MLB Divisional Previews: NL Central

This is the third installment in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.

Contenders

Cincinnati Reds

Why they could win the division: Rotation depth

I’m not as high on a lot of these guys as most of the experts seem to be, but the quality depth is undeniable.  Veterans Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez are flanked by youngsters Mike Leake, Travis Wood and Homer Bailey.  I’m not sure who the odd man out is here, but Bailey has the stuff to be a very successful reliever and his struggles as a starter make that a serious option.  Also, don’t forget about young Cuban Aroldis Chapman and his 105 mph fastball.  He will probably be in the bullpen this year, but could figure into the rotation eventually.

Why they might not: Joey Votto and…

Votto is an exceptional player.  His production last season puts him into the elite class of hitters and he is sure to get all the rewards (read excessive walks) that come with that distinction.  So if opposing teams are going to pitch around him, his teammates are going to need to step up.  Brandon Phillips is a nice player, but he’ll be hard pressed to be a legit middle of the order bat.  Jay Bruce has shown flashes these past three seasons, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together for an extended period of time.  Drew Stubbs was a big success story last season with his power/speed combination, but the K rate is disturbingly high.  He’s going to need to make some adjustments or pitchers are going to start taking advantage of him.  Scott Rolen had a great bounce back season last year, but at this point in his career, he can’t be counted on to duplicate that kind of offensive production.  Bottom line: some of these guys need to step up and help Votto carry this lineup.

Joey Votto might be closer to Albert Pujols than you think.

On the way: C Devin Mesoraco

The guy practically came out of nowhere last year.  He looked like a marginal prospect at best after falling on his face at High-A in 2009.  Then something clicked this past season.  He tore the cover off the ball at both High-A and Double-A and even got a promotion to Triple-A to end the season.  An injury to either one of the catchers on the major league roster (who are both above 30) would certainly result in a promotion.  The Reds have two excellent catching prospects in Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal, last year’s first round pick.

Game on:  SP Travis Wood

With all the hype around Chapman and the chatter about Leake making the major league team last year without touching the minors, Wood kind of got lost in the shuffle.  It’s a shame, because in my opinion, he might be the best pitcher on this staff.  He’s not flashy, sitting around 90 mph with his fastball.  But he has some nice secondary pitches, featuring a solid cutter, a decent change and mixing in a slider and curve occasionally.  He reminds me a lot of the White Sox’ John Danks.  The guy simply gets outs and his K rate isn’t terrible (’10 majors: 7.54, minors: 8.91).  He pitched 202 innings last year between Triple-A and the majors, so he’s ready for a full workload.  Expect big things.

Quantum Leap: RF Jay Bruce

I can feel it, this is the year.  He finally got the BB rate to 10%, which is where it needs to be.  If he can just get the K rate down in the lower 20’s, we’re in business.  The power is exceptional (35-40 homers this season is possible) and he’s a much better defender than people give him credit for.  The question is, if he makes the jump to the elite level, who can the Reds sandwich between he and Votto for the next decade to offset the lefties?

St. Louis Cardinals

Why they could win the division: Albert Pujols

Quite simply, he is the best hitter in baseball.  They have some other nice pieces, but without Pujols, they would be lucky to finish at .500.  I talked ad nauseam about Pujols in my earlier post about his contract situation, so I’m not going to spout off about him again here.  Suffice it to say that he is the reason they are contenders for a World Series every season.

Why they might not: Pitching depth

Just 24 hours ago this might not have been much of a concern, but word out of Cardinals camp is that ace SP Adam Wainwright might be out for the season with an elbow injury.  Now that hasn’t been confirmed yet, but according to team sources, it doesn’t look good.  If true, this would be a huge blow to St. Louis’ rotation.  Wainwright is vastly underrated in most circles.  His numbers the past two seasons (39 wins, 425 K’s, 2.53 ERA) are right up there with any pitcher in baseball.  Without him, the Cardinals are left with a rotation of the oft injured Chris Carpenter, groundball specialist Jake Westbrook, young Jaime Garia (who pitched extremely well last season), the horribly overpaid and underperforming Kyle Lohse, and a big hole in the 5th spot.  That rotation would look much better with Wainwright at the top.

