National League Central Looks To Build on Previous Years’ Dominance

For the National League Central, parity–aside from the Cubs–has become somewhat of a right of passage.  You had the Brewers winning the division in 2011, with the St. Louis Cardinals taking the wildcard and eventually, the 2011 World Series in a Game 6 of epic proportions.  In 2010 and 2012, the Cincinnati Reds were the Central’s powerhouse, and while the Cubs and Astros have been a doormat for sometime, the Astros moved to the American League West, while the Cubs figure to be on the right track to a rebuilt road of success with Theo Epstein at the helm.  There’s also the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have started out strong in the first half of the last two years, but following two 19-inning affairs, the proverbial gas tank has emptied, with the Buccos two games under .500 in 2012, at 79-83.

Between Bronson Arroyo's high leg kick and Johnny Cueto's signature twist-and-turn windup, the Reds feature the most animated rotation. Photo credit: ehttp://www.rotoinfo.com/blog/arroyo-to-play-huge-role-in-cincinnatis-success.html

Between Bronson Arroyo’s high leg kick and Johnny Cueto’s signature twist-and-turn windup, the Reds feature the most animated rotation. Photo credit: http://www.rotoinfo.com/blog/arroyo-to-play-huge-role-in-cincinnatis-success.html

Cincinnati Reds (97-65):  When you have a LHP that throws 100+mph fastball with a devastating slider, it apparently becomes common practice to put bullpen phenoms into the starting rotation, and that’s what the Reds are doing with flamethrower Aroldis Chapman.  With the Reds signing Johnathon Broxton to a 3-year, $21mm deal, it appears Dusty Baker and Walt Jocketty want to see how Chapman’s 122 strikeouts in 71 2/3 IP translate into a rotation that was ranked fifth in the league last year with a 3.64 ERA.  The Reds bullpen featured a 2.65 ERA (.219 average against) in 2012 with 56 saves, leading the league and set-up man Sean Marshall help left-handed bats to a .173 average. Featuring Brandon Phillips and his .321 OBP at the top of the batting order, the Reds shored up their leadoff spot and outfield, after agreeing to a 3-team trade that sent strikeout-prone outfielder Drew Stubbs to Cleveland for right-fielder Shin Soo-Choo’s .373 OBP, who is expected to play center field in the wake of Stubbs’ absence.  Power-hitting outfielder Ryan Ludwick was also re-signed after a 26-home run campaign.  According to Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio, many executives expect Cincy’s defense to take a hit, and this is true: in 2012, Choo had a UZR of -17.  Infielder Scott Rolen has indicated a willingness to play, but the question for him becomes where, as Cincinnati agreed with infielder Jack Hannahan on a 1-year $2mm deal and also acquired infielder Jason Donald in the aforementioned 3-team trade.  Consequently, shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius and his creaky elbow were sent to Arizona, the extent of which Arizona perplexedly knew about.  Remember, like Washington, the Reds were one win away from National League Championship Glory, but the title of ultimate choker belonged to the Reds for some time, considering they had a 2-0 lead in the Series with three home games yet couldn’t put the San Francisco Giants to bed.  Their rotation of Johnny Cueto, who led the team with 19 wins; Mat Latos, who had a phenomenal second half; the emerging Homer Bailey as well as the veteran Bronson Arroyo with Chapman features much promise despite half their games being played in a hitter’s ballpark.  Cincinnati, like Washington, could win around 100 games if all breaks right.

Breakout Player: Despite Homer Bailey’s (13-10 3.68 ERA; 3.97 FIP) name somewhat of a microcosm (gave up 26 homers last year), the 26-year-old pitched over 200 innings last year, the climax of his season a no-hitter against the then-sliding Pittsburgh Pirates back in late September.  In a loss to the Giants in the NLDS, Bailey threw a 7 IP 1 ER effort, and figures to build on his success.  For Bailey, road starts usually tend to be his strong point, as he posted a 2.32 ERA compared to his 5.16 ERA at GABP.  If Bailey can somehow figure out what plagues him at home and translate some flyballs to ground-outs, it’s conceivable to think Bailey could be a cost-efficient, underrated no. 3 starter going forward.

