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Free Joey... Free Joey... Free Joey...

Free Joey.

The National League Central promises to be one of the most underwhelming divisions in baseball, if not perhaps the worst. The Pirates are years away from plundering anybody, the Cardinals are a perpetual 85-88 win team, the Cubs retool of Marcus Stroman, Seiya Suzuki and other bit pieces doesn't curtain the fact that faces of the franchise Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez are gone (at least they traded them for something... *cough* Rockies *cough*). The Brewers are still super interesting and the Reds.... yeah.... the Reds.

Let's get into this obituary.

Milwaukee Brewers (2021: 95-67, 1st, lost NLDS)

Q: Can this team hit enough to actually do damage?

A: Jury is still out. Their complete inability to score runs is precisely what doomed them against Atlanta in the previous postseason (Rowdy Tellez drove in like half their playoff runs or something? With one swing?) They've swapped out Avisail Garcia with Andrew McCutchen, which considering how good Garcia was last year is probably a wash. Trading Jackie Bradley Jr. for Hunter Renfroe is a definite offensive improvement (I'd advise you not to look up JBJ's numbers around small children). Still, this is a team that really, really so desperately needs Christian Yelich to switch back to the player he was pre-COVID era, because since then he's been about as productive as a good Randal Grichuk season (I said keep the small children away, damnit!). I'd say Bad Yelich is still a notably better player (duh) but think about how much Blue Jay fans complained about the 20 million still owed to Handsome Randal... Yelich has 182 million left until 2029. Brewers fans no doubt are holding their breath on this one at the moment.

Their pitching is great though, and will be enough to win them a lot of games. The three headed monster of Woodruff-Barnes-Peralta is no fun for opposing sticks, Josh Hader still does Josh Hader things, and there's a lot of depth there beyond that (Eric Lauer might be one to watch). Hey, and it'll be fun to cheer for Rowdy right? Yeah! Lets go Brewers! My rooting interest, and favourite team in the NL Cent.... oh right. Yeah. Damn it. 

St. Louis Cardinals (2021: 90-72, 2nd, lost WC Game)

Q: What bizarre and unexpected development weirdness will the Cardinals pull out this time to win games?

A: If I knew, I'd warn everybody.

For a team with truly impeccable jerseys, the Cardinals have been an ugly thorn in my rooting side for a while. Their complete leapfrogging of my Cincinnati Reds in the final month is merely the latest stink on that resume. Happier thought: I was in the Bay Area during the 2012 NLCS, the Giants were down 3-1 to St. Louis if you recall, and there was considerable joy in San Fran pulling off the comeback.

Still, the Cardinals have a few players I really like, and three of them were absolutely crucial to the 2021 Cardinals success. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, born the exact same day as I, had another banner season with a 143 OPS+ and strong work defensively (his fourth gold glove). Canadian outfielder Tyler O'Neill, their best hitter by OPS (.912) and co team leader (Arenado) with 34 home runs, and also a gold glove for his left field work. Then, ageless hurler Adam Wainwright, yeah same one... sipping the fountain of youth and going 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA in 206.1 innings... at age 39. Between 34-37, it was looking like Wainwright was slowly nearing the end. His walks were up nearly two per nine innings (in his peak he was usually between 1.3-2.5 per 9), he was giving up more hits and they were getting hit far. Perhaps the delayed start to the 2020 season is just what he needed: he's gone 22-10 since then, an ERA nudging over 3 in 272 innings, and his batter OPS against has fallen 150 points down to the .630s.

Here's another crazy thing about the 2021 Cardinals: Wainwright led the club in innings (unsurprisingly) with his 206.1, third in all of MLB. Next was Kwang Hyun Kim, with 106.2. He has since gone to play in the KBO. Nobody else pitched 100 innings, and only two other guys (Carlos Martinez and reliever Giovanny Gallegos) threw more than 80. This team was an absolute carousel of pitchers... nineteen fellas cracked the 30 inning threshold (by comparison, the 2021 Blue Jays had fourteen, and they weren't exactly a steady game of bullpen roulette either). And somehow, the Cardinals team ERA of 3.98 was 7th in the National League. They always somehow just make it work.

