Musings about, um... well, the Seattle Mariners as well as a love affair with this game baseball. By Peter J. White
Monday, March 03, 2003
Preseason Predictions: Part 2, NL Central
Like all creative works, Mariner Musings has its inspiration and so I cannot go further without giving credit to where it is due. This is for Kelly who two years ago while listening to me babble on about all things baseball during a Tulsa Drillers game encouraged me (along with Sarah, we cannot forget Sarah) to start a baseball website. So here we are.
Also, I find it necessary to apologize to John Hill. I was severely critical of his 2003 crystal ball predictions looking suspiciously like the very same standings of 2002. After spending hours of my own time collecting information, digesting the statistics, analyzing the off-season transactions, I seem to have come to similar conclusions. So John, I’m sorry. Just know that I will be taking it out on your fantasy team.
Now on to the good stuff… The National League Central! Compared to last year’s finish, I pick Chicago to leapfrog both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Only my common sense keeps me picking them higher. Other than that, expect the same as last year. Not nearly as much turnover as their Eastern counterparts, but what makes this division stand out to me is the pitching. The NL Central, in my humble opinion, has the most exciting pitching east of Oakland and the most dominant NL staffs outside of Arizona. Okay, maybe it’s just two of the teams, maybe three…
The pitching comments certainly do not apply to the Brewers. Do remember that part in Home Alone where Kevin is rummaging through his older brother’s private stuff and comes across a picture of his woman? “Buzz’s girlfriend. Woof!” For some reason or another, that image came to mind when it was time to write about the Milwaukee Brewers. The finished the season ranked 27th in run differential. There offense scored 629 runs, good for second from the bottom. The pitching allowed 821 runs, which put them at number 23. Now the bad news: They jettisoned their second best hitter in Jose Hernandez (.288/.356/.478) and the pitching is not likely to get much better. The good news: The front office has been completely overhauled, so maybe there can be hope for the future. Hey, at least they are not the Detroit Tigers.
The Pirates ranked 23rd among the 30 teams in run differential last year. There offense scored 641 runs to barely squeak by the Brewers for third from the bottom. Thank Brian Giles for that. He created 148 of those runs himself. That is 23 percent of the Pirates’ runs from one player, nearly 1 in 4. Compare that to Barry Bonds (26 percent) and Alex Rodriguez (19 percent). It is safe to say that Brian Giles is the Pirates offense. They’ve added Reggie Sanders, Randall Simon and Kenny Lofton, so they can’t get much worse. Aramis Ramirez should find a happy medium between his 2001 (.300/.350/.536) and 2002 (.234/.279/.387). Jason Kendall’s rapid decline over the last three years is worrisome. On to the pitching, they surrendered 730 runs to put them at 16th, right in the middle of the pack, sandwiched between the Phillies and Cubs. Pittsburgh has a quality rotation, and they certainly should improve. Kris Benson, just like every year, is due for his breakout year. And you can’t really complain about Josh Fogg and Kip Wells. The Pirates just might surprise some people, but they just don’t have the hitting to compare with St. Louis and Houston or pitching to match the Cubs or Astros.
Against my better judgment, I put the Reds behind the Cubs, but more on that in a minute. Cincinnati managed first or second in the division for a good part of season and then folded down the stretch, finishing 20th in run differential, tied with Florida. Their offense scored 709 runs to rank 20th, one better than Atlanta and one less than Philadelphia. Now imagine what they could do with a full year with Ken Griffey, Jr. Along with Austin Kearnes and Adam Dunn, Cincinnati was one explosive outfield, potentially anyway. Whether that’s a fairy tale or soon-to-be-reality is yet to be seen. Baseball Prospectus projects them to hit 10 (over 238 at bats), 22 and 30 home runs, respectively. I think that is a modest estimation. Their pitching gave up 774 runs, which put them at 20th between the Orioles and White Sox. They traded their best pitcher last year in Elmer Dessens, but that was not such a bad idea, as they got Barry Larkin’s eventually replacement in Felipe Lopez, and there is no way Dessens is as good a pitcher as he was last year. I do not know what else to say about this rotation. It is pretty average, definitely not championship caliber.
