Plushdamentals 101: Predicting 2012 for the Unpredictable Tony Plush

By: Ryan Smith

Where do I even begin?

To say that Nyjer Morgan is a character is a massive understatement.

Morgan, known better by his “gentleman-moniker” Tony Plush, is a veritable lightning rod for attention any time he steps near the diamond. Whether he is unknowingly delivering a game-winning, walk-off hit, voicing his displeasure with opponents, or simply firing up the Miller Park faithful and his teammates with his now-famous “Beast Mode” gesture, Morgan’s larger-than-life flair is evident from the second you see him.

But what can we expect from “Tony Plush: Year Two”?

Let me start off by saying I want to be completely honest with all of you. During August and September of last season, I was enjoying T-Plush as much as anyone else. I enjoyed all of those antics he would display during games. I loved the energy and enthusiasm he brought to the game. And I really loved the scared look that would appear on the face of Telly Hughes if he had to interview the enigmatic outfielder after a big win.

All that being said, I was also quite adamant in my proclamation that the Brewers should trade Mr. Plush as soon as the season ended.

Now let me defend my reasoning.

When the Brewers acquired Morgan before the 2011 season, I was thrilled. We took a non-prospect in Cutter Dykstra and turned him into a talented, toolsy outfielder.

Now, I also knew that Morgan was a player who came with some baggage. While he produced a few productive seasons with Pittsburgh and Washington (he posted a 5.2 WAR in 2009), he was most famous, or infamous, for his wild and out of control antics while playing for Washington in 2010. Most notably, Morgan sparked a bench-clearing brawl while playing in a heated series against the Florida Marlins. It really didn’t seem to matter who was at fault for the breakout of that brawl (Morgan had already been hit by one pitch and just had another one go behind him). The general public had made up its collective mind: Nyjer Morgan was the bad guy.

I’m a strong believer that sometimes a guy just needs a change of scenery, a fresh start. For Morgan, Milwaukee was that fresh start.

As the 2011 season progressed, Brewers fans started to sense that there was something special about this team. We actually had pitching. We had the best hitting duo in the majors. We had other players stepping up and making plays when we needed them to do so. And we had T-Plush.

Seriously, as a Brewer fan, how can you not love Tony Plush?

Morgan made us love him. He never seemed to take a play off. He played wonderful defense (15.0 UZR/150 between the three outfield positions). He came up with clutch hits. He routinely dropped down bunts for base hits. He energized the team, Miller Park, and all of Brewer Nation.

And yet, there were still those moments when he would remind us of that ticking time bomb that drew criticism from everyone with an opinion just one year earlier.

Of course, the moment that stands out in my mind as the warning flag involved Morgan’s distaste for a few of the St. Louis Cardinals. After striking out in the ninth inning of a 2-0 loss to the Cardinals, Morgan got into a shouting match with Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter before throwing his chewing tobacco at the pitcher. Albert Pujols stepped up to defend his pitcher, and Morgan reacted by calling out the superstar first baseman on Twitter later that night.

This was not the T-Plush we were all falling in love with. This was Tony Plush, 2010.

I wanted no part of that Tony Plush.

I decided that it would be best to ride T-Plush into the playoffs and then try and flip him before he went all bat-shit-crazy on us in 2012.

Now, roughly one month before the start of the 2012 season, I just want to say one thing: I was wrong.

I’ve thought about it quite a bit. Could T-Plush revert back to his old ways, causing more distractions and headaches than memorable plays and wins? Sure he could. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case, and here’s why:

The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers are going to be contenders.

Yes, we lost Prince Fielder. But we added Aramis Ramirez. We got rid of Yuniesky Betancourt. We still have a pretty impressive rotation. We have the ‘stache closing games once again. We have Ryan Braun for 162 games.

And we have T-Plush.

