Sports

Can the Cubs Pull It Together? National League Central 2009 Preview

pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates:

If there is one franchise that can make the Royals look relatively successful during the last decade it’s the Pirates. Last year they decided to trade most all of the value they had in their current line up. They traded away Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and Damaso Marte for minor leaguers. Minor leaguers that won’t make a bit of difference this year.

It makes it even worse for Pirates fans that the other bottom dwellers are starting to show real promise (i.e. Tampa, Kansas City). If Pirate fans are looking for 2009 to be the stepping stone to a bright future, they are going to be sadly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong here, the Pirates aren’t suiting up a minor league team and throwing them to the lions; they’re just not equipped. They do have a few young stars to build around, including 2008 break out center fielder Nate McLouth. There were signs that he could be something special early in his career but 2008 was the first year McLouth seemed to put it together. He was red hot in the first half of the year and finished up sub par, but his final numbers were very good (.276, 26 home runs, 94 rbis, 23 stolen bases, 113 runs). The stats that really put him into the category of the game’s elite was the combination of 26 home runs and the 23 stolen bases. Speed and power are two assets players usually don’t possess in unison. McLouth will have to build on his success in 2009 for the Pirates to do much of anything.

Another possible star in the starting nine is catcher Ryan Doumit. He posted great numbers for a first year starter in 2008. The most impressive might have been his .318 batting average, and shows how consistent his offense was and how his patience at he plate materialized into hits. He’s not going to hit 25 home runs, but he will be a very good contact hitter and looks to drive in around 80 runners this year. To get offense like this from a catcher would make any team extremely happy.

Hitting clean up for the Pirates will be their first baseman Adam LaRoche. He put up very respectable power numbers last year for a team that didn’t produce (25 home runs and 85 rbis). The best thing going into 2009 is that LaRoche hit over .300 for the last half of the season and does have the possibility of being a better hitter, as he showed in Atlanta. The Pirates signed LaRoche a year after he hit 32 home runs and drove in 90 runs. LaRoche has been quietly consistent in his numbers which gives you every indication he will put up the same kind of showing this year.

Adam’s brother Andy LaRoche will get the chance to be the everyday third baseman for the Pirates. Andy was once discussed in the same conversation as Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun as the games next “big thing”. Sadly the younger LaRoche didn’t impress anybody last year when he got a chance to play and put up an awful .166 average in around 230 at bats. He does have what it takes though to be a superstar, he  just has to transfer his success from the minors to the majors. The biggest key to that will be finding his patience and learning how to make more consistent contact. When he does, LaRoche has the ability to be a player who could steal around 35 bases and hit just as many home runs. The Pirates could use that kind of production desperately.

The starting rotation is where the storm is brewing. The Pirates bullpen is going to have a long, long year. They have a good deal of starters that are supposed to some day be something, but not today. The ace of the staff is going to be 26 year old Paul Maholm. Maholm is the only one of the third year pitchers for the Pirates that made any kind of steps towards being a great pitcher. He posted a very respectable E.R.A. last year (3.71) and won just as many games as he lost (9-9). Maholm surpassed the 200 inning mark as well and looks to build on his consistency and control to become someone the Pirates can depend on in 2009.

Another one of the aforementioned third year starters is Ian Snell. Snell has the greatest strikeout ability of all the young pitchers, but with that comes high pitch counts and problems with control. He finished last year 7-12 and had an E.R.A. well over 5.00. Snell needs to harness the ability he has and find a way to get through more innings; basically, he just needs to learn how to become a pitcher.

The last of these pitchers is Zach Duke. Duke had the most fanfare coming into the league because of his season in 2005 in which he went 8-2 with a ridiculous 1.81 E.R.A. So, it could only get better from there right? No, it’s the Pirates and it doesn’t go like that. He went 10-15 in 2006, 3-8 in 2007, and 5-14 last year. Duke has what it takes and has shown it. He just has to do it consistently. Duke has stretches of brilliance, then it all falls apart. I know someday he’ll put it together and be a front line starter.

