The Cream City Cables 2013 NL Central Division Preview: Taking a Look at Milwaukee’s Competition

By: Ryan Smith

pitchers and catchersLet’s be honest: if you’re reading this article, you’re either a close friend of mine or you get slightly turned on by these four words: Pitchers and catchers report.

Perhaps baseball, more than any other sport, allows fan bases all over North America to look forward to the next season and think that this could be our year.

Think about it for a second.

In the NBA, it’s basically LeBron and everybody else. If you don’t have a stable of genuine stars, you’re basically playing for a second-round exit from the playoffs.

In the NFL, there are typically a few “surprise” teams. But in the end, the Super Bowl often comes down to teams that have already been there or teams that were previously on the cusp of greatness. Even this year, the Super Bowl pitted the two teams who lost in their conference championship games the year before.

In the NHL…who knows? I hate hockey.

But baseball? Baseball has teams that stay consistently dominant, teams that slowly build through the minors and eventually reach their greatness, and teams that seem to turn it all around in a few short months. Going into a new season, everyone has a shot.

Well, everyone except Houston.

This brings me to the topic of this article: the National League Central Division.

AL-West-gets-a-present-from-the-NL-Central2013 will be the first season with Houston-less NL Central. With their move to the American League, Houston has opened up a spot in the cellar of the division. To figure out who will claim their rightful position in the division’s basement, I thought I’d take a look at the four remaining non-Milwaukee teams in the NL Central.

I’ll take a look at the teams in the order I believe they will finish in the division standings, going from worst to first. My Brewers preview will be coming in the next few weeks. After all, I want to wait until I have an idea of who might be playing first on Opening Day.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

(All stats courtesy of Fangraphs)

Chicago Cubs
2012 Record: 61-101
2012 Division Finish: 5th

Before I start, let me make one thing clear: I think Theo Epstein is doing a pretty impressive job in turning around the Cubbies. Perhaps the most intelligent thing he is doing is avoiding knee-jerk reactions, passing up opportunities to make pointless signings simply to make a splash. Instead, he seems to be focusing on slowly building up the organization’s farm system while also waiting for those albatross contracts to finally come off the books.

Epstein's is doing the right thing by focusing on developing long-term success for the Cubs.

Epstein’s is doing the right thing by focusing on developing long-term success for the Cubs.

That’s the good news for Cubs fans. The bad news? They still have to play the 2013 season, and this time they don’t have Houston as a cellar-buffer.

At this point, I think the Cubs have gotten used to bad news during the season. They didn’t even have to wait for Spring Training games to start for their first bit of bad news this year, with reports of Matt Garza’s strained lat coming in recent days. Garza’s health may be the most important item to focus on in Chicago this season. It’s not that Garza could help Chicago contend; they might not truly contend until 2015. With Garza, the Cubs own one of the most intriguing trade chips in all of baseball. If Garza is healthy, Epstein could use him to drive a mid-season trade that could bring more young talent to Wrigley, much like how the Brewers were able to get Jean Segura in exchange for Zack Greinke, a player who seemed to already have his bags packed. If Garza is not healthy, the Cubs simply have a player of little-to-no value.

The rest of the Chicago rotation lacks the punch needed to survive an NL Central that features three rather dangerous lineups. Jeff Samardzija was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Cubs last season, proving to be a more-than-capable starter. While I don’t think he will duplicate his 2012 numbers (9.27 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 3.38 xFIP), I do think he’ll continue to be a reliable starter who gives Cub fans a reason to hope.

The lineup for the Cubs looks pretty similar to the 2012 version that finished with 101 losses. Anthony Rizzo had a nice debut with the Cubs last season, producing a .285/.342/.463 line in 87 games with the big-league club. As far as additions go, Ian Stewart will be a new face at third, Nate Schierholtz will line up in the outfield, and Wilington Castillo looks to be in line to replace Geovany Soto behind the plate. While none of those names are going to sell any tickets outside of their immediate families, they do prove my earlier point that Epstein is taking the slow and steady approach, which should help Chicago in the long run.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle mightily this year. It looks to be another brutal year for the Cubbies.

Predicted 2013 Record: 65-97
Predicted 2013 Division Finish: 5th

Pittsburgh Pirates
2012 Record: 79-83
2012 Division Finish: 4th

For two years now, the Pirates have taunted their fans with flashes of improvement, even hinting at genuine contention, only to crush their fan base with massive second-half collapses. I do have some good news for any Pirates fans reading this article:

There will be no second-half collapse.

However, I only say this because I don’t see the Pirates having the hot start they had in each of the last two seasons.

