April 06, 2009

NL Central Preview

Following up on Matt's preview, I figured I'd throw out some thoughts on the NL Central.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

As much as I would like to give a nod to the Pirates and bump them out of the cellar as a reward for some of the good things going on in the organization, this roster at the major league level is god awful. Good god. Is this team even going to win 60 games??

Pittsburgh's starting pitching is comically bad. It's the same cast of characters that have stunk for years. Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, etc. Zach Duke is currently their #2 starter, and he had an ERA of almost 5.00 last year. Teams hit over .300 against him. In fact, the LIFETIME batting average against Zach Duke is .307. In other words, you could have a borderline Hall of Fame career if you faced Zach Duke every time out. Ian Snell is another one of those guys who has been "on the rise" for a few years now, but the bottom fell out on him as well with a 5.42 ERA last year. Yikes. And the Buccos are trotting out the likes of Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf in those #4 and #5 spots!! Dear god, are we sure this is a major league roster?? I'd like to see the Columbus Clippers play the Pirates at some point this year.

Paul Maholm had a real nice year last year, but would I bet on him to follow it up with another great year again?? Uhhh, not sure. Maholm was awful in 2007. I don't trust any of these guys. Do the Pirates just have a terrible pitching coach or something?? They bring up these young arms, and all of them are burned out by the time they hit 25/26 years old. Pittsburgh is still paying the price for years of mishandling young players (mainly pitchers).

As for the lineup, I think it will be interesting to see if Nate McLouth can follow up his big 2008 with another big year in 2009. I'm a little concerned about him this year. He started out in 2008 like a house of fire with an OPS of almost .900. But in the second half of the year, he came down to earth considerably and sort of lost his power a bit. I like McLouth and think he can be a mainstay in this lineup, but I'm not quite sure that he can duplicate those numbers in 2009.

The rest of this lineup is bogus though. Nyjer Morgan?? Cmon, let's get real. The guy is a 28 year old rookie. He's not going to be able to effectively hit leadoff in the big leagues for 162 games. Ryan Doumit is decent, but as a cleanup hitter?? No. Adam LaRoche is a below average 1b at best, and his brother has been a huge bust as well. If you are counting on the LaRoche brothers to be anchors in your lineup, you got problems. Andy LaRoche is like the Andy Marte of the National League.

If there is any bit of good news for Pirates fans, it's that they actually have some pretty good young prospects down in the minor leagues. This Andrew McCutcheon guy is promising in the outfield, Jose Tabata was a big pickup in the Xavier Nady trade last year, and they have former 1st round pick, Pedro Alvarez coming up as well at some point this year. If those guys all pan out (or even just 1 or 2 of them), suddenly they could have some horses in that lineup.

I also think their GM Neal Huntington is doing a decent job with the assets that he has had to work with. They've made some interesting trades, and they have a lot of young guys who were highly-touted in other organizations. If they could just get some things to break right to get some pitchers and hitters coming up at the same time, maybe they can get something going.

I don't even remember the last time the Pirates had a winning season, and it's definitely not happening this year. Part of me feels bad for Pirates fans, but then I remember that they have the Steelers and 6 Super Bowl rings. Any and all feelings of pity for Pirates fans end right there. Just enjoy some baseball for a few months and start gearing up for a repeat Super Bowl run in July when the Pirates are 18 games out. It's better than what Cincy fans get out of their sports teams.

5. Houston Astros

The Pirates are struggling, but at least they appear to have a plan to build around their young players and draft picks. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros are a completely rudderless ship that seems to be going nowhere with no real plan of action. I thought about picking Houston to finish last just to make a point of how little I think of their organization. I couldn't be happier to see them signing over-the-hill pitchers and old timers in the offseason.

The amazing thing is that the Astros have been hyping themselves up all spring training. They really seem to think they've got something with this roster. I don't get it. Look at this rotation. Oswalt is still good even if he is getting up there a little bit in years, but Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton, and Russ Ortiz as your #3-5 starters??? Hahahahahaha. Are you kidding me?? That's what you came up with?? Brian Moehler?? Isn't he like 50 by now?? He was never good in the first place. And Russ Ortiz?? He wasn't even in the major leagues last year!!!! I could get behind the idea of Mike Hampton as a "buy low" guy, but not when you have so many other retreads in that rotation. Plus, Hampton is washed up. That's the worst rotation in the National League by far.

