2012 NL Central Division Preview: St Louis Cardinals

By: Ryan Smith

2012 is going to look very different for Cardinals fans without Pujols and LaRussa.

On the night of August 24th, 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals were barely breathing.

They had just been swept by the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers, dropping to 67-63 while the first-place Milwaukee Brewers were sitting at 78-54 after a scorching month.

Then something clicked.

Suddenly, the Cardinals became the hot team, clawing and scratching their way back into contention, eventually stealing the Wild Card from Atlanta on the final day of the regular season.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Cardinals, led by Chris Carpenter’s brilliance, ousted the heavy National League favorite Philadelphia Phillies. Then they took down the NL Central champion Brewers in six games, and finally made a miraculous comeback against the Rangers to become World Series Champions.

Believe it or not, 2012 might present even more daunting odds than the ones the Cardinals faced in late August of last year.

Milwaukee fans have all become familiar with the idea of replacing a franchise player in 2012, with Prince Fielder heading off to Detroit last month. But Prince Fielder isn’t Albert Pujols.

Somehow, the Cardinals must find a way to replace what many experts and fans consider to be the best right-handed hitter in the history of baseball.

And on top of that, they also have to replace Tony LaRussa. Like him or not (and, like most Brewer fans, I do not like him), LaRussa knew how to win games. Not many managers get to retire at the top of their game. LaRussa did, and now St. Louis must adjust to life without Pujols and LaRussa.

Now, before you write them off, you should know that the Cardinals did go out and sign Carlos Beltran, who is coming off a pretty nice 2011. They also will be getting ace Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery. And Matt Holliday is still hitting in the heart of the order. So while they will most certainly look different than the St. Louis Cardinals of the last decade or so, they aren’t ready to just roll over and die. Last August should have taught us that.

Well, let’s get down to the 2012 preview for St. Louis.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Lance Berkman, 2B Daniel Descalso, SS Rafael Furcal, 3B David Freese

Analysis – Other than maybe his mother, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the season that Berkman produced last season. Coming off of a disappointing 2010 and being asked to play full-time in the outfield, failure seemed like a safe bet for Fat Elvis. Instead, he posted a .301/.412/.547 line and a 5.0 WAR while helping St. Louis survive an early-season “slump” for Pujols. This year, Berkman returns to first base, where he is a much better fit than he was in the outfield. Still, I don’t see the 36-year-old replicating last season’s numbers, mainly because I think every hitter for the Cardinals is going to realize how much Pujols affected an opponent’s game plan every single night…Descalso probably has the lowest expectations of any player in this starting lineup. Even after playing in 148 games last year, he still remains a relative unknown when compared to the guys around him. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be adjusting to playing second base after logging most of his 2011 innings at the hot corner…Furcal came over in a mid-season trade last year, and I think most Cardinals fans would happily make that trade again. The problem with Furcal is that, when he actually can stay healthy, he just can’t play up to the expectations that the casual fan places on him. For every 2006 (.300/.369/.445) he produces, he also comes up with a 2011 (.231/.298/.348). On top of that, Furcal has only played more than 100 games in a season at the major league level twice since 2006, so he’s just not reliable enough to pencil in the lineup every night. It’s not so much “if” he gets hurts, but “when”…Freese started to gain a little notoriety during the regular season last year, producing a 2.7 WAR in just 97 games, as well as a respectable 3.9 UZR/150 while manning third base. However, any chance he had of quietly becoming a big-time player went out the window when he decided to play hero in that little thing called the World Series. And, for the record, I don’t think his postseason was a fluke; I think Freese is going to be a player who relishes the opportunity to play a bigger role on this team.

Outfield – LF Matt Holliday, CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran

If '12 Beltran is anything like '11 Beltran, St. Louis fans will be thrilled with their new outfield addition.

Analysis –
With Pujols wearing an Angels uniform for the next decade, it’s up to Holliday to lead the St. Louis offense. Last season, Holliday had yet another impressive season at the plate, accounting for a 5.0 WAR with a line of .296/.388/.525. While there may be some people who would suggest that Holliday will miss the protection that Pujols provided in the lineup, I don’t think that’ll be an issue. A good baseball player is a good baseball player, no matter who hits before or after him. Holliday hasn’t produced a SLG% below .500 since 2004. Frankly, the guy just knows how to produce at the plate, and that’s not going to change in ’12…In his first full season in the majors, Jay proved to be a pretty decent option for the Cardinals in the outfield (so much so that they traded away top prospect Colby Rasmus last summer). His 3.2 UZR/150 and 2.8 WAR from last season should make St. Louis fans feel comfortable with him in center, though he could find himself splitting time with Beltran when Allen Craig gets back into the lineup…Beltran was the big free agent acquisition that St. Louis made this offseason, and he’s coming off of a very successful 2011 in which he put up a .300/.385/.525 line. Normally, adding a player of Beltran’s caliber would make fans ecstatic, but I feel this signing went under the radar within the division because all of the attention has been focused on the departures of Pujols and Fielder and the arrival of Theo Epstein in Chicago. Still, a lineup with Beltran and Holliday in the middle will certainly give St. Louis an offense that makes the opposing pitcher work to get through six innings.

Rotation – RHP Chris Carpenter, RHP Adam Wainwright, LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Kyle Lohse, RHP Jake Westbrook

Everyone's wondering how long it's going to take Adam Wainwright to find his pre-2011 form.

