Chicago Cubs Under 85 Regular Season Wins – If there was ever a team that can’t keep its stars healthy it’s the Cubs. Once again, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are both injured. This team won 79 games last year their offseason moves were good but not earth shattering. The team needed to shore up the bullpen and they did with Bobby Howry who pitched to a 2.47 ERA last year. Unfortunately, they still feel Ryan Dempster is the answer at closer after his 33 save season. I am not so convinced. This team also added Juan Pierre and Jacques Jones who should both help a stagnant offense and a nonexistent running game. The Cubs were tied for 13th in the NL in steals in 2005. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez combined for 77 homers last year and there is no reason to think they can’t do it again. It appears the Cubs will score some runs this year and its about time they realized they need team speed. After all when the wind is blowing straight in, you may need to manufacture some runs via the steal. As mentioned earlier, the starting rotation is missing two big parts and will rely on Carlos Zambrano to anchor the staff. Greg Maddux returns and should give a solid effort as well. The rest of the staff is a big question mark with swingman Glendon Rusch and rookies Sean Marshall and Rich Hill getting significant time early. This is a team with many problems on defense as well and the trades won’t necessarily solve that issue. Pierre’s arm is weak for a centerfielder and that will cost the Cubs some runs. The friendly confines are always a great place to watch a game, but this years squad won’t win a lot of them. Check back in October and you should see the Cubs in the 77-81 win range.
Cincinnati Reds Over 73½ Regular Season Wins – The Reds are an improving team and they finally seem to be making some moves that make sense. After a 73 win season last year, the GM picked up Tony Womack and Dave Williams who should both make good contributions in their respective roles. The Reds will score some runs for two reasons: their lineup and their ballpark. The Reds outfield of Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey can mash with any team and these guys know how to drive in runs. The Reds picked up Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena and I would not be surprised to see him as their ace this year. Aaron Harang was decent last year and they need him to follow up with a repeat performance. They also need Eric Milton to come out of his pitching coma. Since leaving the Twins, Milton has been terrible (6.47 ERA in 2005). Rokkie Edwin Encarnacion, Felipe Lopez, Scott Hatteberg and Womack will help to keep the Reds offense at the top of the NL. Cincy was 1st in runs, homers, rbis, total bases and slugging and that’s the good news. Now for the bad news, Reds pitchers had a team ERA of 5.15. Ask yourself, “was this tee ball?” How could one team be so bad, last in the league. The bullpen is a mess with a lot of guys who can close but it looks like the early going will be closer by committee. Don’t be surprised if rookie Todd Coffey steps into that role by the All Star break more by default than anything else. I think Jerry Narron finally has this team figured out and they will surprise some people. For the first time in a long time, Ken Griffey Jr. seems healthy and he had a great spring training. I think we can expect 75-79 wins out of this squad.
Houston Astros Over 82½ Regular Season Wins – The Astros kind of took the winter off, save for their one “big” acquisition of Preston Wilson. The team that won 89 games and stormed to the World Series decided not to do much. They did lose Roger Clemens, at least temporarily, but precious little else. Their starting staff will be anchored by the 1-2 punch of Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte and three youngsters in Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez and Taylor Buchholz. Both Backe and Rodriguez have great minor league numbers and some of you may remember we rode Backe’s success in the 2004 playoffs. The Astros had a 3.53 ERA which was good for second in the league and held opposing hitters to a league low .246. They will need to do this again in 2006 to have any chance to win the division. On the offensive side, the Astros need to step it up a notch. They were not great in 2005 overall but seemed to get a lot of big hits. The infield of Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Adam Everett and Morgan Ensberg should get them 100 homers alone. This is a righty heavy lineup which is built for Minute Maid Park. With Wilson, Willy Taveras (34 steals) and Jason Lane (26 homers) roaming the outfield, this team should be able to defend as well as score runs. The closer is Brad Lidge who may be the best in the National League if not the game. Chad Qualls is a nice setup man who can eat up some bullpen innings. While the outlook is not as rosy as in 2005, this team is still good for 83-87 wins. If Roger Clemens comes back, push that number to 90 wins.
