Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 2: NL Central

My predictions for each team continue...
(See Part 1 for a description of the format.)

NL Central
Always a tight division, the Cincinnati Reds finally capitalized on all their potential and outlasted the Cardinals last year. Now, the Brewers have retooled and suddenly look like the favorites especially with the Cardinals losing Adam Wainwright and everybody loves the Cubbies. Here's how I see it all playing out.

1. Brewers
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Even

Ever since I visited Milwaukee in the summer of 2008 and had the chance to observe the city and its baseball team, I've had a personal affection for them. Later on in that '08 season the team acquired corpulent ace C.C. Sabathia who led them into the playoffs but, Sabathia would leave for the Yankees after that season and the Brewers have been a major disappointment ever since. Their failures can be blamed entirely on an inability to pitch or, rather, an inability to put adequate pitchers on the mound (aside from ace Yovani Gallardo).

This past offseason the team traded for Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum and now, suddenly, their rotation looks terrific. The way I see it, Gallardo is still the ace. One of my favorite players in the league, Gallardo has continually been underrated by the general baseball community but the guy simply dominates as evidenced by his top-10 finish in strikeouts the last two seasons. And he's only now coming into his age-25 season. I expect him to be terrific again.
Say it with me now: "Yo-vah-nee Guy-yar-do"
With Greinke and Marcum behind the great Yovani, this is a totally different team. The offensive firepower has always been there and this year they've got at least 5 players capable of bashing 25 homers. Prince Fielder is in the final year of his contract so he'll probably be extra motivated after finishing with "only" 32 homeruns last year and a sub-.500 slugging percentage.

The bullpen appears to be their only weakness as John Axford cannot be relied upon to close all season. He performed admirably last year in 50 appearances but throughout his career he's been prone to give up way too many walks. The addition of Takashi Saito helps and 23-year-old lefty Zach Braddock looks legitimately great but otherwise this isn't a great bullpen. It shouldn't matter nearly as much if their combination of high-powered offense and deep starting pitching creates big enough leads for the relievers to work with.

They're a trendy pick this year and I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. I don't think they'll win 90 games but a playoff appearance and possible championship run seems to be a realistic possibility.

2. Reds
PECOTA: 82-80
My take: Over 

Usually, I find it hard to have confidence in any team managed by bumbling Dusty Baker but this a very talented group. For one thing, they've got last year's MVP in the middle of the lineup, Joey Votto, who might be the second-best hitter on the planet behind Albert Pujols. Votto turns just 27 years old this year and should continue to mash although I'd be shocked if he comes close to last season's .357 True Average. The other player to be excited about on this team is another "V" surname, Edinson Volquez. The young right-hander came back from a year off recovering from surgery to post career-high strikeout and ground-ball numbers last season and as he continues to recover from the surgery, he can be reasonably expected to further improve this year. He reminds me of Pedro Martinez on the mound and I'm excited to see what he'll do this year.

Along with Volquez they've got a wealth of young arms in the rotation plus veteran Bronson Arroyo who continues to get by with a funky arsenal of slop. The bullpen has been a strength of theirs for a couple years now and this year they'll have the Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman coming out of the pen. Chapman came up during the summer last year and was throwing harder than any human being in recorded history, frequently touching 103-mph. He should be ready to step in and usurp the closer job from Francisco Cordero at some point this year though Baker the decision maker has been known for disregarding logic. A perfect example of this is the very presence of Chapman in the pen where he'll pitch probably 70 innings max, instead of in the rotation where he could pitch at least twice as much.

The lineup is pretty solid from top to bottom (although, again, Baker is known for batting slappy out-machines in the leadoff spot) with young outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs providing plenty of pop behind Votto. They've also got one of the best overall defenses in baseball. Look for them to be in the heart of the battle for the division crown but I don't think they'll reach the heights of last year's 91 wins.

3. Cardinals
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Under

To me, this team has underachieved for a while now. They've got by far the best player in baseball and two of the best pitchers yet they didn't reach 90 wins last year and, though they won the World Series back in 2006 (thanks to the Mets faltering in the NLCS) they haven't won more than 91 games these last five years. I place some of the blame on Tony LaRussa who insists on forcing his convoluted strategies into every game to such an extent that he gets in the way of his team's performance.

At any rate, the lineup this year is the usual stars-and-scrubs variety with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the heart of the order surrounded by mediocre hitters. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus looks like the real deal but LaRussa clashed with him last year so much so that Rasmus supposedly wanted to be traded. If he gets the playing time he deserves, Rasmus might blossom into a star but it seems like he has to do it on Tony LaRussa's terms.

Their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright is out for the season and suddenly the starting rotation doesn't look so great. Chris Carpenter is a great pitcher, although he displayed his disturbing douchebaggery to the whole world last season, and sophomore lefty Jaime Garcia is a good bet to post another solid season but behind the two of them there's not much to be excited about. The bullpen has some nice throwers along with a few of the whackiest beards in baseball and it's a given that LaRussa will employ every single reliever on the roster.

But there's seems to be a lot of outside drama hovering over this team. LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are getting up there in age and LaRussa especially seems to be growing grumpier. Pujols is signed through the end of this year but after that he's a free agent and so there's the lingering possibility of his imminent departure on everyone's mind. With all of the drama and LaRussa's continued descent into senility, this team will finish around .500 at best. It's sad really, because Pujols deserves better.

