Competition looking up in NL Central
Time to shift gears, baseball fans. Away from talk of steroids and the Yankees and on to a brighter subject: the NL Central race. With the Atlanta Braves losing most of their power and the NL West looking weaker than last year, the best teams in this league could be located in the heated central division.
Since the Pirates, Reds, and Brewers have as much chance of winning this division as I and eight of my friends do, I?ll skip over them and move on to the top teams in the division.
St. Louis Cardinals: Oh how I hate this team, but this year I think I can learn to like them. Why? They can?t beat either the Astros or the Cubs in the divisional race. Don?t get me wrong, they are not a club to be overlooked, but I think this year they will play the role of spoiler for someone?s divisional chances as the season winds down.
With a lineup including Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and the best pure hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols, they can be an intimidating team to pitch against. Renteria and Rolen are the best shortstop and third baseman in the NL, respectively, and could start the All-Star game if they perform like they should.
Jim Edmonds is aging, but still a threat. And then there is Pujols. I can?t think of a hitter who is better at this point, not even A-Rod. He is always a threat to get on base, and will be an RBI machine this year. I wouldn?t be surprised if he won the batting title, and had the most RBIs this season; he could even win the Triple Crown.
With this hitting, the Cards will be a threat to win any game they play?or at least any game in which Matt Morris pitches. Unless Woody Williams has another stellar year, which I doubt, the Cards have one good starter in the rotation, and virtually no bullpen help outside of Isringhausen. They could win the NL West were they in it, but they aren?t, and they?ll finish third in the Central.
Houston Astros: The ?Stros had a big off-season pitching signing with the addition of hometown buddies Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
On the surface this looks great, but upon further inspection neither of these two are very good against the NL. With ERAs of 4.24 and 4.89 against NL swingers, respectively, don?t expect miracles from these aging arms. Expect Pettitte to win 12-15 games, and Rocket even less; they aren?t pitching with the great hitters New York had anymore.
The real stars of this staff are Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, who are two of the best pitchers in baseball. Oswalt will compete with the likes of Prior and Beckett for the NL Cy Young for years to come, and Miller is as solid a number two man as you will find.
Add to that a healthy Tim Redding, and the top five starters for this team are better than most teams' number one guy. The bullpen is a shut down operation, even with the loss of Billy Wagner, and runs will be hard to come by throughout the game against this club.
Offensively, they still have the killer Bs in Biggio, Berkman, and Bagwell. Those three, combined with All-Star Jeff Kent, third baseman Morgan Ensberg, and outfielder Richard Hidalgo make this lineup a scary proposition.
Scary, at least, on paper; Bagwell and Biggio are getting a little old to be scary, and the rest of lineup aren?t the power threats needed to carry the team. They also choked when it counted last year, giving the division to the Cubs. Look for a similar result; the pitching staff is overrated, and the hitters don?t look as good on the field as they do on the lineup card.
They should take the Wild Card, however, and could battle the Cubs right down to the finish for the NL pennant.
Chicago Cubs: Finally, my beloved Cubbies. Although I am a fan of this team, I?d be the first to admit that last year they played above their potential, and they have sucked for years. But the days of the loveable losers are done, and the boys on the North Side are finally the deserving favorites in this division.
Over the off-season Jim Hendry addressed the key problem in the team: hitting. By picking up an average hitting catcher in Michael Barrett, and an above-average hitting first baseman in Derrek Lee, the Cubs have a formidable lineup. Corey Patterson returns from his season-ending knee injury of a year ago, and has looked strong in the spring.
Aramis Ramirez has All-Star potential hitting at third base, and Sammy Sosa looks to overcome an off year last year where he saw injury and controversy diminish his performance.
This team can hit better than Houston, and is nearly at the level of the Cards, depending on the ability of Lee to fit in to Wrigley.
With the hitting finally secure, the Cubs no longer need to rely on pitching to win games, but because the pitchers can still carry the team Chicago should be the team to beat in the NL.
Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Greg Maddux are complemented by an improved Carlos Zambrano and talent-laden Matt Clement to form an incredible starting rotation. LaTroy Hawkins gives them the bullpen help they needed, and closer Joe Borowski looks to build on last year?s breakout season, giving the Cubs comfort in the late innings for the first time in years.
Prior will return from a minor injury to win the Cy Young, and the Cubs will not only win the Central, but the World Series.