Diamond in the rough:

laroucheAndy LaRoche (3B): This could be a very productive first year for LaRoche. Hopefully he can learn from his brother and become a patient hitter that uses his talent to put the ball in play. The younger brother has been on fire in spring training and I think LaRoce can transfer that to the regular season. I see him hitting 15 home runs and driving in around 65 runs this year. Most importantly, I think Andy can hit around .270 and be a great spark in the lower half of the Pirates lineup.

Might not live up to expectations:

mclouthNate McLouth (CF): There is a chance that McLouth could suffer from something I like to call “Adrian Gonzalez” syndrome. It’s when a great hitter puts the success of the teams offense squarely on their shoulders. In doing so they implode and lose the pressure-free feelings of when they were successful. McLouth won’t have much to work with this year and might not see too many good pitches to hit. He needs stay within himself and do just as much as he’s capable of. If he tries to do more he just won’t have fun and in turn won’t continue to hit.

brewers

Milwaukee Brewers:

The Brewers are a team of youth ready to put up some big offensive numbers in 2009. They are also a team that has a completely different pitching rotation from last year. They could win anywhere from 65 to 95 games and wouldn’t surprise me either way, but have to rely on inexperienced players to be their team leaders. This usually ends up with inconsistency or red hot success.

Milwaukee is loaded with young sluggers that have already shown great success in the big leagues. The most prominent of these bashers is converted left fielder Ryan Braun. Everyone thought that Braun’s rookie season was somewhat of a fluke as he hit 34 home runs and took home the rookie of the year honors. Then he proceeded to shut everyone up in 2008 when he hit 37 home runs.

The sky seems to be the limit for Braun. As I seem to say about every power hitter, Braun’s patience at the plate could use some work, but it will come as he gains more experience. This is only his third full year and he looks to put up personal bests in all of his offensive categories, probably breaking the 40 home run mark and never looking back.

Then again he could do the same thing as the clean-up-hitting first baseman  and regress in power numbers from one year to the next; Prince Fielder is that first baseman. Fielder hit 50 home runs in 2007, then in 2008 only hit 34. Fielder had the most talked about switch to vegetarianism the world has ever seen, and some blame that change for his loss of power. I think it may all be overblown.

Fielder is going to get back to his home run hitting form soon, and when that day comes pitchers are going to have to go through Braun, then Fielder, which doesn’t seem fair. He’s only 24 and people think his career is over. Patience people – let Fielder learn how to be a ball player and we’ll see how he produces.

J.J. Hardy is another youthful talent that has shown the world he can be a very productive short stop in the majors. Hardy has hit 51 home runs over the last two seasons but has been very streaky during those two years. Hardy can be a world beater, but the next day he has huge holes in his bat. Heis a prime example of why I think the Brewers 2009 season is such a mystery. All of these kids can hit,  just not everyday. They have to become an unchanging force in the batters box without the super offensive highs and terrible lows.

The key to their offensive consistency in 2009 may lie directly on the shoulders of lead-off man Rickie Weeks. Brewers fans are probably getting very tired of hearing about how good Weeks should be at the beginning of every year. Is it going to be “the year” that Weeks finally lives up to his potential and becomes the speedy and powerful prospect the baseball knew he could be?

Weeks has everything needed to be a great lead-off man in the big leagues. He might hold the key to the kingdom in 2009. Weeks is coming off of a year in which he hit .234 and stole 19 bases, gross. He’s 26, so you can’t give up on his talent.  Just don’t be surprised if Weeks begins to become what he should be in 2009, and the Brewers offense erupts.

So can you name the number one and number two pitchers for the Brewers at the end of last season? I’ll tell you. It was C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Now can you tell me what they both have in common? I’ll tell you. They both aren’t on the Brewers anymore. So what do you do when you’re top two pitchers aren’t around any more?

You hand the reigns to a future ace and hope he can carry your team. That future ace is Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo lost most of the 2008 season to knee injuries. He is only 23 but he’ll be the opening day pitcher this year, and is going to be given a chance to make all of his mistakes and become the front of the rotation stud the Brewers fans are depending on.