I just looked up the Astros GM just to see who is running this show, and laughed out loud when I saw who it was. ED WADE!! Holy cow, how did Ed Wade get another GM job after bombing out in Philly?? Now it all makes sense as to why the Astros are so bad all of the sudden. I hope he's in Houston for another decade. That is terrific stuff. Nobody knows how to crank out 68-94 seasons like Ed Wade.

A lot of the optimism around the Stros this year comes from their lineup, but I would merely classify their lineup as "good" rather than great. Berkman and Lee are both bombers, but there are a lot of geezers and black holes in this lineup. Pudge and Tejada are a combined 72 years old, and Geoff Blum is laughable at 3rd. The Stros seem to be pinning their hopes on this Michael Bourn guy, but he's almost 27 years and hit .229 last year. He's not exactly destined for stardom.

The Astros are really really bad. As a Reds fan, at least I know there are two teams that we are better than.

Which brings me to.......

4. Cincinnati Reds

Ok, lots to talk about here, so let's get going with a little rundown.

Seems like everyone is hopping on the Reds bandwagon from Gammons to Keith Law to Jayson Stark. A lot of people are even saying that the Reds are this year's version of Tampa Bay and that they could make a run at the division or at least wild card.

So why are people high on the Reds?? Well, I guess it comes down to the starting pitching. Between Harang, Volquez, Cueto, Arroyo, and Micah Owings, you could make a case that the Reds actually have a quality group from 1-5 in the rotation. You have a couple veteran guys and two young fireballers who were dominating down at the World Baseball Classic. Let's take a closer look at this rotation though.

Harang - While Cueto and Volquez have been getting the headlines, I think Harang is still the key to this staff in 2009. Harang was awful last year, and part of it stems from the terrible decision by Dusty Baker to trot him out there for a 62 pitch relief appearance in May two days after he had started. One of the worst managerial decisions in recent memory. Trotting your ace out for 4 innings out of the bullpen in a meaningless May game in San Diego. And then he gets hurt. Good times. The Dusty Baker era!

Anyway, Harang lost a bunch of weight in the offseason, and he is talking the talk about being healthy and ready to pitch well again. While I would love to take him at his word, there are a lot of scouts who have been saying that he doesn't have the stuff he has had in recent years. His fastball is off, his curve isn't biting like it once did, and he's not able to strike guys out anymore. In other words, Harang has lost it.

So who should we believe here?? As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think Harang will be good enough to be in the rotation but nowhere near the 230 inning/200 strikeout beast that he was in 2006 and 2007. The Reds need Harang to be that guy to have any shot of contending in 2009, but I don't think they're going to get that guy. I also am not discounting the possibility that he's still hurt and that he's going to be on the DL for a good portion of 2009.

If Harang does end up being a stud again, it will be interesting to see what type of future he has in Cincinnati. If things are breaking right and the Reds look like they truly are a team on the rise, maybe he sticks around. If the Reds still look like they are not ready to contend, I would not be surprised to see him get traded at the deadline. I would not be all that bothered to see that happen. If Harang's trade value comes back to life this year, I think the Reds have to explore a trade while they have an opportunity to move him.

Volquez - As much as I like Edinson Volquez (and I still say that I would not redo that Josh Hamilton for Volquez trade), he's probably the most unpredictable guy in this rotation. I could see a scenario where he has another really good year and strikes out 200+ guys and establishes himself as one of the best pitchers in the league. But I could just as easily see scenarios of him having control problems or even getting hurt.

Volquez LOVES the strikeout. He goes into every at-bat looking for the K. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, but it's a killer for your pitch counts. Every count with Volquez seems to go full, so he's 100 pitches in by the 5th inning in most starts. That's not the type of numbers you want to see out of him.

Volquez went 17-6 last year with a 3.21 ERA and 206 Ks in 196 innings. No doubt he had a great year, but he also faded considerably down the stretch. After the All-Star break, his ERA was 4.60, and he started giving up the long ball at a much higher rate.

