always been hittable, and
Mike Williams was a journeyman for a reason. I have almost no faith in
Dessens. Jason Christiansen is the best relief pitcher they have, and
there’s a danger that he could be overworked. Marc Wilkins and Jeff Tabaka
are both still hurt, which opens up opportunities for a journeyman like
Todd Ritchie or Jim Dougherty, or kids like Jason Phillips or Rule 5 pick
Scott Sauerbeck. Gene Lamont may be able to put something together, but I
don’t like the look of the clay he has to work with.

Pirates defense is bad. Brant Brown is challenged as a centerfielder, and
neither Brian Giles or Jose Guillen are exceptional in the corners. The
infield, with Ed Sprague at third, Pat Meares at short, Warren Morris at
second, and Kevin Young at first, should leak like a sieve. Jason Kendall
is a fine catcher, but that’s not going to help much. The position players
are almost as weak defensively as they are offensively.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: third

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (1998: 782 runs allowed, 4th in NL Central)

Donovan Osborne, L
Darren Oliver, L
Kent Mercker, L
Kent Bottenfield, R
Manny Aybar, R or Jose Jimenez, R

Juan Acevedo, R
Ricky Bottalico, R
John Frascatore, R
Scott Radinsky, L
Lance Painter, L

Rick Croushore, R
Curtis King, R
Mike Mohler, L

Who’s survived long enough to pitch for this year’s Cardinals? Matt Morris?
Gone. Alan Benes? The best case scenario is that he might be back by
August. Might. Given that this is the team that rushed Morris back too soon
in April last year, they may not let Benes fully heal up either. Darren
Oliver and Donovan Osborne are both question marks as far as how long
they’ll remain healthy. Kent Mercker may be good for 30 starts, but that’s
if you really want them. Kent Bottenfield may end up having a solidly
mediocre season as a rotation regular, and I like what Jose Jimenez might
be able to do in a single season. Manny Aybar may get a serious look in the
rotation, and he’s probably ready, but he struggled with Tony LaRussa last year,
and is probably the bait to land Fernando Vina from the Brewers. Given this
cast, I won’t be surprised if the Cardinals bring Benes back too soon, rush
Rick Ankiel up, or give serious consideration to rushing Mark Nussbeck or
Chad Hutchinson. They’ll almost certainly goof around with bad ideas like
starting Mike Mohler or Brian Barber. I had expected the Cardinals to make
the winning bid on Orel Hershiser, but I was wrong. While the Cardinals
have Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford, Eric Davis, and J.D. Drew
as their offensive core, they need
to quickly resolve their rotation problems if they want to seriously push
for the wild card or chasing the Astros.

The bullpen is equally unsettled. Juan Acevedo is the closer, for the moment.
If Ricky Bottalico is all the way back, Acevedo may end up in the rotation by May,
where he’ll pitch brilliantly, if briefly. Given LaRussa’s track record, Acevedo
will get burned out as a starter. Bottalico and Frascatore are serviceable enough,
although it’s been overlooked that Bottalico hasn’t really been good since 1996.
Frascatore basically had a bad month, followed by some useful innings for the rest
of the year. If you’ve read
Mike Wolverton’s piece on relievers,
you’ll understand why I’m
reluctant to endorse the signing of Scott Radinsky, especially since
"Rad" is leaving Chavez Ravine behind. Lance Painter is not among
the better lefty situational relievers in the league. Rick Croushore’s
screwball could still make him an effective middle reliever, assuming he
isn’t still waiting for that Jeff Bagwell shot from last July to come down.
Curtis King may get his opportunity, but he’s been extremely hittable, and
he’ll hand it back.

The Cardinals should be a relatively strong defensive team. The left side
of the infield, Fernando Tatis and Edgar Renteria, are very good. If the
Cardinals do land Vina from the Brewers, they’ll have one of the best
defensive infields in the league. Mark McGwire’s a bit more spry than Steve
these days, but nowhere near as mobile as he used to be. The
outfield defense should be excellent. Lankford and Drew have outstanding
range, and Eric Davis is no slouch. Since I expect Lankford and Davis to
miss a few games, Darren Bragg is handy enough for a corner. Behind the
plate, Eli Marrero is very smooth, and a full season from him should be an
improvement on last year’s jumbled situation.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: fourth

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