Behind Gallardo is a lot of questions. Jeff Suppan will most likely be the second pitcher in the rotation. You may remember Suppan as a N.L.C.S. M.V.P. in 2006. However,  Suppan is 34 and has put up worse numbers every year since then. After him is Manny Parra, who is younger and does have a good amount of potential.  He was 10-8 last year with a 4.39 E.R.A. but struggled with control.

The Brewers are going to put up runs, so there will be less pressure on the pitching staff; as long as they pitch moderately well, the Brewers will be in position to win a lot of games.

Diamond in the rough:

coreyhartCorey Hart (RF): Corey Hart has put up back to back 20/20 seasons, and can make the jump to becoming a great offensive contributor in 2009 if he focuses on raising his average and becoming a more patient hitter. Also, Hart has been a player that seems to kind of run out of gas in the latter parts of the season. People killed him for the second half he posted in 2008, but he still drove in 91 runs. I think Hart gets close to 100 rbis this year and hopefully his conditioning regiment can make him a better player in the last months of the this year.

Might not live up to expectations:

jasonkendallJason Kendall (C): I know that Kendall has never really put up any kind of offensive numbers in the past. The reason that he is up here is because I think this is the year that he finally loses his starting job in the majors. His great defense just isn’t enough of a reason to hold back the Brewers backstop of the future Angel Salome, and once Kendall posts his first month of a .250 batting average, 0 home runs, and barely any rbis, he’ll be gone. I’ve always respected Kendall’s game and hard work but 2009 is that last time you’ll see him starting the season behind the plate.

reds

Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds looked like a team I could get behind in 2009. They have a combination of great young talent and a few proven starters on their team. They did lose some power this off-season when they let 40 home run man Adam Dunn and future hall of famer Ken Griffey Jr. go, but I think they are going to be better for it. They have a deep pitching staff and a very exciting line up with speed and power.

One of the exciting young offensive players the Reds have is first baseman Joey Votto. I don’t hide the fact that I think this kid is going to be a force this year. Votto hit .341 in the final two months of 2008 and improved throughout the entire year. In only Votto’s second full year he hit 24 home runs, batted in over 80 runs and hit close to .300 – not bad at all. His numbers are only going to go up and up. He is 25 and already seems to have the patience of a veteran, he gets on base, plays good defense, and hits for power in a small ballpark.

Another one of the young hitters on the Reds is 22 year old Jay Bruce. Now unlike Votto, people in Cincinnati knew when Bruce was called up. Bruce was one of the most heralded talents the game has seen in the last few years. As a 21 year old Bruce hit 21 home runs in about 100 games. On the flip side of that success, he only hit .254. As Bruce learns how to go about facing major league pitchers, his patience will increase as will his batting average.

He could hit over 25 home runs and needs to shoot for a batting average around .275 or so. No matter what happens this year, pitchers need to be wary of his power. Bruce is an elite talent and the Reds fans are going to see him hit a lot of balls out of the park for years to come.

One of the proven talents on the Reds is all-star second baseman Brandon Phillips. He was a 30/30 man in 2007 but had a disappointing 2008 year. Phillips looks to bounce back and avoid injuries in 2009. His combination of speed and power put him a group with only a few other major leaguers. I don’t think Phillips is going to hit 30 home runs this year but I see him having a better overall season with a higher on base percentage and more steals.

The Reds have a few new faces as well that will help the overall success of the team. They went out and added the 2008 steals leader in Willy Taveras. The Reds stole 82 bases last year, while Taveras stole 67 himself. There is a chance he may add a whole new dimension to their offense in 2009.

The Reds also added veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez. He will give them around 15 home runs and hopefully be a good source of experience for the rest of this young team.

The Reds pitching rotation might just have as much young potential as their batting lineup. First half breakout Edinson Volquez is a prime example of what the Reds have to be excited about. Volquez is 25 and has an unbelievable amount of talent and potential. Volquez went 17-6 last year with over 200 strikeouts.

Just as exciting is 23 year old Johnny Cueto. At times last year Cueto was as impressive as any pitcher in the game, but being 22 he also showed frustrating bouts of inconsistency. As Cueto matures he will continue to dominate and have less control issues. I think he will vastly improve on his record from last year (9-14) and his E.R.A. (4.50). I see Cueto winning at least 14 games this year and bringing his E.R.A. down to around 4.00 while taking huge steps to becoming the great pitcher he eventually will be.

