Spring Training Preview: NL Central
The NL Central is once again high on quantity -- it's the only division with six teams -- but low on quality. The Cubs and Brewers will battle for the flag again, with Chicago having the inside track as camps begin.
The Cubs return the good players from the division champions of 2007, and have upgraded in right field as well as added some depth. The middle infield is pretty lousy for a contending team, which is why the pursuit of Roberts, even at a cost of Pie, has made sense. It will be harder to hold off the Brewers this season, and even the Reds could make some noise if things break right. Still, you're looking at the favorites, part of the cluster of teams that can lay claim to being the second-best in the league behind the Mets.
The Reds have been an ill-defined team for a while, never quite rebuilding, never quite being awful, never quite being a contender. That continues this year, for even as the products of the farm system make their way forward in Bruce, Bailey, Votto and Cueto, they've hired a manager, in Baker, whose signature trait is his preference for veterans. Despite Baker's reputation as a leader of men and a good manager, it still seems like his success was more about timing -- showing up in San Francisco when Barry Bonds did -- than anything he brought to the table. This job may settle the debate over him, once and for all.
By edict from ownership, Astros' GM
This was supposed to be the Brewers' strike year, the year their young talent came together and produced a winner, perhaps the start of a mini-dynasty in the game's maxi-division. That could still happen, although the 2008 Cubs look a bit more formidable than they were projected to be. Still, this could be a 90-win team if it wins more of the bullpen bets than it loses, and if the payoff in signing Cameron shaves 40 runs off of its Runs Allowed, adding him makes third base better, too, although Milwaukee will give some runs back in left field as Braun learns the position. Whether they win this year or not, this is the most entertaining Brewers team in a quarter-century.
The Pirates have, at least, stopped signing random veterans for no good reason. That's progress, and it's enabled players such as Morgan, McLouth, Bautista and Sanchez to establish themselves as contributors. The Pirates are still three or four years from relevance, and in fact, few players currently on the team will be around when they get there. The greatest value of the 2008 Pirates is in trade, and it will be up to Huntington to move aggressively to get value for
Flags fly forever, so Cards fans inclined to be frustrated about the 2007 and 2008 campaigns should take a gander skyward and see theirs, freshly minted in 2006, blowing in the breeze. The aftermath of that season -- perhaps not dealing an Edmonds or a Rolen or an Eckstein when they had more value, perhaps a contract extension to a fragile pitcher in