02.05.06

Kovacevic : NL Central Mediocrity Tonic For Pirates

Posted in Baseball at 5:17 pm by

Looking over the changing landscape of the National League’s Central Division, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Dejan Kovacevic suggests that for the Pirates, the light at the end of the tunnel might not be an oncoming train.

St. Louis, the only 100-win team in Major League Baseball last season, remains the class of the club. But the Cardinals did not increase their $95 million payroll despite moving into a new ballpark, and they appear to have lost more than they gained in personnel.

Out went solid veterans Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker from the outfield, in came Juan Encarnacion and Larry Bigbie. Out went steady starter Matt Morris, in came enigmatic Sidney Ponson. Out went second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and his .294 average, in came Junior Spivey and his .232.

Yes, Abraham Nunez left, too.

Houston, fresh off a run to the World Series, had its financial hands tied because of uncertainty about the status of Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell, who could cost $40 million combined if they return. That limited the Astros to one signing to upgrade a subpar offense, that of outfielder Preston Wilson.

Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and a maturing Brandon Backe will make the Astros winners again, but pennant hopes dim without Clemens.

No team in the division will spend more than Chicago’s $100 million, but most of the Cubs’ offseason moves were low-key. Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones replaced Corey Patterson and Jeromy Burnitz in the outfield, and middle relievers Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry were signed to above-market contracts.

The rotation remains the Cubs’ strength, but Kerry Wood will not open the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, and the only starter added, Wade Miller, also is coming off shoulder surgery.

Milwaukee played it patiently because of a wealth of young talent. The Brewers’ lone move was trading Lyle Overbay to clear first base for megaprospect Prince Fielder. They should improve on .500, but a large leap looks a year or two away.

Cincinnati just found new ownership and has promised to upgrade its miserable pitching, but the free-agency shop is closed and trades will not be easy to make. The Reds’ most significant pickup was Dave Williams, the Pirates’ fifth starter last year.

Pittsburgh added Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Damaso Marte over the winter, so they might as well start making plans for a big parade. If the Steelers win, that is.

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