If the Brewers have yet another successful season, one where they are in contention deep into September, Tony Plush is going to keep showing up to the ballpark. According to Manager Ron Roenicke, T-Plush is going to fly around the bases a bit more. He’s going to keep doing crazy things. He’s going to keep flashing the “Beast Mode” gesture that the fans love and opponents hate. And if he produces like last year (.304/.357/.421), we’re all going to love it.

That last part might be the most important element in understanding why I think T-Plush will be just fine this season. He’s quirky. He’s “out there” and somewhat misunderstood. He’s outspoken. And Brewer Nation loves him.

We don’t just tolerate him. We don’t simply accept him. We love him. We love his crazy antics. We love his unpredictable nature. We love the fact that he is a player who truly enjoys playing the game every single day. Maybe Nyjer Morgan or Tony Plush just needed to find a place that would love him for who is. Milwaukee is just that place.

So now, with the 2012 season just beyond the horizon, I’m ready to go into battle with T-Plush. After all, I’d rather have him with me than against me. Plus, as all of his twitter followers can attest to, he already has a pretty good battle cry:

“Watz Goood Nation!!!! Aaaahhhhhhh!!!”

T-Plush, I couldn’t have put it better myself. What’s good, indeed.

(You can follow Nyjer Morgan on twitter @TheRealTPlush)

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.)

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

2012 NL Central Division Preview: Chicago Cubs

By: Ryan Smith

You can usually predict the type of season a team is going to have based on that team’s biggest offseason move. The Angels? They signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, so they’re going to push Texas to the brink for the AL West crown. The Tigers? Signing Prince Fielder pretty much puts them in the driver’s seat in the AL Central. The Marlins? Bringing in Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Heath Bell indicates that they’re going to push for a playoff spot this season.

That brings us to the Cubs; a team whose biggest offseason move didn’t involve adding anyone to their 40-man roster. After years of bloated contracts to past-their-prime players, GM Jim Hendry was finally shown the door.

Epstein and Hoyer bring a feeling of hope to the Cubs and their fans.

The Cubs decided to follow the model laid out in 2002 by another thought-to-be-cursed franchise, hiring wunderkind Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer as new General Manager.

So what can we make of that type of offseason move?

Well, for the first time in a few years, Cubs fans have cause to be optimistic. Just not about this year.

Epstein and Hoyer have already started to work on some of the shortcomings of the previous regime, sending Carlos Zambrano to Miami and bringing in potential first basemen-of-the-future Anthony Rizzo from San Diego. They also snagged beloved Dale Sveum from the Crew to become their new manager.

With Epstein and Hoyer in place, you can expect the Cubs’ farm system to improve dramatically, as both men place a strong emphasis on building from within. The days of the drastically overpaid veteran might be over as well. Sorry, Alfonso Soriano.

But enough about the promising future of the Cubs. This article is about what to expect on the field in 2012. And 2012 could get ugly down in Wrigleyville.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Bryan LaHair, 2B Darwin Barney, SS Starlin Castro, 3B Ian Stewart

Analysis – LaHair put up impressive numbers over the last two years in AAA. His 2011 line of .331/.405/.664, as well as his .443 wOBA, can give fans a reason for hope that the Cubs will finally have found their replacement for Derrek Lee. Still, Epstein and Hoyer trading for star prospect Anthony Rizzo should be proof enough that they don’t fully believe in the future potential LaHair. 2012 will be a season-long audition for LaHair, who might have to be looking over his shoulder the entire time…Barney seemed to win the favor of Cubs fans last season. His decent glove (5.8 UZR/150) and overall helpfulness to the club (2.2 WAR) surely led to that endearment with the fans. The problem is, while he doesn’t take much off the table, he doesn’t bring that much to it either. He’s really nothing more than pedestrian at second base…Castro is the unquestioned star of this team. While he has his struggles in the field (-8.8 UZR/150), he knows how to handle himself at the plate, as suggested by his .307 batting average. I’m sure the Cubs would like to see a little more power out of his bat, but he’s only had two full seasons with the big league club. He’s going to keep getting better in 2012…Stewart gets the unenviable task of replacing Aramis Ramirez, who now calls Miller Park home. Stewart never tore the cover off the ball during his tenure in Colorado, but last year was just abysmal. Between AAA and the big league club, Stewart played in less than 100 games. While with the Rockies, he posted a pathetic .156/.243/.221 line. He’s going to have to learn how to hit again, and soon, or Cubs fans will be calling for his replacement pretty quickly.