Analysis –
If there were any questions about Carpenter’s ability on the mound after his 11-9 regular season last year, his dominating postseason performance answered them. Carpenter produced a 3.31 xFIP and a 5.0 WAR while logging 237.1 innings pitched. He was really a victim of bad luck when you look at his win-loss record. When you look closer, you see that he produced one of his best seasons in recent memory, striking out more batters per nine innings (7.24) while walking fewer batters (2.09) and giving up fewer long balls (0.61) than he did the previous season…Wainwright is the wild card this season. And frankly, he’s also the reason that I’m skeptical on how well the Cardinals will perform in 2012. Before 2011, Wainwright had established himself as the true ace in St. Louis. But the season after Tommy John surgery? Now, I think Wainwright could be very dangerous in 2013, and he’ll certainly have his moments in 2012. But he’ll also have times where he struggles with his control and command. I also think the Cardinals will closely monitor his innings, so I just can’t get behind the idea that the Cardinals basically signed a Cy Young-caliber pitcher by getting a healthy Wainwright back. He’s going to have to work to get back to his former self…When I look at Jaime Garcia’s numbers from last year, the one that worries me the most as a Brewers fan is his BB/9 of 2.31, which was way down from the 3.53 he posted in 2010. Ever since he broke on to the scene two seasons ago, Garcia has shown signs that he could be a very dangerous starter every fifth game. If he continues to show the control he displayed in 2011, NL Central foes could have their hands full. And if he takes yet another step forward in ’12, Wainwright won’t need to regain his 2010 form right away…Sorry, Cardinals fans, but I don’t feel like talking about Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse all that much. To me, they are basically guys that you plug in the last two spots of this rotation because you don’t have anything better. Not until you sign Roy Oswalt’s corpse in July, that is.

Catchers – Yadier Molina

Analysis – Let me just get this off my chest: I strongly dislike Yadier Molina. Technically, I strongly dislike all St. Louis players, except for Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, because they suck. All of that being said, Molina is a pretty good catcher. He swings a good bat (.305/.349/.465) and is also a pretty good defensive catcher, though he threw out a career-low 29% of the steal attempts against him. The Cardinals know that he’s one of the best in the game at his position too, considering they just signed him to a 5-year, $75 million contract in February. Do I think he’s worth $15 million per year? No. Do I blame them for overpaying for Molina? No. He’s damn good, quite popular in St. Louis, and he’s only 28. I just hope T-Plush gets under his skin this year. I hear he has some anger issues.

RHP Shelby Miller could prove to be a valuable mid-season addition to the St. Louis rotation.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Jason Motte will start the season as the closer in St. Louis, and while I predict that he’ll have a rough patch or two, I don’t see the Cardinals having to deal with the closer issues they faced in recent years…Lance Lynn, Mark Rzepczynski, and Kyle McClellan all provide solid options out of the St. Louis bullpen, and McClellan proved last year that he can also provide spot starts if needed…I already mentioned Allen Craig as someone who will see some regular time once he’s healthy…Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene will both get plenty of time in the lineup if Descalso struggles and Furcal makes his annual trip to the DL.

Overall Analysis – Much like Cincinnati, St. Louis is a team that seems to draw a variety of predictions for the upcoming year. I’ve read previews that have them winning the division and I’ve also seen them picked to finish third. Let’s be honest – the NL Central is a three-team race this year.

When I look at those three teams at the top, I just don’t see St. Louis matching up to Milwaukee’s rotation or Cincinnati’s bats and bullpen. At least not in their current form. They could make moves during the season to shore up some areas of weakness, either by signing free agents (Oswalt) or by promoting from within (stub prospect RHP Shelby Miller). Still, they strike me as a third-place team in the NL Central for 2012.

Then again, everyone pretty much counted them out last August too. Look how that turned out.

Prediction: 85-77, 3rd Place in the NL Central

(By the way, I know it may seem weird to save my third-place prediction for the last of my non-Brewers preview columns. But when you win the ‘ship, you get the curtain call.)

Milwaukee Brewers 2012 Opening Day Lineup: Now With More Braun

Is Gamel finally ready for an everyday assignment?

by Kevin Kimmes

A few weeks back I wrote an article titled “A Look Into The Crystal Baseball: The Brewers 2012 Opening Day Lineup” in which I tried to predict what the Brewers Opening Day lineup might look like. At the time, I was convinced that Braun would be missing time due to the charges that he was facing. Let’s face it, until last week no one had ever beat the rap when accused of having violated the league’s banned substance policy, so realistically it was a safe assumption to make at the time.

Since then, Braun has been exonerated of the charges meaning that he will now be available in left field for Milwaukee on Opening Day. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. The more that I thought about it, the more I started to wonder about what will wind up happening in the outfield now that there are way more potential starters than there are positions, and the possible implications that this may have on the vacancy left at 1st base with the departure of Prince Fielder.

Playing Right Field, It’s Easy You Know…

I’ve joked with friends over the past year that I will some day find the time to put together a YouTube clip combining Corey Hart’s fielding “lowlights” and the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Right Field“. If you don’t know the song, here’s a snippet of the lyric:

Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow

Now, to be clear, I am not anti-Corey Hart, in fact, I think his bat will be crucial this year in assisting with making up the run production lost due to Fielder’s departure. However, I am a realist when it comes to Milwaukee’s current overabundance of outfield talent. For starters, all 4 of the starting outfielders from last years NL Central Championship squad are returning (Braun, Morgan, Gomez, and Hart). Add to this that Milwaukee acquired two time Japanese batting champion Norichika Aoki (a left fielder), and it quickly becomes obvious that we have more players than we have positions.

