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

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.)