2011 Season Preview: NL Central

Other Divisions:

CINCINNATI REDS:

Record – 92-70

Improved playerJay Bruce (I’m on the increasingly large bandwagon looking for a major breakthrough season out of Bruce, although in fairness, I’ve been on for a while.)  Also really like Chris Heisey, he should eventually get the job from Jonny Gomes or at least get on the good side of the platoon.

Improved pitcherAroldis Chapman (putting a lot of faith in Dusty Baker to use him properly which would be 100+ innings allowing him to go two or more innings on occasion.  He should be Mike Marshall circa 1979.  He’s going to be in the rotation eventually [next year, not this] so stretch him out.)

Regression playerJoey Votto (he’s still going to be their rock in the middle of the lineup, but he’s a high-20s, low-30s home run hitter.  His home run/flyball rate was an absurd 25% which almost certainly isn’t happening again meaning he would need a legitimate skills change to be a high-30s home run hitter again.)

Regression pitcherFrancisco Cordero (this could lead to Chapman taking the closer’s role which would take him out of contention for 100+ IP so I’m torn on whether or not I want him to take the role from Coco.  They should move Nick Masset in and leave Chapman as the bridge since he can realistically be the 7th and 8th inning guy.)

Why they will win – …because they have remained essentially whole while their chief competitor lost their ace and their second-best hitter (though for a much shorter time than the ace) and the division’s winter winner has similar injury issues and is pretty flawed even when whole.

Why they might not win – …because it’s hard to count to St. Louis out even when they look completely down and out from the jump and though Cincinnati has excellent rotation depth, they are already using a good bit of it with Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto on the shelf.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – Until last week when I finally heard some pundits hopping back on the Cincy train, I thought they were being completely overlooked in favor of the offseason darling in Milwaukee and the now-underdog St. Louis Cardinals given the blow they were dealt early in Spring Training.  Alas, this has been my pick for this division from the jump and would be even if Adam Wainwright and Zack Greinke were completely healthy. 

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS:

Record – 84-78

Improved playerColby Rasmus (I originally had his growth being put toward making up for Wainwright’s loss, but now it has to cover the loss of Matt Holliday to an appendectomy and an uncertain timetable for return.)

Improved pitcherJake Westbrook (might enjoy his first sub-4.00 ERA season since 2004 in his first full season as a National Leaguer under the tutelage of Dave Duncan.)

Regression player – Can Gerald Laird or Ryan Theriot really get any worse?  There aren’t any candidates that jump out at me here, even for a disappointment against expectations as I can easily envision a scenario where Lance Berkman has a mini-revival.

Regression pitcherJaime Garcia (I actually love his profile, but he was due for some ERA regression even if the team remained intact from 2010, but switching of Brendan Ryan to Theriot at shortstop alone is going to cost Garcia dearly.  Even an improvement of skills [specifically his control] would only go toward mitigating Theriot’s horrid defense.  I would love to see him succeed in spite of Theriot, but with his heavy groundball lean, it’s just not likely.  He should still be good, just not unable to max out on his skills.)

Why they can win – …because Duncan has made magic out of a ragtag group before and this group at least still has a bona fide ace leading out and some legitimate skill in Garcia, Westbrook and Kyle McClellan.  If Berkman does surge back toward his mean and Holliday returns in a timely fashion, they have a strong heart of the order which of course includes the best player in baseball, too.

Why they won’t win – …because they have too many “ifs” compared to Cincinnati and they need a lot of things to go just right in order to dethrone the Reds.  I really don’t like their bullpen, either.  I’ve never been a fan of Ryan Franklin.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – This team isn’t afraid to make the big move to shore up their weaknesses, but I doubt they want to relinquish Shelby Miller, who projects as a #1, and he is their only big ticket trade chip right now.  They are already being stretched thin with two major injuries at the outset of the season and any more might bury them entirely. 

MILWAUKEE BREWERS:

Record – 81-81

Improved playerPrince Fielder (he could have another 2009esque season combing all of his skills for a monstrous walk year.)

Improved pitcherChris Narveson (love this guy as a 5th starter as he could cut as much as a full run off his 4.99 ERA from 2010 if he can push his LOB% up to league average while maintaining or improving the skills he showed last year.)

Regression playerCasey McGehee (I’m just not sold.  It’s a hunch.  I don’t have statistical support so I wouldn’t push that view on others, but I just don’t see him as a consistent above average player in the big leagues.)

