Tuesday, March 29, 2011

KD's N.L. Central Preview

Team: Cincinnati Reds
Manager: Dusty Baker
Last year: 91-71

Offseason losses: Willie Bloomquist, OF (FA); Orlando Cabrera, SS (FA); Jim Edmonds, OF (FA); Aaron Harang, RHP (San Diego); Mike Lincoln, RHP (FA); Corky Miller, C (FA); Laynce Nix, OF (FA); Arthur Rhodes, LHP (Texas); Russ Springer, RHP (FA).

Offseason additions: Dontrelle Willis, LHP (Arizona); Fred Lewis, OF (San Francisco); Edgar Renteria, SS (San Francisco)

Best Offseason Move:  The Reds best offseason move was retaining their key players. They extended reigning N.L. MVP Joey Votto prior to arbitration (3 years, $38M), RF Jay Bruce (6 years, $51M), pitcher Johnny Cueto (4 years, $26M), (2 years, $23.5M). In doing so, the Reds keep Votto at first base, teamed with right fielder Jay Bruce, and get to keep two of their inning-eater pitchers in Cueto (185.2 IP) and Arroyo (215.2 IP).

Worst Offseason Move:    Not getting another bat. The Reds added experienced veteran SS Edgar Renteria for depth purposes, as well as quick, young OF Fred Lewis, but the Reds failed to to get another big bat in the lineup. There’s no guarantee they come out guns blazing like they did last year, especially with guys like 3B Scott Rolen and LF Jonny Gomes who both petered out as the year went on. CF Drew Stubbs and RF Jay Bruce were anything but consistent throughout the whole season.

Pitching:  The Reds have plenty of talented young arms to go with solid veteran and staff leader Bronson Arroyo. Two starters, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey will start the year on the 15-day DL, and Mike Leake and Sam LeCure, both of whom started games last year, will be temporary fill-ins before shifting back to the bullpen. The Reds are deep with veteran closer Francisco Cordero and have two excellent setup men in Nick Massett and Cuban-fireballer Aroldis Champan. There have been whispers that the Reds may try to move one or more of their starters to allow Chapman to eventually ease his way into the 5th spot in the rotation.

Lineup: The Reds return every starter from the 2010 Central Division Champion lineup except SS Orlando Cabrera. Paul Janish will likely take over the reins there, and won’t have much of a drop-off in fielding. Their infield, consisting of Votto, 2B Brandon Phillips, Janish, and Rolen is very good. Bruce and Stubbs both have good arms in the outfield, but are prone to misreading balls on occasion. Jonny Gomes is only slightly better than Adam Dunn once was in LF, but he brings some pop to the batting order. Expect to see plenty of Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cairo spelling Janish and Rolen on the left side of the infield. Hot prospect Yonder Alonso seems like a lost man and could be trade bait, but the Cincy faithful should fully expect to see young C Devin Mesoraco taking over one spot in the rotation between Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan by midseason.

Biggest question this season:  Consistency will be the biggest question facing the Reds this year. Their starting rotation is already down two starters to start the year and MVP Joey Votto had a sluggish spring. There’s no guarantee that Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs carry over their season ending hitting surges, and they’ll be hard-pressed to get the same production out of Scott Rolen and Jonny Gomes. Brandon Phillips should be fully recovered from his broken hand, but there are those who question if he’s started the downward slop of his career.

Outlook: All things considered, the Reds pitching staff is one of, if not the deepest in baseball and the young arms of Travis Wood, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey should be even better this year. Edinson Volquez seems to have recaptured his stuff after coming off Tommy-John surgery, and the bullpen, which struggled some in the spring, is very deep. If they can keep hitting in the friendly confines of Great American Ball Park, they’ll be the favorites in the Central again, but it’s tough to envision them making much noise in the postseason; at least this year.
Predicted finish this year: 1st N.L. Central

***Thanks to guest blogger Jamie McCourt for contributing the Milwaukee Brewers preview***

Team: Milwaukee Brewers
Coach: Ron Roenicke (1st year)
Last year: 77-85

Offseason losses: Lorenzo Cain (trade), Alcides Escobar (trade), Joe Inglett (free agent), Jim Edmonds (free agent), Gregg Zaun (free agent), Carlos Villanueva (free agent), Dave Bush (free agent), Trevor Hoffman (retirement), Chris Capuano (free agent), Jody Gerut (free agent)

