The National League Central has encouraged most of its members to think that they could compete for a postseason spot in recent years. In practice, the competitive nature of the division hasn’t quite been replicated in the final standings, with several teams often falling a long way short. Still, it’s a division that has an unpredictable quality to it and that was showed in 2009 when the overwhelming pre-season favourite was comfortably beaten to the division crown by their fiercest rival.
Joe, Mark, Matt and Russ all picked the Cubs.
As we’ll see, it wasn’t so much a case of us four (and many others) getting it badly wrong, but rather the Cubbies ultimately falling short of expectations on a number of counts.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (91-71)
The Cardinals finished fourth in 2008, but were able to vault all the way to the top in 2009 partly due to their own performance and partly due to some regression by the three teams that finished ahead of them in the previous year.
They began the year with a 16-7 April and then laboured through the next two months (13-14 in May, 12-17 in June), allowing the Brewers to inch ahead. In a sense, St. Louis’ setback came at a good time because it showed that reinforcements were needed, especially to their offense, prior to the trade deadline if the team was to be successful. If you’re going to be a one-man offense, Albert Pujols is the guy you would chose to be that man; however even his MVP season wouldn’t have been enough on its own. Enter Matt Holliday, who blossomed after joining the Cardinals from the A’s and provided the big-bat protection needed behind Pujols. Julio Lugo also did a decent job after joining from the Red Sox at the end of July and former Cub Mark DeRosa added some extra pop to the lineup, if little else, after joining from the Indians.
The Cards acquired Holliday to form a formidable duo in the batting lineup, but when it came to the starting rotation they just needed a current member of the roster to stay healthy for the majority of the year. For the first time in three seasons, Chris Carpenter did just that and his partnership with Adam Wainwright gave the Red Birds the best 1-2 punch in the Majors this year. Joel Pineiro chipped in with a strong season as well, good timing on his part as a free agent this offseason, and Ryan Franklin made the closer role his own, logging thirty-eight saves and a 1.92 ERA over sixty-one innings.
All of the positives made St. Louis’s stumble down the stretch a major disappointment. With a postseason spot basically wrapped up, they lost eleven of their last thirteen games, including the last six in a row, and then took that losing streak into their Division Series against the Dodgers. A 3-0 sweep, made all the more painful by Holliday’s calamitous fielding clunk with his team one out away from a win in Game Two, ended the season on a very low note. Tony La Rusa will return as manager in 2010, with Mark McGwire as hitting coach, but whether the Cardinals can repeat their 2009 success depends on how the short-term, mid-season fixes are replaced over the offseason.
2. Chicago Cubs (83-78)
It was a depressing year for the Cubs. For a team that lost 96 games just a few years ago (2006), you might think that finishing second in the Central with a winning record wasn’t disastrous. Indeed, they had an excellent July (18-9) and September gave some cause for optimism (17-12) as well. However, there was a bad feeling around the Cubs for most of the season, one that made you question where the organization is heading.
Milton Bradley will go down as the poster child for the Cubs’ 2009 season. He had a great year with the Rangers in 2008, but everyone knew the dangers of giving a multi-year contract to a guy who all too easily loses his head. GM Jim Hendry was the one who gambled by signing him to a three-year deal over the offseason. It didn’t take Bradley long to wear out his welcome, one game in particular stood out for me, and Hendry now faces the task of moving him along over the offseason with virtually no bargaining power in any negotiations.
Bradley’s contract isn’t the only problem facing the Cubs. Carlos Zambrano has a similarly volatile nature and, while on his day he’s one of the best starters in the Majors, I’m not sure he’s the consistent ace I would want to be leading my rotation at $17.8+m per year for the next three seasons. Alfonso Soriano doesn’t match Bradley for temper tantrums, but he’s one of the few players who can match Milton in an unpopularity contest at Wrigley. The Cubs are contracted to pay him $18m annually for the next five seasons as his production declines. Those are considerable hurdles for the team to overcome if they are to be successful in 2010 and beyond.
