Belated Previews: AL & NL Central

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

New Arrival: Colby Rasmus (pictured) is one of the top prospects in baseball and will be an impact player for the Cardinals this year. The rookie will see time in leftfield this year and could move to center, his natural position, next season if Rick Ankiel leaves as a free agent. He has all five tools and is an underrated defender.

We’ll REALLY Miss You: The Milwaukee Brewers were the big losers in the 2008-09 off-season losing their top two starting pitchers, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Without an ace (or two) to anchor their rotation, the Brewers will find themselves in the bottom of the NL Central.

How They’ll Finish:

1. Cubs – For the second straight season, the Cubs remain the class of the NL Central and should have no problem coasting to the division title, probably as the first team in MLB to clinch a playoff spot. The addition of Milton Bradley helps their outfield depth and adds a righthanded bat to the middle of the order. Their rotation is one of the best in the division and if the Cubs stay healthy, they should go far in October.
2. Reds – Their lineup leaves a lot to be desired, but their starting pitching is strong and will only get better as Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez continue to develop. The Reds could surprise some people this year if manager Dusty Baker gets his team to manufacture runs since there’s no Adam Dunn to hit home runs anymore.
3. Astros – Led by Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, the Astro lineup should score plenty of runs and if Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, and Russ Ortiz do something, the Astros should have a solid year.
4. Cardinals – The Cardinals are like the opposite of the Reds, they have good hitting but a lot of question marks in the rotation and in the bullpen. Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, but he’s the only sure thing in the infield as the Cardinals still struggle to find a second baseman.
5. BrewersPrince Fielder will provide the pop in the lineup but when your ace is Yovani Gallardo, who has 124 career innings pitched, the Brewers will have a pretty steep fall from their playoff berth in 2008.
6. Pirates – Yes, they still play major league baseball, but the Pirates are poised for serious improvement. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the Pirates will probably have to wait until 2010 to finish higher than 5th in the division, but could get out of the cellar this year. Jack Wilson is bound to get dealt by the trade deadline, but the Pirates have a solid young team that keeps getting better with every trade of a veteran.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

New Arrival: Former Cubs utilityman Mark DeRosa should settle in nicely for the Indians at third base. Playing second, third, or either of the corner outfield positions in Chicago last year, DeRosa hit .285 with 21 home runs and 87 RBI in 505 at-bats. As an everyday player, look for DeRosa to do that and more. In spring training with the Indians he hit .400 in 25 at-bats with a slugging percentage of .907. You can argue that spring training doesn’t mean anything (and I’m not considering his WBC stats) but any player who hits 200 points better than his career slugging percentage is bound for a break out season.

We Won’t Miss You: After failing to get his batting average over the Mendoza line during spring training, the Tigers chose to cut Gary Sheffield (pictured) and eat the $14 million left on his contract rather that watch him take cuts in the batter’s box this season. Sheff is just another veteran power bat that will be homeless as the season starts as the game itself begins to place more of an importance on athleticism.

How They’ll Finish:

1. Twins – Even without a veteran stopper at the top of the rotation, the Twins still managed to stay in the AL Central race until the very end in 2008, losing to the White Sox in a one-game playoff. This season, the Twin pitchers should continue to mature, leading Minnesota to the playoffs. It’s their division to lose.
2. White Sox – A lot of people think that the Sox will sink toward the bottom of the division, but I still like their pitching staff. The lineup isn’t great and is getting old, which will keep them out of the playoffs. The Sox will miss Javy Vazquez at the top of the rotation and won’t challenge Minnesota at the end of the year.
3. Indians – There is no way Cliff Lee wins the Cy Young award in 2009. Given that, where does that leave the Cleveland rotation? Pavano? Carmona? Does anyone see any consistent production in that top three? If the Indians don’t get consistency, they won’t be playing meaningful baseball in the fall.
4. Royals – KC added a couple of nice pieces in the off-season as they continue to strive for mediocrity. It won’t be long until the Royals compete for this division, but I just can’t see it this year, they just don’t have enough pitching.
5. Tigers – Detroit actually could be very good if everyone stays healthy and if their rotation returns to the 2006 form that took the Tigers to the World Series. Unfortunately, Justin Verlander has lost velocity on his fastball and is on a one-way trip to Mark Prior-ville. There is no one that Jim Leyland can count on in the bullpen and Dontrelle Willis was placed on the DL with an anxiety disorder. That just doesn’t sound good and neither do the Tigers’ 2009 chances.

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