Several days ago, I did a WAY early preview of the Astros and the Cardinals, though I managed to do it right before the Cards signed Juan Encarnacion and Junior Spivey. Spivey: a good deal. Encarnacion: not so much. I'm not going to say anymore about those deals than I already have, but Rich Lederer doesn't exactly have anything nice to say about the St. Louis offseason so far.
To update: I figure the Spivey and Encarnacion additions move the Cardinals up to 94 wins or so. GM Walt Jocketty should have done better--signing Brian Giles and filling the rest of the gaps with non-tenders would've been cheaper and more effective than what he's done, especially for 2006, but St. Louis will likely still be out of Milwaukee's reach this coming season.
Chicago Cubs: 79-83 in 2005.
So far: I wouldn't say the Cubs have had a good offseason. They've overspent on Bobby Howry and way overspent on Scott Eyre, and they ridiculously overspent to get Juan Pierre from the Marlins. They overspent to put John Mabry on the bench, they way overspent to stick Jacque Jones in right field, and they ridiculously overspent to keep Neifi Perez, which prevented them from overspending on Rafael Furcal. It's possible that none of these moves will make the 2006 team better than the 2005 edition. Neither Eyre nor Howry is any better than a properly deployed LaTroy Hawkins; Mabry is Todd Hollandsworth part deux, Jacque Jones is a "more athletic" Jeromy Burnitz, at the expense of needing a platoon partner he won't get from Dusty, and Juan Pierre might not be any better than Corey Patterson would be if he bounces back. (I admit, that's a big if.)
On deck: The Cubs are among the favorites to land Miguel Tejada, but the price tag looks to be Mark Prior, and the deal might even require a top-tier prospect (Rich Hill?) before it's done. The right Tejada deal could make this team a couple of wins better, but the O's are demanding big-time ML-ready talent, so the Cubs can't even mortgage the future to get Miggy unless they mortgage 2006 in the process. (Can you mortgage the present? I suppose if Dusty Baker's on board, anything's possible.) It would appear the Cubs are mostly done, though Baker and Hendry will doubtless pray to as many gods as possible to keep some combination of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, and Derrek Lee healthy. Without those guys, here come the Reds!
Projection: I suppose that if everything breaks right, this could be a very good team. The starting rotation is one of the few in baseball that could far outperform Milwaukee's, and Juan Pierre's presence at the top of the order might help Derrek Lee a little bit. But not much. Given the fragility of the club, though, everything won't break right--it's much more likely that everything (I'm thinking of Kerry Wood's arm, Aramis Ramirez's who-knows-what-this-year) will break wrong. Once again, I see the Cubs on the wrong side of .500, dueling it out with the Astros for third place.
2006 Cubs: 80-82
Cincinnati Reds: 2005 record, 73-89
So far: The Reds haven't done much, besides cropping up in everybody else's trade rumors. For now, Adam Dunn and Wily Mo Pena may be off the market, since Cinci traded first baseman Sean Casey to the Pirates for Dave Williams. Thumbs up Reds on that one: dump salary and get a league-average starter in the deal, all the while opening up an outfield slot for Wily Mo, who should've played quite a few more ML games by now. Dave Williams, the pickup in the Casey trade, is nothing exciting, and probably wouldn't even crack the rotation in Milwaukee (he might not crack the roster at all) but he may well be the number three starter next year in Cincinnati, behind Brandon Claussen and Aaron Harang. The Reds also signed Chris Hammond, who will probably be useful, and traded for Tony Womack, who doubtless will not.
On Deck: There are rumors that Wily Mo is headed to Florida for a package including pitcher Scott Olson. I doubt it'll happen: I don't understand the deal from either team's perspective now that the Cinci logjam has been resolved. The Reds can always use more pitching, so it's a good bet they'll be handing out Spring Training NRIs as if they had the worst pitching in the league last year...because, arguably, they did.
Projection: This wasn't a very good team last year, and it probably won't be very good this year. Paul Wilson and Eric Milton might regress a bit back to the mean (for them, that's a good thing), but I don't think Aaron Harang (their ace?) or Brandon Claussen can be expected to perform much better than they did last year. They still have no semblance of a major league bullpen, and while the offense scored more runs than any other in the league last year, that doesn't matter much if the pitching gives up 70 more.
2006 Reds: 71-91
Pittsburgh Pirates: 2005 record, 67-95
So far: The Bucs have two fewer major-league pitchers than they did in October, and in exchange, they have an overpaid Sean Casey and minor-league reliever Jonah Bayliss. Presumably their young rotation will be healthy and ready to go the distance in 2006: between Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Oliver Perez, and perhaps Brian Bullington, they'll get one or two of the best young pitching performances of the year. While it will be impressive, they'll probably get league-average or worse from at least two rotation spots, especially if a couple of those guys get hurt. Suddenly, trading away Mark Redman and Dave Williams and non-tendering Josh Fogg will be more painful. The Pirates have improved their bullpen, signing Roberto Hernandez to close (sorry, Messrs. Duke, Snell, Maholm, and Perez) and trading Rob Mackowiak for the once-prized Damaso Marte. Not a great off-season at this point, but frankly, I expected worse.
On deck: At this point, not much. Look for GM Dave Littlefield to sign at least one veteran position player. I thought it'd be Joe Randa, but apparently they're not interested. It wouldn't surprise me to see him add a veteran 4th OF type as well.
Projection: The Pirates may surprise some people this year, particularly those who didn't notice the depth of the young pitching beyond Zach Duke. But even with four promising starters and one of the best young position players in baseball in Jason Bay, they're not going to surprise their way to .500. It'll take skillful development and even more skillful front-office work to build a quality club around those young stars while they remain under Pittsburgh's control, and from what I've seen the last few years, there's no reason for the Crew to fear Pittsburgh--not this year, not next year, probably not until Kevin McClatchy sells the team. But they might push the Reds into the basement this year.
2006 Pirates: 75-87