Milwaukee Brewers Under 82 Regular Season Wins – Although they are the new media darlings of 2006, the Brewers were a .500 team last season with 81 wins. It seems like every prognosticator will tell anyone who will listen that the Brewers will be the most improved team. Maybe I am missing something here, but I don’t see it. Prince Fielder replaces Lyle Overbay at first so there should not be a big downgrade here and Corey Koskie takes over at third. The outfielders, Carlos Lee, Brady Clark and Geoff Jenkins can all hit. Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy up the middle will be very decent in the near future. So whats missing? Pitching and defense. None of the aforementioned guys will be confused with Brook Jacoby, let alone Brooks Robinson. There are more butchers here than at Satriale’s (on the Sopranos). They were the worst fielding club in the league last year. The pitching does not scare anyone once you get past Ben Sheets who starts the season on the DL. Doug Davis and Chris Capuano had nice years but lets see them do it again. Tomo Ohka, Dave Bush and Rick Helling are all retreads from other organizations who won’t scare anyone. This team will give up a ton of Home Runs at Miller Park. Their closer, Derrick Turnbow had a great year last year converting 39 of 43 save opportunities and pitched to a low 1.74 ERA. Danny Kolb returns from Atlanta to setup for him. The staff throws to Chad Moeller and Damian Miller who are nothing special. Manager Ned Yost has a lot of work cut out for him this season and I think the Brewers will be hard pressed to get past the 75-79 win range.
Pittsburgh Pirates Over 76 Regular Season Wins – The Pirates won 67 games last year and were the only team to finish in the bottom half of the league in pitching, hitting and fielding. In other words, the were real bad in 2005. There is some cause for optimism this year. The Bucs signed Joe Randa, Jeremy Burnitz and acquired Sean Casey who should give this team some offensive punch. Jason Bay and Chris Duffy are two young outfielders who can hit for avergage and Bay has good power. Rookie Ryan Doumit will start at catcher and he hit .345 at AAA in 2005. Jack Wilson at shortstop is a wizard as is second baseman Jose Castillo. Both need to take more walks to set up the offense. Oliver Perez anchors a very inexperienced staff. They ned him to return to form after a horrible 2005. Kip Wells also had a bad year and the Priates may need Zach Duke to step up and become the ace after he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in 14 games. Duke now has posted ERAs under 2.00 at four different levels of professional baseball. Highly touted rookie Pat Maholm looked good in 6 appears with the big club and they will rely heavily on him in 2006 as well as Sean Burnett who returns from an injury cancelled season.
This is an underachieving staff who led the lead in issuing free passes with 612! The bullpen will be serviceable with Mike Gonzalez closing. Roberto Hernandez was signed to be the setup man and he looked good in New York last year. This team has the makings of a near .500 ball club and I think they will achieve 77-81 wins.
St Louis Cardinals Over 92½ Regular Season Wins – This is a team that won 100 games in 2005 and could easily have gone to the World Series, losing to the Astros in the NLCS. The Cardinals are built on pitching, having led the league in ERA and Wins and finishing second in saves. Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan all were rock solid last year with Carpenter capturing the Cy Young. Fourth starter Jason Marquis was usable and the Redbirds have signed Sidney Ponson to be their fifth starter. If anyone can turn him around its pitching coach Dave Duncan. On the offensive side, the cards start with Albert Pujols who is all world. They hope Scott Rolen can bounce back from injury and David Eckstein (career best .294) should be solid at shortstop. The question mark in the infield is 2nd base where former Rockie Aaron Miles battled it out with Junior Spivey and Hector Luna. It would appear Miles has won the job with a big spring training while the other two sputtered offensively. Yadier Molina is solid behind the plate and very few people run on him as he has the best arm in baseball defensively. He should hit based on scouting reports, though he failed to show it last year. The outfield adds Juan Encarnacion to take over Right field from the departed Larry Walker. Larry Bigbie was acquired for left but he needs to stay on the field. Highlight maker Jim Edmonds is back in centerfield where he stars both offensively and defensively. Closer Jason Isringhausen returns after another solid year and Brad Thompson should set him up nicely. Braden Looper came over from the Mets as insurance as well. This team shapes up nicely for a 94-98 win season as Tony LaRussa leads them back to the playoffs.