Reservations for Six: National League readies for season
Spring training has officially begun, and the headlines are still filled with the steroid controversy surrounding pitcher Roger Clemens and his former trainer, Brian McNamee. The hearings in front of Congress, have all captured headlines.
Despite the distractions, baseball teams are returning to spring training. The Astros are a solid National League Central competitor and the Brewers and Cubs look to compete for the title again as they did down the stretch last season. The NL Central, the only six-team division, should have many competitive teams after it watched the West-division Colorado Rockies make it out of the National League with a late season run to the World Series.
Look for the Brewers and Astros to make the postseason and challenge the Mets, who look to be the frontrunners in a mediocre National League.
The Brewers are my pick to win the NL Central in 2008 simply because of their powerful lineup and an experienced pitching rotation. Ben Sheets, the club’s ace, will be healthy enough to open the season and along with veteran Jeff Suppan they will anchor a pitching rotation that also includes Dave Bush, Chris Capuano and stud second-year pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
Offseason acquisitions for the Brewers include catchers Jason Kendall and Eric Munson, outfielder Mike Cameron, and relief pitchers Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne.
The middle of the lineup will feature first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Ryan Braun, who combined for 84 homers a season ago, and the rise of shortstop J.J. Hardy should give the Brewers a great chance. Look for the Brewers to make it to the postseason for the first time since 1982.
The Astros will look to claim a wildcard spot this season after making some key acquisitions in the offseason – second baseman Kaz Matsui, shortstop Miguel Tejada, closer Jose Valverde and outfielders Reggie Abercrombie, Darin Erstad and Michael Bourn, a former UH Cougar.
The lineup is still anchored by left fielder Carlos Lee and first baseman Lance Berkman, but with speed now at the top of the lineup, the Astros should start stealing more bases and playing better defense.
The club’s question mark is their starting rotation, anchored by Roy Oswalt and a bunch of subpar pitchers behind him who have yet to prove themselves. The great depth of the team should help them down the stretch, and the emergence of young catcher J.R Towles should be fun to watch.
The Cubs will once again try to break the curse of the billy goat and win a World Series when they take the field in 2008. The addition of Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and pitchers Neal Cotts and Jon Lieber should give the Cubs a good shot to contend with the Brewers and Astros. Regardless of the Cubs’ pitching depth and a solid middle of the lineup led by first baseman Derrek Lee, outfielder Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the club is weak in the outfield and has an at-best backup catcher in Henry Blanco.
As manager, Lou Piniella will fire up this team just as he did last season, but the curse will continue, making it 100 years since the Cubs have won a championship.
St. Louis Cardinals
The red birds will have a sub-par year after winning the World Series two seasons ago. The Troy Glaus-for-Scott Rolen trade will give Albert Pujols some protection in the lineup, but an injury-prone pitching staff begging for ace Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder to return will be key once again if the Cardinals want a chance at the playoffs.
Outfielder Juan Encarnacion suffered a severe eye injury last season and his chance at playing this season is unlikely. Infielder Cesar Izturis and outfielder Rick Ankiel at the top of the lineup should help the club, but if you’re a Cardinals fan, don’t expect this to be a great season.
The Reds head into 2008 led by new manager Dusty Baker, formerly of the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants. Left fielder Adam Dunn and middle infielder Brandon Phillips should hit plenty of homeruns once again this season, but the Reds are a bad fielding team overall and will give up a lot of runs.
The addition of closer Francisco Cordero will benefit a sub-par bullpen and ace Aaron Harang will still have to pitch deep into games. The growth of pitching phenom Homer Bailey will continue this season, which may be the last for future hall of famer Ken Griffey Jr.
The young Pirates will have it rough this season with mediocre pitching and not enough hitting to even think about sniffing the postseason.
Matt Morris will anchor a young pitching staff that includes Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, who are all solid prospects. The Pirates play great defense, especially in the infield, led by second baseman Freddy Sanchez and shortstop Jack Wilson. Jason Bay will once again be the team’s most feared hitter in a lineup that won’t scare any team, but will be exciting to watch.