(Teams listed in order of projected finish)
Hitting: Led by Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Derrek Lee, the Cubs could have the best offense in the NL Central. Both Soriano and Ramirez missed about 30 games last year, but if healthy, they should each hit 30+ HRs this season. Ryan Theriot will supply speed at the top of the order and Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome should provide some additional power. Grade: A-
Pitching: Carlos Zambrano is coming off a down year, but he still finished with 18 wins. Ted Lilly had 15 wins and Rich Hill chipped in with 11 of his own. Zambrano, Lilly, and Hill all finished with sub-4.00 ERAs, but the back of the rotation is questionable, with Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis. Meanwhile, Kerry Wood takes over as the closer, as he'll just try to stay healthy for a change. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Ryan Theriot - He stole 28 bases last year and was only caught 4 times. With a regular starting job he should be able to steal 30-35 easily.
X-Factor: Rich Hill - Can he follow up last season's success, or will hitters adjust to him? Without a great deal of starting pitching depth, the Cubs need him to pitch well.
Overview: The Cubs won the division last year, despite injuries and underachieving from several key players. They have the talent to win it again, but they won't have as much margin for error this time around.
Hitting: The Brewers might have the best young trio of hitters in the majors, with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart. Fielder should be good for another 50 HRs and Braun might have a shot at 50 of his own, after he clubbed 34 in just 118 games in 2007. Grade: A-
Pitching: If the Brewers can just keep Ben Sheets on the field, they'd have to be happy, as he hasn't made 25 starts since 2004. After Sheets, the rotation thins out. Jeff Suppan struggled in his first season in Milwaukee and Yovani Gallardo will start the season on the DL. The bullpen took a hit when Francisco Cordero left and the Brewers replaced him with (gulp) Eric Gagne. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Corey Hart - He got a lot less attention than Braun last year, but he hit 24 HRs and stole 23 bases. Expect him to improve those numbers this season.
X-Factor: Eric Gagne - The bullpen isn't especially impressive after Gagne, so the Brewers will need him to be a reliable closer.
Overview: The Brewers should, once again, have a very dangerous lineup, especially considering that Prince, Braun, and Hart could all improve, but the pitching will likely keep them out of the division lead. If Sheets can stay healthy and Gallardo makes a quick recovery, perhaps that changes, but odds are they'll be on the outside looking in come October.
Hitting: Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee hit 66 HRs between them last year, while Hunter Pence hit .322 with 17 HRs in just 108 games in his rookie season. Add Miguel Tejada and speed demon Michael Bourn and the Astros offense becomes very dangerous. Grade: B+
Pitching: Roy Oswalt is a legitimate staff ace, but the rest of the rotation is very suspect. The bullpen should get a boost as Jose Valverde steps in as closer, though the middle relief is mediocre, at best. Grade: D+
Fantasy Sleeper: Michael Bourn - He stole 18 bases as little more than a pinch runner with the Phillies. Now, with the center field job to himself, there's reason to believe he could swipe 50 in '08.
X-Factor: Starters not named "Oswalt" - We all know Oswalt can pitch, but what about Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Shawn Chacon, and Chris Sampson?
Overview: The Astros could have one of the National League's better offenses, but where is the pitching going to come from? They've got a weak rotation and no bullpen depth. Unless the offense can carry them or they get a few pleasant surprises from their pitching staff, it's hard to see them finishing above .500.
St. Louis Cardinals
Hitting: Once again, Albert Pujols will be the main component of the Cardinals offense. Pujols is coming off an injury-plagued year in which he hit "only" 32 HRs. If healthy, he should be good for 40+, but that's a big "if" right now. With Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel in the fold, he may have more help than usual, but Glaus is an injury-risk himself and one has to wonder whether Ankiel can hit at the rate he did last season, when he had 11 HRs in 47 games. Grade: C
Pitching: With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder still nursing injuries, Adam Wainwright will lead the staff. He appears more than capable of doing so, but he won't have much behind him in the rotation. The Cardinals bring back a similar bullpen to last season, and as long as Jason Isringhausen can stay healthy, it should be a strength. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Duncan - He didn't wow anyone the way Ankiel did, but he hit 21 HRs and posted a very solid .834 OPS.
X-Factor: Troy Glaus - He's shown the ability to hit 35+ HRs when he's healthy, but he battled injuries last year and hit only 20. If he can give Pujols some backup, the Cardinals offense could be dangerous.
Overview: As they stand, the Cardinals look like a very mediocre team, but by mid-season they should have Carpenter and Mulder back. If they can stay afloat for the first half of the season, they could be in position to make a run in the second half. Unfortunately, for this to occur, the rest of the team would have to stay healthy as well, and with their track records, it seems unlikely.
Hitting: Adam Dunn should be good for another 40 HRs and Brandon Phillips has a good chance to replicate his 30-30 season. After that, there is some uncertainty. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 30 HRs, but what are the odds he's healthy two years in a row? Grade: C+
Pitching: Aaron Harang is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, but then what? Bronson Arroyo followed up a great 2006 with a lackluster 2007, in which he lost 15 games. After that comes Matt Belisle and a pair of rookies. The bullpen should be decent with Francisco Cordero, David Weathers, and Jeremy Affeldt, but it will get a lot of work. Grade: F
Fantasy Sleeper: Corey Patterson - He's had a very up-and-down career, but if he gets consistent at-bats, he should come up with 30+ steals.
X-Factor: Bronso Arroyo - He won 14 games with a 3.29 ERA in 2006, but came back down to Earth in 2007. He'll need to get back to his '06 form and give the Reds a solid #2 for them to have any chance.
Overview: The Reds should have a strong lineup once again, but the pitching will continue to be their downfall. Unless Arroyo and the young arms can step up (and in Great American Ballpark, it seems unlikely), the Reds should be in for another long year.
Hitting: The Pirates struggled to drive in runs last year and they'll continue to do so in 2008, bringing back virtually the same lineup. Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche both played well below expectations and they'll need to bounce back for the Pirates to score with any consistency. Grade: D
Pitching: While they don't sport any big names, the Pirates rotation has some good young arms. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny both pitched very well last year. If Paul Maholm can improve and Matt Morris can provide some steady outings, the rotation could be a strength. Matt Capps and Damaso Marte should be effective out of the bullpen, but that's about it. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Nate McLouth - He hit only .258 last year, but he stole 22 bases and was caught just once. With a regular starting job, he should steal 30+ bases.
X-Factor: Jason Bay - The Pirates need someone to step up at the plate and Bay used to be that guy. He hit 35 HRs in 2006 before dropping to 21 last year.
Overview: The Pirates have some intriguing pitchers, but not much depth. In addition, their hitting is a major weakness. If Bay and LaRoche can return to their 2006 forms, the Pirates could have enough pop to surprise some people, but more likely they'll stay in the cellar.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
(Teams listed in order of projected finish)