Saturday, February 24, 2007

TATB's Long-Awaited, Half-Assed, Red Sox-Slanted, Spring Training Preview Capsules: NL Central


(Second in a six-part series, teams listed in predicted order of finish.)

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Foul tips and other observations:
The insufferable Tony La Russa must think his mighty big brain is mightier and bigger than ever after winning the World Series with this mediocre crew . . . I've long thought Jim Edmonds is his generation's Fred Lynn - a five-tool talent who, through injury or indifference, often finds a way to do something to rub fans the wrong way . . . David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy, former partners in grittiness with the Angels, are reunited in the middle of the Cardinals infield. And the Scrappy White Guy Fetishists rejoice . . . You have to give La Russa and Dave Duncan the benefit of the doubt with the decision to move Adam Wainwright from the bullpen to the rotation, but man, he really was a revelation in relief during the postseason . . . Albert Pujols just turned 27. Whether or not you believe that is his actual age, one glance at his baseball-reference.com page tells you he is already entrenched among the all-time greats. Pretty amazing for a player heading into just his sixth season.

Breakthrough player: Anthony Reyes. Just 5-8 with a 5.06 ERA as a rookie, he's got the stuff to seize the No. 2 slot behind Chris Carpenter.

Breakdown player: Scott Rolen. Aging third basemen with a history of back, neck, and shoulder problems don't suddenly turn into Cal Ripken Jr.

Completely random Bill James stat: Pujols led the majors in win shares (37).

HOUSTON ASTROS
Foul tips and other observations:
Well, Roger, WE'RE WAITING . . . As is his annual tradition since "retiring" for the first time four years ago, Clemens holds Houston hostage as waits to see which midsummer contender will pay him the most cash for the least amount of work . . . If he does end up selling what's left of his soul back to the Yankees, the Astros are screwed . . . What, you think Jason Jennings and Woody Williams are suitable replacements for Clemens and Andy Pettitte? . . . At least the offense should be improved, with the ever-expanding but highly productive Carlos Lee joining forces with Lance Berkman in the heart of the order . . . Berkman doesn't get enough recognition for his offensive greatness - he hit 45 homers and drove in 136 runs a season ago, and yet you never hear his name mentioned among the best hitters in the game. His most similar player on baseballreference.com: Papi.

Breakthrough player: Luke Scott. Hit .336 with 10 homers in 214 at-bats last season, and should get every opportunity to establish himself as a reliable run producer batting behind Berkman and Lee.

Breakdown player: Mark Loretta. He's 36, and he was all but shedding body parts down the stretch for the Sox last season.

Completely random Bill James stat: Berkman led the NL in runs created per 27 outs (11.5).

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Foul tips and other observations:
I bet even Bill Hall is stunned that Bill Hall hit 35 homers last season . . . Derrick Turnbow is the very definition of a heart-attack closer. He blew eight of 32 save opportunities, lost nine games, and posted a ridiculously brutal 6.87 ERA, yet whiffed 69 in 56.3 innings . . . Jeff Suppan and the Brewers are a perfect match, mediocrity meeting mediocrity . . . Didn't realize Tony Gwynn's kid got 70 at-bats with the big club last year. Tony Jr. weighs in at 185 pounds, which means he could fit into his old man's pouch . . . Prince Fielder, however, is listed at 260, so we can file this one under Like Father, Like Son. He's a better pure hitter than his old man ever was, however . . . Who is Kevin "Shrek" Mench to bitch about a possible platoon role? Guess he has a big head figuratively as well as literally.

Breakthrough player: Rickie Weeks: Has the skills to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases a year for the next decade.

Breakdown player: Ben Sheets. Have he and A.J. Burnett ever been seen in the same place?

Completely random Bill James stat: Fielder had the best at-bats-per-homer ratio of any NL player age 26 or younger (1 homer every 20.3 at-bats).

