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

Overhauling the Midsummer Classic

By: Ryan Smith

Most sports fans would agree that, when it comes to all-star games and the festivities associated with them, Major League Baseball puts the other professional sports leagues to shame.

But that’s not saying much.

When you break it down, the other leagues aren’t doing a whole lot to overtake MLB in this category.

The NFL’s Pro Bowl is a joke. If it’s before the Super Bowl, you are missing the best players from the league’s two best teams. If it’s after the Super Bowl, no one cares because, well, it’s after the Super Bowl. Hell, they almost cancelled the damn game in the last few months!

The NBA used to have an impressive All-Star Weekend. Used to. I remember when the Slam Dunk Contest had the league’s best players competing year-in and year-out. These guys wanted to win. Back before Vince Carter was a salary-cap albatross, he absolutely tore the place down. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan also found the time to compete – and win – this once-wonderful competition. Now, the contest is filled with a bunch of bench players who can jump but can’t actually play a lick of basketball. And, believe it or not, the All-Star Game itself features less defense than a typical regular season NBA game.

The NHL’s All-Star Game is…well, to be honest, I can’t stand hockey. When they went on strike, I realized I didn’t miss the NHL. Maybe the NHL has an amazing All-Star Weekend. Who cares? It’s hockey.

That brings us to Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. As I said before, this is the best All-Star Game in professional sports. But it could be better.

With that being said, here are a few suggestions that, in my opinion, would make MLB’s Midsummer Classic even better:

1) Make the Futures Game a bigger part of the festivities.

This little four-day break from the grind of the regular season is supposed to be an exhibition – a time to celebrate the season thus far and a chance to showcase the best of the best…and Pablo Sandoval. Well, if it’s an exhibition and a showcase, then why not shine a little more light on this game, which selects the best players from all minor league levels? First of all, this game draws the short straw by being broadcast on the Sunday before the ASG, when there are still major league games being played. If you were lucky enough to tune in to the dominating performance by Team USA on Sunday night, you were able to see some of the pitchers and hitters that will soon become household names. I know this will never replace the Homerun Derby as the biggest event before the game itself, but it is by far the best display of actual baseball talent before the game.

2) Fix the Homerun Derby.

Hamilton didn’t win the Homerun Derby in 2008, but he should have.

First of all, no captains. That’s just stupid. Especially when one of the captains has been on the DL for a good chunk of the season and cannot even participate in the ASG itself. Instead, why not just take the top four homerun hitters from each league’s roster? Taking the guys who have hit the most homeruns in that given year seems to make sense, right? Right. So let’s move on. Next, the winner should be the guy who hits the most homeruns over the course of the entire contest. A few years ago, Justin Morneau “won” the Derby, but no one remembers that. Everyone remembers Josh Hamilton hitting 28 homers in the first round. Maybe Hamilton tired himself out with that first round. Should he have stopped at 15 and saved something for the final round? No! The Homerun Derby is supposed to be entertaining, so let’s do whatever we can to keep it that way. Finally, why not add a little twist to the Derby? College baseball’s homerun derby features a bonus ball (similar to the last ball in each rack of the NBA’s Three-Point Shootout), so why not add that? Or maybe they could have special “zones” that are worth two homeruns? When Sammy Sosa was wowing the crowd at Miller Park in 2002 with his shots off of Bernie’s slide or when Prince was knocking them into the fountain in K.C., why not give them a bonus? I’m sure I could think of more changes for the Derby, but I’ll move on for now.

3) Change the roster selection process.

I think this year’s roster fiasco proved that fans just don’t know what they’re doing. Sometimes, the managers struggle with this, too. I know the fan vote will never be taken away, but it should be. Derek Jeter wouldn’t have been good enough to start in the Futures Game, let alone the ASG. And don’t even get me started on Kung Fu Sandoval. Anyway, since the fan vote has no chance of changing, let’s look at the other elements of the roster selection process. Personally, I think the players might do the best job in selecting the most-deserving participants for the ASG. So why do they need to vote by the end of May? When the players selected Lance Lynn as an all-star this year, he was still pitching really well. In that pesky month after the players voted, the wheels fell off for Lynn, yet he still made it ahead of Zack Greinke. So let’s push back the deadline for the players to vote so their selections accurately reflect as much of the season as possible. Also, instead of just having the manager of each All-Star Team select players, why not have all of the managers in each league vote? It just makes sense to include as many voices as possible in this process.

