NL Central Preview
CINCINNATI REDS – (Last Year: 79-83) – As everyone knows, this was a big offseason for the Reds. The acquisitions of Sean Marshall, Ryan Madson, and especially Mat Latos have remade the pitching staff. Equally notable, though not as much on the radar, are significant changes at left, short, and catcher. Zack Cozart will be the starting shortstop unless he falls on his face (and unless he does fall on his face, he’ll be an improvement over what they had last year). The other rookie on the team is top-prospect Devin Mesoraco who will take over at least half of the catching duties. The various projection systems like him a lot and he should be at least a league-average catcher. In left, Chris Heisey will share time with retread and Jocketty’s ex-Cardinal signing of the year, Ryan Ludwick.
Beyond the mostly-positive turnover, there are plenty of other reasons for Reds’ fans to be hopeful. The team underperformed in every sense of the word last year. They won 79 games while posting the run-differential of an 83-win team. Among position players, the Reds could easily see improvement at all three outfield positions, shortstop and third base, while they only figure to seriously regress at second as Phillips comes off his career year. On the mound, it’s impossible to overstate the disappointment that was the Reds’ rotation last year. Latos figures to be a huge improvement over Volquez and Wood who combined, threw roughly a season’s worth of innings.
In the end, the Reds are a team with very little downside. They showed last year how bad they can be and it wasn’t that bad. They’re better this year, and I’d be surprised if they don’t win at least 90 games. If you want me to take an exact number, I’ll predict the Reds to in 93 (and the division) in 2012. ~ Jason Linden (www.redlegnation.com)
HOUSTON ASTROS – (Last Year: 56-106) – It’s been a busy off-season for the Astros, though mostly with changes that will not be seen on the field. With the sale to Jim Crane completed, the tenure of Ed Wade finally and mercifully done, and the Astros on the precipice of moving to the American League, there is a massive upheaval in Houston right now. Unfortunately for the Astros, none of those moves are going to shake out to any success in the near future. They have made a number of small but nice and affordable moves, bringing in Jack Cust and Justin Riggiano to provide help off the bench, bringing in Chris Snyder to help with their banged up catching corp, and giving spring training invitations to Zach Duke and Livan Hernandez to compete for fifth spot in a very troubled rotation.
But the most important addition for this young team may be the return of catcher Jason Castro, who missed all of 2011 with an ACL tear. His bat hasn’t come around to major league caliber yet, but he’s strong defensively and the pitchers seem to respond well to him. He could be crucial in the attempted turnaround of the pitching staff, which followed a very good 2010 by being near-last in the league in every major category (ERA, WHIP, quality starts, shutouts) in 2011. The Astros are young all over the place except on the pitching staff. If they are going to not have the worst record in the league again, they need to get veteran performances out of Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ. That’s a tough group to lean on and as much as I like Wandy, not a group very deserving of having a lot of faith placed in them. The Astros have a promising future with all of their youth, but I don’t think they climb out of the cellar this year. With a little more stability this year than last, they improve, but not by much. The second-worst season the Astros have had after 2011 was 65 wins, so that’s what I’m predicting. 65 wins and the Astros leave the NL Central as a last-place team. ~ Austin Swafford (www.astros290.com)
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS – (Last Year: 90-72) – For most teams, losing a player like Albert Pujols would seriously dampen the outlook of returning to the playoffs. But the World Champion Cardinals have enough remaining talent and new additions to make realistic the expectations of repeating a postseason berth. They signed Carlos Beltran, resigned Rafael Furcal and Lance Bekman and have ace starter Adam Wainwright returning to the rotation after missing all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery. That should be enough to offset the loss of Pujols and help them repeat or come close to a 90-win campaign.
