It’s never too early to start looking at the competition in the NL Central division, and it’s not a bad idea to take stock of things before free agency changes the competitive landscape. I’ll begin by looking south of St. Louis at the Houston Astros – the team that surprised many by posting a 76-86 record. When you factor in that they traded Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt went 6-12 while he was still there, the record seems even a bit more impressive. While it’s tempting to suspect that this team simply overachieved a bit, first look at how they got to 76 wins. Consider what they did against the rest of the central division:
vs Chicago 11-7
vs Milwaukee 8-7
vs Pittsburgh 11-4
vs St. Louis 10-5
vs Cincinnati 5-10
That accounts for 45 of their wins. Consider that the Astros had a winning record against only 2 other NL teams outside the NL Central (Philly and Colorado) and a 3-12 inter-league record. The team played well against less talented teams and managed to win a few against better teams. If the Astros can raise their game just a bit, I don’t think a move toward .500 is out of the question. That’s why I projected them as an 80-win team in the UCB roundtable (transcript here). As of this moment, the Astros have just under $40M in payroll committed for 2011, and sadly for them $18.5M of that is for Carlos Lee. $7M is owed to the Phillies and $2M is owed to the Yankees (ouch). Unless they overpay just for fun (unlikely), the Astros could add both a bat and a starting pitcher (#3 or #4) and still be around $95-97M on opening day. If Carlos Lee ever invests in a treadmill, they could start making some legitimate noise in the division. I don’t think that any of their key contributors had career years that represent statistical aberrations, so the probability that they can repeat the 2010 results is relatively high. Then again, maybe my perception is simply skewed by watching Bud “Cy” Norris throw darts over and over again against the Cardinals.
In all seriousness, I expect the company line out of Houston to be that they are happy with the core of young talent that they have. They are going to build on it, and they are going to be content to wait for it to develop. Of course, this is pretty much the same line that the Houston management team has been using for the last several years (or at least since Bobby Jenks blew a bunch of fastballs past them to close them out in 4 straight in the 2005 WS).
Check back in a few days here at PH8 for part II of the fall preview. Better yet, check back in a few months for a look back at the fall preview to see just how much I got wrong (and maybe even right)!