Following a defiant seventh-round knockout of previously unbeaten Jose Pedraza (22-1, 12...
By Tony McClean
Updated: March 29, 2008
NEW HAVEN, Ct. – We’ve heard all the jokes over the years. Media wags have loved to call the NL Central just a baseball offshoot of Comedy Central. For many years, this division has been dominated by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Along with the Houston Astros, Tony La Russa’s bunch has made World Series appearances (including a World Championship in 2006) while coming from the Central. While both of these clubs look to be in transition heading into 2008, two other clubs look to battle it out for the division lead.
The Brewers opened the 2007 season at a 24-10 clip and led the division lead for most of the early part of the year until they were caught and passed by the Chicago Cubs. Both of these teams should slug it out all season for the Central crown. However, there could be another team to add in the mix.
(Teams are listed in order of predicted finish)
1. CHICAGO CUBS
There’s “three times” a lady, “5:00 shadow”, the “seven-year” itch, a “10-day” contract, and “12:00″ high. However, only Cub fans could come conjure up the “100-year” curse in regards to the team that plays in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Yes, it been that long since the Cubbies have won a World Series, but after last season’s playoff run, the expectation level has been raised that much more. Many of the combatants from last year’s team are back along highly touted Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome, the Central League’s MVP. A deep pitching staff will keep Chicago in the race throughout the season. Is there a World Series in their future? Stay tuned.
2. CINCINNATI REDS
If you’re looking for a team that can make a “Rockies-esque” type turnaround this season, the Reds may be a candidate. Now we’re not putting Cincinnati in the World Series, however I think Dusty Baker will have this team contending faster than you think. Just look at his history. In his first season in Frisco (1993), Baker would win 103 games and just miss the playoffs. 10 years later during his first year in Chicago, he led the Cubs to within a game of the World Series. The Reds haven’t had a winning season in seven years and still have some holes, but I get the feeling that Baker will have this team turning some heads during the season.
3. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
The element of surprise is now completely gone for Ned Yost’s squad after last year’s hot start. They may have the division’s best balanced lineup and have added veterans Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall to improve the defense. What will tell how far Milwaukee goes is the health of its pitching staff. Getting a full season from Ben Sheets is imparative. Losing Francisco Cordero to division rival Cincinnati will hurt, especially if Eric Gagne and or Derrick Turnbow isn’t able to take over his vacated role in the pen. Their lineup won’t have too many bad days, but if they want to reach the postseason, they’ll need the pitching to step up big time.
4. HOUSTON ASTROS
Houston fans as well manager Cecil Cooper had to perform a lot of introductions during spring training this year. Why? More than half of the 25 players on Houston’s projected Opening Day roster were obtained in trades or through free agency after new GM Ed Wade was hired in September to replace Tim Purpura. In fact, there are only six holdovers remaining from the 2005 team that lost to the White Sox in the World Series. While longtime Astros like P Roy Oswalt and 1B Lance Berkman are still here, there is a big mix of veterans and youngsters playing for Cooper. With acquisitions like OF Michael Bourn and 2B Kaz Matsui in the lineup, it appears that small ball will be in order for Cooper’s bunch. Considering the dearth of pitching after Oswalt, it might not be a bad idea.
5. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Last year, St. Louis experienced its first losing season since 1999 and the house cleaning began soon afterwards. Veterans OF Jim Edmonds, SS David Eckstein, 3B Scott Rolen and others were either not re-signed or traded away from a lineup that was 13th in the NL in homers and 14th in slugging. Guys like 3B Troy Glaus and reclamation project OF Rick Ankiel are now the guys annointed to protect superstar Albert Pujols, who will play with a torn ligament, bone spurs, arthritis and swelling — all in his right elbow. With a pitching staff that struggled most of 2007 and during the spring, it appears to be a long year for a team that’s two years removed from winning the World Series.
6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Good evening. Mr. Russell. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to try to end the Buccos streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons — a stretch of futility surpassed, in any major professional sport, only by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933 through 1948. You are inheriting a team that has finished in the bottom five in the NL in runs scored in six of the last seven seasons. While the organization has had modest success developing pitchers, the last 20-game winner for the team came when a player named Bonds was roaming the outfield. As always, if you should not meet your goals and get caught screaming in the dugout, the baseball fans in this area will disavow any knowledge of the team by not showing up. This team will likely self destruct in five weeks. Good Luck, John.
Tommorrow: The AL West.