Following the 4 hour marathon game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees last night, baseball opening day is finally here again. After a long offseason of major stars being traded, including Cy Young award winners being traded on the same day in separate trades, today is the day where everyone starts off with the same record and same hopes and dreams. For some teams, the dreams will fade slowly and for others, much, much quicker. Today I will be previewing the National League Central in depth and National League overall.
National League Central:
Chicago Cubs (83-78 in 2009)
The Cubs come into the 2010 season with high hopes after falling short during the 2009 season, a season in which injuries to key players derailed their season, not to mention distractions from players who no longer play for the team. When your biggest offseason acquisition has been a brand new hitting coach, you can tell that the moves made weren't on a grand scale. 11 of the 25 players on the opening day roster are players that were not on the roster at the beginning of the 2009 season. The biggest of those names are Marlon Byrd, who was signed to replace the unhappy Milton Bradley. Bradley was signed by GM Jim Hendry before the 2009 season didn't have the season that most Cubs fans had. The season wasn't horrible, but Cubs fans had it in their head that he would hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. I've chronicled it in a previous post, but between April 28th and Sept 4th, Bradley put up a .284/.402./443 line. Pretty good for anybody. He rubbed Cubs fans and players wrong and was dealt for another poisonous contract in Carlos Silva, the #4 starter currently for the Cubs. The Cubs are going to rely on Silva to help get them to the postseason this year and anytime you have to rely on Silva for anything, you're in for a world of hurt.
Cincinnati Reds (78-84)
Any team that has to rely on Dusty "Arm Injuries Galore" Baker as your manager is just waiting for disaster. The Reds did go out and makes some moves to help improve their defenses, namely making a deal for Scott Rolen last season and then picking up Orlando Cabrera in the offseason to help shore up the left-side of the infield. And with Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto on the right-side, they have the makings of a very good defensive infield and a good hitting infield too. They will have to rely on Jay Bruce to finally have that breakout season that everyone seems to be predicting every year to help carry the team at certain points, but the questions with any Dusty Baker team will always be pitching. Besides the fact that Edison Volquez is out for most of the year after having Tommy John surgery last season, you have to look at what Dusty did to Aaron Harang. In 2008, on two days rest, Dusty had Harang come in during an extra inning game to pitch in relief. Not for just one inning. But for 4 innings and threw 63 pitches. And then 3 days later trotted him out again for his regular start. Now, I know that the extra inning game was probably Harang's day to throw on the side. But throwing on the side is not the same as pitching in a game. And after that fateful game, Harang was 4-11, gave up 25 homers in a 105 and 2/3 innings and had an ERA of 5.88. He followed up that stretch with a 6-14 season in 2009 with a 4.21 ERA. And until Dusty is out of Cincy, a return to the playoffs are unlikely.
Houston Astros (74-88)
The Astros finished the 2009 season in 5th place in the Central and I don't see how they believe that the moves they've made this offseason makes them any better. Especially when you have to consider their ace Roy Oswalt is getting older. As a matter of fact, their second best pitcher, Wandy Rodriquez, is only a year younger than Oswalt at 30. Sure, they signed Brett Myers to be their number 3 starter, but all you're doing is adding another injury prone pitcher to the rotation. That would be like expecting Carlos Silva to be reliable in your rotation all season. Wait... During 3 consecutive years, Oswalt finished in the top 4 of Cy Young voting. Since the end of th 2006 season, the last of those 3 years, Oswalt has declined in innings pitched, increased in walk rate and increased in ERA. Not great indicators for someone getting older. They did improve their bullpen by picking up Matt Lidstorm in a trade from the Florida Marlins and did sign Brandon Lyon as well, but when your offense consists of Carlos Lee, a DH playing LF and Lance Berkman, getting older and playing 1B, well, you're going to have problems scoring runs for the bullpen to save. They Astros do have two very good young outfielders in Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, but Bourn is going to need to cut down on the strikeouts, especially if he's not going to be a 20-hr guy. And he won't.
Milwaukee Brewers (80-82)
Milwaukee comes into 2010 as the most improved team in the Central. That doesn't mean they are they best team, but they did do a lot to help get themselves in a position to make a run at the Central title. They traded disappointing SS JJ Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for equally disappointing, but younger CF Carlos Gomez. Gomez was once the center piece of the Johan Santana trade and at 23, still has years to improve. But much like Bourn from the Astros, needs to cut down on the strikeouts from a non-power guy. The Brewers have some guys who can thump in their lineup, namely 1B Prince Fielder and LF Ryan Braun. Fielder and Braun had OPS+ of 168 and 148, respectively. League Average is 100. Casey McGehee also had a good offensive season as well and if Rickie weeks can rebound, they have a good young nucleus. The problem for them will be pitching. After Yovani Gallardo, they have a whole lot of suck in the rotation. They signed Randy Wolf in the offseason and he's not a bad 4th starter. (Unlike Carlos Silva) However, Wolf has to be the #2 on this team that's not a good proposition. Their closer and setup man are a combined 79 years old and that doesn't instill a lot of confidence towards the end of the season when their medicare kicks in.
Pittsburgh Pirates (62-99)
A rainout against the Cubs kept the Pirates from losing 100 games last year, not sure if they will be able to say that again this year. Sure, they've picked up some relievers that will be worth something once midseason comes, but if that's all your team aspires for before opening day even gets here, well, I guess I'm wasting my time writing (typing) about them. The non-tendered Matt Capps, which is a surprising move. They could have kept him for the 2010 season and then added him to the list of relievers that the New York Yankees could swing a deal for in July. But instead, they get nothing for him except salary relief. Which is something the Pirates need with their payroll slowly climbing towards $35 million. Really sad when a team other than the Florida Marlins have the lowest payroll in baseball. The lone bright spot for the Pirates? Waiting for Pedro Alvarez to get to the team in May or June, I would guess.
St. Louis Cardinals (91-71)
The top team in the Central for 2009 looks to return to the top in 2010. The Cardinals had a mostly quiet offseason. After trading for Matt Holliday during the 2009 season, most of the offseason was spent hoping that the team would resign him and provide protection for Albert Pujols. Holliday put up a sick .353/.419/.604 split after being traded to the Cardinals. Providing that kind of protection for the best hitter in all of baseball Makes him worth the $120 million he was signed for. The Cardinals also signed Brad Penny to replace Joel Pineiro in the rotation. And while Pineiro's numbers will be hard to replace, pitching coach Dave Duncan can take just about any pitcher and turn them into someone useful (including Carlos Silva). They also signed Felipe Lopez to be a utility infielder and he would be a better 2B than most of the teams in the Central will throw out there (ahem, Cubs). Add to that returning pitchers Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and closer Ryan Franklin and that makes them a tough team to face. That doesn't include the rest of the offense, which includes 23 year-old CF Colby Rasmus. Their offense will easily take them to the division title this year.
Predicted Central Finish
Elsewhere in the National League, the East is going to be a battle between the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. The Braves have a solid, but not spectacular lineup and Jason Heyward looks like the real deal at 20. But the Phillies have MVP's at two spots in their infield, a potential MVP candidate at first and not to mention a couple of pretty good hitting outfielders. Oh and they added a former Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay to their rotation.
The west is going to be a 3-way battle all season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants are all capable of taking over the division and sprinting out to a lead. The more likely scenario is that all 3 teams will battle going down the stretch. And considering how strong the NL East is with the Braves and Phillies, the West might only get one team in the playoffs, which will be disappointing two the two other teams.
NL MVP: Matt Holliday
NL Cy Young: Chris Carpenter
NL Rookie of the Year: Stephen Strasburg