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Know Your Enemy: Cubs NL Central Opponents Preview

Last year, I did a series about the Cubs' opponents -- this proved to be very popular. With so much else going on this spring, I'm going to do this by division; there isn't time to do a complete rundown of all the teams in the NL Central individually, but I'll try to write a little bit more on each of the five opposing teams in the Cubs' division than about teams in the other divisions or in the AL. Since the Cubs have today off, their only off day of the spring season, this seemed to be a good day to post these. This list is NOT necessarily in predicted order of finish; I'll have my preseason predictions posted here on April 4.

Follow me past the jump for the team previews.

St. Louis Cardinals -- 2009: 1st place, 91-71

The defending division champion Cardinals return, nearly intact, the team that blew through most of the regular season unchallenged last year. They're also returning the team that did exactly as well as the Cubs did in the division series the year before -- got swept by the Dodgers.

They spent $120 million to retain Matt Holliday for seven more seasons. Will this affect their ability to re-sign Albert Pujols when he becomes a free agent? Or will the Cardinals have their own version of the Alfonso Soriano deal in a couple of years? Only time will tell. Holliday helped carry the Cardinals after his acquisition, but does anyone really expect him to repeat his .353/.419/.604 performance? That's a level he had only once in all his years in Colorado.

Otherwise St. Louis has one old/new face for their offense, Felipe Lopez, who hit well for them in part of the 2008 season, but who has a reputation as not a great clubhouse guy and whose postseason appearances total zero.

For the Cardinals, the real question is: will Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright both be as solid as they were last year and stay free of injury? If the answer to that is "yes", St. Louis probably wins the division again. They've got Brad Penny on board this season -- will he be the 5.69 ERA guy he was in Boston, or the one who put together six solid starts after he was traded to the Giants? And Ryan Franklin, after entering September 2009 with a 1.05 ERA, blew three saves that month with a 6.75 ERA and had the memorable meltdown in the division series. What will that do to him?

Tony LaRussa will glare out of the St. Louis dugout behind those sunglasses for the 15th consecutive season. He begins this year 211 wins behind John McGraw for second place on the all-time managers' list (he passed McGraw in total games managed for 2nd last year).

Cincinnati Reds -- 2009: 4th place, 78-84

The Reds are hoping that you'll notice that they went 20-11 last year after September 1, and that this record is an indicator of what they'll do in 2010. The dirty little secret of that post-September 1 record is that they went 7-1 against the Pirates (who were 9-22 after 9/1) and swept the Astros in a three-game series (Houston was 11-20 from September 1 on). So apart from that 10-1 record within the Central, the Reds went 10-10 after the calendar turned to September, including losing two of three at Wrigley Field.

Nevertheless, the Reds do have a pretty potent offensive team. Their primary offseason batting acquisition was Aaron Miles.

No, wait. That's not right.

Well, actually, it pretty much is. The Reds also signed Orlando Cabrera to be their starting shortstop. Yes, that's right -- the same Orlando Cabrera who hasn't hit double figures in HR since 2004, who has been declining in OPS and OPS+ steadily for the last five years, and who had a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer with the White Sox.

But hey, you guys are welcome to him. And Aaron Miles, too.

Seriously, we all know the Reds' major signing this offseason was Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman. Chapman can throw 100+ MPH and could be a staff ace as soon as this season -- or not. It's really impossible to tell whether Chapman will be successful in the major leagues, because he's never faced this kind of competition before. If he can, the Reds have a bargain for their $30 million. If not, it'll be another year of seeing whether Aaron Harang's arm can fall off.

The Reds have some good hitters, including Joey Votto, who has 12 career HR against the Cubs in 121 lifetime AB. The most he has against any other team is eight. And then there's Drew Stubbs and Drew Sutton, and for the life of me I can't tell them apart, except for their last names.

And don't even get me started about Dusty Baker, who probably has to lead the Reds into the playoffs -- if he doesn't, this will probably be his last year as a major league manager.

Milwaukee Brewers -- 2009: 3rd place, 80-82

The Brewers followed up their wild card season in 2008 with a sub-.500 campaign that was largely due to allowing a frighteningly large total of 818 runs. Only the Nationals' horrific pitching staff allowed more. While Yovani Gallardo had a pretty good year, none of the Brewers' other four primary starters had an ERA under 5, and two of them posted ERA's north of 6.

