Team: Chicago Cubs
Prediction: 87-75, 1st place
Why they’ll be better: They have a very good lineup with power from the corners and speed up the middle, along with two ROY candidates in Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto. Kerry Wood’s Opening Day struggles notwithstanding, the bullpen is solid. And when the Ryan Dempster to the rotation experiment fails, they have some decent arms to turn to in AAA in Sean Marshall and Sean Gallagher.
Why they’ll be worse: Remember, Kaz Matsui was perfect with a HR on his Opening Day, as well, and he ended up sucking. While I like Fukudome, he’s no sure thing, though if he fails, they do have Matt Murton to fall back on. Carlos Zambrano is erratic and always a candidate to get hurt, though he’s always proven me wrong on that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ted Lilly and Rich Hill take a step back from last year, leaving their starting pitching less than desirable.
Key Player(s): 2B Mark DeRosa – Mainly because if he gets off to a slow start, the Cubs may pull the trigger on the much-rumored Brian Roberts swap, which would be good for a couple of extra wins. DeRosa is a solid player, but Roberts is better.
Outlook: The Cubs are a very solid team with a lot of depth, something that I think will enable them to beat that 87 win projection. Their only potential weakness is in their starting rotation, and that is what’s holding them back from being a true championship contender. However, if Lilly and Hill are for real, they should make the playoffs and could easily make a run while there.
Team: Milwaukee Brewers
Prediction: 85-77, 2nd place
Why they’ll be better: Their young, home-grown core of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks is only getting better and will be the heart of a lineup that should score a lot of runs, with 7 of the 8 regulars likely to be better than average hitters. The signing of Mike Cameron was a great move that will bolster both the lineup and defense. The bench is probably the best in the game, which will help in case of injuries.
Why they’ll be worse: Well, for starters, Jason Kendall is playing every day. Ben Sheets won’t make 30 starts, and as much as I like guys like Dave Bush, Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra, the rotation could be anywhere from very good to bad behind him. The loss of Chris Capuano does hurt. The bullpen could be a Achilles’ heel depending on how well Eric Gagne and Derrick Turnbow pitch.
Key Player(s): RHP Yovani Gallardo – He’ll be back soon from a knee injury and last year quietly was dominant as a 21 year old in 17 big-league starts. He’s put up great numbers everywhere and has everything it takes to be one of the best pitchers in the league. If he can get there this year, it will either make up for Sheets’ inevitable absence or give the Brewers an excellent 1-2 punch. He’s not as hyped as Phil Hughes or Tim Lincecum, but he’s better.
Outlook: The Brewers have a really great young core that should only keep improving. Like the Cubs, they have good depth everywhere and should benefit from playing in a weak NL Central. I’d expect them to beat the 85 win projection and take the NL Wild Card. They currently lack the front-line pitching to see them make a run in the playoffs, but if Sheets is healthy and Gallardo develops, they might by the time October rolls around.
Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Prediction: 79-83, 3rd place
Why they’ll be better: They do have the league’s best hitter in Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus could not get hurt and Rick Ankiel may just hit 35-40 HRs and continue one of the most amazing position switches since Babe Ruth. Other than that, I don’t see much to like about the team, besides Adam Wainwright.
Why they’ll be worse: If they struggle early in the season, Pujols may decide to get elbow surgery and shut it down for the year. Outside of Pujols, Glaus and maybe Ankiel, the lineup is bad — the middle infield is atrocious, and Skip Schumaker is playing every day. The patchwork rotation behind Wainwright is mediocre on their best days, with Kyle Lohse and three converted relievers, one of whom, Todd Wellemeyer was cut by the Royals.
Key Player(s): CF Colby Rasmus – Yes, he’s not in the majors yet, but he’s the Cardinals only legit prospect anywhere close, and he’ll be up soon enough. They’ll need him to develop into a star (and Chris Carpenter to come back healthy) to have any hope of contending in the next few years.