Disappointing Player:   Around this time last year, many picked Zack Cozart, not Todd Fraizer, to be a Cincinnati representative for Rookie of the Year.  Cozart has some pop (52 XBHs last year), but his underwhelming OBP–.288–needs improvement.  The infielder’s offense wasn’t a splits issue (.699 OPS vs LHP, .693 OPS vs RHP), he just needs to be more selective at the plate.  33 walks in almost a full season won’t cut it.

Bold Prediction: Dusty Baker manages to not ruin Homer Bailey’s shoulder and career.  Kerry Wood and Mark Prior say hello.

St. Louis Cardinals (88-74): Despite losing ace Chris Carpenter to likely a career-ending injury caused by his thoracic outlet syndrome, there is no unrest in St. Louis as depth is key, with Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelley, and Shelby Miller waiting in the Cardinals’ wings.  Carpenter began feeling numbness and tingling in his right arm last year in spring training  and had surgery for the issue on July 19. Carpenter than made a late season return and pitched in three games in the regular season and post season going 1-4. Carpenter will probably be done for at least this season, but has forgone shoulder surgery in hopes of making a mid-season return.Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, and Jake Westbrook round out the rest of the rotation with the fifth spot likely up for grabs. Wainwright will  take over the title of “ace” and should return to his 2010 all-star form after being a year removed from Tommy-John surgery. Garcia is coming off a down year in 2012 when his era was just below four at 3.92. Still Garcia should give the Cardinals a solid number two starter. The eleven-year veteran Westbrook is the quintessential definition of average with an ERA around 4, but does get about five runs a game that has allowed him to get double digit wins. Lynn shocked the baseball world last year when he posted 18 wins.The young guns of Rosenthal, Kelley, and Miller will be battling it out this spring training for that fifth spot, and between Rosenthal and Miller, both are early favorites of 2013 National League Rookie of the Year. Rosenthal came on last season and went 0-2 in the postseason, but pitched 8.2 innings of scoreless ball. Rosenthal remains the favorite for the fifth spot though because of his ability to top 100 mph on the radar gun. Kelley, also came on last season on last season going 5-7 in and posting a 3.53 ERA. He also came out of the bullpen in the postseason and was nearly perfect in the divisional round, but then broke down in the championship series against the Giants. For this many question whether or not his stuff is good enough for him to be a permanent fixture in the rotation. Miller is the tale of two halves of the season as he posted a ERA under two at 1.32 in six games, but then crashed and burned in the championship series with his ERA ballooning to 5.43.  A bullpen that looked as shaky as an amateur photographer a year ago now looks as strong as Fort Knox with Victor Marte leading the team of  Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate and whoever doesn’t crack the rotation. Marte was solid in 2012 with a 3-2 record and a whip of 1.61. Still Marte has to improve as opponents batted .305 against him. Boggs clearly gained confidence from his 2011 postseason as he posted a 4-1 average last season, while holding opponents to just a 211 batting average. Mujica went 0-3 in the regular season, but had an ERA of 3.00 and grabbed a valuable win in the championship round; in 29 games with St. Louis, Mujica has an ERA+ of 379.  In 2012 Jason Motte was counted on to be the closer and was able to shut the door on teams a whopping 42 times and will look to repeat the feat again this season.  With one of the major’s best farm systems, it’s hard to see this team losing less than 85, unless a cataclysm of injury occurs.

How uber-prospect Oscar Taveras was introduced to many baseball fans.  Photo credit: www.huffingtonpost.com

How uber-prospect Oscar Taveras was introduced to many baseball fans. Photo credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Breakout Player: Ranked no.3 among MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects, outfielder Oscar Taveras proves to be the ultimate compliment to the power of Matt Holliday and on-base wizardry of John Jay.  Of course, there’s the obstacle that is Carlos Beltran, who has one year and $13mm left on his deal with St. Louis, but more on that later.  Taveras, 20, had 531 plate appearances for Double-A Springfield and struck out a mere 56 times.  Taveras’s OPS of .953 complimented his 67 XBHs and had six outfield assists.  Admittedly, Taveras will probably start his season in Triple-A, but a swift promotion is waiting in wings for this future franchise Red Bird.