Offseason additions: Shaun Marcum (trade), Zach Greinke (trade), Yunieski Betancourt (trade), Takashi Saito (free agent), Mark Kotsay (free agent), Sean Green (free agent)
Best Offseason Move: Zach Greinke may seem like the big prize, but the saaviest move was acquiring Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays for 2008 first round draft pick Brett Lawrie.  While he may have been considered a top three in the Brewers' system, he seemed to be a man without a position.  The Brewers have already had to address this issue with Ryan Braun and now face the same issue with Mat Gamel.  Lawrie was a relatively small price for a pitcher that is under team control for two more years, had a 3.45 ERA pitching in the AL East last year, hails from the Midwest and is open to an extension to stay in the area.
Worst Offseason Move:  As mentioned before, the Grienke was the big prize, but he came at an enormous price.  Starting tookie shortstop and glove phenom Alcides Escobar, young centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and top two pitching prospects Jeremy Jefress and Jake Odorizzi were the king's ransom it took to land the former Cy Young winner.  The Brewers also took back Yunieski Betancourt, who some believe is the worst everyday player in the majors.  If Greinke leads Milwaukee to the playoffs, it is well worth it.  If not, the effects of the deal will be felt for years.
Pitching: When everyone is healthy, the starting rotation should jump from one of the worst five to one of the best five in the NL.  Gallardo can slot into the #2 spot behind Greinke where he fits better than at the top.  Marcum becomes possibly the best #3 in the division and Randy Wolf moves from #2 into the back half with Chris Narveson.  The addition of Takashi Saito should bring some experience to an otherwise young bullpen with surprise anchor (and the best mustache in baseball) John Axford.  This group was above average already last season and only fell off when innings mounted from poor starter production.
Lineup: There is plenty of production in this lineup that scored the fourth most runs last year and returns mostly in tact.  Three 100+ RBI producers return, and Prince Fielder isn't even one of them (only 83 RBI last year).  Unfortunately, the lineup is pretty thin behind Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Casey McGehee.  Betancourt, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy all posted OBP numbers of .300 or below.  Fortunately, the Brewers starting rotation may carry the best bats in the NL to boost the bottom of the lineup.
Biggest question this season: While health has been a major issue this spring headlined by a cracked rib for Greinke (playing basketball), the elephant in the room is defense.  Gomez is a strong centerfielder and that's probably the only reason his bat stays in the lineup.  Braun is a converted 3B in left and Corey Hart has never been described as strong defensively in left.  Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee have strong gloves but limited range on the corners to say the least.  Weeks doesn't get to as many balls as you might expect and sometimes botches the easy play and Betancourt had the worst UZR of any infielder last season at -10.  Expect a hearty dose of the sure-gloved veteran Craig Counsell at the end of games.
Outlook:  The pieces are certainly all there to contend in an NL Central that may be a bit down.  If early season health concerns and a suspect defense can be overcome, then lookout for this group.  New manager Ron Roenicke is getting rave reviews out of Arizona and promises to be even more aggressive with this high octane offense.  When this team is firing on all cylinders, it has the pieces to contend with anyone.

Predicted finish this year: 2nd NL Central

Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Manager: Tony La Russa
Last Year: 86-76

Offseason losses: Pedro Feliz, 3B (FA); Blake Hawksworth, RHP (trade, Los Angeles Dodgers); Jason LaRue, C (retired); Mike MacDougal, RHP (FA); Joe Mather, OF (Atlanta); Aaron Miles, 3B (FA); Brad Penny, RHP (FA); Dennys Reyes, LHP (FA); Brendan Ryan, SS (trade, Seattle); Jeff Suppan, RHP (FA); Randy Winn, OF (FA).

Offseason additions: Lance Berkman, RF (New York Yankees); Gerald Laird, C (Detroit); Brian Tallet, LHP (Toronto); Raul valdes, RHP (New York Mets).