How will they do it this time is the big question. Asking another 200 ace level innings from a now 40 year old Wainwright is a bit rich, although I wouldn't put it past him and his wonderful curveball. It's one of those slow but tight as a yo-yo trick ones, a pitch with the arc of a rainbow that drops in on the corners with pinpoint ease. St. Louis was wise enough to know this, thus their four year wager on Steven Matz, plus one presumes they're banking on improved availability from Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty (though the recent news on the latter front is not encouraging). Their offensive core is still intact, Yadier Molina is back for yet another roll (one of the few remaining active players from my version of MVP Baseball 2005) and their division proposes to have at least two teams not actively interested in winning baseball games. They'll be in the playoff mix, as they always are, and as always it'll be through some bizarre trickery upon the rest of the league. Did you know they had five gold glovers in 2021? Five! Goldschmidt, Arenado, O'Neill, Tommy Edman (at 2B) and outfielder Harrison Bader. Is five a record for a single team? I'd look it up, but what's coming up next is far too depressing.

Cincinnati Reds (2021: 83-79, 3rd)

Q: Free Joey Votto?

A: Free Joey Votto.

By all accounts, though disheartened by the situation, Votto isn't giving any indications he wants to leave. I mean you know, the season hasn't started yet... gotta see what you have first... but say things are going as most prognosticators expect them to, and say a city you're very familiar with... north is it? Yeah north... they're looking for a left-handed bat... maybe play some innings at first... crowd will go crazy every time you step up to the plate... you know, you know it's just something to consider... you know, maybe? If things go south this season in Cincy (*cough* whichtheywill)... just keep it mind ya know?   

2021 has got to be a pretty painful year for Reds fans. Trust me. They've been in a quasi-go-for-it mode the past couple seasons (the Moustakas and Castellanos signings, the Sonny Gray and *barf* Bauer trades) and while the past two seasons have been winning ones, these teams haven't quite lived up to the collection of their parts. Their starting rotation last year was excellent, with Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley and Gray more than capably filling the Bauer void, while Luis Castillo overcame a ghastly start (he was 1-8, 7.22 at the beginning of June) to further solidify his status as a very good major league starting pitcher. Meanwhile the offense was a powerhouse: 2nd in the National League in OPS (.784 when not counting pitchers) and 4th in runs scored.  

What exactly happened? Well, 2021... lemme just say that watching my two favourite teams become completely undone time after time by the exact same thing...  it made me a little crazy for a while there. Difference is, the Blue Jays eventually found effective guys (like Cimber, Richards and Romano) they desperately needed to fill those roles. The Reds never did. It's hard to blame the failure of an entire season on a bullpen and that's not what I'll do... but man this was a pretty bad one. While Fangraphs ranked them 21st in reliever WAR with 2.3 (and most of that was surely Tejay Antone's stellar 33.2 innings) Reds relievers ranked 27th in ERA at 4.99, just ahead of Washington, Arizona and Baltimore (those awesome teams). They gave a lot of innings to some terrible, washed up guys: Heath Hembree (2-7, 6.38, 10 dingers surrendered in 42.1), Brad Brach (6.30 in 30), Sean Doolittle (still love Doo though), Amir Garrett (dude has never thrown strikes) and a cast of hopeless others. Besides when Antone was available (which still won't be for a while, 2nd TJ) this team never really had a consistent and reliable cast of relievers that could shut things down. Cincinnati relievers were also 2nd in baseball in highest HR/9 (1.45). By comparison, the likewise cast of thousands Cardinals bullpen led MLB with a 0.79 rate. 