Disappointing Player: This is going to all tie in together, but in 69 games following the All-Star Break, outfielder Carlos Beltran’s .742 OPS was a far cry from the .924 he posted in the first; a few weeks into the season some were anointing him either MVP or Best Off-Season Signing.  Not knocking Beltran, who’s had a tremendous career, and in some circles, a Hall-of-Famer, but health hasn’t exactly been his saving grace, and while he played in 151 games for the Cardinals last year, he strained his left knee–the same one that has bothered him his whole career–and despite being a .375 hitter in the postseason, his walk rate dropped to 8.7% in the second half of 2012, while his K% increased from 17.5% to 23.2%.  However, should his BABIP normalize even somewhere in-between the .309 of the first half and .269 in the second, Beltran should be fine, but at 36-years-old, father time has his cross-hairs of time pointed at Beltran as well.

Bold Prediction: At the trade deadline, Carlos Beltran will have an OPS just under .700, prompting the Cardinals to promote Taveras, with Beltran waiving his no-trade clause to  go to the New York Yankees as a DH, who have lost Travis Hafner to the inevitable injury.  This is in exchange for RHP Adam Warren, whom the Cardinals somehow convert into an amazing long-man and bests an ERA of Johan Santana’s 2.67 out of the bullpen in 2002.

Milwaukee Brewers (83-79): The Brew Crew had the National League’s best offense in 2012 (776 runs scored) yet they still finished barely over .500 mainly due to their bullpen; closer John Axford posted a career-worst 4.67 ERA (4.06 FIP), and blew 9 saves.  Set-up man Francisco Rodriguez–”K-Rod”– had an ERA of 4.38, and is currently showcasing his talents in the World Baseball Classic for teams to take an interest in him. At one point, the Brewers blew three consecutive games to the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth.  Signing former Nationals LHP Tom Gorzelanny to a 2-year $5.7mm deal, it is apparent that Gorzelanny will probably slot into the back end of the rotation; in 44 games out of the bullpen Gorzelanny posted a 7.8K/9 in 72 IP for Washington in 2012.  Losing Shaun Marcum to injury, then to the Mets in the off-season, combined with a trade of then-ace Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels headlined by middle infielder Jean Segura (OPS+ of 75 in 163 PAs with Milwaukee), who has been cited as some as having “great contact ability,” the Brewers rotation will feature RHP Yovani Gallardo (3.94 FIP) at the top, with RHP Mark Fiers (3.09 FIP),  RHP Marco Estrada (3.79 FIP), LHP Chris Narveson (4.19 career FIP) and rookie Mark Rogers (3.46 career FIP).   Also lost in a sense was the offensive prowess of second baseman Rickie Weeks; prior to the All-Star Break his BABIP was .267, following, it was near his career average (.305) at .310.  After averaging a wRC+ of 126 since 2010, Weeks was exactly average last year posting a wRC+ of 100.  Milwaukee also led the National League in home runs with 202, and stolen bases with 158.  The combined 68 homers between Braun (41; who led the league) and Aramis Ramirez (27; in the first of a 3-year $36mm deal) and 67 stolen bases between center fielder Carlos Gomez (37) and right-fielder Norichika Aoki (30; 2-year $2.25mm deal with option for ’14) were the offensive catalysts for the Brewers, who, by the way will be introducing multiple jerseys this year.  But, for every bright spot in a lineup there’s the inevitable injury, and for Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel, his season is over before it started, tearing his ACL again.  Outfielder/first baseman Corey Hart (who could be a trade chip) is also out following knee surgery, but should be back by May.  As such, Hunter Morris (.920 OPS in Double A) will be counted on to fill the void for the time being.  Bovada has set the Brewers over/under at 81.5, and barring another 18-5 run like last year, this team, depending on the pitching, will probably slot in between 77-80 wins.

