NL Central Preview

This is the third in a series of posts previewing the upcoming baseball season by Asif Attarwala. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

There are a lot of teams in the NL Central. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. This is the type of analysis that allows me to earn the big bucks blogging. In all seriousness, the NL Central may have more parity than any division in baseball with the possible exception of the AL East (yes the AL East). In the past three years the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers have all won division titles, and coincidentally (or perhaps not) those three teams are the favorites in 2012. Here’s how I see things shaking out:

Jay Bruce

1. Cincinnati Reds (Projected 2012 record: 93-69)

This is a pretty bold prediction given that the Reds finished with 79 wins last season. Call me crazy, but I think that the 2012 Reds are more like the 2010 team that finished with 91 wins. On paper the Reds look like a very balanced team. Scott Rolen is entering his age 37 season and the twilight of his career, but he’s still a plus defender at third — 14.9 career UZR/150 (career fielding scaled to 150 games), 7.4 UZR in 2011 — and can provide some value with the bat provided that he’s given regular rest to stay healthy. Shortstop Zach Cozart won’t bring much hitting to the table, but he should be adequate given his defensive reputation and the low offensive bar for his position. Second baseman Brandon Phillips remains one of the best offense-defense combinations at the keystone and first baseman Joey Votto is a perennial MVP candidate. New catcher Devin Mesoraco has been near the top of prospect lists for the last two years and should be an improvement over the departed Ramon Hernandez.

The Reds’ outfield could be a strength, but right now it’s a question mark. Right fielder Jay Bruce had a slow start to his major league career, but he’s quietly developed into one of the best players in the game. Bruce will turn 25 this April and is coming off a season in which he hit 32 home runs. On a normal development curve it’s not crazy to imagine Bruce joining Votto in the MVP club. Center fielder Drew Stubbs is coming off a disappointing season in which he struck out 205 times and had a paltry .686 OPS–low even for a CF. Still, Stubbs is 27 and presents an intriguing power-speed combination (45 homers and 80 SB in 2.5 seasons) so long as he can cut down a little on the strikeouts. Left fielder Chris Heisey is another solid young player, but whether he’ll get to play is another question. Heisey is ostensibly the Reds’ starting left fielder right now, but manager Dusty Baker could be quick to go to Ryan Ludwick — an inferior player, but one that managers seem to love — if Heisey struggles early.

The Reds made some smart moves to improve their pitching in the offseason. New ace Mat Latos should team with Johnny Cueto to form a good, young 1-2 punch in the rotation. That said, there are some things to watch with Latos. Most notably, he’s moving from an offensive dead zone in San Diego to a bandbox in Cincinnati. Latos gets plenty of strikeouts, is not a flyball pitcher, and will be in front of a great defense so some of these concerns may be overblown. So long as Dusty Baker can resist the temptation to grind his shoulder into dust, Latos should be an anchor in Cincy for years to come. The two wild cards here are Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman. Bailey has always had tremendous stuff, but he’s also always had injury issues. Last year he seemed to finally put things together before getting hurt and sliding back a little. If Bailey can stay healthy and pitch like a 3/4 starter the Reds will probably take it. Chapman, a Cuban defector, has undeniable talent as a hard throwing lefty, but he also lacks command and the good change-up necessary to start. After a tough season out of the bullpen in 2011 it looks the Reds are willing to give Chapman some time in AAA to stretch out and work on his change-up and mechanics in hopes he can take a rotation spot and that’s probably a smart move. With Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall joining the team in the offseason, Cincy has plenty of help at the back end of games and if Chapman can figure it out his value as a starter would be tremendous.

A lot has to go right for the Reds to meet this prediction, but after a season in which nearly everything went wrong for them, I expect Cincinnati to bounce back strong.