Put Me In Coach, I’m Ready to Play

Will Aoki be the x-factor that determines the opening day lineup?

Now, I am going to make an assumption that Aoki will take to the American version of the game quickly, thus leaving Brewers management with the  hard decision to make of what to do with 5 guys for 3 positions. Braun is the everyday left fielder hands down, and the platoon of Morgan (L) and Gomez (R) will own center. So now we get to right, which has been Corey Hart’s primary position since he was placed there in 2002 while with the Huntsville Stars due to problems defensively at 1st base.

Now, Ron Roenicke could choose to platoon Aoki, as he is a lefty, which would add some versatility to the lineup and allow Milwaukee to play the advantage when it comes to pitching matchups, or you could potentially have both bats in the lineup on a daily basis. How you ask?

Roenicke has made it clear that he wants to use Corey Hart in a flex role this season having him spend time at both 1st base and in right field, due to questions regarding Mat Gamel’s ability to play everyday at 1st. Gamel, while productive in the minors, has struggled to settle in when given major league assignments over the last several seasons. If this appears to again be the situation in spring training, then I feel like the best option may be to move Hart to 1st to begin the season and position Aoki in right where he can ease his way defensively into the game.

With that said, I now present 2 versions of the potential opening day batting order. The first assumes that Gamel struggles and Roenicke goes with Hart at 1st and Aoki in right:

1) Corey Hart – 1st Base
2) Nyjer Morgan – Center Field
3) Ryan Braun – Left Field
4) Aramis Ramirez – 3rd Base
5) Rickie Weeks – 2nd Base
6) Norichika Aoki – Right Field
7) Alex Gonzalez – Shortstop
8) Jonathan Lucroy – Catcher
9) Yovanni Gallardo – Pitcher

In this version of the lineup, Milwaukee has itself a formidable 1-6 which should give opposing pitchers fits when it comes to developing a plan of who to pitch to and who to pitch around. This is very similar to last seasons batting order, which worked well for Milwaukee, but with Ramirez in the cleanup role and Aoki and Gonzalez replacing Betancourt and McGehee at 6 and 7 respectively.

Assuming that Gamel does have a good spring, the only major changes for the second version of the lineup would be at the 6 hole where Gamel (reporting at 1st) would replace Aoki, and in the lead off spot where Hart would be listed in right field.

With the Brewers first Cactus League game coming up this Sunday (March 4th) against the San Francisco Giants, we will soon get our first glimpse of Aoki, and with any luck, begin to clarify just which opening day lineup we will be looking forward to.

Lingering Questions

It’s been days since we learned of Ryan Braun’s exoneration in perhaps the biggest controversy since MLB and MLPBA instituted the current drug-testing policy.  Yet there are still lingering problems, with both sides.  The media didn’t waste any time disclosing the names of the collector of Braun’s urine sample and his son, and word is that MLB has assigned a security detail for their protection. My hope is that with this post, we can step away from the frenzy and approach this rationally.

Why did Braun attempt to create an inference of tampering in his press conference?

We now know that Braun successfully challenged his drug test on the basis of a 44-hour delay between the time of the test and the time it was eventually shipped via FedEx to a Montreal testing facility.  During that time, the collector apparently kept Braun’s sample and those of two other players in his home, but reports vary as to where precisely the samples were held; one version has the samples on a desk, another in the fridge, another in a cooler in the basement.  During his press conference, Braun made the following statement:

Why he didn’t bring it in, I don’t know. On the day that he did finally bring it in, FedEx opened at 7:30. Why didn’t he bring it in until 1:30? I can’t answer that question. Why was there zero documentation? What could have possibly happened to it during that 44-hour period? There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.

The inference Braun would have us draw is that the collector (or, perhaps, his son) had something to do with the positive drug test.

But why would Braun suggest this?  MLB has said that, at the hearing, neither Braun nor MLBPA contended that the sample had been tampered with.  The Montreal lab did not find any evidence of tampering, and, from Tom Haudricourt’s description of the process, tampering would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off, despite Braun’s statement during his news conference that “it would be extremely easy” for a motivated person.  And if reports are true that Braun was able to describe, with repeatable results, precisely how a 44-hour delay in transporting the sample could lead to an inaccurate test, then we have a scientific explanation and there is no need to allege malfeasance on the part of the collector.  And what motive might the collector have had?

What evidence Braun has against the collector, he declined to reveal.  Braun was up front in stating he could not answer those questions, as he is contemplating all his legal options.

**UPDATE**

According to a former Anti-Doping Agency official, a 44-hour delay could not have produced the positive result found in Braun’s sample.  If true, that would explain Braun’s tampering charge, but not how he won his appeal.  If he produced no evidence of tampering, and there is no scientific explanation for the positive result, how in the world was Braun exonerated?

What does the MLB have to gain by challenging the result of the arbitration hearing?

Almost immediately after the decision was announced, the MLB was reportedly contemplating federal litigation aimed at overturning the award.  But they appear to have nothing to gain by doing so.  Courts treat arbitration awards deferentially; they may vacate an award under only four circumstances:

(1) where the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;

(2) where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them;

(3) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced; or

(4) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.

