I gotta stop posting these things before they're finished...
Anyhow. This time we'll check out the NL Central. May whatever merciful deity you pitchers believe in have mercy on your souls...
1. The Maddon Effect
Joe Maddon with double switches? That's like Homer Simpson's daydream into the Land of Chocolate. Half-price chocolate fantasies aside, if there's one thing Maddon's teams have consistently had, it's positional versatility. Guys like Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist were so valuable to those Rays teams because either of them could fill in anywhere on the diamond, and had good enough bats that you'd want them in the lineup everyday. It will be interesting to see if the Cubs pop up with somebody like that: Arismendy Alcantara seems like a prime candidate.
2. Kris Bryant. Holy $#@@#, Kris Bryant.
The talk surrounding Bryant these days is whether he'll open the season in Chicago (which he's clearly earned) or spend a couple weeks in the minors so the Cubs gain an extra year of control. It's an interesting question with valid arguments on either side, though if two weeks without a rookie is really enough to ruin an entire season, that team probably has other problems. As for Bryant himself, I think he could hit 45 home runs this summer no matter when he arrives. His swing probably has a hole somewhere and pitchers will eventually find it, I just think he'll have bopped out 30 already when they do.
3. Lovable Losers Leap
Jon Lester! A trio of thunderous young power hitters! Anthony Rizzo is still only 25! Wait, these are the Cubs. We'll have to believe it when we see it.
Overview: This might be the most unpredictable team in the National League, and certainly one of the most interesting. A lineup with Castro, Soler, Rizzo and Bryant could be explosive, or it might not. I'm gonna say it: the key to this team is Travis Wood. Yep, Travis Wood. Walking away now...
1. The Vottomatic Man
It should be no secret around here that I'm a huge Votto fan. Take away the fact that's he's a local boy and you've still got a player who is admirable and completely unique. There aren't a whole lot of slugging first baseman who visibly choke up on the bat anymore, but Votto does. He is consciously aware that his job is to create runs, not to hit as many balls over the fence as he can, and his approach at the plate reflects that. Watch a good Votto at-bat very closely and just marvel at how precise his knowledge of the strike-zone is: he will virtually never get caught looking at strike three if he's been fouling off pitches.
Here are three sets of numbers to consider:
.337/.474/.567 (475) *28
.305/.435/.491 (726) *29
.255/.390/.409 (272) *30
.299/.344/.463 (684) *30
.293/.342/.461 (641) *31
.276/.335/.482 (660) *32
.286/.359/.490 (587) *24
.302/.401/.551 (710) *25
.300/.396/.542 (479) *26
It's fairly obvious which of the three you'd most want, even if age wasn't a factor. The middle one seems like a great complimentary bat, consistent and reliable though probably slightly overrated due to some previous monster years. Probably makes 20 million a year or something crazy also. At first glance you'd probably want to get rid of the first player as fast as you can, since that's a pretty frightening decline there, injury or not. That first player also has the best single season of the three, and the best on-base skills even in a down year. Player One is Votto, Player Two is Adrian Gonzalez, and Player Three is Paul Goldschmidt.
2. Gotta Hit/Pitching Depth
I mentioned in the NL West Preview how sad the 2014 Padres offense was. Well, the 2014 Reds offense wasn't exactly Drederick Tatum either. San Diego as a team had an 85 OPS+, the Reds were at 86, third worst in all of baseball. Injuries were a primary culprit: Votto missed over 90 games and Jay Bruce played through issues, batting .217 with no power while doing so. Add in Ryan Ludwick's inability to hit a ball over any outfielders head, the 2014 Reds lineup featured far too much Brayan Pena, Chris Heisey and Skip Schumaker for any sane mind to handle. However, this offense has a chance to be very good again if Votto can show he's recovered, Bruce bounces back some and Marlon Byrd keeps defying the withering effects of age. A lineup with Billy Hamilton, Votto, Bruce, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco and Byrd could definitely do some damage, the key is how many times we see those names together this year.
