They Will Be Gunning For Cubs

The two-time defending NL Central champion Chicago Cubs have left Arizona in the rearview mirror. They'll get a taste of division play right off the bat when they travel to Houston and then Milwaukee for the start of the season beginning Monday.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
2008: 86-76 (4th place)

The Cardinals left spring training reasonably convinced that converted outfielder Skip Schumaker could handle second base after the club lost second basemen Felipe Lopez and Aaron Miles to free agency and divested itself of Adam Kennedy.

The coaching staff and Schumaker are shooting for him to be "average" at second base, although, at least early in the season, he likely will come off second base late in close games and finish up in the outfield.

But, in general, the defense at second base won't be as good as it was last season, and third base is a concern, too, until Troy Glaus returns from January shoulder surgery.

That comeback might not occur until June, with rookie David Freese, recalled from minor league camp with a few weeks to go in the spring, the likely replacement.

Freese carries a good glove, and he hit well at Class AAA Memphis last season (26 homers, 91 RBIs, .306 average). What fans should watch is his mobility after he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in an auto accident in January.

Whatever happens at second and third, the Cardinals should have improved offense at shortstop with Khalil Greene, who hit only .213 last year at San Diego, showing signs of being more the hitter he was two years ago, when he drove in 97 runs.

Keeping Chris Carpenter healthy is critical to the team's hopes. Carpenter, out virtually two seasons with elbow and shoulder ailments, didn't allow an earned run in his first 19 spring innings. Carpenter fleshes out an all-right-handed rotation that also includes Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro.

The bullpen still is a question mark, although rookie Jason Motte, almost unhittable in the spring, seems to have a leg up for the closer's role. Veteran Ryan Franklin is a fall-back if Motte should have trouble.

The lineup, which features 2008 NL Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols, will lose Glaus' punch early but should have some smack back with the return to health of left fielder Chris Duncan, who missed half of last season. Duncan had a disk problem in his neck that required surgery.

The bench will include rookie Colby Rasmus. The talented outfielder, the club's top draft pick in 2005, can pinch-run, play defense or start against some right-handers.

THE CARDINALS WILL CONTEND IF ...: RHP Chris Carpenter can make 30 to 35 starts; 2B Skip Schumaker doesn't embarrass himself at his new position; either RHP Jason Motte or RHP Chris Perez emerges as a hard-throwing closer. If 1B Albert Pujols or C Yadier Molina would miss considerable time due to injury, then the dream is over.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: SS Khalil Greene, who fanned 100 times in 389 at-bats last year, whiffed just three times in his first 60 at-bats this spring and hit .417. Greene said he had stopped moving his head while batting.

ON THE DECLINE: 3B Troy Glaus, who drove in 99 runs in 2008, won't get anywhere close to that this season, as he probably will miss six to eight weeks recovering from right shoulder surgery in the offseason. Glaus would be a candidate to be traded later in the season if the Cardinals are out of the race because the club is deep in third basemen in its system.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
2008: 90-72 (2nd place)

With all eight everyday players returning from a year ago, the focus for the Brewers during spring training was aligning their rotation, piecing together a bullpen and settling a few bench spots.

Mission accomplished on some fronts, not so much on others.

With Braden Looper recovering from an oblique strain suffered early in camp, the rotation appears lined up in this order: Jeff Suppan, Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Looper and Dave Bush.

The bullpen, however, was still "cloudy," as manager Ken Macha put it, with camp days winding to a close. Closer Trevor Hoffman will open the season on the disabled list due to an oblique strain.

Big Seth McClung, who provided coverage for Looper until he recovered, also could prove to be Plan B for the closing role until Hoffman recovers. Carlos Villanueva is another option.

But with David Riske looking very shaky while coming back from elbow surgery and other relief candidates a bit too erratic, the bullpen had the makings of a definite weakness at the start of the season. And, with 2008 co-aces CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets lost via free agency, the relief corps could prove more important than ever.

How the pitching shapes up should determine everything for the Brewers, because scoring runs should not be a problem. Milwaukee possesses a power-packed lineup anchored by sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

Trying to win slugfests night after night can be tiring, however. If the pitching staff doesn't do its part, the first playoff berth in 26 years last season could prove to be a one-time breakthrough.

Gallardo and Parra have very high ceilings but are still young, inexperienced pitchers. Putting too much pressure on them to carry the staff could backfire.

