Handicapping the Central

added 2/2/2005 by Scott Barzilla

As we enter February it appears that most of the teams in baseball are done with their major moves. Now, it is time to handicap the Central division going into Spring Training. We will see the changes and the major questions each team has going into camp. Let’s get started. I will put the teams in the order I expect them to finish.

Chicago Cubs

1. Why might they win?

The Cubs clearly have the best starting pitching in the division. When a 300 game winner is the fourth best starter on your team you are in pretty good shape. Mark Prior spent most of last season reeling from injuries, so a healthy return will be quite a spike for the Cubbies. Also, playing 2005 without the distraction that is Sammy Sosa should be a plus.

2. Why might they lose?

The Cubs still don’t have a reliable bullpen. The Sammy Sosa mess distracted them from finding a reliable closer. Then again, when Troy Percival and Armando Benitez signed there wasn’t much left on the market. The Tigers are still looking to trade Ugueth Urbina, but the situation with his mother is still scaring teams away. The Cubs also have offensive issues with the defection of Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa trade. They must hope that Jerry Hairston continues to get on base in front of the few power hitters they have left.

3. Major Off-season change?

This one is obvious. The question will be how Sammy’s departure affects the Cubs. On the one hand, he was clearly a distraction for much of last season, but the lineup doesn’t have any major stars (unless Garciaparra has a renaissance). Hairston will likely be better than advertised, but he couldn’t win the second base job in Baltimore and now is penciled into left field for the Cubbies.

4. Major Spring Question

Who’s going to close? The Cubs have no shortage of candidates, but none of them are particularly appealing. Farnsworth could be traded, but he has the best stuff. Borowski was passable for awhile but he might have turned into a pumpkin. Hawkins failed in two tries with the Twins before settling in as quite a setup guy. Ryan Dempster? Failed starters fail as closers more often than they pan out (Eric Gagne notwithstanding)

Prediction: I see the Cubs being the class of a weakened division. They can always add relief pitching during the season if they have to.

St. Louis Cardinals

1. Why they might win?

The Cards have the best offense in the National League. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, and Scott Rolen are all potential Hall of Famers near the prime of their careers. Walker might be on the backslide, but he doesn’t have to carry an offense for the first time since he was in Montreal. David Eckstein and Reggie Sanders are good enough to provide support.

2. Why they might lose?

The Cards were built around pitching depth and defense as much as offense last year. Gone are Gold Glove shortstop Edgar Renteria and Gold Glove catcher Mike Matheny. Tony Womack, Rich Haren, and Woody Williams are gone as well. Mark Mulder could be a good top of the rotation guy, but without the strong up the middle defense the entire staff could be exposed this year. In particular, Cardinal fans could see just how valuable Renteria was on both ends.

3. Major Off-season change?

The Cards traded Rich Haren and two young pitchers for Mark Mulder of the As. Mulder is a former 20 game winner, but he finished last season in a tailspin. If he’s healthy he could be the ace they didn’t have last season. If he isn’t the Cardinals could become a very ordinary team very quickly.

4. Major Spring Question

David Eckstein will hold down the shortstop position and Mark Grudielanek will hold down the middle infield positions, but will they be productive enough? Who’s going to catch the bulk of the games? Like most other teams in the division, the Cards will have to rely on some unheralded young players to step up.

Prediction: In many ways the Cards come into 2005 with the same questions as they had coming into 2004. The difference is that they had a very good defense to cover up their mediocre pitching. Now they just have mediocre pitching. Those four dominant offensive players will keep them in it, but I don’t think they have the pitching or defense this time around.

Houston Astros

1. Why they might win? The Astros still have a good rotation after Roger Clemens decided to come back. If Andy Pettitte is healthy it could be almost as good as the Cubbies. The difference maker is still Brad Lidge. He is the best relief pitcher in the league this side of Eric Gagne. The Killer Bs are still a good group of offensive players, so the Astros will score enough runs.

2. Why they might not win?

They simply don’t have enough talent. They are missing a fifth starter, much of a bullpen and a third of the outfield.

3. Major off-season change

The club lost a lot when they let Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran leave. Unfortunately, they spent too much time trying to get Beltran to come back. Now, they must rely on young players to take over in those two spots.

4. Major Spring question

There is no bigger hole on this team literally and metaphorically than in centerfield. The options are not appetizing. Craig Biggio could return to a position where he was woefully inadequate defensively. Jason Lane could do his best Lance Berkman imitation with hustling by inadequate defense. Then there is Willy Taveras. He is the best defensive option by far, but can he hit enough?