2. St, Louis Cardinals (90-72)

We’ll start with the elephant in the room…the Cardinals may be coming off an inspiring season that saw them grab a playoff spot in game 162 and go on to win a World Series, but there is now a Pujols-sized hole in their lineup. Matt Holliday should remain a valuable piece and Carlos Beltran was a good pickup, but the reason I can’t pick the Cardinals over the Reds is that many of their players seem to be prime candidates for regression. Beltran had a nice 2011 campaign, but his health will always be a big question mark and he probably would have been better served going to the American League where he would be able to rest his knees by DHing a few times a week. It would be a big leap to expect Beltran to play in more than 140 games, which is a big deal considering Pujols played close to 160 games for most of his tenure in St. Louis. First baseman Lance Berkman is another prime candidate to take a step back in 2012. Berkman had a very good 2011 season (5.0 WAR), but in the two prior seasons he looked to be at the end of the line with WARs of 2.9 and 2.1 in 2009 and 2010 respectively. At age 36 its more likely that we see the 2009-10 Berkman than the 2011 version. Center fielder Jon Jay is another favorite of Cardinals fans who will likely struggle to live up to the hype. Advanced stats show Jay to be a below-average defensive player (-3.0 career UZR/150) and his offensive performance last season was merely average for the position. As the Cardinals core ages, they will likely come to regret giving up on Colby Rasmus — a younger, better player than Jay — way too soon.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright have formed a formidable one-two punch in St.Louis for years, but that time may be coming to an end. Carpenter isn’t getting any younger and Wainwright is coming off missing a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery last spring. Jaime Garcia is a very good number 2/3, but the rest of the rotation (Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook) is less than inspiring and has little upside. Top pitching prospect Shelby Miller is likely a year away. The Cardinals’ fortunes likely hinge on how well Wainwright comes back this season–many pitchers have been fine after Tommy John surgery, but Wainwright relies more on his breaking ball and less on his fastball than the average ace, which makes an elbow injury more disconcerting. The Cardinals’ bullpen is nothing to get excited about, but their starters eat enough innings that it shouldn’t become a liability.

(NOTE: rant upcoming, skip this paragraph if you wish) Fan base x vs. fan base y comparisons bother the hell out of me. These types of debates are incredibly reductive and stupid and while certain fan bases have shared characteristics (Boston fans = neurotic, self-involved, Philly fans = boorish, drunk) they’re hardly monolithic. The only reason I mention this here is that Cardinals fans get away with a ton of stupidity because of their reputation as the smartest fans in baseball, which I call BS on. Cardinals fans spent nearly two decades enabling the ineptitude of Tony LaRussa and actually cheered last season when St. Louis traded away its best young player (Rasmus) for cents on the dollar. Cardinals fans, not that smart, yet they keep getting rewarded by the Cardinals’ winning Championships that they have no business winning. Seriously, in 2006 the Tigers’ pitchers decided to stage an errors contest in the World Series and then in 2011 Ron Washington somehow managed to be dumber than LaRussa. In conclusion, if I read one more word about how terrible it was when Albert Pujols stabbed those wonderful people in the back I’m going to drink myself into a coma (end rant).

A major wild card for the Cardinals this season will be the performance of new manager Mike Matheny. Matheny doesn’t have a ton of experience, but I find it hard to believe that he’ll be anything other than an improvement over Tony LaRussa. It’s hard to imagine Matheny being worse at setting a lineup, alienating his players, or making in game decisions than the departed self-styled genius.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (89-73)

Another team looking to replace a departed star first baseman, the Brewers are likely to take a step back in 2012. Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks are studs, and Aramis Ramirez should replace some of Prince Fielder’s offensive value, but the Brewers have a lot of very obvious flaws. Former top prospect Mat Gamel replaces Fielder at first. Gamel is a switch-hitter and has shown both power and patience in the minors (.873 minor league OPS), but it hasn’t yet translated to the majors (.684 OPS in parts of three seasons) and since he has little defensive value at first and negative defensive value at third, he has to hit to stay in the majors. The Brewers should be able to score runs, but Milwaukee is below average defensively at nearly every position in the field and downright atrocious at a couple. New shortstop Alex Gonzalez should be an improvement over Craig Counsell, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually good. Gonzalez is a good defender, but advanced stats show that he’s hardly the magician that many believe him to be.