Outfield – LF Alfonso Soriano, CF Marlon Byrd, RF David DeJesus

Analysis – It seems like everyone knows about the issues with Soriano. He has three years remaining on his contract at $18 million annually. He doesn’t bring speed to the base paths like he used to (only 2 stolen bases last year). He strikes out too much (22.2% K Rate). He doesn’t get on base at a respectable clip anymore (.289 OBP). Problem is, the Cubs don’t have any better options in their system at this point…Byrd will start in center on opening day, but he most likely won’t be with the Cubs by the end of the year. Prospect Brett Jackson seems destined to finally get his shot with the Cubbies in 2012, which means Byrd may be spending the first few months of the season auditioning for his role as trade bait…DeJesus spent last season in Oakland, and if you are at all familiar with Oakland’s reputation on offense, you should know that he won’t be adding a lot of value at the plate (.240/.323/.376). However, he does seem to know his way around right field, as shown by his UZR/150 mark of 14.2.

Rotation – RHP Matt Garza, RHP Ryan Dempster, LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Randy Wells, RHP Chris Volstad

Carlos Zambrano will take his particular brand of crazy to Miami, which should sound wonderful to the Cubs.

Analysis –
Garza has had an interesting offseason. His name has been dangled as a potential trade piece in more than a few rumors. For the moment, he’s still with the Cubs, which gives them a pretty good arm at the top of the rotation. Garza’s 10-10 record in 2011 is deceiving; he pitched much better than his record indicates. He posted a 3.19 xFIP, and his BABIP of .306 was slightly above league average, meaning that a poor supporting cast and some bad luck were more to blame for his win-loss record than Garza’s actual pitching…Dempster, much like Garza, was a victim of the lack of talent around him more than his own pitching, as his 10-14 record doesn’t seem justified with a 3.70 xFIP. His BB/9 did continue to rise in 2011 and he was also rather unlucky with a .324 BABIP. Still, as a Brewers fan, I wouldn’t mind seeing this Brewer-killer’s bad luck continue in 2012…Maholm stays within the division, coming over from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t blow hitters away (5.38 K/9) but doesn’t give up free passes too much either (2.77 BB/9). The drop-off after the top two in the rotation is noticeable…Wells posted a below average xFIP of 4.45 and gave up the long-ball too much (1.53 HR/9), yet he finished with a winning record in 2011 (7-6). Wells reminds me of Dave Bush during his last few seasons with the Brewers; you don’t hate having him on the mound but don’t expect him to carry the load too often…Volstad comes to the Windy City from the Marlins in the Zambrano trade. In 29 starts last season, Volstad only pitched 165.2 innings, while posting a 3.64 xFIP. He was a little unlucky (.310 BABIP) but he also was below average when he had runners on base, with a 68.9 LOB%. Even if he has some struggles at Wrigley, I think Volstad will be an example of addition-by-subtraction, because the circus known as Carlos Zambrano won’t be distracting the team on a seemingly daily basis.

Catcher – Geovany Soto

Analysis – Soto has been a picture of consistency for the Cubs over the last few years. And by saying that, I mean he’s been consistently inconsistent. In the last four years, his batting average has gone from .285 to .218 to .280 to .228. So, the good news for Cubs fans is that Soto is due for another good season at the plate. His .987 fielding percentage last season was well below his typically impressive average, so he’s going to have to figure out what went wrong in 2011. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which Soto the Cubs get in 2012; he’s one of the few players on this team who doesn’t have to worry about someone taking his spot in the lineup.