Game on: CF Colby Rasmus

It seems like Rasmus has been around forever, but he’s still just 24 years old.  He showed excellent progress last season, and this could be the year he puts it all together.  He increased his BB rate drastically last season (11.8%, from 6.9% in ’09) and he showed more power and willingness to run when he got on base.  However, his K rate also increased dramatically, skyrocketing from 20% to 31.9%.  That absolutely needs to come down or his average will plummet.  His defense also regressed a bit, so he certainly has some areas to improve on.  Don’t expect a fantastic average, but the power speed combination could approach 30/20.

Slipping: RP Ryan Franklin

It’s very rare for a late inning reliever to get such great results from such marginal stuff.  Franklin sits around 91 with his fastball and features a curveball while also mixing in a cutter, changeup and splitter.  He’s your classic junkballer at this point is his career and it shows in his awful K rate (5.82 in ’10).  This guy simply does not miss enough bats to sustain this level of success.  Expect a regression and possibly even a changing of the guard at closer.  Jason Motte quietly had a very nice season last year and he’s got phenomenal stuff.

Milwaukee Brewers

Why they could win the division: New pitchers

Starting pitching wins in this league and the Brewers went out and got themselves two good ones this offseason in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.  They gave up almost their entire farm system to get these guys, but it’s clear the front office has decided they want to make a run at the World Series before Prince Fielder hits free-agency next offseason.    Greinke was possibly the best pitcher in baseball in ’09, but he regressed last season.  No one has ever questioned his stuff, but his mental makeup (he suffers from depression and a social anxiety disorder) is a concern.  It’s also quite possible that he was simply frustrated with the Royals losing ways as he declared on numerous occasions his desire to play for a winner.  Depending on which Greinke they get, this trade could look very different than it does now.  My guess is he settles in somewhere between ’09 and ’10.  Marcum came out of nowhere last season after missing all of ’09 with an elbow injury.  He’s not a power guy, but has great control and an excellent changeup.  Throw those two in a rotation that already has Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf and you’ve got a nice mix of starters.

Why they might not: Lineup holes

To get Greinke, they gave up their starting shortstop, Alcides Escobar, and a guy who could have been their starting center fielder, Lorenzo Cain.  So instead of Escobar, they’ll be running out Yuniesky Betancourt at short.  Over the last 2 years he’s amassed a WAR of -1.  That means over two years, he has actually been worse than a guy they could have brought in off the street.  He’s below average defensively and other than maybe a little pop, he brings nothing offensively.  Centerfield looks to be Carlos Gomez’s to lose.  He was a good prospect, but has stagnated badly in the majors.  His lack of plate discipline really makes him a liability on offense and he doesn’t run as much as he used to.  His defense is above average, but that’s really his only positive attribute at this point.  Catcher doesn’t look like a bright spot offensively either and the projected starter, Jonathan Lucroy looks like he will be out about a month with a broken finger.  There’s some nice pieces in Fielder, LF Ryan Braun and 3B Casey McGehee.  2B Rickie Weeks and RF Corey Hart (assuming we see the ‘10 versions of these two) are solid as well, but five players don’t make an offense.

Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun form a very nice 1-2 punch.

Game on: 1B/3B Mat Gamel

It’s now or never for Gamel.  He came up as a top prospect right behind Braun in the pipeline.  Just like Braun, he had stone hands at third and had to be moved to another position.  But with Braun in left and Fielder at first, there hasn’t really been a place to hide him defensively.  He raked again at Triple-A last year, but he’ll turn 26 this summer and his window is starting to close.  Look for the Brewers to get him as many at-bats as they can so they can see what they have.  He’s got good power and should hit for a decent average, but he needs to improve his plate discipline.

