2005 MLB Baseball NL CENTRAL Preview
National League Central
Manager Dusty Baker isn't sure where he'll play OF Jerry Hairston Jr. simply because he doesn't know much about him. Hairston, acquired in the Sammy Sosa deal, could be a rover and get 100-plus starts this season rotating among all three outfield positions.
Cuban LHP Raul Valdez won't be able to resume throwing until April after injuring his left thumb fielding a comebacker one week before camp started.
LHP Glendon Rusch could end up back in the bullpen if needed. Rusch was a swingman last year, and the Cubs may use RHP Sergio Mitre as the fifth starter.
SOFT SPOT: The Cubs will need six weeks to determine who the closer is. RHP Joe Borowski might reclaim the job. He rehabbed six to seven hours a day, which resulted in a 15-pound weight loss, to get his right shoulder stronger. He's got the pop back in his fastball in early workouts. RHP LaTroy Hawkins should be more familiar with the N.L. hitters this season but would prefer the setup role. RHP Ryan Dempster could be the surprise but needs to show his durability after having Tommy John surgery in 2003. All Baker will say is he has a plan.
Adam Dunn showed up early at spring training in order to get some work in with hitting coach Chris Chambliss.
Even though Eric Milton is probably the Reds ace of the future, he isn't expecting to get the start on opening day. One reason is that he considers Paul Wilson the ace of the staff after the season he had last year, plus it sets the Reds up righthander, lefthander, righthander with Milton in the middle of Wilson and Ortiz.
Look for Rob Stratton to open some eyes this spring. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, the medical staff said he's the strongest player they've ever tested – and that includes Adam Dunn and Wily Mo Pena.
SOFT SPOT: Despite all of their offseason additions, the Reds' biggest weakness will be defense up the middle. Catcher Jason LaRue led all of baseball in passed balls last season, D'Angelo Jimenez doesn't have great range at second, Rich Aurilia lacks the range he once did at shortstop, Felipe Lopez is talented but unreliable at short and Ken Griffey Jr. isn't the same player that won 10 straight Gold Gloves. Unfortunately, the Reds can't do much to fix the physical attributes of their current roster, but they'll have to focus on making the routine plays this spring in order minimize the number of outs they give away.
Manager Phil Garner would lean toward slotting Jeff Bagwell into the cleanup spot while Lance Berkman is out with an injury, but Garner is not locked into a specific plan yet. Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg are also candidates to bat fourth, but Garner said he'll "lean toward" Bagwell until he sees the others perform during spring training. Garner said he will also consider using a singles/doubles hitter for the four spot, and Bagwell, normally the No. 3 hitter, is one of the tops on the team in terms of on-base percentage.
Raul Chavez will likely receive more playing time than a typical backup catcher, although Brad Ausmus is still considered the No. 1 backstop. Ausmus is not much of a presence offensively, and Garner will likely add a start or two per week to Chavez's schedule in addition to pairing him exclusively with Roy Oswalt.
SOFT SPOT: The Astros have had three true center fielders in the last 13 years: Steve Finley, Carl Everett and Carlos Beltran. Again in 2005, the club will likely have to use a corner outfielder to play center, namely, Jason Lane. CF prospect Willy Taveras has a chance to make the team, but ideally, the Astros would like the 23-year-old to spend a full season at Class AAA. Non-roster invite Barry Wesson isn't generating much attention, but as one of only two true center fielders the Astros have in camp, Wesson, a former Astros farmhand who spent the last two seasons in the Angels' organization, may have a chance to make the team out of spring training. Wesson doesn't put up the offensive numbers the Astros have been seeking this offseason, but he's solid defensively and will likely contend for the fifth outfielder's position.
The key to the success of the team's rotation might not be No. 1 Ben Sheets and No. 2 Doug Davis, but RHP Victor Santos. After bouncing between the starting ranks and bullpens in Detroit and Colorado, Santos settled in last season and won nine of his first 12 decisions. But he faded in the second half and won only two of his next 11 decisions. Santos had never started more than seven games in the majors and attributed the fade to simple arm fatigue. He'll have to be more durable this year.
If G.M. Doug Melvin makes any more moves before the start of the season, look for him to add a veteran utility infielder. One candidate to fill that role is former All-Star Jeff Cirillo, who played exclusively at 3B during his first tenure with the team. Since then, Cirillo has seen action at 1B and 2B. To win a job, he needs to rediscover the once-sweet swing that made him the franchise's all-time batting average leader.
SOFT SPOT: With the departure of RHPs Dan Kolb and Luis Vizcaino, the back end of the bullpen is a question mark. Mike Adams, who is coming off a breakthrough season as a rookie, will get a chance to win the closer's job, but veteran Ricky Bottalico might make a run at the job. Bottalico does not throw as hard as he once did, but he throws four pitches for strikes and showed last season that he still has the know-how to induce outs when he needs them. The team also acquired RHP Justin Lehr in an offseason trade with Oakland to bolster an area that has been a relative strength in recent seasons.
In recent years the Pirates have made a habit of filling out their roster by signing veteran free agents after the start of spring training. Although the free agent well ran dry early this year, G.M. Dave Littlefield will continue to look for ways to upgrade his team before the start of the season. Littlefield has contacted several clubs in the hopes of dealing for an additional power bat and bottom-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.
All-Star shortstop Jack Wilson has regained much of the weight that he lost after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in December. However, Wilson's conditioning is far behind what it would typically be at this time of year. The team has set a March 15 target date for Wilson's return to game action. Wilson is confident that he'll be back on the field at least a week before that.
SOFT SPOT: With Jason Kendall now playing in Oakland, the team will turn over the catching duties to aging veteran Benito Santiago and second-year player Humberto Cota. Santiago, who will turn 40 in March, must show that he is healthy after missing most of the 2004 season because of a broken left hand. Cota, who has just 108 career at-bats, will be given the opportunity to prove that he can be an everyday big league catcher. Neil Walker, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, is considered an outstanding prospect, but he is probably at least two years away from competing for a big league job.
St. Louis Cardinals
RHP Julian Tavarez pitched as a starter for the Dominican team in the Caribbean World Series and showed no ill effects from the broken hand he sustained in the National League Championship Series. Tavarez pitched for a while with the injury, but he had to rest for a significant amount of time after the World Series ended.
RHP Jason Isringhausen has begun throwing off a mound and continues his encouraging progress in his recovery from offseason hip surgery. He is expected to be fully ready for the season, though the team will be cautious with him.
The Cards have some interest in adding a middle infielder, perhaps even one who could fit in at second base for more than the short term. However, such an acquisition would almost certainly need to be young and inexpensive, preferably a player not yet arbitration-eligible.
SOFT SPOT: Two valuable righthanders (Kiko Calero and Dan Haren) have been removed from the bullpen, as has one critical lefthander (Steve Kline). Getting from the starters to closer Jason Isringhausen will be a concern in the early going. The Cards will take long looks at in-house options such as Cal Eldred and Al Reyes from the right side, and if they don't work out, St. Louis might look at the trade market. As the season goes on, promising prospects such as Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes could play themselves into bullpen consideration, the way Haren did late last year. Still, the late-inning setup pairing of Julian Tavarez and Ray King should be effective again.