The Brewers’ strength remains their pitching as Zach Greinke, Yovanni Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum form an excellent 1-2-3 combination and Randy Wolf is a solid fourth starter. Still, the effectiveness of that pitching is compromised by the weak defense behind it. Marcum, as a ground-ball pitcher, is particularly hurt by the ineptness of Milwaukee’s infield. The Brewers got caught in a bit of a boondoggle during the offseason when they offered Francisco Rodriguez arbitration and he accepted, forcing the Milwaukee to pay K-Rod way more than he’s worth. Still, Rodriguez is serviceable in a set-up role in front of closer John Axford. Milwaukee is a generally well-run team, however, a number of trades in recent years have thinned out the farm system to the point where the Brewers don’t have any top prospects ready to step in if one of their stars gets hurt or to use as a trade piece for a pennant run. Milwaukee is enough of a contender that it’s unlikely that they’ll be sellers either, especially given that the Cardinals and Reds have their flaws. However, if things don’t go well early, it might be smart to look into dealing Greinke and/or Marcum for a major league-ready prospect or two to kick-start a quick rebuild, especially given that the Brewers’ core (Braun, Weeks, Gallardo) is locked up at a reasonable rate.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)

Here’s where the NL Central gets icky. The Pirates are not a good team, but they do have some intriguing players, most notably CF Andrew McCutchen who’s putting up numbers reminiscent of a young Barry Bonds (5.7 WAR in 2011 at age 24; Bonds had 5.5 WAR in his third season in Pittsburgh). McCutchen has potential to provide 30/30 offense in his prime, to go with excellent defense in center, if the Pirates ever pull themselves out of the basement he could be a perennial MVP candidate. What’s even better is that Pittsburgh has managed to lock him up with a 6-year, $51 million contract, which provides phenomenal value for the team as it waits for some of its high-ceiling pitching prospects to reach the majors. Unfortunately, the rest of the Pirates outfield (Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Garrett Jones) isn’t very good.

Neil Walker carries a strong bat for a second baseman, but it’s somewhat offset by below-average defense. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is the real wild-card here. Alvarez was a high first round pick who mashed his way through college and the minors, but has struggled at the big league level — he can’t hit lefties, there have been questions about his conditioning and he’s not much of a third baseman– if Alvarez can stay in shape and answer some of the other questions surrounding his play he could team with McCutchen and Walker to form a strong lineup core. The Pirates may be better off just moving Alvarez to first base so he can just focus on hitting, current starter Garrett Jones shouldn’t be much of a roadblock.

Pitching wise, the Pirates have assembled a group of injury and make-up concern veterans to go with some marginal younger arms. Pittsburgh is actually a pretty good environment for guys like Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett. Bedard has shown that when healthy he’s still a good pitcher, if not the Cy Young candidate he was earlier in his career with the Orioles. Of course, Bedard is only ever healthy for about 2/3 for the season, but with the low expectations in Pittsburgh that could be acceptable, especially if they can deal him for even a B-level prospect at the deadline. As for Burnett, at this stage we know what he is, a guy who will never quite pitch to the level of his stuff. With the pressure off in Western PA he should be able to rack up a good amount of strikeouts, and the lapses in command and composure won’t come under the microscope like they did in New York. James McDonald is still just 27 and has good stuff, but he’s probably not better than a number 3/4 and Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and Kevin Correia are utterly unremarkable.

The Pirates’ window to compete should come in 2-3 years when pitching phenoms Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon–the first and second picks in the last two drafts, respectively–reach the majors. That’s why locking up McCutchen was so critical–the Pirates needed him around for when their pitching caught up to their lineup. Until then, Pirates fans will just have to be patient. Hey, at least the stadium is really nice.

5. Chicago Cubs (69-93)

The Cubs have Starlin Castro and not much else to be excited about. Still, in President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, the Cubs have a good team in place to manage their rebuild. Hoyer has already made a couple of smart moves in acquiring starter Travis Wood from Cincinnati for reliever Shawn Marshall. Marshall was a good reliever for the Cubs, but starters are almost always more valuable than bullpen guys and Wood is a young innings eater. Hoyer was also able to snag first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Padres for pitcher Andrew Cashner. There were questions about Cashner’s ability to start and Rizzo was made redundant in San Diego after the Padres got Yonder Alonso from the Reds in the Mat Latos deal. In 2010, Rizzo was the centerpiece in the deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston, but a little bit of the shine has come off since then. In 2011, Rizzo demolished AAA pitching (1.056 OPS), but struggled mightily in the majors (.523 OPS). San Diego’s Petco Park is notorious for killing offense, but there are questions about Rizzo’s patience and ability to hit left-handed pitching. The Cubs have no reason to rush Rizzo so expect him to start the year in AAA until he forces the team to call him up.