Just in talking about those two young arms, the Reds fans should be getting excited. What’s more exciting is that I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Harang, the teams ace. With a horrible 2008 year (6-17, 4.78 E.R.A),  people began to doubt the consistently stellar career of Harang. I think 2009 will be a bounce back year for this all-star. Harang came to camp slimmer and void of any elbow pain. Even though he is playing in a hitter-friendly park in Cincinnati, I think Harang gets back to his old ways and leads this team to a possible wild card birth.

Diamond in the rough:

chrisdickersonChris Dickerson (LF): Dickerson seems to be the one person on his team that no one is talking about. 2009 will be his first full year in the majors and I think he is going to be a special part of this Cincinnati team. Dickerson is probably going to be batting second in their lineup and will have a chance to do some very good things.

If he can advance Taveras while still trying to keep his on-base percentage relatively high, Dickerson will be a position to score a bunch of runs for this Reds team. With Votto, Phillips, and Bruce hitting behind him, he’ll get to see good pitches every at bat. It’s just up to Dickerson to take advantage of it.

Might not live up to expectations:

bronsonarroyoBronson Arroyo (SP): Arroyo will be turning 32 this year. Add the fact that he has been battling with carpel tunnel arthritis, 2009 doesn’t look to be a good year. It’s not like the Red’s fans were expecting the world from him, but I just don’t think he will be pitching that much or that well at all this year. He is good for one thing – eating up innings, and he always has been. It’s a valuable thing when a pitcher can do that on a consistent basis and it will be missed if he can’t pitch in 2009.

astros

Houston Astros:

The Astros are a team that finished on a unbelievably hot pace at the end of last year. You could ask me how they did it, and I would stare at you with a blank expression. I don’t really know how won games last year, and more importantly, win some in this upcoming year. They made no real changes to a team that offensively has only two players that can produce.

One of those two players is Lance Berkman. Berkman looked like the greatest player in the world at the beginning of 2008. He hit 22 home runs and hit at a clip of .365 during the first three months. Sounds like a great story, until you read the last half of the book. Berkman followed up those amazing numbers with a .252 batting average and 7 home runs during the second. I can see Berkman being much more consistent this year and putting up the same kind of numbers as he’s always been a great hitter and is still in the latter stages of his prime.

The other half of the bash brothers last year was Carlos Lee, who has quietly been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball since 2002. Lee did it so under-the-radar, I didn’t even realize what kind of numbers Lee had been putting up. It’s crazy. Here’s his home runs and rbi total since 2002:

  • 2002: 26 hr 80 rbi
  • 2003: 31 hr 113 rbi
  • 2004: 31 hr 99 rbi
  • 2005: 32 hr 114 rbi
  • 2006: 37 hr 116 rbi
  • 2007: 32 hr 119 rbi
  • 2008: 28 hr 100 rbi (missed some time in august due to a broken pinkie)

Aren’t those insane? My hats off to you, Carlos. After looking at these numbers I can only say to expect them again in 2009. Lee has not only been productive, but he’s been durable. He is the same age as Berkman and still has three or four more good years left.

A big offensive question mark for the Astros this year will be how shortstop Miguel Tejada produces. In 2008 Tejada recorded his lowest homerun and rbi total since 1998. Tejada is definitely on the decline, but still has the ability to an above average offensive shortstop;  his days of dominance are far gone. He is also dealing with a recent run in with the law in which his prior inaccuracies about teammate’s steroid use were used against him. If he can get past that and focus on his game I think he can hit around 15 home runs and drive in around 70 runs; the Astros would be happy with that.

Hunter Pence could be another player that provides some offense for the Astros in 2009. Pence is still a very young player and is coming off a year in which he hit 25 home runs, but posted a much lower batting average than in his rookie year. It’s going to be a real toss up which way Pence’s numbers go – if he can hit the same amount of home runs and increase his batting average, Pence would start to live up to the expectations Astro fans put on him after 2007.