What positives can they take from 2009? Derek Lee had an excellent season and they will hope that he can continue in that form in 2010 (he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year). Fingers will also be firmly crossed that Aramis Ramirez can stay healthy because he performed extremely well when he was able to take the field. Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster were as dependable as ever and Randy Wells put together a promising season in the starting rotation.
The uncertainty caused by the impending sale of the team couldn’t have helped and now that new owners have been found, some semblance of stability may follow. Still, will two NL Central titles followed by two NLDS sweeps be the sum total of the Cubs’ achievements under manager Lou Piniella, who enters the final year of his contract in 2010?
3. Milwaukee Brewers (80-82)
No one needed to tell Brewers fans that 2009 might struggle to live up to 2008. Last year was a wonderful whirlwind in Wisconsin, as the team made it to the postseason for the first time since 1982, led by the scarcely believable pitching of mid-season acquisition CC Sabathia.
Sabathia’s excellence put him firmly out of the Brewers’ price range when he became a free agent at the end of the season and they also lost their other ace-type starter, Ben Sheets, to free agency as well, although injuries have so far prevented him from signing with another team. The Brewers had little chance of replacing those two; they didn’t and the consequences were unavoidable. While Yovani Gallardo (13-12, 3.73 ERA) bucked the trend with a good season, Braden Looper and Jeff Suppan had ERAs over 5.00 and Dave Bush and Manny Parra’s ERAs were over 6.00. Despite some effective pitching out of the bullpen by legendary closer Trevor Hoffman, Todd Coffey and Claudio Vargas (signed from the Dodgers at the end of July), Milwaukee conceded more runs per game (5.06) than every team in the National League except for the Nationals (5.40).
The pitching just about held up over the first two months, allowing the team to start the season with a 30-20 record, but ultimately the offense simply couldn’t make up all of the difference. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun continued to be two of the best young players in the game. Fielder belted 46 homers and drove in 141 runs, while Braun added a further 32 and 114 respectively to the cause. Mike Cameron and Craig Counsell made decent contributions throughout the season (both are now free agents) and Casey McGehee had an enjoyable rookie campaign after being claimed off waivers from the Cubs last October. Rickie Weeks showed his undoubted talent in his 37 appearances before surgery on a wrist injury cruelly ended his season after it had barely begun.
Ken Macha’s first season in charge of the Brewers therefore ended with the team slipping below .500, despite having some excellent players. How they fare in 2010 will depend on what additions GM Doug Melvin can make to the roster over the offseason, especially on the pitching front. Otherwise the brilliance of Braun and Fielder will once again count for little in the standings.
4. Cincinnati Reds (78-84)
We’re two years into the Dusty Baker era in Cincinnati and on the face of it you might think the Reds are making a bit of progress. They won four more games in 2009 than they did in 2008 and moved up a place in the final standings from fifth to fourth. Those are positive developments, but it’s questionable whether the Reds are improving enough to become contenders any time soon.
Their best pitcher Edinson Volquez went under the knife for Tommy John surgery after making just nine starts in 2009, probably keeping him out for the majority, if not all, of 2010 as well. Memories of Baker’s handling of Mark Prior when he was in charge of the Cubs immediately cast suspicion on whether Volquez’s injuries can be traced back to how he was being managed, although that looks a little unfair in this case. Where Baker cannot dodge the blame is his decision to start Willy Taveras at the top of his batting lineup in 81 games. Taveras’ speed might make him seem like an ideal lead-off hitter, but he can only use his legs when he gets on base and his .275 OBP batting in that position handicapped the offense until rookie Drew Stubbs too over that role for most of August and September.
Not that the rest of the offense added up to a great deal anyway. Apart from a very good year by Joey Votto and another solid campaign by Brandon Phillips, there wasn’t much else to cheer about. Jay Bruce missed two months with a fractured right wrist and Ramon Hernandez didn’t get the Great American Ball Park bounce that some had predicted, although he’ll have another go in 2010 after re-signing with the team. Bronson Arroyo led the pitching staff with a 15-13 record an ERA of 3.84, as former ace Aaron Harang ended up with a 6-14 record despite an okay ERA of 4.21 (the Reds were 11-15 in his starts). Nick Masset performed well out of the bullpen and the Reds finally got some useful starts out of the once much-heralded prospect Homer Bailey. Scott Rolen was a decent mid-season pick-up and the team does at least have a good defense to rely on.
