We conclude our baseball preview series by looking at the NL Central, a long mediocre, always unfairly oversized (until this season, with the departure of the Astros) yet surprisingly competitive division over the past several seasons. We will of course take an in-depth look at the Pirates, and see if this is FINALLY ‘the year’ for the Buccos.
Chicago Cubs (5th in 2012)
Key Additions: RF Nate Schierholtz, SP Edwin Jackson, SP Scott Feldman, SP Carlos Villanueva, RP Kyuji Fujikawa
Key Losses: None of note
Key 2012 Stats: Terrible offense finished 14th in runs and slugging %, and 15th in batting average and on-base %. Anthony Rizzo was promising at first with 15 HRs in 87 games, Starlin Castro hit well for a shortstop and still has room to grow, and Alfonso Soriano had one last big season at age 36 with 32 homers (the only Cub to hit more than 16). The rest of the offense was a disaster.
The pitching was just as bad – Jeff Samadzija made a very successful transition from relieving to starting, recording 180K’s in 174 innings, but aside from two traded starters (Maholm and Dempster) no other pitcher had an effective season. The Cubs finished 14th in ERA and homers allowed, 16th in walks allowed, and 15th in strikeouts.
Outlook: New GM Theo Epstein is very smart and won’t give in to quick-fix temptation, which means that the Cubs will likely be very good…in about 2017. 2013 is a lost year in Wrigley, the offense was awful and figures to be just as bad this season, and none of the free-agent pitching additions figure to be any better than average – and most will be worse. The cubs needed a total rebuild and they are going to get it – but if they finish any higher than fifth in this division, it can only mean the Brewers or Pirates totally imploded. 63-68 wins for the Cubbies.
Milwaukee Brewers (3rd in 2012)
Key Additions: SP Kyle Lohse, RP Mike Gonzalez
Key Losses: SP Shaun Marcum, RP Francisco Rodriguez, RP Jose Veras
Key 2012 Stats: 1st in the NL in runs, home runs, stolen bases, and slugging %. Balanced lineup featured four hitters with 20+ home runs, three players with 30+ steals, and three starters with averages above .300. The pitching was another story – 13th in ERA and runs, 12th in home runs, 11th in walks (albeit 1st in strikeouts). No pitcher who threw more than 30 innings had an ERA below 3.44. The bullpen was particularly abysmal, their top three relievers each had ERAs over 4.00.
Outlook: Yes, the Brewers finished #1 in runs scored, and their park isn’t THAT hitter-friendly – they really were great with the bats. However, while I still think they will be above average, I see a strong possibility of decline. Corey Hart is out until at least May due to knee surgery, Aramis Ramirez is 35 and is due to start a decline very soon, and perhaps most importantly Ryan Braun was implicated in a Miami drug raid and if he’s suspended 50+ games (and I think this is quite possible) it literally tears the heart right out of this lineup. All that adds up to about 50 less runs in 2013.
The pitching story is even more grim – a bad staff got worse with the losses of Grienke and Marcum, and Milwaukee was so desperate for a replacement that they gave 34-year-old Kyle Lohse a 3 year, $33 million contract – AND sacrificed their first-round draft pick to do so. Lohse is durable, but he also is due for a decline and at best he will counter the loss of Marcum. The loss of Grienke (traded late last season) is far worse, he has elite ‘stuff’ and his replacement, Chis Narveson, is average on his best day. The bullpen probably will improve- John Axford isn’t nearly as bad as he seemed in 2012 – but there’s no depth at all and no help on the farm. This staff could conceivably be even worse in 2013.
If they stay healthy, keep Braun in the lineup, and make a trade for some pitching this team could be a dark horse – but I think 70 wins is more likely than 90 for this group. Call it 72-77 wins for the Brew Crew.
St. Louis Cardinals (2nd in 2012)
Key Additions: SP Shelby Miller (rookie)
Key Losses: SP Kyle Lohse, SP Chris Carpenter
Key 2012 Stats: The Cards were a fantastic offensive team in 2012 – 2nd in runs and batting average, 1st in on-base %, top-7 in every major category except stolen bases. Pitching was above-average but not great, finishing 6th in ERA and 4th in home runs and walks allowed…but only 9th in strikeouts.
Outlook: I really cannot figure out how the Cards do it – they lost the great Albert Pujols and were without ace Chris Carpenter for almost all of 2012, yet didn’t really miss a beat (especially on offense) because Yadier Molina, David Freese, and Allen Craig (Allen Craig???) all had seasons way above expectations. Add to that the late-career resurgence from Carlos Beltran and the consistency of Matt Holliday, and you have a top offense. Losing Rafael Furcal to injury hurts them, but Furcal was not very good last year and they probably will be a little better in the field with Pete Kozma. Even with a little drop-off from Craig and Freese, and possibly an injury to Beltran, this still looks like a top-4 offense to me.
The pitching is a lot more questionable, especially with Lohse gone – Miller is an outstanding prospect, but we all know how unreliable pitching prospects can be…and frankly, unless Adam Wainwright rediscovers his pre-surgery form there’s no ace potential in this rotation. The bullpen has two excellent relievers in Motte and Boggs, but the depth isn’t there at this point. I think the Cards are still a winning team, they have a lot of upside if the pitching is better than I expect, and they should give the Reds quite a battle – but I think the Cards are short one pitcher, and will come up just short. 85-89 wins for the Cards.