Best offseason move: The Cardinals signed a pair of solid free agents in RF Lance Berkman and SS Ryan Theriot to solidify their starting lineup. The Cardinals, with the addition of Berkman’s bat, have a powerful lineup, but must deal with consistency issues. Late last year they had stretches of fantastic output followed by stagnant offense, as evidenced in a horrendous five week stretch which saw St. Louis win just two series in August and September.

Worst offseason move: I don’t think there’s any question about this – in fact it might be one of the worst moves by any MLB club from this offseason, but not re-signing 1B Albert Pujols will bring about questions all year long. While Pujols, a consummate pro, has all the cards, so to speak, in this scenario – he can veto any trade scenario, and will become a free agent after this season. While I have a hard time imagining him in any other uniform, it’s certainly telling that the two sides couldn’t work out a deal prior to this year, thus putting the Cardinals long-term outlook in jeopardy.

Pitching: For my money, Adam Wainwright is the best pitcher in the N.L. not named Roy Halladay, and losing him for the season to a right elbow injury will cost St. Louis dearly. Keeping Jake Westbrook, along with Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, and Kyle Lohse still give the Cardinals a potent starting rotation, even without Wainwright. That said, a lot will be riding on guys like Garcia and Lohse to improve upon their performance from last year. Kyle McClellan will take the open spot in the starting rotation. Closer Ryan Franklin is a clubhouse leader and will help mentor a young bullpen consisting of Mitchell Boggs, Trever Miller, Jason Motte, Brian Tallet, and Brian Augenstein.

Lineup: The Cardinals have plenty of firepower in the lineup with Albert Pujols, LF Matt Holliday, Berkman, and CF Colby Rasmus. 3B David Freese looked solid in 70 games last year, batting .296, and the keystone combination of Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker gives the Cardinals solid defense up the middle, but the team could stand to improve upon last year’s .984 fielding percentage.

Biggest question this season: Will St. Louis be able to manufacture enough runs to overcome the loss of ace Adam Wainwright? The Cardinals certainly have the bats to hit the long ball, 150 HRs in 2010, and they were 9th in the MLB in team batting with a team average of .263. However, the team was 14th in runs scored (736), 15th in RBIs (689), and 22nd in stolen bases (79). Tony La Russa will have to find ways to get more offensive production for the Cardinals to make a move in the Central.

Outlook: The Cardinals with Adam Wainwright can contend with anyone, and if not for his injury, I think I’d have a very tough time not picking them to win the division. That said, with such inconsistent offensive production at the end of the 2010 season, and a young bullpen, I think they’ll struggle to maintain their lofty standards this year. However, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they won the division, they just have that kind of talent; it just needs to be more consistent.

Predicted finish this year: 3rd N.L. Central

Team: Chicago Cubs
Manager: Mike Quade
Last Year: 75-87

Offseason losses: Micah Hoffpauir, 1B (released); Xavier Nady, 1B (Arizona

Offseason additions: Carlos Pena, 1B (Tampa Bay); Kerry Wood, RHP (New York Yankees); Matt Garza, RHP (Tampa Bay).

Best offseason move: The Cubs signed 1B Carlos Pena away from the Rays to succeed Derrek Lee. Pena, 32, most prove he hasn’t lost his touch at the plate, and the Cubs are eager to see if he can add a 4th season of 100+ RBI (despite never having 500 at bats in a season). However, Pena’s production slipped last year as he managed only 84 RBI.

Worst offseason move: The Matt Garza trade. While Garza himself will make the Cubs better, they have an aging lineup as it is, and just traded away OF Sam Fuld, and 4 minor league prospects - but the Cubs aren’t exactly a “win now” type of contender. Gone are RHP Chris Archer, SS Hak-Ju Lee, IF Robinson Chirinos, and OF Brandon Guyer. According to the Baseball America rankings, the Cubs are sending over 3 of their top 10 minor league prospects in exchange for Garza.

