NL Central Preview Part 3: The Wild Cards
by Keith Glab, Baseball Evolution & Scout.com
March 3, 2006



Around this time last year, the Cubs were a favorite to win the NL Wild Card, while even Houston fanatics didnít give the Astros a prayer. Well, the ĎStros wound up finishing ten games better than the Cubs did, and took the Wild Card en rout to the World Series. Oddly enough, this yearís expectations are very much the same as last yearís. Is this ignorance of last seasonís results and faith placed in the Cubs organization justifiable?

To better answer that question, letís examine the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs in a side-by-side comparison:

2005 Astros: 89-73 693 Runs scored 609 Runs Allowed

2005 Cubs: 79-83 703 Runs Scored 714 Runs Allowed

Catcher

Astros: Brad Ausmus, Raul Chavez

Cubs: Michael Barrett, Henry Blanco

Having Brad Ausmus in your eighth spot is like having two pitchers in your batting order. That was fine back when he was a Gold Glover, but his arm is just average now. Chavez, on the other hand, is as good defensively as Ausmus back in his prime, but is somehow even more of a liability on offense.

The Cubs have a more traditional, One Can Hit, One Can Field backstop system in place. Their biggest concern is that both Barrett and Blanco are scheduled to appear in the World Baseball Classic, and could wear down as the season progresses. Fortunately, prospect Geovany Soto is basically a young Henry Blanco, and ready if needed.

Edge: Cubs

First Base

Astros: Lance Berkman, Mike Lamb

Cubs: Derrek Lee

Itís sad to see the Bagwell saga end with an insurance claim filed against him, but at this point, the Astros really are better off without him. No, the Astros donít have anyone who can man first base competantly, but as long as Berkman puts up 90ís-Bagwell-type numbers, no one will complain.

The collapse of Derek Lee in the second half of last year has been well documented. If Aramis Ramirez can stay healty all year behind him, and Juan Pierre can consistently get on in front of him, we can expect Derrek Lee to avoid slumps a bit better in 2006. Just donít expect him to come out of the gate like last year, either.

Edge: Even

Second Base

Astros: Craig Biggio, Chris Burke

Cubs: Todd Walker, Jerry Hairston Jr.

Chris Burke is a much better fielding second baseman than Biggio at this point, but the Astrosí treatment of Bagwell has created enough bad publicity. Biggio can still hit well enough to play second, but Burke certainly canít hit well enough for an outfielder.

Cub fans everywhere are asking what Todd Walker did to deserve this kind of treatment. Heís been one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball for the past five years, and after constant trade rumors, has to battle for the second base job with a couple of sub-.400 sluggers. His defense simply isnít as bad as people make it out to be, and even if he took the field without a glove I might still start him because of his stick.

Edge: Cubs

Shortstop

Astros: Adam Everett, Luis Vizcaino

Cubs: Ronny Cedeno, Neifi Perez

Many new Sabremetric measures have Everett ranked as the best defensive shortsop in the game today. Thatís good, because any measure shows him to be among the worst offensive shortstops around.

Cedeno and Perez are both excellent defenders as well, but Cedeno suddenly presents a threat to be a plus offensive player. Even if he has just an average offensive season, it should outweigh Everettís small advantage on defense.

Edge: Cubs

Third Base

Astros: Morgan Ensberg

Cubs: Aramis Ramirez

Here are two of the leagueís best at the hot corner. Both have .300/40/120 potential, and both are in the prime of their careers. Aramis has the edge of being three years younger than Ensberg while still having more than twice the career at bats. Morgan is faster, better with the glove, and is more likely to stay healthy the whole season.

Edge: Even

Outfield

Astros: Jason Lane, Preston Wilson, Willy Tavarez, Chris Burke, Orlando Palmiero

Cubs: Juan Pierre, Matt Murton, Jacque Jones, John Mabry, Marquis Grissom

These are two of the weakest outfields in all of baseball. Rarely do you see outfields where no one is good enough to hit in either the #3 or #4 spot in the lineup. At least the Cubs have a quality leadoff hitter in Pierre (assuming his 2005 numbers were an abberation). Lane, Wilson, and Palmeiro do provide a little more pop than do Murton, Jones, and Mabry, however, and the aggregate outfield defense is better in Houston.

Edge: Even

Starting Pitching

Astros: Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Brandon Backe, Ezequiel Astacio, Wandy Rodriguez, Taylor Buchholz

Cubs: Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood, Jerome Williams, Glendon Rusch

If Clemens returns to the club in May, the Astros will still have questions about his age, Oswaltís groin, and Pettitteís carrer year in 2005. Without Clemens, the back end of their rotation isnít fit to pitch at AAA. The Astros do put a good defense behind these guys, but the defense canít help with walks and homers.

Kerry Wood and Wade Miller wonít be ready for the season opener. Mark Prior showed up to camp emaciated from a respiratory ailment in December. Yet this is one of the deepest rotations in the NL. Williams and Rusch are useful stopgaps, and guys like Rich Hill, Angel Guzman, and Bobby Brownlie are top prospects who could be ready to come of age at any moment.

Edge: Cubs

Relief Pitching

Astros: Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, Trever Miller

Cubs: Ryan Dempster, Scott Eyre, Bob Howry, Will Ohman

The Cubs have a lot of bullpen depth, and theyíd better after having spent about $50 Million on three veteran relievers with each just having one great season under his belt. Scott Williamson and Michael Weurtz back up what should be a solid front four, but nobody among that squad can match the dominance of Brad Lidge. In fact, even Wheeler and Qualls had seasons that match up favorably to any Cub relieverís. Bullpen depth isnít as important as bullpen dominance, since a good manager can choose to use the best in key situations and the rest for mop-up duty.

Edge: Astros

Obviously, the key for the Astros to be competative is the return of the Rocket. On the other hand, not paying Clemens or Bagwell this season would mean savings of over $30 Million over their 2005 payroll. So if the Astros can somehow hang around until July, they would be able to take on an awful lot of salary at the trade deadline if desired.

Similarly, the Cubs just need to keep things close until Wood and Miller return from injuries. Upon their return, the Cubs will have a huge surplus of pitching, which they could then parlay into one or two key bats at the trade deadline. The differences include 1) The Cubs looking like a better club before these hypotheticals 2) Cubs managment being more desperate to win now and spend the correlative dollar, and 3) A greater likelihood of Wood and Wade coming back strong than Clemens coming back at all.

Prediction: With all of the question marks on the Astrosí big league roster, the fact that there isnít much help coming soon from their system makes it hard to bet on the NL Champs doing much of anything this year. But if the Rocket does return, there is a chance of one last gasp of success for this team teetering on the threshhold between winning and losing.

The Cubs had significant injuries to four of their six best players last year: Wood, Prior, Ramirez, and the now-departed Nomar Garciaparra. Any team will struggle when that happens. However, this is a ballclub that has underachieved three out of the last four years. Although they could suddenly all click with a jump start from Juan Pierre at the top of the order, the Cubs still arenít likely to win 90 games. With the way the Braves and Mets look in the East, 89 wins wonít capture the Wild Card in 2006. Cubs 2nd, Astros 5th




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Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith Glab resides in Chicago, Illinois, and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.



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