BASN’s 2007 MLB Previews: Scouting The NL Central

By Tony McClean
Updated: March 29, 2007
MLBNEW HAVEN, Ct. — Three previews down and three more to go as BASN continues its look at the 2007 Major League Baseball season with a look at all six division races.
Today, we look at the division that houses the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Since 2000, only two other teams (the Astros and Cubs) besides the Cards have won the NL Central.
During that same period, Tony LaRussa’s bunch has won two NL pennants and finally broke through last year and brought home St. Louis’ first world championship since 1982. Can they repeat or will the Astros, Cubs, or someone else break through?? Let’s take a peek
(Teams listed in order of predicted finish)
What Gary Sheffield should do for the Tigers, free agent OF Carlos Lee should also do for the Astros’ lineup. Lee’s presence in the middle of the lineup should help every player in Houston. Adding P Jason Jennings from Colorado will also help take some pressure off staff workhorse Roy Oswalt and newly acquired Woody Williams. Of course if they get off to a slow start, the Roger Clemens rumors will be coming fast and furious. However, don’t be surprised if the Astros add another bat during the year instead of another arm. While the Cards will definitely be in the mix, I truly feel that Phil Garner’s bunch has done what it has to do to be considered the favorites in the Central.
Outlook: Some think that the Astros may have given up too much to get Jennings from the Rockies. The resurgence of 3B Morgan Ensberg and closer Brad Lidge will have a lot to do with the success of this team. With the additions that they’ve made, Ensberg and Lidge should be able to get back to their previous form. To me, that makes them the team to beat.
When you consider the fact that the Cardinals lost their “Big 3″ of 3B Scott Rolen, OF Jim Edmonds, and 1B Albert Pujols for various stretches of 2006, it’s all the more amazing that they were able to win the World Series. And if St. Louis is to win a fourth straight Central crown, they’ll need more of their unsung players who stepped it up in the postseason to do it for the entire season. Guys like C Yadier Molina, INF-OF Scott Spiezio, and P Anthony Reyes need to prove that their playoff success wasn’t a fluke. The pitching staff will miss Jeff Suppan, especially if Kip Wells struggles early on. St. Loo is also looking for playoff hero Adam Wainwright to make the transition from closer to starter.
Outlook: No team has repeated as World Series champions since the 2000 Yankees. When you consider the improvements made by many teams in the division, it will be a struggle just for the Cards to take back the division. They may not repeat, but you can rest assured that they’ll be right in the mix. A wild card berth isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility for this bunch.
Much like the Indians of last year, much was expected of the Brewers coming into 2006. While they remained in the race for most of the season, a 10-game losing streak in September doomed their chances. Now they come back with still renewed hope, but lowered expectations by their fans. They may want to rethink that. Adding NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan will help bolster a starting staff that had its ups and downs in 2006, but has the potential of being one of the most underrated in the league. Also, if Ben Sheets can stay healthy, Milwaukee can become a legitimate contender. Even without Carlos Lee, their lineup is still potent with 2B Rickie Weeks, OF Bill Hall, and 1B Prince Fielder.
Outlook: Much would have to happen for this team to win the Central outright. However, you get the feeling that they will be one of the many teams that will fight it out for a possible wild card spot. At this point, this team isn’t that far away from being a player in the postseason race.
Finally, Lou Piniella gets to manage a team who isn’t afraid to spend a little money. During the off season, Cubs’ management pulled off a extreme makeover that even Ty Pennington would love. But seriously, what do the Cubbies have waiting behind that bus? Watching OF Alfonso Soriano play 81 games in Wrigley will be breathtaking at times, but as is everyone’s problem — what about the pitching? After workhorse Carlos Zambrano, you’ve got two reclamation projects in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. The bullpen isn’t much better with Ryan Dempster (1-9 with nine blown saves). Look for Sweet Lou erupt several times this summer.
Outlook: The main thing Piniella did during spring training was not wait on former staff leaders Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Prior was sent down to Triple-A and Wood will likely begin the year on the DL. Give management credit for trying to put some pieces together, but at this point, Cub Nation will likely have to endure another long season. They’ll win more than the 66 games they won last year, but not many more.
With two decent pitchers at the top of their rotation (Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang) and a decent hitting lineup, one would think that Cincinnati would be a team to be dealt with in the Central, right? Not really. After Arroyo and Harang, there really isn’t that much especially in the bullpen where there’s no firmly established closer. Even with a lineup that includes Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and others, there are times it seems the Reds are the ultimate tease. They stayed in contention for while last year before they finally faded out. Management didn’t really go out and make drastic changes during the off season, so another .500 season looks to be tough to duplicate.
Outlook: There are several young prospects on the roster like P Homer Bailey and C David Ross. It seems that the front office is willing to allow these youngsters to slowly make their way up from the minors. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t try a make a few moves if the team is contending. They look to be a few years away from being serious contenders.
Enduring 14 straight losing seasons can be hell on any team’s fan base. Avoiding a 15th straight losing season will be almost impossible, but there is reason for some optimism in Steeltown. Adding former Atlanta 1B Adam LaRoche should help add some pop to a lineup that already includes NL batting champ Freddie Sanchez, All-Star OF Jason Bay, and C Ronny Paulino. However, it’s the lack of quality pitching that will keep Jim Tracy up nights. Ian Snell and Zach Duke give the Bucs a decent righty-lefty combination, but there’s little else after that. Pittsburgh is trying to get at least to a respectable stage, but in this top heavy division, signs of improvement will be very hard to see. At least on an immediate basis.
Outlook: Much like the Reds, the Pirates are trying build a young base. Tracy has shown that the franchise is headed in the right direction. For example: after going 9-27 in one-run games before the All-Star break, the Bucs were a major league best 15-4 in those games. Hardcore fans will likely have do deal with more losing, but there seems to be a nucleus being put together. Eventually, management has to loosen the purse strings to be able to move up in this division.
Tommorrow: The AL West.