The only other offensive player on the North Side worth writing about  is Starlin Castro. Castro is just 21 and he’s already established himself as one of the best offensive shortstops in the game. Unfortunately, he’s pretty bad defensively. It’s not out of the question that Castro will have to move to second or third in the near future and his bat doesn’t make him a star at either position. Marlon Byrd is a serviceable center fielder, unfortunately the Cubs are still stuck with Alfonso Soriano’s corpse in left. David DeJesus was a pretty good pickup to play right and he may have a bit of a bounce-back after leaving a tough hitting environment in Oakland, but he’s probably not an All-Star.

The Cubs’ pitching is decent, but not great. Matt Garza is a very good player to have in your rotation–he eats innings and picks up strikeouts at a solid clip–but he’s probably more valuable to the Cubs as a trade piece. Unfortunately, former GM Jim Hendry paid a steep price for Garza and Chicago is unlikely to get back the value they gave up for him in the fist place. Ryan Dempster is 34, but the Cubs know what they’ll be getting with him — about 200 innings and a 3.7 FIP. The aforementioned Wood is a solid 3/4. Paul Maholm and Randy Wells are Paul Maholm and Randy Wells.

The Cubs aren’t a contender and are probably better off trading away their best pitcher, but there’s also a decent chance that they outperform expectations. In any case, they’re likely headed in the right direction.

6. Houston Astros (55-107)

Hands down the worst team in the sport. The Astros have little talent at the big league level outside of lefty Wandy Rodriguez (a likely trade candidate) and even less on the farm. New shortstop Jed Lowrie could provide some value with the bat if he can stay on the field, something that he hasn’t been able to do in professional career (I’m a huge Lowrie fan but I have no faith in his ability to stay healthy). The Astros’ lineup is littered with former top prospects that have failed to live up to expectations. Former first baseman Brett Wallace didn’t have enough power to be considered above average at the position and lacks the glove to play third, so the Astros have moved him to the bench in order to play Carlos Lee at first because Lee has gotten too fat to play the outfield (not that he ever could). Center fielder Jordan Schafer was once a top prospect with the Braves, but he’s a poor defensive player and doesn’t have the stick to play a corner. Catcher Jason Castro is a decent player, I guess.

About the only positive thing that can be said about the Astros is that Drayton McLane sold the team and they fired former GM Ed Wade. Oh, and they’re moving to the AL in 2013 so there’s that. Check back in 5 years.

Potential MVP: Jay Bruce, RF, CIN (ZiPS Projection (AVG/OBP/OPS) .260/.340/.814, 28 HR)

Ryan Braun and Joey Votto already have MVP awards so I’m going out on a limb picking Bruce, but I’m much more bullish on him than ZiPS. It wasn’t too long ago that Bruce was the unanimous top prospect in baseball and he’s entering his prime having shown both patience and power at the plate. I think that he continues to improve in the power department. Semi-bold prediction: Bruce’s 2012 home run total will be closer to 38 than 28.

Potential Cy Young: Zach Greinke, MIL (ZiPS Projection (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 2.98, 10.13, 2.22, 2.63)

Grienke already has one Cy Young and given the questions surrounding Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright he’s the only obvious contender in this division unless you want to get really crazy (or maybe not so crazy?) and throw Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza into the mix. In any case, Greinke is really really good and could win the award even if the Brewers don’t make the playoffs, as he did in Kansas City in 2009.

Potential Rookie of the Year: Devin Mesoraco, C, CIN

Kind of a winner by default here, but he’s a very strong candidate for the award provided he gets the majority of the at-bats at catcher early on. Very few catchers can hit the ball the way Mesoraco does and the Great American Ballpark should give him a few extra homers. It is really all up to Dusty Baker to play him.

Conclusion

With the exception of Houston, which is downright atrocious, all of these teams are pretty good and all of them have very obvious flaws. Of the three real contenders Cincinnati is coming off a bad season, St. Louis lost the best player in baseball and is aging, and the Brewers lost one of their two best players and are hamstrung by bad defense. Looking at it holistically, the Reds appear to be the best, most balanced team in the Division on paper. That said, they’re managed by Dusty Baker, who could cost them 3-5 wins on his own, making the difference between a division title and spending October on the golf course.

Previous Previews:

AL West

NL West

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