Epstein and Hoyer already succeeded in acquiring first baseman-of-the-future Anthony Rizzo.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Carlos Marmol had 35 Saves last season, but he’s also responsible for raising the collective blood pressure of Cubs fans every time he steps onto the mound…Kerry Wood isn’t who he used to be; he’s simply a decent arm that will have his good days and his bad days. Basically, he’s your typical over-30 bullpen arm…Jeff Samardzija is another arm that simply isn’t consistent enough to count on every day. You don’t typically want to bring a guy in to a high-pressure situation when he posts a 5.11 BB/9…I mentioned Brett Jackson before. The centerfielder is ranked #89 on Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects List, and he’ll soon be patrolling out by the ivy…Anthony Rizzo is back with the guy who initially drafted him (Epstein in Boston) and the guy who first traded for him (Hoyer in San Diego). Rizzo shows up on Law’s list at #36, and while he struggled while with the Padres last year (.141/.281/.242 in 49 games), he absolutely crushed the ball in AAA (.331/.404/.652, 26 homeruns in 93 games). Oh, he can also play some defense too (10.2 UZR/150). And it’s also important to remember that this guy is still only 22 years old, and he pretty much missed all of 2008 when he battled with Hodgkin lymphoma. Acquiring guys like this is one of the reasons that, as a Brewer fan, I’m not thrilled that Epstein and Hoyer now call Chicago home.

Overall Analysis – As I stated at the beginning of this article, the future looks bright for Chicago, if only because Epstein and Hoyer are going to bring in a much-need culture change. Epstein’s success in Boston is well-noted, but Hoyer also left San Diego with the top-ranked farm system, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. There is no quick fix for the Cubbies, but bringing in the guys who know how to turn an entire system around is a damn good first step.

2012 will be filled with more than a few headaches, and there will be times when Cubs fans will find themselves just hoping to stay ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings. The Cubs just simply won’t contend for anything worthwhile this year, but with Epstein and Hoyer calling the shots, things could get interesting when the trade deadline approaches. Byrd, Garza, and Dempster are just a few guys who could find themselves in new locations by August, if the right trade package is presented.

My advice for Cubs fans is this: be patient. 2013 and beyond look bright. For now, you’ll all have to adopt an all-too-familiar slogan for this season.

2012: Maybe Next Year.

Prediction: 75-87, 4th Place in the NL Central

Next Up: 2012 Cincinnati Reds Preview

The Winter of Our Discontent…

One Brewer fan’s attempt to talk Brewer Nation off the ledge

Have you ever been in a relationship that, right from the start, has you constantly smiling? It seems to be clicking on all cylinders, yet you know it doesn’t have staying power? No matter what you did – weekend getaways, fancy dinners, experimental roleplay – you just always knew that a dark cloud hung over the entire relationship. Well, if you were a fan of the 2011 incarnation of the Milwaukee Brewers, you’re all too familiar with this type of volatile relationship.

Think about it. You had the exciting can’t-sleep-at-night feeling when it all started (trading for Marcum and Greinke). You had the initial rough patch (the 14-20 start). You had the moment when things couldn’t be going better (the August domination), even though that dark cloud still seemed to be waiting ominously over everything else (Prince’s impending departure). And of course, you had the moment when it all fell apart (the NLCS).

So where does that leave you now?

Well, now you are newly single. Your friends are trying to set you up with someone new, but it doesn’t have that same feeling to it. No offense to Aramis Ramirez – who, by the way, is a huge upgrade from Casey McGehee and I don’t care how much you like McGehee or how nice he is – but Ramirez’s signing in no way compares to how we felt when we traded for Marcum (a battle-tested arm from the AL East) and Greinke (I was literally checking my phone for updates as I sped from Green Bay to Madison upon hearing about this trade). Instead of looking forward to another year of watching possibly the best hitting duo in baseball, we have one of them heading for greener pastures and one looking at a 50-game suspension.

(To keep the relationship parallel going, finding out Braun tested positive for some banned substance would be like finding out your ex cheated on you and then gave you herpes – that one’s pretty clear-cut)

Oofta.

