Hard to believe anybody can challenge the Cubs in NL Central

Updated: April 8, 2009

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Chris Carpenter, plagued by injuries last season, will make his debut Thursday.

CAN ANYBODY THREATEN THE CUBS?

The Chicago Cubs are the popular pick to win the National League Central.

Clearly they have the most talent, on paper at least, and should win the division. Still, we should remember that the St. Louis Cardinals won 86 games a year ago without a single win from Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright, both of whom were hurt for a good part of the year. Both are back in the starting rotation this year, so the Cardinals should be a legitimate threat to the Cubs in the division.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa always gets the most out of his roster, and pitching coach Dave Duncan is a magician when it comes to maximizing a pitching staff. As far as I'm concerned, they both belong in the Hall of Fame.

The Cincinnati Reds also could be a sleeper team in the Central. With a year of experience, pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto have a good chance to be even better this year. And it already looks as though Aaron Harang has made some adjustments as he tries to avoid his difficulties from last year. Bronson Arroyo was one of the best pitchers in the NL after the All-Star break last year.

The Reds have good depth in the starting rotation, and Arthur Rhodes and David Weathers are a nice bridge to closer Francisco Cordero. They have some good young players in their lineup, but the challenge for them this season, without Adam Dunn or Ken Griffey Jr., will be scoring runs.

Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are going to have to take their games to another level, and Edwin Encarnacion also is going to have to continue his growth for Cincinnati to have a real chance. But Brandon Phillips and Ramon Hernandez give the lineup some depth. Defense is going to be absolutely critical for the Reds because they are not usually going to be in great position to outscore opponents. The good news is that with Hernandez behind the plate, Alex Gonzalez back at shortstop, Phillips at second and Willy Taveras in center field, they should be solid on defense.

The Milwaukee Brewers have their every-day lineup back from last year for the most part, but the loss of Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia leaves gaping holes in their rotation. I'm not sure their hitting will be enough to carry them.

The Houston Astros had an amazing season in 2008, believing in themselves when no one else did, but they just don't have the starting pitching behind Roy Oswalt to compete with the rest of the division. And, unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it looks as if this is going to be the 17th consecutive year the Pirates finish under .500.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: April 7 | April 6 | April 5 | April 2 | April 1

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Rob Neyer gave some keys for the National League and American League. First, the NL :

Continuing my groundbreaking series of posts, I present the key players in the National League.

Mets: Carlos Delgado. It's hard to win if you don't get much offense from your first baseman. In 2007 the Mets didn't get much from Delgado, and they didn't win (enough).

In 2008 the Mets didn't get much from Delgado in the first half of the season, but they took off in the second half when Delgado was doing the same. David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran all rank among the best players in the National League. If Delgado merely complements those three, the Mets will score enough runs to win.

Phillies: Brad Lidge. Last year, Lidge somewhat famously was perfect: 41 save opportunities, 41 saves. Elite closers typically blow five or six saves per season; if Lidge had done that, the Phillies wouldn't have qualified for the playoffs, let alone won the World Series. Lidge won't be perfect again this season. But for the Phillies to have any chance at all, he's got to be closer to perfect than usual.

Braves: Jeff Francoeur. The obvious answer, I guess. We might also choose rookie Jordan Schafer, but I don't think he's much of a question mark; he's going to struggle with the bat, and the Braves will live with those struggles if he catches the ball. But they have to get some production from their outfielders, and Francoeur -- coming off a dreadful 2008 -- is the only candidate in right field.

Cubs: Kosuke Fukudome. Speaking of dreadful 2008s, you have to admit it took some guts for the Cubs to trade Felix Pie and spurn Jim Edmonds, with only Fukudome left as a viable candidate for center field. The Cubs are probably the best team in the league, and that's without assuming their center fielder gives them much at all.

Cardinals: Chris Carpenter. I can't see the Cards making much noise without an ace, and I don't see any aces except for maybe this guy.

Brewers: Yovani Gallardo. Another obvious answer, especially since he seems to be a dark-horse candidate for the Cy Young Award (not saying I buy that, but still). Nobody on the current staff won more than 10 games in 2008 (except Braden Looper, who won 12 but lost 14). Yes, I know there's more to life than wins and losses … but wins are nice when you're trying to, you know, win.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


Now, the keys in the AL:

Good (if preliminary) news from YankeeLand:

    BALTIMORE -- Alex Rodriguez could resume baseball activities back at the team's Tampa, Fla. minor league complex as early as next Monday, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

    "He's in a good frame of mind and his rehab is going well," said Girardi, who has been texting Rodriguez over the last month, which the star has spent in Vail, Colo. recovering from hip surgery. "You hope that he doesn't have any setbacks."

    Girardi said he is operating under the assumption that the May 15 target date for Rodriguez's return still applies.

