Sunday, March 18, 2007

My MLB NL Central Picks for 2007

My Less-than-Fearless Predictions for MLB 2007

I am a little skittish about making my MLB 2007 season predictions for several reasons. For one, I know that I’ll be picking more with my heart than with my head; the same trap I seem to fall into every year. Secondly, my 2006 picks were pretty bad. I had the White Sox beating the Mets in the World Series last year. As you’ll recall, the Mets lost in the NLCS to the Cardinals and the Chisox didn’t even make the playoffs, despite winning more than 90 games. I may be a lot of things (a lousy prognosticator, for one), but I’m no quitter, so, here goes. I’m going to start out by predicting the NL Central.

The 2007 National League Central is a mish mash of teams who either improved themselves, lost players or made only a few off-season changes. Of all the divisions in baseball this year, it may be the one with the most question marks. Can certain players catch on with their new teams? Will others be able to rebound from injuries they experienced in 2006? Will anyone be there in mid-October? Will Tony LaRussa smile?
Who will get better and who will continue to spiral downward? Hopefully I can answer some of those burning questions here.

Let’s start out with the one team you can bet won’t be in the postseason – the Pittsburgh Pirates. If Roberto Clemente or Willie Stargell could see this group, I’m sure they’d be rolling over in their graves. The Bucs didn’t spend any bucks this off-season, and the result is going to be a dismal year. Manager Jim Tracy is a great field general, but even he won’t be able to win with these guys. The pitching staff is promising, with Ian Snell (14-11, 4.74), Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. And then there’s last season’s NL batting champ Freddy Sanchez (.344, 6 HR, 85 RBI) and Jason Bay, who can both hit. Chris Duffy will need to get on base more as the leadoff man if this team is to succeed at all, which they won’t be able to on any kind of consistent level over a 162-game season.

Three other teams that could possibly do well, but only if there is a complete convergence of the universe, are The Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers.

The Reds have a new General Manager, Wayne Krivsky, who wasn’t able to do much during the off-season. The team has a few bright spots, but there are just two many holes in this squad to be in contention. The Redlegs’ pitching is better than its been in several years, with Bronson Arroyo (14-11, 3.29), Eric Milton (who is healthy again); and Aaron Harang all have good stuff and will only get better. Manager Jerry Narron will juggle a line-up of seasoned vets and young kids, while moving Ken Griffey Jr. (.252, 27 HR, 72 RBI in only 109 games) from CF to RF, where Ryan Freel will play. Adam Dunn (.234, 40 HR, 92 RBI) will be moving from 1B to RF, which will help his hitting, because he never liked playing there in the first place. Jeff Conine and Scott Hatteberg will share duties there. The Reds may show moments of brilliance throughout the year, but won’t be able to maintain any semblance of effectiveness over the long haul.

The Houston Astros are getting about as much respect as the planet Pluto in 2007 and for good reason. The big off-season question from day one has been Roger Clemens or not Roger Clemens. It won’t matter either way. The ‘Stros pitching staff is not bad, with Roy Oswalt and Jason Jennings, but after that it’s full of major question marks. Starters Woody Williams (who is rumored to be finished); Wandy Rodriguez and unproven Chris Sampson will have to step up if this team hopes to contend, but all of them are probably a long-shot. Houston’s offense is even more iffy – the addition of Carlos Lee will undoubtedly help, and the fact that Lance Berkman (.315 in 152 games while playing hurt) will be big plusses. But, there are just too many weak stars on this team, including 3B Morgan Ensberg and OF Luke Scott have shown moments of excellence but are basically inept at the plate and haven’t figured out enough ways to get on base. The Astros will show moments of brightness but will get sucked up into a black hole called created by hitting and spotty pitching.

The Milwaukee Brewers, owned by the dynamic Mark Attanasio, are a team on the rise. This team is several years away from becoming a real contender. Last season’s sub-.500 performance was caused by a ton of injuries and the inexperience of some young players. Manager Ned Yost is being patient – he really has no choice – and this team will greatly improve as the 2007 season progresses. The first move Yost is making involves moving Bill Hall from SS to CF, so that potential phenom J.J. Hardy can play full-time at short. If 3B Corey Koskie recovers from post-concussion syndrome, and if 1B Prince Fielder (.271, 18 HR, 81 RBI) can continue to show power for average, this team could be a problem for the rest of the NL. If Hardy is healthy after an ankle injury, he could soar. The Brew Crew’s pitching staff shows promise, with the addition of Jeff Suppan (12-7, 4.12) to go along with Ben Sheets (6-7, 3.82 while playing hurt).

That leaves the two teams I believe will contend for the NL Central title in 2007 – the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s been way too long since the Cubbies won, and just last year for the Cards, but both of these teams still have a load of what-if’s on their rosters. One thing they do have is seasoned, veteran managers – Lou Pinella for Chi-town and Tony LaRussa for St. Louie. If either team has the horses to get into the playoffs, these two experienced bench jockeys can surely get them there.

The Chicago Cubs spent $300 million during the off-season to pick up a plethora of big free agent names, including the most coveted of the bunch, Alfonso Soriano (.277, 46 HR, 95 RBI). They also picked up P’s Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, as well as solid hitters Cliff Floyd and Mark DeRosa. One of their best moves was in retaining 3B Aramis Ramirez (.291, 38 HR, 119 RBI), probably the best overall third baseman in the NL. A pitching staff led by Carlos Zambrano (16-7, 3.41) and a bunch of wannabes means this team is going to have to score a ton of runs to win consistently. The biggest gaps in this squad’s presentation revolve around the physical conditions of chronically injured P’s Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. This team spent so much money on players that they’re now selling advertising along the outfield wall at Wrigley Park. If they don’t win early and often, this one could turn into a real drama in the Windy City. Will the curse of the goat continue to haunt the Cubbies? Or will the rest of the division be eating ivy by the time it’s all over? No matter what happens, it’ll be fun to watch.

The Cardinals won the World Series last year with the worst record of any champion in the history of the game. Can St. Louis catch the magic again in 2007, or will they come down to earth and wither under the big arch in the heat of a Missouri summer? All of the major players are back on offense, including Pujols, Edmonds, Eckstein, Molina and the promising young RF Chris Duncan (.293, 22 HR, 43 RBI in 90 games). One question here is: Will 3B Scott Rolen play nice with the enigmatic Tony LaRussa this season? If so, this team will be tough to out-hit. Pitching could be another matter altogether, however. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis are all gone. Adam Wainwright, who moves from the bullpen into the starting rotation, and Anthony Reyes will have to take up the slack if this team wants to finish on top. Another big what-if involves Mark Mulder (6-7, 7.14 while hurt) who won’t be back until at least July. The Cardinals are walking a fine line and playing with shadows, but they have just enough talent and experience to get it done.

I’m picking St. Louis to win the NL Central, with the Cubs finishing a close second. I would be surprised if either team wins 95 games. The Brewers will finish third, the Reds will show promise early and then fade and the rest of the division will finish under .500.


Meathead said...

I think you're right about the Card, Ed, but the Cubbies? I don;t think they're ready to comete with the big boys yet!

Meathead said...

Er--make that "Cards"! And "don't"! And "compete"! Guess I should preview my commments before I send them off to blogland!