3. Last Chance?
The big storyline hanging over Cincinnati in 2015, like a big cloud of... uh, ominousness, is Johnny Cueto's contract situation. Lost in much of the "Clayton Kershaw Is God" hooplah of 2014 was how insanely great a season Cueto had. 20-9, 2.25 is pretty darn nice, but he also led the NL in innings (243.2), fewest hits per 9 innings (6.2!) and batters faced. So yeah, hire this man! It's not quite so simple, though. Cueto is in line for a lot of money this winter, likely Max Scherzer territory if he has another great year, and it might be too much for the Reds to afford. If this is Cueto's last season as a Red, some might wonder if this is Cincinnati's last chance at contention for a while.
Overview: They've got some very interesting pitchers around the big league squad (Rasiel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani) along with some prospects (Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen) not too far off. If the big bats can stay out of the infirmary I think they'll be in the mix when stretch time comes.
1. A Full Season Of Greatness(TM)
As you may recall, the Brew Crew got off to a gangbusting start in 2014. Halfway through the season they were 51-32, the best team in the entire National League with a 6.5 game lead in the NL Central. The second half of the year wasn't quite so prosperous. They kept their heads above water for July and most of August, leaving Milwaukee with a 71-55 record on August 19th, still leading the Central by a game and a half. On the 20th, reliever Brandon Kintzler gave up a long three-run shot to Jose Bautista at Miller Park, giving visiting Toronto a comfortable lead they would not give up. This was the beginning of a Death Spirally 3-16 run for the Brewers, emptying out their playoff hopes like Barney Gumble at a keg party. (Sorry, I'm really running wild with these Simpsons jokes). A key for Milwaukee in 2015 will be, to uh, not lose 16 of 19 games at the worst possible moment. Groundbreaking stuff, that.
2. Hammer Time
All the PED entourage be like: OMG! Ryan Braun is sooooooo 2014. Which hey, I doubt Braun is going to complain about that. This is, however, the second straight season we've gone into with serious questions about the Hebrew Hammer. Through the period of 2007-2012, only Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder had a higher OPS among qualified hitters (.943). In the two seasons since, Braun has slipped to 40th at .805, right around the Lucas Duda/Marlon Byrd level (minimum 800 plate appearances). An alarming drop-off to be sure. Fortunately the Brewers do have numerous other above average bats (Lucroy, Gomez, The Amazing Aramis) so if Braun's fall from monster hitter to merely good is permanent, it shouldn't destroy the offense. The question does linger though if Braun, now 31, has anymore of those monstrous seasons left in him.
3. A Good (But Not Great) Team?
The Brewers at first glance look somewhat solid at every position. Yet that's the thing, this entire team seems solid but nothing more. The starting pitching should be workable with Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Mike Fiers and some combination of Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg and Jimmy Nelson. But that rotation doesn't look as good as the Cardinals, the Pirates, or even the Reds if they get an almost full year of Homer Bailey. Likewise the offense: lots of really good hitters who could have MVP-type seasons, but nobody really aside from Gomez who's been at that level consistently in the recent past (though that could be Lucroy very, very soon.) Boy, I'm starting to see why Russell Martin left the NL Central. There's a good chance he'd have been the fourth best catcher in that division this year.
Overview: It's kinda funny. For 2014, the Brewers mostly employed a first-base platoon of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. That didn't work well, so they went out and got Adam Lind. Who is... a platoon first baseman. Slow clap, slow clap. If they'd kept Reynolds it might've worked, but he went off to the Cardinals so they plan to play Lind every day, even against left-handers. Have fun with that. They should be in the hunt for the division, assuming another horrible Death Spiral doesn't get them. Those things are evil, man.
