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Sunday, April 8, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: NL Central

The final division I'm previewing is the National League Central.  This division has seen four different winners in the past four seasons and the last team to repeat as division winner was Chicago who did it in 2007 and 2008.  Three teams haven't finished with a winning record in the same season since 2008 when four teams did it (Cubs, Mil, Hou, Cards).  At first glance this season seems to have three good teams and three not so good teams.  The Cardinals are fresh off a World Series Championship and though they lost the best player in baseball, still have great pitching and a talented offense.  The Brewers lost a star of their own but look to get bounce back years from several players to go along with their own three-headed monster in the rotation.  Cincinnati has the best player in the division and seems poised to make a jump back into the playoffs.  The bottom three teams are a different story. The Pirates flirted with .500 for three and a half months last year before falling apart.  The Cubs are rebuilding and don't expect to contend but are still better than Houston.  Houston had their worst season in franchise history last year and sadly things don't look any better.  With six teams this division is unique; the division won't necessarily be won by who has the best record against the contenders but instead by who has the most success against the Pirates and Cubs.

Chicago Cubs
2011 Record: 71-91
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $88.2 million
Highest Paid Player: Alfonso Soriano - $18 million
Best Player: Starlin Castro led the league with 207 hits last season. I don't think this will be the last time that happens.
Best Pitcher: Even though Dempster's had more success, Matt Garza is the best pitcher on the staff. Last season he struck out nearly 9 batters per 9 innings.  He could break out this year.
Say Hello To: David DeJesus OF, Chris Volstad SP, Anthony Rizzo 1B, Casey Weathers RP, Ian Stewart 3B, Andy Sonnanstine P, Joe Mather OF, Paul Maholm SP
Wave Goodbye: Carlos Zambrano SP (Mia), Carlos Pena 1B (TB), Aramis Ramirez 3B (Mil), John Grabow RP (LA), Ramon Ortiz RP (SF), Tyler Colvin OF (Col)
Biggest Questions:
1. Will Theo bring home a championship?  That's the goal, but it's not going to happen this year. The Cubs minor league system is exhausted preventing them from making improvements to the major league club and they're cutting back on payroll so no marquee free agents will be added. Let's talk again in two years.
2. Is Alfonso Soriano just dead weight? When the Cubs signed Soriano in 2007 he was coming off a 46 home run season.  Since then he's hit 30 homers just once and is averaging 26 homers per year as a Cub.  Never a walker, his OBP dipped to new lows last season (.289) meaning he's now a liability in the lineup. The Cubs will have to pay anyone to take him at this point.
3. Can Jeff Samardzija be successful as a starting pitcher?  Scouting reports indicate Jeff should stick to the pen but he wants to start and the Cubs aren't going anywhere this season so why not give him a try?  Velocity isn't Samardzija's issue, it's movement or rather, lack of movement. With a straight fastball and a flat breaking pitch, any time Samardzija's control isn't pinpoint he runs the risk of getting hit hard. 
Expectations: It's going to be a long year on the Northside.  The Cubs are lucky they're in the same division as Houston or they'd likely finish with the worst record in the National League.
With the loss of Aramis Ramirez and the steady decline of
Soriano, Marlon Byrd is now the second best Cub.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. DeJesus RF
2. Barney 2B
3. Castro SS
4. Soriano LF
5. Stewart 3B
6. Baker 1B
7. Byrd CF
8. Soto C
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Dempster
2. Garza
3. Samardzija
4. Volstad
5. Maholm
CL: Marmol

Cincinnati Reds
2011 Record: 79-83
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $82.2 million
Highest Paid Player: Brandon Phillips - $12 million
Best Player: Joey Votto won the MVP in 2010 and looks has to be the favorite this year with Albert Pujols now in the American League.
Best Pitcher: Jonny Cueto is not only a great pitcher but he's a star at beer pong (ht: Matt Barnes).
Say Hello To: Mat Latos SP, Ryan Madson CL (injured), Sean Gallagher RP, Willie Harris OF, Jeff Francis P
Wave Goodbye:
Edinson Volquez SP (SD), Yonder Alonso 1B (SD), Francisco Cordero CL (Tor), Ramon Hernandez C (Col), Juan Francisco 3B (Atl), Edgar Renteria SS (retired), Dontrelle Willis (Bal)
Biggest Questions: 
1. What makes Dusty Baker a good manager? For all his faults, Dusty is a great motivator. Players love playing for him and in return he believes in them. He's approachable and as a former player his players listen to what he has to say.  Teams can do a lot worse at manager than hiring Dusty Baker.
2. What makes Dusty Baker a bad manager? Lack of successful in game strategy. Continuously batting people like Corey Patterson and Wily Taveras first because they're fast. Or hating on Adam Dunn because he's "clogging up the base paths." Killing young pitchers (Mark Prior, Johnny Cueto) by working them to death and then there's the Bartman game where he did nothing when things began to fall apart. Teams can do a lot better at manager than hiring Dusty Baker.
3. Who is the closer? Ryan Madson's unfortunate injury opened the door for some unconventional thinking.  Perhaps the Reds will play the matchups and use a closer by committee approach? That's unlikely since Dusty likes to have guys in defined roles. I expect Sean Marshall to get the nod first with Aroldis Chapman taking over sometime during the season.
Expectations: The Reds acquisition of Mat Latos signifies they're ready to make their move now.  The rotation is healthier than it's been in years and Jay Bruce and Joey Votto are entering their primes.  If they don't get it done this year Dusty may be the fall guy.
Any offense Zack Cozart can provide from the shortstop position
will go a long way in helping Cincinnati's - and his - odds at
obtaining some postseason hardware.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Phillips 2B
2. Cozart SS
3. Votto 1B
4. Rolen 3B
5. Bruce RF
6. Ludwick LF
7. Stubbs CF
8. Hanigan C 
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Cueto
2. Latos
3. Arroyo
4. Leake
5. Bailey
CL: Marshall