The Pirates’ rotation appears to be one of the few non-Andrew McCutchen bright spots for Pittsburgh. A.J. Burnett appears to have found a comfort zone in Pittsburgh, providing the Pirates with a very respectable arm at the top of their rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is a recognizable name in the #2 slot, but last year was a substantial step back for the former Astro. He saw his K/9 dip to 6.08 while producing a 4.09 xFIP. James McDonald surprised some people last year by proving to be a capable and relatively consistent starter. After that, the Pirates have Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, and Francisco Liriano fighting for two rotation spots. I personally think Liriano is a name-only pitcher at this point, a guy who can provide a gem for five innings and then disappear for two months. Too much inconsistency for my taste.

mccutchenThe lineup? Well, there’s superstar Andrew McCutchen, one of the four or five best players in baseball today. After that? Starling Marte has potential to be an above-average regular in their lineup. Russell Martin provides an offensive upgrade from Rod Barajas at catcher, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The addition of Travis Snider could prove to be a pleasant surprise for the Pirates; I’ve always thought he could be a good player if he was given a real shot, which he should get in Pittsburgh.

In the end, Pirates fans will be in for yet another losing season in 2013. There is some help on the way in the farm system, but bringing up any of their really valuable prospects this season would only be rushing them. For now, enjoy that beautiful stadium and the joy that is watching Andrew McCutchen on a nightly basis.

Predicted 2013 Record: 75-87
Predicted 2013 Division Finish: 4th

Cincinnati Reds
2012 Record: 97-65
2012 Division Finish: 1st

Chapman's conversion to starter will be one of the major storylines for the 2013 Reds.

Chapman’s conversion to starter will be one of the major storylines for the 2013 Reds.

I’ll be honest. Picking the bottom teams in the division was a relatively easy task for me. I just don’t see Chicago and Pittsburgh being in the same conversation as the other three teams in the NL Central. And frankly, I think the Brewers are firmly entrenched in the middle of this top-heavy division. The real debate for me was deciding who would come out on top between the Reds and the Cardinals. Last year, I correctly picked the Reds to win the division. This year, as much as it pains me to say it, I have a feeling St. Louis finishes in first, with the Reds following in a very close second-place.

The aspect of the Reds that makes them a really dangerous team is that they really don’t have a glaring weakness in their lineup. By adding Shin-Soo Choo in their trade with Cleveland, the Reds added a legitimate top-of-the-order bat. Choo is followed by Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, and Jay Bruce. By the time you are to #6-hitter Todd Frazier, you may already be making a visit to the mound. A team is rarely going to stop the Reds from scoring; instead, teams are going to need to spray hits to the outfield, where Cincinnati does appear to have a less-than-stellar defensive outfield, lacking a true centerfielder with the departure of Drew Stubbs.

As far as pitching goes, the Reds have a couple of strong arms at the top of their rotation. Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos give the Reds one of the more imposing 1-2 punches in baseball. Bronson Arroyo is what he is at this point; an innings eater who will sport a mid-4.00 ERA. Homer Bailey doesn’t do much for me, but he’s proven to be reliable over the last few seasons. The arrival of Aroldis Chapman in the rotation is the real wild card here. If he can successfully convert to full-time starter, the Reds could end up walking away with the division. If he struggles, which I think he will, the Reds will not only have a question mark in the rotation; they will also have to fill the gap that Chapman created in their bullpen. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I’ve seen too many examples of lights-out bullpen arms struggle in their transition to a larger workload in the regular rotation.

As I stated at the beginning of this section, I am torn between picking the Reds and the Cardinals. Cincinnati has such a dangerous lineup and some starting pitching to back it up, and I’m not even looking at their potential mid-season call-ups, such as speedster Billy Hamilton. Still, I just feel like St. Louis will figure out a way to steal the division from the Reds. However, I still see the Reds getting into the playoffs and making some noise in October.

Predicted 2013 Record: 94-68
Predicted Division Finish: 2nd

St. Louis Cardinals
2012 Record: 88-74
2012 Division Finish: 2nd

This is painful for me to write. If you know me, you know that I hate the Cardinals. I hated Tony LaRussa. I hate Chris Carpenter. I really hate Yadier Molina.

But even with all of that hatred, I can’t help but think that the Cardinals are the best team in the NL Central, and they will win the division in 2013.

