Wednesday, December 06, 2006

divisional progress report

as the winter meetings reach their climax, many cub fans have followed the travails of the club in some detail over the last month -- first the resigning of aramis ramirez, then the landing of alfonso soriano. such moves and the money that closed them stoked long-dormant dreams for many a watcher, even provoking some to speculate that the budget had been tossed aside and that there was no ceiling to what the cubs would spend to redeem themselves before their fans for years of passivity.

that dream -- always far more a selfish wish than empirical fact -- is showing some cracks with rumors regarding who might fill the vacancies in the rotation centering not on barry zito but ted lilly.

but, for a moment, this page would like to focus on what is afoot in rival power centers in the national league central -- houston and saint louis.

the houston astros face the loss of starters roger clemens and andy pettitte, third baseman aubrey huff and reliever russ springer, have already shed useless 2006 free-agent preston wilson and will further be without starter brandon backe who is recovering from surgery for all of 2007. but they are also finally climbing out from beneath the $16mm obligation to jeff bagwell -- and that in combination with the lapsing of contracts to pettitte ($10.5 mm in 2006) and clemens ($15.75mm) gives houston a titanic sum to go to market with this winter.

they boosted one of the more anemic offenses in the league by investing bagwell's freed paycheck in carlos lee, who will now take over the tiny left field in their bandbox park. lee will be a material threat between lance berkman and lefthanded slugging rightfielder luke scott, who (like rich hill) translated two years of success in destroying the minor leagues as a post-collegiate late bloomer to the majors in late 2006. still, hopes for an improved offense must rely on as much on a return to form of third baseman morgan ensberg -- who survived a tremendous slump and a benching to post a 235/396/463 line with 23 hr in 387 ab -- and continued performance by scott as lee. the ageless craig biggio is finally wearing down, but his decline is met by the rise of chris burke, who has become a central role player for the club and deserves an everyday spot.

to the rotation of peaking superstar roy oswalt, exciting prospect jason hirsh and replacement-level wandy rodriguez, the club has already added woody williams from san diego, probable source of a league-average 150 innings. but what could make the astros dangerous is the return of the 34-year-old pettite and the 44-year-old clemens. pettitte had been rumored to be considering retirement but is now likely to return to houston for 2007 at least, pending possible interferences by the yankees. still, he is likely to be only a handful of runs better than the average starter. the threat lies in clemens, who remains at 44 one of the best pitchers in the game.

if the astros can find a way to bring clemens and pettitte back for 2007 -- both have been approached by the yankees -- they feature a powerhouse pitching staff which looks to improve on a 2006 which saw them arguably the best in baseball despite 43 starts granted to rodriguez and struggling prospect taylor buchholz. a fivesome of oswalt, clemens, pettitte, williams and hirsh backed by rodriguez, buchholz and a bullpen that (even without springer) is top quartile could steamroll the central with any kind of an offensive threat behind it. and with lee, burke and scott to complement ensberg and berkman, this club may finally be able to overcome the offensive deadweight of catcher brad ausmus, shortstop adam everett, centerfielder willy tavares and past missteps like wilson and jason lane.

but, much as last year, much rides on clemens. pettitte could perhaps be replaced -- starters who provide 200 innings of 25-30 vorp are hard to come by but not impossible, and the money is already there. the astros could yet become major players for any of the remaining free agents if pettitte concludes a deal in new york. but clemens cannot be replaced -- his loss would be a major blow. general manager tim purpurra came to the winter meetings with ostensibly a starter and yet more bullpen depth in mind to safeguard against pettitte's defection. but clemens is the key. a decision is expected sometime in december.

turning to the world champion saint louis cardinals, they too have been busy -- and have to be. with all of jason marquis ($5.2mm), jeff suppan ($4mm), late acquisition and postseason hero jeff weaver and the injured mark mulder ($7.3mm) testing free agency, the pitching citadel of the amazing cardinal run of recent years -- the best in the history of the franchise -- is suddenly and unnervingly exposed. some of the $16.5mm freed was reinvested in ace chris carpenter, who remains locked up as does young anthony reyes, who contributed meaningfully in 17 starts last season. gm walt jocketty has also obtained kip wells under startlingly good terms, whom pitching coach dave duncan will try to guide back to the form of 2002-3 but probably unsuccessfully. wells can hardly be relied on for more than sid ponson was last season.

so it is perhaps not surprising to hear that the cardinals attacked jason schmidt at the winter meetings, by some reports making themselves a frontrunner. but they've apparently failed, with schmidt headed to the dodgers. they're also a finalist for miguel batista, with an in-house fallback position of adam wainwright and perhaps even reliever braden looper. batista can offer them 200 league-average innings, and that has its value to a team in need of innings. but the cardinals still need to find a head of the rotation starter to make themselves formidable, and they'll have resources left to deploy even after landing batista (if they do).

on offense, little turnover is expected from 2006's second-quartile outfit. still-productive jim edmonds at 37 following a down year had his option picked up at $10mm, a $2mm cut from 2006. that cash was redeployed when second baseman ronnie belliard was replaced by adam kennedy for $3mm a year over three years, who should provide more playing in front of aaron miles than belliard did last year. jocketty also signed scott spiezio to a small contract to reward his series heroics, but he figures to be a bench player. the team again intends to ride edmonds, all-world first baseman albert pujols and third baseman scott rolen, seeking supporting contributions from kennedy, shortstop david eckstein, rightfielder juan encarnacion and outfielders chris duncan, so taguchi and john rodriguez. duncan was something of a surprise contributor in 2006, having sparked to life from a rather dull minor league career. it's very hard to credibly forecast another season of .952 ops and 25 vorp for duncan, and what kennedy may do to improve the state of offensive affairs is likely to be offset by duncan's reversion to something closer to his career means. with catchers yadier molina and gary bennett along for the ride, this is an offensive club that needs pitching performance to win.

will they get it? carpenter in front of batista, reyes, wainwright and wells would be something well short of what houston is aiming for. the offense isn't quite as sour -- but still, without that plus starter, the cards will be vulnerable.

but the greatest advantage either club has over the cubs has yet gone unmentioned -- and that is the cubs themselves. having added alfonso soriano is a fine step, but one must recognize that he is being added to what was the 15th-best offense of 16 in 2006. and of course the cub pitching staff, a source alternately of strength and weakness in recent seasons, looks at this moment unproven at best and at worst simply weak.

in short, all three of these clubs have major acquisitions to yet make before staking any early claim to the division. how the next three weeks play out for all three clubs will do much to decide who goes to the playoffs representing the central.

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