Outlook: I was pretty surprised that the numbers came out this way – I expected the Cardinals to be worse, and I still do. They were bad last year – 78 wins, and a 71-91 Pythagorean record, and there’s no reason to think they’ll be better this year. The rotation is bad, their lineup has huge holes and their best player needs season-ending surgery at some point. Take the under.
Team: Cincinnati Reds
Prediction: 78-84, 4th place
Why they’ll be better: There is a lot to like here, from my favorite player, BP #4, Brandon Phillips to sleeper Eddie Encarnacion and veterans Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey. The rotation has high potential with Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and eventually, Homer Bailey backing up the underrated Aaron Harang and the solid Bronson Arroyo.
Why they’ll be worse: Dusty Baker has decided to play the out machine Corey Patterson in center field instead of #1 prospect Jay Bruce and the longer that goes on, the more it will hurt. Joey Votto should also be playing every day, and when Alex Gonzalez comes back, he’ll probably send Jeff Keppinger to the bench, unfortunately. Any team relying on young pitching is asking for a letdown. The bullpen, even with the addition of Francisco Cordero is still below-average.
Key Player(s): 1B Votto – The lineup needs another impact bat, something Votto could provide if given the chance to play every day. He’s a potential .300/.400/.500 hitter and as much as I like Scott Hatteberg, he should not be standing in Votto’s way.
Outlook: The Reds have become everyone’s favorite sleeper, and usually, those teams don’t pan out. I think they’ll be around a .500 club and if the beaks go their way, and Dusty plays the right guys, they could stick around contention for a lot of the year. The team was worse in 2006, and they were in 1st place until late August. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of distributing it correctly.
Team: Houston Astros
Prediction: 77-85, 5th place
Why they’ll be better: The lineup is actually pretty good, with the overlooked stud Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, rising star Hunter Pence and new acquisition Miguel Tejada forming a solid middle of the order. Roy Oswalt is always great.
Why they’ll be worse: The rotation past Oswalt is shaky, and the back end of the bullpen is well below average. The bench is the league’s worst and any injury to one of the big guys is going to really hurt. This is a thin team with pretty much all the value concentrated in their top 5 players, and losing any of them will drop them even further.
Key Player(s): LHP Wandy Rodriguez – His peripheral numbers last year were actually pretty good, but it’s not often someone figures it out at age 28. He has decent stuff and if he can command it again, he’ll at least give the Astros more than one above average starter.
Outlook: The Astros were able to mask their awfulness last year by turning the season into the Craig Biggio send-off extravaganza. This year won’t have that distraction, and this is a bad team. At best, they’ll be shooting for .500, but the downside is way higher than the upside. They could easily finish last, and with the game’s worst farm system, it’s not going to be pretty the next few years.
Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
Prediction: 72-90, 6th place
Why they’ll be better: Well, I really like Nate McLouth – I think he could be a poor man’s Curtis Granderson. And Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell are a decent pair of starters to build on. Jason Bay went from one of the game’s most valuable properties to below-average in one year, and it’s hard not to see him turning it around.
Why they’ll be worse: The lineup is missing impact bats and while there aren’t any terrible hitters, the sheer number of average and below average guys push it to being a bottom-3 overall offense. The rotation past Gorzelanny and Snell is not too good, and the bullpen has Matt Capps, Damaso Marte and a bunch of filler.
Key Player(s): OF Bay – In 2005/06, Bay hit .296/.399/.545 while playing plus defense, but at age 28 last year, due in part to injuries, he fell off the map, batting .247/.327/.418 with below average defense. If he can return to his superstar level, the Pirates will have someone they can build their team around, but if he doesn’t recover, it’s unlikely he ever will.
Outlook: The Pirates have been bad for a long time – 15 straight losing seasons that will be 16 this year, tying the major league record. Their farm system is pretty weak, but their team is young enough to at least have some upside. They don’t have any star caliber players unless Bay can turn it around, only a fair number of solid complementary guys. Unfortunately, it’s the stars that are hardest to find, and until they do, they’ll be sitting south of .500 for the near future.