A Contrarian View of the NL Central

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, March 31, 2011

I remember fondly throughout my childhood the February day in which my father would bring home a stack of baseball preview magazines.

I would devour those things and have continued the practice into adulthood. All of that reading material has helped me get through those final few weeks without baseball, but I learned long ago that such publications should not be believed as gospel.

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The current issue of Sports Illustrated is the latest baseball preview magazine to underestimate the Cubs.

The long 162-game major league season never turns out as expected and a perusal of those same magazines in November is always an amusing exercise. No team has confounded the "experts" over the years more than the Cubs. Teams that reached the postseason in 1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, and 2007 were generally considered as also-rans. Highly-regarded clubs like the ones in 1985, 1991, 1999, 2004, and 2009 were colossal flops.

The way the Cubs closed the 2010 season, winning 24 of 37 games under then interim manager Mike Quade, really got me jazzed for the 2011 season. It was enjoyable to see a team that had resembled the living dead under Lou Piniella play with so much energy.

The Cubs pitched well, hit in the clutch, and helped prevent St. Louis and San Diego from qualifying from the postseason. The players looked like they were having fun again.

I was hopeful that Quade would get a chance to steer the helm for an entire season and was ecstatic when my wish was granted.

So I was surprised in recent weeks to read the consensus opinion that the Cubs will be no better than a .500 middle-of-the-pack finisher in the NL Central:

Sports Illustrated - 3rd place

Sporting News - 4th

USA Today - 5th

Athlon - 4th

Lindy's - 4th

Furthermore, I refuse to buy into all the hype regarding the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers. I have been told that my expectations of bounce back years from the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez,and Carlos Zambrano are unreasonable.

But isn't it just as unreasonable to expect Bronson Arroyo to match his 17-win season of a year ago or to anticipate another 104-RBI campaign from Casey McGehee?

I like the depth of the Cubs' starting rotation, I believe the addition of Kerry Wood will stabilize the bullpen, and I think the team's offense can be as potent as any if several players perform up to their potential. The Cubs' poor defensive reputation is based in the perceptions of Soriano, Ramirez, and Starlin Castro. In reality, Soriano played a decent left field last year. I suspect some of the perceived indifference Ramirez demonstrated in his defense was caused by injury. Castro should cut down on his high 27-error total as he matures. I am excited by the injection of youth the farm system provided last year. Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner, and Castro are potential future stars.

Of course, my optimism rides on my presumption, that many of the Cubs high-priced veterans - the team's $133.8 million payroll ranks third in the National League - perform up to their potential. It will all ride on their shoulders.

"We've got some expensive guys who have to perform up to it," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said in this week's issue of SI.

I couldn't agree more.

Do the Cubs have some glaring holes? Certainly. To name a few:

* I was underwhelmed by the signing of Carlos Pena. I expect Pena to hit no better than .240. He'll strike a lot and much of his power - especially early in the season - will be negated by the prevailing winds off of Lake Michigan. At least Hendry only signed him for one year.

* Blake DeWitt didn't exactly dazzle in his two-month audition at second base last year and he had a terrible spring training. Like his predecessor, Ryan Theriot, DeWitt doesn't take very many walks and drove in few runs. Cubs second basemen ranked 15th in the NL last season in on-base percentage and RBI.

* The Cubs' lack a bona fide leadoff hitter. Kosuke Fukudome is better suited to hit in the lower half of the order.

* The Cubs are lacking in speed and do not have a legitimate base stealer.

But other than the '27 Yankees, what team doesn't exhibit any weaknesses?

Here is a quick breakdown of the rest of the NL Central:

Cincinnati Reds

Prediction: 2nd place

Hello: Fred Lewis, Edgar Renteria

Goodbye: Willie Bloomquist, Orlando Cabrera, Jim Edmonds, Aaron Harang, Mike Lincoln, Laynce Nix, Arthur Rhodes, Russ Springer

The Good: Joey Votto emerged last season as one of the game's elite hitters. ... The Reds ranked fourth in the NL in hitting (.272 BA) and were second in the league in fielding percentage. ... A starting rotation of Edinson Volquez, Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Travis Wood rivals the Cubs' as the division's deepest.

The Bad: Closer Francisco Cordero, despite 40 saves last year, appears to be in decline. ... Paul Janish, who was handed the shortstop job, is an unproven hitter. ... An aging Scott Rolen (.285/.358/.497), Jonny Gomes (84 RBI), and Ramon Hernandez (.297/.364/.428) will be hard-pressed to match their 2010 performances.

The Skinny: Don't believe the hype. This team is not as good as advertised.

Milwaukee Brewers

Prediction: 3rd place

Hello: Yuniesky Betancourt, Sean Green, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Wil Nieves, Takashi Saito

Goodbye: Dave Bush, Lorenzo Cain, Chris Capuano, Todd Coffey, Doug Davis, Alcides Escobar, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Inglett, Carlos Villanueva, Gregg Zaun

The Good: The additions of Greinke and Marcum give the Brewers a formidable top of the rotation. ... A top of the lineup that will feature Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and McGehee is a potential murderer's row. ... John Axford (24 saves) emerged as a bona fide closer late last season.

The Bad: A leaky infield defense will be a detriment. ... Greinke and Hart will begin the season on the DL. ... New manager Ron Roenicke is an unproven commodity. ... After Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, and Axford, the Brewers' pitching is thin.

The Skinny: A lack of pitching depth and poor defense will doom the Brewers.