Slipping: 1B Prince Fielder

It sounds funny to say a guy who is only 26 is slipping.  But in Fielder’s case, it may not be a stretch.  His body type makes him a huge risk.  Other than his father (Cecil) I can’t recall another player of this body type who was this successful at the major league level.  Cecil had a few good years and then fell off the map completely.  I don’t think Prince’s descent will be that quick, but he already regressed a bit last season.  His BB and K rates were about the same, but his power dropped off at an astounding rate.  His average should probably stabilize back into the .270 range, but there is just no telling how he will age.  If I were a GM, I would be very hesitant to give him a lucrative long-term deal.

Stuck in the Middle

Chicago Cubs

What to like: Young bats

To be honest, there’s not a ton to like about the Cubs.  It’s tough, because they are basically the definition of a team “stuck in the middle”.  They haven’t made the moves necessary to put themselves into the contender category, but they also refuse to rip the cupboard bare and start over.  There are some nice young bats for the future though.  Geovany Soto had a nice bounce back season and looks to have established himself as an upper tier catcher in the NL.  He’s got good power, solid plate discipline and will hit for an averages in the .280-.290 range.  Shortstop Starlin Castro had a great rookie season when you take into account the fact that he was only 20 years old.  He’s going to hit for a very good average and his power and speed should progress eventually.  His plate discipline for his age is actually pretty solid and he wasn’t terrible defensively.  Lastly, RF Tyler Colvin might be a long-term solution.  He’s got plus power, but he needs to increase the walks and cut the strikeouts.  His season ended with an ugly incident involving him being hit with a shattered bat in the lung, but he appears to be at full strength now.

Not so much: Identity

Like I said above, there’s just no clear direction with this team.  It probably needs a full overhaul, but management would rather run out a team that will finish around .500 than do what actually needs to be done to eventually field a contender.  So instead of getting rid of the high-priced veterans that are eating up their payroll and dragging down their roster, they continue to keep acquiring those same types of players.  Case in point: Matt Garza.  He’s a nice pitcher, but he’s peaked.  He’s a middle of the rotation starter, no more, no less.  Why give up prospects to get a guy who will take you from a little below .500 to a little above .500?  Just doesn’t make sense to me.

Don’t believe the hype: SS Starlin Castro

Wait?  Didn’t I just say I liked this kid?  I did, but like I said above, he was only 20 last year.  He’s very young and he’s going to have some growing pains.  The tools are undeniable, but tools are useless until the player turns them into actual skills.  I don’t think he’ll be totally overmatched this year, but I also don’t think he’s going to be the immediate star many are making him out to be.

Slipping: SP Matt Garza

As you can tell, I really didn’t like this trade for the Cubs.  I think Garza’s ERA climbs at least a half run this year.  The ball flies out of Wrigley in the summer and he has a tendency to give up a lot of home runs.  I find it odd that his K rate seems to hover around 6 as he has pretty good stuff.  If the walks creep up again to the mid 3’s, he’s going to be in for a rude awakening.

Rebuilding

Houston Astros

What to like: Financial relief

The Astros did the right thing last year at the trade deadline and rid themselves of the contracts of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.  Even though they had to kick in some money to send those guys packing, it was the right move.  They can now start a full rebuild from the bottom up.  Now if they could just get rid of Carlos Lee…

Anyone looking to trade for an overweight, high-priced outfielder on the downside of his career?  If so, give the Astros a call.

Not so much: Farm system

There’s just not a ton of talent in the pipeline here.  C Jason Castro should start the year with the big club, but he looks to be more of a solid player than a real difference maker.  3B Chris Johnson and 1B Brett Wallace will both get a long look this season, but again both look to be solid more so than stars.  CF Michael Bourn and RF Hunter Pence are good major league players, but again their star power is limited.  SP Jordan Lyles is on the fast track and he could be in Houston sometime this summer.