The only questions will be health — Beltran, Berkman, Furcal, as well as regulars like David Freese and Allen Craig, who is already slated to open the season on the DL, all are far from money in the bank in terms of playing time. The rotation, with Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia leading the way, can be the best in the league, but again questions of durability and the loss of pitching coach Dave Duncan may take a toll. Win projection: 89. ~ Matt Philip (www.fungoes.net)
PITTSBURGH PIRATES – (Last Year: 72-90) – The Pittsburgh Pirates made some noise in 2011 as they were actually tied for the division lead as late as July 25th. They were 16 games out a month later. They went 19-43 from July 26th on. Alas they are moving in the right direction and GM Neal Huntington had himself a fine offseason in the hopes of again making some noise in the NL Central not just in 2012, but beyond. Perhaps the most important move was the most recent one as the team inked Andrew McCutchen to an excellent long-term deal spanning six years with a team option for a seventh. That move no doubt goes a long toward showing the fan base, the current team members and prospective free agents that this management team is serious about putting together a winner.
He shored up the rotation with the addition of a couple of guys who can actually miss some bats Erik Bedard (8.8 K/9) and A.J. Burnett (8.2 K/9), though the latter suffered a freak eye injury in Spring Training and could miss up two months of the regular season. Strikeouts were in short supply in the rotation last year as the Pirates finished dead last in baseball with a 5.6 K/9 as James McDonald (7.5 K/9) was the only starter to log a rate above 5.8. Both investments were cost efficient, too. Bedard came over on a 1-year, $4.5 million dollar deal while Burnett came over via trade for a couple of a low level prospects along with the Yankees paying $20 million of his remaining $33 million dollars over the next two years.
The team also added a handful of low-cost offensive players capable of moving the needle incrementally in 2012 including Clint Barmes who brings top level defense to shortstop and above average bat for the position (.698 OPS for Barmes, average OPS of .686 for NL shortstops in 2011). Casey McGehee was a well above average third baseman offensively for two years from 2009-2010 with a combined .291/.346/.477 line, a 119 OPS+ and 39 home runs. He fell off the cliff in 2011 with a .626 OPS and just 13 home runs in 600 plate appearances, but he gives the Pirates a viable insurance plan if Pedro Alvarez fails again in 2012. The Pirates registered a league-worst .263 wOBA out of their third basemen so betting on McGehee to rebound isn’t a bad idea.
On paper this team isn’t really a contender, but they have a chance to be markedly better than last year if things go according to plan. Things like: Alvarez meeting his potential or at least not being one of the very worst players in the game (56 OPS+), Burnett returning from his injury as soon as possible and pitching like the above average pitcher he has been over his 13 year career (105 ERA+), Alex Presley playing a full season on par with his 52 game sample last year (.804 OPS) and his last two years in the minors (.867 OPS in 948 plate appearances) and Jose Tabata playing like the three-time top 100 prospect that showed so much promise in the minors.
Help is on the way, too, as the Pirates logged five guys on Keith Law’s top 100 list (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman) and six on Kevin Goldstein’s (Luis Heredia). The streak of 19 straight losing seasons may not come to a halt in 2012, but there is at least a reasonable chance for it to happen and even if it doesn’t, there is a bright future to actually be excited about both with current young stars and blue chip prospects who have sky-high ceilings. I predict 79 wins. ~ Paul Sporer (www.pittplank.com)
MILWAUKEE BREWERS – (Last Year: 96-66) – The Milwaukee Brewers return most of the key parts from a team that won 96 games and narrowly missed the World Series in 2011, with one key exception: Prince Fielder signed a huge contract with the Tigers this offseason and won’t be seen back at Miller Park in a Brewer uniform anytime soon.
Even with that departure, though, this team is still primed to compete again in 2012. The left side of the infield has been revamped with Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez replacing 2011 weak spots Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt, the rotation returns in tact and features a bit more depth, and the bullpen is very strong after the surprise return of Francisco Rodriguez left the Brewers with one of the game’s best setup men.
And, of course, having reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun for a full season is certainly a relief. I don’t think we’ll ever know the full story regarding what happened with his positive test, but he’s a player with nearly a decade of clean tests to fall back on so it seems unfair to let one test under questionable circumstances become a defining moment for him. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he’s going to have a lot of pressure on him to produce given all the attention he attracted this winter.
I don’t think it’s fair to expect any team to win 96 games in back-to-back seasons, but on paper this is still a really good Brewer team. I’d pencil them in for something around 90-72, and I think there’s a strong chance that’s good enough to repeat as NL Central champs. ~ Kyle Lobner (www.brewcrewball.com)