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: 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