as rosters have congealed around baseball into something resembling their final form, one of the great sources of frustration for this page as it watches the macFail regime dither and fritter away another year to join the ninety-seven before it is observing the quality in the national league central -- which was plainly considerable in 2005 -- part to leave open a path of opportunity for a heretofore second-tier squad like the cubs. we have observed ad nauseum that this coming season is an all-or-nothing proposition, with players including derrek lee, aramis ramirez, juan pierre, greg maddux and kerry wood all potential free agents following it. an evaluation of the competition within the division only reinforces that conception of 2006.
the tribulations of walt jocketty have made interesting viewing down i-55. while the cardinals remain potent with a front four of carpenter, mulder, suppan and marquis, the tail of their rotation -- once held by matt morris -- will be split between prospects anthony reyes and adam wainwright and marginal castoff sid ponson. while this is perhaps not disastrous considering reyes' development over the last two seasons in the minors, the bullpen has suffered more considerably. what was unarguably one of the best pens in the majors has lost ray king (77 g, 3.38 era), julian tavarez (74, 3.43) and cal eldred (31, 2.19) to free agency and al reyes (65, 2.15) to injury. replacing them will be braden looper (60, 3.94) and ricardo rincon (67, 4.34), with second-year man brad thompson (40, 2.95) stepping into a bigger role. first-string loogy randy flores (50, 3.46) also has undergone arm surgery, but is expected to be ready for opening day. these downgrades will leave the cards more vulnerable in the seventh and eighth, force their starters to work deeper and get isringhausen out there for a few more two-inning saves.
offensively, the return of scott rolen will be the big story -- but it shouldn't overshadow the fact that the team that started larry walker and reggie sanders in the corners for much of the year is looking at larry bigbie in left and juan encarnacion in right, with larger roles for john rodriguez and so taguchi. this loss will more than offset the gain of rolen's return. junior spivey will negate the departure of mark grudzielanek, but on the whole the vaunted cardinal offense that generated 802 runs a year ago will be something significantly less than its former self -- it should undermine confidence everywhere in redbird nation that 5-through-8 read encarnacion, spivey, bigbie and yadier molina. taken in combination with a downgraded pitching staff, it means the cards are unlikely to amass anything like the 100 wins they compiled in the last campaign.
everything here hinges on the possible return of roger clemens for another season -- there can be little doubt that clemens alone could mean ten wins for this club, considering that his cy young-caliber innings would be replaced by the likes of wandy rodriguez and ezequiel astacio. if he returns, the astros front three are unparalleled; if he doesn't, the starting staff that was best in the national league in 2005 by a wide margin will fall back considerably. despite the retention intact of another of the league's best bullpens and the entire starting lineup plus an aged jeff bagwell and an emerging chris burke -- which can only help a team that scored fewer runs than the cubs in 2005 -- clemens is the difference between a .500 club and a potential division winner in houston.
yeah, i said it. everyone's saying it and it's true. the brewers are an emerging force to be reckoned with in 2006, and any serious discussion of quality in the central has to include them (unlike cincinnati and pittsburgh). victor santos, 4-13 in 29 starts, will be replaced by former blue jay dave bush, improving a strong, young rotation. the loss of julio santana (41 g, 4.50 era) and ricky bottalico (40, 4.54) is nothing that the return of dan kolb -- a brilliant buy-low homecoming if contract negotiations work out -- and the continued development of prospects dana eveland and jose capellan can't more than offset. behind matt wise and closer derrick turnbow, the brewer pen should also be improved.
offensively, lyle overbay was shipped to toronto, and that would be a considerable loss if not for the promotion of prince fielder, one of the most talked-about prospects in baseball. gargantuan power and a solid glove will be offset by frequent strikeouts at least initially, but one can hardly consider him a significant downgrade. weeks, hardy and hall complete what must be the most anticipated young infield in baseball in many years. (it's just hard not to get excited talking about this club -- have fun reading al's ramblings this year.) the solid outfield of lee, clark and jenkins will be spelled by more very promising kids in gabe gross and corey hart. gross' readiness mitigates the ramifications of any return of jenkins' erstwhile fragility.
now, for all the excitement, this team managed only 81 wins last season and will have growing pains. though it seems to this page that ninety wins is well within the capability of this fascinating young club even now, their best years might not really begin until 2007.
but, for this page, such a statement -- taken in conjunction with the cardinals' decline and the struggle to maintain an 89-win status quo in houston, is only yet another reason to mourn what appears to be yet another lost opportunity for the chicago cubs in 2006.