CHICAGO CUBS
Foul tips and other observations:
So this is what $300 million buys you these days: Alfonso Soriano ($136 million, much more valuable in fantasy leagues than in real life), Aramis Ramirez ($75 million, a good hitter with a bad reputation), Ted Lilly ($40 million, 59-58 career record), Jason Marquis ($21 million, far and away the worst regular pitcher in the NL last season), Mark DeRosa ($13 million, coming off a career year at age 31), Henry Blanco ($5.255 million, 35-year-old .225 career hitter), Kerry Wood ($1.75 million, now that's actually a worthwhile gamble), Wade Miller ($1.5 million, ditto Wood), Daryle Ward ($1 million, a donut in human form), and Cliff Floyd ($3 million, held together at this point by athletic tape) . . . Ah, well, at least we know Lou Piniella will handle it well when it all falls apart . . . Positives? Carlos Zambrano might be the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award, and Mark Prior certainly has the ability to be a top-notch No. 2 starter, though one has to wonder how the injury-prone classic underachiever will respond to Not-So-Sweet Lou's style . . . Soriano-Derrek Lee-Ramirez is a rather formidable 3-4-5. Too bad they don't get to face Marquis, or they'd really put up some numbers.

Breakthrough player: Zambrano. Yes, he's already a legit ace, but this year he takes it to a truly elite level. He'll parlay 20-plus wins into fat free-agent contract from one of the New York clubs, and Cubs fans will wonder, in between soothing beverages, why Marquis and Lilly got paid and the home-grown hero didn't.

Breakdown player: Wood, Prior . . . take your pick. I hope I'm wrong about both, though. It's a bummer to watch great talent get eroded by injuries.

Completely random Bill James stat: Marquis led the NL in runs allowed, home runs allowed, and not coincidentally, losses.

CINCINNATI REDS
Foul tips and other observations:
Glad to see Bronson Arroyo get a fat two-year extension from the Reds. He's earned everything that's come his way in the big leagues; it's easy to forget now, after the popularity he attained in Boston, but it wasn't that long ago that he was DFA'd by the Pirates . . . Can't get over what an excellent season the Aaron Harang had in '06. He tied for the NL lead in wins (16), and led in starts (35), complete games (6), and strikeouts (216). Interestingly, his most similar comp in baseball history is Arroyo . . . I find myself still hoping against hope that Ken Griffey Jr. has one more healthy, monster season in him. That's partially because he was a truly transcendant player at his peak, a genuine joy to watch, and yet was overshadowed by his artificially enhanced peers. Mostly, though, it's because he's a day younger than me, and as long he's not officially over the hill, dammit, neither am I . . . Rich Aurilia, now part of the geezer brigade in San Francisco, quietly had a beast of a season last year, hitting .300 with 23 homers and slugging a league-best .680 against lefties. Someone (Edwin Encarnacion?) will have to pick up the overall slack . . . Rheal Cormier had a 2.44 ERA last season, but whiffed just 19 in 48 innings. Man, being a crapballing lefty reliever sure is a nice gig if you can get it . . . Did I mention Mike Stanton is employed by this team too? No word if Tony Fossas is a non-roster invitee.

Breakthrough player: Homer Bailey. The consensus best pitching prospect in baseball, Philip Hughes included. (And somewhere, a Yankees fan rips off his mustache in violent protest.)

Breakdown player: Griffey. They're sending/The old man home . . .

Completely random Bill James stat: Arroyo led the NL in pitches below 80 MPH with 1,350, nearly 300 more than runner-up Livan Hernandez. So basically, Arroyo is the anti-Beckett.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Foul tips and other observations:
I like the Tony Armas signing - he has the arm and the ability, just not much in the way of results. His old man could probably bat fifth on this team, however . . . I'm pretty sure Jim Tracy couldn't tell you the difference between Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm. I sure as hell can't . . . Salomon Torres, the NL leader in appearances a year ago, is a baseball survivor - at one point, he retired to take a coaching job with the Gulf Coast League Expos. Seems so long ago that he was the goat of the memorable '93 NL West race . . . I bet the Pirates ultimately regret dealing Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche. Gonzalez didn't blow a save last year, and LaRoche overachieved . . . How is it that Jason Bay was traded three times (once for the legendary Lou Collier) before establishing himself in the big leagues? Had the Expos held on to him and Grady Sizemore, they might still exist.

Breakthrough player: Shane Youman. No relation to Floyd Youmans. But it'd be cool if he was.

Breakdown player: Freddy Sanchez. We're not predicting an injury here, merely a 60-point decline in batting average. He can't be that good, can he?

Completely random Bill James stat: Um, maybe he can. Sanchez was third in the NL in batting with runners in scoring position (.386), trailing only a couple of guys named Bonds (.423) and Pujols (.397). Sanchez also led the league in batting against lefthanded pitchers (.442, and no, that's not a typo).

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