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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 3, 2010

MLB: NL Central Preview capsules

Associated Press

Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:

St. Louis Cardinals

2009: 91-71, first place, NL Central.

Manager: Tony La Russa (15th season).

He's Here: RH Brad Penny, 3B David Freese, LH Jaime Garcia, INF Felipe Lopez, batting coach Mark McGwire.

He's Outta Here: RH Joel Pineiro, 3B-OF Mark DeRosa, RH John Smoltz, 3B Troy Glaus, OF Rick Ankiel, INF Khalil Greene, RH Todd Wellemeyer, INF Joe Thurston.

Projected Lineup: 2B Skip Schumaker (.303, 4 HRs, 35 RBIs), SS Brendan Ryan (.292, 3, 37, 14 SB), 1B Albert Pujols (.327, ML-leading 47 HRs, .658 slugging pct., 135 RBIs, 16 SB), LF Matt Holliday (.353, 13, 55 in 63 games with St. Louis), RF Ryan Ludwick (.265, 22, 97 RBIs), CF Colby Rasmus (.251, 16, 52, 3 SB), C Yadier Molina (.293, 6, 54, career-high 9 SB in 12 attempts), 3B David Freese (.323 in 17 games, 1, 7).

Rotation: RH Chris Carpenter (17-4, NL-best 2.24 ERA), RH Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63), RH Kyle Lohse (6-10, 4.74), RH Brad Penny (11-9, 4.88 for Red Sox, Giants; 4-1, 2.59 in six starts for San Francisco end of season), LH Jaime Garcia (2-0, 3.86 in 4 starts for Triple-A Memphis).

Key Relievers: RH Ryan Franklin (4-3, 1.92 38/43 saves), Kyle McClellan (4-4, 3.38, 3/7 saves), LH Trever Milller (4-1, 2.06), LH Dennys Reyes (0-2, 3.29), RH Blake Hawksworth (4-0, 2.03), RH Jason Motte (4-4, 4.76).

Hot Spots: Fifth starter, shortstop and third base. Garcia, long considered one of the top pitching prospects but short on experience due to injuries, had been ticketed for Triple-A but has been too strong this spring to ignore while non-roster invitee Rich Hill and McClellan both faltered. Freese is expected to provide power and solid defense, but needs to prove he's past offseason woes (DWI arrest in offseason). SS Ryan might be a bit of a question early after undergoing minor wrist surgery just before start of spring training, but he made first spring start on March 20. A bounce back is expected for Lohse, a 15-game winner in 2008, after twice landing on DL and battling a persistent forearm injury that affected control most of season. Franklin, who turned 37 this month, tired late in season and Cardinals are seeking a potential fill-in during periods of heavy use.

Stat Sheet: Pujols led majors in homers, runs (24), intentional walks (44) and slugging percentage (.658) and topped NL in on-base percentage (.443) en route to unanimous MVP selection his second straight and third overall award. He was second in the NL in doubles (45) and third in batting average (.327) and RBIs (135).

Bottom Line: Cardinals figure to be favorite to repeat in Central with arguably the best rotation in NL topped by two pitchers who just missed in Cy Young balloting and arguably the best 3-4 punch in baseball with Pujols and Holliday together for first full season. Team also is hungry after disappointing first-round playoff sweep by Dodgers that spoiled one of baseball's strongest second halves following Holliday's arrival in late July. Loss also led La Russa to ponder whether he still had the team's attention before agreeing to one-year contract extension. Freese is the lone new face in the lineup at a position the Cardinals struggled to fill all last season when Glaus was out until September.

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Lou Piniella (fourth season).

2009: 83-78, second place.

He's Here: Owner Tom Ricketts, CF Marlon Byrd, OF Xavier Nady, RH Carlos Silva, RH Jeff Gray, INF Chad Tracy, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

He's Outta Here: OF Milton Bradley, INF Aaron Miles, INF/OF Jake Fox, RH Kevin Gregg, OF Reed Johnson, RH Aaron Heilman, RH Rich Harden.

Projected Lineup: SS Ryan Theriot (.284, 7, 54, 21 SB), RF Kosuke Fukudome (.259, 11, 54, 93 BBs), 1B Derrek Lee (.306, 35, career-high 111 RBIs), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.317, 15, 65), CF Marlon Byrd (.283, 20, 89), LF Alfonso Soriano (.241, 20, 55), 2b Mike Fontenot (.236, 9, 43), C Geovany Soto (.218, 11, 47).