Pitching: As mentioned, losing Silva hurts. Garza and Zambrano head up a rotation along with Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, and Tom Gorzelanny, which sounds alright. However, the pitching in the Friendly Confines wasn’t great last year coming in 21st in the Majors in ERA (4.18), 23rd in wins (75), and tied for 13th in saves (40). The bullpen gets former ace Kerry Wood back from the Yankees as a setup man for up and coming closer Carlos Marmol, who has great stuff, but is inconsistent. Sean Marshall, John Grabow, James Russell, and Andrew Cashner round out the cast of usual relievers.

Lineup: Carlos Pena is the only major addition to the every day lineup. 3B Aramis Ramirez needs a strong rebound season. He’ll team with SS Starlin Castro on the left side of the infield. Alfonso Soriano remains in left, with CF Marlon Byrd and Kosuke Fukudome rounding out the outfield. Those three are able to drive in runs, but all struggled at times in 2010. Geovany Soto returns behind the plate and Blake DeWitt will take over duties at 2B. Offensively, the Cubs didn’t post a statistic lower than 16th in the Majors except for runners left on base. They were 16th in average (.257), 18th in runs (685), and tied for 29th and stolen bases (55), so they’ll be hard-pressed to manufacture runs.

Biggest question this year: With only two significant roster changes, are the Cubs really in a position to get better in 2011? Injuries and inconsistency have riddled players in the Cubs lineup over the past few seasons after winning 97 games in 2008, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano in particular. Marlon Byrd and Starlin Castro give the Cubs some reasons for hope, but they didn’t do much to improve upon their pitching, outside of the Garza trade, so it’ll be a tough task for new manager Mike Quade to keep the team together and headed in the right direction this year.

Outlook: The Cubs seem to have a lot more questions than answers heading into 2011. They’ve been in a general funk the past two season dipping to 83 and 75 wins, dugout brawls, and struggling to manufacture runs. Ownership questions tend to swirl around Wrigley along with the wind, and an older team gave up a lot of young talent to acquire Matt Garza. Perhaps Quade can add some stability to the clubhouse, but Cubs fans will have to keep waiting to contend for the Central Division crown.

Predicted finish this year: 4th N.L. Central

Team: Houston Astros
Manager: Brad Mills
Last Year: 76-86

Offseason losses: Geoff Blum, 1B (Arizona); Tim Byrdak, LHP (FA); Gustavo Chacin, LHP (FA); Matt Lidstrom, RHP (trade, Colorado); Brian Moehler, RHP (FA); Felipe Paulino, RHP (trade, Colorado).

Offseason additions: Clint Barmes, 2B (trade, Colorado); Bill Hall, 2B (Boston); Ryan Rowland-Smith, LHP (Seattle)

Best offseason move: Uh…tough to find the “best” move for a team that hardly made any moves this offseason. In fact, their best moves may have come last year in the form of cutting payroll by trading P Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia and 1B Lance Berkman to the Yankees (now with St. Louis). They were unable to move LF Carlos Lee, who is due $18.5M in each of the next two seasons…I’m not sure Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, their main additions, can overcome all that.

Worst offseason move: Not trading Carlos Lee. With the Astros ownership in doubt, declining attendance and a deplete roster, holding onto the veteran Lee will only tighten the teams checkbook even further. The Astros don’t have a lot to work with talent-wise outside of Lee and fellow outfield mates RF Hunter Pence, and CF Michael Bourn, so not moving Lee for prospects hurts the team now, and in the long-run.

Pitching: The Astros offense struggled mightily last year and as a result, the pitching did as well. Wandy Rodriguez is the ace of the staff. He’s got good stuff and is really tough to hit at times. Brett Myers, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, and Nelson Figueroa round out the starting rotation. The staff compiled a 4.09 team ERA in 2010, and was only 20th in opponents BA, allowing teams to hit .261 off them. Trading Matt Lidstrom leaves Brandon Lyon alone in the closer’s role. Wilton Lopez is probably the next best option in the pen as he averaged 6.72 strikeouts per 9 innings to go with a 1.06 WHIP. Mark Melancon, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jeff Fulchino and Alberto Arias round out the bullpen staff.

