Made in Japan: Can Cubs import title?

March 11, 2008 6:00 PM
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On The Mark by Mark Mayer | EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a six-part preview of each division in the major leagues leading up to the March 30 USA season opener between the Braves and Nationals in Washington, D.C.

Fukudome Fever. Hey, if that’s what finally gets the Chicago Cubs to the World Series after a century of failure, then an epidemic it is!

Kosuke Fukudome, like Ichiro, will debut in right field. There are many ifs to the Cubs, but no question that expectations are higher than the Sears Tower.

The NL Central is a division up for grabs. Yes, even the Pittsburgh Pirates have reason to believe they have a chance, albeit a slim one.

The Las Vegas Hilton has the Cubs as a 10-13 favorite to win the division. Milwaukee is next at 9-4, followed by Cincinnati (9-1), St. Louis (10-1), Houston (11-1) and Pittsburgh (50-1).

Chicago already has its core established with Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano combining to hit 81 homers. Ryan Theriot stirs the pot with 28 SB and plays a solid shortstop. Catcher Geovany Soto is a bright prospect, hitting .389 in 18 games last year. Carlos Zambrano is the clearcut ace now that Mark Prior is in San Diego and Kerry Wood is figuring out how much he can pitch. Rich Hill fanned 183 and is a comer. Ryan Dempster saved 28, but Carlos Marmol (1.43 ERA) is now the closer.

Milwaukee begins any discussion with Prince Fielder, a definite MVP candidate off a 50 HR, 119 RBI campaign. Ryan Braun hit .324 and was named NL Rookie of the Year. Infielders Rickie Weeks and Bill Hall combined for 30 homers. Mike Cameron, over from the Padres, is a Gold Glove candidate in center. If the Brewers are to win this division, Ben Sheets needs to stay healthy. Also, a return to form of lefty Chris Capuano is in order. And, closer Eric Gagne must replace the 44 saves of Francisco Cordero.

St. Louis must find consistent offense from places other than Uncle Albert, who is facing Tommy John surgery. Pujols led in homers, batting average and RBI in an injury-plagued 2007. Adam Kennedy is the top stolen base thief on the roster with just 6. The outfield is exciting with Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel and hyped CF Colby Rasmus, who replaces Jim Edmonds. Adam Wainwright anchors a rotation that desperately needs a healthy Chris Carpenter. Closer Jason Isringhausen craves save chances.

Cincinnati could be the sleeper in the Central. The Reds have power, speed and now a very rich closer in Francisco Cordero (44 SV, 2.98 ERA), who came over from division rival Milwaukee. LF Adam Dunn is a 50-homer threat and 2B Brandon Phillips (a 30-30 man) may be the NL’s best kept secret. Then, there’s Ken Griffey, Jr. Yes, he’s still around. If healthy, Junior can still reach the fences often. Aaron Harang had a breakthrough season in 2007, but the rest of the rotation is a bit shaky.

Pittsburgh can win more than the Hilton’s projected 70. The young, talented pitching staff is similar to the Giants. Tom Gorzelanny won 14, Ian Snell fanned 177 and Zack Duke was an instant success before fading late in the year. Closer Matt Capps saved 18 of 21 with a stellar 2.28 ERA. Offensively, five Pirates hit double-figures in homers led by All-Star Jason Bay with 21. Bay, Adam LaRoche and Freddie Sanchez combined for 253 RBI. Nate McLouth stole 22 bases. The Bucs will be a feisty bunch.

Houston can finish first or last. Really! Miguel Tejada brings his steroid cloud aboard from Baltimore. Miggie’s 40 HR capability blends nicely with Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, who combined for 66 HR and 221 RBI. Lesser known, but as valuable, is RF Hunter Pence, who batted .322 with 11 steals. Roy Oswalt must win more than 14. Wandy Rodriguez fanned 158, but no Astros pitcher other than the O won at least 10. Jose Valverde (47 SV at Arizona) replaces Brad Lidge.

Based on the current rosters we rank this division: Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Houston.

Next week: The AL Central.

CHICAGO

Infield: C Geovany Soto, 1B Derrek Lee (.317 BA), 2B Mark DeRosa, 3B Aramis Ramirez (101 RBI), SS Ryan Theriot (28 SB). Outfield: LF Alfonso Soriano (33 HR), CF Felix Pie, RF Kosuke Fukudome. Rotation: Carlos Zambrano (18 wins), Ted Lilly, Rich Hill (183 K), Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber. Closer: Carlos Marmol. Setup: Ryan Dempster (28 SV).

MILWAUKEE

Infield: C Jason Kendall, 1B Prince Fielder (50 HR, 119 RBI), 2B Rickie Weeks (25 SB), 3B Bill Hall, SS JJ Hardy. Outfield: LF Ryan Braun (.324 BA), CF Mike Cameron (Padres), RF Corey Hart. Rotation: Ben Sheets (12 wins), Dave Bush (12 wins, 134 K), Jeff Suppan (12 wins), Carlos Villanueva, Chris Capuano. Closer: Eric Gagne (0 SV).

ST. LOUIS

Infield: C Yadier Molina, 1B Albert Pujols (.327 BA, 32 HR, 103 RBI), 2B Adam Kennedy (6 SB), 3B Troy Glaus (Blue Jays), SS Cesar Isturis (Dodgers). Outfield: LF Chris Duncan, CF Colby Rasmus, RF Rick Ankiel. Rotation: Adam Wainwright (14 wins, 136 K), Braden Looper, Joel Piniero, Matt Clement, Anthony Reyes. Closer: Jason Isringhausen (2.48 ERA, 32 SV).

CINCINNATI

Infield: C David Ross, 1B Joey Votto, 2B Brandon Phillips (30 HR, 32 SB), 3B Edwin Encarnacion (.289 BA), SS Alex Gonzalez. Outfield: LF Adam Dunn (40 HR, 106 RBI), CF Ryan Freel, RF Ken Griffey Jr. Rotation: Aaron Harang (16 wins, 3.73 ERA, 218 K), Bronson Arroyo, Matt Belisle, Josh Fogg (Rockies), Homer Bailey. Closer: Francisco Cordero. Setup: David Weathers (33 SV).

PITTSBURGH

Infield: C Ronny Paulino, 1B Adam LaRoche (88 RBI), 2B Freddie Sanchez (.304 BA), 3B Jose Bautista, SS Jack Wilson. Outfield: LF Jason Bay (21 HR), CF Nate McLouth (22 SB), RF Xavier Nady. Rotation: Tom Gorzelanny (14 wins), Ian Snell (177 K), Paul Maholm, Matt Morris (Giants), Zach Duke. Closer: Matt Capps (2.28 ERA, 18 SV).

HOUSTON

Infield: C JR Towles, 1B Lance Berkman (34 HR), 2B Kaz Matsui (Rockies), 3B Ty Wigginton, SS Miguel Tejada. Outfield: LF Carlos Lee (119 RBI), CF Michael Bourn, RF Hunter Pence (.322 BA, 11 SB). Rotation: Roy Oswalt (14 wins, 3.18 ERA), Wandy Rodriguez (158 K), Brandon Backe, Woody Williams, Shawn Chacon. Closer: Jose Valverde (D’backs).

LV Hilton’s projected wins: Chicago Cubs 87, Milwaukee 84˝, Cincinnati 77˝, St.Louis 76, Houston 75, Pittsburgh 70.