Friday, January 04, 2008

Grading the MLB Franchises: NL Central

The following series will evaluate the outlook of each MLB franchise entering 2008. Every team has been given a grade based on team success, fiscal responsibility, organizational stability and future outlook. Big market teams and historically successful ballclubs are held to a higher standard.


NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

Chicago Cubs (B)
The ownership issue looms over the Cubbies as the Tribune Company prepares to cede its share of the team. Still, that hasn't stopped Chicago from spending and, more importantly, contending. The reigning NL Central Division winner snagged free agent OF Kosuke Fukudome to bolster an already formidable lineup that includes 1B Derrek Lee, OF Alfonso Soriano and 3B Aramis Ramirez. RHP Carlos Zambrano, who signed a contract extension during the season, leads one of the stronger rotations in the National League. Lou Piniella in his first season as Cubs skipper once again proved there's a method to his madness by leading his team to a second-half surge. CF Felix Pie, the best youngster in the organization, must hit consistently to set up the table for the sluggers. Other top prospects, most notably 3B Josh Vitters, are years away from producing in the big leagues.

Cincinnati Reds (C-)
The Reds have one of the most loaded minor league systems around. OF Jay Bruce, RHP Homer Bailey, RHP Johnny Cuerto and 1B Joey Votto are all top-20 prospects. The big league club, however, suffers from a lack of talent. Aaron Harang is an excellent starter, but after him the quality in pitching drops precipitously. GM Wayne Krivsky needed to shore up numerous positions but instead approved a series of head scratchers this offseason. First there was the hiring of Dusty Baker, a manager who's a winner and an underachiever. Next was the resigning of Adam Dunn, a DH disguised as a LF. Finally, Krivsky tried to shore up a woeful bullpen by signing Francisco Cordero. Cordero's a very good closer but he will be (over)paid elite reliever money for four years. Krivsky traded OF Josh Hamilton, last year's feel good story, to the Rangers for prospects. Cincinnati fans probably won't have much to feel good about this season. Even in this awful division the Reds will likely be left in the dust.

Houston Astros (F)
Owner Drayton McLane continues to run this franchise into the ground. The hiring of Ed Wade, one of the worst minds in baseball, further contributes to the mediocrity. The banishment of Brad Lidge, the much-maligned but rather effective closer, to the Phillies for meager returns is typical for this team. There's some interesting players on the ballclub (Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt), but there's an alarming number of mediocre players. The Astros lost 89 games in 2007; expect that number to rise. As if the major league ballclub wasn't bad enough Houston has the worst crop of prospects in baseball. Over the years the Astros have signed pricey free agents (i.e. Carlos Lee) while simultaneously refusing to offering arbitration to its own players. This has resulted in Houston giving away high draft picks as compensation while receiving nothing in return. In 2007 Houston had no first or second rounder while also failing to sign its third- and fourth-round selections. The recent acquisition of Miguel Tejada adds yet another washed-up veteran to the roster while further depleting an already weak farm system. At least the Dynamo won the MLS Cup.

Milwaukee Brewers (C+)
Big bopping 1B Prince Fielder and 3B Ryan Braun nearly led the Brewers to a surprisingly playoff birth in 2007. This season Milwaukee won't be sneaking up on any teams and will have to play well the entire year. Outside of Fielder, Braun and SS J.J. Hardy the lineup is inconsistent. Braun, who was horrible with the glove during his rookie campaign, may be moved to the outfield. The pitching fell apart down the stretch in 2007 and things haven't improved. The starting rotation consists of Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo and three average arms. The bullpen suffered a blow this winter when closer Francisco Cordero signed with Cincinnati. Free agent pickup Eric Gagne was excellent last season at closing games for the Rangers but the former Cy Young winner imploded while playing for the Red Sox. Furthermore he was implicated in the Mitchell Report this offseason. OF Matt LaPorta, the seventh pick of the 2007 draft, is the best prospect in an average farm system.

Pittsburgh Pirates
(D+)
If your team finishes last in the NL Central you know something is terribly wrong. The Pirates, fortunately, got the note and cleaned house. In 2008 they will be led by a new GM and skipper, Neal Huntington and skipper John Russell respectively. Huntington comes via Cleveland where he was groomed by some of the sharpest minds in the game. With him leading the way Pittsburgh's definitely going in the right direction but it has a significant uphill battle on its hands. LF Jason Bay, an All-Star in 2006, struggled mightily last season. He will likely the main threat in a below average lineup. LHP Tom Gorzelanny and RHP Ian Snell are good starters but the other arms aren't much. This year won't be pretty but the next decade offers a promising future for the Pirates. They have a smart man running baseball operations, a beautiful stadium and OF Andrew McCutchen, 1B Steve Pearce and LHP Daniel Moskos waiting in the wings.

St. Louis Cardinals (B-)
Two years ago the Cards opened a new stadium, won the World Series and were on top of the baseball world. 2007 started with the DUI arrest of manager Tony LaRussa and death of RHP Josh Hancock. Things only went downhill from there as St. Louis went from champions to sub-.500. Long-time GM Walt Jocketty retired as well. There's a lot of questions for the Cards, but also much to be content with. 1B Albert Pujols is well on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats but he can't solve all the problems on the field -- and off it. The ongoing spat between LaRussa and 3B Scott Rolen needs to be resolved before it distracts during spring training and the season. 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter threw only one game last season due to an elbow injury. Unless he returns to form the Cards lack the pitching necessary to make the playoffs. Rick Ankiel is expected to take over in center and stud prospect OF Colby Rasmus might join him in the outfield.

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