Houston Astros
2011 Record: 56-106
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $60.6 million
Highest Paid Player: Carlos Lee - $18.5 million
Best Player: Right now it's Carlos Lee but at the end of the year the team (and short people) hope it's Jose Altuve.
Best Pitcher: Wandy Rodriguez is good enough to stick out on this team. He might be dealt to a contender this summer.
Say Hello To: Chris Snyder C, Brian Bixler 2B, Travis Buck OF, Jed Lowrie SS, Kyle Weiland SP, Zach Duke P
Wave Goodbye: Clint Barmes SS (Pit), Jason Michaels OF (Was), Mark Melancon CL (Bos)
Biggest Questions:
1. How bad is this team? If they don't have the worst record in the National League it will be a successful season.
2. Why is Brett Myers in the bullpen? I'm still trying to figure that one out.  The rotation is not a strength of this team and moving your third best starter to the bullpen is a bit unconventional.  The Astros are not going to win a lot of games this season so having a closer is not as important as it would be for someone like Boston.  Perhaps it's just temporary in an attempt to give guys like Happ and Weiland a longer look but I'm not sure.
3. Why should anyone go to an Astros game this summer? To see JD Martinez and Jose Altuve. These are two guys other teams undervalued for superficial reasons and the Astros look to recoup the benefits. If they could draw a walk Houston would have a couple of potential All Stars.
Expectations: This team is simply going to play all the young players they've got and see if any are worth keeping for the long haul.  
Jose Altuve is only 5'5" so congratulatory high fives are challenging.
Luckily for him the Astros won't be hitting many homers this year.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Schafer CF
2. Altuve 2B
3. Martinez LF
4. Lee 1B
5. Johnson 3B
6. Bogusevic RF
7. Snyder C
8. Gonzalez SS
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Rodriguez
2. Norris
3. Harrell
4. Happ
5. Weiland
CL: Myers

Milwaukee Brewers
2011 Record: 96-66
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $97.6 million
Highest Paid Player: Francisco Rodriguez - $17.5 million
Best Player: Ryan Braun was the NL MVP last season and is putting together a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. Whether he makes it or not depends on how the voters feel about this.
Best Pitcher: Zack Greinke's ERA was a bit misleading last season.  His strikeout rate is excellent and he has great control. He's a Cy Young candidate this season.
Say Hello To: Aramis Ramirez 3B, Alex Gonzalez SS, Travis Ishikawa 1B, Jose Veras RP, Brooks Conrad 2B, Jay Gibbons OF
Wave goodbye: Prince Fielder 1B (Det), Casey McGehee 3B (Pit), Yuniesky Betancourt SS (KC), Jerry Hairston UT (LA), Craig Counsell 2B (retired), Mark Kotsay OF (SD), LaTroy Hawkins RP (LAA), Takashi Saito RP (Arz)
Biggest Questions:
1. Will the loss of Prince Fielder devastate the offense? Put me in the camp that believes the Brewers can score just as many runs this season. The area where the team will make up ground is at third base. The team had the worst production at third in the NL in 2011 so they signed ArmRam who hit .306/.361/.510. 
2. Can Mat Gamel be an every day player?  The Brewers sure hope so.  Gamel's got a career .886 OPS at AAA but hasn't been given consistent at-bats in the majors.  He doesn't need to be a star over there but he will need to hit better than his career .223 average.
3. Will the Ryan Braun issue be a distraction?  I don't think so since it happened in the off-season. The team had all of spring training to deal with it and now that's clear he won't be suspended they can move on.  
Expectations: The Brewers still have one of the better rotations in the National League.  If Corey Hart is healthy and Mat Gamel proves he's ready for the show the team will be in the thick of the hunt all season. Just because they lost Prince Fielder doesn't mean it's time to rebuild.
Shaun Marcum is 26-15 over the past two
seasons - not bad for a #3 starter.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Weeks 2B
2. Gomez CF
3. Braun LF
4. Ramirez 3B
5. Hart RF
6. Gonzalez SS
7. Gamel 1B
8. Lucroy C
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Gallardo
2. Greinke
3. Marcum
4. Wolf
5. Narveson
CL: Axford

