NL Central outlook: Cards remain favorites with Holliday

By signing Matt Holliday, the Cardinals:

• Assured themselves of having one of the three best middle-of-the-order attacks in the game (along with the Yankees and Phillies).
• Showed Albert Pujols they are willing to spend.
• Ensured they will enter the season as N.L. Central favorites.

What the Cardinals haven’t done: improve their roster from the end of last season. But this is one time when the status quo could be enough because the rest of the division hasn’t done enough to close the gap on St. Louis.

The moves so far (ranked by strength of moves)

Signing Matt Holliday was important for the Cardinals as they try to hang on to Albert Pujols.
Signing Matt Holliday was important for the Cardinals as they try to hang on to Albert Pujols.

Cardinals. It took awhile and it cost a bunch, but the Cardinals accomplished their No. 1 offseason goal: They signed the top free agent on the market. Holliday should be happy, too. He lands in the best place a hitter could want: the spot behind Pujols. Holliday took advantage last season when he actually outhit Pujols after joining the Cardinals. The club also signed Brad Penny to replace free agent Joel Pineiro in the rotation. Pineiro priced himself out of St. Louis by putting up a 3.49 ERA in 214 innings.

Cubs. General manager Jim Hendry also took care of his No. 1 offseason priority: correcting his No. 1 mistake of last season. Hendry dumped Milton Bradley on the Mariners in exchange for another bad contract in righthander Carlos Silva. Even if Silva doesn’t make the rotation — he is a long shot — the Cubs should benefit because of addition by subtraction. Clubhouse chemistry is not anything they have to worry about with Marlon Byrd, their latest free-agent outfield addition from the Rangers. On the other hand, the Cubs should hope the ivy comes in extra thick this year because Byrd, built like a fullback, goes hard after everything in center field.

Brewers. They needed to upgrade their rotation and did so by signing lefthander Randy Wolf. But that is like adding one coat of white paint over a black wall that needs three coats. Reliever LaTroy Hawkins could prove just as important if he can match his ’09 numbers with the Astros (2.13 ERA in 65 appearances). Milwaukee’s lineup will include two newcomers: Carlos Gomez in center and Gregg Zaun behind the plate. Replacing Jason Kendall with Zaun is more or less a wash. Gomez, however, is worth watching. He has plenty of talent but often annoyed manager Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota with an approach best described as erratic.

Astros. Pedro Feliz will fit in at third base, and the bullpen shouldn’t miss Jose Valverde after adding Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon. Houston also has given former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills his first managing job. But all the Astros have done to address their biggest need — starting pitching — is sign Gustavo Chacin to a minor league deal. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2007.

Pirates. New second baseman Akinori Iwamura is a solid defender, carries a capable bat (.354 OBP in three seasons) and should ease the pain of last year’s loss of Freddy Sanchez. As the team’s highest-paid player ($4.85 million), he had better. The Pirates’ other notable additions — oft-injured infielder Bobby Crosby and lefthanded relievers Jack Taschner and Javier Lopez — do little to improve the odds of the club ending its 17-season losing streak.

Reds. They made a nice move in restructuring Scott Rolen’s contract to give them financial flexibility for 2010. What they do with that flexibility remains to be seen.

To-do lists (ranked by moves still needed)

Reds. They could use a shortstop and a veteran bat for the outfield. To get one, they could trade veteran starter Aaron Harang, who was part of the winter-meetings rumor mill. But don’t be surprised if the Reds you see now are the Reds you see when the team reports to its new spring training home in Arizona.

Astros. With Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and a strong outfield, the Astros have a chance to be good. Don’t count on improvement, though, unless they pick up a couple of starting pitchers. Plenty of veterans remain and the prices should not go up as the offseason continues. The Astros also need a shortstop to replace Miguel Tejada.

Pirates. They still need a first baseman. Hank Blalock still needs a job. He might not have any better opportunities.

Cubs. They found out last season that Mike Fontenot should not be an everyday second baseman on a contending team. So why haven’t they signed Orlando Hudson? They could try him in their leadoff role and fill two needs with one player.

Brewers. They aren’t done shopping for starting pitchers. Mark Mulder has been linked to them in large part because he had his greatest success when he worked in Oakland with Milwaukee’s new pitching coach, Rick Peterson. Mulder is expected to begin throwing for teams in the coming weeks. Of course, he has been saying as much for months.

Cardinals. With Holliday finally on board, the Cardinals can focus on their remaining needs: third base, No. 5 starter and bullpen depth. They are in a good position because they have youngsters for all three spots. Tejada would be an ideal fit at third if his price falls. If it doesn’t, look for the Cardinals to go after a discount starter.

Sizing up 2010

If the Cardinals hadn’t kept Holliday, choosing a division favorite would have been difficult. His return makes them an easy pick to repeat. Expect the Cubs to be much improved for no other reason than better health; they suffered more than their share of injuries in 2009. One more reliable starter could go a long way in helping the Brewers contend because their already formidable lineup will benefit from another year of growing up and the return of Rickie Weeks. The battle for fourth place between the Astros and Reds should come down to the development of Cincinnati’s young hitters vs. the improvement in Houston’s rotation. The Pirates still look like a lock for last.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

By signing Matt Holliday, the Cardinals:

• Assured themselves of having one of the three best middle-of-the-order attacks in the game (along with the Yankees and Phillies).
• Showed Albert Pujols they are willing to spend.
• Ensured they will enter the season as N.L. Central favorites.