Volquez is a great example of how destructive Great American Ballpark has been for this Reds organization. For my money, I think it's the worst ballpark in the major leagues. It's a nice place to watch a game but nothing spectacular, and it also creates a significant competitive disadvantage for a small market franchise. Why would you play in a bandbox a small market team?? The only way you are winning as a small market is with good young pitching, but that ballpark burns out all these young arms with the short fences. Over the course of a season, it wears these guys down.

Great American Ballpark was built to give the Reds a chance to compete for revenue streams, but it now looks like an anchor hanging over the head of this franchise. The Coors Field East thing has been a killer on the pitching staff. It is long overdue for the Reds to move the fences back to at least make it "pitcher neutral" or something like that.

Anyway, I hope Volquez has a great year, but I need to see another good start out of him to really feel good about him.

Cueto - While I am a little nervous about Volquez, I feel pretty good about Cueto as long as he stays healthy (which is somewhat of a concern in my eyes). Cueto is a pitcher's pitcher, and he's got great stuff. I'm expecting him to emerge this year as a good young starter. He's got a bunch of different pitches, great control, and he has a bit of a swagger about him. He was great in the World Baseball Classic, so I'm expecting him to head into 2009 with a ton of confidence.

With that said, Cueto is still only 23 years old and probably not quite at the peak of his powers. And any time you are talking about a 5'10 guy with big time torque in his arm, there's always the possibility of an injury risk.

Arroyo - You pretty much know what you are getting out of Bronson Arroyo. Innings-eater, mid 4s ERA, and multiple funny hot dog commercials. One mild concern for him is that he's suffering from Carpal tunnel syndrome from playing the guitar too much. Only Bronson Arroyo would get freaking Carpal tunnel from overplaying the guitar.

Micah Owings - The Reds acquired Micah Owings in the Adam Dunn trade last year, and he has had an outstanding spring thus far. He kind of reminds me of Aaron Harang. One of those guys who got a little attention when he was younger, fell out of favor, and then lands in a new organization and has some success. Owings is 6'5", 220 with pretty good stuff. And he's only 26 years old. He could be the kind of guy who blossoms in the next couple years for this team. That has turned out to be a pretty good trade for the Reds, and Owings is probably the best #5 starter the Reds have had in over a decade.

If a Harang trade or an Arroyo trade is coming this summer, there are guys like Owings in this organization who could be capable of filling bigger roles on this team. You always want to have good depth in your organization, and Owings is the type of guy I'm happy to see on this team.

Plus, Owings can hit!! When he pitches, I would not be surprised to see him hit 8th or even 7th on this team. He actually has some power, and I could even see him as a late inning replacement in the outfield. In the National League, any time you have a pitcher who can hit, it's always a plus.

Homer Bailey - Bailey got sent down to AAA today, but I'm really encouraged by his spring performance. Seems like he is really starting to grow up, and he showed up in camp with a new level of focus and determination. For all the fuss to label him as a bust (he was rumored in about 10 trades this offseason and hacks like Marty Brennaman were bashing him all winter), he's ONLY 22 years old. 22 years old and we're shipping the guy out of town?? What?? Why would you do that, especially when his value is at an all-time low??

The Reds' handling of Homer Bailey is Exhibit A of why I really don't have much faith in this organization. They don't really seem to have any clue of how to handle these young guys. I would kill to have someone from the Marlins come in and totally overhaul how the Reds run their organization.

Anyway, I think it's a good move to send him back down to AAA. Let him go down there and dominate for another year. If there's an injury or a trade, he can come up and fill that 5th spot in the rotation. Or you use him in the bullpen. Either way, let him go down there and prove himself. If he's really matured, he'll use this AAA stint as an opportunity to prove that he absolutely has to be on the major league roster.

Lineup - The lineup this year is going to look considerably different without the typical mainstays of Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr. There's talk that the Reds are now focused on speed and contact. I guess. My opinion is that the Reds are just trying to come up with something to explain for a below average lineup.

This lineup is WEAK. The only guy I even remotely trust right now is Joey Votto. I think Votto will be at least be a solid .280, 20 bombs, 85 RBI guy, and he may even get into the 25-30 HR territory if he continues to progress. Votto is rock solid. Mr. Canada.

