Following the trades of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, the Houston Astros now have a young team, but youth doesn't necessarily mark long-term improvement: It's the quality of the young players that counts. Still, the team does have some nice pieces in place, in several top prospects and a solid all-around pitching staff.
But there are six teams in the National League Central, more than any other division in Major League Baseball, and the Astros are not the only team with young talent on its roster. Let's take a look at the core pieces of the Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates to get a better feel for the competition and try to pin down the Astros' place in the hierarchy of the NL Central.
For a change of pace, I won't spend much time discussing the Astros themselves here, except by comparison; I'm sure most have a good feel for what the team has in its favor and against it, both from observation and from the excellent stories by my fellow writers on this site. Instead, let's take a look outside the box of the Astros organization and see what the other losing teams have to look forward to or dread, as the case may be. We'll leave discussion of the elephants in the room--Cincinnati and St. Louis--for another day.
Strengths: Unlike the Astros, the Brewers do have a true franchise player to build around in Ryan Braun, who granted is not having his best season, but still looks likely to be very good for a long time. They have him under team control through 2015. Their pitching staff features a legitimate young top of the rotation presence in Yovani Gallardo, who can also be under contract through 2015, which is a club option year. Other good players or prospects under team control include shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Casey McGehee, as well as top second base prospect Brett Lawrie. Outfielder Corey Hart was recently locked up on a multi-year contract as well. The Brewers have a healthy mid-market payroll, and with wise management, shouldn't be held down too much by financial constraints, but they are more or less maxed out at the moment with Hart's new deal.
Weaknesses: Their excellent offense looks like it may have some turnover in the next year or two, with Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks nearing free agency. More importantly, the pitching staff is a significant weakness outside of Gallardo, who is their only starting pitcher this season with an FIP under 4.32 (which is roughly league average in the NL). They do have some decent pitching in the minor league pipeline, but none who currently profile as elite pitching prospects, and most of them are unlikely to contribute in the majors next season.
Outlook in 2011: If Randy Wolf rebounds and they improve their starting rotation through free agency or trade, rosy. If the answer to both of those questions is negative, they look like a .500 team. After 2011, things get shakier, with two of their best players on the free agency bubble. The Brewers are the polar opposite of the Astros, with a great offense and a poor pitching staff, but interestingly, their talent level may be similar.
Strengths: The biggest strength of the Cubs has to be their titanic payroll. They have financial muscle matched by only a few teams in baseball, and none in the National League Central, and once they get out from under some bad contracts, they could be dangerous in the free agent market. They also have some very good young players in catcher Geovany Soto, who is having a Lance Berkman-like offensive season as an up the middle defender, and Starlin Castro, a young shortstop who can hit and play solid defense.
Weaknesses: The aforementioned bad contracts. There are a lot of them. Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Zambrano--none of these players are living up to their pay grades, and Soriano and Zambrano will be around for awhile. Their starting rotation is also shaky; Ryan Dempster is their best pitcher, and while he's a solid starter, he's getting older and he's not a true ace. Andrew Cashner is a promising young arm, but still hasn't proven anything at the ML level. Randy Wells should be a solid contributor for awhile, but is not top of the rotation material. The Cubs don't have the starting pitching of the Astros, and it shows in their results this season.
Outlook in 2011: Poor, unless their new owners increase the payroll even more to buy multiple expensive free agents, or multiple aging veterans have simultaneous career years. Neither their pitching nor offense are terrible, but both look likely to be mediocre next season. The Cubs are an aging team; the Astros should see more team-wide improvement from being on the right side of the aging curve. However, the Cubs do have two elite young talents in Soto and Castro, each likely better than any single player on the Astros roster.
Strengths: The Pirates have a very young team with a promising core of position players. Andrew McCutchen may develop into a star center fielder, while Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker could also be good regulars. Garrett Jones has hit into some bad luck this year, and Lastings Milledge is still young enough to turn things around. On the farm, catcher Tony Sanchez and left-handed pitcher Rudy Owens are personal favorites of mine, who I think will both be solid regulars soon. The Pirates will also have two of the best prospects ever to come out of Houston schools: right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks like a future ace, and (if they wind up with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, which looks likely), third baseman Anthony Rendon, a potential franchise superstar. Those players won't show up in the big leagues until sometime around 2013, but could prime Pittsburgh for a big turnaround.
Weaknesses: The Pirates have one of the worst pitching crews in the majors, with little help in sight. Rudy Owens should contribute in 2011, but realistically has a middle rotation ceiling. The Pirates do have some promising arms in the lower minors, but have no starting pitchers who are sure bets to be above average performers in the next couple of years. They also have a small payroll, so they must rely on their farm to sustain them.
Outlook in 2011: Poor. The Pirates don't have the pieces to compete next season. On the other hand, the four pillars of McCutchen, Alvarez, Taillon, and (possibly) Rendon could prime them to finally turn things around in a few years' time, especially if some of their young arms in the lower minors develop into solid pitchers in the meantime. If they had a healthier payroll, the Pirates might have the best long-term outlook past 2012, but unlike the other teams in the Central, including the Astros, their lack of financial muscle does introduce questions about their ability to fill holes through free agency and retain core players.