NL Central Hot Stove forecast (cont.)
2010 Results: 76-86, fourth place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 611/729
Pythagorean Record: 69-93
Pending Free Agents: RP Brian Moehler
Players with Options: None
Prospects on the Verge: P Jordan Lyles
Building For: Fifth place
Strengths: Lack of burdensome contracts, ability to give time to young players
Biggest Holes: Lineup, starting pitching
Targets: SS Cesar Izturis, other quality defensive players
The Astros are in bad shape, with little talent at the major league level and most of their better prospects, such as they are, still years away from Houston. Most of the team's players are not good enough to start in the major leagues, some right now and some not at all. The state of the franchise is perhaps best symbolized by the presence on the roster of leftfielder Carlos Lee, a sub-replacement level player owed $37 million over the next two years.
For all that, they're at least finally doing the right thing, fielding kids and seeing who pans out. Catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Brett Wallace and third baseman Chris Johnson are not quite reminiscent of the 1994 Montreal Expos, but they're cheap and they have potential.
The danger for the Astros is this: They have a long tradition of chasing after false hopes of contention, and their rotation, headed by Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, is just good enough that if you squint you can see it leading them to a reasonable first two months in a weak division, especially if Jordan Lyles, who could be ready for a rotation job before he turns 21, comes quickly. To that end, any moves they make that improve the team for the coming year could be rather counterproductive, and the best moves they could make would involve strengthening the defense in an attempt to make their veteran pitchers more attractive in trade. The only free agents who would serve any purpose on this team are glove men like shortstop Cesar Izturis.
2010 Results: 75-87, fifth place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 685/767
Pythagorean Record: 73-89
Pending Free Agents: OF Xavier Nady
Players with Options: 3B Aramis Ramirez ($14.6M player, exercised)
Prospects on the Verge: P Chris Archer, OF Brett Jackson, P Jay Jackson
Building For: 2012
Strengths: SS Starlin Castro, C Geovany Soto, prospects
Biggest Holes: First base
Targets: 1B Lyle Overbay
It's to new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts' immense credit that the team's plan is seemingly to do more or less nothing this winter. No one really wants to be patient with a team that hasn't won a World Series in more than a century and holds an enormous financial advantage over their competition, but here it's unquestionably the right thing to do.
While the Cubs are seemingly permanently readying for some new group of kids to lead the way to a brave tomorrow, this time there's actually something to it. Starlin Castro is good enough that one could make a case for him as the one player out of this year's brilliant group of National League rookies you'd most like to have for the long term. Brett Jackson looks like a true five-tool centerfielder, and an unusually large number of flamethrowers with viable secondary pitches are making their way toward Wrigley Field. If the team can just avoid any more Alfonso Soriano-type anchor contracts, they could be on the verge of a dominant run by this time next year.
The main item on the winter agenda should be moving headcase starter Carlos Zambrano, who's owed nearly $36 million over the next two years and is, at this point, at best a No. 2 starter. Clubhouse chemistry generally isn't very important, but Zambrano's perpetual eruptions of temper, threats to retire and epic sulks are really not the sort of thing you want looming over new manager Mike Quade. A comic note: Soriano is owed $18 million over each of the next four years.
2010 Results: 57-105
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 587/866
Pythagorean Record: 53-109
Pending Free Agents: RP Chan Ho Park
Players with Options: None
Prospects on the Verge: P Rudy Owens, P Bryan Morris
Building For: Their first winning season since 1992, perhaps by 2013
Strengths: CF Andrew McCutchen, LF Jose Tabata.
Biggest Holes: First base, Shortstop
If baseball allowed for relegation, soccer-style, the Pirates would long ago have been playing in Triple-A. The club's culture, from the ownership suite to the player development staff at the lowest levels of the minors, was so thoroughly ineffectual for so long that the team just can't be judged by normal standards. Going into this winter, though, there's a slight bit of hope.
The Pirates have probably bottomed out. They don't have much pitching talent in the majors and there isn't a lot on the way, but nearly every roster spot is taken up by someone who deserves it, either because he has some potential or because he might fetch something back in a trade. If this seems like faint praise, consider that just two years ago the Pirates gave a full season's worth of at-bats to Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez.
There's no mystery as to what the Pirates will do: They'll fish for veteran rejects who might, with a good first few months, fetch a fringe prospect via trade, ideally ones with positive attitudes who might impart some secondhand notion of what it is to have a culture of winning.
A bad pitcher like Rodrigo Lopez or a veteran of Japanese baseball like Matt Murton might work, but obviously the Pirates aren't going to be serious players on the market. Which is good, because it means they won't bring in anyone who will block any player with a hint of promise, and they won't bring in anyone who makes too much money or requires too much commitment. Since this is exactly what they should be doing, it's fine.
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