Rollie Fingers-incarnate John Axford will have to improve to keep his team in games. Photo credit: playerswives.com

Rollie Fingers-incarnate John Axford will have to improve to keep his team in games. Photo credit: playerswives.com

Breakout Player: Already breaking out in 96 games last year, catcher Johnathan Lucroy, aside from Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, might be the best catcher in the National League.  An OPS+ of 133 last year and posting a WAR of 3.9, Lucroy, going on 27, is only posed to get better.  And while he may not out-homer Posey or be the defensive wizard in the Molina mold, Lucroy (.193 ISO), is most likely going to post 20-23 homers in the course of a full season.  If Ryan Braun is suspended for his supposed involvement with Biogenesis and Aramis Ramirez gets off to the typical slow start, Lucroy could comfortably slot into the no.3 spot in the order.

Disappointing Player: 37 stolen bases is impressive, but for Carlos Gomez, in his age-28 season, 2012 perhaps was a career year.  His 105 wRC+ was a career high, and in the previous two seasons, his average wRC+ was a meager 80. Gomez also featured a career high ISO of .202, but his BB% declined from 5.8% in 2011 to 4.4% 2012.  Featuring an injury history as well, a (likely) regression of Gomez (worth 3.5 WAR last year) could cost the Brewers valuable wins.

Bold Prediction: Ryan Braun is implicated in another PED scandal by August.

Pittsburgh Pirates (79-83)- It hasn’t been a good 20 years for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buccos, as they are affectionately known by their fans, have gone twenty seasons without a playoff berth, a drought dating back to the 1992 season when Barry Bonds won the NL MVP in the Pittsburgh outfield. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in those twenty years, and last season’s 79-win mark tied the highest total in that span of futility. But things could be looking up in Pittsburgh: CF Andrew McCutchen had a career year last season, batting .327 with 31 HR and 96 RBI and finishing third in MVP voting and will grace the cover of MLB ’13 The Show for the Playstation 3. The Pirates also traded for starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (who will start Opening Day for them this season); he  compiled 16 wins and a 3.51 ERA, almost throwing a no-hitter against the Cubs in Wrigley on last year’s Trade Deadline. But Pittsburgh also lost closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox via trade, who was the leader of the Buccos’ bullpen for several years, in exchange for reliever Mark Melancon (22.2% HR/FB!!). middle infielder Jerry Sands Jr. (career .701 OPS) and other pieces. Catcher Russell Martin was the huge free agent signing for Pittsburgh this off-season, who came over from the New York Yankees in a $17 million dollar deal. Pittsburgh also signed veteran free agents Brandon Inge and Francisco Liriano to minor league contracts.  Liriano’s contract was the subject of much debate as the left-hander broke his arm….trying to scare his kids subsequently jamming it into a door.  Manager Clint Hurdle was extended to 2014 with an option for 2015, and to be fair to him, there’s something to be said with this team and 19-inning affairs.

Breakout Player: Third baseman Pedro Alvarez will likely start at the hot corner for Pittsburgh this season. The 26-year-old Alvarez played in 149 games last season, and though his .244 batting average wasn’t very impressive, his OPS+ was a solid 117, and he hit 30 home runs for the first time in his career. Alvarez is a strong, physical batter who can provide the Pirates with extra offense to help out Andrew McCutchen (and Russell Martin/Neil Walker) this season. Look for Alvarez to hit 30+ home runs again this year, although he’ll need to improve on his career K% of 30.7%.

Enigmatic RHP AJ Burnett will be reunited with catcher Russell Martin in the upcoming 2013 Pirates season.  Photo credit: usatoday.com

Enigmatic RHP AJ Burnett will be reunited with catcher Russell Martin in the upcoming 2013 Pirates season. Photo credit: usatoday.com

Disappointing Player: For all the hype and praise AJ Burnett has been given as an elite pitcher throughout his career, his stats haven’t been that impressive. He has played for four major league clubs, and his best season was arguably 2008 when he won 18 games for the Blue Jays with 231 strikeouts. But Burnett hasn’t had a season in the majors with an ERA less than 3.30, which for a franchise ace isn’t all that impressive. Burnett is expected to lead the Pirates on the mound this season, but AJ has rarely been dominant in his career. At 36 years old, AJ Burnett is perhaps past his prime, and needs to impress this year for Pittsburgh to make the playoffs.  He’ll need to prove last year’s switch to the NL wasn’t a fluke by limiting walks (83 in 2011 vs 62 in ’12) and by keeping the ball on the ground (49.2% vs 56.9% in Pittsburgh).