9 U.S.C. § 10(a).  It isn’t enough to show that the panel committed error, or even serious error.  And let’s be clear; the dispute here is about the interpretation of the Joint Drug Agreement.  The arbitrator appears to have simply accepted the player’s interpretation over MLB’s.   In short, the MLB isn’t likely to succeed in federal litigation if it chooses to go that route, though its ultimate decision on the matter will have to wait until the arbitration panel issues its written opinion (due 30 days from the date of the award).

Indeed, by contemplating the litigation route, MLB appears by its actions to disregard the very process it now seeks to uphold.  On the one hand, the Commissioner’s Office wants to make its drug policy look airtight and infallible.  This is the message it seeks to broadcast with press releases stating, for example, that it “vehemently disagrees” with the panel’s decision.  Yet, on the other hand, a decision to litigate means that the process does not work; that it did not produce a just result in this case.  By litigating, MLB in fact concedes the system is flawed, and undermines its work to clean baseball up.

Why do some still view Braun as guilty?

This is a much tougher question, as it goes to philosophical debates this country has been having for centuries.  As one New York Met observed following the news of Braun’s exoneration, many (most?) still regard O.J. Simpson as guilty of killing his ex-wife, even though he was found innocent in a criminal trial.  The perception of many – that Braun skated on a technicality – is not likely to go away soon.  This is because many view Braun as not having challenged the science of his test.  In other words, the perception is that Braun has failed to explain why his sample was tainted in the first place.  Bob Wolfey reports that in unscientific polls, a majority of the nation felt that Braun’s legacy is still tarnished, although most aren’t sure whether he actually used PEDs.

This perception – that Braun has failed to prove his innocence – is inaccurate.  Again, Braun was apparently able to show how a sample sitting for 44 hours could become tainted.  But more than that, the perception is wrong because chain-of-custody (which many view as the “technicality”) IS a part of the scientific process.  We need to make sure that the sample was “pure” (as in untainted by outside influences), just as it was when it left Braun’s body.  The only way to demonstrate that is by ensuring that we know, at all times, where the sample is, what condition it is in, and who had access to it.

While it is correct that Braun did not prove that he never took performance enhancers, what we do know is that the process that yielded the positive result were so flawed that the panel’s confidence in the validity of the result was undermined.  In other words, the positive result was untrustworthy.  With that in mind, Braun has no obligation to prove that he never took PEDs, a likely impossible task anyway given the difficulty of proving a negative.  What he does have is an obligation, consistent with the Joint Drug Agreement, to ensure that nothing prohibited enters his body in the future.

What can MLB do to ensure this never happens again?

MLB and the MLBPA have an obligation to annually review the program and develop recommendations for improvement.  You can bet that’ll be an interesting meeting next year.

The current JDA lacks a hard deadline for shipment, but does say that, “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected.”  The collector must take the specimens “to a FedEx Customer Service Center for shipment.  The specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box location.”  If a collector does not immediately prepare the specimen for shipment, he or she has to “ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage.”  This requires that the collector “keep the chain of custody intact” and “store the samples in a cool and secure location.”

I suspect future changes will obligate the collector, before temporarily storing the samples, to verify that there are no open FedEx locations within a X-mile radius of the collection site.  In the event that a collector must store the samples because FedEx is closed, language will probably be added requiring the collector to mail the samples at beginning of the next business day.  While these changes might be tough for MLB to swallow – after all, failure to comply would mean more invalidated tests – it appears that spelling out the collector’s obligations up front is the only way to prevent future cases like Braun’s.  Presumably, the collection agency would then instruct its employees precisely what is expected of them.  Not that I expect there to be many of these cases; if you’re in the business, and you haven’t learned anything from the Braun affair, you should probably find another line of work.

What Can We Learn From The Ryan Braun Case?

By Kevin Kimmes

When the decision came down yesterday that Ryan Braun would be exonerated of the charges against him for allegedly testing positive for a banned substance, I honestly was the happiest I had been since the initial announcement regarding the test had come out in December. That elation, however soon soured as I began to see that despite being found not guilty, the fight was far from over. So, what have we learned from all of this?

There’s a Reason That Testing Results are Supposed to Remain Confidential Until a Final Outcome is Determined

In a perfect world, we would not even be addressing this issue, and Ryan Braun would have reported to camp today with the public none the wiser to what had gone on in the offseason. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Instead, we were treated to a 2+ month long circus as everyone and their mother tried to weigh in on whether Braun was guilty or not of violating the league’s banned substance policy despite not having any of the facts regarding what had transpired. Here’s the long and the short of it, baseball in many ways is an allegory for life in America. In this case there was a labor dispute between a worker and his employer over a test result, the employee invoked his legal right to appeal the finding, he had his day in court and was exonerated of the charge due to a testing inconsistency. If this had been Joe Six-Pack who worked for XYZ Company, this wouldn’t be considered news. The HR department would have handled the proceedings, end of story. Unfortunately, there was another court at work here, The Court of Public Opinion, which brings me to my next point.

The Court of Public Opinion Hates to be Wrong

Despite, a 3 person panel ruling 2-1 in favor of overturning the initial decision (and the 50 game suspension that it carried), some people just can’t accept the outcome. Some people just want to belong to a cause, no matter how ridiculous or unfounded the cause may be. This is what happened here as a (metaphorical) pitchfork and torch wielding mob took to the internet to let everyone know that no matter what the decision was, it was wrong because…well…because that’s what they had heard from someone.

Well, who told you that?

