Finally, games that count have arrived. For better or worse, that means the Cardinals took the field this week. The Redbirds then promptly played in a game that didn’t count, an Opening Day rainout that washed away an Albert Pujols home run. Funny how that happens. Opening Day redux ended with Rockies starter Kip Wells getting the best of his former team. Ouch. But St. Louis rebounded to take the series with a win on Thursday. All told, they allowed the reigning N.L. champs just five runs in three games.
Getting back to my last column — a silly expedition in selecting the best players in the N.L. Central — I must carry on where I left off and identify the pitchers who will surely shine this season, given my blessing. We’ll start with a rotation, then build a pen.
THE ACE: Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs
There are only three legitimate options for “ace” of an N.L. Central staff, and each makes my rotation. I selected Big Z for his nasty streak, his on-field shenanigans, his off-field shenanigans (he’s fearless when a catcher needs decked), his durability (five straight seasons with 200–plus innings pitched) and his attractive K/9 rate (which is trending downward but still quite respectable).
THE ACE IN WAITING: Ben Sheets, Milwaukee Brewers
The knock on Ben Sheets is he can’t stay healthy. Fair enough, but it’s April now and he’s healthy, so he makes my rotation. He regularly touches 95 on the radar gun, throws a hard curve and unlike Zambrano, he doesn’t walk many batters (nearly a 5:1 K:BB ratio over the past three seasons). If Milwaukee is going to compete for the N.L Central title, they’ll absolutely need a healthy Ben Sheets along for the ride. I say this is the year he puts together a 2004-esque season (34 GS, 2.70 ERA, 264 Ks).
THE ALL-IMPORTANT NUMBER THREE: Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros
Ole Roy just keeps plugging along, which I suppose makes him sort of a bore. But aren’t most third starters? I’ll take his ERA in the low-3s and his ability to keep the ball in the yard, and look elsewhere for a flair for the absurd.
NUMBER FOUR: Aaron Harang, Cincinnati Reds
No one ever talks about Harang, whose ERAs over the past three seasons (102 starts) read: 3.83, 3.76, 3.73. He gives up his fair share of gopher balls, a byproduct of pitching his home games in a bandbox. But I like his midrange game, and at 6-foot-7 he fills the lane well. (Sorry, still thinking about college basketball.)
THE FIFTH STARTER: Ian Snell, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rounding out a rotation that will not win any beauty pageants, I’m selecting a Pirate. I thought about Adam Wainwright and toyed with Ted Lilly and Rich Hill. But I haven’t gone out on a limb yet, so I’ll do that with this pick. Ian Dante Snell anchors a youthful Pittsburgh rotation that looks fabulous in yellow and goes well with a Primanti Bros. steak sandwich, a side of cole slaw and sixer of Yuengling. On to the pen. . . .
THE CLOSER: Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
While the reclamation projects in Milwaukee (Eric Gagne) and Chicago (Kerry Wood) might have more name recognition, I prefer my closers to have a strikeout-rate well north of 10 and a fastball that flirts with 100. So I’m going with Mr. Payday, the new closer of the Reds and the former closer of the Brew Crew.
REST OF THE PEN: I’m not going to select pitchers out of position, so only non-closers can make the cut in the balance of my bullpen. I’ll take one heaping helping of Cubs set-up man Carlos Marmol, and mix in some Derrick Turnbow (Brewers) in case Marmol’s heat is chilly on a given day. For a surprise, I’m going on a total hunch and rounding out the righthanders with Cardinals rookie Kyle McClellan. For the left side of the pen I’m taking the Pirates’ Damaso Marte and the Brewers’ Brian Shouse, because he’s from Effingham, he went to Bradley University and he held lefties to a .520 OPS last season.
So, here’s my N.L. Central team, minus a bench.
CA: Yadier Molina
1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Rickie Weeks
SS: Jack Wilson
3B: Aramis Ramirez
OF: Hunter Pence, Corey Hart, Alfonso Soriano
Rotation: Carlos Zambrano, Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt, Aaron Harang, Ian Snell
Pen: Francisco Cordero (closer), Carlos Marmol, Derrick Turnbow, Kyle McClellan, Damaso Marte, Brian Shouse
Let me know who you got. And if you’re looking for more N.L. Central coverage, check out Six Degrees of Mediocrity.