Bold Prediction: Pittsburgh will earn their first winning season in two decades, but won’t make the playoffs this year.

Chicago Cubs (61-101): Despite having the third-worst offense in the league and the second-worst record, one gets the feeling from Chicago that help is coming sooner, rather than later.  With President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s mantra that of a Buzz Lightyear mold–”To infinity and beyond”–relevancy through home-grown talent and a World Series, the Cubs had some things break their way despite the lack of wins.  It starts with youth, and for 22-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, who stole 25 bags last year, knocked in almost 200 hits and led the league with 646 ABs.  Defensive-minded Darwin Barney (3.6 dWAR) won a gold glove and was a beacon of health, playing in 156 games, all the while much-maligned outfielder Alfonso Soriano switched to a lighter bat, become worthy in trade discussions again with a 32 homer 108-RBI campaign.  One of my all time favorites, Kerry Wood, decided to retire but will remain with the Cubs in a front office role.

The end of a Chicago legend, who just couldn't stay healthy.  Photo Credit: examiner.com

The end of a Chicago legend, who just couldn’t stay healthy. Photo Credit: examiner.com

To pump life in the outfield, which lost the speedy fan-favorite Tony Campana–who swiped 30 bags last year–to Arizona, the Cubs added Scott Hairston on a 2-year $5mm contract (.867 OPS against LHP last year) and Nate Schierholtz on a one-year $2.25mm deal (.826 OPS vs RHP in ’12).  As for their rotation, the Cubbies lost Harry Caray impersonator Ryan Dempster at last year’s deadline to the Rangers, then the Red Sox in the off-season on a two-year $26.5mm deal, declining fastball and all.  However, the Cubs added RHP Edwin Jackson (career 4.52 FIP) on a 4-year $52mm deal, as well as RHP Carlos Villanueva (4.16 ERA last year), RHP Scott Baker (3.45 FIP in ’12) and RHP Scott Feldman (3.81 FIP last year).  These signings are all complimented by the emergence of RHP Jeff Samardzija (9.27 K/9; 3.55 FIP) as well as RHP Matt Garza, the ultimate trading deadline chip, provided there’s no elbow issues (4.17 FIP in 18 starts).  Chicago also had the third worst pitching staff last year in ERA at 4.51 and though the offense may marginally improve, the rotation could see the ERA come down a little bit more so.  While most likely only winning 70-72 this year, the Cubs are definitely on the right track of rebuild.

Breakout Player: Originally going to be traded to the Angels for RHP Dan Haren, reliever Carlos Marmol blew three saves in 2012 (10 in 2011) and subsequently lost his closer’s gig but will return in said capacity for the Cubs in 2013.  Signing 31-year-old Kyuji Fujikawa of the Hanshin Tigers to a two-year $9.5mm deal with a signing bonus of $1mm with a vesting option of $5.5mm or $6mm depending on games finished, it is apparent Chicago brass had ideas of Fujikawa being the hose of Marmol’s house fire.  With Hanshin, Fujikawa had 24 saves in 2012, a career 5.43 SO/BB ratio and a WHIP of .86 in six seasons with the Tigers.  Granted, certain differences have to be taken into account over in Japan, such as a smaller ball, but Fujikawa clocks in at about 91-93 mph, and according to one scout, has a nasty breaking ball.  Look for Fujikawa to be a huge sensation in Chicago by mid-May.

 Disappointing Player: RHP Matt Garza, acquired from the Rays after the 2010 season, posted a strong 2011 campaign (4.9 WAR), Garza saw his HR/FB rate jump from 7.7% to 16.3% while his other peripherals stayed mostly the same.  Lasting only 18 starts last year due to elbow issues, Garza has been shut down due to a strained lat (shoulder) muscle which will hurt his value given the fact Garza proves to be the ultimate trade chip come July.  For the Cubs and their fans, they’d better hope Garza can stay healthy, cut back on the homers and put up numbers (2.95 FIP in 2011 vs 4.17 FIP last year) that resemble a no.2 starter, not a back-end guy.

Bold Prediction: The Cubs finish 2013 above the Brewers.

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