Yah, we know there's still lots of time to alter a lineup or two; it's been that kind of free agent season. But while the Bucs have stood pat, there's been some changes, both by addition and subtraction, in the Central. The 2009 look, YTD:
Chicago Cubs: Added OF Milton Bradley and Joey Gathright, IF Aaron Miles, RP Luis Vizcaino and Kevin Gregg, and C Mark Johnson. Lost RP Kerry Woods and Bob Howry, SP Jason Marquis, and IF Mark DeRosa.
The Cubbies are loaded again. The starting rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and youngsters Jeff Samardzija or Sean Marshall is the Central's best. And hey, depending on the whims of new owners, the Cubs are still rumored to be in the Jake Peavy sell-off. Adding him would make the rotation something special.
The relief corp could prove interesting. Carlos Marmol has all the goods to close after an awesome 2008 campaign, but is unproven, and the Chitown Nine will have a bullpen by committee to get the ball to him.
Bradley will add some offense and spunk to the laid-back Cubbies, and the bench is OK, although Miles is no DeRosa. The only thing that these guys lacked last year was a spark, and if Bradley can stay in one piece, he's got enough energy for the whole squad.
Cincinnati Reds: Added RP Arthur Rhodes, CF Willy Taveras, C Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Jorgensen, 1B Wes Bankston, and OF Laynce Nix. Lost CF Ryan Freel and Corey Patterson, RP Gary Majewski and Jeremy Affeldt, and IF Andy Phillips. Unsigned free agents are SP Matt Belisle and Josh Fogg, RP Kent Mercker, C Paul Bako and Javier Valentin, OF Rob Mackowiak, and 2B Jolbert Cabrera.
The rotation is young and sweet. Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, and Johnny Cueto will form the core, with Micah Owings, Daryl Thompson, Homer Bailey, and Ramon Ramirez knocking on the door.
Francisco Cordero leads a bullpen that gained Rhodes and lost Majewski, a pretty fair trade.
Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce lead a lineup that's thin and lacking some muscle after Adam Dunn and Junior were dealt away. Young guns like SS Drew Stubbs and 1B Yonder Alonso are in the pipeline, and could end up in Cincy this year.
The bench is all kids, too. It's a young team and its window is probably 2010, not next season. But GW thinks they can make things interesting this year if they stay healthy and the suits pick up a bat for the middle of the order. Hope the Pirates are paying attention.
St. Louis Cards: Added SS Khalil Greene, C Jason LaRue, OF Joe Thurston and RP Royce Ring and Trever Miller. Lost SS Cesar Izturis, C Mark Johnson, 2B Aaron Miles, 1B Josh Phelps, OF Felix Lopez, SP Matt Clement, and RP Mark Worrell. Unsigned free agents are SP Mark Mulder and Braden Looper, RP Jason Isringhausen, Russ Springer, Ron Villone, and Randy Flores, OF Juan Encarcion, IF Scott Spiezio, and 2B Rico Washington.
The starters for Tony LaRussa look like Chris Carpenter, if healthy, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, Todd Wellemeyer, Joel Pineiro and perhaps youngster Kyle McClellan. They'll likely add a veteran arm from the free agent ranks, too.
The Cards top candidates to close are Chris Perez and Jason Motte, both rookies last year. Perez had seven saves in 11 chances after taking over for Isringhausen. LaRussa likes a veteran hand to end games, and the Redbirds could still ink a finisher after losing out on Brian Fuentes, or if Carpenter can't handle a starter's load, he could become the closer. The rest of the bullpen is young, a transition begun last season.
Any club that has Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick, and Ricky Ankiel has to be respected, and this could be the year wunderkind CF Colby Rasmus breaks into the bigs. The bench could use some work. But the Cards have some $20M left from last year's contracts, and have the flexibility to add the depth they need from the market.
Milwaukee Brewers: Added OF Trot Nixon and Chris Duffy, RP Trevor Hoffman, Jorge Julio, Eduardo Morlan, and Chris Smith, and IF Jason Bourgeois. Lost SP CC Sabathia, RP Solly Torres and Derrick Turnbow, IF Calix Crabbe, OF Russell Braynan and Laynce Nix. Unsigned free agents are SP Ben Sheets, RP Brian Shouse, Guillermo Mota, and Eric Gagne, IF Ray Durham and Craig Counsell, and OF Gabe Kapler.
The rotation looks like this: Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Manny Parra, and Seth McClung, Carlos Villanueva, or maybe Chris Capuano. Gallardo is a star in the making; the rest are run of the mill.
The bullpen pitched the fewest innings in the MLB last year, but will spring some major leaks without Torres and Shouse on board. Hoffman, if he has any gas left in the tank, will fill one gaping hole at closer, but good luck with the rest of the arms.
The starting eight can mash with the best of them, and unless you shoot a few balls at Prince Fielder (a misnomer if there ever was one), they can pick 'em pretty well, too. Alcides Escobar could be ready to take over at short, moving Hardy to third, and if Fielder is traded, Mat Gamel is sitting in the wings.
Right now, the Brew Crew needs to add at least one arm to both its rotation and pen. They have to completely reconstruct their bench. But we don't think this is the team they'll take to camp. They shed some $25M in salary from 2008, and almost surely have a signing or two left in them during the next few weeks.
Houston Astros: Added SP Mike Hampton and Clay Hensley, OF Jason Michaels, 3B Aaron Boone, and 2B Jason Smith. Lost 3B Jose Castillo, C JR House, RP Dave Borkowski, and 2B Mark Loretta. Unsigned free agents are SP Randy Wolf and Runelvys Hernandez, RP Ray King and Chad Paronto, 3B Ty Wigginton and Tomas Perez, C Brad Ausmus, and 2B David Newhan.
The rotation is Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Brian Moehler, and hopefully Hampton, Hensley, or Alberto Arias. Ben Sheets cost too much, and they're making loud noises about bringing back Andy Pettitte, but if he already turned down $10M...hey, maybe Oswalt can pull a CC and pitch every fourth day.
The closer is the ever excitable Jose Valverde, and the pen is a quietly dependable group of no-names, led by Doug Brocail and Hawkins.
Not much going on with the starting lineup, and except for Lance Berkman, there's not a whole lot there. The most dependable subs were Loretta and Ausmus, and they're gone, evaporated like every bench in the division.
GW thought the Astros big August was accomplished by smoke and mirrors, and sees them a step below the Cubs, Reds, Cards and Brewers, and a non-factor the wild card race.
GW's early guess at the NL Central:
(No, we didn't give up on or forget the Buccos - we'll take a look at where they're at tomorrow)