Diamond Mind: NL Central


The Cardinals ran away with the NL Central in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2005. They came back to the pack in the other seasons (including 2006, in which they pulled off the division title with just 83 wins) to produce close races with Houston and (in 2001 and 2003) Chicago. We project another close three-way race between the Cardinals, Astros and Cubs in 2007, with the Cards again prevailing.

St. Louis Cardinals
Projection: 1st, 85-77, division title 40 percent, wild card 6.7 percent

There's not much change to the starting lineup, other than the addition of 2B Adam Kennedy, who strikes me as a natural fit for this team. Our simulations assumed a healthy Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion, although both will probably begin the season on the DL, but the Cardinals have decent backup depth in the outfield. Mainly, however, the Cardinals have Albert Pujols.

It's the pitching staff where there have been major changes. Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver, three-fifths of last year's starting rotation, are gone, replaced by converted relievers Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright, and Kip Wells (at least until the anticipated midseason return of Mark Mulder). No problem, according to our projections, with both Looper and Wainwright, as well Anthony Reyes, performing solidly. Throw in ace Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals staff projects to allow just 728 runs in 2007, down from 762 in 2006 and best in the league.

If there are potential problems they're in the bullpen, where the jury is still out on whether Jason Isringhausen can bounce back from season-ending hip surgery in 2006. Our projections are based on the assumption that he will, to the relatively modest tune of 27 saves (from 37 opportunities) and a 4.18 ERA. Josh Kinney, gone for the year with elbow surgery, also was axed from our Cardinals squad before the simulated seasons were run.

Pujols, pitching, and defense, is the formula that looks to carry the Cardinals to yet another division title in 2007.

Chicago Cubs
Projection: 2nd, 83-79, division title 28 percent, wild card 7.9 percent

Imagine a game show, with Cubs fans the contestant: "OK, Cubs fans, you can have an 83-79 season and second -lace finish to the Cardinals right now, or take what's behind the curtain!"

Our projection for the Cubs represents a huge 17-win improvement from last season's 66-96 debacle, though not quite enough to reach the postseason. Of course, they did commit close to $300 million this past winter to achieve it, including $136 million (8 years) to Alfonso Soriano, $75 million (5 years) to Aramis Ramirez, $40 million (4 years) to Ted Lilly, $21 million (3 years) to Jason Marquis, and $13 million (3 years) to Mark DeRosa.

One comforting thought for Cubs fans is that our projections did not assume any material contribution from Kerry Wood or Mark Prior. For those who continue to light candles for these two, however, anything positive that either of them actually does would be an unanticipated bonus.

Among the many things that went wrong for the Cubs last year was a meltdown by the bullpen, particularly closer Ryan Dempster. Sometimes, in setting our manager profiles for each team prior to running our simulated seasons, we conclude that there is a better player available on the roster to fill a role than the guy the team plans to use, and assume that the team will come to the same conclusion and make the change. We concluded that Dempster's days as Cubs closer were numbered and, with Kerry Wood ruled out, slotted in Bobby Howry, who averaged 30 saves with a 3.68 ERA.

Houston Astros
Projection: 3rd, 81-81, division title 18 percent, wild card 7.6 percent

Assuming, as most seem to be, that Roger Clemens will return for yet another curtain call in 2007, he could well put the Astros over the top in a close NL Central race. But, with his buddy Andy Pettitte gone to New York, would he choose the Astros over the Yankees (or Red Sox), if they've dug yet another huge hole for themselves early in the season? You often hear how important it is that a team get off to a good start. The reason in this case is unusual, but might actually be legitimate.

Was Carlos Lee worth $100 million over six years? Few think so, but all we're concerned with is whether he will make the Astros a better team in 2007? If you look at the question in terms of Lee replacing Willy Taveras in the lineup, the answer has to be a resounding yes. (Still, no matter how much firepower the Astros cram into the first six spots in the batting order, so long as 7-8-9 are occupied by Brad Ausmus, Adam Everett and the pitcher, they're always going to be playing with one bat tied behind their backs.)