Projected Rotation: RH Carlos Zambrano (9-7, 3.77 ERA, 28 starts), RH Ryan Dempster 11-9, 3.65, staff-high 200 IP and 172 strikeout), RH Randy Wells (12-10, 3.05), LH Tom Gorzelanny (7-3, 5.55 ERA with Pirates and Cubs), RH Carlos Silva (1-3, 8.60 in eight games with Seattle). Injured LH Ted Lilly (12-9, 3.10 ERA).

Key Relievers: RH Carlos Marmol (2-4, 3.41, 27 Holds, 15 Saves, 12 HBP); LH Sean Marshall (3-7, 4.32, 55 appearances, 9 GS); RH Jeff Samardzija (1-3, 7.53, 20 appearances, 2 GS); RH Esmailin Caridad (1-0, 1.40 ERA in 14 appearances), LH John Grabow, 3-0, 3.36, 45 games with Pirates, 30 with Cubs).

Hot spots: Left field, fifth starter and bullpen. Soriano must stay healthy after late-season knee surgery, be better defensively and be a productive run producer now that he's been dropped in the order. Cubs have a strong option in Nady, who is not yet outfield ready after undergoing elbow surgery. With Lilly slowed during the spring after shoulder surgery, the Cubs needed to find both a fourth and fifth starter with Gorzelanny and Silva emerging over Marshall and Samardzija. The hefty Silva struggled greatly in Seattle and was traded for another troubled player, Bradley. After losing Angel Guzman to shoulder problems, the Cubs looking for a setup man after jettisoning Heilman and Gregg in the offseason.

Stat sheet: The Cubs scored 148 fewer runs (707) than they did the previous season and are hoping better health and the addition of Jaramillo will get the bats going. Biggest number of all: 1908. As in the last time they won the World Series.

Bottom line: In the final year of manager Lou Piniella's contract and with a new owner in Tom Ricketts, anything short of making the playoffs will likely bring change. Zambrano has to earn his $91.5 million contract by winning more than nine games, controlling his emotions and staying healthy. Marmol has the stuff to be a top-notch closer but must control his pitches. And the Cubs must find a good setup man, a job that would fall to Grabow. The lineup is predominantly right-handed and that means the lefty swinging Fukudome, who has not lived up to his contract, must be a big contributor at the top of the lineup and avoid slumps. Byrd is a solid player and fielder in center who will give the team a lift in the clubhouse. Keeping Ramirez and Soriano healthy after they missed so many games last season will also be a key. And after a horrendous second season, a 40-pounds lighter Soto must return to the form that made him an All-Star as a rookie two years ago.

Milwaukee Brewers

2009: 80-82, third place.

Manager: Ken Macha (second season).

He's Here: LH Doug Davis, RH LaTroy Hawkins, LH Randy Wolf, OF Jim Edmonds, CF Carlos Gomez, INF/OF Joe Inglett, C George Kottaras, C Gregg Zaun, pitching coach Rick Peterson.

He's Outta Here: RH Braden Looper, RH Seth McClung, RH David Weathers, OF Mike Cameron, INF Frank Catalanotto, SS J.J. Hardy, C Jason Kendall, INF Felipe Lopez, C Mike Rivera.

Projected Lineup: 2B Rickie Weeks (.272, 9 HRs, 24 RBIs, 28 runs in 37 games before season-ending injury), SS Alcides Escobar (.298, 4, 34, 76 runs, 42 SB at Triple-A Nashville), LF Ryan Braun (.320, 32, 114), 1B Prince Fielder (.299, 46, 141), 3B Casey McGehee (.301, 16, 66), RF Corey Hart (.260, 12, 48), C Gregg Zaun (.260, 8, 27 with Orioles and Rays), CF Carlos Gomez (.229, 3, 28, 14 SB with Twins).

Rotation: RH Yovani Gallardo (13-12, 3.73 ERA, 204 Ks), LH Randy Wolf (11-7, 3.23 with Dodgers), LH Doug Davis (9-14, 4.12 with Diamondbacks), RH Dave Bush (5-9, 6.38; 2-8, 8.88 after being hit by line drive on June 4), No decision on fifth starter competition until April 15 between LH Manny Parra (11-11, 6.36), LH Chris Narveson (2-0 in four starts last season) or RH Jeff Suppan (7-12, 5.29, making $12.5 million in final year of contract; on DL until at least April 10).

Key Relievers: RH Trevor Hoffman (3-2, 1.83, 37/41 saves, ML-best 591 career saves), RH LaTroy Hawkins (1-4, 2.13 with Astros), RH Todd Coffey (4-4, 2.90 in team-high 78 games), LH Mitch Stetter (4-1, 3.60), RH Claudio Vargas (1-0, 1.78 in 28 appearances after trade from Dodgers).

