This will be the first in a series of articles that we do comparing the positions within the NL Central. Last season the Cubs separated themselves from the pack and won the division going away. Milwaukee made the playoffs for the first time since Cecil Cooper was on the team, riding CC Sabathia en route to winning the Wild Card. Our own Astros defied expectations (and the odds) to at least give the Brew Crew a scare. St. Louis was steady as she goes finishing just behind the Astros. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have to be getting tired of looking up at these four teams seemingly year after year, but things may change this season (at least for the Reds).
Our journey through the NL's midsection starts with starting pitching, where unsurprisingly the Cubs were top dog in 2008. The question remains: are they still the best heading into 2009?
Chicago Cubs Projected Starting Rotation: Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Sean Marshall/Aaron Heilman
Again, the Cubs return the main cogs of the rotation, with Marshall taking the place of the traded Jason Marquis. That move should pretty dramatically enhance this already strong unit. Ryan Dempster should see some regression this season after setting career marks in ERA, starts made and wins last season. Ted Lilly is constant in the middle of the rotation, sneakily compiling wins and strikeouts in relative anonymity. One area of concern is the health of aces Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden. No surprise that Harden is on an injury watch, but Zambrano has built a reputation of being a horse. He was on the shelf last year with a shoulder injury, and this article indicates his injury concerns should linger on into 2009. Still, this rotation is head and shoulders better than the rest of the division for the second straight season. Points Awarded: 6
Cincinnati Reds Projected Starting Rotation: Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Micah Owings
Pitching in Cincinnati means limiting the long ball. Great American Ball Park was extremely prone to allowing home runs in 2008. Thankfully for them, their staff has the talent to limit the damage. Aaron Harang experienced an odd season of injury and regression last season but stands to rebound. Edinson Volquez' name was being tossed around in discussion for the Cy Young, and Johnny Cueto lost steam by the end of 2008 but is as good a fourth starter as you'll find in baseball. Micah Owings has been known more for his bat than for his arm, but this season looks like he'll be given the chance to show what he can do over a full season. Last is Bronson Arroyo...
That's all you need to know about that guy..Points Awarded: 5.
Milwaukee Brewers Projected Starting Rotation: Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, Manny Parra
At the top of the rotation is the youngster Gallardo. The projection systems are not in agreement at all with how Gallardo will perform this season. He has the stuff of an ace and just turned 23 last week. After Yovani are four middling starting pitchers, although Dave Bush is a control pitcher who stands to have a solid 2009. Manny Parra has really never been able to harness his talent, while Jeff Suppan and Braden Looper are former Cardinals who are both worth between 1 and 2 wins above replacement. While none of these guys are terrible, only Gallardo is a front line starter. Parra and Bush are inconsistent, while Looper and Suppan are consistently average. Points Awarded: 4
St. Louis Cardinals Projected Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Joel Pineiro, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Loshe, Todd Wellmeyer
To see how well pitching coach Dave Duncan handled this group last year, we need only look at each pitcher's (besides the oft injured Chris Carpenter, and including the departed Braden Looper) career averages compared to their 2008 performance:
|Career Average season||Starts Made||IP||W||ERA||ERA+||WHIP|
Now for their 2008 seasons:
|2008 season||Starts Made||IP||W||ERA||ERA+||WHIP|
Looper and Wellemeyer are converted relievers who pitched extremely well in 2008, especially Wellemeyer. Wainwright had a solid 2008 despite only being able to make 20 starts. Kyle Loshe outpaced his career averages the most, as he was the only Cardinal starter to pitch 200 innings. Joel Pineiro had a terrible 2008 season, but he was injured and suffered from bouts of inconsistency. If the Cardinals can get 20-25 starts from Chris Carpenter they could surprise a lot of people again. LaRussa and Duncan have seemingly pushed the right buttons every season since they've been in St. Louis. This rotation is unspectacular and lacking a true ace, but they get as much as they can from the talent available. Points Awarded: 3
Houston Astros Projected Starting Rotation: Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, Brian Backe/Russ Ortiz
Well, here we are. Second from the bottom. Sigh. Ok, let's give this a holistic look. Roy Oswalt is still a legitimate number one type starter who is capable of pitching with the best starters out there. After a rough start to 2008, Roy finished strong. 2009 stands to be even better.
After him though, we may be forced to deal with four Tito Jacksons to Oswalt's Michael Jackson. Maybe Wandy Rodriguez is more of a Jermaine...he has number two stuff, and is a solid strikeout pitcher. When healthy. I repeat: when healthy. A strained muscle on his left side has already put Wandy on the shelf for at least two starts, and it wouldn't surprise me if he missed more time than that. Dewey Robinson seems to think he's pinpointed the source of Rodriguez' woes, so we can cross our fingers.
Mike Hampton is a nice story, and should be decent when on the mound. That's a big if though. Much like Wandy, past results are usually a good indicator of future returns. With a veteran like Hampton, he is what he is at this point. That may be enough to help the team this season, but any hopes of a 25-30 start campaign seem far too optimistic.
Brain Moehler parlayed an extremely consistent 2008 season into a new contract with the Astros for 2009. A true shot in the arm, Moehler outpaced just about everyone's hopes. What's more- it appears that he will be able to repeat his success to a certain extent.
Brandon Backe's struggles have been well chronicled- he may have been the worst starter in MLB last season. Like Roy, he had an usually high HR/FB% last season of 16.1. Not to say he wouldn't have been bad if that rate had been closer to 10. At least we could've stomached him taking the ball every fifth day a little better. Backe couples poor control with a non strikeout repertoire. Guys like Alberto Arias, Russ Ortiz, Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve will be given every opportunity to seize this spot from Backe. Points Awarded: 2
Pittsburgh Pirates Projected Starting Rotation: Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Jeff Karstens, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny
Pittsburgh has youth on it's side, but that's about it. Paul Maholm had a nice season, compiling an ERA of 3.71, but he doesn't miss that many bats with his pitches, nor does he have great control. This adds up in my mind to a 2009 that will be less successful than 2008.
Zach Duke is a Texas boy who has similar problems with control as Maholm, but he induces ground balls with far greater regularity. Look for a (ever so slight) rebound this season. Jeff Karstens is a former Yankee who's thrown only 108.1 innings in the majors in his career. The projections for him are eerily similar to that of Zach Duke.
Ian Snell's most notable accomplishment in 2008 was his ridiculously high BABIP of .358. A regression to the mean in this area alone means a lower ERA. Tom Gorzelanny may be the worst pitcher on this list not named Brandon Backe. The Pirates have youth, but somehow they have little upside. Points Awarded: 1
Standings After One Position Compared: