200 Miles From the Citi

March 1, 2010 3:00 AM

NL Central: Overview

NL_Central.JPGWeek 3 of our baseball previews takes us to the National League Central.

Once again, our focus is a common theme for the teams in this division, and this week, since there are six teams in the NL Central, we look at six impact players, one from each team, heading into the 2010 season.

Common Theme

The first word that comes to mind looking at the National League Central is 'disappointment'.  The obvious disappointment would be the Chicago Cubs - where more than 100 years have gone by without a World Series title.  But even the Cardinals, who won a World Series as recently as 2006, and are coming off a division title, are dealing with disappointment.

The Cardinals were poised to tie last year's Division Series with the Dodgers at a game apiece with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth.  Then Matt Holliday dropped a fly ball, and the Dodgers, quicker than you can say "I wonder if Holliday was wearing a cup?", went on to win the game, then sweep the series with another win in Game 3.  The Cardinals managed to retain Holliday by re-signing him during the off-season, but he and the team have to be thinking about last year's disappointing finish as they begin the 2010 season.

The Cubs, besides that aforementioned 100-+ year World Series drought, have to be disappointed in how last year panned out.  Coming off back-to-back division titles, the Cubs faded after early August.  They also had to deal with huge clubhouse distractions courtesy of Milton Bradley.  And you could point to a few key players - Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto, and Kosuke Fukudome, to name names - as having had disappointing individual seasons that contributed to a disappointing year overall.

The Milwaukee Brewers have to be disappointed that their explosive offense isn't enough to support their less-than-effective pitching.  A 4.83 team ERA ranked 27th in the majors (second-worst in the NL), and helped the team finish two games below .500 a year after CC Sabathia spearheaded a playoff run on a team that won 90 games.

The disappointment goes the other way in Cincinnati - guys like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang pitched well (not the best of their careers, but well enough), with respectable ERAs of 3.84 and 4.21, respectively, but finished just a combined 21-27.  The Reds' offensive numbers in 2009 ranked near the bottom of the majors almost across the board.

The Astros weren't much better offensively, a huge disappointment in a park that is a hitter's paradise.  They wasted a huge amount of Roy Oswalt's starts (more on that tomorrow), stumbling to a 74-88 record that is a disappointing sign of what's to come for Houston in 2010.

And the Pirates.  Oh, the Pittsburgh Pirates.  17 straight losing seasons is disappointment enough, is it not?  Add to that the loss of a dynamic middle infield in Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez and you have the Pirates.  But if there's any team with reason to be optimistic, it's these Pirates - the crop of prospects the Pirates have traded for over the years is ready to contribute...and just might be able to bring 80-+ wins to Pittsburgh.

Just not this year.

6 Impact Players

(In Alphabetical Order by Team, so as not to ruin the surprise of how I pick them to finish)

1.  Ted Lilly, Chicago - For the Cubs to be good this year, they need to be healthy.  Ted Lilly had shoulder surgery in November, and was expected to miss the first month of the season...but recently said he'd like to be ready by Opening Day.  Now, "would like to be ready" and "will be ready" are two very different things...but that has to be encouraging for Cubs fans who may not have been expecting to see Lilly at all in April.  Lilly has been very good the past couple of years and his presence gives the Cubs the best rotation in the division.

2.  Joey Votto, Cincinnati - How much of a difference can a full year of Votto make?  He played in just 131 games during the Reds' 78-win season.  (He missed most of June dealing with anxiety after his father's death.)  He's one of the more exciting offensive players in the league, and finished last year on a tear.  He could make a big difference for Cincinnati.

3.  Wandy Rodriguez, Houston - Rodriguez has steadily improved the past few years for the Astros, but has a marked difference in home/road splits, both in his career and in 2009.  Figuring out what's different for him at Minute Maid Park (no pitcher's paradise, incidentally) and away from there could help the Astros do better than 30 road wins, like they had a year ago.

4.  Jeff Suppan, Milwaukee - Suppan signed with Milwaukee after an excellent season (and better post-season) with the 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.  He has pitched worse each season since then.  Milwaukee is desperate for good pitching, and needs Suppan to pitch well.  Perhaps Rick Peterson's presence will help.  Peterson is the new Milwaukee pitching coach, and was on the Mets' bench as Suppan dominated the Mets in the 2006 NLCS.  Maybe he sees something that Suppan is doing differently and can work with him.

5.  Zach Duke, Pittsburgh - It's time for Duke to start pitching like the phenom he hinted at when he made his debut in 2005.  Duke puts up a decent ERA and low walk totals, but he gives up a ton of hits.  He'll never be the best pitcher in the league, but he could be the best pitcher on the Pirates.  It would really help the Pirates if he pitched against everyone like he pitches against the Mets.  The likelihood of that, considering he's third on the Pirates' website depth chart, is low - and if it doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen for Duke.

6.  Matt Holliday, St. Louis - A full season of Holliday to protect Albert Pujols could mean good things for the Cardinals.  But how affected will he be by his costly post-season error?

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