Lineup: The Astros are expecting big things from 1B Brett Wallace - which is a lot to ask. Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence will provide the power and Michael Bourn is a dangerous leadoff hitter. Bill Hall will play 2B, moving Clint Barmes to SS, where he started 47 games in 2010. 3B Chris Johnson rounds out the infield and Jason Castro will be the man behind the plate. The Astros offense was anemic at best in 2010, posting a 27th ranked .247 batting average, 28th with 611 runs scored and 29th in Hrs with 108. Most of those numbers come from their awful start to the season. In fact, their 40-33 record after the All-Star Game was 4th in the National League behind only division winners Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cincinnati.

Biggest question this year: Ownership. Chairman Drayton McLane confirmed he was seeking a buyer for the franchise. The team isn’t competitive, and average attendance has dropped the past two years. The Astros have a struggling developmental system, and still owe big money to Carlos Lee, who may end up playing 1B when all is said and done this year. But the question is, who will buy the team and will they do it this year?

Outlook: The Astros second-half surge got them a 4th place finish in the Central last year. Major kudos go to Manager Brad Mills for holding them together and making them a major pain to play against down the stretch. However, 4th place is a far cry from their run of finishing 1st or 2nd in the Central 12 times from 1994-2006. With a very average pitching staff and not enough firepower to go with their three outfielders it’s going to be another long season in Houston. If Mills gets this team to put forth a similar effort to what they displayed down the stretch last year, they’ll definitely be a spoiler team late in the season.
Predicted finish this year: 5th N.L. Central

Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
Manager: Clint Hurdle
Last Year: 57-105

Offseason losses: Brian Burres, LHP (FA); Zach Duke, LHP (trade, Arizona); Andy LaRoche, 3B (FA); Lastings Milledge, OF (FA); Chan Ho Park, RHP (Japan); Delwyn Young, OF (FA).

Offseason additions: Garrett Atkins, 1B (Baltimore); Matt Diaz, OF (Atlanta); Josh Fields, 3B (Kansas City); Andy Marte, 3B (Cleveland); Fernando Nieve, RHP (New York Mets); Scott Olsen, LHP (Washington); Lyle Overbay, 1B (Toronto); Kevin Correia, RHP (San Diego).

Best offseason move: Adding 1B Lyle Overbay. While his .243 average, 20 HR and 67 RBI may not seem like much on the surface, he’ll definitely help improve the Pirates defense. He’ll be able to save many of the errant throws he’ll be expected to face this season. He’s also a veteran presence on a pretty young team.

Worst offseason move: The Pirates added Kevin Correia to their starting rotation, which isn’t all that bad. However, not improving their bullpen will prove to be their undoing in 2011, and won’t let them climb out of the N.L. Central cellar. Outside of closer Joel Hanrahan, there’s little to get excited about. Pittsburgh will need to continue to upgrade their pitching staff to give them some hope for the future.

Pitching: The starting rotation for the Pirates has improved over the year. Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Kevin Correia give them something to work with. They finished dead last in every major pitching category in 2010, but that should improve this year, and with better defense. The bullpen is the biggest question mark. Outside of Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Scott Olsen, and Rudy Owens leave a lot to be desired.

Lineup: CF Andrew McCutchen might be able to back up the claim that he’s the best prospect to come through the Pittsburgh system since Barry Bonds. He’s joined by Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata in the outfield. 1B Lyle Overbay is joined is joined by Neil Walker, Ronny Cedeno and Pedro Alvarez in the infield. Chris Snyder returns behind the plate. Both Tabata and Walker hit over .300 after the All-Star break last year. They’ll have opportunities to help spark the offense along with McCutchen who hit .286 with 56 RBI and 33 stolen bases.

Biggest questions this year: Will this be the year they get out of the cellar? While Houston finished on a hot streak after the All-Star break last year, they’ll be hard-pressed to repeat it all season long. Pittsburgh is definitely improved from their 57-105 team in 2010, but is it enough to catch someone. They’ve got talented young players, and if they get some overachievers in the pitching department, it’s not entirely out of the question.

Outlook: While the Pirates certainly aren’t going to challenge for a division crown any time soon, they could challenge to get out of the cellar, provided their pitching and defense improves. A lot. If they can keep their young talent in place and improve their pitching, the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem too terribly far away.

Predicted finish this year: 6th N.L. Central

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