The Birdhouse's 2008 NL Central Predictions

Four writers predict the 2008 National League Central standings.

For those who prefer to get to the bottom line, right up front, I will put the summary of our four voters' predictions of the National League Central standings at the conclusion of the 2008 regular season.


  Mileur Mattison Khazen Walton Total
Chicago 1 2 1 1 5
Milwaukee 3 1 4 3 11
St. Louis 2 3 5 2 12
Cincinnati 4 4 3 4 15
Houston 5 5 2 5 17
Pittsburgh 6 6 6 6 24


To be completely honest, just the other day, our St. Louis-based Cubs-fan writer Pete Khazen reminded me that we had not yet assembled this annual feature. I am sure it had nothing to do with Pete having been the only one among us to have picked the 2007 winner (after never having been correct before) along with knowing his Cubbies are the 2008 favorite here and elsewhere.


As the table shows, three of the four see the Cubbies repeating, with one vote cast for Milwaukee. The most optimistic can only see a second-place finish for the Cardinals. Three of the four agree on the second division of Cincinnati, Houston and Pittsburgh. Khazen's view is wildly different.


You can read and decide for yourself and we'll see you back here in October!



Ray Mileur


1. Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs finished the 2007 campaign with an 85-77 record, good enough to clinch a division crown in the weakest division in baseball, but they couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs.  In the offseason they added Japanese star right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, a move that many Cub fans consider enough to put them over the top.  Clear favorites to win the NL Central before the season starts, the Cubs aren't invincible.  There is a question of depth among the position players that should give some cause for concern.  Once you get past Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly then you are facing the likes of converted reliever Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill and former Cardinal Jason Marquis in the rotation; it's not like those names sends chills up and down your spine.  The Cubs should start strong out of the gate, but the lack of depth, the fragile Kerry Woods as the closer and question marks about the back end of the rotation, may comeback and haunt the Cubs. While it may not be another 100 years before the Cubs when a World Championship, it may not be this year either. 


2.  St. Louis Cardinals.  The Cardinals finished spring training winning 12 of their last 14 games (12-1-1) which could be a preview of things yet to come.  The starting rotation with the exception of Adam Wainwright and the newly acquired Kyle Lohse will start the season on the disabled list.  Converted relievers Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson will fill in for now as starters.  Anthony Reyes who pitched better than most of the starters this spring has been banished to the bullpen.  How well the patchwork rotation stands the test of battle, will have a major impact on the fate of the Cardinals this season.  After the All-Star break the Cardinals will become a significantly better ball club. Imagine a rotation in the final two months of the season that could include; Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Matt Clement or Joel Pineiro.  They have more depth at the everyday positions than their Central Division rivals and they have players off the bench and can reach down to Triple-A Memphis and find players who can contribute at the Major League level.  Then of course there is Albert Pujols. The underachievers of 2007 could become the overachievers of 2008, if the plan comes together.


3. Milwaukee Brewers.  The Brewers surprised almost everyone last year leading the NL Central Division for most of the season before yielding to the Cubs at the end.  The Brewers have the most intimidating everyday lineup in the Central Division unfortunately they don't have a rotation to match.  It's a given Ben Sheets and Jeff Suppan will be at the front end of the rotation but after that there are more questions than answers.  Fans blamed the Brewers bullpen for blowing 16 games with a three run lead or more, making them miss a golden opportunity to advance to the postseason in ‘07. Considering they lost their closer in Francisco Cordero, the bullpen will likely struggle again this season.  The Brewers improved defensively with the addition of Mike Cameron in center, moving Bill Hall to third and Ryan Braun to left.  The double-play combo of shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks struggled in spring training with illnesses and injuries but they should be adequate up the middle.  You can't take the Brewers for granted, if the Brewers bullpen can turn things around and Ben Sheets stays healthy they'll have a shot to contend.  In it till the end.


4. Cincinnati Reds.  The Reds brought in manager Dusty Baker to turn things around after the Reds finished with a dismal 72-90 record, 13 games back of the Chicago Cubs in 2007.  Known for making an instant impact on a team's won-loss record, Baker led a 72-win Giants team to 103 wins in his first season at the helm. He did the same thing with the Cubs, taking them from 67 wins to 88 victories in his first year as their new skipper.   He won't be taking over the big "Red Machine" but the Reds have a lineup that includes Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion; any one of them can win a game with a single swing of the bat.  They have one of the best double-play combos with shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Brandon Phillips. They have added closer Francisco Cordero, basically their only big move in the offseason but he could stop the bleeding in a bullpen that blew 28 saves. The rotation is suspect once you get past Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, but this is a team that could compete down the stretch.  Closing the gap on the .500 mark, a dark horse contender.


