Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 MLB Season Preview: NL Central

Cincinnati Reds

Notable additions: Shin-Shoo Choo (trade), Ryan Ludwick (re-signed), Jonathan Broxton (re-signed), Jack Hannahan (FA), Cesar Isturis (FA)

Notable losses: Didi Gregorius (trade), Drew Stubbs (trade), Dioner Navarro (FA), Miguel Cairo (FA), Scott Rolen (FA)

The Reds are coming off a 97-win season that ended with a loss to the Giants in the NLDS. Then enter 2013 as the division favorites, or at least as far as I’m concerned. They aren’t without flaws, but they’re nonetheless a fairly well-rounded team with an impressive mix of young and veteran talent. Dusty Baker gets a lot of heat for his tactics, but even he can’t mess this up.

Any conversation about this offense begins and ends with Joey Votto. He’s arguably the best all-around first baseman in baseball, with excellent discipline, power, defense, and eyebrows. He’s the undisputed franchise player. Shin-Shoo Choo will lead off and play center field, which gives the Reds the superb leadoff hitter they’ve desperately needed but hurts them defensively. Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips are All-Star caliber players that will join Votto in the heart of the lineup. Zack Cozart provides a very good glove at short, and Todd Frazier will take over full-time at third base with Scott Rolen mulling retirement. Frazier is coming off a good rookie year but I have my doubts he’ll keep up that production. The bench is good but not great. Watch out for center field prospect Billy Hamilton to make a splash this year - he might be the fastest player major league baseball has ever seen.

The Reds play in an extreme hitter’s park but you wouldn’t know it based on their pitching. Johnny Cueto is coming off of his best season and is worthy of being dubbed the staff ace. Homer Bailey and Matt Latos are both #2-level starters, but there’s a drop-off after the top three. Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake are average starters that can eat some innings but neither are particularly good. The team toyed with Aroldis Chapman in the rotation, but ultimately will keep him in the closer role, which frankly does everyone else in the division a favor. Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo are both very good relievers and Jonathan Broxton was given a big (and stupid) deal to set-up for Chapman, despite declining stuff. 


Catcher: Ryan Hanigan, Devin Mesoraco
First Base: Joey Votto 
Second Base: Brandon Phillips 
Shortstop: Zack Cozart 
Third Base: Todd Frazier, Jack Hannahan 
Outfield: Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Shoo Choo, Jay Bruce, Chris Heisey, Xavier Paul 
Utility: Cesar IzturHAHAHAHAHAHAHA 
Starting Pitchers: Johnny Cueto, Matt Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake 
Relief Pitchers: Manny Parra, JJ Hoover, Nick Masset (DL), Alfredo Simon, Sam LeCure, Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall, Aroldis Chapman 

St. Louis Cardinals

Notable additions: Ty Wiggington (FA), Randy Choate (FA)

Notable losses: Kyle Lohse (FA), Lance Berkman (FA), Skip Schumaker (FA), Kyle McClellan (FA)

Kozma doing Kozma things.
As much as we would love the Cardinals to go away, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Not only does St. Louis have a deep and talented major league team, but also possess one of the best farm systems in baseball (if not the best). Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, and David Freese all make up for a potent middle-of-the-order, and the combo of Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay form an excellent on-base machine on top of the lineup. If there’s a weakness, it’s injury. Beltran, Holliday, Freese, Jay, and Craig all have injury histories, with Freese already hurt. The shortstop situation is awful, with Pete Kozma forced to start with Rafael Furcal out for the year. Kozma hit well in a tiny sample late last year, but cannot field and certainly can’t hit. He might be the worst full-time player in all of baseball. Fortunately for them, that’s there only real position of weakness. Slugger Matt Adams waits in the wings to play first or the outfield, and uber-prospect Oscar Taveras is likely Beltran’s heir apparent in right field.