But everyone else?? I don't see it. The opening day #2 hitter is some guy named Darnell McDonald. I follow the Reds pretty closely, and I've literally barely heard of this guy. He's 30 years old. Eek. Some of the following names are going to get major playing time this year:

Wily Taveras
Alex Gonzalez
Chris Dickerson
Jerry Hairston Jr.
Ramon Hernandez

Did Walt Jocketty go to the Ed Wade School for GMs or something?? Overpaying below average players like Taveras and Hairston is not a recipe to win games. You don't sign those types of guys and pronounce yourself "set" at a certain position. None of those guys should be in an everyday lineup other than maybe Ramon Hernandez, and yet all five of them are going to play prominent roles on this team.

Jocketty literally did nothing with this team. He tinkered around the margins a little bit, but there was no bold move to really overhaul this roster. I was pumping the possibility of a trade for an undervalued guy like Francoeur or Jeremy Hermida with the hope that you get a potential middle of the order bat on the cheap like Jocketty once did with Jim Edmonds. And yet he essentially stood pat with a team that won 70 games last year.

As for the other guys in this lineup, I really can't see how 22 year old Jay Bruce (he just turned 22 on April 3) can be counted on to be the anchor for your team if you have any aspirations to contend. I love Jay Bruce and think he will be a big time player someday, but he's not ready to carry a team at this point. He can't hit lefties, and he strikes out way too much. Bruce has legit power and is a very good outfielder, but he's going to go through a bunch of deep slumps throughout the year. 22 year olds are very rarely ready to consistently produce at the major league level. Bruce is a a year or two away from being a high impact guy.

And while I don't dislike Brandon Phillips, we've seen by now that he's not a cleanup hitter. Phillips' numbers were good last year, but he really tailed off last year to the point where I have a little bit of concern about him He hit .225 after the break last year. He's an outstanding fielder and kills lefties, but he's really not an elite offensive player. And he got real surly in the locker room when things started going badly for him. I don't know, I hope he does well, but Phillips is another guy who makes me nervous.

There's no one else in this lineup worthy of addressing, so I'll give somewhat of a general feeling on this team and this franchise. I think the Reds have some very promising parts. Volquez, Cueto, Votto, and Bruce are a really good young nucleus, and I like what Homer Bailey has shown in the spring. They have enough good young arms to be intriguing for the next couple years.

But then I look at who is running this organization and can't seem to fully hop on board. The Reds are stuck in a 1970s timewarp. They are playing a 1970s game in 2009. You got an old school owner (Castellini), an old school GM (Jocketty), an old school manager (Dusty Baker), and a crusty old Hall of Fame play by play announcer (Marty Brennaman) who are serving as the brain trust in this organization. All of those guys are trying to keep pushing their old school ways, but the game has evolved and passed them by.

I don't necessarily mind an older guy like Jocketty as the GM. Not all the old guys are bad GMs. Heck, Pat Gillick is as good as any GM in baseball, and he's even older than Jocketty. But Gillick is a guy who has always adapted with the times in every GM job he has had. I'm not sure I can say the same about Jocketty. I was expecting Jocketty to make some bold moves to bolster this young corps, and he did nothing.

One positive that has emerged is that the Reds seem to have a new leadership group of guys like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce emerging to replace guys like Dunn and Griffey. Leadership was not exactly the specialty for Dunn or Griffey, and those guys were notorious for skipping out on extra BP and extra field work. They set a bad example for a lot of the young guys. I'm actually encouraged to read that Votto has really taken a lot of pride in changing the culture of the Reds clubhouse, and I think it will show up on the field. This team is going to hustle and scrap and claw for wins. I'm a huge fan of Joey Votto. He's the kind of guy you want leading your room.

Finally, there's Dusty Baker. How can anyone remotely feel confident about the Reds as a sleeper team when you have Dusty Baker running the show in this clubhouse?? Just when you start to get a feel for him, he goes and inserts Darnell McDonald into the Opening Day lineup and hits him in the #2 hole!! Dusty loves to be unpredictable, but his "hunches" are almost ALWAYS wrong. Being an MLB manager is really not all that difficult, but Dusty somehow makes it that way. Dusty isn't even stuck in a timewarp. He's just dumb and doesn't get it. Dusty doesn't seem to have any concept of what type of lineup is conducive to producing runs. Needless to say, I expect to see guys like Taveras and other bums hitting #1 and #2 in this lineup all year and leaving Joey Votto with no one to drive in when he comes to the plate.

