2007 Brewers will be better than the World Champion Cardinals.

That’s a provocative headline, but I feel okay saying it, partially because I am without conscience (I’m a liberal, after all :)), and partially because of what I’ve noticed in the last few days.
Looking through the pitchers portion of The Graphical Player 2007, I happened upon something, which may have been obvious to some other Brewers fans, but gave me quite a bit of hope for the Crew in 2007 – something that I think will allow them to contend for the division title, and another datum in the Doug-Melvin-is-genius book.
Last year, the NL Central was the weakest division in baseball. The Cardinals won it with a modest 83-78 record, and somehow went on to become World Champions. If you look at the makeup of the 2006 Cardinals, especially their pitching staff, you see something that is not unlike the 2007 Brewers staff – except that the latter is better. Aside from the obvious point that we now have one of their starting pitchers, there are other similarities. The two staffs are anchored by one dominant pitcher. Granted, Chris Carpenter has been healthier than Ben Sheets for the last two years, but having missed all of 2003 and half of 2002 with injuries, Carpie’s health is not beyond concern. To boot, if I need one dominant start, I’ll take Sheets in a heartbeat. Of course, one start doesn’t get you anywhere, and that’s why the Brewers’ year hinges more on Sheets’ health than anything thing else. After that, the 2006 Cards rotation dives into a slew of innings eaters, league-average guys, and other assorted disappointments. Lets take a look at who got starts for the Cardinals in the 2006 regular season:

Chris Carpenter 32 143 67.8
Jeff Suppan 32 107 27.0
Jason Marquis 33 73 -5.7
Anthony Reyes 17 87 9.8
Mark Mulder 17 62 -14.9
Jeff Weaver 15 85 7.0
Sidney Ponson 13* 84 3.8
Other 2 50 NA
Totals 161 9894.8**

*Ponson pitched in one game he did not start, and his ERA+ and VORP include this game, but it is not likely to make a significant difference.
**Total VORP does not include the starts from “Other” which would have been negative, but small — a 9.00 ERA in 4 IP

Not an overwhelming bunch. The 98 ERA+ says the starters were a tick below average. The team ERA+ was 97, so that means the bullpen was even further below average. In terms of VORP, aside from Carpenter being the 5th best in the league, and Suppan adding about 2 wins, this squad was gross (I’m looking at you, Jason Marquis).
Regardless of what Brewers experienced in 2006, Or what the Cards will do this year, the ’07 Brewer starting pitchers to be significantly better than the ’06 Cardinals starters. Let’s look at the projected VORP for 2007 Brewers (projections adjusted so that GS does not exceed 162):

Ben Sheets 28 43.2
Chris Capuano 31 24.6
Dave Bush 28 27.8
Jeff Suppan 31 15.2
Claudio Vargas 26 13.5
Carlos Villanueva 16 9.2
Totals 161131.5

I was uncomfortable about predicting how many starts Sheets would make, so I left it at PECOTA’s 28. The rest I had to adjust, but stayed true to the VORPr. I had to split the difference between Villanueva and Vargas (though I wish I could do it for Villanueva and Suppan).
The projection seems a bit low for Capuano, who had more Quality Starts than Johann Santana last year, and the most in the Majors along with Roy Oswalt, logging 25 QS in 34 starts. Carpenter had only 19 in 32 starts.
At any rate, that’s a hefty margin (almost 40 VORP) over what the 2006 Cardinals did, and probably is better than what the Cardinals will do this year, too, because after Carpenter and Reyes (who will be much better this year, by the way), the rest of the rotation is up in the air with the departures of Marquis, Suppan, Weaver, Mulder, and Ponson. Adam Wainwright will move to the rotation, and projects very well, but is untested there. Kip Wells signed, and is a joke. ESPN lists Brad Thompson as the 5th starter, but he’s been a swingman for a few years now in the minors, and doesn’t look real good.
The Brewers shouldn’t have this predicament, considering that Melvin added depth to the rotation — no matter who takes the mound every fifth day for Ned Yost, it he should be better than Brad Thompson (and Kip Wells for that matter). Best case scenario sees Vargas off to a hot start, no Brewers pitchers injured, and a trade of Vargas for something useful, with Gallardo or Villanueva taking over.
Considering the starting pitching for rest of the division, I think the Brewers still stack up well. One never knows how the young Pirates will do; the Reds should suck as usual (although Aaron Harang is a bit underrated, Bronson Arroyo make up for that), the Astros will sorely miss Pettitte and Clemens, and the Cubs have my best (read: worst) wishes with Marquis and Co. Here’s how I’d forecast the rotations:

1. Brewers (Sheets a CY candidate, everyone else is average or a bit better)
2. Cubs (Rich Hill blows up, Lilly K’s a buttload, Prior decides to “help out”)
3. Cardinals (Reyes and Wainwright have good years)
4. Pirates (young guys come along nicely)
5. Astros (Oswalt can’t do it alone)
6. Reds (Arroyo regresses, Milton rocked)

My conclusion is a bet: if Ben Sheets makes 30 starts, the Brewers will win the division. Take me up if you like.
I’ll be looking at the bullpens and hitters coming up. Stay tuned.