On the way: SP Jordan Lyles

This kid made it to Triple-A last season at the age of 19.  That’s impressive.  He was very good for most of the year at Double-A, but he looks like he’s probably more of a middle of the rotation guy than a true ace.  Either way, the Astros can certainly use the help.

Don’t believe the hype: 1B Brett Wallace

There’s a reason this guy has been traded more than a bad stock.  He’s shown the ability to hit for average in the minors, but his power appears to be limited, his plate discipline hasn’t developed and he had to move from third to first (which really hurts his value).  He could be a solid hitter down the line, but I’m not seeing the star that people were projecting a year ago.

Game on: 3B Chris Johnson

He’s going to strike out a lot, but it looks like he has some pop.  He hit 11 homers last season in only 341 at bats, so the power potential is there.  He’s probably not a star, but he could be manning the hot corner in Houston for the foreseeable future.

Pittsburgh Pirates

What to like: Young position players

I don’t want to hex it, but it looks like the Pirates are on the right track.  Yes, they are going to struggle to win games this year, but they have some nice building blocks and the pitching help is on the way.  CF Andrew McCutchen is the crown jewel of the bunch.  He hits for average, gets on base at a good clip, has developing power and is a good base thief.  3B Pedro Alvarez has prodigious power (29 HR last year between AAA and the majors).  His average is going to be low until he can get his K rate down, but this guy has star potential.  He’s not very good at third and might need to be moved across the diamond eventually.  LF Jose Tabata and 2B Neil Walker are two others to keep an eye on.  Both should get starting spots and have solid tools to work with.

Not so much: Starting pitching

There just isn’t much to speak of at the major league level right now.  Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie (both taken in the draft last year) have great arms and excellent stuff, but they are also straight out of high school and have yet to throw a professional pitch.  They will be brought along slowly and shouldn’t be expected to contribute for a few years.  The Pirates stole James McDonald from the Dodgers last year and he could be a keeper.  Unfortunately, other than that there’s not much to speak of here.

Game on: SP James McDonald

The converted outfielder is heading into his fifth year of full-time pitching.  He’s got good stuff sitting in the low 90’s with his fastball, with a good curve and decent change.  His K rate was strong last season (8.54 per 9) and the BB rate wasn’t terrible.  If he can continue to refine his control and command, he could be a very useful starter.

Quantum Leap: CF Andrew McCutchen

To be honest, I wasn’t that high on McCutchen until 2009.  He was terribly overhyped while moving through the Pirates’ system.  The hype seemed to exceed the on-field production at every stop in the minors.  His lack of ability to steal bases at a successful clip was a big concern of mine, given his great speed.  When he finally got the call to Pittsburgh in 2009, I expected him to struggle, but he didn’t.  He more than held his own against major league pitching.  His plate discipline, base stealing and power have all developed much faster than I thought they would.  I’m looking for a .300/.380/.470 line this season.

Predicted Finish

1.       Cincinnati Reds
2.       St. Louis Cardinals
3.       Milwaukee Brewers
4.       Chicago Cubs
5.       Houston Astros
6.       Pittsburgh Pirates

Up Next: AL Central

Side note: I was considering doing a full write-up on each team, but figured most people wouldn’t want to read a ton about the Pirates, Mariners, etc.  If you would like to see a full write-up on a specific team of interest, shoot us an e-mail.

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2 Responses to MLB Divisional Previews: NL Central

  1. I’ve got similar picks, but I think the Brewers and Reds will be pretty darn close this year.

  2. Ross says:

    The Brewers haven’t earned that kind of faith in my mind yet. There’s very little there in terms of sure things. Fielder looks to be regressing already, Braun struggled with injuries last year, Gallardo has bouts with wildness, Marcum has yet to pitch 200 innnings in a season, and Zack Greinke could either win the Cy Young or end up in a mental institution. The potential is there, but the certainty is not.

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