5. Houston Astros.  The bottom line is the Astros just don't have the pitching to contend even in the NL Central Division.  Roy Oswalt will be looking to add 20 wins to his resume, but after Oswalt, Brandon Backe is the #2 starter and he only made five starts last season after coming off of Tommy John surgery.  The addition of closer Jose Valverde, who led the NL with 47 saves last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, will give the Astros a chance to win games if they can get to him in the ninth with a lead. The addition of Miguel Tejada, Michael Bourn and Kaz Matsui will compliment sluggers Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence to give the Astros potentially one of the best offenses in the division.  The Astros bench is nothing to write home about so any significant injuries to the starters will greatly impact the club's ability to compete on a consistent basis.  It's hard not to imagine the Astros competing for a division title, but I can't see it this season.


6. Pittsburgh Pirates.  Even playing in what is widely considered the weakest division in baseball, it doesn't look like the Pirates are likely to escape another finish in last place. The Pirates have made some changes off the field to include a new President in Frank Coonelly, a new General Manager in Neil Huntington as well as a new field manager in John Russell and his new coaching staff.  The Pirates aren't ready to announce that they expect a winning season and I can't find a reason to disagree with them.  They appear to be in their 12th year of a three-year building program, but there are some signs of life as their young pitching staff led by Ian Snell who just recently signed a three-year deal, continues to show signs of improvement.  At the trade deadline, the Pirates will likely try to move veterans Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Matt Morris (if he's still around) to a contender to stock the system with some additional prospects.  The Pirates are probably at the beginning of a three-year rebuilding/restocking program, for the fourth time in 12 years. Improving but not enough to get out of the cellar.


Dustin Mattison


1. Milwaukee Brewers.  As the Cubs seem to be the popular choice, I am going with the team that broke down during the stretch drive in 2007.  The team's two glaring weaknesses, defense and the bullpen, have received significant upgrades during the offseason.  The defense will be much better with the acquisition of Mike Cameron along with the switch of Bill Hall to third base and the reigning Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun, moving to left field.  The bullpen will be much improved with the acquisitions of Eric Gagne, Salomon Torres, David Riske, and Guillermo Mota.  Plus, this team has plenty of offensive thunder.


2. Chicago Cubs.  The sexy choice among the national media, the Cubbies will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the team's last World Series championship.  The offense will be solid, though I am not sold on Ryan Theriot in the leadoff spot nor am I convinced that Felix Pie is ready to be the everyday centerfielder.  The rotation is deep but the Cubs are depending on former closer Ryan Dempster who has started six games in the last four seasons and the enigmatic Jason Marquis.  The bullpen has question marks with the always-brittle Kerry Wood ticketed to be the team's closer.


3. St. Louis Cardinals. The first season of the John Mozeliak era will be trying for sure.  With the organization's commitment to youth and player development, there are sure to be growing pains.  Complicating things is the injury bug that has debilitated the team's starting rotation.  Chris Carpenter is out until the All-Star break.  Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro, and Matt Clement are scheduled to start the year on the disabled list as well.  The offense should pack more punch than in 2007 and Adam Wainwright looks ready to step up to be a front of the rotation starter.  


4. Cincinnati Reds.  The Dusty Baker era will begin with high expectations for the Reds.  Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang will give the team lots of innings at the front of the rotation.  Edison Volquez looks like he is going to be the pitcher the Texas Rangers hoped he would be after being brought in for Josh Hamilton.  Rookie pitcher Johnny Cueto looks to be the real deal. The Reds paid a whole lot of money to Francisco Cordero to close out games.  The team should score a lot of runs but strikeout a bunch as well.  The offense is led by Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and budding star Brandon Phillips.  Super prospect Jay Bruce will begin the season in the minors as the Reds brought in Baker favorite Corey Patterson to leadoff and play centerfield. 


