Today a look at how the NL Central will shape up
1. Chicago Cubs- This should be a no brainer. This could be the year of the Cubs. The pitching should carry this team. Health is a big issue though. Can Zambrano and Harden stay healthy all season? If so, then the starting 5 is one of the best in the league. I like Pinella naming Gregg the closer over Marmol to start the season as well.
Offensively, the Cubs should be fine. if Bradley plays 135 games in the outfield then it will turn out to be a good signing. The need good seasons from all of their parts. Lee isn't getting any younger, but the Cubs have enough young parts to win. The only true weakness I see in the lineup is the lack of a true lead off hitter. If they can acquire one that allows Soriano to bat third and drive in more runs. Either way, the Cubs are the class of this division.
2. Cincinnati Reds- This may be a reach, but I like the talent the Reds put on the field. Offensively, they are talented. Votto, Phillips and Bruce should all have big years. I also like the Ramon Hernandez acquisition. They strike out a ton as a team, which is a problem. A couple keys to the team could be Willy Taveres and Edwin Encarnacion. They need to get on base more often. Especially Taveres, to utilize his speed. You can't steal first base. I do like Chris Dickerson, as he should get most of the at bats in left.
Pitching could either be a pleasant surprise or awfully inconsistent. I am betting that it will be good. Aaron Harang having a bounce back season could be huge for Dusty Baker's squad. If Harang bounces back and Volquez pitches the way he did the first half of the season, then the Reds could have a good season. Jonnie Cueto probably has the best stuff on the team and will need to also pitch well for the Reds to hang in the Wild Card mix. The back end of the bullpen is decent with Cordero, but the rest of the pen could be a concern.
3. Milwaukee Brewers- They lost alot in the off season, but Ken Macha's group is still talented. After the Cubs, the rest of the teams can finish anywhere from second to fifth. They're really isn't much separating them. They are very talented at every position and will have no problem scoring runs. On the hill, Gallardo and Parra will surprise and have good years. The staff as a whole isn't that good, but they have a couple innings eaters in Suppan and Looper and will still be competitive.
4. St Louis Cardinals- It is hard for me to put a Tony Larussa led team with Albert Puljos on it fourth, but that is where they could wind up. There are way too many questions with the pitching staff and the bullpen to figure out. It just seems like a steep hill to climb, but Larussa has won with worse. Adam Wainwright has great stuff, but hasn't been healthy for a whole season. Kyle Loshe is, well Kyle Loshe. Then you have to hope Chris Carpenter comes back. The bullpen has a bunch of guys that are young and untested.
The Cards will score as always. I don't know if I like them defensively though. They do have extra outfielders though. Colby Rasmus will be playing everyday by mid-season so expect a guy like Ryan Ludwick or Chris Duncan to get dealt for an arm.
5. Houston Astros- Cecil Cooper's team is also good at every position. Berkman and Lee provide a solid middle of the order. Will Tejada be a distraction to this team? Once the Astros fall out of contention, I expect them to shop him around. While the offense will be good, the pitching will not. I like Oswalt and Rodriguez at the top of the rotation, but the rest isn't that good. They will be counting on Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz for innings, something they probably won't give. Valverde is solid in the ninth, but like many teams, getting to him will be the problem.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates- As easy as it was to predict the Cubs to win the division, it's just as easy to predict the Bucs last. I don't think they will be the worst team in baseball, but they have their work cut out for them. The team on the field in May will not be the team on the field in July. There is cause for excitement in the future, just not this season.
The pitching will be bad. I think Maholm and possibly Snell will be fine. Ohlendorff will give you glimpses that he can pitch at this level, but I have no faith in Zach Duke to get outs. The bullpen will be hit or miss all season.
So many question marks on offense. In a perfect world, everyone will have good seasons and the Bucs will contend, but it's not a perfect world. Can Andy Laroche play third everyday? Can Adam hit enough in April and May? Will Freddy rebound? Will Jack be here at the end of the season? Can Morgan bat lead off? Can Moss replace Bay? Unfortunately, the answer will probably be NO to most if not all of those questions.
As a Bucco fan I would be very encouraged by the spring. McCutchen, Alvarez, Ford, Bixler,and Tabata all gave you reason to get excited. Hopefully next season when I write this, the Bucs won't be a lock for the bottom of the division.