Know Thy Enemy

added 2/14/2001 by John Lauck
Spring training camps open up all around major league baseball this week, as pitchers and catchers report to various sites in Florida and Arizona and full squads a few days later. Astros players and their fans are both gearing up for the season to come and, if you've been reading Astrosdaily.com regularly, you've had access to any number of pre-season forecasts about how well the team will do this year, from ESPN.com's take to that from The Sporting News. Even here on the site, Steve Cutchen's latest "Knuckleball" column offers a crisp, insightful look at how the team shapes up as they make the annual trek to Kissimmee. And, if all this still isn't enough for you, my own page, Astroday, currently features a position-by position look at the club, projections of how they'll do individually, and an analysis of the regular season schedule by which they'll be tested.

So enough about the Astros already. Any dodo knows that in a league sport, you have to spend at least some of your time paying attention to the teams you play in your own division. The Astros actually played well against the Central last year. They were 35-27 against them. (That means, of course, they cratered against everybody else: 20-22 against the NL East, an abysmal 11-32 against the NL West and 6-9 versus the American League.) Those records are always subject to change from season to season, as teams add new players and subtract old ones, and they may change even more this year. Major League Baseball continues to fiddle around with league schedules--akin to fiddling around with the knob on an old radio until you break it--and they've gone back to an unbalanced schedule this year, which means even more games for Houston against the NL Central. So, the task of looking at the other clubs in the division and matching up against them becomes even more important.

Here, then, is a brief look at how the Astros' competition stacks up within the Central Division this year, in the order I think they'll finish:

1. St. Louis--The Cardinals are not a great club, but they are a solid one. Their everyday eight has an enviable blend of speed, power, and intelligence both at the plate and in the field. The question on everybody's mind is whether Mark McGwire will be healthy enough to play a substantial portion of the year. If he is, that lineup becomes a fearsome one, especially if J.D. Drew develops this year the way Lance Berkman did last year. The odds of that happening, now that Drew has settled into right field, I would peg as slightly higher than the odds of Ray Lankford having a great year. If McGwire's not healthy enough, then St. Louis better hope that Jim Edmonds repeats his performance of a year ago, because Will Clark is gone, and the Cardinals don't figure to fill in for McGwire nearly as well this time. There's a question about how well Placido Polanco or up-and-coming rookie Albert Pujols can play third base--Pujols may not be ready, but the expected decline in output at this position after the trade of Fernando Tatis probably won't make a lot of difference. A decline that may make a difference--because I expect it to be a severe one--is that which will probably come from Mike Matheny at catcher. He hit .261 last year, a career high I don't expect him to come close to this year. Matheny's a defensive catcher and should stay that way, but it wouldn't surprise me if an offensive slump from him has a ripple effect through the whole lineup.

I groaned that day in December when the Cardinals traded Fernando Tatis to the Expos for pitcher Dustin Hermanson. I wanted the Astros to go after this guy hard, but apparently they didn't. There are two relevant questions about him: does he have a damaged arm, and has he picked up any bad physical or mental habits while pitching for the Expos? If the answers to these questions are both "no," then I would expect Hermanson to more than make up for any decline we might see from Garrett Stephenson, who may find this season as rough as ex-Cardinal and 18-game winner Kent Bottenfield found last season. Rick Ankiel's wildness in October last year--and wasn't it amazing--was just a freak occurence. He'll be fine, as will most of the rest of the St. Louis pitching staff. Darryl Kile, like it or not, has found a home in Busch Stadium, and Andy Benes will eat up some innings. A lot of baseball experts think Matt Morris will make it all the way back to his old form this year. I am not so sure, but he should get them some wins, and Dave Veres has finally convinced me that he's a closer.