The pitching staff isn’t elite but isn’t too shabby. Adam Wainwright performed admirably in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and is a true ace when he’s right. Jamie Garcia has good stuff but has been a bit of an underachiever during his career. Jake Westbrook is a solid innings-eater who gets tons of ground balls. Lance Lynn had a breakout season last year, though he tired a bit at the end and was briefly moved to the bullpen. Shelby Miller is the team’s top pitching prospect and beat out Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal for the fifth spot, with Kelly and Rosenthal now slated for bullpen duty. Miller has big upside and could join Wainwright as an ace someday, if he improves his control. Veteran Chris Carpenter would normally join Wainwright at the top of the rotation but his career might be over after a myriad of injuries. Despite closer Jason Motte sustaining an elbow injury, the bullpen remains pretty deep. Mitchell Boggs will serve as fill-in closer/eventual set-up man, but frankly it doesn’t matter because pretty much everyone in their bullpen is different shades of awesome, despite employing two lefty specialists for some reason.


Catcher: Yadier Molina, Tony Cruz
First Base: Allen Craig, Matt Adams
Second Base: Matt Carpenter 
Shortstop: Pete Kozma 
Third Base: David Freese (DL) 
Outfield: Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran, Shane Robinson
Utility: Daniel Descalso, Ty Wiggington, Ryan Jackson 
Starting Pitchers: Adam Wainwright, Jamie Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller 
Relief Pitchers: Trevor Rosenthal, Randy Choate, Mark Rzepchinakskjfkalakfnklasi, Joe Kelly, Fernando Salas, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte (DL) 

Milwaukee Brewers

Notable additions: Alex Gonzalez (re-signed), Kyle Lohse (FA), Tom Gorzelanny (FA), Michael Gonzalez (FA), Michael Olmsted (FA), Yuniesky Betancourt (FA), Burke Badenhop (trade)

Notable losses: Shaun Marcum (FA), Nyjer Morgan (FA), Kameron Loe (FA), Jose Veras (FA), Manny Parra (FA), Tim Dillard (FA)

The Brewers are coming off a bizarre season, where they were pretty awful for most of the season before lighting the planet on fire in September and getting within a game and a half of a playoff spot. The offense was the best in the NL, the bullpen one of the worst baseball has ever seen. The rotation was a revolving door with Zack Greinke traded, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson injured, and Randy Wolf getting released after a spectacular implosion. This season, they’ll have few questions on offense but a lot of questions on the pitching side.

The offense is expected to have some regression after last season, but is well-rounded nonetheless. Norichika Aoki and Rickie Weeks are solid on-base guys at the top of the lineup, though they achieve it in very different ways (Aoki with hits, Weeks with walks). Ryan Braun is one of the best players in baseball, and is no longer an eyesore in left field. Aramis Ramirez is coming off a career year both offensively and defensively, which is weird considering it was his age-34 season. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is quickly developing into one of the better all-around catchers in the game, though how good his bat really is remains to be seen. The same goes for Carlos Gomez, who finally got enough at-bats to let his power show, but his plate discipline is still an issue. He’s so good defensively that whatever offense he provides is gravy. Jean Segura is the young shortstop who’s kind of a wild card. He also struggles with plate discipline, but has a good hit tool and some power potential. First base is a mess until Corey Hart returns from injury. Former shortstop Alex Gonzalez is expected to fill in, which is only slightly less disgusting than Yuniesky Betancourt playing there. The bench is unsettled with Taylor Green and Jeff Bianchi hurt, but Logan Schafer, Khris Davis, and Martin Maldonado should all be solid backups. Yuni Betancourt still sucks really bad.