1. Pitcher Miracles on 115 Federal Street
It seems the Pirates have located a new market deficiency: washed up starting pitchers! Consider this:
2011: 11-11, 5.15, 190.1, 1.434
2012: 16-10, 3.51, 202.1, 1.241
2012: 6-12, 5.34, 156.2, 1.468
2013: 16-8, 3.02, 161, 1.224
2013: 9-12, 5.71, 142.1, 1.665
2014: 13-7, 3.04, 192.2, 1.230
Those are, in order, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez in the seasons before arriving in Pittsburgh, and then their first years there. Yeah, I'll have what he's having. I mean, Volquez in 2013 had an ERA over six pitching in San Diego. That's the sort of thing that makes you consider becoming a position player. But what could possibly cause this? The baseball gods making up for decades of misery? Having a pitch framing titan behind the plate? Is PNC Park just a great place to pitch? Hmmmm...
2014(H): ERA 3.20//753 IP//669 H//268 ER//56 HR//244 BB//603 SO//1.212 WHIP
2014(A): ERA 3.80//703.1 IP//672 H//297 ER//72 HR//297 BB//625 SO//1.318 WHIP
2013(H): ERA 2.93//758 IP//649 H//247 ER//238 BB//651 SO//1.170 WHIP
2013(A): ERA 3.64//712.2 IP//650 H//288 ER//277 BB//610 SO//1.301 WHIP
2012(H): ERA 3.08//733 IP//636 H//251 ER//207 BB//575 SO//1.150 WHIP
2012(A): ERA 4.78//700.1 IP//721 H//372 ER//283 BB//617 SO//1.434 WHIP
Well, the Pirate pitchers have certainly preferred the home booty. Yarr.
2. Pirates In The Outfield
This team is just loaded with young outfielders. In Left Field is Starling Marte (winner of the Best Name in the NL Central), a disruptive speedster with enough extra base pop to bat in the middle of several lineups. In Centerfield is Andrew McCutchen, probably the best outfielder in baseball not named Trout. Likely in Right Field will be super-prospect Gregory Polanco, a five-tool player who stumbled a bit through his 2014 debut but is only 22. But wait, there's more! Also hanging around is Jose Tabata, entering his sixth big league campaign despite just turning 26 in August. And for those of you who like to look into the future (I guess giving away winning lottery numbers violates some kind of Temporal Prime Directive. It's cool, I get it.), there's young 19 year old outfielder Austin Meadows, a 9th overall pick in 2013 who has proved himself well in 341 professional at-bats so far with a .317/.410/.486.
3. Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Kodos
Another player to watch for the Pirates (boy there are a lot of them) is Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang, a power hitting superstar in the Korean leagues who is trying to break through into the majors. It hasn't been pretty so far in Spring Training (3-27, 11 K) but a worthwhile gamble for the organization to take, especially considering their biggest weakness is the middle infield. Oh wait, Neil Walker is really good. Oh, and Jordy Mercer is a better hitter than I usually think he is. Damn this division!
Overview: When the Blue Jays first snatched Russell Martin away from the Buccos, I thought this might be the end of their recent mini-run of contending. But looking this team over, there's talent everywhere. Catcher is probably the only hole, but Tony Sanchez and Francisco Cervelli can probably fill in decently enough. I think they'll be fighting for the division near the end, falling a bit short but snatching a wild card spot.
1. Who Will It Be This Year?
Yeah yeah, we all know the story. Every year the Cardinals have at least one young player who takes three leaps forward into stardom. Matt Carpenter, Michael Wacha, Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal, and frankly it's... wait, they were all 2013? Really? Oh. I see.
Well, the good bet for 2015 thinks that player will be Kolten Wong. He's got his feet wet with a year of big league action, he's ready to explode right? Right? Maybe, I dunno. Whaddya want from me? Think I can see the future? Because if I could, I'd be giving away winning lottery numbers like nobody's business. (I'd make my own fortune correctly betting on championship winning teams. Back To The Future II had it right.) To be honest, Randal Grichuk seems like the 2015 breakthrough Cardinal for me. Wong isn't quite as "out of nowhere" as Grichuk. I mean, we've been expecting this from Wong for a while, not that he won't be a good player or anything. He already is, and that's why it's gonna be Grichuk.