An 8-19 July was balanced by an 18-9 September and doing well over the final month (excepting the four games played in October) always puts a positive spin on a season, but 12 of those 18 wins came against the Astros and Pirates. I’d be cautious about seeing the Reds’ September as a preview of a successful 2010.
5. Houston Astros (74-88)
For a number of years now, the Astros have not really been in contention for a proper run at the postseason and yet they have also done little to make them become contenders in the near future either. That’s left them with a flawed team that doesn’t clearly offer the promise of better things to come.
The offense is a great example of where the Astros fall down. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman had typically productive seasons in 2009, Hunter Pence has settled in as a more-than-useful outfielder, Michael Bourn provided them with the lead-off hitter and stolen base threat that Dusty Baker thought he had in Willy Taveras and the Astros then enjoyed a big bonus via a surprisingly good season by Miguel Tejada. That’s five effective everyday players to build around and yet the Astros still had the fourth worst offense in the Majors, based on runs scored per game (3.97). Berkman did miss some time due to a spell on the DL, but even so the supporting cast let the batting lineup down and a lot of that comes down to poor roster construction.
It was a similar story with the pitching staff. Wandy Rodriguez played Tejada’s role with an unanticipated excellent campaign (14-12, 3.02 ERA) and that should have been a boost to push them up the standings. Instead, his surprising contribution led the staff and only Roy Oswalt offered much back-up, with Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz pitching poorly when they took the mound. Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins chipped in from the bullpen, but as we’ve seen with other teams, strong relief work only takes you so far when the starters and/or batting lineup don’t pull their weight.
A team in this position would normally cut their losses and trade away some of their best players to acquire some prospects for a future postseason push. The Astros’ Front Office and owner Drayton McLane haven’t done this in the past and they’re now left with some players leaving as free agents (Tejada and Valverde) and others who are less valuable now than they were a couple of years ago (Oswalt, Berkman, Lee).
Manager Cecil Cooper was sacked in September, but the new incumbent Brad Mills faces a difficult task if division-winning expectations are still being placed on a roster that isn’t good enough to meet them.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (62-99)
While the Astros are reluctant sellers, the Pirates are masters at trading away players. During the 2009 season, they traded away Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske, Sean Burnett, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Ian Snell, Jack Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow and Freddy Sanchez. Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte were all dealt prior to the deadline in 2008 as well. Of course getting rid of players is easy; the difficult part is getting good players in return. It may take a while before we can evaluate GM Neal Huntington’s ability to do just that as the players have predominantly been traded away for prospects. The promise of a brighter future is all that fans in Pittsburgh have to cling to because things couldn’t get much worse at the Major League level.
The Pirates set an unwanted record by becoming the first team in North American sports history to put together a string of seventeen straight losing seasons. You are going to lose games if you keep trading away your better players, but Huntington’s argument would be that those players weren’t part of a winning team anyway and you have to say he’s got a point. While others (such as the Astros) are prepared to patch up their crumbling house to keep up the appearance that they’re trying to win, Huntington decided that he had to undertake a complete demolition job and then build a new house from the foundations upward. He’s approached this by bringing in as many players as possible to flood the farm system and you’ve got to hope for the sake of all Pirates fans that he’s successful in the end.
You wouldn’t bet on them breaking their losing sequence in 2010, but there are reasons for optimism besides the small victories of not losing 100 games and going 40-41 at home in 2009. Andrew McCutchen should be a star fixture in the Pirates’ outfield for years to come after an impressive rookie campaign and the acquisition of Lastings Milledge in a trade with the Nationals could pay rich dividends if he can finally turn his ability into Major League production. The Pirates added top talents Jose Tabata (from the Yankees) and Pedro Alvarez (first round draft pick) to their farm system in 2008 and they were joined by the likes of Tim Alderson (from the Giants), Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke (both from the Braves) this year. Not all of them will pan out, but hopefully enough will to put some pride back into the once-great Pirates organization.