Prediction: Those of us in Houston have seen that miracles can happen, but let’s be serious. In order for Houston to win they will need Brandon Backe, a fifth starter, at least three relievers, Chris Burke, Morgan Ensberg, and a centerfielder to emerge at the same time. What are the odds?

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Why they might win?

You’re kidding right? Let’s just say that the Pirates could finish in third this season very easily. They have a better bullpen than most of the teams in the division and their offense is better than average. To put it simply, they have fewer holes than the Brewers or Reds.

2. Why they will lose?

Their starting rotation is in shambles right now with Sean Burnett and Kip Wells having major injury problems. They may have few holes on offense, but they don’t have anyone that really gets your attention either. Jason Bay and Craig Wilson could be very good, but no one makes you shake in your boots.

3. Major off-season change

The Pirates finally rid themselves of Jason Kendall’s contract. However, they had to take on Arthur Rhodes contract to rid themselves of Kendall’s contract. Luckily, they were able to spin Rhodes in exchange for Matt Lawton. So essentially, they get an outfielder that can put up Kendall’s numbers for about half the price.

4. Major Spring Question

The Pirates must fill out the rest of their rotation if Wells and Burnett can’t go. Todd Ritchie is a possibility, but he’s not the sexiest option.

Prediction: The Pirates are spinning their wheels until they get full payroll flexibility. They are closer now that Kendall is gone. All of this spinning makes the Pirates the best contender for fourth place.

Milwaukee Brewers

1. Why they might win?

The best the Brewers can really hope for this season is fourth place. However, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a locomotive anymore. The Brewers have a couple of hot prospects ready to make a splash (Weeks and Fielder) and they stole Carlos Lee from the White Sox.

2. Why they will lose?

The Brewers simply don’t have the pitching to last. Ben Sheets and Doug Davis are good enough, but the rest of the rotation should be awful again. The bullpen is even worse after Danny Kolb was traded to the Braves. Somebody will likely step up to close, but finding three or four decent relievers in that group is very unlikely.

3. Biggest off-season change

For some reason, the White Sox wanted to get more speed, so they took Scott Podsednik off of the Brewers hands. Podsednik stole a lot of bases, but that hid a dismal OPS in 2004. Lee comes in and gives the Brewers another power bat to accompany Lyle Overbay, Geoff Jenkins, and Wes Helms. Now you can see why acquiring power was so important.

4. Biggest Spring Question

Where in the heck is the pitching? The subplot this season will almost certainly be the trade winds surrounding Ben Sheets. Sheets likely won’t come back to Milwaukee next year, so look for him to be dumped before the non-waiver deadline. The question will be to who and for what.

Prediction: The Brewers will be without Ben Sheets for at least two months. Yet, Doug Melvin is in a very good position to get a deal similar to the one he got for Richie Sexson. If he does that he will single-handedly propel the team close to the first division in 2006 and beyond.

Cincinnati Reds

1. Why they will win?

The Reds could have the most impressive offense in the National League this side of St. Louis. Of course, that would require Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Austin Kearns to all remain healthy. If they do, they will accompany Sean Casey to give the Reds a nice offensive attack.

2. Why they will lose?

The Reds pitching is the worst in the division bar none. Dan O’Brien didn’t help himself by blowing a lot of money on Paul Wilson and Eric Milton. Both pitchers are homer happy. Wilson was the Reds best pitcher in 2004, but they had a terrible staff. Giving him “two pitcher money” was foolish. Giving the farm to Eric Milton was just bizarre. Teams will have to stock extra fireworks when the Reds come into town.

3. Biggest off-season change

For most of us it will be not seeing Barry Larkin at shortstop, but in reality it was the addition of Eric Milton. Milton will give the Reds innings, but in Great American ballpark he could challenge the record for home runs surrendered.

4. Biggest Spring question

The rotation behind Wilson and Milton is still somewhat unclear while everyone is wondering whether Danny Graves should be the closer.

Prediction: This club has the look of a last place club, but they will be entertaining. Everyone can enter into the Ken Griffey Jr. season ending injury pool. Vegas is setting the over and under on staff home runs at around 220. I’m taking the over. Dan O’Brien needs to have his head examined. It’s one thing to have a dreadful pitching staff. It’s another to pay a lot of money for it.