Uhmm…you know the guy, the one with the…face…yeah, and he has that show on that one channel (or maybe it was the radio)…well, he said he was guilty, so it must be true…right?

Again, without all the details who can say if the correct decision was rendered or not, but here’s what we know:

1) Braun has insisted from the beginning that he was innocent and that he was going to leave it up to the arbitrators to determine this based on the information that he planned to present.

2) Based on said information, Braun is exonerated of the charges.

3) Life goes on no matter if you agree with the decision or not. Kicking and screaming because you didn’t get your way will not change this no matter how long or how loud you do it. It’s like the Beatles said, “Let It Be”.

People Love a Good Conspiracy Theory

It’s amazing the leaps in logic that some people are willing to make in order to justify an opinion that is not factually sound. With this said, I would like to debunk several theories that people have used to justify why Braun was the only player in MLB history to successfully appeal a positive test result. And yes, I found all of these gems in the comments section of various articles today.

***Warning*** the lack of logic that follows may cause readers to believe that we have entered the times portrayed in Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy. Consider yourself warned!

1) Braun must be related to Selig. – Nope. There is no factual evidence to back up this claim what-so-ever.

2) Braun got his appeal overturned because Selig’s daughter owns the Brewers. – While it is true that Bud Selig sold the team to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, in 1998, it is also true that she sold the team to current owner Mark Attanasio in 2004. At this time, the Selig family has no vested financial interest in the team.

3) Braun got off the hook because he’s white. – Ah, the ever present race card. Too bad the PED issue has no bias when it comes to race. See Roger Clemens and Mark McGuire if you need further proof.

When the Deck is Stacked Against You, Face Adversity Head on and Keep It Classy

The final thing we should take away from this case is that despite all of the name calling and accusations that have been strewn around since this started, Braun has been a class act the entire way through. He could have easily come off the rails and started his own counter assault against his accusers, yet he took the high road and didn’t stoop to that level, maintaining that the truth would prove what he said all along.

And that is the most important lesson that we can learn from all of this. No matter how bad things may get, no matter how dark the road ahead may look, never loose sight of who you are and what you stand for. Braun has refused to let himself be dragged down by this mess, and stuck to his convictions and morals the entire way, and guess what, in the end he prevailed. It’s a lesson that we all can learn from.

Braun Saga Not Even Close To Over

By Nathan Petrashek

Ryan Braun just completed his press conference at Maryvale, and emotionally proclaimed his innocence.  He dispensed with many of the rumors that have dogged him in the four months since news of his positive test broke, stating there is no “personal medical issue” and he has never had an STD.  He was emphatic that the system, at least in his case, was “fatally flawed.”

With the suspension issue behind him, the more interesting aspect of Braun’s case is what happens next.  Braun made clear he was contemplating litigation, presumably regarding the breach of confidentiality envisioned by the drug testing program.  The MLB, according to ESPN, is also considering litigation aimed at overturning the arbitration decision, though that would be incredibly difficult given the deference courts give to arbitration awards.

Presumably, the MLB will also conduct an investigation into the leak of the news.  Remember, if the program worked as intended, Braun would never have been lampooned in the court of public opinion.  We would never have known about the initial positive drug test.

There are other problems that MLB will have to investigate though, pressing ones that call into question the trustworthiness of the drug testing program itself.  We’ll have to wait until the arbitration panel’s written opinion is released, but Braun basically confirmed reports that there was a 44-hour window after his test was collected before it was given to FedEx.  The MLB, who has said it “vehemently disagrees” with the decision, apparently views the delay as within the scope of the testing program, but there is no doubt that this case raises questions about the validity of the collection procedures. Chris Narveson, the team’s player representative, said that there have been problems with collection before in Milwaukee, though he noted that he did not think there was flaws in the system.

Ultimately, Braun’s public image has been tarnished, and the damage may never be fully mitigated.  The fight on that front will take years, possibly longer than the litigation that both parties are apparently contemplating.  But Braun does have one advantage in that battle:  he is a human, a man capable of getting in front of a microphone and making an emotional, passionate statement like he did today.  That is a powerful tool against the amorphous corporate entity known as the MLB.

**UPDATE**

Both the Player’s Association and MLB have issued statements following Braun’s afternoon press conference.  Both are interesting and worth reading, but the takeaway here is that they apparently perceived Braun to be broadly attacking the drug testing program itself.  Braun was quite careful to say the system went awry in his particular case.  The other interesting tidbit here is that the MLB’s investigation of the leak is apparently complete, and it has concluded that neither the MLB nor the MLBPA was responsible.

RB8 Has Been Unleashed

We don’t normally do breaking news on here, but this one’s worth a post:  Ryan Braun has won his appeal and will not be suspended 50 games for violating the MLB’s drug policy.

Word is that he was let off on a “technicality” (whatever that is; the process is in place for a reason), and the MLB has released a statement that it vehemently disagrees with the decision.  Still, Braun heads to camp tomorrow free and clear.

This is certain not to be the end of the Braun saga.  Assuming Braun himself was not the source of the leak, we can expect an MLB investigation regarding the breach of the drug program’s confidentiality provision.  We can probably expect some sort of investigation and legal action from Braun along the same lines.

Pocket Aces, But Gallardo Is the Spade

by Nathan Petrashek

I decided Yovani Gallardo was our ace last year before Zack Greinke had thrown even one pitch for the Brewers.  The day was April 5, 2011, just five days after the start of the season.  The Brewers were already sliding, having lost every single one of their first four games.  But there was hope.  Gallardo, having been forced to watch his bullpen blow a three-run lead on opening day, would once again toe the rubber.  What he gave us was a two-hit complete game shutout, and the first Brewers victory of the 2011 season.