St. Louis has enough question marks behind the names of McGwire, Matheny, Polanco, and Ankiel so that a minor drop in their record would not be surprising at all. But they have depth where they need it most--pitching--and bench players in Bobby Bonilla, Shane Andrews, and John Mabry that should give the starters dependable if unspectacular support. The Cardinals have the look of a 90-72 club to me, and that should keep them in first place, five games ahead of Houston in second.

3. Cincinnati--The Reds gave up last year, and then they didn't give up, and then they gave up again. As a result, they finished ten games back of the Cardinals when perhaps they should have done better with what they had, but the trades of Denny Neagle and Dante Bichette may pay big time for the Reds, both now and in the future. "Now" would be especially pleasant for Jim Bob Bowden because the lineup he'll field this season is not all that impressive. We can expect Sean Casey to re-establish himself as the fine hitter he is, and we can expect that Junior will have a better year than last year now that we're no longer knee-deep in the hoopla surrounding his arrival in Cincinnati. The rest of the everday eight--Larkin, Reese, D. Young, Jason LaRue at catcher, Michael Tucker in right field--is average in production at best and I, for one, have serious questions about just how good the Reds will be at short and in right.

The Reds themselves have questions about who will take the hill after Pete Harnisch and Scott Williamson finish their turns on it this year. Three spots are up for grabs in spring training, and the only thing I'm reasonably confident of is that Ed Yarnall will grab one of those spots, now that he's out from under the media pressure that comes from being a Yankee phenom. Rob Bell and Osvaldo Hernandez may take the other two spots, but who knows? It may be June before the Cincinnati braintrust has it all figured out and by then, the Reds could be too far back. On paper, they have enough warm bodies to maintain their fine bullpen of the last couple of years, but I have to say that if all the Astros' arms are as healthy as they are reported to be, Houston's pen could be every bit as good as the Reds' in 2001. Factor that in with the Astros' better overall lineup, and I think you'll see why I figure the Reds will finish behind Houston by a game or two this season.

After this season, however, Cincinnati may be a real threat to dominate the Central within two years if Yarnall develops, if Drew Henson gives up football forever and concentrates on becoming the fine third baseman he can be, and Jackson Melian--another man who came over from the Yankees in the Neagle trade--can harness his abilities enough in the minors to fill one of the outfield spots. For now, though, the Reds had better hope manager Bob Boone keeps his patience. The Astros have made more than enough moves in the off-season to get past these guys, although the race for second could be tight before the season is done.

4. Milwaukee--For the last couple of seasons, the Brewers and the Pirates have been interchangeable in my mind. Not any more. The Brewers, at least, have put together a very nice starting lineup top to bottom: Belliard, Loretta, Jenkins, Burnitz, Sexson, and Hammonds can all hit, and they should be respectable defensively. They are now what the Pirates had hoped to be several years ago.

Jeff D'Amico had a fine 12-7 season and will match or beat those numbers if his arm remains sound, but the rest of the starting staff--Jamey Wright, Jimmy Haynes--may not be as productive behind him this year if they don't stop walking people. The bullpen may suffer a similar dropoff, if and when Curtis Leskanic reverts to his form in Colorado. While I'm on the subject, it would be pleasant, too, if the Astros could find a way to hit David Weathers: he was 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA against them last year. If Leskanic really is the closer he appeared to be after the trade of Bob Wickman and Weathers can support him more often against teams other than the Astros, Milwaukee will be tough late in games. Help is coming for the rotation, also, in the person of Ben Sheets, the Olympic star. If this guy is as ready to take a turn every fifth day as he looks to be, the Brewers could really push the Reds for third. They aren't a threat to the Astros in any department if Houston's guys are healthy and stay that way, but they're the kind of club that could make life very, very hard for you if you count your wins against them prematurely.

5. Pittsburgh--The window of opportunity is closing fast on the Pirates. Their biggest acquisition in the off-season was Derek Bell. I'll say it again, more slowly: Derek Bell. Their lineup is spotted here and there with genuine talent--Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez--but the others, Bell, Adrian Brown, Kevin Young, Pat Meares, and Warren Morris, have established track records of genuine mediocrity that will be hard to shake off, even with the expected psychological benefit of playing in a spiffy new stadium.