Hot Spots: Starting rotation and center field. The Brewers scored runs in bunches last year only to watch the pitching staff allow even more. Macha's buzz words this spring have been "game awareness" after he felt the team made too many lapses down the stretch last year. The biggest change may not even be Wolf or Davis, but Peterson. Some of his odd philosophies have made headlines, but the staff is clearly more confident and working together more than previous years. Escobar, the rookie shortstop, looks like he'll hit at a higher clip than first thought and Macha wants to steal more. But the Brewers don't want to run into outs with Braun and Fielder looming. If Gomez doesn't hit, look for Edmonds, who took 2009 off, to get increasing playing time.

Stat Sheet: The Brewers scored 785 runs and hit 182 HRs last season, both good for third in the NL. Milwaukee's starting staff had a majors-worst 5.37 ERA and the Brewers gave up a total of 818 runs, next to last in the NL behind the 103-loss Nationals. That meant big changes in the rotation to help a tired bullpen, and Parra, Narveson and Suppan are still fighting for the final starting spot.

Bottom Line: A year after reaching the postseason in 2008, the Brewers fell back below .500 at 80-82 with Macha at the helm. His pitching staff wasn't nearly as good, but Milwaukee's chances of reaching the postseason or winning a title revolve around Fielder, who will reach free agency after the 2011 season. Fielder and the Brewers have started contract negotiations, but both sides have said that won't play out in the media. With the improved pitching staff, Macha believes if Fielder matches his 2009 numbers, he'll be a surefire MVP candidate and the Brewers will be in the mix in September.

Cincinnati Reds

2009: 78-84, fourth place.

Manager: Dusty Baker (third season).

He's Here: SS Orlando Cabrera, INF Aaron Miles, LH Aroldis Chapman.

He's Outta Here: OF Willy Taveras, INF Adam Rosales, C Corky Miller.

Projected Lineup: CF Drew Stubbs (.267, 8 HR, 17 RBIs, 49 strikeouts in 42 games), RF Jay Bruce (.223, 22, 58), 1B Joey Votto (.322, 25, 84), 2B Brandon Phillips (.276, 20, 98), 3B Scott Rolen (.270, 3, 24, 40 games with Reds), LF Jonny Gomes (.267, 20, 51), SS Orlando Cabrera (.284, 9, 77 in 160 games for A's and Twins), C Ramon Hernandez (.258, 15, 65).

Rotation: RH Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA, 26 starts), RH Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84, 33), RH Johnny Cueto (11-11, 4.41, 30), RH Homer Bailey (8-5, 4.53, 20, 6-1 in last nine starts), LH Aroldis Chapman (22-year-old Cuban defector likely will be part of rotation sometime during season).

Key Relievers: RH Francisco Cordero (2-6, 2.16, 68 games, 39 saves/43 chances), LH Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53), RH Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37), RH Jared Burton (1-0, 4.40), LH Daniel Ray Herrera (4-4, 3.06), RH Micah Owings (7-12, 5.34, 26 games/19 starts).

Hot Spots: Top of rotation and right field. The 31-year-old Harang is 12-31 in last two seasons, both sidetracked by injuries. If he can regain his form as the top starter, the rest of the rotation will fall into place, giving the Reds one of the most solid in the NL Central. RF Bruce struggled at the start of the season, then missed two months with a broken wrist. He finished at .223 with 22 homers in 101 games. The Reds need a solid year out of Bruce if they want to upgrade an offense that was among the NL's worst last season.

Stat Sheet: Nineteen players spent time on the DL last season. Seven of them had surgical procedures during the year. Phillips was the only position player to make it through without a disabling injury. Four-fifths of the rotation went down. Convinced that they could have contended had they stayed healthy, the Reds kept their roster virtually intact for one more try.

Bottom Line: The Reds are coming off their ninth straight losing season, their longest slump in a half-century. The everyday lineup has an unpredictable mix of very young players (Votto, Bruce, Stubbs) and 30-somethings trying to stay healthy (Rolen, Cabrera, Hernandez), so it will be up to the pitching staff to provide stability. The bullpen was solid last season behind Cordero. That leaves the rotation as focal point. RH Edinson Volquez was their best starter when he tore up his elbow and needed reconstructive surgery, and will be out until at least midseason. Harang and Arroyo are entering the final guaranteed years on their contracts. Young starters Cueto (24), Bailey (23) and Chapman (22) are the future. The Reds don't want to have to rely on them to carry the bulk of the load this year.

Houston Astros

2009: 74-88, fifth place, NL Central.

Manager: Brad Mills (first season).