First, let’s look at reasons why the Cardinals could finish behind the Reds at the end of the season. Chris Carpenter’s season-ending (and possibly career-ending) injury has to be at the top of the list. I can’t say I was saddened upon hearing this news. I don’t care if that makes me a bad person. I already stated that I hate Carpenter. This injury is definitely a blow to the Cardinals this season and beyond. But keep in mind, Carpenter missed almost all of last season as well. Quite frankly, the Cardinals have gotten used to not having a pitching staff at full-strength over the last few seasons. The Cardinals rotation also got a bit weaker after losing Kyle Lohse to free agency in the offseason. At least, it appears that they got weaker on the surface. The fact of the matter is that Lohse is still a free agent. I’ve never been a big fan of him, and apparently all of the teams in Major League Baseball share that feeling, at least at whatever his asking price is.

Now on to the good news. Last time I checked, Adam Wainwright is still at the top of the rotation, and he remains one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. His curveball still makes hitters look foolish quite frequently. Jaime Garcia has elite stuff but durability issues. When those issues arose last season, Joe Kelly stepped in proved to be a very useful arm. Lance Lynn’s transition to the starting rotation worked out quite well. And 2-13 will mark the first full-season look at top-prospect Shelby Miller. Even without Carpenter and Lohse, that is still a very strong rotation.

As much as I hate him, I can't deny the fact that St. Louis has baseball's best catcher in Yadier Molina.

As much as I hate him, I can’t deny the fact that St. Louis has baseball’s best catcher in Yadier Molina.

I believe the Cardinals also improved their lineup in the offseason, if only by moving on from Lance Berkman, who came back down to earth in 2012 (.259/.381/.444) after a very impressive 2011 (.301/.412/.547). Rafael Furcal enters the final year of his contract, which is good for two reasons for St. Louis. First, we all know how players seem to step up their game in contract years. Second, it means they can move on from the aging Furcal after 2013. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and the previously mentioned Molina provide a dangerous middle of the order for the Cardinals. Allen Craig had an abbreviated coming-out party last year, putting up impressive numbers in 119 games, including 22 homeruns and 35 doubles. If he can stay healthy all season, that makes a dangerous 2-6 in the lineup, and then David Freese comes to the plate. Much like the Reds, this St. Louis lineup just doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath.

In the end, I think St. Louis’s deeper rotation, superior farm system, and better game management will lead them to the division title in 2013. In a race this close, a mid-season trade or call-up could prove to be the difference, but as it stands now, I think St. Louis will be finishing on top.

Predicted 2013 Record: 96-66
Predicted Division Finish: 1st

Panic at First Base

By Nathan Petrashek

Position review and previews start this week, and coming into spring training I thought first base would be pretty easy to write.  Not so fast.

Right knee surgery will cost Corey Hart a month plus, and yesterday the Brewers announced that Hart’s likely replacement, Mat Gamel, would miss all of 2013.

Someone’s going to have to man first base, though.  So without further ado, here are a few potential replacements.

Carlos Lee
A career .285/.339/.483 hitter, Lee has plenty of first base experience and is currently a free agent.  Lee’s age (36) has really started to catch up to him the last few years; at this point, he’s probably ideally suited for a bench spot, which is where he would find himself when Corey Hart returns.  According to Doug Melvin, though, Lee is still looking for a full-time gig, even if that will be hard to come by as spring training games begin.  If Lee was a little more realistic about where he is in his career, he would be my preference.  Lee’s power would play pretty well on what projects to be a fairly weak-hitting bench.

Hunter Morris
Morris tore it up in the Brewers’ AA system last year, belting out a .303/.357/.563 triple slash line.  That earned him a Minor League Player of the Year award, but it will probably take more than that to earn him a berth as the team’s starting first baseman.  There are plenty of defensive concerns, and Morris didn’t showcase nearly as much offensive talent in 2010 and 2011.  Doug Melvin was careful to note that Morris would cost someone a 40-man roster spot, and he would surely like to delay the start of Morris’s service time.  Toss in the uncertainty surrounding Morris’s capabilities, and the fact that he hasn’t played a single game above AA, and he’s unlikely to win the job unless his case is undeniable.

Khris Davis
The Brewers’ 7th-round pick in 2009 has really come into his own.  An outfielder by trade, fellow BrewCrewBall.com writer Noah Jarosh suggested Davis might be a good fit at first base.  The numbers certainly play, as Davis has carved up the minors with a triple slash line of .294/.400/.513.  Davis has a keen eye at the plate (career 10.2% walk rate that could climb) and plus power (.211 career ISO).  He might be an unconventional choice, but he may be the best in-house option the Brewers have right now.