4) Bring in some fun announcers.

Uke would make the All-Star game infinitely more entertaining.

I’m stealing this one from Manny Parra (@MannyParra26), who tweeted that the ASG should have All-Star announcers. I completely agree. Now, I must admit that I may be a bit biased for two reasons. One: I hate Joe Buck. Always have. Always will. Two: If we’re talking about All-Star announcers, don’t you think our very own Bob Uecker would be in the running? As Parra tweeted, “Anyone else think that the All-Star game should be announced by Uecker, and Skully? Would make sense…All-Star Announcers.” Bob Uecker and Vin Scully announcing the ASG together? Sign me up, please.

5) The Managers should be from this season’s best team in each league.

If the game is supposed to matter, then why do we have the managers from last year’s World Series? This makes absolutely no sense to me. And this year, it has gone to new levels with the retired Tony LaRussa taking the reigns for the NL. (Ed. Note: I know the National League won 8-0, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous that a retired guy is managing in a game that is supposed to matter.) Why in the world is a guy who is no longer managing having an impact on home-field advantage for the World Series? This doesn’t seem like a tough change, so make it happen, Bud.

6) Quit having the game determine home-field advantage for the World Series.

This is the biggest change that needs to be made. There is no way that a game being played in July should have a direct impact on the World Series. Remember, this rule was put into place because the 2002 ASG ended in a tie. Because we couldn’t live in a world where the ASG ended in a tie, Bud Selig decided that he would take this exhibition game and have it play a pivotal role in the freaking World Series! In that very game that ended in a tie, I remember Torii Hunter making a leaping catch at the wall to rob Barry Bonds of a homerun. For the most part, the players were always trying, so why change it? Seriously, this needs to stop. Let’s just let this exhibition game remain an exhibition.

These are only a few changes that I think would help the overall All-Star experience for Major League Baseball. As is, the MLB All-Star Game is the best of the best in professional sports. But that doesn’t mean that they should stand pat.

With a few simple changes, Major League Baseball could make the Midsummer Classic a true classic.

Tony LaRussa and the Meaning of the All-Star Game

By Nathan Petrashek

So the All-Star game has started sans Zack Greinke, who was passed over by the NL manager (and dude who seemingly never goes away) Tony LaRussa.  His pitcher picks were Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Clayton Kershaw, Wade Miley, and Huston Street.

No Greinke and no Johnny Cueto.  And let’s be clear: those two were absolutely snubbed.  Cueto is fourth in the NL in ERA and tied with R.A. Dickey (who is not just an All-Star, but candidate for the start) in pitcher WAR.  Greinke is seventh in the NL in strikeouts, and every single pitcher above him on that list got in.  Greinke once again has an exceptional K rate and isn’t walking many batters; his ERA stands at a solid 3.32 (it was an even better 2.82 when All-Stars were selected).  Both Cueto and Greinke are giving up among the fewest home runs per nine innings in the league.

So what’s the deal, Tony?  LaRussa gave some meandering explanation about pitching schedules, but that’s total crap.  LaRussa doesn’t like Cueto because he kicked one of his players in the head during a brawl.  He doesn’t like Greinke because he called Chris Carpenter a phony during the NLCS.  The latter was just the latest incident in a long history of conflict between the Brewers and Cardinals: LaRussa has accused the Brewers of fiddling with the lighting at Miller Park, complained about untucked jerseys, and ordered Ryan Braun plunked by his hardest thrower and then offered a rambling, incoherent denial.  But that’s LaRussa’s MO: Take revenge, but never admit that’s what you’re doing.

And you know what?  I understand that.  But what LaRussa doesn’t realize is that his personal vendettas put the NL at a disadvantage this year.

The MLB All-Star game is not meaningless.  Unlike the Pro-Bowl and whatever they call it in the NBA, the All-Star game puts home-field advantage on the line.  That’s a good thing.  It gives the players something to play for and avoids the kind of apathy that makes the Pro-Bowl unwatchable.

It also requires the managers to take the game seriously.

If Tony LaRussa really thinks he’s better off trotting out Papelbon over Cueto or Greinke, he needs to have his Hall of Fame credentials reexamined.  But more than likely he doesn’t believe that.  It’s just more of the same petty stuff that has come to characterize LaRussa’s tenure.