St. Louis Cardinals

Prediction: 4th place

Hello: Lance Berkman, Gerald Laird, Brian Tallet, Theriot

Goodbye: Pedro Feliz, Blake Hawksworth, Jason LaRue, Mike MacDougal, Aaron Miles, Brad Penny, Dennys Reyes, Brendan Ryan, Jeff Suppan, Randy Winn

The Good: Albert Pujols remains the game's best player and he's entering a contract year. ... Closer Ryan Franklin (27 saves in 29 opportunities last year) is underrated. ... Chris Carpenter, despite a poor second half last season, still commands respect.

The Bad: What about the pitching, Steve? Carpenter slumped late last season, Adam Wainwright is out for the season, and Jaime Garcia struggled during spring training. ... What about the defense? Poor Colby Rasmus will have acres to patrol in center with statues Matt Holliday and Berkman patrolling left and right respectively. Theriot at short should also be interesting. ... Berkman's best days have long passed him by. ... There is little to support a strong middle of the lineup that features Pulols, Holliday, and Berkman.

The Skinny: Too many question marks on a team headed for a serious decline.

Houston Astros

Prediction: 5th place

Hello: Clint Barmes, Bill Hall, Aneury Rodriguez, Ryan Rowland-Smith

Goodbye: Geoff Blum, Tim Byrdak, Gustavo Chacin, Matt Lindstrom, Brian Moehler, Felipe Paulino

The Good: The outfield of Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence is the division's best. ... Brett Myers (14-8 last year) has resurrected his career. ... Pence (.282/.325/.461) appears poised for stardom.

The Bad: The middle infield of has-beens Hall and Barmes is laughably bad. ... Young first baseman Brett Wallace (.222/.296/.319) has bust written all over him. ... The losses of mainstays Berkman and Roy Oswalt, both of whom were dealt last season, leaves a leadership void.

The Skinny: Another aging team with far less talent than the Cubs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Prediction: 6th place

Hello: Garrett Atkins, Kevin Correia, Matt Diaz, Andy Marte, Scott Olsen, Lyle Overbay, Josh Rodriguez

Goodbye: Zach Duke, Aki Iwamura, Andy LaRoche, Wil Ledezma, Joe Martinez, Lastings Milledge, Chan Ho Park, Delwyn Young

The Good: Andrew McCutchen is a developing five-tool superstar. ... Third baseman Pedro Alvarez also shows promise. ... The addition of Overbay at first should cut down on the throwing errors of a raw infield.

The Bad: They can't pitch, they can't pitch, and they can't field. Other than that, all is well. ... Shortstop Ronny Cedeno (.256/.293/.382) is one of the majors' worst starting players. He's subpar in the field and on the bases, strikes out more than four times than he walks, and lacks pop. ... Five Pirates starters won less than 10 games and had 10 or more losses last season. Three of those pitchers - Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton return.

The Skinny: It seems a lock that Pittsburgh will suffer its 19th straight losing season.

Posted Thursday, March 31, 2011 by Chris Rewers
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Tagged 1927, 1984, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, Aaron Harang, Aaron Miles, Adam Wainwright, Aki Iwamura, Albert Pujols, Alcides Escobar, Alfonso Soriano, Andrew Cashner, Andrew McCutchen, Andy LaRoche, Andy Marte, Aneury Rodriguez, Aramis Ramirez, Arthur Rhodes, Athlon, Bill Hall, Blake DeWitt, Blake Hawksworth, Brad Penny, Brendan Ryan, Brett Myers, Brett Wallace, Brian Moehler, Brian Tallet, Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Lee, Carlos Pena, Carlos Villanueva, Carlos Zambrano, Casey McGehee, Chan Ho Park, Charlie Morton, Chris Capuano, Chris Carpenter, Cincinnati Reds, Clint Barmes, Colby Rasmus, Corey Hart, Dave Bush, Delwyn Young, Dennys Reyes, Doug Davis, Edgar Renteria, Edinson Volquez, Felipe Paulino, Francisco Cordero, Fred Lewis, Garrett Atkins, Geoff Blum, Gerald Laird, Gregg Zaun, Gustavo Chacin, Homer Bailey, Houston Astros, Hunter Pence, Jaime Garcia, Jason LaRue, Jeff Suppan, Jim Edmonds, Jim Hendry, Joe Inglett, Joe Martinez, Joey Votto, John Axford, Johnny Cueto, Jonny Gomes, Josh Rodriguez, Kerry Wood, Kevin Correia, Kosuke Fukudome, Lance Berkman, Lastings Milledge, Laynce Nix, Lindy's, Lorenzo Cain, Lou Piniella, Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Matt Holliday, Matt Lindstrom, Michael Bourn, Mike Lincoln, Mike MacDougal, Mike Quade, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Orlando Cabrera, Paul Janish, Paul Maholm, Pedro Alvarez, Pedro Feliz, Pittsburgh Pirates, Prince Fielder, Ramon Hernandez, Randy Winn, Rickie Weeks, Ron Roenicke, Ronny Cedeno, Ross Ohlendorf, Roy Oswalt, Russ Springer, Ryan Braun, Ryan Franklin, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ryan Theriot, San Diego Padres, Scott Olsen, Scott Rolen, Sean Green, Shaun Marcum, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, St. Louis Cardinals, Starlin Castro, Takashi Saito, Tim Byrdak, Todd Coffey, Travis Wood, Trevor Hoffman, Tyler Colvin, USA Today, Wil Ledezma, Wil Nieves, Willie Bloomquist, Yovani Gallardo, Yuniesky Betancourt, Zach Duke, Zack Greinke

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