Another issue is how top heavy their offense was, which brings us into this 2022 season. Yikes. The 2021 attack was primarily orchestrated by a quartet: Joey Votto's wonderful resurgence season (I'll talk a bit about Joey later), Jesse Winker's all-star breakout (.305/.394/.556 in 110 games), worthy Rookie of the Year Jonathan India (.835 OPS and filled the leadoff void) and Nick Castellanos who hit the tar out of the ball with such surliness I can see why it jumped off his bat so quickly. Both Winker and Castellanos are truly horrible defenders in the outfield (Winker's first step is bad and Castellanos throws like an infielder) but that is a lot of offense to replace. It's no coincidence the Reds weak finish happened alongside Winker's absence (he only played one game after August 15th) and now he and third baseman Eugenio Suarez (who was real bad in 2021) are in Seattle.

Sonny Gray is also gone, as is Wade Miley in one of the most incomprehensible roster moves I dare try to fathom. Well, unless you like saving money. Then it makes perfect sense! Miley was excellent for the 2021 team, and while he's on the old side (35) and tends to be unpredictable season to season... to just lose him on waivers for nothing... Nothing! It's just incredibly poor management in so many ways. Ten million bucks... you're telling me a pitching hungry team isn't calling about that guy at some point? Maybe if you don't want him, fine, but maybe you can at least wait and see if there's something out there for him. Nope, the Cubs claimed him off waivers on November 5th. That's three days after the World Series had ended. Guess they really didn't want to waste time on that one.

These are dark times for the franchise, and it's very hard to imagine this team not being completely terrible in 2022. Even if a league average offense can be cobbled together from what's left (Votto, India, Tyler Stephenson and a bunch of spare tires) their pitching staff will surely be worse. Castillo and Mahle form a pretty good 1-2, and rookie Vladimir Gutierrez had some moments... but there's just nothing else at all here. Maybe you hope Nick Senzel finally escapes epic bust territory and figures something out, or Mike Moustakas can give you a healthy productive year, or Shogo Akiyama isn't the worst hitter in baseball again... I dunno even then.

Lets finish on an uplifting note, and talk about Joey Votto. Joey had been gracefully declining since just missing out on the 2017 NL MVP to Giancarlo Stanton (Votto was 2nd, an absurd .320/.454/.578 batting line... but Stanton had to hit a bunch of homers so... whatever). He's never had a bad year, although at 35 in 2019 his 95 OPS+ in 142 games was beginning to cause some worry. Coming into 2021, Votto decided he'd become too passive at the plate, and that his swing had become too focused on contact over hard contact. He tweaked his stance, standing more open, upright and bringing his hands up higher (Votto had always been a fairly closed and crouched hitter, especially 2018-20). These changes were a direct adjustment to combat high velocity fastballs, particularly upwards in the zone, Votto sensing his bat speed wasn't quick enough with his previous approach.

Well... Joey still bangs. If you don't know what I mean, look it up. You'll be glad you did.

Votto, at age 37, banged out by far his best season since his '17 MVP runner up year: 36 home runs (he hadn't surpassed 15 since 2017), a .938 OPS (after .768 and .800 the previous two years) and also turned one of the most fun triple plays (yeah, triple) you'll ever possibly see a first baseman turn. Look that up too, you'll be glad you did. 

This will be a nowhere team, but having Votto around at least makes them watchable. Just to see if he has another great year in him (don't bet against it). Regardless, he's still the best interview in the game.     

Chicago Cubs (2021: 71-91, 4th)

Q: Can their notable offseason additions propel them back into the playoff picture?

A: The division stinks, but they likewise also kinda stink.

After beating the Dodgers 4-0 on June 24th, the 2021 Cubs were 42-33. You don't need me to do the math, but I'm a nice guy and I'll do it anyway: they went 29-58 the rest of the way. That's some tidy .333 ball there. An ill-timed 11 game losing streak before the all-star break surely didn't help matters (though when exactly does an 11 game losing streak help matters?) and just for fun they ripped off a twelve gamer in early August, just as a funny way to one-up themselves I suppose.