He's Here: Manager Brad Mills, RHP Brett Myers, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Matt Lindstrom, 3B Pedro Feliz.

He's Outta Here: RHP Jose Valverde, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, OF Darin Erstad, SS Miguel Tejada.

Projected Lineup: CF Michael Bourn (.285, 3 HRs, 35 RBIs, 61 steals), 2B Kazuo Matsui (.250, 9 HRs, 46 RBIs, 19 SBs), 1B Lance Berkman (.274, 25 HRs, 80 RBIs), LF Carlos Lee (.300, 26 HRs, 102 RBIs), RF Hunter Pence (.282, 25 HRs, 72 RBIs), 3B Pedro Feliz (.266, 12 HRs, 82 RBIs with Philadelphia), SS Tommy Manzella (.200, 0 HRs, 0 RBIs), C J.R. Towles (.188, 2 HRs, 3 RBIs).

Rotation: RH Roy Oswalt (8-6, 4.12 ERA, 138 Ks, 181 1-3 innings), LH Wandy Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02 ERA, 193 Ks, 205 2-3 innings), RH Brett Myers (4-3, 4.84 ERA, 50 Ks in 10 starts and 18 appearances for Philadelphia), RH Bud Norris (6-3, 4.53 ERA, 54 Ks, 55 2-3 innings), R Brian Moehler (8-12, 5.47 ERA, 91 Ks, 154 2-3 innings), RH Felipe Paulino (3-11, 6.27 ERA, 93 Ks, 97 2-3 innings).

Key Relievers: RH Brandon Lyon (6-5, 2.86 ERA, 57 Ks in 65 appearances with Detroit), RH Matt Lindstrom (2-1, 5.89 ERA, 39 Ks in 54 appearances with Florida), RH Alberto Arias (2-1, 3.35 ERA, 39 Ks, 45 2-3 innings), LH Tim Byrdak (1-2, 3.23 ERA, 58 Ks, 61 1-3 innings), RH Jeff Fulchino (6-4, 3.40 ERA, 71 Ks, 82 innings), RH Chris Sampson (4-2, 5.04 ERA, 55 1-3 innings), LH Wesley Wright (3-4, 5.44 ERA, 47 Ks, 44 2-3 innings).

Hot Spots: Catcher, closer and No. 5 starter. Mills has solved two of his three big decisions at spring training. This could be the last chance for C J.R. Towles to emerge. He beat out rookie Jason Castro for the starting job, even though he's hit only .188 in three partial major league seasons. Castro, the Astros' top pick in the 2008 draft, was optioned to the minors when Mills announced that Towles had won the job. The Astros lost closer Jose Valverde and setup man LaTroy Hawkins in free agency, and signed Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom to replace them. Lyon fell behind at spring training after undergoing minor shoulder surgery in February, and Lindstrom won the closer's job after not allowing a run in his first 8 2-3 innings in the spring. Lyon made his spring debut on March 18, allowing a run in one inning against Detroit. Norris won his first three starts as a rookie last season and was a virtual certainty to lock up the No. 4 slot in the rotation. Moehler and Paulino were the frontrunners for the last spot. Moehler missed 18 games early last season with a knee sprain and underwent minor surgery last October. Paulino was 2-11 with a 5.69 ERA in 17 rocky starts in 2009.

Stat Sheet: The Astros ranked eighth in the NL in batting average (.260), but 14th in runs scored (643). Bourn led the NL with 61 steals and scored 91 runs. Both Oswalt and Berkman dealt with injuries and put up some of the lowest numbers of their careers in 2009.

Bottom Line: The Astros made smart decisions in the offseason and should make progress from a dismal 2009. Still, too many questions remain to consider them a contender in the NL Central. Oswalt and Berkman need to stay healthy and bounce back from disappointing seasons, Matsui must produce after two injury-plagued years and Manzella and Towles must prove they can hit consistently at the major-league level. On the positive side, Bourn emerged as an All-Star last season, making breathtaking defensive plays using his speed to steal bases at will. Lee quietly had another productive year from the cleanup spot, topping 100 RBIs for the fifth straight season and hitting .300 for his third consecutive year with the Astros. The starting rotation should be a strength as long as everyone avoids the disabled list and the bullpen should be solid, as long as Lyon lives up to his three-year, $15 million contract. Manzella and Feliz bolster the defense on the left side of the infield.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2009: 62-99, last place.

Manager: John Russell (third season).

He's Here: RH Brendan Donnelly, RH Octavio Dotel, LH Javier Lopez, INF Bobby Crosby, INF Akinori Iwamura, OF Ryan Church, 1B Jeff Clement.