THE BREWERS WILL CONTEND IF ...: RHP Trevor Hoffman proves he has gas left in his tank as a closer and the rest of the bullpen chips in to give him save opportunities; RHP Braden Looper does more than just fill innings as the newcomer to the rotation; LF Ryan Braun gets past the intercostal tightness that plagued him during spring training, a recurrence of the problem that rendered him ineffective toward the end of last season. If the Brewers are in a contending position at midseason, they'll be tempted to try a repeat of the CC Sabathia trade of 2008.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 2B Rickie Weeks appeared to be making steady progress on defense under the tutelage of infield coach Willie Randolph and offensively under the guidance of new hitting coach Dale Sveum. Weeks has been a lightning rod since arriving in the majors in 2005 because of his erratic play in the field and underachieving tendencies as a leadoff hitter. This could be a make-or-break season for his career.

ON THE DECLINE: RHP Jeff Suppan went 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA last August, then collapsed in September, going 0-3 with a 8.44 ERA. He then was shelled in Game 4 of the NL Division Series against Philadelphia, leading to the Brewers' elimination. Halfway through a four-year, $42 million contract -- the largest for a pitcher in club history -- Suppan has gone 22-22 with a 4.76 ERA in his first two seasons in Milwaukee.

CINCINNATI REDS
2008: 74-88 (5th place)

Starting pitching has emerged as the Reds' strength, something that has not been the case for the past eight losing seasons.

In fact, while the team usually is searching for third, fourth and fifth starters, it was only looking for a fifth starter this year and emerged with two -- right-handers Micah Owings and Homer Bailey. Owings probably has won the job, but Bailey can step in immediately if somebody falters or is injured among Owings, Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto -- all of whom were outstanding this spring.

With the loss of Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, the Reds have reconfigured their lineup, leaning more toward speed, pitching and defense.

The catalyst should be center fielder Willy Taveras, who stole 63 bases last year but had a difficult time getting on base, something that continued this spring.

Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, a key man on the defensive side, missed the first two weeks of Grapefruit League action while rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee, then strained his right hamstring when he played. Without him, the defensive dynamics change drastically.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips is not the prototypical cleanup hitter and prefers not to do it, but that's where he is because manager Dusty Baker's choices are limited.

The club acquired catcher Ramon Henandez over the winter, and for a week he had a crash course in learning the pitchers before going to the World Baseball Classic. He returned and was catching on fast to what he calls "an awesome bunch of arms on this team."

First baseman Joey Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce, second and fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last year, both have had good springs and need to be major players if this team intends to contend.

THE REDS WILL CONTEND IF ...: RHP Aaron Harang reverts to his 16-win form of 2006 and 2007 and avoids his 17-loss form of last year.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: 1B Joey Votto, second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, had four hits for Canada against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. He appears ready to continue where he left off last season, when he hit .297 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs.

ON THE DECLINE: 3B Edwin Encarnacion continues to try to pull everything and does not appear to have corrected his defensive deficiencies.

HOUSTON ASTROS
2008: 86-75 (3rd place)

If the Astros have learned anything this spring, it's that veterans Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz still have something in the tank.

Offense still appears to be the Astros' strength even though they ranked last in the NL in batting average through March 27, but their ERA this spring was sixth. That fact is even more impressive considering ace Roy Oswalt and top setup man LaTroy Hawkins had been away with Team USA during the World Baseball Classic.

The bullpen is the strength of the team, led by closer Jose Valverde, who topped the NL in saves the last two years. Right-handers Hawkins, Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary, Chris Sampson and left-handers Wesley Wright and Tim Byrdak all return.

The hitters had a rough spring, but manager Cecil Cooper is optimistic because of the track records Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence have had in the majors.

The Astros received a major boost when 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez was signed, bringing veteran leadership to a team that was considering starting Humberto Quintero, who has yet to last a whole year in the majors.

Fans should pay close attention to center field, where Michael Bourn must prove he can hit. If he falters, Cooper has said he'd turn to Darin Erstad or Jason Michaels in center, but don't be surprised if prospect Brian Bogusevic is ready by May.

Right-hander Bud Norris, the Astros' top pitching prospect, also is extremely close to the majors and likely will be at the back end of the bullpen by August.

THE ASTROS WILL CONTEND IF ...: RHP Roy Oswalt maintains his excellence, LHP Mike Hampton remains healthy and RHP Russ Ortiz contributes. If Hampton and Ortiz can each give the Astros at least 25 starts, this will be a good season. The Astros also need for SS Miguel Tejada and 2B Kaz Matsui to remain healthy and fresh, which is why manager Cecil Cooper plans to rest those players often.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: LF Carlos Lee was set to be the Astros' MVP last year before he suffered a season-ending fracture to his left little finger when he was plunked by the Reds' Bronson Arroyo on Aug. 29. At that point, Lee already had 100 RBIs, and he's hungry to make up for all the time he lost last year. Lee still regrets that he wasn't chosen as an All-Star, so look for him to try to prove something.

