As was the case last season, the Chicago Cubs start spring training as the division favorites. Chicago may have failed to acquire former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy from San Diego, but they still have the best pitching staff and offense in the division. Their rivals from St. Louis did little to improve their team as did Cincinnati and their other rival Milwaukee actually took a giant leap backwards. The Milwaukee Brewers lost ace CC Sabathia to the Yankees and their other ace Olympic hero Ben Sheets is currently a free agent who is going to have elbow surgery to fix a torn flexor tendon. Rounding out the division is the dreadful PittsburghR Pirates and the Houston Astros.
Chicago‘s lovable losers are ready to break their 101 year championship drought and once again start the season as the favorites to win the division and possibly the pennant. Chicago’s pitching led by Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster have the ability to shut down any offense in the league and their hitting is also top notch. Alfonso Soriano is an explosive offensive player who can easily put knock out 30 to 40 home runs and steal an equal number of bases, while new Cub, Milton Bradley led the American League last year in batting average (.323) and on-base percentage (.443) The Cubs are a pretty balanced team, but they are not perfect. Rich Harden is always an injury risk and Ryan Dempster may have overachieved last season. Their bullpen also suffered a huge loss when Kerry Wood left as a free agent to join the Cleveland Indians. Even with those question marks, the Cubs are still an elite team.
St. Louis missed the playoffs the last two years, but they still have a legitimate shot at upsetting Chicago thanks to Albert Pujols. Pujols, who won the MVP last season, puts the fear of God into Chicago. Last season Pujols batted .429 with an OPS of 1.357 against ace Carlos Zambrano. His numbers against Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster are also amazing. Against Harden, he batted .333 with an OPS of 1.000 and Dempster he only had an OPS of .917. Against the Cubs as a team, he batted .327 with an OPS of 1.043. In baseball an OPS of .900 or higher and any batting average over .300 is considered upper echelon in baseball. In addition to Pujols, St. Louis has 2008 All-Star, Ryan Ludwick and power hitter Rick Ankiel. Their pitching staff is the team’s weak link as 2005 Cy Young winner, Chris Carpenter may be forced to pitch out of their bullpen due to injuries. Overall, this team is too one dimensional to really be a threat to Chicago.
Cincinnati is a very intriguing team. The Reds have three amazing young pitchers in Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey. They also have talented hitters in Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Joey Vatto. Cincinnati has all the talent in the world, but they lack experience. Cincinnati has a chance to be this year’s Tampa Bay Rays, and make a run to the World Series, but most likely they need another year to really put everything together and make a run to the playoffs.
Last year, the Milwaukee Brewers won the Wild Card and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1982, and then got beat by Philadelphia in the first round. The Brewers have had an off-season so bad; horrible doesn’t begin to describe it. They lost ace CC Sabathia to the Yankees and Ben Sheets to free agency. Their closer Solomon Torres is also gone and their best minor league prospect was traded to Cleveland last year to acquire Sabathia. The Brewers have major holes in their pitching and they have been unable to acquire Kerry Woods, Brian Fuentes or any other free agent pitcher to help bolster their club. At least the Brewers still have a ton of offense. Prince Fielder was the youngest player to hit 50 home runs in a season. He is also a consistent player that will give you 30 plus homers and at least 100 rbis. They also have All-Star Ryan Braun and a very good offense, which plays in one of the best hitting parks in the league. They don’t have enough pitching to go very far, but they have enough hitting to annoy the other teams in the league.
Rounding out the division are Pittsburgh and Houston. The Pittsburgh Pirates are dreadful as usual and Houston is underwhelming. Houston has some talent in Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, but the rest of the team is so awful that it doesn’t matter. Speaking of awful, the Pirates are just that. The once proud franchise has fallen on tough times with the departure of Barry Bonds in the 90s and they have not stood up yet. They traded away their best player last year to Boston, and they have nobody worth rooting for this year. Its going to be another tough year for Pittsburgh, as Chicago cruises along and wins the division for a 3rd straight year.