5. Houston Astros.  Minute Maid Park will look like your local softball field with the runs being put up in 2008.  The Astros offense should put up a ton of runs with the additions of Miguel Tejada and Kaz Matsui to go along with holdovers Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence.  The rotation gets thin after ace Roy Oswalt.  Jose Valverde was brought in to close after saving 47 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks while unreliable closer Brad Lidge was sent to the Phillies. 


6. Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates have a new GM and manager but things will be the same in Pittsburgh.  Things are improving as the Pirates have a solid core in their rotation with 20-somethings Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm.  Matt Capps is reliable at the end of the bullpen.  While the pitching should be able to keep the Pirates in games, the offense is an obvious glaring weakness.  Runs will be hard to come by with seven starters returning for a team that ranked near the bottom of runs scored in the National League in 2007.


Pete Khazen


1. Chicago Cubs.  Sweet Lou Piniella's magic will work once again as the Cubs try to exorcise 100 years of demons on the North Side of Chicago. Kerry Wood likely won't be the next John Smoltz or Dennis Eckersley, but Alfonso Soriano will have that monster year finally making due on his monster contract. Yes, Cards fans will endure yet another season of Carlos Zambrano's sky-pointing antics, while growing to hate Cubdom's new favorite name, "Fukudome!"


2. Houston Astros.  If history repeats itself, that entire Astros pitching staff has injured reserved written all over it. But anytime you look at a lineup that includes Miguel Tejada, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee, you've got a decent shot at making some noise in a very average division.


3. Cincinnati Reds.  Yes it's true… both Cubs and Cards fans have to endure the return of Dusty Baker.  While the hype might get the Cincy faithful mistakenly believing "In Dusty We Trusty", truth is their star players are just a bit too unreliable. Still, chalk up a Cy Young contending season for Aaron Harang, who continues to fly under the radar.


4. Milwaukee Brewers.  Last year's Cinderella faded into the sunset like an old Western. Prince Fielder is the real deal, and so is Ryan Braun, but that pitching staff is just too much of a wild card and hasn't proven they can deliver down the stretch.


5. St. Louis Cardinals.  The Redbirds don't have the best of teams on paper, and that World Championship team has undergone a serious makeover in just two years. With General Manager Walt Jocketty's departure, Tony La Russa might just lose his Midas touch.  So with fans bitter and expectations as low one can remember, Murphy's Law would indicate this is the season the Cards make some noise and give birth to some new superstars. With 18 of 24 games on the road in mid-June, this team will either come together or fall out of contention way early this season.


6. Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Bucs have one of the most beautiful stadiums in the league and some talented young pitching, but they don't have the "bucks" to get the players they need to compete. And when they do spend some cash, they waste it on players way past their prime like Matt Morris. Yes, it's another season in the cellar for the Pirates. Aaargh!


Brian Walton


For those of you who are still patiently reading this, don't worry. I am not going to re-heat what the others said. This isn't going to be a "Lake Wobegon" forecast - you know, where "all the children are above average"… What follows may be negative, but to be totally honest, I really don't like the teams in this division very much and I see very little to separate teams one through four in this list.


1. Chicago Cubs. It pains me to predict them number one, but who am I to relieve them from carrying the weight of inflated expectations? Carlos Zambrano is wildly unpredictable though Rich Hill should be coming on. The rest of the rotation is comparable to the Cardinals, except they aren't on the disabled list – yet. Ryan Dempster is on the Braden Looper career plan, which ain't necessarily a good thing. Derrek Lee stopped being a threat to Albert Pujols a few years back and Aramis Ramirez often seems disinterested. I don't like what has been done to this team management-wise at all. They left their second baseman Mark DeRosa along with several other players twisting in the wind as they entertained trading with the Orioles for Brian Roberts for months before calling it off. They have a good young outfielder, Matt Murton, who is in the Cubs' version of Anthony Reyes' doghouse. Jason Marquis continues to whine, which can't be good for any environment. Kerry Wood is the closer. How comfortable can you feel about that, unless you are in the medical profession? It doesn't matter if the Cubs win the division again as they won't play long in October, though maybe if they make it, they won't get swept in the NLDS this time around. Bad karma.


