Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

March 28, 2010

Beat guesses: The 2010 NL Central

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — “My predictions are notably inaccurate.”

- Robert Caro

Only a hack kicks off a column with a quotation. Doing so burdens said column with an air of importance to which it could never live up. In this case, my action is especially unforgiveable, since there is no clear way to segue from a quote uttered by a famed Lyndon Johnson biographer into this work’s meat-n-potatoes: namely, my predictions for Major League Baseball’s National League Central Division in 2010.

If a hack kicks off a column with a quotation, what kind of hack am I for beginning an article with not only a quote, but one that does nothing to illuminate the words that come after it? And one that could possibly incite a discussion about L. Baines J.?

Maybe I should try this whole quote thing again, and this time utilize one that can actually springboard a transition into baseball.

One more time:

“Never make predictions. Especially about the future.”

- Casey Stengel

Famed outfielder / manager / ‘perfesser’ Stengel is right: predictions are always a bad idea. And making any sort of reasoned prediction about a baseball season is down right disastrous. Over the course of 162 games, many things can take place that render any sort of preseason musing moot. Players can get injured, managers fired or, simply, a team can inexplicably not live up to its expectations.

But the desire to make a fool out of myself overwhelms all of this. Let us begin.

This is essentially a two-team race between the St. Louis Cardinals and anybody but the Pirates and Astros.

As with the last 23 years, my gut instinct is to pick the Cincinnati Reds. They are my favorite team and, because of this, I loathe their divisional competition.

Picking the Reds’ this year may not be solely based on favoritism, though. All the preseason focus in Cincinnati has been on Cuban defector/freakishly talented pitcher Aroldis Chapman. According to a scouting report on MLB Fanhouse, Chapman, despite being heralded as a “raw talent,” is apparently fully cooked. He possesses a fastball that regularly tops 95 miles per hour (a rare, rare rarity for a lefthander), a changeup described as “downright unfair” and a slider ... well, let’s allow the scouting report to take the wheel for a moment.

“Sitting at 86-88 mph, he has a true slider with two-plane break. The break is late and sharp, and if he can learn to locate it consistently, it's a nearly unhittable offering against both left- and right-handed hitters.”

Needless to say, this all sounds pretty good. But Chapman isn’t the key for Cincinnati. Instead, the key lies in the offense.

For a lineup consisting of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, the Reds’ grossly underperformed offensively last season. The team ranked 24th in runs scored and bested only San Diego by batting a paltry .242 as a team. Considering the stadium in which they play and the talent which they possess, these numbers have to be an anomaly.

To beat the Cardinals, they will have to be. St. Louis is the clear, unclouded-brain pick to take the NL Central. The team has the best player in baseball (Colby Rasmus. Wait, that can’t be right), a top-tier outfielder (Matt Holliday) and a pitcher, if healthy, clearly capable of nabbing another Cy Young award (Colby ... sorry. Chris Carpenter).

All of the above cannot be said about the Chicago Cubs. Although the Cubs won 83 games last year and finished just seven and half back of St. Louis, an avalanche of loss seems poised to bury Cubs’ fans once more. The team’s top three hitters — Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano — have all either arrived or are soon to arrive in mid-30s land. Each player’s bone structure is apparently made of Jenga blocks, as all three are guaranteed injury risks each season. Combine this with a waning Carlos Zambrano, a questionable back-end pitching rotation and a manager who, at times, seems more likely to show up to games donning straps than a uniform, the Cubs look to be on the verge of self-destruction. If they avoid a Hindenburgian scenario, and can put all the pieces together, though, they could be serious contenders not only for the division, but for the World Series itself.

But, then again, the Cubs haven’t put the all the pieces together for 102 years. Moving on.

Their neighbors to the north have a better chance. The Milwaukee Brewers are nothing if they are not powerful. Prince Fielder may be the best hitter in the National League whose last name isn’t burdened with a silent “J.” Fielder laced 46 home runs last season, drove in 141 and posted an on-base percentage-plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.014. Fielder hits alongside a man named Ryan Braun who may be just as good. The outfielder hit 32 home runs and posted 114 RBIs in 2009.

That’s where it ends for the Brewers, though. Their pitching staff consists of one reliable arm, albeit a fantastic one, in Yovanni Gollardo. The rest of the staff is ridden with transplanted wash-ups and their lineup consists of people who live off the tosses pitchers are too afraid to make available for Fielder and Braun. As Casey Stengel never said, baseball isn’t beach volleyball: it cannot be won with two players.

And in Houston, it can’t be won at all.

The Astros do possess pitcher Wandy Rodriguez and the dandelion remains of Roy Oswalt’s right arm, but they have no offense. Lance Berkman is getting old, and Hunter Pence can’t do it by himself.

This leaves us with Pittsburgh.

The Pirates are the saddest story in baseball. They reside in a city polluted with obnoxiously passionate fans and possess a rich history woven with names like Clemente, Stargell and Wagner. Yet, the team hasn’t had a winning season since 1992. Not a single name in their lineup produces a spark of recognition for any non-rabid fan and, let us not forget, this continued nose dive into sub-mediocrity is killing my poor, Pirates-fan mother.

But, if I may quote once more, Roberto Clemente once said: “why does everyone talk about the past? All that counts is tomorrow's game.”

Those games won’t truly count in Pittsburgh for a long time. In 10 years, though, I hope I am confidently picking them to win the division. They deserve it.

For now, I am faced with either making the smart pick (St. Louis) or indulging in my masochistic need to look a fool in print.

Given my past, it seems the choice is already made for me.

Go Reds.