Take your pick of what was most impressive that night.  Gallardo walked two batters and allowed only two hits.  Two of those four base runners were eliminated by double plays, while a third was caught stealing.  In all, Gallardo induced 16 ground balls, one off his season-high of 17, which came in a 1-run, 7-inning lockdown performance on June 25.

Perhaps my declaration was incredibly foolish.  It was quite possible that Zack Greinke would return to his dominant 2009 form.  Fellow writer Ryan Smith makes the case that Zack Greinke’s peripherals indicate Greinke was every bit as good as he was during his 2009 Cy Young campaign.  In general, that’s a true statement, and Greinke deserves much more credit than he gets from many Brewers fans, as I laid out here and here and here.  But if you’re forcing me to make a completely subjective choice about which is the “ace” of the staff, my vote goes without hesitation to Gallardo.

Gallardo was the best we’ve yet seen last year.  He reduced his K/9 for the third consecutive season (from 9.89 in 2009 to 8.99 in 2011), which allowed him to pitch deeper into games (career-high 207 IP in 2011).  He induced more weak contact and ground balls than he has at virtually any other time in his career.  And his durability can’t be questioned; 2011 marked his third consecutive season starting 30 or more games. Gallardo shows up when it counts, too; he’s 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 4 postseason starts.  While Ryan believes 2012 represents, at least in some aspects, Gallardo’s ceiling, I see it as a baseline for his continuing growth.

Ultimately, Ryan is right about this:  it doesn’t really matter who you consider the ace. This whole exercise is really a luxury, having two guys you can go either way on.  I fully expect that in 2012 Greinke’s traditional stats will reflect his excellent peripherals, but I also expect Gallardo will easily log another 200 IP/200 K season.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to watching this friendly competition play out, because the real winners are the Brewers and their fans.

Oh, but before I go, did I mention that Gallardo had a career-low 2.56 BB/9 last year?

2012 NL Central Division Preview: Cincinnati Reds

By: Ryan Smith

Every team in the NL Central experienced various changes after the 2011 season. The Cardinals said goodbye to Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa. The Cubs welcomed Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to their front office. Our beloved Brewers saw Prince Fielder head to Detroit. But the team that experienced the most positive change during this offseason would have to be the Cincinnati Reds.

Think about it. The Reds were coming off of a division title in 2010, and expectations were high for 2011. But a few players coming back to earth, coupled with various injuries and questionable moves by Manager Dusty Baker, led to a rather disappointing 79-83 record and a third-place finish in the division.

When you think about it, the Reds went into this offseason with a similar sense of urgency that the Brewers felt last season. The prize of the Reds’ lineup, first baseman Joey Votto, is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season, meaning the proverbial “window” wasn’t going to stay open much longer. They had to go for it.

After a disappointing 2011, GM Walt Jocketty had a busy offseason.

And go for it they did. GM Walt Jocketty recognized that the rotation was a major area of weakness, so he took a big leap, sacrificing top prospects Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal as well as pitcher Edison Volquez in order to obtain San Diego right-hander Mat Latos.

Jocketty wasn’t done. Needing to replace closer Francisco Cordero, the Reds GM played the waiting game and was able to acquire free agent closer Ryan Madson, one of the top relievers on the open market. Jocketty, however, was able to avoid shelling out the big, long-term contract that the Phillies ended up giving to Jonathon Papelbon, and instead signed Madson to a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2013. Throw in the acquisition of Sean Marshall from the Cubs, and the Reds had now greatly improved their rotation and bullpen.

Well, now the offseason is pretty much over. And while the Reds have been hailed as winners of the last few months from numerous outlets, it’s time to see the results from all these moves. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from the 2012 Cincinnati Reds.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Joey Votto, 2B Brandon Phillips, SS Zack Cozart, 3B Scott Rolen

Analysis – There’s not much that needs to be said about Votto’s importance to the Reds’ hopes in 2012. It doesn’t matter which stats you look at. The traditional stats show that he’s a superb player (career .313/.405/.550), and the advanced stats (6.9 WAR and 6.8 UZR/150 in 2011) suggest that he’s as important to his team as any player in baseball. Votto’s simply one of the top players in baseball right now, and I don’t think he’s going to veer away from his career numbers too much in ’12…Phillips is another player on Cincinnati’s roster that can claim to be one of the top players in baseball at his position. He had a pretty impressive 2011 season, accumulating a 6.0 WAR and a very impressive 12.5 UZR/150. He also produced a .300/.353/.457 line, which suggests that 2011 was his best season at the plate since he came into the league in ’02. However, Phillips will be turning 31 in June, so it could be expected that he may start to lose a step in the field, but I wouldn’t expect much of a drop-off this year…Cozart is easily the wild card of the Cincinnati infield. He got his first taste of life in the majors last year, appearing in 11 games. Before being called up, Cozart was enjoying his best season in the minors, posting a .310/.357/.467 line while in AAA. While it should be assumed that he might have some struggles in his first real go-around with the big league club, he should add to an already talented infield defense. While coming up through the minors, the big question with Cozart was always his bat. He displays solid range and a good arm while making few mistakes at a premium defensive position. He is coming off of Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, so there should be some concern there, but I think Latos and the other Cincinnati pitchers will grow to love Cozart soon enough…Rolen is on the tail-end of a pretty successful career, but he’s going to need to have a little more luck than he did in 2011 if he wants to play a major role on this team. Rolen just couldn’t seem to shake a shoulder injury last season, appearing in only 65 games and posting a disappointing .242/.279/.397 line. If he can stay healthy – which is a big “if” considering he’ll be 37 for most of the ’12 season – he should be able to make up for his decreasing abilities at the plate with his glove, which has always been a strength.