The pitching rotation is a lot like the lineup for the Astros this year. They have two good sources of talent, then after that it’s not too pretty. Roy Oswalt is one of the bright spots for the Astro staff. Oswalt has the ability to dominate a game every time he steps on the mound. He has been putting up great numbers since 2004. and one of the most important of those stats are his innings pitched. Oswalt has pitched in an average of 236 innings a year since 2004. That does so much for a team when Oswalt starts a game and more than likely is going to go seven innings into a it. I think he puts up the same kind of numbers in 2009, winning around 17 games and keeping his E.R.A. under 4.00.

After Oswalt, the Astros will be looking to Wandy Rodriguez to carry the other half of the load. Rodriguez took great strides last year to becoming the pitcher the Astros scouts thought he could be. His talent has never really been the question, it’s been his durability – Rodriguez has yet to pitch in more than 140 innings in his four years for the Astros. If he can get more than 30 starts in 2009 I think he’ll end up striking out close to 200 batters; his stuff is that good.

After those two pitchers the Astros are in trouble – big trouble. They will be depending on a trio of starters that makes me cringe. Mike Hampton will be the Astros third starter. The same Mike Hampton who hasn’t had a good season since 1999; for all of you who aren’t math majors, that’s around ten years. Then after Hampton it’ll be Brian Mohler and Russ Ortiz. They aren’t worth writing about.

Diamond in the rough:

hunterpenceHunter Pence (RF): I think Pence can have a breakout year in 2009. Pence could be just the thing the Astros are looking for: a future. This will be only his second full season. Pence was in a hard spot after his rookie year because of the numbers he produced; Pitchers figured him out and now Pence has to adjust. I think he will do that this year, and will eventually be the fifth hitter behind Lee and get a chance to get a lot of rbis in 2009. Pence should get close to 30 home runs and 100 rbis this year. He’ll do it and people will again start to put extremely high expectations on his shoulders. That’s what happens when you play for a team without youth, you get to represent their entire future.

Might not live up to expectations:

migueltejadaMiguel Tejada (SS): I think this may be the last year that Tejada as a starter in the majors. If he lets his numbers drop again, people are going to start asking for his head. His production just doesn’t match up with what people think of him anymore, and they never will again.

cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals:

The Cardinals have a chance of being really good in 2009. They have an improved lineup and a pitching rotation that has a lot to prove. Did I mention that they also have the best offensive player baseball? Well I should. The success or failure of this Cardinals team rests on the back of one the greatest hitters baseball has seen in the last 30 years. This man is Albert Pujols.

Let me begin to explain why Pujols is so important to this team. Of course the obvious thing is the gaudy numbers he has put up over the last eight years. Which, by the way, are ridiculous (319 hr, 977 rbis). The real thing that Pujols brings to his team is the ability to elevate the game of the people around him.

The greatest example of this is in the numbers Ryan Ludwick put up last year. Ludwick hit in the greatest spot in baseball, directly before Albert Pujols, batting second and hitting .299 with 37 home runs and 113 rbis. Prior to 2008 Ludwick had hit 28 home runs in his entire career. So you see, hitting in front of Pujols is comparable to using a high grade steroid – pitchers are so scared to put you on base that they make sure to put their pitches around the plate. Do you know what happens when a major league hitter knows he will be seeing strikes? He hits .299 with 37 home runs.

I don’t want to say that all of Ludwick’s success is all because of Pujols. As a matter of fact I think he hits around 30 home runs this year. Ludwick seemed to finally put all of his tools together and began to find his patience at the plate. He kept his hands back, played within himself and produced a very unexpectedly amazing year.

Another offensive surprise for the Cardinals last year came in the form of converted pitcher Rick Ankiel. 2009 will be the first year Ankiel will be coming into a season as a full time offensive player. His story is amazing and I’m sure you’ve all heard it before.

Ankiel was a pitcher that lost his control, worked hard to change into an offensive threat and made his way back to the Cardinals major league team as an outfielder. The story just keeps getting better – when he got his chance to play in 2008 he hit 25 home runs in 120 games. Everyone in St. Louis is excited to see what his future holds. I think he can be a serious threat hitting behind Pujols if he continues to work on his patience and uses his athleticism to get on base.

