Mike Nadel: Divisions divide possibilities for Chicago ballclubs

Mike Nadel

Lou Piniella says the Cubs "expect to go further" in 2008. And while I wouldn't start printing World Series tickets for Tootsie Pop Park - or whatever Wrigley Field will be called by October - it's easier to believe Lou than it is to picture his Cubs taking a step backward.

Doing so would mean they'd have failed to win baseball's Incredible Shrinking Division.

Hello ... is anybody else home in the National League Central?

The Cardinals managed to keep Tony La Russa in St. Louis but precious little for him to manage. Maybe La Russa didn't play Albert Pujols in last year's All-Star Game so the slugger extraordinaire would have energy in '08 to pitch a few dozen complete games, play three or four positions simultaneously and drive in 250 runs for a team otherwise loaded down with rehabbers, retreads and hopefuls.

Milwaukee was a fashionable pick last season but had too little pitching to hold off an 85-win Cubs team. The Brewers again will hit, but they have even less pitching now. David Riske might be their closer ... need I really say more? No, but I will: They're counting on Jason Kendall to be their everyday catcher.

Houston traded the farm for Miguel Tejada, an over-the-hill shortstop facing serious steroid allegations. And after Roy Oswalt, the Astros' rotation features a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery (Brandon Backe), a 41-year-old who had a 5.27 ERA last year (Woody Williams) and several REAL question marks.

Dusty Baker probably will give Cincinnati an injection of hope - just as he did for the Cubs and Giants when taking over those downtrodden franchises. Still, if Dusty pulls off even a .500 finish with this motley crew, I'll be truly impressed.

Then there's Pittsburgh. The Pirates will do what they always do: trade away any players who want market-value money and tell their manager du jour to fill out his lineup card with Triple-A talent.

With baseball's fifth-highest payroll and some nice upgrades already in place - especially Kosuke Fukudome, if he's even 75 percent as good as GM Jim Hendry claims - even the flawed Cubs will have trouble choking away this division.

After that, betting on a deep postseason run makes about as much sense as it always does in Cubbieland.

For all the talk about pursuing Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts to bat leadoff, the Baltimore player the Cubs should go after is All-Star lefty Erik Bedard.

Yes, the Cubs have the best pitching in the NL Central, but that's like being noblest Canseco brother. Ted Lilly's playoff meltdown showed he's an unworthy No. 2 starter. Even ace Carlos Zambrano is hardly Mr. Consistent. And for the bottom of the rotation, Hendry has thrown Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis, Ryan Dempster, Sean Marshall and Sean Gallagher at the ceiling and hoping two of them stick.

Another top starter - such as Bedard - could mean the difference between the Cubs matching their modest 2007 success and being real-live pennant contenders.

Meanwhile, in the American League Central, White Sox GM Ken Williams keeps a straight face when saying his lads match up well with the Cleveland and Detroit teams that left the Sox for dead last season.

"What we have," he said Friday at SoxFest, "is one of the most balanced clubs in baseball."

OK ... if balanced is defined as having two third basemen and two shortstops but no second baseman and no centerfielder. And as having sluggers galore but no real leadoff man. And as having a rotation that will rely heavily on a broken-down codger who was benched last season (Jose Contreras) and two kids who combined to go 7-18 with a 5.43 ERA (Gavin Floyd and John Danks).

The White Sox find themselves in the exact opposite situation as their neighbors to the north. With an improved bullpen and newcomers Orlando Cabrera and Nick Swisher, the Sox might have a chance if they could switch places with the Cubs and operate out of the NL Central.

Sure, Jerry Reinsdorf and Bud Selig are buddies, but it still probably won't happen.

Up and down the lineup and on the mound, the Indians and Tigers are superior to the White Sox. Period.

"At best we'll be picked to finish third - and rightfully so," Sox captain Paul Konerko said. "We'll be underdogs, but we can compete. We have to show up with a chip on our shoulder."

Ozzie Guillen promised that his team "will surprise people."

"I'm not worried about Detroit or Cleveland; I'm worried about the White Sox," the combustible skipper said. "People might not believe it, but we've got a pretty good ballclub."

Pretty good? OK, that's believable. That's what, 83 wins, 85, maybe 87?

If so, it would be a considerable improvement from the sorry showing of '07. It also would make them one of baseball's better third-place teams.

Mike Nadel ( is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at