The key for the Bucs, as it has been for the last three years, is how well their starting rotation performs. Kris Benson, Todd Ritchie, Jason Schmidt and Jimmy Anderson are all still young enough to develop into the fine staff they could be, but of those four, only Benson could now be regarded as a sure thing. Terry Mullholland will find life as a swing man in Pittsburgh only marginally better than it was in Chicago and light years removed from what it was in Atlanta. Francisco Cordova could find himself pushed out of the rotation at some point. If that happens, the Astros will be only too glad. Cordova's 4-2 lifetime against Houston with a 2.70 ERA, and he was unhittable again against them last season: 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA.

If the Pirates are going to make a move, they'd better do it this year, new ball park or not. Their farm system is thin at the upper levels, and the team they have at present in the big leagues is regarded in some circles as a kind of minor league team itself. They have enough talent to stay ahead of the Cubs, but unless they start pitching like the scouting reports say they can, that's as much as the Pirates will do.

6. Chicago--Ok, I figure the Cubs for last place. You expect me to rip them, right? Well, I'm not going to. Their starting rotation is quite respectable, at least on paper. What I wonder about, though, is whether Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani will simply wear down after carrying so much of the load for the last couple of seasons. Kerry Wood's arm might be more durable this year, but he's not the same dominating pitcher he was in 1998. Julian Tavarez and Jason Bere--if those two are in fact the men who'll fill out the starting staff--could be expected to give the Cubs some innings, but whether those innings will be high-quality innings is another matter. However the starting staff shakes out, Don Baylor better hope they perform at peak efficiency because Chicago's bullpen is a wreck. No one knows yet if Tom Gordon will be able to pitch again. Even if he is, the Cubs may have to drop deep into their farm system well before they want to to find help for him. Kyle Farnsworth is not someone who strikes deep fear into most batters. In a best-case scenario, however, the Chicago staff will be able to keep the team in a surprising number of games.

Where the Cubs have fallen off is in their everyday lineup, which is why I haven't discussed it first. Yes, they clocked Jose Lima last year (a 19.55 ERA, 8 home runs allowed), but he was about the only one they did damage to, and he might be the only one they smash this year. Rondell White, if he stays healthy all year--and that's a big if--could be an anchor for their batting order, but the odds are he'll be quite acquainted with the DL before the season's over. New pickup at first base Matt Stairs will provide lots of homers, but lots of strikeouts, too. The best acquisition Chicago made in the off-season was getting Bill Mueller from the NL West champ Giants. If he's still motivated to play in June--the Cubs may be deep in the cellar by then--Chicago's troubles at third base will be officially pronounced "over". Will Sammy Sosa stay with the Cubs all year? I think so now, in February, but ask me again in July. Even if he does stay, I'm willing to bet his production drops off noticeably. Overall, what's troubling about Chicago's order is that from Todd Hundley downward, this is a lineup that will give you homers but nothing else. And if the top of the order--Eric Young and Ricky Gutierrez--decline in on-base average this year as I expect them to, having the bombers lower down won't make any difference. The Cubs have some nice players, but they don't have the right players, yet.

That could change, perhaps as soon as mid-season this year. Chicago has three terrific minor league prospects in first baseman Hee Seop Choi, outfielder Corey Patterson, and pitcher Ben Christensen. None of these players, except perhaps Christensen, is ready for the big leagues, and the Cubs may be making a mistake if they rush them up. Depending on how they develop in AAA, they could all be up for good by 2002, and the look of the Cubs could change dramatically thereafter. For now, however, Chicago remains a team desperately trying to find the right mix. As long as that's the case, the rest of the NL Central--all of them with fewer holes to fill--should be able to make it another long, hot summer for the Cubs.