The rotation is deep on candidates but low on certainty. Yovani Gallardo is as reliable as a pitcher can get, but he’s the only known quantity. Kyle Lohse should at least be average, but won’t repeat his St. Louis performance. Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers had breakouts last year and are very similar pitchers skill-wise, but Estrada has a little more upside. Wily Peralta is the organization’s top prospect and won a rotation spot in camp. He has #2 starter upside but needs to sharpen his control. Chris Narveson (who’ll start in the bullpen), Mark Rogers (on the DL while he builds up arm strength), Hiram Burgos, Tyler Thornburg, and Johnny Hellweg are potential replacements if one or more starters struggle. The bullpen can’t possibly be worse than last season but is still isn’t terrific. Closer John Axford upped his velocity and developed his slider last year, but his control faltered and he became homer-prone. Jim Henderson will probably set up but I’m making the bold prediction that Brandon Kintzler will take over there at some point. Narveson, Alfredo Figaro, Burke Badenhop, and Tom Gorzelanny provide some length and versatility, which could be key if the young starters struggle to provide innings. Michael Olmsted will start the year in AAA, but is an intriguing power arm who will likely make an impact at some point.


Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado 
First Base: Corey Hart (DL), Alex Gonzalez 
Second Base: Rickie Weeks 
Third Base: Aramis Ramirez 
Shortstop: Jean Segura 
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki, Logan Schafer, Khris Davis
Utility: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jeff Bianchi (DL), Taylor Green (DL)
Starting Pitchers: Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers 
Relief Pitchers: Alfredo Figaro, Chris Narveson, Burke Badenhop, Michael Gonzalez, Brandon Kintzler, Jim Henderson, Tom Gorzelanny, John Axford 

Pittsburgh Pirates

Notable additions: Francisco Liriano (FA), Jonathan Sanchez (FA), John McDonald (trade), Mark Melancon (trade), Jerry Sands (trade)

Notable losses: Joel Hanrahan (trade), Brock Holt (trade), Rod Barajas (FA), Eric Bedard (FA)

The Pirates have spent each of the last two seasons as a Cinderella team in the first half and a disaster in the second half. They haven’t had a winning season in over 20 years, but there are many people who think this could be the year they break out. I’m not one of those people. The offense is shallow around Andrew McCutchen and the pitching isn’t exactly loaded with reliability. The farm system is loaded but I can’t buy mid-season call-ups greatly altering the makeup of this roster, and certainly not greatly affecting the win-loss record.

The offense seems to be built to "swing and pray". Andrew McCutchen is legit MVP candidate in center field, but after him everyone else is either greatly flawed or bad. Second baseman Neil Walker is good at everything but great at nothing. Pedro Alvarez has titanic power but swings and misses too much and is an unmitigated disaster defensively. Garrett Jones and Travis Snider should be platoon players. Jones’ possible platoon mate, Gaby Sanchez, kinda sucks. Starling Marte and Russell Martin have power but don’t make much contact. Clint Barmes fields great but hits nothing. The defense overall is pretty good, arguably the best in the division. As long as they don’t make Garrett Jones play in the outfield, that is.

A.J. Burnett getting trolled on Opening Day.
The pitching is the team’s bread and butter. AJ Burnett is coming off a fantastic year after being a disappointment in New York. Burnett hasn’t shown the ability to be consistent year-to-year though. James McDonald was a breakout star in the first half of 2012 but couldn’t find the strike zone in the second half and quickly devolved into a mess. Wandy Rodriguez is fine as a third starter, he’s the definition of reliable. Jonathan Sanchez is hilarious. Jeff Locke will hold down the fifth spot until either Francisco Liriano (also kinda hilarious) or Jeff Karstens return from injury or one of the youngsters (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Kyle McPherson) is ready. The bullpen should be solid. Jason Grilli has resurrected his career in Pittsburgh and will be the closer. His fastball-slider combo has been deadly, though he was a little homer-prone last year. Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes are all promising young pitchers. Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez both lost out on rotation spots but can fill in there if needed.


