Spring Training Preview: NL Central

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The St. Louis Cardinals overcame a mediocre regular season a year ago and backdoored their way into a National League Central crown. Their slump down the stretch, though, did not carry into the postseason, as they got hot at the right time and claimed their 10th World Series title.

However, St. Louis' success in October did not help in the offseason, as the Cardinals did next to nothing in the free agent market and let half of their starting rotation in the playoffs walk out the door, while never really replacing them.

Chicago was clearly the big winners this offseason. First nailing down manager Lou Piniella, then spending money in a manner that made even George Steinbrenner envious. Not only did the Cubs re-sign third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but they also inked the prize of the free agent class Alfonso Soriano, as well as Ted Lilly and Mark DeRosa.

Houston bolstered its lineup with the addition of Carlos Lee, but took a hit when Andy Pettitte returned to New York. The Astros, though, acted quickly and acquired Jason Jennings from the Colorado Rockies. And who knows if Roger Clemens will pitch this season.

Milwaukee was a trendy pick to make the postseason a year ago and that will likely be the case again this season. They may have the best pitching in the division, but a lot of that depends on the health of Ben Sheets.

Cincinnati was a nice little surprise for most of the season last year, but will need an awful lot of help from a make-shift starting rotation if it plans on duplicating last season's success. If not they could find themselves behind the Pittsburgh Pirates if some of the Bucos young pitching pans out.

CHICAGO CUBS: HoHoKam Park -- Mesa, AZ

The Cubs enter the season as the prohibitive favorite in the Central thanks to their offseason spending frenzy. Rarely does that philosophy work, but it should make things interesting in the Windy City.

Chicago's best signing may have been Piniella, who is certainly up to the task of helping nail down the franchise's first title in almost 100 years. The Cubs' offense was simply anemic last year, as they ranked 15th in the NL in runs scored, and had the fewest walks (395) and worst on-base percentage (.319). Soriano is a bona-fide superstar and his addition should significantly boost the lineup, as will a healthy Derek Lee.

Carlos Zambrano has become one of the best pitchers in the league and he will anchor the Cubs staff in 2007. However, he is in a contract year, so a big payday down the line could weigh on his mind. Obviously the team has little faith in Mark Prior's ability to stay healthy, as they brought in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to help out the Big Z. Anything the Cubs get from Prior will be gravy, as far as they are concerned. Rich Hill was impressive down the stretch last year and could be counted on again this year. Wade Miller, Sean Marshall and Angel Guzman could also be in the starting mix as well.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: Roger Dean Stadium -- Jupiter, FL

The Cardinals shocked the baseball world last season with their improbable run to a World Series title. However, things figure to be a lot different this season. Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver left as free agents, meaning staff ace Chris Carpenter will be joined in the rotation by a cast of characters that includes Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright and Ryan Franklin. Obviously other than Carpenter there are some huge question marks surrounding the staff and I am not sure if the bullpen will be able to get 12 outs on a nightly basis.

Albert Pujols continues to be the best offensive player in the game, but the lineup is starting to get old around him. Scott Rolen's best days are behind him and Jim Edmonds is constantly banged up. Tony La Russa feels that Chris Duncan could be the player to compliment him, though. Time will tell, but it could be a long year for the defending champs.

HOUSTON ASTROS: Osceola Stadium -- Kissimmee, FL

Will he or won't he? That seems to be the question every spring for the Houston Astros as it pertains to future Hall of Famer and seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. Each year it gets less likely that he will return and with his good friend Andy Pettitte now pitching in the Bronx, chances are Clemens isn't coming back. One thing that will certainly sway his decision, though, will be where the Astros are in the standings in June or July.

With the additions of Carlos Lee and Mark Loretta, the team should be better from an offensive standpoint, provided Morgan Ensberg can stay on the field. Losing Pettitte, and most likely Clemens, will hurt, but the acquisition of Jason Jennings will help Roy Oswalt at the top of the rotation. Woody Williams signed a nice deal and will slot in as the team's third starter. Filling out the rest of the staff, though, will be a tall chore for manager Phil Garner. Wandy Rodriguez figures to get a spot with Chris Sampson, Brian Moehler, Dave Borkowski, Fernando Nieve and Matt Albers all fighting for the final spot. Also the team needs closer Brad Lidge to rebound.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: Maryvale Baseball Park -- Maryvale, AZ

The Brewers will head north with the best starting staff in the division. The team added Jeff Suppan and he joins Ben Sheets and Chris Capuano at the top. Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas round out one of the better staffs in not only the division but the league. How good they will be, though, depends a lot on the health of Sheets, who needs to be the ace they think he is.

Offensively, the Brewers struggled last season. They should be better this year, as long as youngsters like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall continue to progress. The addition of catcher Johnny Estrada will also help.

Armed with a payroll around the $60 million mark, a lot of things have to pan out for the Brewers to make some noise in the Central, namely staying healthy. If there was ever a year to steal a division title, though, this would be it and Milwaukee has as good a shot as anyone.

CINCINNATI REDS: Ed Smith Stadium -- Sarasota, FL

The Reds were one of the biggest surprises in the league last season, as they stayed in postseason contention right up until the end. General manager Wayne Krivsky was active all of last year, picking up nearly every available reliever on the market. Krivsky continued to shore up the team's pitching and defense in the offseason, as he inked veteran relievers Mike Stanton and Kirk Saarloos, who could also start, and slick fielding shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

The team tried everything they could this offseason to deal Adam Dunn, but found no takers. He hit 40 home runs a year ago and drove in 92 runs. Tough to call that a bad year, but he only hit .234 and had no homers after September 8 and did not knock in a run after September 19. Hopefully new hitting coach Brook Jacoby will help because if Cincy is going to do anything this year they will need Dunn's big stick in the middle of that lineup.

Another area the team will need to address this spring will be the starting rotation. The top two are set in stone in Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, but after that it gets a little sketchy. Kyle Lohse and Eric Milton will likely earn spots with Saarloos, Elizardo Ramirez, Matt Belisle and Bobby Livingston vying for the final spot. The Reds will also have to make due at the closer spot since Eddie Guardado will probably not be available until after the All- Star break. David Weathers will likely start the year as the team's closer.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES: McKechnie Field -- Bradenton, FL

Most people felt the Pirates could be competitive last season. Those people were wrong. Pittsburgh's young pitching did not come through as planned and the Bucos struggled all year. There were some glimmers of hope for the future, though. Outfielder Jason Bay remains one of the best young players in the game and third baseman Freddy Sanchez captured the NL batting crown. The acquisition of Adam LaRoche for closer Mike Gonzalez will help the lineup, but it leaves a gaping hole in the Pirates' pen.

Pitching wise the Pirates could be in good shape, provided youngsters like Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm stay healthy and continue to progress. Salomon Torres adjusted to the closer's role nicely at the end of last season when Gonzalez was hurt, but time will tell if he can do it over a full year.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick
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