4. Cubs
PECOTA: 80-82
My take: Even

Everybody's favorite sleeper team this year. A couple weeks ago I was listening to Jonah Keri's podcast when he had Rob Neyer on as a guest. Neyer was asked for a sleeper pick this year and he was given about 5 minutes to ponder it. While listening, I considered each of the divisions in my mind and realized by a process of elimination that he'd say the Cubs. In my head I was saying "Cubs...Cubs...Cubs" and Neyer finally responded saying "I think the Cubs will surprise people." Jay Jaffe just wrote a piece at Baseball Prospectus analyzing his own intuitive choice of the Cubbies as a sleeper, coming away a bit disappointed after researching their roster this year.

They will definitely be better than last year's 75-87 performance that had them finish a game behind the lowly Astros. The strength of the team is an all-around solid starting rotation that doesn't really have an ace but Ryan Dempster, Crazy Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza are all pretty damn good. Randy Wells is a perfect #4 starter, and I mean that as a compliment. Andrew Cashner, a big 24-year-old right-hander will be the 5th starter and, if he can harness his control, he could be something special as he's got great stuff.

Everyone, including me, is excited about young shortstop Starlin Castro and he's a nice player (with a great name) but at age 21 he's still learning how to hit in the majors. I wouldn't be surprised if opposing pitchers have figured him out and he struggles this year. Then again, it also wouldn't be a big shock if he bursts forth with a .330/.380/.440 type season and keeps the Cubs playing exciting, contending baseball all year. He'll be batting in the leadoff spot so what he does will certainly go a long way towards determining the team's offensive output.

Bringing in Carlos Pena to play first after he produced a sub-.200 stinker last year was actually a good move. The 2009 homerun leader should benefit both from playing in dinger-friendly Wrigley Field and getting out of baseball's toughest division, the AL East. If Aramis Ramirez can stay healthy and if Marlon Byrd shows a little more power, this has the makings of a nice lineup but those are pretty big IFs. Byrd and Ramirez are both on the wrong side of 30, they'll be 33 this year just like the team's mildly productive left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

The team's best hitter is probably catcher Geovany Soto but they usually keep him down in the bottom of the batting order for some ridiculous reason. I guess it's because he's a catcher? I don't know. I'm stumped. New manager Mike Quade might be a distant relative of mine (years ago my grandfather briefly changed his name from Quadrino to Quade to bypass prejudice against Italians) and the team played well for him last year but keeping poor OBP hitters like Castro and Byrd at the top of the lineup is not a good way to get the most out of this offense. And, aside from closer Carlos Marmol who is a specimen unlike any in baseball history (his frisbee slider is practically uncontrollable leading to lots of walks but historically awesome strikeout rates) the group of relievers Quade has at his disposal looks a bit shaky.

I think they'll be a more exciting team to watch this year but the end result will be a bit short of .500.

5. Pirates
PECOTA: 71-91
My take: Under

They've finished at the bottom of the division five out of the last six seasons and last year was one of their worst years ever. Rock bottom has been struck. Things should really start to change this year as they've established a pretty solid core of young hitters. Andrew McCutchen (24), Pedro Alvarez (24), Jose Tabata (22), and Neil Walker (25) can all hit. Alvarez especially is someone to be excited about as the 2008 #2 overall draft pick displayed some serious power last year with 16 homeruns and 21 doubles in barely half a season. He's a good bet to knock 30 or maybe even 40 homeruns this year.

The huge problem with this team is its rotation. They've got nobody. Well, James McDonald has some potential but besides him, they've got nobody. The organization has two young prospects in Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie who are studs and could be great major league pitchers some day but that's at least a couple years from now. This current pitching staff will undoubtedly struggle.

New manager Clint Hurdle should be able to rile this group up though and I think they'll be much improved from last year's 105-loss stinker. But the ceiling for this group looks to be about 70 wins.

6. Astros
PECOTA: 68-94
My take: waaaaay Under

Along with the Mariners and Royals, this is the worst team in baseball. A college team could outscore this lineup. Their best hitter is Hunter Pence and he neither gets on base enough (.325 OBP last year) nor hits with enough power (.461 slugging) to even be a league-average hitter for his position. Carlos Lee, the team's highest-paid player, absolutely fell off a cliff last season batting .246/.291/.417 and making almost $20 million for it. Formerly known as "El Caballo" (Spanish for "The Horse") the 34-year-old tubby outfielder better fits a description made famous by one of Salvador Dali's essays: "The Rotten Donkey."

The pitching rotation does carry some major-league caliber players and might win them a few games this year. Wandy Rodriguez is a tough little lefty (listed at 5'11" though probably more like 5'9") and Brett Myers, while a terrible person, isn't a terrible pitcher. Bud Norris can rack up some strikeouts (9.3 per 9 innings last year) but he walks too many batters and is prone to giving up homeruns. J.A. Happ is hapless, Nelson Figueroa needs to figure out how to pitch. I'm just being silly now. This team literally boggles the mind. It amazes me that an organization would trot out a group like this and expect customers to pay large amounts of money to see them play baseball. I'd be surprised if the team reaches 60 wins this year.

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