Another division title in the Cards

James LeBlanc

Well I’m back for round number two of psychic-like predictions on the upcoming MLB season.

Oh Carlos Beltran, how we hardly knew you. These will be the sentiments being echoed by the Houston Astros faithful in the upcoming season. The man that carried the Astros to within one game of the World Series is gone, leaving the Astros to find a way to fend without him. The ‘Stros are not without players though, as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are both back for another go around. However, each is getting on in years, and you can expect the drop in their numbers to continue. The Astros do return an impressive starting rotation featuring Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, a healthy Andy Pettite, Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe. Their bullpen on the other hand is very shaky, as they must find someone to bridge the gap from the starter, to the closer, Brad Lidge. While the Astros have talent, they are missing the offensive firepower they had last year. Expect them to contend through July, but as the season drags on they will more than likely fall out of the race for a playoff spot.

Now we move on to the team to beat in the NL Central, which is of course the St. Louis Cardinals. They return with the amazing trio of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen which gives them a core of players as good as anybody in the Major League. They will also have Larry Walker for an entire season this year, and coming off what he did at the end of last year, I would say we can expect big things from him and the entire Cardinals offense in the upcoming season. Pitching wise the ‘Cards are about as good as it gets to. Acquiring Mark Mulder from the Athletics gives them the ace pitcher that they were missing at times last year. However, Mulder does have a history of folding in the playoffs, so look out for that. They also return Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan all of whom were very impressive last season. Even their fifth starter, Matt Morris, is saddled with unlimited potential, and on certain days can be as un-hittable as anyone. Their bullpen is also very solid with Jason Isringhausen anchoring it as the closer. Rick Ankiel may be back to play a role in the pen for the ‘Cards.

Next on the chopping block is the team that will replace the Red Sox as the perennial better luck next year team in the MLB. The team I speak of is the Chicago Cubs. Could this be the year the Cubs finally show that darned billy goat? Well very simply put, no they will not. They do return a more than capable group of infielders with Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Todd Walker and of course Nomar Garciaparra. The problem is that all of their offense comes from the infielders. With Sammy Sosa gone, their outfield is dull and less than threatening. The Cubs have a very good pitching staff with returning starters Kerry Wood, Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano and a hopefully healthy Mark Prior. Glendon Rusch is also coming off a solid season and should contend for the fifth starter position. The Cubbies bullpen is very solid too. Expect the Cubs’ pitching to keep them in most games but their lack of offense will hurt them over the course of a long season.

This brings me to my potential sleeper pick of the 2005 season, the Cincinnati Reds. This is a team that showed glimpses of brilliance early last season, but they still have yet to prove they can keep it up for an entire season. Offensively, the talent is definitely there. Austin Kearns is back after struggling with injuries last season, and he should combine with Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. to form a potent combination in the outfield. Sean Casey is back at first base. He really is one of the more underrated players in the game as he is a great hitter and fielder, and one of the most well rounded first basemen, period. Joe Randa will try to slide in at third base having been acquired from Kansas City, and D’Angelo Jimenez should see the majority of the time at second base. They also have the extremely talented Willy Mo Pena coming off the bench along with Mr. Everything Ryan Freel. Pitching is what might undo the Reds in the end. However, with the addition of Eric Milton, and Brandon Claussen being Major League ready I think that it may just be good enough. Danny Graves returns as the closer to anchor the Reds’ solid bullpen. While the Reds probably cannot compete with the Cardinals, I wouldn’t be surprised if they snuck into the playoffs as a wild card team.

The bottom of the barrel in this division belongs to the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Pittsburg Pirates. The Brewers are a very sad story. daughter). With the exception of first baseman Lyle Overbay and starting pitcher Ben Sheets, this team doesn’t really have anything. Brewers’ fans should expect another long season on the horizon.

The Pittsburg Pirates are a different story. While I do not expect them to compete for anything just yet, I can also not deny the talent this team has on its roster. Craig Wilson, Jack Wilson, and Jason Bay all appear capable a being very good players in this league. Tike Redman is equally talented and the addition of Matt Lawton and having Ty Wigginton for an entire season should help shore up the team. Their pitching staff is equally capable with Odalis Perez, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg and Mark Redman. The problem with the Pirates is that all they have is talent. None of these players has really proven himself capable of helping his team win games, and until they do I think it is unfair to expect much from them.

So that’s the book on the NL Central. My prediction is that the Cardinals win it running away, the Reds come in second, followed by the Cubs, then the Astros in fourth, the Pirates in fifth and the Brewers in sixth. Tune in next week same time, same channel as I examine the NL West, and the juiciest or should I say most juiced up story in baseball, Barry Bonds.