So if you take out those 11 and 12 game losing streaks... they're a winning team! Playoffs ho! Well... it's not quite that simple.

There are certainly some improvements no doubt: replacing the awful innings the 2021 team got from Zach Davies (5.78 in 148 IP) or the ghost of Jake Arrieta with Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley has to be a serious upgrade there. Meanwhile they've filled the position player holes (Rizzo, Baez, Bryant) with modest signings of steady but unexciting veterans like Jonathan Villar, Yan Gomes, and Andrelton Simmons' glove. Ian Happ is still around to hit dingers or strikeout, Jason Heyward continues to make his money (he's still only 31! The hell), they're hoping Patrick Wisdom and Nick Madrigal can be useful pieces, and that Japanese slugger Seiya Suzuki turns out be a big one.

Problem is, it's easy to imagine this not working. Stroman is as reliable as they come but the pitching side still needs a Kyle Hendricks bounceback and Miley to avoid one of those "Bad Wade Miley" seasons. Even then, it's also not hard to imagine it shaking out that Willson Contreras is your only good hitter. There's enough here to make a noise (a whimper is a noise after all), this division is going to be so, so bad... but I don't see much more here than a slightly above .500 team if almost everything shakes out.

Pittsburgh Pirates (2021: 61-101, 5th)

Q: When are these prospects gonna prospects and so that finally prospects can prospects through prospects prospects?

A: Future players!

The Pirates are at least somewhat more interesting to talk about than the Rockies or Diamondbacks because at least Pittsburgh has shown some exciting talent at the major league level. I still think Ke'Bryan Hayes can be a dangerous hitter (he battled injuries in 2021), Bryan Reynolds is already a switch hitting star centerfielder in high demand and Oneil Cruz is as intriguing as his player profile is weird (a 6'7 power hitting shortstop???).

They're still going to be unwatchably terrible. There is no pitching anywhere near this team and their highest paid player is Yoshi Tsutsugo at 4 million. Seriously, I think Pascal Siakam might make more per season than this entire roster.  If the young players emerge... they'll be interesting... but this franchise is a few years away from even being taken seriously as a threat, if it even happens. Rebuilds don't often follow the same narrative.

All right, prediction time -

MIL -- 91-71
StL -- 88-74
CHC -- 77-85
CIN -- 69-96
PIT -- 64-98

I think the Brewers pitching makes them the team to beat in the division, but that lack of offense worries me enough that it wouldn't surprise me if St. Louis ends up winning it easily. The Cubs are a minor threat if everything goes right and the other two teams aren't trying to win. It's the worst division in baseball.

Next time... we get the hell outta this mess and into somewhere far more interesting: the domain of the defending champs. I know, I know. I cringed also.


A 2022 Quick Look at the National League Central | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Gerry - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 08:16 AM EDT (#411792) #
Thanks Eephus.

How about another crazy thing about the Cardinals. They won 90 games, made the playoffs and fired their manager for reasons that were never really explained. Mike Shildt was fired and there were rumours that he was difficult to deal with and ignored analytics input, but they are just rumours.

He has been replaced by Oli Marmol who was the bench coach.
John Northey - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 12:21 PM EDT (#411796) #
I'll do what I did for the west for balance. *=wild card Division record from 2010-2021...
  • 2021: Mil-StL*-Reds-Cubs-Pit
  • 2020: Cubs-StL*-Reds*-Mil*-Pit
  • 2019: StL-Mil*-Cubs-Reds-Pit
  • 2019: Mil-Cubs*-StL-Pit-Reds
  • 2017: Cubs-Mil-StL-Pit-Reds
  • 2016: Cubs-StL-Pit-Mil-Reds
  • 2015: StL-Pit*-Cubs*-Mil-Reds
  • 2014: StL-Pit*-Mil-Reds-Cubs
  • 2013: StL-Pit*-Reds*-Mil-Cubs
  • 2012: Reds-StL*-Mil-Pit-Cubs-Astros (yes they were in the NL Central from 1994-2012)
  • 2011: Mil-StL*-Reds-Pit-Cubs-Astros
  • 2010: Reds-StL-Mil-Astros-Cubs-Pit
Kind of surprised how often the NL Central had a wild card. Also forgot the Astros were in the NL Central for almost 20 years (won it 4 times, got to 1 WS while there).