Pittsburgh Pirates
2011 Record: 72-90
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $63.5 million
Highest Paid Player: AJ Burnett - $11.5 million
Best Player: Andrew McCutchen is an exciting player who can do it all. The Pirates did well to lock him up long term.
Best Pitcher: Erik Bedard is a maddening talent. He's got the stuff to be excellent but not the health.  The Pirates took a gamble.
Say Hello To: AJ Burnett SP, Erik Bedard SP, Rod Barajas C, Clint Barmes SS, Nate McLouth OF, Casey McGehee 3B, Jason Jaramillo C, Jo-Jo Reyes SP, Juan Cruz RP
Wave Goodbye: Paul Maholm SP (ChC), Ryan Doumit C (Min), Ronny Cedeno SS (NYM), Chris Snyder C (Hou), Ross Ohlendorf SP (Bos), Jose Veras RP (Mil)
Biggest Questions:
1. Is this the year they finally finish over .500?  It's pretty well known that the Pirates last winning season was 1992.  Management has said they don't care about having a winning record for one season, they care about building a team that can compete every season.  Last year they were over .500 in June but went on a wicked losing streak to finish with only 72 wins.  If the team is to finish with 82 wins this year they'll need good health from Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett. It's not impossible but not likely.
2. Is Andrew McCutchen good enough to be a cornerstone? Yes, yes, a hundred times yes.  He's 24 years old and has improved his power and defense each season.  He can bat anywhere in the lineup and has unparalleled #want. Pirates fans are lucky to have him.
3. Is the rotation any better? Talent-wise yes, it's good. Performance-wise well, that is the big question. AJ Burnett has all the talent in the world but is the definition of inconsistent. Erik Bedard has only made 30 starts once in his career, and James McDonald was so inconsistent the Dodgers gave up on him. 
Expectations: The Pirates are making small improvements but the big jump is still a couple of seasons away.  Pedro Alvarez will need to put together a good season to show he's the answer at third base and the pitching prospects need to pan out. There's a lot of reasons to be optimistic but this season looks like  another one with more L's than W's.
A healthy Erik Bedard will either propel the Pirates to a
winning record or net prospects in deadline deal. 
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Presley LF
2. Tabata RF
3. McCutchen CF
4. Walker 2B
5. Jones 1B
6. Barajas C
7. Alvarez 3B
8. Barmes SS
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Bedard
2. Karstens
3. McDonald
4. Correia
5. Burnett
CL: Hanrahan

St. Louis Cardinals
2011 Record: 90-72
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $110.3 million
Highest Paid Player: Matt Holliday - $17 million
Best Player: Matt Holliday is one of the most underrated players in baseball even though he's paid like a superstar.
Best Pitcher: Last October Chris Carpenter showed the world what he can do when he's healthy. 
Say Hello To: Carlos Beltran OF, JC Romero RP, Eugenio Velez INF, Scott Linebrink RP
Wave Goodbye: Albert Pujols 1B (LAA), Gerald Laird C, Edwin Jackson SP (Was), Corey Patterson OF (Mil), Octavio Dotel RP (Det), Nick Punto INF (Bos), Arthur Rhodes RP (FA) 
Biggest Questions:
1. How much does the loss of Pujols hurt the Cardinals? According to Fangraphs Pujols was a 5 win player last season. The Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran who accumulated 4.6 WAR.  With improvements to some of the younger players like Jay and Craig, it's conceivable the Cardinals won't be hurt at all.
2. What can we expect from Mike Matheny as manager?  No one knows except the Cardinal front office. Let's just hope he's not in favor of changing pitchers three times in a half inning.
3. Can the team stay afloat without Carpenter?  Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery and there is depth in the minors. Lance Lynn was an effective reliever down the stretch last season but the team will move him to the rotation for the first couple of months. He should fit nicely as a #4 or #5 meaning the Cardinals will be fine.
Expectations: This team led the league in runs scored last season and has a deep rotation. These should put them in contention yet again. The hardest part will be watching Cardinal games without getting to see Albert Pujols.
The team needs another solid performance from Berkman
if they're to make the playoffs in 2012.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Furcal SS
2. Beltran RF
3. Holliday LF
4. Berkman 1B
5. Freese 3B
6. Molina C
7. Jay CF
8. Descalso 2B
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Lohse
2. Garcia
3. Wainwright
4. Westbrook
5. Lynn
CL: Motte
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