Now that I've decided the Crew is good for 86-88 wins last year, let's look at the competition. The Central has been a reasonably strong division lately--the Cardinals have dominated, but the Cubs and Astros have kept themselves respectable. Let's look at the changes each team has made and make some wild guesses as to where each team will end up.
St. Louis Cardinals: 100-62 in 2005.
So far: the Cards have added second baseman Aaron Miles and OF Larry Bigbie in a trade with the Rockies for Ray King, as well as signing free agents Ricardo Rincon, Sidney Ponson, Braden Looper, and Gary Bennett. They've lost King, Matt Morris, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, Abraham Nunez, Julian Tavarez and Larry Walker, who retired.
On deck: The Cardinals have been rumored to be among the final choices for several free agents now, most notable AJ Burnett, but they've lost out on just about everybody until signing Looper recently. Rumors also persist that Jason Marquis will be moved, possibly to make room for Ponson or Adam Wainwright in the rotation. You have to imagine they'll add another outfield bat--right now they're looking at Jim Edmonds, Larry Bigbie, and John Rodriguez as their starting three with So Taguchi backing up. While Edmonds provides a lot of power out of the CF spot, he is fragile, and the Cards probably have the weakest 2-3-4 OF in baseball. They could go after Kevin Mench of the Rangers more agressively, or they could pick up Eric Byrnes and hope for the best.
Projection: Obviously, you can't count out the cards. If Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, and Carpenter stay healthy all year, this is a 90-win team, possibly much better. But Rolen and Edmonds are fragile, and there's no way Carpenter will repeat his 2005 season. The Cards got many boosts from backups last year, particularly John Rodriguez and Abraham Nunez, but with Nunez gone and J-Rod perhaps in the lineup everyday, the bench is much weaker. If Marquis is traded, the rotation may not be as strong, and it remains to be seen how well Rincon and Looper replace King and Tavarez. This is just not as good a team as it was in 2004 or 2005.
Houston Astros: 89-73 in 2005.
So far: Not much has changed. The big question mark is Roger Clemens--will he come back? Since the team didn't offer him arbitration, he can't return until May 1st, and it'll be at least another month before he decides whether he'll pitch again at all. Very little else has changed.
On deck: They lost out on Nomar, but they still need more offense. Brad Lidge is apparently available in trade, and it's conceivable that he could be swapped for Miguel Tejada in some larger deal. But he probably won't go anywhere, and the other players that interest the rest of baseball, Chad Qualls and Brandon Backe, are not replaceable within the system.
Projection: It all depends on Roger. Even if he comes back, he can't possibly duplicate 2005 (can he?) and Morgan Ensberg is also due to come back to earth a bit. Even Andy Pettitte can't be expected to match his 2005 numbers--if he even stays healthy this season. There aren't a whole lot of impact moves left to be made, unless somehow the Astros use Lidge to make a great deal for offense and replace his production in the pen. I'm going to hedge a bit and make two guesses for the Astros:
2006 Without Roger: 80-82
2006 With Roger: 86-78
Tomorrow, I'll look at the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Reds.