Outfield – LF Ryan Ludwick, CF Drew Stubbs, RF Jay Bruce

Analysis –With all of my talk about shrewd moves made by GM Walt Jocketty, I forgot to mention the one-year contract that he doled out in January to the 33-year-old Ludwick. After sending Yonder Alonso to San Diego, the Reds really didn’t have a solid plan for left field this season. Ludwick brings a veteran presence to Cincinnati’s outfield, and while I don’t expect him to blow anyone away with his bat or his glove, he should prove to be relatively consistent. If you don’t hear much about Ludwick during the season, then he’s doing exactly what they need him to do. If he does have issues, then Chris Heisey is waiting on the bench for his turn…Stubbs provides the Reds with a quality baserunner that knows when to take off (40 steals in ’11). In 2011 – his second season as a regular in the Reds’ outfield – Stubbs produced a 2.6 WAR, but Cincinnati will be hoping that year number three sees Stubbs improve on his .243/.321/.364 line from ’11. If he can find a way to get on base at a higher clip, he’ll find himself firmly entrenched at the top of the order, setting the tale for the likes of Votto and Bruce…Speaking of Bruce, many experts predicted that 2011 would be his real breakout year, a nice follow-up to his eye-opening 2010. Bruce, however, saw his numbers drop a bit from the previous campaign, going from a .281/.353/.493 line and a 5.4 WAR in ’10 to a line of .256/.341/.474 with a 3.3 WAR in ’11. Part of this drop in production could be explained by some bad luck, seeing as how his BABIP dropped from a whopping .334 to a more pedestrian .297. If Bruce can bring that number back up a bit, he should be in line for a monster season. Of course, he could simply follow up 2011 with a similar year where he displays his reputation as a streaky hitter and fails to live up to the lofty expectations that have been laid out for him.

Rotation – RHP Mat Latos, RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Mike Leake, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Homer Bailey

Latos provides a huge upgrade to the Cincinnati rotation.

Analysis –Latos is one of the primary reasons why many experts have praised the Reds’ offseason. By adding Latos, the Reds instantly added an ace-in-the-making to their rotation, and you all know how important I think an ace is to any pitching staff. Skeptics of the trade initially said that the Reds gave up too much for a pitcher who called Petco Park home, but when you look at his home/road splits, you’ll see his xFIP of 3.34 at home wasn’t much better than his road xFIP of 3.68. Latos is the real deal, and Cincinnati will have control of him until 2015, which could be bad news for NL Central foes…Cueto watched his K/9 rate drop in ’11 to a career-low 6.00, but he also maintained his 2.71 BB/9 while posting a 3.90 xFIP. Perhaps the biggest obstacle between Cueto’s rise to superstardom is his limited ability to handle a larger workload. In four full seasons as a big-league starter, Cueto’s never topped 186 innings pitched, and last year he only logged 156.0 innings. He’s going to need to handle more innings if he wants to push Latos for the top spot in the rotation…Latos experienced his breakout year during the same season that we met Leake, which means Cincinnati might have a pretty impressive duo in their rotation for the next few years if Leake can continue to improve on his 2011 season. Last year, he had a higher K/9 rate (6.33) and a lower BB/9 rate(2.04) than he did in 2010, all while logging almost 30 more innings pitched…Arroyo provides some much-needed veteran leadership to this otherwise young rotation, as he’s be pitching in the major for 12 seasons. Arroyo is an innings-eater, but if he doesn’t improve on his 2011 numbers (5.07 ERA, 4.54 WAR), Reds fans might not want him on the mound that much. Still, it’s nice to have a guy who can give you right around 200 innings every year…Bailey has become an enigma. It seems as though this is the third year in a row in which a handful of experts select Bailey as one of their “sleepers” for the season. I’ll admit, I was surprised when I looked at Bailey’s ’11 numbers (3.77 xFIP, career-low 2.25 BB/9) because I just don’t see what those experts do. Still, as far as back-end starters, Bailey is a pretty viable option for a contending club.

Catchers – Devin Mesoraco

Analysis –I could have gone with Ryan Hanigan in this spot, but my gut tells me that the Reds are going to give Mesoraco every chance to win the spot. Mesoraco struggled in his limited stint in Cincinnati last year, but he was absolutely crushing the ball in AAA before that (.289/.371/.484). If Mesoraco struggles behind the plate, the Reds know they have one of the better backups in the majors. If he is able to handle the revamped pitching staff, Mesoraco could be a real gem in the lineup. I could see him producing at a “Geovany Soto in 2008” level if given the opportunity.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Madson is definitely a step up from Cordero in the closer’s role…Sean Marshall gives the Reds a solid lefty out of the bullpen who can go situational or strictly as the setup man…Aroldis Chapman is a dangerous weapon out of the ‘pen, but he could also be a guy the Reds look to if they need to strengthen the rotation, though that’d be a difficult change to make mid-season…Jeff Francis could also be the guy who bolsters the rotation if Arroyo or Bailey need to relieved of their duties…I already discussed Hanigan’s abilities as a more-than-competent backup catcher…Miguel Olivo and Juan Francisco could be called into action if Rolen struggles during the season.