ON THE DECLINE: SS Miguel Tejada was an All-Star last year, but his power numbers took a tremendous dive after the break. He hit only three home runs in the final three months of last season, and never more than one in a month from July through September.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
2008: 67-95 (6th place)

The Pirates will begin their pursuit of some inglorious history this season.

Pittsburgh is one losing season away from making it 17 sub-.500 finishes in a row. That would break the American professional sports record they share with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies, who were so bad that they changed their name to the Blue Jays for two seasons during that streak in an attempt to change their image.

However, while the Pirates have been the kings of losing for a generation, second baseman Freddy Sanchez says there is a shift in thinking in the clubhouse.

"I think things are going to be different this season," said Sanchez, who is beginning his seventh season with the club. "I see a different attitude around the clubhouse. There is more of an upbeat atmosphere. Guys are excited and feeling positive about this team. You just have a feeling good things are going to happen for us this season."

Manager John Russell shares Sanchez's enthusiasm but isn't ready to proclaim the Pirates as potential contenders in a National League Central that is weak beyond the two-time defending champion Chicago Cubs. Russell certainly isn't proclaiming any Tampa Bay-style worst-to-first transformation like the one that boosted that downtrodden franchise all the way to the World Series last season.

"I do think it's been a good spring for us," Russell said. "We've gotten a lot of work in, and I think we're moving in the right direction. We certainly want to improve over what we did last season, and I think we will. We have guys who are capable of playing better, and I'm sure they will."

The Pirates were 67-95 last season, falling apart late as they finished 17-37 following the trades of veteran outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.

The two key hitters acquired in those trades, third baseman Andy LaRoche from the Los Angeles Dodgers and right fielder Brandon Moss from the Boston Red Sox, both struggled to make up the production. LaRoche hit a sickly .152 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 49 games, while Moss batted .222 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 45 games.

The Pirates also have a new leadoff hitter in left fielder Nyjer Morgan, which will allow center fielder Nate McLouth, who made the All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove in his first season as a starter last year, to drop down to third in the order.

Morgan is one of the fastest players in baseball and has a .296 average and .351 on-base percentage in 86 career major league games the last two seasons. However, he is just getting a chance to play regularly at 28.

Morgan will be followed by Sanchez, McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit, first baseman Adam LaRoche, Moss, Andy LaRoche and shortstop Jack Wilson. It is not the most fearsome lineup in the league, but the Pirates were also expected to have trouble scoring last season but were fourth in the 14-team NL in runs before Bay and Nady were traded.

The Pittsburgh pitching staff, meanwhile, had plenty of trouble keeping the opposition from scoring runs last season, as its 5.08 ERA was the worst in the NL. Jeff Andrews was fired as pitching coach after only one season on the job, and he was replaced by the well-traveled Joe Kerrigan.

Left-handers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke and right-handers Ian Snell and Ross Ohlendorf give the Pirates four talented starters who are 27 are younger, a good foundation upon which to build a team.

The bullpen, though, is shaping up as a potential disaster. There are no relievers the Pirates can seemingly rely upon beyond closer Matt Capps and setup men John Grabow from the left side and Tyler Yates from the right side.

"As a staff, we were embarrassed about what happened last season," Duke said. "I think we all have a lot of motivation to pitch better. I don't think you're going to see a repeat of what happened a year ago."

If the pitching staff does re-enact 2008, then it figures to be another long year for the Pirates. However, they vow that will not be the case.

"Things are different this year," Doumit said. "We're tired of losing, and there is a different attitude now. You could feel the buzz since the first day we got to spring training. This isn't going to be the same old Pirates anymore. It's time to start changing things around here."

THE PIRATES WILL CONTEND IF ...: The pitching staff comes up big after finishing last in the National League with a 5.08 ERA last season. The Pirates have a potentially good young rotation with LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Ian Snell, LHP Zach Duke and RHP Ross Ohlendorf, while the back end of the bullpen should be solid with RHP Matt Capps as the closer and LHP John Grabow and RHP Tyler Yates as the setup men.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Ross Ohlendorf has been dominant through the exhibition season. He gives the Pirates the hard-throwing righty they lacked in the rotation. He seems poised for a breakout at age 26.

ON THE DECLINE: LF Nyjer Morgan has struggled to get on base throughout the spring, which is not a good thing for a leadoff hitter. Many scouts feel he will be exposed by playing regularly.

--The Sports XChange

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