Jason Jennings should be a solid addition to the rotation behind Roy Oswalt, but we project poor seasons for worn-out newcomer, Woody Williams (9-12 5.42), as well as inconsistent holdover Wandy Rodriguez (8-12 5.35), which is another reason why the Rocket would be a big difference maker. Another concern for the Astros has to be Brad Lidge. There's a lot of analysis about to the effect that his season last year wasn't really that bad, but personally, I don't buy it, and if I had to bet on whether he would bounce back in 2007, pitch about the same as in 2006, or deteriorate even further, I'd bet on the latter, though our Magic Eight Ball projection is "about the same" (5-8 27/36 4.72).

Cincinnati Reds
Projection: 4th, 77-85, division title 5.7 percent, wild card 4.2 percent

The Reds got off to a strong start in 2006 and, thanks mainly to a near historic collapse by the Cardinals, were still remotely in contention at season's end. In between, their bullpen became known as one of the best places in Cincinnati for women to meet an ever-changing stream of available men.

The Reds have some nice players: a bit of speed here, a bit of power there, a mix of youth and veterans, but I just can't get that enthused. What were they thinking about this past winter? Was there some inscrutable plan afoot that would actually bring about some improvement? Consider, for example, signing Alex Gonzalez to replace Royce Clayton. That's about as horizontal as you can get. Or how about bringing Mike Stanton and Dustin Hermanson through the revolving bullpen door? (Actually, signing Hermanson was about the only move they made that I liked.)

There is one thing that could see me getting enthused about the Reds. The first time Ken Griffey Jr is shelved by injury, Josh Hamilton is slotted into the lineup and proceeds to go on a tear that propels him to both the NL Rookie of the Year AND Comeback Player of the Year awards. That, as they say, would be something I'd pay money to see.

Milwaukee Brewers
Projection: 5th, 76-86, division title 7.7 percent, wild card 1.1 percent

The Brewers enter this season with the look of an up-and-coming team, so our projected finish for them may be disappointing.

1B Prince Fielder, 2B Rickie Weeks and RF Corey Hart are exciting young players, though defense is not their strong suit. Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench should form a productive, if unhappy and expensive, platoon in LF. Some question the move of Bill Hall to CF and insertion of J.J. Hardy at SS; one can't help wondering whether, in light of the indefinite absence of 3B Corey Koskie, Hall at 3B makes more sense than some combination of Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino. The lack of production from 3B certainly was a factor in our projection for the Brewers to score just 738 runs in 2007 (next to lowest in the league).

On the mound, Jeff Suppan failed to live up to his four-year, $42 million deal, averaging just 9-12, 4.88 over our simulated seasons. That may have something to do with the fact that these aren't the Cardinals defensively. The Brewers were 14th in the league in fielding percentage in 2006, and could be even weaker defensively in 2007 with the loss of Koskie and the shift of Hall to CF.

So, there are at least two obvious ways the Brewers might better our projection for them: if Suppan outperforms his individual projection, and if the team makes some kind of move to address the hole left by Koskie at 3B.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Projection: 6th, 72-90, division title 0.8 percent, wild card 1.3 percent

Even with the addition of 1B Adam LaRoche, who we project will come pretty close to replicating his big 2006 season, the Pirates still have the weakest offense in the major leagues. The Pirates did win 37 of their final 72 games last season despite scoring the fewest runs in the league during that period, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're on the cusp of winning.

Yes, they have some good young starting pitchers in Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm. Chances are, however, over any stretch of games, good or bad, last season or in 2007, you'll be able to say that the Pirates scored the fewest runs in the league. When they're losing, and they're sure to do plenty of that, it will be because they're not scoring. If they manage a streak where they're winning (which for them basically means breaking even), it will be in spite of not scoring.

So, now that they've actually lined up some decent pitchers, the Pirates are faced with two tasks, neither of which, based on their track record, one can feel very confident in them pulling off: improving the offense substantially, and doing it without botching up the pitching in the meantime.