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Spring Training Preview: NL Central

Posted: Monday February 18, 2008 4:42PM; Updated: Monday February 18, 2008 5:02PM
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By Joe Sheehan, Baseball Prospectus

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.

Chicago Cubs

Ryan Dempster
Ryan Dempster moves to the rotation after saving 85 games the past three seasons.
Mark Lyons/Getty Images
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Where: Mesa, Arizona (Cactus League)

2007 record: 85-77 (1st, NL Central)

New guys: Jose Ascanio, Jon Lieber, Kosuke Fukudome

Gone guys: Cliff Floyd, Koyie Hill (NRI), Jacque Jones, Jason Kendall, Will Ohman, Angel Pagan, Mark Prior

Wow, he's still here? Felix Pie has been traded to Baltimore in a deal for Brian Roberts a thousand times in the media, and not once in MLB. With the Orioles having added Adam Jones, it would seem less likely that they'd acquire Pie, leaving the 23-year-old free to roam center field for the Cubs.

Winter grade: A-. Their only move of note -- signing Fukudome -- was a terrific one, giving them the OBP boost they sorely needed and solidifying a position, right field, that was a problem in 2007.

NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: God bless him. Chad Fox, 37 and nearly three years removed from his last professional appearance, is in camp. Fox, who we used to describe as "effective when healthy," hasn't been either since 2003. Still, you have to root for a guy who wants it this badly.

Job battle to track: There's no obvious closer, as Ryan Dempster is being moved back to the rotation after a few years of relief. That leaves Kerry Wood, Bobby Howry and Carlos Marmol, all hard-throwing righties, grappling for the job. This seems like a good place for Piniella to recreate his 1990 Reds approach, with no closer and all three guys available for work from the seventh through the ninth.

One move to make: Slapping Piniella with a clue stick. Piniella, who has a lot of good qualities as a manager, indicated last week that his lineup would feature Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Theriot in the top two spots, with Fukudome fifth. The Cubs' biggest problems on offense have been not having enough runners on base for Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Hitting Fukudome behind those two is a waste of his talents. If Soriano has to bat leadoff because he's fast, fine; at least bat Fukudome second and Theriot down in the lineup where he belongs.

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.

Cincinnati Reds

Where: Sarasota, Florida, (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 72-90 (5th, NL Central)

New guys: Jeremy Affeldt, Francisco Cordero, Ramon Ramirez, Edinson Volquez

Gone guys: Josh Hamilton, Eric Milton, Kirk Saarloos

Wow, he's still here? Mike Stanton hadn't begun and ended a season with the same team since 2004, nor opened the season with the same team in consecutive years since then. He's achieved both with the Reds.

Winter grade: C+. The big move was the challenge trade of Hamilton for Volquez, which smacks of one team having more information than the other. It could also just be a case of selling high, and from depth, to shore up a weakness. The presence of the game's top prospect, Jay Bruce, made Hamilton expendable. In general, it was a very quiet winter for a 72-90 team. Adding Dusty Baker made headlines, but it's an open question as to what he brings to a team that will be relying heavily on young talent over the next few years.

NRI to watch: Bruce is in camp, and Ryan Freel is the listed starter in center field. You do the math.

Job battle to track: As much as the Reds love Scott Hatteberg's glove, Joey Votto seems ready for a major-league job. There's no platoon to be had here -- Votto swings from the left side, too -- so Baker has to choose one. Given Baker's history of preferring veterans, Hatteberg certainly has an inside track. This looks like Karros vs. Choi all over again.

One move to make: Few teams in baseball have as steep a drop in reliability from their top two starters to the rest of the rotation. Asking Homer Bailey, Matt Belisle or even Johnny Cueto to be a reliable No. 3 is a stretch. If the Reds could find that guy on the trade market or in free agency -- getting lucky with Bartolo Colon, or enticing Kyle Lohse to return on the cheap -- they'd solidify the team's biggest weak spot.

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.

Houston Astros

Where: Kissimmee, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 73-89 (4th, NL Central)

New guys: Reggie Abercrombie, Michael Bourn, Doug Brocail, Jack Cassel, Darin Erstad, Geoff Geary, Kazuo Matsui, Chad Paronto, Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Oscar Villarreal

Gone guys: Matt Albers, Josh Anderson, Craig Biggio, Eric Bruntlett, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Jason Jennings, Mike Lamb, Brad Lidge, Mark Loretta, Trever Miller, Brian Moehler (NRI), Eric Munson, Orlando Palmeiro, Troy Patton, Chad Qualls, Luke Scott

Wow, he's still here? Are you kidding? Look at that list of "gone guys." Anyone who might have been disappeared was.

Winter grade: C. Getting Tejada for a package of middling prospects wasn't a bad idea. Letting Everett go so that Tejada could play shortstop, rather than third base, was. Trading Lidge for a true center fielder wasn't a bad idea. Adding Erstad after that was. It was that kind of offseason, a mix of decent primary moves and bad secondary ones.

NRI to watch: Tommy Manzella can play shortstop nearly as well as the departed Everett did. It's not likely that Cecil Cooper will keep him around to caddy for Tejada, but if you're down in Kissimmee and get the chance to see him play, do so.

Job battle to track: Is this the year that someone other than Brad Ausmus catches a majority of Astros games? J.R. Towles' big cup of coffee in September created that hope. Keep in mind, though, that a year ago Towles was a 23-year-old who'd yet to make it out of A ball. He does have good defensive tools, ones that should help him stay in the lineup even if his bat slips back to the .270-with-doubles level.

One move to make: Like the Reds, the Astros have a steep dropoff in the rotation, only theirs occurs between No. 1 and No. 2. Roy Oswalt is an ace on anyone's staff; Wandy Rodriguez is a No. 3/No. 4. Here, he's starting the second game of the season. The Astros don't have the kind of trade bait to acquire someone to fill that gap, nor does that pitcher exist in the market. Their move to make involves cloning.

By edict from ownership, Astros' GM Ed Wade played his hand this winter as if he had a contending team that just needed sprucing up, making a big move for a star, swapping out one closer and bringing in another, and signing a free agent to fill a hole. The problem is that even if those moves made the Astros five games better, that still only gets them to .500. Of the 11 roster spots spent on pitchers, only Oswalt, Valverde and maybe Rodriguez are more than filler. Two years ago, this roster might have worked in a weak division. Now, it's just not good enough.

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