Taylor Green
3B/IF Taylor Green has had a few opportunities in the major leagues, but hasn’t done much (read: anything) with them.  We have to be careful there, though, because he’s garnered only about 150 plate attempts in his 2 years coming off the bench.  Green has several solid minor league seasons under his belt, and perhaps all he needs is consistent playing time to show his solid hit tools.

Alex Gonzalez
This is apparently Ron Roenicke’s brainchild.  A shortstop for his entire 14-year career, Gonzalez has precisely zero experience at first base.  Gonzalez is such a good defensive shortstop that it’s easy to overlook his offensive shortcomings, but those will be glaring at a corner infield spot: very little pop, and on-base skills that leave a lot to be desired.  There are better options.

Bobby Crosby
A former first-round pick and AL Rookie of the Year, Crosby hasn’t played baseball since 2010.  His triple slash line over 8 seasons wasn’t pretty (.236/.304./.372), and neither were the injury bug and mental struggles that dogged him throughout his career.  But Crosby’s pedigree has garnered him another shot at the bigs, and it’s anyone’s guess where that will go.  Crosby is on a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Mike Carp
Carp, a recent DFA by the Seattle Mariners, is the longest of long shots to even find his way on the Brewers, let alone wind up the team’s Opening Day first baseman.  There are quite a few suitors looking to swing a trade for the 26-year-old, including several AL teams that would have waiver priority over the Brewers, as Kyle Lobner notes.  Carp would be a decent fill-in, but according to Ken Rosenthal, the Brewers aren’t all that interested right now.

Let’s keep in perspective that Gamel’s replacement will be filling in for just a month or two before Corey Hart returns, so despite the post title, this isn’t a crash and burn scenario for the Brewers.  The best case scenario for the team is to find someone who will have value coming off the bench for the remainder of the season.

One Last Push

By Nathan Petrashek

As many (perhaps all) of you know, Cream City Cables writer Kevin Kimmes (@kevinkimmes) is a finalist for this year’s MLB Fan Cave.  If chosen, he’ll watch every single game of the 2013 season from Fam Cave headquarters in New York.

But he needs your help to get there.

Out of 52 finalists, 30 will be invited to Spring Training.  To make it there, Kevin needs your vote!

VOTE HERE as often as possible between between now and 4 p.m., when the Fan Cave will make its announcement.

Kevin’s campaign has shown quite a bit of creativity.  He’s released several videos (embedded below) showing his love for baseball and the Brewers.  Whatever the final outcome, I want to congratulate Kevin for stepping up to the plate and taking a shot at living his dream!  But for now, let’s just vote and hope he’ll be blogging on Cream City Cables from New York come April.

Don’t believe what you hear about Ryan Braun

By Nathan Petrashek

Let me put this out there immediately: I have no idea whether Ryan Braun used performance-enhancing drugs.  It’s entirely possible that he did.  As much as we think we do, we (fans) don’t know who professional athletes really are.  While everything in Braun’s public persona suggests to me he didn’t, I simply don’t know.  And neither does anyone else except Ryan Braun.

That didn’t stop a ton of national reporters from generating clicks with misleading headlines.

Here’s one from SI’s Tom Verducci: “As Braun’s name surfaces in PED scandal, another sad day for sports”

The Miami Herald writes: “Braun releases statement on PED link to Miami-based clinic”

Even the Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt gets in on the fun: “Ryan Braun attributes PED link to Research for 2011 drug appeal”

The problem: Recently discovered documents don’t link Ryan Braun to PEDs.

Let’s recap what we know.  Less than a week ago, the Miami New Times published a report linking some of baseball’s biggest names, including Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz, and Melky Cabrera, with a Miami anti-aging clinic that also supposedly supplied performance-enhancing drugs.  The New Times obtained the records from an employee who worked at the clinic, Biogenesis, before it closed in December 2012.  The records contained numerous references to the University of Miami baseball team, including conditioning coach Jimmy Goins, which I said at the time spelled bad news for Braun after his successful appeal of a positive drug test in 2011.

It got much worse for Braun yesterday.  Yahoo’s Tim Brown and Jeff Passan found Braun’s name in the Biogensis records.  In some people’s minds, this meant an immediate link to PEDs and guilt.  Yet Brown and Passan specifically stated:

Three of the Biogenesis clinic records obtained by Yahoo! Sports show Braun’s name. Unlike the players named by the Miami New Times in its report that blew open the Biogenesis case, Braun’s name is not listed next to any specific PEDs.