So why even bother with a new relationship when the fallout from the last one still stings?

Because this could be the one.

I know what you’re thinking. I must be nuts to have such optimistic feelings about 2012. Just bear with me for a moment. While the glaring differences between last year’s Brewers and this year’s seem to suggest a precipitous fall, I see things quite differently. Let me tell you why. (Thanks to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the following stats)

    1) No more Yuniesky Betancourt. The only hole bigger than the one in Betancourt’s swing was the one that resided where a team’s shortstop should typically be playing. Alex Gonzalez provides similar value at the plate (Gonzalez OBP+ was 76 in 2011, Betancourt’s was 75) while adding defensive value on a team that so desperately needed to improve the defense of the left side of the infield. In fact, Gonzalez’s UZR/150 of -0.3 was his worst since 2005 (and only his second year with a negative UZR/150) while Betancourt’s UZR/150 of -7.4 was his best since 2007. Basically, Gonzalez at his worst is still much better than Betancourt at his best. And Gonzalez’s noticeably superior defensive metrics don’t even tell the whole story – truth is, Gonzalez makes a play on a lot of balls that easily get to the outfield with Yuni out there. Upgrade.

    2) Aramis Ramirez. For the last 8 ½ seasons, Ramirez has been a thorn in the Brewers’ side. Since 2003, Ramirez has posted an OPS+ of 105 or greater in every season other than 2010. Ramirez’s 2011 WAR (3.6) absolutely crushed McGehee’s (0.3) as did his wOBA (.373 for Ramirez, .272 for McGehee). Defensively, I was surprised to find that McGehee’s numbers are quite a bit better than Ramirez’s (UZR/150 of 7.3 for McGehee vs. UZR/150 of -10.9 for Ramirez). Still, the naked eye test suggests that Ramirez will add defensive value if only for the fact that he has greater range than McGehee – though he’s certainly lost a step or two with age, it’s not hard to beat the half-step range that McGehee provided. If the Brewers are going to stay in the NL Central race for the first 50 games without Braun, Ramirez is going to be a key factor.

    3) The bullpen. I don’t expect John Axford to have the kind of year he had last year – that just doesn’t happen often. But even if he doesn’t rack up save after save as he did in 2011, he has the type of mentality to be able to bounce back from one rough outing. And don’t forget that we still have K-Rod for the eighth inning. Now, like many of you, I was not ecstatic that we offered arbitration to him – that’s a big number to be paying a setup man. But he’s going to be auditioning to be someone’s closer. He knows that. He wants that. So if he needs to audition, let’s have him audition with us. Add to that Kameron Loe in a role that he’s comfortable in (not setup), a hopefully healthy Zach Braddock, and the additions of Seth McClung and Jose Veras, as well as the typical movement that a bullpen sees from year-to-year, and the Brewers bullpen has the potential to be as reliable as last year’s version.

    4) Jonathon Lucroy. When was the last time you remember the Brewers having a catcher that you were excited about? A young, up-and-coming catcher that wasn’t some other team’s reject? A catcher who seemed to have the snarl of a pitbull while still knowing how to control a pitching staff of varied temperaments? Seriously, pay attention to Lucroy this year. This one might just be a gut feeling, but I’m calling this his breakout year. He’s going to need to take on a leadership role this year to help fill the void of Prince and Braun, and I think he’ll thrive in that role.

    5) Rickie Weeks. In case you forgot, Weeks was having a pretty impressive season last year until he legged out an infield single, spraining his ankle in the process. We always heard about his potential, and he’s been starting to show that potential for the last few years now. Whether he’s batting leadoff (he’s become a valuable table-setter for the team in the last few seasons) or filling in at the 3/4 hole for 50 games, Weeks has the ability at the plate to put runs on the board.