The Cardinals added a player to their lineup for 2009 that could end up working really well for them. That player is former Padre shortstop Khalil Greene. He was traded to the Cardinals after a horrendous 2008 season. The worst aspects of his offense seemed to take hold of him, and Greene’s lack of patience led to his horrible numbers. If he can stay back, cut down on his strike outs, and take advantage of a much easier park to hit in, Greene could put up great numbers in 2009.

Don’t forget about Troy Glaus either. He very quietly put up very decent numbers last year (27 hr, 99 rbis). If he adds those kind of numbers again, the Cardinals are going to be in very good shape.

The pitching staff is the area of the Cardinals team in which questions are going to arise. Their opening day starter is going to be Adam Wainwright, coming off of an injury plagued 2008 campaign. The thing that is interesting about him is that Wainwright’s numbers were great when he was able to pitch. He posted an 11-3 record with a sub 3.00 E.R.A. The question won’t only be if he can stay healthy, but if he can reproduce the same kind of success he did last year. This team could follow the success he has or dwindle with no real front line pitcher if Wainwright goes to the DL.

Another very intriguing story going into 2009 will be the production of one time Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Carpenter is another case of a pitcher being unstoppable when he is healthy, but sadly enough not being able to stay on the field. The last full season he pitched in was 2006, with Carpenter ended up winning the Cy Young. His talent has never been the question, it’s his durability. If he can stay healthy the Cardinals would be a completely different team than they are without him.

Lastly there is Kyle Lohse. Lohse is coming off an year in which he put up career numbers in both wins and E.R.A. and the Cardinals gave him a new contract. No one really knows if he is going to be the pitcher of 2008 or fall back into the kind of numbers he had put up every year before last.

Diamond in the rough:

khalilgreeneKhalil Greene (SS): Greene seemed unhappy and unmotivated last year in San Diego and his game suffered because of it. He is someone who needs to be close to his home which is Pennsylvania. When Greene was in San Diego he seemed detached from his surroundings.

He is a great offensive talent and can change any game with his defense at shortstop. Being closer to home and having a new lot in life I think Greene breaks out in 2009. Greene’s batting average will never be great, but if can make strides with his patience the rest of his game will come around.

Might not live up to expectations:

colbyrasmusColby Rasmus (RF): Rasmus is one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball. When those kind of expectations are thrown at a 22 year old kid, they rarely live up to them. I’m not saying he won’t have a productive year, but I just don’t think he’s going to do what people want for him in 2009.

Rasmus will be great someday, but fans need to hold back their idea that Rasmus is going to have a breakout year as soon as he is able to play everyday. Rasmus is going to hit around .265 and hit 15 home runs, which is great for a first year player. He’s just not going to do what people think he is automatically capable of. Baseball is a very hard game to jump into at a major league level and it takes time.

cubs

Chicago Cubs:

The Cubs are picked to represent the National League in the World Series, and for good reason. They are coming off a very disappointing playoff run last year – actually, more like a trip and fall. They breezed through the regular season with the best record in the National League, but reached the playoffs and were rudely awakened to the fact that they didn’t have enough left handed bats on their team. The Dodgers right handed staff dominated and sent them home yet again.

This year they have a lot of the same pieces that made them successful but made some great moves to improve their team.

One of the main reasons for the Cubs success last year was the offensive output by their three main weapons. One of those weapons is Alfonso Soriano, who seems to put up the same numbers every year ever since he came into the league with the Yankees. 2008 was no different –  he hit 29 home runs and drove in 75 runs.

Did I mention that he did that in only 109 games because of injuries? If he plays in over 150 games it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll put up amazing stats, so pencil him in for over 30 home runs and over 100 rbis. Now I know Soriano isn’t the prototypical lead-off man, but any team would love to have him bat first.  Soriano is not going to walk as much as you like but he’ll make up for it with his power numbers.

Another main offensive contributor is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has been a model of consistency since 2003. Every year since then he has hit at least 27 home runs, drove in at least 92 rbis and had a batting average of .272 or higher. He is only 30 years old and seems to be finally 100 percent healthy. Ramirez could put up another year like 2006 (38 hr, 119 rbi) if he plays 155 games in the condition he is in now.