Overall Analysis – Predictions about the 2012 Reds seem to be all over the place. Some say that Latos and a few relievers aren’t enough to rescue a team that overachieved in 2010. Others think that Latos is exactly what the Reds needed; an arm at the top of the rotation.

I tend to side with the latter argument. While I think the Reds still have a few holes in their lineup, the fact of the matter is they got better for 2012 while the Brewers and the Cardinals watched franchise players walk away, and the Cubs and Astros hired new front office personnel that should help them in a few years. The Reds should find themselves back in the postseason on 2012.

Unless their manager screws the pooch. And with Dusty Baker, that’s quite possible.

Prediction: 92-70, 1st Place in the NL Central

(A Quick Note: I’ve done this preview under the assumption that Braun will have to sit out the first 50 games. If he somehow avoids this punishment, then I may have to revisit my predictions.)

Next Up: 2012 St. Louis Cardinals Preview

Will the Acquisition of A.J. Burnett Steer the Pirates Ship in the Right Direction?

by Kevin Kimmes

Well, it’s official, the Yankees have worked out a deal to send A.J. Burnett and $20 million in cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for outfielder Exicardo Cayones and right-handed reliever Diego Moreno. While the move makes sense for a Yankees squad who had been carrying 7 potential starters since the January 13th acquisition of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, does the move benefit a Pirates squad who many have already written off to be in the bottom half of the NL Central this year?

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

When the Yankees acquired Burnett in 2009 it was to bolster a starting rotation which carried CC Sabathia as its ace, along with Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain.  Burnett was viewed as a potential number 2 coming off of a 2008 season where he had gone 18-10 in 35 appearances (his career best for win percentage) with an ERA of 4.07 for the Toronto Blue Jays. For the short-term the acquisition seemed to pay off as Burnett went 13-9 in 33 games in 2009, and carried an ERA of 4.04 (2nd best for Yankee starters behind Sabathia). However, something was about to go horribly wrong.

The 2010 season marked the beginning of  Burnett’s fall from grace as he posted the worst ERA of his career (5.26) as well as a sub .500 winning percentage (10-15 in 33 games), something he had not done since 2001 when he was with the Florida Marlins.

2011 proved to be a slight improvement (11-11 in 33 games with and ERA of 5.15), but obviously was not the sort of production the Yankees had expected when they signed Burnett to a 5 year $82.5 million dollar contract. Thus, a decision had to be made.

Off the Hook

With this years Yankees already sporting more starting pitchers than needed going into camp (Sabathia, Nova, Garcia, Hughes, Pineda, and Kuroda), A.J.’s failings made him expendable. So, when the Pirates failed to acquire veteran free agents Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt, the stage was set for talks to begin.

Reportedly, the Pirates will be required to cover $13 million of the remaining $33 million due to Burnett over the next two years. So, at $6.5 million per year, is the investment worth it to a Pirates team that, ironically enough, is also overstocked with starting pitching?

One More Try

Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, was optimistic regarding the move pointing to the likes of Javier Vasquez and Carl Pavanno as examples of players who were able to revitalize their careers by leaving New York. Some of this optimism my also be coming from the fact that PNC Park is considered by many to be more of a pitcher friendly park, especially when compared to the new Yankees Stadium.

Another thing to consider is that Burnett should provide some durability to a Pirates starting rotation that struggled with durability last year. In 2011, not a single Pirates pitcher reached 175 innings. Burnett, despite having some injury issues early in his career, has provided over 180 innings of starting pitching in each of the last 4 seasons showing that he should be a reliable starter for the Pirates.

So, what can fans expect from Burnett this year. I predict that he will find himself 11-10 in 33 starts with an ERA around 4.52. Will this change the Pirates standing in the NL Central race? Yes, but only slightly as it moves them up a spot past the Cubs, meaning they should finishing 4th in the Division behind Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

Sorry Pirates fans, this move, while beneficial, will not change your course for the season drastically enough to make you a contender.

Mike Cameron Retires

by Nathan Petrashek

According to various Twitter sources, Mike Cameron has informed the Washington Nationals that he intends to retire.  He had signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals in December and it was widely believed that he would make the club and platoon in center field.  Cameron retires with a career line of .249/.338/.444 in 17-major league seasons.  He is one of only a handful of 250/250 players in MLB history.

Brewers fans will fondly remember Cameron.  He was signed to a one-year, $5MM contract in 2008, but missed the first 25 games due to a suspension for a banned stimulant.  Even so, he went on to hit .243/.331/.477 in 508 plate appearances with 25 HR, 70 RBI, and 17 SB to help the Brewers secure their first postseason berth since 1982.  Cameron’s signing ultimately required Ryan Braun to move from third base to left field, with Bill Hall shifting from center to third.  At the conclusion of the season, the Brewers picked up Cameron’s 2009 option for $10MM.  Cameron displayed slightly less power, but improved his plate discipline considerably.  He signed with Boston the following year.

Cameron was well-known for his sense of humor and clubhouse leadership.  He initiated the Brewers “untuck ‘em” celebration after victories as an honor to his father, who would untuck his shirt after returning home from his blue-collar job when Cameron was younger.  The outfield celebration ruffled the feathers of the St. Louis Cardinals, to Brewers’ fans delight