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: Pittsburgh Pirates

By: Ryan Smith

Andrew McCutchen will keep bringing fans out to the park in 2012, but how long until he roams the outfield somewhere else?

The first half of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2011 season was different from previous seasons for one reason – they actually had some success. Through July 28th, they stood at 54-49. The Pirates were in a spot they weren’t all too familiar with because they were actually contenders. For once, they weren’t selling their best players to other teams jockeying for playoff position. Their games actually mattered.

Exciting times in Pittsburgh.

Then the Pirates went on a 10-game losing streak. They never recovered, finishing with another 90-loss season. A promising season became just another disappointment for the Pittsburgh faithful.

And I don’t see 2012 breaking from tradition.

Honestly, I just don’t see much of a difference between last year’s Pirates squad and the 2012 version. They’ve made some minors moves during the off-season, but nothing to write home about. Let’s take a look at what the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates should look like.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Neil Walker, SS Clint Barmes, 3B Pedro Alvarez

Jones and Alvarez could be pushed for playing time by new arrival McGehee.

Analysis –
Jones seems to fit the mold of your typical first baseman, providing some decent numbers at the plate and leaving something to be desired in the field. His .328 wOBA last year was just above the expected league average and Jones isn’t going to tear the cover off of the ball with his 20-homerun potential. He does seem to be gaining a reputation of being pretty durable, playing in over 148 games in each of the last three years. His UZR/150 of -13.2 at first certainly isn’t going to make his pitchers feel comfortable about his presence behind them…Neil Walker is another player who doesn’t add much with his glove, posting a UZR/150 of -2.5. The .273/.334/.408 line he posted last season is pretty respectable at his position. Only in his third full season in the big leagues, Walker still has room to grow, but he’s going to have to do it soon if he wants to be a part of any sort of rebuilding project in Pittsburgh…Acquiring Barmes was one of the few moves that Pittsburgh made during the off-season that should pay dividends relatively quickly. After bouncing around from position to position in Colorado, Barmes finally found a permanent home at shortstop and played like a natural, posting a UZR/150 of 10.8. In 539 chances in 2011, Barmes only committed 12 errors. His OPS+ of 93 brings him in below league average, so he’s not going to strike fear into the opposing pitcher…the former second-overall draft pick Alvarez has left more than a few people disappointed with his production thus far. In 74 games last year, Alvarez produced a brutal line of .191/.272/.289. Those numbers are unacceptable from the hot corner. And it’s not like he provides a lot of defensive value, committing 14 errors in only 214 chances. Still, the Pirates have to give him more opportunities to become the player they thought they were drafting in 2008.

Outfield – LF Alex Presley, CF Andrew McCutchen, RF Jose Tabata

Analysis – Tabata seemed to be the guy for left field going into last season, but Presley’s impressive audition toward the end of last season makes me think he’ll claim this side of the outfield. He isn’t a big power hitter, but he’s a career .291 hitter in the minors, and over at fangraphs.com, Bill James projects a .301/.346/.445 line in 2012 for Presley…McCutchen is one of the few players for Pittsburgh that everyone is familiar with. In 2011, in just his third full season in the majors, McCutchen established himself as one of the premier all-around players in Major League Baseball, posting impressive numbers all across the board, resulting in a 5.7 WAR. Pittsburgh better become more consistent pretty soon or McCutchen could become just another talented Pirates player traded away for a “rebuilding” project in a few years…Tabata may be shifting over to right field, but he’s still valuable to this team. He provides speed at the top of the order, and Pittsburgh could use any help to improve on offense, where they ranked 27th in the majors in runs scored last year.

Rotation – RHP Charlie Morton, RHP James McDonald, LHP Erik Bedard, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kevin Correia

Analysis – Morton went 10-10 with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2011 while posting a 4.08 xFIP, which is slightly better than league average. Still, he’ll be coming off a hip injury and will likely not see the mound until some time in May…In his first full season as a starter in 2011, McDonald had his share of ups-and-downs. He didn’t blow anyone away with his strikeout rate (7.47 K/9) and he walked too many batters (4.11 BB/9). His LOB% of 77.0 was impressive, but it was a bit above the league average, which creates the concern that he might regress to the mean in 2012. His peripherals will need to improve in 2012 is McDonald wants to become a regular in this rotation…A few years ago, Bedard was one of the promising young pitchers in baseball. Last year, Bedard logged 129.1 innings, which was the first time he was able to reach triple-digits in innings since 2007. His addition should help overcome the loss of Paul Maholm, but you can’t but wonder when – not if – he’s going to land on the DL…In 2011, Karstens posted career-highs in innings pitched (162.1), strikeouts (96), and wins (9) while posting an impressive 1.83 BB/9. Karstens will need to duplicate those results to maintain his 3.38 ERA and 1.0 WAR in 2012. It’s just hard to predict another season like his 2011 with a pitcher who just relies so heavily on command…Correia could end up splitting time with Brad Lincoln in this fifth spot. Correia did end up going 12-11 last season, but luck played a large part in that winning record. His 4.85 xFIP leaves something to be desired. He also didn’t strikeout many hitters (4.50 K/9). I just see this fifth spot as a revolving door of spot starters for the Pirates this season.

Catchers – Rod Barajas

Analysis – This spot had been reserved for Ryan Doumit for the last few years, but now he calls Minnesota his home. The Pirates went out and signed the veteran Barajas to fill the void in 2012. Last season, while with the Dodgers, Barajas posted a .230/.287/.430 line. So basically, he stills has some power left in the bat but he doesn’t make contact often enough to put that power on display. His 1.3 WAR in 2011 pretty much says that he’s not going to win a lot of games for Pittsburgh, but he also shouldn’t be the cause of too many headaches for Bucs fans either.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Joel Hanrahan will be taking the ball in the ninth inning again for Pittsburgh this season. Last year, Hanrahan struck out eight batters per nine innings while only giving up one homerun all season. Even though closers can fluctuate quite a bit, the Pirates should feel pretty comfortable with this guy on the back end…Evan Meek provides another live arm that Pittsburgh can depend on…Jason Grilli strikes batters out (10.19 K/9), but he walks them enough too (4.13 BB/9)…Chris Resop has similar issues, with a 10.21 K/9 rate and a 4.09 BB/9 rate…Nate McClouth could see some time jumping around in the outfield, but he’s not the player he once was…Casey McGehee will also see a decent amount of time, splitting his services between first and third. I’d also go out on a limb and say that when he gets playing time during any of Pittsburgh’s trips to Milwaukee, he’ll receive a warm welcome from the Miller Park faithful.

Help is on its way in the form of Gerrit Cole, but not in 2012.

Overall Analysis – I don’t see the Pirates getting their fans’ hopes up this season. Too much went right over the course of the first half of 2011. Pittsburgh is lucky enough to have one bona fide superstar in McCutchen, but there just isn’t much else on this team that makes me think they will be able to come close to contention this season.

The Pirates farm system, ranked as the 13th-best system in baseball by Baseball America, has quite a bit of top-tier talent in pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as well as outfielder Josh Bell. The only problem is that those guys are all a few years away. Pirates GM Neal Huntington is going to need to find a way for his team to tread water until those guys are ready, or by the time they make the show, McCutchen will be displaying his talents for a different organization.

Prediction: 69-93, 5th Place in the NL Central

Next Up: 2012 Chicago Cubs Preview