What the Cardinals haven’t done: improve their roster from the end of last season. But this is one time when the status quo could be enough because the rest of the division hasn’t done enough to close the gap on St. Louis.

The moves so far (ranked by strength of moves)

Signing Matt Holliday was important for the Cardinals as they try to hang on to Albert Pujols.
Signing Matt Holliday was important for the Cardinals as they try to hang on to Albert Pujols.

Cardinals. It took awhile and it cost a bunch, but the Cardinals accomplished their No. 1 offseason goal: They signed the top free agent on the market. Holliday should be happy, too. He lands in the best place a hitter could want: the spot behind Pujols. Holliday took advantage last season when he actually outhit Pujols after joining the Cardinals. The club also signed Brad Penny to replace free agent Joel Pineiro in the rotation. Pineiro priced himself out of St. Louis by putting up a 3.49 ERA in 214 innings.

Cubs. General manager Jim Hendry also took care of his No. 1 offseason priority: correcting his No. 1 mistake of last season. Hendry dumped Milton Bradley on the Mariners in exchange for another bad contract in righthander Carlos Silva. Even if Silva doesn’t make the rotation — he is a long shot — the Cubs should benefit because of addition by subtraction. Clubhouse chemistry is not anything they have to worry about with Marlon Byrd, their latest free-agent outfield addition from the Rangers. On the other hand, the Cubs should hope the ivy comes in extra thick this year because Byrd, built like a fullback, goes hard after everything in center field.

Brewers. They needed to upgrade their rotation and did so by signing lefthander Randy Wolf. But that is like adding one coat of white paint over a black wall that needs three coats. Reliever LaTroy Hawkins could prove just as important if he can match his ’09 numbers with the Astros (2.13 ERA in 65 appearances). Milwaukee’s lineup will include two newcomers: Carlos Gomez in center and Gregg Zaun behind the plate. Replacing Jason Kendall with Zaun is more or less a wash. Gomez, however, is worth watching. He has plenty of talent but often annoyed manager Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota with an approach best described as erratic.

Astros. Pedro Feliz will fit in at third base, and the bullpen shouldn’t miss Jose Valverde after adding Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon. Houston also has given former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills his first managing job. But all the Astros have done to address their biggest need — starting pitching — is sign Gustavo Chacin to a minor league deal. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2007.

Pirates. New second baseman Akinori Iwamura is a solid defender, carries a capable bat (.354 OBP in three seasons) and should ease the pain of last year’s loss of Freddy Sanchez. As the team’s highest-paid player ($4.85 million), he had better. The Pirates’ other notable additions — oft-injured infielder Bobby Crosby and lefthanded relievers Jack Taschner and Javier Lopez — do little to improve the odds of the club ending its 17-season losing streak.

Reds. They made a nice move in restructuring Scott Rolen’s contract to give them financial flexibility for 2010. What they do with that flexibility remains to be seen.

To-do lists (ranked by moves still needed)

Reds. They could use a shortstop and a veteran bat for the outfield. To get one, they could trade veteran starter Aaron Harang, who was part of the winter-meetings rumor mill. But don’t be surprised if the Reds you see now are the Reds you see when the team reports to its new spring training home in Arizona.

Astros. With Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and a strong outfield, the Astros have a chance to be good. Don’t count on improvement, though, unless they pick up a couple of starting pitchers. Plenty of veterans remain and the prices should not go up as the offseason continues. The Astros also need a shortstop to replace Miguel Tejada.

Pirates. They still need a first baseman. Hank Blalock still needs a job. He might not have any better opportunities.

Cubs. They found out last season that Mike Fontenot should not be an everyday second baseman on a contending team. So why haven’t they signed Orlando Hudson? They could try him in their leadoff role and fill two needs with one player.

Brewers. They aren’t done shopping for starting pitchers. Mark Mulder has been linked to them in large part because he had his greatest success when he worked in Oakland with Milwaukee’s new pitching coach, Rick Peterson. Mulder is expected to begin throwing for teams in the coming weeks. Of course, he has been saying as much for months.

Cardinals. With Holliday finally on board, the Cardinals can focus on their remaining needs: third base, No. 5 starter and bullpen depth. They are in a good position because they have youngsters for all three spots. Tejada would be an ideal fit at third if his price falls. If it doesn’t, look for the Cardinals to go after a discount starter.

Sizing up 2010

If the Cardinals hadn’t kept Holliday, choosing a division favorite would have been difficult. His return makes them an easy pick to repeat. Expect the Cubs to be much improved for no other reason than better health; they suffered more than their share of injuries in 2009. One more reliable starter could go a long way in helping the Brewers contend because their already formidable lineup will benefit from another year of growing up and the return of Rickie Weeks. The battle for fourth place between the Astros and Reds should come down to the development of Cincinnati’s young hitters vs. the improvement in Houston’s rotation. The Pirates still look like a lock for last.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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