So how did each team do over the past 12 years?
  • St. Louis - 4 titles, 6 2nd place finishes, 2 3rds. Never 4th or worse. 4 wild cards so 8 playoff appearances in 12 years. Sweet. 2011 was their last WS title, lost in the Wild Card round 2 years straight now.
  • Milwaukee - current division title holder, 3 wins, then 2-3-4 (for 2nd/3rd/4th - funny) never 5th or 6th. 2 wild cards so 5 playoff appearances overall. Last made it to the WS in 1982 when the Jays had yet to finish out of last place. ET was #1 at the Box Office, Star Trek II just came out. Yeah, it's been awhile for them.
  • Cubs - 3 titles, then 1-2-1-5 for 2nd/3rd/4th/5th. 2 wild cards. So either very, very good or very, very bad. 1 WS title (a year later than BTTF predicted) their only time in the WS since 1945, only title since 1908 (pre-Titanic sinking). Thus their fans should be good until 2100 or so now :)
  • Reds - 2 titles, then 0-4-2-4 for 2nd/3rd/4th/5th. 2 wild cards, didn't get past the NLDS. Last WS appearance/win was 1990, then 1975/1976, 1940, and 1919. Yeah, outside of the Big Red Machine years they rarely did anything of note. Poor Votto.
  • Pittsburgh - 0 titles, then 3-1-4-3-1 for 2nd/3rd/4th/5th/6th - 3 wild cards (in a row) but lost the WC game twice, lost in the NLDS the other time so 3-5 in the playoffs those years. Other than those 3 their last playoff appearances were with Barry Bonds in 1990-1992 (lost in the first round all 3 years), then 1979 when they won the WS with Willie Stargell carrying them all the way (NL MVP, NLCS MVP, WS MVP). Maybe they need him to come out of retirement in his 80's to lead them to greatness again :)
So basically you have the best, Cardinals (very well run, always contending), and the worst, Pittsburgh (very poorly run, rarely contending), in the division with a batch of 'meh'. The Cubs should dominate as they have financial resources near the Yankee/Dodger level but they are often content just raking it in with no effort. Like the Leafs, they know the fans will come and buy merchandise and watch games win or lose.
scottt - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 01:12 PM EDT (#411800) #
The Reds were known as a poorly run club suffering from owner (Maggie?) interference.
Pittsburgh had a well regarded pitching coach, but they didn't jump on the analytics bangwagon and made some bad trades lately.

lexomatic - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 03:36 PM EDT (#411803) #
So switching to plain text allows me to comment... maybe.
The interfering, racist former Reds owner was Marge Schott.
I think she also had a seat reserved for her dog or something? It's been a while. 80s and 90s.

lexomatic - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 03:42 PM EDT (#411804) #
<br>just looking stuff up there was way more than I remembered.
Sounds like an awful person - seriously racist, selfish, cheap in a move Cleveland to Florida kinda way,
Magpie - Saturday, April 02 2022 @ 05:08 PM EDT (#411806) #
I think Pascal Siakam might make more per season than this entire roster.

Yeah, but Pascal's worth it.

Russell Westbrook, on the other hand...
Leaside Cowboy - Thursday, April 07 2022 @ 01:10 PM EDT (#411985) #
In Toronto, I can pick up the Reds' broadcasts from AM 770 WLW Cincinnati.
It's the same frequency as WABC New York, which I can also receive.
I suppose the atmospheric effect can vary.
A 2022 Quick Look at the National League Central | 7 comments | Create New Account
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