I want to get excited about the Cubs. No, I really want to get excited about the Cubs. My secret wish is to see this World Series match up: Game 1 Kerry Woods vs. Barry Zito, Game 2 Mark Prior vs. Mark Mulder, Game 3 Tim Hudson vs. Matt Clement. Sigh. Then I realize that these are the Chicago Cubs, and they will definitely find a way to break my heart. Back to reality, the Cubs finished last year 19th in run differential (which was actually 8 games worse than their actual record) between the Rangers and Marlins. Sammy Sosa was Sammy as usual, though it was the first time he slugged less than .500 since 1997. He also fell one home run short of the jaw-dropping feat of 50 home runs in 5 consecutive seasons. He is still the price of admission alone. His supporting cast has always been the trouble. Moises Alou is a better player than last year but his numbers have dropped consistently since his excellent 2000 year, but at 36 he will not post a 1.039 OPS again. Memo to Dusty Baker: Please play the kids. If Corey Patterson can step up a level and Hee Choi can develop as a hitter, the Cubbies have a chance. Not with Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek. Remember, Oakland doesn’t have that dominant an offense and they do not have Sammy Sosa. The pitching allowed 759 runs: 17th in the major leagues between Pittsburgh and Florida. That should jump significantly in 2003. First Wood, his season lost to surgery is now long gone, and he’s still only 26. Mark Prior, who just 2 years ago was pitiching for USC, will be with the club on Opening Day. Matt Clement, now 28, finally had his breakout year. Here’s the 2002 numbers for the Big Three: Woods, 213 IP, 3.66 ERA, 9.44 SO/9; Prior, 116 IP, 3.32 ERA, 11.34 SO/9; Clement, 205 IP, 3.60 ERA, 9.44 SO/9. Round out the rotation with Shawn Estes and Carlos Zambrano and that is one good starting rotation.
The Astros ended the season ranked a respectable 12th in run differential between the Twins and White Sox. Their offense scored 749 runs for 14th place, putting them just between the Twins and Indians. This year they trade the disappointed Daryle Ward for Jeff Kent in the lineup and have a healthy Jeff Bagwell, and I’d say that’s an improved offense. A lineup of Bagwell, Kent and Lance Berkman is going to score runs with the best of the National League, especially of Richard Hidalgo can prove that 2000 wasn’t a fluke. While those three and half spots in the lineup are no worry, the rest of it ranges to the other extreme with their left side of the infield, the shell of Craig Biggio and outmaker extraordinaire Brad Ausmus. Like the Cubbies, the Astros have some the best young pitching in baseball in Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. The two anchored a staff that allowed 695 runs, ranked 9th between Diamondbacks and Yankees. They can rival Johnson and Schilling and are nearly 15 years younger. Follow them up with the 1-2 punch of Octavio Dotel and the blazing heat of Billy Wagner in the bullpen and that’s 2 days in 5 the ‘Stros will be pretty dang good. They just need to work on the rest of the rotation. Losing Carlos Hernandez for the season wasn’t a good start.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
St. Louis finished last year ranked tied with Arizona for 7th in run differential. The offense scored 787 runs, 9th in baseball and yet just 2nd in the National League behind only Arizona. This year, they get a happy Scott Rolen for the entire year to anchor the best offense in the Senior Circuit in 2003. Albert Pujols only got better last year and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue. Then there’s Jim Edmonds who hit .311/.420/.561 last year. If only J.D. Drew has Mickey Mantle’s knees as well as his swing, which is a shame. The big question mark for the Cards this year is: Who’s on the mound? Last year, the staff was decimated by injuries and that was before Death visited and stole Daryl Kile. Yet in spite of the tragedy and all the rotation juggling, they only gave up 648 runs, which was 5th in all of baseball, between the Angels and the A’s. Amazing. They did it last year and there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again, but beyond Matt Morris, there’s just not a lot of certainty. I can’t imagine them not making a trade for pitching if not during spring training, then certainly by the July 31.
Bottom line? The Cardinals and the Astros should battle it out until the last days of the season, just as they have the last few seasons, and in my heart those Cubs have a chance.