Comparing Dusty Baker to Tony LaRussa is like comparing Mick Cronin to Tom Izzo. There is no comparison. LaRussa can win you an extra 10+ games a year, and Dusty is guaranteed to cost you 5-10 games a year. That's a substantial difference.

Bottom line, this team MIGHT get to 80-85 wins, but I still think this team is more like a 70-75 win club. I like the bullpen, like some of the pitching, but not a fan of the lineup and not a fan of the manager. The Reds have not had a winning record since 2000, and I expect that streak to continue through 2009.

3. Milwaukee Brewers -

The Brew Crew and the Reds are probably a toss up for the #3 spot, but I think I'll stick with the Brewers here because I like their lineup. Between Fielder and Braun, the Brewers have two surefire hosses in this lineup. You can pretty much pencil in 70 bombs and 250 RBI out of those two guys. Even guys like Corey Hart and Hardy and Cameron are productive offensive players. That offense is going to be reliable all year.

Their pitching is pretty shaky though. I love Gallardo, like this Manny Parra guy, but the rest of that rotation is middling at best. Looper, Suppan, and Bush aren't scaring anyone. And their bullpen is still a mess. Too many shaky arms on their staff. If anyone gets hurt, the bottom could easily fall out and they finish 70-92 or something like that.

I actually do feel a little bad for the Brewers fans. It seemed like they were really on the rise, but their momentum has stalled. That CC trade was fun, but did it really accomplish anything?? And now Sheets is gone, so they are basically starting over with young pitchers. I love Fielder and Braun, but you gotta have more than that to compete.

I can't see the Brewers contending at all, but I'll say they get to .500.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

Sleeper alert!! I thought strongly about putting St. Louis down as my pick to win the NL Central this year, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. I really really like St. Louis this year from top to bottom.

I think Matt's analogy comparing St. Louis and Tony LaRussa to Michigan State and Tom Izzo was a great one. Couldn't agree more. St. Louis doesn't look flashy, but they are a classic example of the sum being greater than its parts. I like their lineup, their pitching, their bullpen, and their manager. They didn't really do a thing in the offseason, but it seems like they are a lot deeper this year.

The rotation doesn't look like much on paper, but I would not be shocked to see Adam Wainwright finish in the top 3 of the NL Cy Young Voting. I'm real high on this guy and think he's going to do real well as the ace of this staff. The other high end guy on this staff could be a blast from the past. Chris Carpenter. Sounds like he's been dominating all spring and could be back to his old self. I know he's basically been out of the game for two years now, but Carpenter is still only two years removed from a dominant season where he carried the Cards to the World Series title. Carpenter is 33 years old now, but he's missed so much time on the shelf that his arm probably doesn't have quite as much mileage as the typical 33 year old. If his structural issues are fixed, he could be a productive pitcher for them.

As for the rest of the rotation, Lohse, Wellemeyer, and Pineiro are not exactly guys who strike fear in you, but look at what they have done in St. Louis. Lohse won 15 games last year with an ERA of 3.76 in 200 innings. That's pretty darn good. Same goes for Wellemeyer. I don't know how they do it, but Duncan and LaRussa always seem to find these guys and coach them up. Maybe they are just handing out HGH or something, but it seems to work.

The Cards bullpen was awful last year, but they have some promising arms now. Motte looks like a stopper back there, and I think Perez will eventually be an effective 7th/8th inning guy if he isn't eventually the closer.

Their lineup looks middling on paper, but I think there are a couple of sleepers here. Plus, they have plenty of guys who can fill a role. They got their alpha dog (Pujols), some decent power bats around him (Ankiel, Ludwick), and an assortment of scrappy white guys around them (Schumaker, Duncan, etc). That's pretty much been the formula for Tony LaRussa for about 15 years. Plus, they might have this Colby Rasmus guy coming up from the minors.

