With Spring Training on its way, I'm taking an early look at what the NL Central might have in store this year. A lot of top talents left the division this offseason, including Sammy Sosa, Matt Clement, Moises Alou, Edgar Renteria, Woody Williams, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, Wade Miller and Jason Kendall. The only similar talents to enter the division were Mark Mulder and Carlos Lee, and the only team that obviously improved itself was the Brewers. The Central is a wide-open division next year; while it's unlikely that any of its perennial bottom-dwellers (Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) will climb to the top, Milwaukee has a shot, and 88 wins or so might be enough for one of the other three teams to win. Here are my analyses of the six teams and the order in which I think they might finish.
(NOTES: The additions and subtractions aren't exhaustive; I only listed the comings and goings I thought might have a significant impact on the 2005 season. Please put a note in the comments and let me know if I missed anything major, like a season-ending injury.)
2004 Record: 89-73
2004 Pythagenport record: 94-68
Major additions: 2B Jerry Hairston, OF Jeromy Burnitz
Major subtractions: OF Sammy Sosa, P Matt Clement, OF Moises Alou, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, P Kyle Farnsworth, OF Ben Grieve, P Kent Mercker
Despite the losses of a number of big-name players, the Cubs are better off than they appear. Sammy Sosa hit .253/.332/.517 in 2004; Baseball Prospectus has pointed out that manager Dusty Baker has a track record of getting great performances from veteran hitters, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Jeromy Burnitz replace Sosa's production in 2005. Moises Alou's ridiculous .293/.361/.557 should be trickier to replace, but the Cubs will benefit enormously from a full season of Nomar Garciaparra rather than Ramon Martinez and the execrable Alex Gonzalez. On the pitching side, the Cubs lost Clement and they probably won't get another 3.47 ERA from Glendon Rusch, but those things probably won't matter if they can get full, healthy seasons from Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
2004 Record: 105-57
Major additions: P Mark Mulder, SS David Eckstein, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, P Mike Myers
Major subtractions: SS Edgar Renteria, P Woody Williams, P Dan Haren, P Steve Kline, P Kiko Calero, C Mike Matheny, 2B Tony Womack
The Cardinals were fantastic last year, but it's hard to see how they might win 100 games again. Despite the addition of Mark Mulder, the pitching will probably be worse - Woody Williams is gone, and so are three valuable cogs in Haren, Kline and Calero. It's hard to believe that Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan can again pitch almost 600 fantastic innings between them. Matt Morris will start the year on the DL, and Mulder collapsed badly down the stretch last year.
The Cardinals are replacing Edgar Renteria with the adorable but inferior David Eckstein and also have new starters at second base and catcher, but the main difference between 2005's offense and 2004's could be age. The 2004 outfield of Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders returns, and while they were terrific last year, they're all ancient. It wouldn't be a surprise to see one or more of those three get injured or fall off the table next year, and if that happens, they'll likely be replaced by John Mabry or Roger Cedeno, both of whom are also in their 30s. Any offense led by Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen will be productive, but the Cardinals' hitting still shouldn't be as good as it was last year.
2004 Record: 92-70
Major additions: Um, Dave Burba? John Franco?
Major subtractions: OF Carlos Beltran, 2B Jeff Kent, P Wade Miller
The Astros lost three very important players in Beltran, Kent and Miller. Their other stars are mostly at the age where a steep decline is just around the corner. Lance Berkman should be hurt to start the season. Pitcher Andy Pettite had elbow surgery in August and is a huge question mark. 2B Chris Burke and OF Jason Lane should get a chance to make an impact, and they'd better do it, or the 2005 season could get ugly very quickly for the Astros. If Burke, Lane and the young leadoff type Willy Taveras perform well and Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio keep it up for another year, the Astros should be able to impersonate a contending team for a while; if they don't, Houston could be leapfrogged by any or all of the three teams I've put below them.
2004 Record: 67-94
Major additions: OF Carlos Lee, C Damian Miller, P Jose Capellan, P Ricky Bottalico, P Justin Lehr
Major subtractions: OF Scott Podsednik, 2B Keith Ginter, P Luis Vizcaino, P Danny Kolb, IF Craig Counsell
Things are finally looking up for Milwaukee. They've got an ace in Ben Sheets, some interesting young pitchers, and several grade-A hitting prospects. They also had an excellent offseason. They signed Damian Miller, a solid catcher who will provide an enormous upgrade over Gary Bennett and Chad Moeller, to a contract that seemed more and more reasonable as the offseason went along. They traded two mediocre players for Carlos Lee, a very good hitter in the prime of his career. Then they dumped their closer, Danny Kolb, on Atlanta in exchange for Jose Capellan, a very promising pitcher who could help Milwaukee immediately. This is a young and talented team, so a wide range of results are possible for the Brewers - they might fall flat again, or they might surprise nearly everyone. Either way, it's hard not to pull for an organization that appears to finally be back on the road to respectability. The Brewers should be contenders in the next few years.
2004 Record: 72-89
Major additions: P Mark Redman, OF Matt Lawton, C Benito Santiago, OF Ben Grieve
Major subtractions: C Jason Kendall, P Brian Boehringer, OF J.J. Davis, P Frank Brooks
The Pirates' big move this offseason was to dump one of their few unambiguously good players in Jason Kendall on the A's in exchange for some money and a few trinkets. That bad move looked even worse as February rolled around and the Pirates found themselves several million dollars under budget and with no one to spend their money on. GM Dave Littlefield has said that the Pirates plan on spending that money this year come hell or high water, so expect them to trade promising young talent for a terrible veteran who will block a better and younger player the Pirates already have.
For 2005, the Pirates are a mess. Even when Benito Santiago isn't injured, he's a vastly inferior player to Kendall. Matt Lawton's defense will drive the Bucs' pitchers nuts, and his hitting is nothing to write home about. Mark Redman will be capable but uninspiring in the rotation.
As for the returning players: as bad as the Pirates were in 2004, they actually had quite a lot of good luck. Oliver Perez and Jason Bay were better than anyone could have expected. Jose Mesa got through the season without getting shelled. Brian Meadows and Salomon Torres had career years in the bullpen. Mike Gonzalez was simply ridiculous. And Jack Wilson went from being one of the worst hitters in the National League to an above-average batter for a shortstop. Despite their youth, it would be unreasonable to expect the returning Pirates to improve as a group. The Pirates' Pythagenport record last year was 74-87; I'd be pleasantly surprised if they won more than 74 this year. .500 is still a distant dream. The Pirates have a theoretical chance of contending for a while this year, but only in a 1997 best-of-the-worst sort of way, and even that won't last. They're a long way from building anything lasting, and in a few years they're going to wonder how the Brewers got so much better than them all of a sudden.
2004 Record: 76-86
Major additions: P Eric Milton, P Ramon Ortiz, 3B Joe Randa, P Kent Mercker, P David Weathers, P Ben Weber
Major subtractions: SS Barry Larkin
The Reds should again have a terrific outfield, but their infield isn't great, and Sean Casey won't hit .324/.381/.534 again. Their Pythagenport record suggests that they were also a lot worse in 2004 than their win totals indicated. This offseason, the Reds ownership correctly identified their biggest weakness - pitching - but they ended up throwing a ton of money (for them) at mediocre hurlers, which won't help. Eric Milton might give up fifty home runs this year. The Reds' fortunes are unlikely to change much until they develop some good starting pitching from within.