Which is why the New Times didn’t report his name in the first place, incidentally.  In a blog post, the Mami New Times’ Chuck Strouse clarified:

Yahoo!’s story raises an obvious question. If Braun and Cervelli’s name appear in the Bosch records at the heart of New Times‘ investigation — and indeed, Yahoo!’s report does appear to match New Times records — why didn’t we report them in our first story?

Simple: An abundance of caution.

As Yahoo! notes, the records do not clearly associate either Braun, Cervelli or a third player who this morning denied all ties with Bosch (Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia) with use of supplements. Yahoo! apparently obtained copies of just these page of Bosch’s notebooks independently of New Times.

So what did the Biogenesis records reveal?  The Yahoo! story identifies three documents with Braun’s name:

1) A list that includes some players linked to PEDs (Rodriguez, Cabrera, and Cesar Carrillo) and some not (Francisco Cervelli and Danny Valencia).

2) A document which lists Braun’s name along with “RB 20-30k.”  A picture of this document was not included in the Yahoo! report.

3) A letter to an associate apparently congratulating Melky Cabrera on his MVP and referencing something called the “‘Braun’ advantage.”

Braun issued a plausible explanation after the story broke, claiming his attorneys consulted with Tony Bosch, a Biogenesis employee, while preparing for his successful appeal. Braun stated Bosch answered questions “about T/E ratio and possibilities of tampering with samples.”  According to Braun, there was a dispute over compensation for Bosch’s work, which was why Braun and his lawyer were listed under “moneys owed” and not on any other list.

This is at least consistent with the “RB 20-30k” notation and multiple references to one of Braun’s lawyers, Chris Lyons, later in the documents.  David Cornwell, another Braun attorney, released a statement saying he was introduced to Bosch early in Braun’s case and “found Bosch’s value to be negligible.”

While the reference to a “‘Braun’ advantage” is somewhat troubling, it amounts to nothing more than an obscure and ambiguous reference in a letter that could mean almost anything.  Nothing in the newest documents directly links Braun to PEDs or gives any more clarity to the circumstances surrounding Braun’s positive test in 2011 (for which I found Braun’s explanation last year wanting).

In short, we don’t know much more now than we did in 2011.  As with his statement last year, Braun’s most recent pronouncement almost raises more questions than answers.

So if you read anything proclaiming Braun definitively guilty or innocent, don’t believe it.  We just don’t know.

Don’t Blame the Messenger

By Nathan Petrashek

Esteemed ESPN analyst Keith Law created quite a stir among Brewers fans when he released his updated organization rankings today.  The Brewers clocked in at number 29, trailed only by the Angels.  If not for the midseason Zack Greinke trade that sent pitchers Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg to Milwaukee, its entirely possible the Brewers would have wound up at the bottom of the pile.

Not that last place is a foreign position for the Brewers. In 2011, Law ranked the Brewers dead last.  That was the year they pried Grienke from the Royals for a package that included top prospects Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Jeffress, and Lorenzo Cain, as well as MLB shortstop Alcides Escobar.  The Brewers also lost Brett Lawrie to Toronto, but gained an NL Central Division crown in the process.

Law ranked the Brewers number 23 in 2012, but seemed to give the team a healthy bounce based on anticipated restocking as free agents departed at the end of the year.  In other words, Law’s rank from last February already had the team’s expected gains in the 2013 draft baked in.  The problem with that approach is pretty obvious.  With no draft pick compensation from Greinke, Marcum, or Francisco Rodriguez forthcoming, those gains won’t be as plentiful as Law perhaps expected.

Still, Brewers fans no doubt expected the team’s farm position to improve a bit after the 2012 draft.  Picking at the back end of the first round, it seemed the Brewers did well enough; they snagged C Clint Coulter and OF Victor Roache with back-to-back picks, and then added OF Mitch Haniger in the first compensation round.  But it seems the second-round pick was the only one that really impressed Law, who projects Tyrone Taylor to be an above-average regular.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Law’s ranking.  Farm system comparisons are highly subjective exercises; not only is there room for error when determining how the farm systems stack up against one another, but there is potential for errors in judgment when evaluating the individual talent that comprises the whole.

That being said, the Brewers probably don’t have the 29th-worst system, but also probably don’t deserve to be ranked much higher. The 2012 pickups help; indeed, Law’s biggest criticism seems to be that the Milwaukee didn’t manipulate its money pool better.  However, the Brewers simply don’t have enough elite prospects compared to its rivals.

In other words, don’t get hung up on the number 29.  Law’s broader point-largely beyond reproach-is that most teams have a better farm system than the Brewers.  Don’t blame Law for that; blame a scouting department that hasn’t really hit the jackpot since Jack Zduriencik left Milwaukee.