MLB: NL Central Preview

David Cassilo

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2006 Record: 83-78

After struggling to make the playoffs last season, the Cardinals blew through the postseason to win World Series. St. Louis looks to repeat its championship run, as it returns a similar batting order this season. As always, the Cardinals will be fueled by MVP Albert Pujols, the best all-around hitter in the Major Leagues.

Key Additions: 2B Adam Kennedy, SP Kip Wells, RP Russ Springer

Key Losses: SP Jeff Weaver, SP Jeff Suppan, 2B Ronnie Belliard

Player to Watch: SP Adam Wainwright. Wainwright, the 26-year-old flamethrower will have to step up as the Cardinals’ second starter. He will be replacing Jeff Suppan, last year’s NLCS MVP. Wainwright seems capable of the role; he finished with a 3.12 ERA in 75 innings last season.

Don’t be surprised if … the Cardinals drop into the lower half of the NL Central.

2007 Outlook: With the Cubs, Astros and Brewers improving, the Cardinals are facing stiff competition in their division. The loss of pitchers Suppan and Jeff Weaver will prove to be huge as the Cardinals will struggle to piece together a strong rotation behind ace Chris Carpenter. St. Louis will be lucky to repeat its record from last season – this year’s average win total will have to be higher to get the Cardinals into the playoffs. — T.R.

2. Chicago Cubs

2006 Record: 66-96

Sixty-six wins left the Cubs in last place in the National League Central division last season. This season, Chicago is pulling out all the stops to turn things around, committing $300 million in salary in an effort to win its first World Series in 98 straight seasons. Manager Lou Piniella and new acquisition Alfonso Soriano hope that they can bring a world title back to the other side of Chicago.

Key Additions: OF Alfonso Soriano, SP Ted Lilly, SP Jason Marquis, OF/INF Mark DeRosa

Key Losses: None

X-Factor: SP Carlos Zambrano. Arguably the best starter in baseball should rack up 18 wins and anchor the beefed up starting rotation in his final contract year with the Cubs. After leading the NL with 16 wins last season, this mid-90s hurler should make it five straight seasons of 200-plus IP as he looks for an increased paycheck next season. If the Cubs win the NL Central, Zambrano will be one of the reasons why.

Don’t be surprised if … The rest of the Cubs starting rotation underperform, and Chicago misses the playoffs.

2007 Outlook: It will be nearly impossible for Chicago to finish worse than it did last season, when it was worst in the NL Central and 17.5 games behind the division champions St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs offense should be strong this season with the return of first basemen Derek Lee and the addition of outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Starting pitching will be the Cubs’ X-factor this season. Zambrano will be the ace and should rack up 18-plus wins. Offseason acquisitions Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis will be the big question marks in the rotation. Although their contracts indicate supreme talent, Lilly and Marquis both have a tendency to disappoint in the regular season. Marquis won an unusual triple crown in 2006, leading the NL in losses (16), earned runs (160) and HRs allowed (35). If he maintains those crowns in 2007, the Cubs could tank again and finish short of the playoffs for yet another season. — M.P.

3. Houston Astros

2006 Record: 82-80

After reaching the World Series in 2005, the Astros missed the playoffs in 2006 due to injuries and poor performance. Losing two strong starters in Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, Houston set out to improve its offense and maintain a decent starting rotation with its offseason acquisitions. Starting pitchers Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt, coupled with closer Brad Lidge, are hoping to overthrow the defending World Series champions St. Louis Cardinals, who they finished 1.5 games behind last season.

Key Additions: OF Carlos Lee, SP Jason Jennings, INF Mark Loretta

Key Losses: SP Andy Pettitte, 1B Jeff Bagwell, OF Willy Taveras, SP Roger Clemens

X-Factor: SP Roy Oswalt. Leading the NL and second in MLB with a 2.98 ERA and a 4.37-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the Astros’ ace will need to improve on last season’s performance to make up for the losses of Pettitte and Clemens in the starting rotation if Houston wants to have any chance of winning the Central this season. With a mid-90s fastball, cutter, changeup and curveball, Oswalt should get 15-plus wins with a sub-3 ERA this season.

Don’t be surprised if … The organization makes some deals to acquire power hitters at the trade deadline to make another close run at the NL Central division title.