2. St. Louis Cardinals. Let me take a big gulp of Kool-Aid here. OK, ready. This team will go as far as their rotation takes them. Unfortunately, the current version of the Cards sports quantity over quality up and down the roster. Even with four starters on the DL, the Cards have six others. It is too bad the team can't go Frankenstein and assemble five workable ones from parts of the ten. If Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse can somehow help keep the fires burning and somehow Mark Mulder adds a spark and Chris Carpenter somehow stays on schedule and contributes down the stretch, this team has a chance. Otherwise, if the stop-gap starters implode, an aging bullpen could quickly crater under the workload. Offensively, Albert Pujols needs help. If they answer the bell all season long, Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus could be it. Neither is a lock for that and there is little behind them. Chris Duncan remains a worry. Too bad there aren't enough guys to get on base for these RBI men to knock in.


3. Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, they did get closer in 2007. On the other hand, how many years have we been saying this is a team on the rise? Time to head a bit south. Up the middle, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks have never met their promise offensively or defensively and Bill Hall was such a bust in center that he had to be moved back to third base to cover for all-bat, no glove Ryan Braun. Catcher Jason Kendall may be one of the few above average defenders but is an offensive black hole. Ben Sheets is the Brewers' version of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and at least Jeff Suppan has a $42 million contract. Chris Capuano, who the Brewers wanted the Cardinals to take for Scott Rolen, is injured and likely out for the year. The young pitchers are interesting, but Yovani Gallardo is hurt to start the season. The pen is scary, especially closer Eric Gagne, who the Brewers braintrust hid on back fields for part of the spring. Did you catch his long-running implosion act in Boston late last summer? Finally, Ned Yost made a number of questionable managerial decisions coming down to the wire last season. Think his players will remember? Me, too.


4. Cincinnati Reds. I think Dusty Baker's reputation is overblown, but that doesn't mean there isn't some fire along with all the smoke. Great American Bandbox is going to continue to be murderous on pitchers and heavy workload is not a great combination. They finally have a solid closer in Francisco Cordero, but he will get fewer and fewer leads to protect as the season progresses. They traded their best young player, Josh Hamilton, for a back of the rotation starter, Edinson Volquez. Volquez had a nice spring, but check back after he gets 16 starts at home. Good luck with that. Several of their top youngsters have been buried at least temporarily in Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Homer Bailey. Their leadoff hitter, Corey Patterson, was unwanted all winter long until a few weeks ago. Good thing Dusty has apparently forgotten he ran Patterson out of Chi-town a few years back. Like always, the Reds will fade as the summer gets hot, but then maybe we'll get to see the kids play. Maybe not.


5. Houston Astros. Not to perfume the pig, but this is probably a last place team anywhere other than the NL Central. To say their pitching is atrocious is like suggesting Hillary's husband might have a wandering eye. Instead of getting starters that can pitch innings, all they did was flip their closer, Brad Lidge, and bring in Jose Valverde. Jose will soon become the Maytag repairman of Houston. Just a couple of years removed from pitching in a rotation with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, ace Roy Oswalt has to be wondering what happened. You have to work really hard to be a worse staff than San Francisco, but Houston did it this spring, with an MLB-worst ERA of 6.65! Offensively, Hunter Pence is a budding star, but new leadoff man Michael Bourn had more Florida strikeouts than hits. Carlos Lee doesn't always seem to play hard and Lance Berkman has bad knees, but when the two are on, they can hit. The Astros mortgaged their farm system to acquire new shortstop Miguel Tejada, who brought his happy, winning ways from Baltimore. Miggy has trended downward the last four years, sort of like his former teammate Mark Mulder. In that silly tricked-up park of theirs, this season Houston is going to lose more high-scoring games than the Reds, which is saying a lot.


6. Pittsburgh Pirates. I was against the plan of Bud Selig and his henchmen to contract two major league franchises a few years back. Still am. However, I might support a variation on the theme. It has come to my attention that if somehow the Houston offense could be combined with the Pittsburgh pitching staff, one decent team might result. While young starters Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm have potential, they are going to lose as many 3-2 games as the Astros will by an 11-10 score. Before too long, they will get weary of losing and lose even more. Matt Morris was a fine pitcher once, but what in the heck is he doing here? Jason Bay had huge potential and posted two solid seasons before going MIA last year. If I was the opposition, I wouldn't bother pitching to him, either.  I am not going out on a limb by declaring this will be the Bucs' 16th consecutive losing season. In fact, they haven't been a winner since one Barry Lamar Bonds departed after the 1992 season. The bigger question for 2008 is whether the Pirates will lose 100 games for the first time since 2001. Methinks so.



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