2. Carry On My Heyward Son
Lost in all the madness of the Dodgers/Padres/White Sox/Oakland offseason was a tidy and profoundly interesting trade between the Cardinals and Braves. St. Louis gave up an above average, young starting pitcher AND a quite good pitching prospect in high A ball (Tyrell Jenkins) for a power reliever and a very good (though underachieving?) outfielder who hits free agency after the season.
Lets take a moment here to appreciate the weird career Jason Heyward has had so far. I was still kinda sorta a Braves fan in 2010 (fading fast because Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were long gone and Cox was on his retirement tour) but I was excited about Heyward. A lefty hitting outfielder with on-base skills, emerging power and fabulous defense? Hire this man! And indeed, Heyward impressed in his first season: 18 bombs, 91 walks, an all-star selection and better than advertised glove work in right field. In his second season he hit a bit of a sophomore slump, and despite being an above average player since then, it seems the baseball consciousness has largely forgotten about Heyward. I mean, how many guys make an all-star team at age 20 and don't make another? Sure, he'll be making almost eight million this upcoming season, but after five years he seems to have a "is who he is" reputation, despite that he'll only be 25 for most of the 2015 season. There could be more there, maybe.
This is a really interesting trade for both teams, though I like it much better from the Braves perspective. You're giving up one year of a very good right-fielder and an above average reliever, for an intriguing prospect in Jenkins and four years of Shelby Miller. It's not a win-now move by any yank of the imagination, but judging by the other transactions of the team, you were probably going to lose Heyward anyway. As for the Cardinals, they get another good left-handed hitter (geez they have a lot of those. Carpenter, Adams, Wong, Jay, now Heyward) and get rid of a guy in Miller they never seemed high on anyhow. It really comes down to if they can bring Heyward back after the season, otherwise it doesn't seem like a classic St. Louis move. Maybe that was the point, though. One thing does stand out about Miller and Jenkins: low strikeout rates. Miller's dropped from 8.8 to 6.2 from 2013 to 2014, while Jenkins went from 8.7 in 2012 to 6.1 in 2013, down to 5.0 in 2014. Do they know something we don't? Frankly the way I see it, I can't believe I've written this much about the Cardinals already, so blech!
3. Gotta Stay On The Mound
The collection of Cardinal young pitching is quite impressive: Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Rosenthal, Marco Gonzales. Combine that with steady veterans like Wainwright, Lackey, Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn, and you've got enough pitching depth to fill the deep end of a swimming pool (blech). But many of these great arms have struggled to stay on the field. Michael Wacha was limited to 19 starts in 2014 because of shoulder soreness and pitched to only four batters in the entire postseason, much to Travis Ishiwaka's benefit. Jaime Garcia has also had problems with his shoulder, battling a variety of problems that have limited him to 16 starts in the past two seasons. John Lackey is a few years removed from being cooked like a well done steak, while Adam Wainwright always seems to have some kind of issue. As far as pitching goes, it really is a game of quantity of quality, rather than quality of quantity.
Overview: Ugh. As a natural (and irritating) rival of the Reds, I can't like the Cardinals. But I do admire them: they're smart, play fundamentally sound baseball and have far too much history to simply turn the other way from. They're the Yankees of the National League, except they home grow most of their players, prefer efficient moves over splashy ones, play in a new park that isn't an expensive imitation of the old one, and I think I'd feel much safer wearing a Reds cap in St. Louis than wearing a Blue Jays cap in the Bronx. They'll be good. Will they win the division? Maybe...
Division Overview: There are reasons to think any of these five teams could take it. Milwaukee is bringing back mostly the same team that led the division for most of 2014; the Cubs have enough starting pitching and mutant power hitters to put up a challenge; the Reds might have the best lineup in the division if everyone can stay healthy; Pittsburgh has quality everywhere and St. Louis is St. Louis, the guy in the classroom who doesn't talk too much but could probably teach the entire class if necessary. So frankly, I'm going to fight the Biased Beast inside and pull a reverse jinx here.
StL - 92-70
PIT - 90-72 (1st wildcard)
MIL - 87-75
CIN - 85-77
CHC - 82-80
Next up: the NL East! Man, I gotta start making these things shorter...