1. Milwaukee Brewers
Offense: The NL Central was the Brewers’ to lose last season, and although they did just that, they enter 2008 with a much improved team. Remember, last year they didn’t get full seasons from any of Ben Sheets, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo. The Mike Cameron addition also upgraded the outfield. Fielder, Braun, and Hart form one the league’s best heart of the orders, and Weeks is also capable of posting a .900 OPS season. The team defense should be exponentially better this year as well.
Pitching: Sheets could still win the Cy Young one day, and his strikeout rate did return after a lackluster April last season, but the odds are stacked against him reaching 180 innings at this point. He is pitching for a contract, but so far his body has really failed him. He’s the single most important aspect of the Brewers’ 2008 season. Yovani Gallardo’s knee injury may be a blessing in disguise, as it’d be in Milwaukee’s best interest if he didn’t eclipse 180-190 innings this season anyway. As long as he doesn’t alter his mechanics to compensate, he should be an excellent starter for years to come. Jeff Suppan is one of the most overpaid players in the game, and David Bush’s peripherals just don’t lead to good ERAs, but Manny Parra gives the Brewers a top-3 that will be formidable come October.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Rickie Weeks goes 30/30.
2. Chicago Cubs
Offense: The Cubs have a solid team, but it’s not exactly a powerhouse, and they are pretty thin up the middle. Aramis Ramirez is Chicago’s best hitter, but he has durability concerns, and Alfonso Soriano’s leg issues are becoming an issue. Kosuke Fukudome has a great name and should post a solid OBP, but Geovany Soto is hardly a lock to even resemble the hitter he was last season. He could be a big disappointment.
Pitching: A terrific spring has eased concerns regarding Carlos Zambrano’s sinking K rate and mileage on his arm, but he still needs to learn command in order to reach his potential. Rich Hill and Ted Lilly are solid No. 2 and No. 3 guys, but after that, it’s pray for rain. Maybe Jon Lieber emerges as a decent back of the rotation option, but the Cubs plan on entering the season relying on both Jason Marquis and Ryan Dempster to fill that role, something that should cost them plenty of games. The bullpen, however, should be a strength.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Carlos Zambrano finishes as a top-10 starter.
3. Cincinnati Reds
Offense: Now here’s a sleeper team, Dusty Baker notwithstanding. Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Homer Bailey aren’t quite ready, but the future most certainly looks bright in Cincinnati. Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey Jr. will be hard pressed to repeat what they did last season, but Edwin Encarnacion should finally break out, and Adam Dunn will be clogging up the bases all season long. Next year, they might be the favorites to win the division.
Pitching: Aaron Harang’s workload is concerning, but Bronson Arroyo was unlucky last year, so expect a bounce back campaign in 2008. Moreover, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez (and later Bailey) give the rotation serious upside, and both are capable of posting sub-4 ERAs as soon as this year, even with the home park against them. When pitching outside of Milwaukee, Francisco Cordero posted a 6.55 ERA and 1.55 WHIP last season, so it seemed a little short-sighted to hand $46 million to someone who will factor in to about four percent of the Reds’ innings this year.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Corey Patterson steals 50 bases.
4. Houston Astros
Offense: Houston has some nice pieces, and the lineup should be improved with the Miguel Tejada addition and a full season from Hunter Pence, but there are also some pretty big holes in the lineup. Kaz Matsui had a line of .249/.304/.333 outside of Coors Field last year, Ty Wigginton is one of the game’s weaker hitting third baseman, and although Michael Bourn is an extremely valuable fantasy commodity, he’s not much of an asset to the Astros. Tejada and Lance Berkman are also entering the decline phases of their careers.
Pitching: Speaking of decline, Roy Oswalt falls directly into that category as well. Even if he halts that trend, Houston sports quite possibly baseball’s worst 2-5 starters. Last year’s 4.68 team ERA is only going to get worse. Jose Valverde is unhittable when on, but the rest of the bullpen is pretty shaky. This franchise needs to start from scratch.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Roy Oswalt isn’t a top-30 starter.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
Offense: How the mighty have fallen. In the Cards’ Opening Day lineup, five hitters will have a career OPS of .730 or (much) lower. Troy Glaus, Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel do provide some punch to go along with Albert Pujols, but they’ll also provide a ton of strikeouts. If this team is in fifth place come July, it would make an awful lot of sense for Pujols to just get it over with and go under the knife.
Pitching: Adam Wainwright, who had a 2.71 ERA and 1.25 WHIP after the All-Star break last season, is developing into a fine pitcher to lead the staff. At least St. Louis didn’t get ripped off by Atlanta in that deal. With Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement residing on the DL, the rest of the rotation is a mess. It’s unclear if Anthony Reyes is dating Dave Duncan’s daughter, but for some reason, the two have a tension-filled relationship, leading to the team’s second most talented starter relegated to long-relief, despite his impressive spring.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Anthony Reyes gets traded and flourishes.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Offense: There’s not much to like here. Jason Bay should bounce back, and Nate McLouth should upgrade center field, but there’s little punch to this lineup. Xavier Nady is a candidate to get dealt, Freddy Sanchez’s shoulder is still a concern, and the left side of the infield is the most unproductive in baseball. For whatever reason, Adam LaRoche is a career .184/.282/.354 hitter during April.
Pitching: It’d be nice if Ian Snell further developed a third pitch, but he’s an ace in the making nevertheless. Tom Gorzelanny is a decent enough No. 3 or 4 starter, but he’s acting as Pitt’s No. 2, and his 3.88 ERA last season was a fluke. Last year’s deadline deal to acquire Matt Morris was a microcosm of the poorly run franchise. Morris, the team’s highest paid player, had a hideous 29:22 K:BB ratio over 62 innings in Pittsburgh. Matt Capps has to be considered a top-10 fantasy closer.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Ian Snell is a more valuable pitcher than Roy Oswalt, finishing with 200 strikeouts.