2011 Previews: N.L. Central
Wow do I not like this division. Cursed franchises, overrated also-rans, clubs that could be competitive but their owners keep the damn Luxury Tax money instead of investing it in a pitcher or two. My first brainstorming on this division produced no winner – and with the biggest division in the sport, this is highly unlikely. Let’s try it again:
Chicago: Love Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner – and one of these guys is already gone, and I fear for a long time. Another one of them still may not get daily work (although the first base thing is a good idea). It is impossible to tell after a century of this crap if the Cubbies’ curse is explained by the fact that they obtain overrated players at maximum cost (Kosuke Fukudome) or it is explained by the fact that they continue to play overrated players at maximum cost (Kosuke Fukudome). For crying out loud, Colvin/Byrd/Soriano is a decent outfield – have Fukudome go out and take tickets at the gate and just admit y’all screwed up. Losing Cashner and Randy Wells is not necessarily fatal but it doesn’t help and barring a Jeff Samardzija renaissance there is nothing to hope for or with (see Kosuke Fukudome).
Cincinnati: This is where I point out that I picked this team last year – and for exactly the same reason I hesitate to pick them this year: starting pitching. The depth that made them obvious to me has been squandered: Sam LeCure is somehow the fifth starter (and this is while the flatlining Johnny Cueto is out) and Aroldis Chapman is wasted as a set-up man. I think the line-up is weaker this year with the switch at shortstop, and I would not bet my division on Scott Rolen going through a second consecutive season uninjured. Also, if you have a premier prospect like Yonder Alonso blocked at both of his possible positions, wouldn’t you move him – at least for a prospect at a position you need some depth in, like shortstop? The Reds may win this thing but it won’t be because they’re a playoff-worthy team.
Houston: There are five positional starters (everybody but the outfield), at least one starting pitcher, and an entire bullpen that might not be able to compete for their current jobs on any other big league team. That would be a major, major problem.
Milwaukee: OK, here’s my issue: Zack Greinke doesn’t do well under pressure. The Brewers traded for him to become their number one starter on the premise that he would lead them to the division championship. This doesn’t add up – not at the expense of swapping one of the game’s rangiest shortstops (Alcides Escobar) for one of the game’s most statue-like shortstops (Yuniesky Betancourt). And this fact doesn’t even address Greinke’s injury. I’m also a little worried about the outfield mix. Just because Carlos Gomez is disastrously laid back, and Nyjer Morgan is disastrously hyper, that does not mean they will somehow balance each other out.
Pittsburgh: Like Baltimore or Toronto, the line-up here is surprisingly solid and has an extremely high ceiling, and if a starting rotation were somehow delivered straight from the sky, the Pirates would be competitive. Unlike the O’s and Jays, unfortunately, there’s no group of top prospects at AAA to even provide identities for these new starters. For the Bucs these would have to be the winners of Lucky Fan Contests (I’m not buying Kevin Correia even at 2-0, although James McDonald might make a believer out of me). As suggested, this is very unfortunate because I think Andrew McCutchen is already one of the league’s bright lights and Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker looked, this spring, like they were on the verge of joining him.
St. Louis: Worst double-play combination in baseball. Hard to believe that an arrogantly, condescendingly, fundamental-thumping manager like Tony LaRussa would have actually broken camp with Schumaker and Theriot. Get them out of there and Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene in and shoot for third place, or a shot at the title if the Brewers and Reds are both consumed by injuries. The irony here is that the Wainwright injury will probably reveal Kyle McClellan as one of the better new starters in the National League. It will also reveal that he was the linchpin in the bullpen and it will not hold up in his absence.
Overview: OK, 1. Cincinnati, 2. Milwaukee, 3. St. Louis, 4. Pittsburgh, 5. Chicago, 6. Houston (the big space in the division is between third and fourth).