Catcher: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry 
First Base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez 
Second Base: Neil Walker 
Shortstop: Clint Barmes
Third Base: Pedro Alvarez
Outfield: Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata 
Utility: John McDonald, Josh Harrison 
Starting Pitchers: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke, Jeff Karstens (DL), Francisco Liriano (DL), Charlie Morton (DL)
Relief Pitchers: Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Chris Leroux, Jason Grilli 

Chicago Cubs

Notable additions: Edwin Jackson (FA), Scott Baker (FA), Scott Feldman (FA), Carlos Villanueva (FA), Dioner Navarro (FA), Nate Schierholtz (FA), Scott Hairston (FA), Hector Rondon (Rule 5 pick)

Notable losses: Brain LaHair (FA), Jeff Baker (FA), Chris Volstad (FA), Manuel Corpas (FA), Tony Campana (trade)

The Cubs are in a major rebuild mode, and frankly aren’t even trying to win games. While they are deeper and more talented than the 101-loss team from last year, they still aren’t very good and will probably try to move some of their veterans around the trade deadline to supplement their already impressive farm system. I like some of their major league pieces but they’re just not deep enough to be much of a factor.

The offense is pretty top-heavy. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are both impressive young players with bright futures. Castro has already proven to be a good hitter and should develop some power as he reaches his prime. He’s already shown improvement defensively. Rizzo is a solid all-around first baseman who should have 30+ homer power at his peak. Veteran Alfonso Soriano showed he wasn’t dead yet with a bounce-back season in 2012, and if he waives his no-trade clause he could be a hot trade target. After those three it gets really ugly. Most of the non-Soriano outfielders are platoon types with limited skill sets, and something called Luis Valbuena is starting at third base. Catcher Wellington Castillo has a little bit of potential, but certainly won’t be a star. Second baseman Darwin Barney is a tremendous defensive player but has a noodle for a bat.

Jeff Samardzija had a breakout season in 2012 (his first as a starting pitcher), and has impressive stuff. He may not be an ace but should be a solid #2-level starter. Free agent acquisition Edwin Jackson is solid innings-eater with some decent strikeout ability. Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva fill out the rotation but none of them are particularly inspiring. Scott Baker and Matt Garza are both hurt but will claim rotation spots when healthy. The bullpen is pretty awful. Shawn Camp is a solid workhorse but if he’s their best reliever then there’s a problem. Kyuji Fujikawa was signed out of Japan to likely be the set-up man but there’s no telling what he’ll do. Japanese relievers tend to do well in the States so I imagine he’ll pitch well enough and may even seize the closer role at some point. Carlos Marmol is the current closer but never met a hitter he didn’t want to walk. He allowed 45 walks in 55 1/3 innings last year, which is really a feat to behold. Despite the control problems, he doesn’t give up many hits and gets enough strikeouts to maintain relevance. The Cubs are hoping they can trick someone into trading for him. Hector Rondon is a little interesting and might figure into a leverage role at some point. He’s flashed good strikeout-to-walk numbers as a starter in the minors. Michael Bowden and James Russell are okay but whatever.


Catcher: Wellington Castillo, Dioner Navarro, Steve Clevenger 
First Base: Anthony Rizzo 
Second Base: Darwin Barney (DL) 
Shortstop: Starlin Castro 
Third Base: Luis Valbuena, Ian Stewart (DL) 
Outfield: Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Scott Hairston, Dave Sappelt 
Utility: Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez 
Starting Pitchers: Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza (DL), Scott Baker (DL), Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva 
Relief Pitchers: Hector Rondon, Hisonori Takahashi, James Russell, Michael Bowden, Shawn Camp, Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Marmol 

Projected Standings

Cincinnati Reds (95-67, first place, NL Central Champions)
St. Louis Cardinals (93-69, second place, second Wild Card)
Milwaukee Brewers (84-78, third place)
Pittsburgh Pirates (75- 87, fourth place)
Chicago Cubs (70-92, fifth place)

I think this division is pretty clear-cut. Two really good teams (St. Louis and Cincinnati), one kinda okay team (Milwaukee), and two bad teams with promising futures (Pittsburgh and Chicago). The hip thing to do is suggest that the Pirates might be good or the Cubs might make some noise, but that’s frankly wishful thinking. There should be two playoff teams in this division and not a whole lot of drama after that. 

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

Jerry Eldred (@jheldred)

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