He's Outta Here: RH Matt Capps, INF Brian Bixler, C Robinzon Diaz, RH Chris Bootcheck, RH Denny Bautista.

Projected lineup: CF Andrew McCutchen (.286, 12 HRs, 54 RBIs in 433 ABs, 22 SB as rookie), 2B Akinori Iwamura (.290, 1, 22 in 69 games with Rays), RF Garrett Jones (.293, 21, 44 in 314 ABs, .567 slugging pct), C Ryan Doumit (.250, 10, 38 in 75 games), LF Lastings Milledge (.279, 4, 21 in 65 games, 7 with Nationals), 1B Jeff Clement (.274, 21, 90 with 2 Triple-A teams, no major league ABs in '09), 3B Andy LaRoche (.258, 12, 64, 84 Ks), SS Ronny Cedeno (.208, 10, 38 in 105 games, 46 with Pirates).

Rotation: LH Zach Duke (11-16, 4.06, 231 hits allowed in 213 IP), RH Ross Ohlendorf (11-10, 3.92, 25 HRs allowed in 176 2-3 IP), LH Paul Maholm (8-9, 4.44 ERA, 10.22 hits per nine IP avg), RH Charlie Morton (5-9, 4.55 in 18G, 40 BBs in 97 IP), RH Daniel McCutchen (1-2, 4.21 in 6 games as 26-year-old rookie).

Key Relievers: RH Octavio Dotel (3-3, 3.32, 0 saves, 75 Ks in 62 1-3 IP with White Sox), RH Brendan Donnelly (3-0, 1.78 ERA in 30 games with Marlins, 25 KS in 25 1-3 IP), RH D.J. Carrasco (5-1, 3.76 ERA, 11 games finished with White Sox), LH Jack Taschner (1-1, 4.91 ERA, 20 BBs in 29 1-3 IP with Phillies), LH Javier Lopez (0-2, 9.26 in 14 games with Red Sox), RH Evan Meek (1-1, 3.45, 42Ks in 47 IP).

Hot Spots: First base, shortstop, third base, bullpen though, of course, any team coming off 17 consecutive losing seasons has concerns all over the diamond. Clement, who came up through the minors as a catcher, is trying to learn to be a major league 1B on the fly. If the former Mariners prospect can't perform, Garrett Jones may have to shift from RF. Cedeno hit much better with the Pirates than with Seattle last year, but was somewhat erratic defensively and backup Bobby Crosby had a good spring. LaRoche, the brother of former Pirates 1B Adam LaRoche, didn't hit for power as expected of the one-time Dodgers farmhand. With top prospect Pedro Alvarez nearly ready, LaRoche might be out of the lineup by Memorial Day if he doesn't hit. The bullpen has been rebuilt with castoffs from other teams, and Dotel will be tried as a closer for the first time since 2007 if he's healthy. He was bothered nearly all spring by a rib cage muscle problem.

Stat sheet: The Pirates were the majors' best fielding team in 2009, with a .988 fielding percentage, though it was hard to notice during a 99-loss season. The more glaring numbers: the Pirates did almost nothing else well. They finished third from the bottom in the NL in batting average, home runs, RBIs and team ERA. They didn't have a hitter with more than 64 RBIs or a pitcher with more than 11 wins.

Bottom line: The kids can't get here fast enough. The Pirates did little during the offseason to add major league players, other than to trade for Iwamura and to add arms to the bullpen. Most of their major moves trading Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Adam LaRoche came last season. All the projected starting pitchers were with the team most or all of last season. The Pirates are counting on a farm system that's been replenished by the numerous trades made by GM Neal Huntington the last 2 1/2 years to produce the players that will bring them out of a seemingly endless slide that's seen them lose an average of 89 games-plus per season since 1993, the worst record in the majors. 3B Alvarez, RH Brad Lincoln and OF Jose Tabata the first wave of upper-tier prospects could arrive by June or slightly later. When they show up, the Pirates expect to have the pieces in place to start a long-awaited move up the standings. But while the front office beams nothing but optimism, there are concerns everywhere: Can Clement hit and field at the major league level? Is Iwamura anything other than a stopgap? Did Milledge finally begin to turn his career around with the Pirates, or will he return to being the underachiever he was with the Mets and Nationals? Can McCutchen, who quickly became the team's best player following his June callup last year, carry the offense as the leadoff hitter? Can Jones replicate over a full season the remarkable half-season he had a year ago? That's a lot of questions for a team that hasn't had many answers since Barry Bonds was the left fielder and Jim Leyland was the manager during the long-ago early '90s.