The guy who could surprise this year is Khalil Greene. Just throwing that out there. Not a star or anything, but one of those #6/#7 hitters who exceeds expectations. He was awful last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if LaRussa saw something in him that he thought he could fix. When he hits .280 this year with 20 bombs, I won't be surprised.

Anyway, maybe it's blind faith in LaRussa, but I would not be shocked to see St. Louis right in the mix for the NL Central crown. I think they are a better team this year than they were last year, and last year they won 86 games.

1. Chicago Cubs

I've been real bullish on the Cubs for about 3-4 years now because I have a lot of respect for Jim Hendry as a General Manager. He has done a really nice job of upgrading the Cubs and making solid acquisitions. When they added Piniella, it was the perfect move to bring in a quality manager who squeeze wins out of the talent on the roster.

ON PAPER, the Cubs look as strong as ever, and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be the favorite to win the NL Central. But if you take a closer look at their roster, they are a lot more vulnerable than people realize. I actually think the Cubs have had a subpar offseason for the first time in several years. It seems like they have always added quality players to upgrade their team, but I'm not sure about some of the moves they have made this year.

For starters, maybe I will be proven wrong, but I think it was a risky move to put so much faith in Ryan Dempster this offseason. Maybe Dempster really has turned the corner and turned into a stud at 31 years old, but would it surprise anyone if he reverted back to the mediocre pitcher that he was before last year?? Dempster wasn't even a starter until last year, and his ERA in 2006 and 2007 were 4.80 and 4.72 respectively. Color me skeptical of Ryan Dempster.

As for the rest of their rotation, isn't there some concern here?? Ted Lilly is basically the lefthanded Bronson Arroyo. A good pitcher who eats up innings but doesn't blow you away. Zambrano has been a horse his entire career, but what happened to him down the stretch last year?? Was it just a stumble or a sign that his arm is starting to wear down after all those long years with Dusty Baker?? Zambrano is only 27, but he's already in his 8th year and has some heavy mileague on his arm. In terms of pitching years, he's more like a 32 year old than a 27 year old. His strikeouts fell off the map last year as well, so who knows what he'll be like this year. His days of being a 200+ strikeout and low 3.00s ERA are probably over.

Then there's Rich Harden. As great as this guy is when he's healthy, aren't the Cubs essentially rolling the dice with him?? How could anyone even remotely try to predict that he's good for 30 starts this year?? Last year was his healthiest year, and he only threw 140 innnigs in 25 starts. I gotta think Lou Piniella would like to get more than that out of his #2 starter.

Add all that up, and there are some questions in their rotation. I am not discounting the strong possibility that Jake Peavy is wearing a Cubs uniform at some point this summer, but I am purely looking at them for now. If Peavy is a Cub, everything changes. They'd be just about unstoppable with him around.

I love the Cubs bullpen, but those guys might be getting a ton of work this year. Marmol is a beast, Gregg is solid, and I think guys like Heilman and Samardzija (when he comes back up) give them a lot of depth and options in the pen.

The Cubs lineup looks menacing on paper, but look at some of the guys they are counting on this year. A 33 year old Derrek Lee whose power completely fell off the map last year. A 33 year old Alfonso Soriano (and he may be 40 in Latino years) who missed 50 games last year. A 32 year old Fukudome who completely fell apart in the second half last year. And a 30 year old Milton Bradley who literally has never been healthy his entire career.

Aramis Ramirez and Soto are studs and I do think the Cubs have a ton of different weapons to choose from, but their lineup is counting on some guys who are clearly on the downside of their careers. I never really trust teams with too many older guys. Older guys get hurt and fade down the stretch. The Cubs have some young players, but only a handful.

Anyway, Lou Piniella is as good as any manager in the game, so I do think he'll find a way to get maximum production out of this roster. He is not the type of manager who underachieves, so I'm not about to suggest that the Cubs will miss the playoffs. But I do think there are some concerns for them. Everyone has all but stamped them into the World Series, but I think they have a lot of flaws that may come back to haunt them later in the year.

I'll clarify that last statement by saying that they will be virtually impossible to beat if they get Jake Peavy. If I was Jim Hendry, I would move heaven and earth to get Peavy. He is the difference between them being vulnerable and being the overwhelming favorite to go to the World Series.

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