    6) The rotation. Yes, I know. I watched the playoffs. I saw Gallardo embracing the moment and everyone else fading from it. But we know the potential is there. Greinke has ace material and has shown it on more than a few occasions. Marcum suffered from a dead arm more than anything else in the playoffs. He’s a good pitcher, and I’m thrilled to have him as our third starter. We know what Gallardo is – a strikeout machine who is starting to figure out that seven innings and six strikeouts is better than five innings and ten strikeouts. Wolf is a veteran who doesn’t let his previous start affect his next one. We actually have a rotation that isn’t a glaring weakness. For the second year in a row.

I’m not saying that we’ll automatically be as good as or better than last year’s 96-win team. Replacing Prince is not going to be easy. Losing Braun for 50 games is not going to be easy. As entertaining as he is, T-Plush is in his second year in Milwaukee. In sports, crazy players typically win you over in the first year and then show off their crazy side in year number two. So that could be interesting. All I’m saying is that things aren’t as bad as many Brewer fans seem to think they are. And I didn’t even mention the biggest reason to have hope for 2012.

    7) The NL Central is very winnable. No Albert Pujols. The Cubs are rebuilding. Again. The Astros might field one of the worst teams in history. The Pirates really haven’t done much to change last year’s first-half wonder team. The Cardinals are expecting Lance Berkman to have the same season as he did last year. The Reds pitching rotation got stronger, but still remains an issue.

The NL Central will be a three-team race between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos will improve each of their respective rotations, but they will not fix all of the problems that either team faces this year. St. Louis has to replace the man who has been the face of their franchise for the last decade. Cincinnati needs more consistency from their rotation and bullpen. Trust me; the NL Central is wide open.

I know that the sting of last season might still be there for some of you. You’re afraid to get back in the saddle when there’s a good chance for another relationship that has a disappointing end. But 2012 is a new year. This is a new team. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should give them a chance.

After all, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers might be the one.

Next Up: 2012 NL Central Division Team-by-Team Breakdown

The Deadliest Cardinals Lineup Yet

The Cardinals bullpen was stellar yesterday in Game 3 of the NLCS, shutting down the Brewers’ offense after Chris Carpenter coughed up three runs early.  But the Cardinals’ offense picked Carpenter up, scoring four runs in the first off an uncharacteristically wild Yovani Gallardo.  The win gave the Cardinals a 2-1 advantage in the NLCS, and puts today’s Game 4 firmly in “must win” territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so its not much of a surprise that LaRussa wants his proverbial boot on the team’s throat.

Ron Roenicke has learned a thing or two in the first three games, the first lesson being that you cannot pitch to Albert Pujols.  Pujols is hitting an insane .636 in the NLCS, with 6 RBI and a home run.  After doubling in a run yesterday, Pujols found himself all but taken out of the game by intentional walks (though he did nab second on a wild pitch).  Hard for the one-man wrecking crew to do much damage if he doesn’t get an opportunity to swing.

Thankfully, Matt Holliday, batting fourth, wasn’t able to make the Brewers play for the walks, striking out both times to end the inning.

But old LaRussa is too crafty to let that situation play out again.

Today’s lineup features Pujols batting third, but instead of Matt Holliday following behind, its David Freese.  Freese has been swinging an extraordinarily hot bat in the NLCS, to the tune of a .500 average with 2 home runs and 6 RBI.  Yes, David Freese has actually outslugged Albert Pujols.  So now when the Brewers walk Pujols, they’ll be bringing up perhaps the Cardinals’ hottest hitter.  And then the Brewers will still have to deal with Matt Holliday, batting fifth.  Lance Berkman gets the day off.

Tony LaRussa obviously doesn’t want this thing coming back to Milwaukee, and with good reason.  The Brewers certainly have a shot to win tonight – of the eight position players in the Cardinals’ batting order, only Pujols (.286) and Freese (.353) have career averages greater than .260 against Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf) – but LaRussa’s move has made the road that much more difficult.

A Marked Man

Human perception is a funny thing.

Let me posit a couple scenarios.