2007 Outlook: Pitching will be Houston’s strength this season as Oswalt, Jason Jennings and Woody Williams should give the Astros a solid trio in the rotation. Although Lidge struggled down the stretch at the end of last season, if he returns to his performances in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, opponents will have to fight for victories over the Astros. Houston will struggle offensively, but if it deals in the midseason to add a power hitter to the lineup there is no reason why this ball club can’t contend with St. Louis for the NL Central division title. — M.P.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

2006 Record: 75-87

The young Brewers lineup appears to be loaded with power, featuring first baseman Prince Fielder, center fielder Bill Hall and left fielder Geoff Jenkins. Added to their power is a pitching staff that has five solid starters and one of the best bullpens in the league with Francisco Cordero, Derrick Turnbow and Matt Wise. Heading into the season, the Brewers look to bring their talent together to rise in a cluttered NL Central.

Key Additions: SP Jeff Suppan, C Johnny Estrada, SS Craig Counsell

Key Losses: SP Doug Davis, RP Danny Kolb, C Chad Moeller

X-Factor: 2B Rickie Weeks. The young speedster is the key to the Brewers lineup with sluggers Fielder, Hall and Jenkins hitting behind him. If Weeks can improve on his .363 OBP coming off just two seasons in the majors, the Brewers will be in excellent shape offensively.

Don’t be surprised if … the Brewers make the playoffs.

2007 Outlook: Why not? They have the hitting, the starting pitching, and bullpen to compete with any team in the league. The key for this squad will be whether or not it can finally pull all of its pieces together. With such a young lineup, the Brewers are still probably a year away from making the postseason. — T.R.

5. Cincinnati Reds

2006 Record: 80-82

In a year that saw NL Central division teams making some offseason acquisitions (even the Pittsburgh Pirates got in on the offseason action), the Reds said more goodbyes than hellos during this year’s offseason. Despite finishing just 3.5 games back in its division and stunning the baseball world by remaining in Wild Card contention until the end of the season, Cincinnati will have its hands full this year. Although the Reds have two good starters in Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, they lack the offense and bullpen to become the threat they were last season.

Key Additions: SS Alex Gonzalez, 1B/OF Jeff Conine, RP Mike Stanton

Key Losses: SS Royce Clayton, C Jason LaRue

X-Factor: SP Aaron Harang. Winning two thirds of the NL pitching crown last season with 16 wins and 216 strikeouts, this pitcher can move the ball around the strike zone. Employing a mid-90s fastball, a late-breaking slider and a sinking changeup, Harang could post numbers as good as, if not better than, last season.

Don’t be surprised if … Ken Griffey Jr. is out all season after breaking his leg trying to squash an ant in his bedroom.

2007 Outlook: Lightning won’t strike twice in Cincinnati as it will struggle against its much-improved NL Central opponents. Although the Reds have two strong starters in Arroyo and Harang, their bullpen could use some help considering relievers Mike Stanton and David Weathers combined last season for a whopping total of 20 saves. Baseball analysts don’t project any player in the Reds’ lineup to hit above .300 this season, which could spell trouble for Cincinnati. Adam Dunn could hit over 40 home runs in the short park, hitting exactly 40 last year, but with little in front or behind in the lineup to protect him, opponents can pitch around this left fielder to keep the threat at Bay. The Reds will struggle this year and will finish anywhere between fourth and sixth in the NL Central division. — M.P.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

2006 Record: 67-95

In 2006, the Pirates improved by jumping out of last place in the NL Central. Third baseman Freddy Sanchez won the National League batting crown with a .344 average, while left fielder Jason Bay started in the All-Star game. The team didn’t make any major moves in the offseason, so it will be relying on one year’s improvement to move up in the standings.

Key Additions: SP Tony Armas Jr., RP Danny Kolb, 1B Adam LaRoche

Key Losses: RP Mike Gonzalez, 3B Joe Randa,

Player to Watch: SP Zach Duke. At 23, Duke is already the ace of this young pitching staff. Despite his tendency to be wild on the mound, Duke has shown the ability to shut down opponents, gathering many high-strikeout games in 2006. If the Pirates expect to move up the NL Central standings, they will need All-Star-worthy play from Duke.

Don’t be surprised if … the Pirates finish in the NL Central cellar.

2007 Outlook: Pittsburgh does feature some promising young arms with Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. Even if they were to step up, the Pirates do not have the offensive weapons to compete with other major league teams. Besides Bay and first baseman Adam LaRoche, this team features little power and run producers. — T.R.