The last of the three consistent producers is first baseman Derek Lee. He is the only one of the three that has lost some power in his game over the last two years. – in 2006 he hit 46 home runs. In 2007 and 2008 combined Lee has hit 42.  Lee is still hitting doubles and maintaining a good batting average, but it’ll take time for Cubs fans to forget the kind power hitter he used to be.

Besides the three players I just mentioned there was another unexpected boost to the offense, coming from rookie of the year catcher Geovany Soto. He produced numbers that no one really thought possible for a first year backstop. Soto hit 23 home runs and drove in 86 runs in 2008. Cubs fans are wondering if he can not only reproduce those numbers, but build upon them.

He looked like a very special player last year and at some points looked like the most powerful catcher in the game. Soto’s production will do a lot to answer the questions that we all have about his ability. The Cubs need him to do a lot of the same to maintain the kind of success that they are expected to have this year.

The biggest off-season move the Cubs made was to acquire the volatile, yet super talented left fielder Milton Bradley. Bradley had an amazing year last year but couldn’t shrug off the biggest problem he has had his entire career: injury. Bradley had a great first half, but couldn’t stay in the lineup on a consistent basis in the second half. His career hss been decent, just not as good as it could have been so far. He looks to stay healthy and clear headed in 2009 and if he can the Cubs are going to be unfairly dangerous.

The great thing for the Cubs is that their pitching rotation is in about as good of shape as their offensive lineup. Carlos Zambrano will be again be the opening day pitcher. Oddly enough he is going to be one of the big question marks in the rotation. He is usually a no-brainer all star that pitches in tons of innings each year and strikes out a lot of batters. In 2008 he had a great first half, then out of no where looked like a completely different guy in the second. He did have some elbow issues that could have led to these problems but Zambrano looks to put it all behind him and continue being the ace of the staff in 2009.

Pitching after Zambrano will be converted closer Ryan Dempster. Dempster made an amazing transition to a starter last year. He went 17-6 and posted an E.R.A. below 3.00. Those were numbers no one really thought would be possible in Dempsters first year removed from being the closer. Dempster proved the world wrong and looks to do it again this year. He may be just as big of a key to the Cubs season as Zambrano in 2009. It will be interesting to see how Dempster’s arm holds up and how he handles the elevated expectations.

Another pitcher that could be a big help for the Cubs this year is Rich Harden. Harden is kind of the pitching version of Milton Bradley. He has had nothing but success when he pitches. The key phrase here is “when he pitches”. Harden has never pitched over 189 innings in six years in the majors. Last year Harden proved again that when healthy he is a beast. In the second half of last year Harden went 5-1 with an unheard of 1.92 E.R.A. If he actually stays healthy he can produce just as much as any pitcher on the Cubs. In that scenario, the Cubs would have possibly the best 1-2-3 combo of starting pitching in the National League. There are a lot of “ifs” though.

Diamond in the rough:

ryantheriotRyan Theriot (SS): A lot of people are saying that Theriot’s stats in his limited time last year aren’t going to translate to good numbers in 2009. I think just the opposite –  Theriot is going to build on his time last year and become a more complete player. He will bring some excitement to the bottom of the Cubs order and he should have an ample amount of opportunities to drive in runs in this lineup. I think he could hit around 10 home runs, drive in 60 or so rbis and steal upwards of 40 bases. The stolen bases are going to be needed on a team with below average speed.

Might not live up to expectations:

miltonbradleyMilton Bradley (LF): This is not me saying I don’t think Bradley can play. I think he is great, it’s just he can’t be great when he’s not on the field. Bradley has yet to show me that he can play in 150 games. It’s getting to be really old. He’s like this high end sports car that just can’t stop getting in wrecks.

Prediction:

1st: Cubs

2nd: Reds

3rd: Cardinals

4th: Brewers

5th: Astros

6th: Pirates

Leave a Comment

  1. DealerChoice says:

    I'm agree with your prediction of teams

  2. SUMAN CHAKRABORTY says:

    CARDS WILL WIN THE CENTRAL DIVISION