Milwaukee has attempted to address this problem by signing two mid-range free agent lefties, Randy Wolf and Doug Davis. This is potentially bad news for the Cubs, as both of those pitchers eat Cubs hitters for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and snacks, too). For some reason Cub teams always have trouble with soft-tossing lefties. Davis has a 3.20 lifetime ERA in 16 starts against the Cubs, one of his best marks against any team. This is his second stint with the Brewers; he was also there from 2004-2006. Wolf beat the Cubs twice last year, the second time (on August 21) almost singlehandedly: he allowed the Cubs only one hit (a Ryan Theriot single) and drove in both Dodger runs with a double.

The two big bats of the Brewer offense, Prince Fielder and the preening Ryan Braun, return. Newcomers this year include Carlos Gomez (acquired in what appeared to be a one-sided trade in favor of the Twins for J.J. Hardy) and catchers Gregg Zaun and George Kottaras. Alcides Escobar, installed at SS last summer when Hardy was hurt and not performing, will be in his first full season.

Houston Astros -- 2009: fifth place, 74-88

Any time you complain about Jim Hendry as Cubs GM, remember these two words: Ed Wade. When he took over as Astros GM in August 2007, Houston was less than two years removed from a World Series appearance. They won 86 games in 2008 -- mostly as a fluke; they got outscored by 31 runs -- and Wade had Astros fans unrealistically hoping it would continue in 2009.

It didn't. The Astros hung around the edges of contention for a while, then went 23-36 from August 1 till the end of the season. You think the Cubs are an old team? Only two Houston regulars last year were younger than 33. All of those players return, except Miguel Tejada, who returned to his former stomping grounds in Baltimore as a free agent. So what do the Astros do? Yes, that's right, sign a player almost as old as Tejada -- Pedro Feliz. Feliz will take over at third base and a 27-year-old rookie with a .694 OPS in over 200 minor league PA (Tommy Manzella) will play shortstop. Sure, Carlos Lee can still hit, and Lance Berkman can too -- when he's healthy. Hunter Pence is going to have to carry a heavy load.

Their biggest acquisition on the pitching side was former Phillie Brett Myers. Myers has been good -- at times -- but with injuries, his last good year was 2005. The Astros will have to hope for a comeback. Roy Oswalt, too, is now 32 and not the dominant pitcher he was a few years back. Wandy Rodriguez -- well, when you look at him, you wonder how a guy like that can be a major league pitcher. He put up decent numbers last year -- but he's 31, and you then wonder how long he can keep this up.

The Astros are an old team and a bad team. There's at least a chance they could let the Pirates out of the NL Central basement this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates -- 2009: 6th place, 62-99

Only those horrific Nationals prevented the Pirates from having the worst record in baseball last year. As was noted at the time it happened, the Pirates set a record last year with their 17th consecutive losing season. They'll make it 18 this year -- but there is actually light at the end of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

It was also noted at the trading deadline in 2009, right after the Pirates sent John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the Cubs, that the Bucs had only three players left from their 25-man roster from the same time in 2008 -- Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit (it would have been four, but closer Matt Capps was on the DL). All that trading produced a ton of bodies from several farm systems. Some of them may begin to produce in 2010, including Lastings Milledge, Charlie Morton and Brandon Moss.

But the Pirates' farm system is also, at last, producing players that may have an impact in Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen is the real deal -- at age 22, he hit .286/.365/.471 and finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He's about the only current player whose jersey or T-shirt you see Pirates fans (when you see any of them) wearing around PNC Park.

Other Pirates young players who may have an impact (if not now, then soon) include Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Pittsburgh native Neil Walker, who got among the loudest cheers for any Pirate when I was there last September (of course, "loud" is relative when there are only about 5,000 people in the seats).

Former Cub Ronny Cedeno will likely be relegated to a bench role with the Pirates' acquisition of Bobby Crosby from the A's. Then again, Crosby is usually hurt, so Cedeno may get more playing time from that.

The Pirates' starting pitching is better than you might think. Duke and Maholm are solid, but the best pitcher on the staff might be Ross Ohlendorf, who they acquired from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady deal in 2008. Ohlendorf led the team in wins (11) and had the only winning record on the staff while posting a 3.92 ERA.

The Pirates may have a good enough team to edge out the Astros for fifth place, if some of their kids develop and they have a little bit of luck.