In the first, Shaun Marcum starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park. He does not have his best stuff, but some impressive defensive plays behind him limit the damage to two runs.  In the first, Marcum fields a Jon Jay bunt for an out before allowing a solo home run to Albert Pujols. Nyjer Morgan saves two runs in the third with his glove in center field, but Marcum allows another run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina.  Marcum is removed after that inning, and the bullpen plays scoreless baseball the rest of the way.  The Brewers win, 3-2, on a Prince Fielder home run in the eighth.

In the second, Shaun Marcum also starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park.  He does not have his best stuff, but is severely harmed by defensive lapses behind him.  He misplays a Jon Jay bunt in the first, and Albert Pujols follows up with a two-run home run.  Nyjer Morgan cannot haul in a couple of deep balls in the third, and the Cardinals again score two runs.  They score a fifth run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina, and that is all for Marcum.  The bullpen suffers an absolute meltdown after that, allowing seven more runs to score.  Prince Fielder hits a meaningless home run in the eighth, and the Brewers lose, 12-3.

The second scenario played out last night at Miller Park, but it could just as easily have been the first.  And yet today, Milwaukee is clamoring for Shaun Marcum’s head. During Marcum’s last two innings at Miller Park, I had to listen to the guy next to me repeatedly shout, “You suck, Marcum!”  Now there’s motivation for you.

Marcum, of course, doesn’t suck.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  During the regular season, Marcum had the team’s second-best starter ERA at 3.54.  He held opponents to a .232 average and allowed about 1.2 walks or hits per inning, best among the team’s starters.

There’s no doubt Marcum didn’t have his best stuff last night, but he didn’t pitch as badly as most seem to think. Sports radio this morning thought it was terribly funny to play a postgame quote from Marcum – declaring the Pujols home run pitch a good one – side by side with broadcast audio of the pitch – “right down the middle!”  Which was it?

Not a terribly good pitch, but not right down Wisconsin Avenue either.  Looks like a fastball high and away that didn’t have a whole lot of movement.  Might have been tough for any other batter, but Pujols doesn’t miss those pitches often.

And here are the rest of Marcum’s pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS.  The ones that hurt him were not right over the plate; in fact, except for that one pitch to Pujols, all the hits came on pitches either low or inside.  It looks like Marcum was simply beat by good Cardinal hitting.

And as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that Marcum gave up the five runs but the bullpen set down five scoreless frames after that.  That would have put the final score at 5-3 on a late Prince Fielder home run.  Instead of walking away from the game shaking their heads, Brewers fans would have walked away thinking the Cardinals had eked out a narrow victory.  Would Brewers nation still be so hard on Marcum?  Doubtful.  I think our perception of Marcum was tainted more by what happened after he left the game than what happened during his four ill-fated innings.

Our perception is also tainted by recent history.  Marcum didn’t have a clean slate heading into the playoffs, allowing seven earnies in his abbreviated final regular season start against the Pirates.  And folks are quick to point out that his two mid-September starts against the Phillies and Colorado ended nearly as bad.  That all fits the narrative of Shaun Marcum as a pitcher whose first 200+ inning season has taken its toll on his arm.  They forget to mention, or just gloss over, his spectacular starts on September 4th and 20th, in which Marcum allowed one run over a combined fifteen innings with fifteen strikeouts and one walk.

So let’s cut Marcum a little slack.  Maybe we can’t figure out what’s wrong with him because there’s nothing wrong; he’s simply getting beat by good hitting.  Or maybe its something as simple as his pitch selection; as Jack Moore and Tom Haudricourt point out, he’s not throwing his bread-and-butter changeup nearly as often as he should be.

Whatever the reason for Marcum’s struggles, I can’t believe I’m hearing people seriously suggesting that Chris Narveson (regular season: 4.45 ERA, 1.4 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9) should get the start in Game 6 over Marcum. We’re talking the NLCS here.  If we’re to make our stand in Game 6, I want the pitcher with the highest upside out there.  With all due respect to Narveson, that is Shaun Marcum, and he’s shown it over and over again this season.