But he’s good at it, and wins games, so he keeps getting a pass.  That probably isn’t going to change with the NL up 8-0 in the fifth inning.

A Disturbing Trend

By: Ryan Smith

With 3,932,100 votes, Ryan Braun was the leading vote-getter for 2011’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Once again, the fans were throwing their support behind Braun, who had become a regular among the leading vote-getters for the midsummer classic. The All-Star game is meant to showcase the best players in the league, and the fans clearly understood that Ryan Braun was a unique talent that should be put on display.

Then he became Public Enemy #1.

When news of a failed drug test “leaked” to the public, the haters came out to play. All of a sudden, everything that he had accomplished up to this point in his career came into question. Pundits and fans alike didn’t seem to care that he had passed numerous drug tests throughout the regular season; one failed test meant that Braun had been juicing for his entire career.

Braun then went through the appeal process that Major League Baseball had put in place and was exonerated of these charges. He went through the process and was found innocent.

None of this should be news to you. This is the real news:

Despite his impressive numbers, Braun finds himself on the outside looking in for a starting spot in the All-Star Game.

Ryan Braun is currently 4th in All-Star voting among National League outfielders.

I don’t mean for this article to be an attack on the achievements of the three guys ahead of Braun. Matt Kemp is the top vote-getter, and even though he has only played in 36 games, his numbers over the course of those games (.355/.444/.719) were as good as anyone else’s during that same span, and Kemp wouldn’t be the first player to make it based on past success. Carlos Beltran is also putting up impressive stats (.311/.396/.591 with 19 HR and a 2.7 WAR) while taking on the unenviable task of replacing one of the all-time greats in St. Louis. Even Melky Cabrera is having an all-star caliber season (.363/.399/.532).

No, I’m not looking to break apart the seasons of those three deserving players. Instead, I just want to comment on what I fear might be unfolding before our very eyes.

This all-star game slight could be the first sign in a long line of residual backlash for Braun’s “leaked” test result.

Let’s start by looking at Braun’s stats from his MVP 2011 season: Braun produced a line of .332/.397/.597 while mashing 33 HR, driving in 111, scoring 109 runs, swiping 33 bases, and ending with a 7.8 WAR.

Now let’s take a gander at what Braun has done so far in 2012, post-leak: Braun is currently hitting .321/.400/.627, has a league-leading 20 HR, has driven in 51, has scored 47 runs, stolen 12 bases, and he currently sits at a 4.3 WAR, good enough for second-best in the NL behind Joey Votto.

By all accounts, Braun is on pace to equal if not surpass his MVP numbers from a year ago. He is doing all of this while being the only real consistent threat in an otherwise impotent Brewers offense. He no longer has the protection of Prince Fielder in the on-deck circle. Yes, Milwaukee may be struggling, but Braun is far from the reason why.

Braun’s successful appeal may have eliminated the 50-game suspension he faced, but it might not protect him from other long-term implications.

Now it comes as no surprise that fans can be fickle and hold grudges, refute legal results, and ignore compelling information that goes against what they’ve been led to believe. MLB “accidentally leaked” information that Braun test positive during the postseason last year, forcing Braun to go through the appeal process in a very public way. Fans felt betrayed by the slugger and, in turn, vilified Braun. After Braun won his appeal, MLB acted like a spoiled child who takes his ball and goes home by firing Shyam Das, baseball’s independent arbitrator since 1999 and the man who delivered the controversial decision in Braun’s appeal. So the fans who felt betrayed by Braun held on to those feelings because Major League Baseball pouted when he won his appeal.

So let the fans vote for other players instead of Braun. I personally think the All-Star Game is a joke, especially this year when the retired Tony LaRussa will manage the National League in a game that will decide home-field advantage of the World Series.

My worry is that fans aren’t the only ones who hold grudges. I’m more worried that a Hall of Fame career could very well end up not making it into Cooperstown because of the “leak”. I’m worried that the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will react the same way fans are reacting this year and choose to ignore the legal results of Braun’s appeal and the many other times that Braun has tested clean.

I’m thinking big picture. And while the all-star voting is minor in the long run, it is a very major part of the big picture.

I’m worried that this is a sign that the damage that has been done cannot be undone.

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

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.