Cincinnati Reds (1st in 2012)
Key Additions: OF Shin-Soo Choo
Key Losses: OF Drew Stubbs
Key 2012 Stats: This was a below-average offense in 2012. Despite playing in a very hitter-friendly park, the Reds finished 9th in runs and average, 6th in slugging and 3rd in homers…but only 12th in on-base%. This was an offense that had serious problems getting on base, especially when you take out the great Joey Votto (.337 average, .474 on-base%). Pitching carried the Reds – despite their ballpark, they finished 2nd in ERA, 1st in complete games, 3rd in walks allowed and 5th in strikeouts. They were 7th in home runs allowed but much of that is the ballpark. Five starters made 30+ starts, and those five made 161 of the team’s 162 starts.
Outlook: Before I started this preview, I had pretty well decided that the Reds were the class of the division. Upon further review of the stats, however, I’m not so sure…yes, their pitching was fantastic a year ago, but they were also 100% healthy and that’s EXTREMELY unlikely to happen again. I think most of the starters pitched at or near their peak performance a year ago – maybe Latos or Bailey have a little more to give, but I look for a little slippage from Arroyo and Cueto to offset that – and by keeping Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen, the Reds have wasted a chance to see if he truly can be an ace. Certainly he would have been better than erstwhile fifth starter Mike Leake. In addition, Choo is not nearly the fielder that Stubbs was, and Rolen was still a good defender, so I expect the defense to be somewhat weaker in 2013. The pitching should still be very good, maybe great, but look for injury and regression to take somewhat of a toll on this staff.
The good news is that the offense should be better…Choo is a VAST improvement at the plate over Stubbs, and his on-base ability is sorely needed in this lineup. Getting Todd Frazier 550 at-bats is a plus, especially since Scott Rolen was a drag on this offense. This still isn’t a very good offense, but they should be above-average this season.
Putting it all together…this team won 97 games but had the run differential of a 91-win team. I look for them to allow more runs this season, and I’m not sure they will score enough extra runs to make up the difference. I still think they are the best team in the division, but it’s close – St. Louis should be right with them all season, and Cincy cannot afford even one key injury. 87-91 wins for the Reds.
Pittsburgh Pirates (4th in 2012)
Key Additions: C Russell Martin, SP Francisco Liriano, SP Jonathan Sanchez, RP Mark Melancon
Key Losses: SP Kevin Correia, RP Joel Hanrahan, C Rod Barajas
Key 2012 Stats: Midseason power binge led to the Pirates finishing 4th in home runs, but masked a poor underlying offense (10th in runs, 14th in average and on-base %, dead-last in stolen bases and walks). Andrew McCutchen would likely have won MVP had the rest of the team not collapsed in September, with his .327 average to go along with 31 home runs.
The pitching may have folded late, but the overall numbers were still respectable: 8th in ERA, home runs, and walks allowed, but only 12th in strikeouts. AJ Burnett had a fantastic year, with a 3.51 ERA in 202 innings (it was 3.01 outside of one disastrous start). The bullpen was the real strength of the team, with five relievers throwing over 50 effective innings each.
Outlook: I’ve looked over every rotation and lineup in the game…and the blunt truth is, Pittsburgh doesn’t have the horses. That magical run last June and July was just that – magic. It was a stroke of lightning unlikely to be repeated, and it clouded a lot of peoples’ judgment (including mine) about the true talent level of this offense. The Pirates have a legit star in McCutchen, and if Alvarez doesn’t regress he’s above average at third. Neil Walker is also above-average, especially given the production around the league at 2B these days, and while Garrett Jones will regress, he’s probably still going to give you good power numbers against righties. The rest of the lineup, frankly, looks like a disaster…Clint Barmes is a very good defender but a terrible hitter, even for a SS, both corner outfield slots are complete question marks (I’ll grant you that Tabata, Marte, and Snider have talent but NONE have shown it in the majors consistently), and the Bucs spent $17 million to bring in a catcher who has hit .248, .237, and .211 the past three seasons. This team does not take walks, they run the bases poorly, and while they do have power – this is the most power-laden Pirate team in years – they don’t do anything else well enough to even be an average offense.
The pitching will have to pick up the slack, and if you make enough assumptions you can make that case – IF Burnett doesn’t backslide, IF Wandy Rodriguez can be a 200-inning asset, IF James McDonald can figure out how to be effective the last two months of the season, IF one of Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, or Jeff Karstens can provide average or better work, and IF super prospect Gerrit Cole hits the ground running when he’s called up in May or June…IF all of those things happen, this could be a very good rotation. The odds are, some of those things won’t happen, and this will be an average to slightly above-average rotation, assuming no big injuries.
The bullpen should still be pretty good even with Hanrahan gone – the one skill GM Neal Huntingdon has consistently shown is the ability to mold solid bullpens out of other teams’ castoffs, so I’m giving Melancon the benefit of the doubt for now. The key will be to use those arms less than they were taxed in 2012.
Look, the Pirates are not Astros-level terrible, and with their skill things COULD line up the way they did for the Orioles last year – in fact, I’d say they have even more of a chance to do that because their division isn’t nearly as strong. However, you’re still talking about long odds, because the numbers show that this team’s talent base is no better than third in the division, and maybe fourth if you value Milwaukee’s bats highly. If you want to bet on catching lightning in a bottle, that’s your prerogative – and as always I will hope I’m wrong – but I think the Pirates hang around .500 again this season, miss the playoffs by 10 games or so, and the entire front office gets fired in October. 77-81 wins for Pittsburgh.
Next week, we will look around the NHL at the trade deadline and analyze the deals that have been made.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.