Obviously, Alex Rodriguez is the X factor for the Yankees this season. If he's back reasonably soon and plays as usual, the Yankees are as good as anybody. If not, they're just another contender. Which got me to wondering about the other key players among the American League contenders …

Red Sox: Mike Lowell. Nobody's been talking much about Lowell; speculation generally trends toward David Ortiz or perhaps John Smoltz. But Ortiz will hit, and the Red Sox have other options if Smoltz isn't good. If Lowell's not good, though? Jed Lowrie has to slide over, with Julio Lugo taking over as the every-day shortstop.

Rays: B.J. Upton. If the Rays get anything like the Upton we saw in October, there's no obvious reason they can't win 95 games. If they get the Upton we saw from April through September, they're the third-best team in their division (not that there's anything wrong with that). Considering that he's opened this season on the DL, which do you think is more likely?

Indians: Carl Pavano. Yes, I picked the Indians to win the Central. And yes, when I picked the Indians, I knew they were relying on Pavano to win a dozen or so games this season. No, I don't bet real money on my predictions.

Tigers: Justin Verlander. Speaking of lousy predictions, I believe I might have offered Verlander as my Cy Young choice, one year ago. So of course he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA, after going 35-15 (and 3.65) over the previous two seasons. Verlander wasn't the Tigers' biggest problem last year, but he might have been their unhappiest surprise. If he can flip that 11-17 around this year, the Tigers should be competitive into September.

Twins: Joe Mauer. Duh.

Athletics: Justin Duchscherer. It's odd to anoint a 31-year-old pitcher with 31 career wins as the key anything, but Duke might be the key to the American League West. I just don't know if the A's win without someone who's likely to win more than a dozen games.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


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BBTN ON THE AIR: THURSDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
7:30 p.m. ET
ESPN2
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analyst: Eduardo Perez, Buster Olney, Buck Showalter
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analyst: Eduardo Perez, Buster Olney, Buck Showalter

BBTN MINUTE: HUGE DEBUT FOR CARPENTER

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Insider Who went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPPITCHER SITUATION
Fukudome
ChC
1HouBrocailTop 9: 2-1, 2 Outs. None on.
Cameron
Mil
1SFJohnsonTop 2: 2-2, 2 Outs. None on.
Cruz
Tex
2ClePerezBot 7: 3-2, 2 Outs. None on.
Blake
LAD
1SDSilvaTop 2: 2-0, 2 Outs. None on.
Andrus
Tex
1CleBetancourtBot 6: 1-1, 1 Outs. None on.

The complete list of Wednesday's homers

WEDNESDAY'S WEB GEMS

BASEBALL TONIGHT MAILBAG

Inside EdgeHave a question for one of our analysts? Ever wonder what it's like behind the scenes at "Baseball Tonight"? Curious about a player or a team or an executive?

Well, ask away here, at the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse mailbag. Each week, our experts will answer your questions.

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Zack Greinke• Oh, there were plenty of choices. Miguel Cabrera went deep twice and Kosuke Fukudome went 4-for-5 with a homer and four runs scored. But Zack Greinke's six shutout innings against the White Sox takes it. Greinke allowed three hits and struck out seven in the 2-0 win.
WORST
Peter Moylan• Can't get much easier than this: The Braves led 10-3 against the Phillies … and lost. The Atlanta bullpen gave up eight runs in the seventh inning of a 12-11 Phillies win. The biggest culprit? Peter Moylan, who gave up two hits, four runs and two walks without retiring a batter.

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at the mismatch that was the Marlins season-opening three-game sweep of the Nationals.

Inside The Series
Marlins sweep Nats
Nationals Marlins
Runs 13 26
BA .236 .310
XBH 9 14
H-AB (leadoff hitter) 1-13 8-14

BUSTER OLNEY'S VIDEO BLOG

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Tampa Bay lefty Scott Kazmir got off to a great start after leading the Rays to the playoffs for the first time last season. Although Red Sox hitters didn't chase many pitches Wednesday night in the Rays' 7-2 win, Kazmir's stuff was working in the zone and he kept throwing strikes with great results. Kazmir worked hard on a changeup in spring training, and he threw it well in the strike zone at Fenway Park.

Scott Kazmir
2008 Wed.
1st pitch strike pct. 58 68
1st batter of inning out pct. 64 100
Swing and miss pct. of strikes 19 4
Well-hit avg. of strikes .070 .044

Kazmir didn't miss as many bats in the strike zone as he did last year, but his improved arsenal kept the Red Sox from making solid contact. He limited the Red Sox to just five hits and one run through six innings while striking out four.

-- ESPN Stats and Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF THURSDAY'S GAMES

AJ Mass examines the 11 games on Thursday's slate.

Fantasy Mass ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Thursday. Daily Notes

ESPN INSIDER

Insider The new Latin Baseball Blog checks in with Giants prospect Gary Sanchez. ESPN The Mag

For more, check out ESPN Insider.