The skewed perspective of a conservative Catholic employee-side employment lawyer living in the most exciting city in the Milky Way, Las Vegas, Nevada USA, who listens to a lot of really strange music and who, for some reason, lives and dies St. Louis Cardinal baseball

3/31/2005

Baseball preview: NL Central

Prediction:
St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)
Cincinnati Reds (84-78)
Houston Astros (78-84)
Milwaukee Brewers (76-86)
Chicago Cubs (75-87)
Pittsburgh Pirates (70-92)


2004 Standings:
St. Louis (105-57), NL champions
Houston (92-70), NL wild card
Chicago (89-73)
Cincinnati (76-86)
Pittsburgh (72-89)
Milwaukee (67-94)


The Real America’s Team, the franchise that was once the home team for two-thirds of the USA, the St. Louis Cardinals, can deteriorate and win without a sweat in this pitifully weak division.

There are so many reasons why the Cardinals should suffer the biggest win decline from last season to this. The Cardinals’ roster is old. Almost 2001 D-Backs old. The youngest starting outfielder will probably be 34 year old CF Jim Edmonds. Old teams decline, sometimes precipitously. Three-quarters of the vaunted up-the-middle defense will be new, with, again, CF Edmonds the only holdover. SS David Eckstein will not perform at the same heights as Edgar Renteria. Scott Rolen is coming off a career year. They clearly were not as good as their 105 win total would indicate. And yet there are five good reasons why they will win this division again: the Astros, the Cubs, the Brewers, the Pirates, and the Reds. Those are some very good reasons. Oh yeah, and the addition of Mark Mulder (even if he is declining) and a healthy Chris Carpenter (even if he is Chris Carpenter).

The Reds are my pick for second by default. There’s not another team capable of finishing this high. Junior Griffey’s career is effectively over. He is a shell of his Mariners self, lurching from injury to injury. Yet the Reds do not need him to be respectable. Another MVP type season from Big Adam Dunn and some good health from Austin Kearns would be more important at this point. If the pitching is good enough, the Redlegs could stay close to the Redbirds. But not close enough to close a nearly 30-game gap.

Year 2004 was the last hurrah for the Killer B-Astros. Led by rental Carlos Beltran, the ‘Stros won their first playoff series in their 40-plus year history. But the Bags-n-Bigs show of 1B Jeff Bagwell and CF Craig Biggio is entering its final moments. Houston lost simply too many parts – and kept one too many in re-signing Scrap Iron Garner, the worst manager in the Big Leagues – to make another run in 2005.

The Brew Crew have enough talent to avoid the cellar. And that’s the best M’waukee fans can hope for. This is no longer a young team, though. This is a collection of veterans who should step up this year or step away. If the Brewers cannot play competitive baseball this year, with Geoff Jenkings and Junior Spivey at age 30, and Lyle Overbay and Wes Helms now 28, Brewer management should strip the team bare and start all over. This expansion-caliber club is only good enough for a mid-70s win tally.

It will be a long season on the North Side of Chicago and they won’t have Steve Bartman to blame. But at least they have a precious museum piece of a ballyard. Me-first Slammin’ Sammy is gone, but where are the RBI going to come from? Dusty Baker is back on his mission to ruin the critical pitching arms. He avoided this relatively well in San Francisco because he (1) had no ace and (2) had rubber armed men like Russ Ortiz and Kirk Reuter anchoring the staff. In Chicago, he has two aces (Mark Prior and Kerry Wood), both of whom have biological limits that Dusty is hellbent on breaking through. If LaTroy Hawkins is asked to close again, 90 losses is a distinct possibility.

Even if Jack Wilson continues to masquerade as the Second Coming of Honus Wagner, the Pirates still appear doomed for the basement. Not enough outs on the pitching; too many in the batting order. The Buccos need monster years from Ty Wigginton and Bobby Hill and even that won’t be enough. Lloyd McClendon seems like a good manager. And PNC Park is the crown jewel of baseball parks.

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