Regression pitcherKameron Loe (he was great out of the bullpen for them last year thanks in large part to a 59% groundball rate and career-best 77% LOB%, but the addition of Yuniesky Betancourt is an unwelcomed sight for Loe [and probably the rest of the team, but it is like when Detroit had to take Dontrelle Willis to get Miguel Cabrera] and he will have trouble repeating that LOB% with poor shortstop behind him.)

Why they can win – …because they have an excellent 1-3 once Greinke returns and among the league’s better 4-5 starters.  Combine that with some true star power in the lineup led by Fielder and Ryan Braun and supplemented by Corey Hart (when he turns) and Rickie Weeks.

Why they won’t win – …because the rotation and three or four strong hitters isn’t enough to win this tough division.  The team defense top to bottom is bad which will slice into the effectiveness of that rotation.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – I applaud the Greinke and Shaun Marcum trades,  but compared to their preseason expectations, Milwaukee will end the season as one of the biggest disappointments of 2011.  Depending on how the first few months pan out, Fielder could be gone by the trade deadline. 

CHICAGO CUBS:

Record – 80-82

Improved playerCarlos Pena (he might only hit .235, but that would be a major improvement from his .196 of 2010 while his home run total should be back in the mid-to-upper 30s with ease.)

Improved pitcherRandy Wells (he didn’t deserve his 3.05 ERA in 2009 as his skills were closer to a 3.80-4.00 ERA, but he didn’t deserve to be saddled with a 4.26 ERA last year with nearly identical skills, either.  Look for him to shave a quarter of a run or more off of his ERA in ’11.)

Regression player – With a lineup as old as theirs, a couple guys are likely to tick down, but I don’t see anyone drastically underperforming.

Regression pitcherMatt Garza (I want to be wrong about this, but I’m worried about Garza in Wrigley Field.  He’s got ridiculous talent and the stuff to be excellent, but the mind is lagging behind at this point.)

Why they can win – I really like their rotation even if Garza does dip a bit plus the veteran-laden lineup has the skills to be very successful if the stars aligned properly.  Add in that Carlos Marmol is arguably the best closer in the National League, too.

Why they won’t win – …because it is unlikely that all of the veterans will click together which could make run scoring difficult for stretches.  The lead up to Marmol is shaky, too, with unknowns and also-rans.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – Some have stepped out on a limb and projected this team to win the division.  I like them to win a handful more games than they did last year, but I’m not sure they have the bullets to overcome the competition in this division.  

PITTSBURGH PIRATES:

Record – 66-96

Improved playerJose Tabata (only 22 years old, he will add some power and speed in his second season, though he is still likely a year or two away from truly exploding.)

Improved pitcherJames McDonald (I’ve been thrilled to see so many hop on the McDonald bandwagon this offseason.  If you’ve been coming here for any amount of time, you know how much I like this kid and I think we will see a nice step forward in 2011.)  Also watch out for Charlie Morton.  I’m not kidding.  Monitor him in your NL-Only league and you could have a gem on your hands.

Regression playerPedro Alvarez (maybe not a regression per se, he only played 95 games last year, but I think he might disappoint against lofty expectations for ’11.  He has huge contact issues that aren’t likely to disappear in a single offseason so while some decent power should be there, it might come with a sub-.250 batting average.)

Regression pitcher – Go look at their staff from last year, how could anyone really regress?  That wouldn’t even be fair.  That would just be a cruel joke by the baseball gods.

Why they can win – Truth be told, they can’t because they just don’t have the pitching, but this young lineup is exciting and will keep them in more games this year.

Why they won’t win – Again, because their pitching just doesn’t stack up at all.  I think they’ve got something with McDonald for sure.  And Morton could become a useful piece, but 4/5ths (or at least 3/5ths) of their next viable rotation is still in the minor leagues or not yet drafted.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – A 66-win season is hardly anything to write home about, but it’s a 9-win improvement from last year, which is pretty significant.  I’ve been saying for a few years that I love what the Neal Huntington regime is doing with this club and others are starting to see it, too, as the Pirates are becoming a chic darling this season.  I mentioned back in February that I wanted to see them take Gerritt Cole or Matt Purke (before Purke dipped and Cole surged) over Anthony Rendon and as we get closer to the draft, it appears as though Cole is the frontrunner for that #1 overall pick. 

HOUSTON ASTROS:

Record – 63-99

Improved player – Nobody.  The only good parts of their lineup are stable veterans (Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee) highly unlikely to improve and the rest is fodder.  Sorry, Brett Wallace.

Improved pitcherBud Norris (I’ll defer to my Favorite Pitchers piece where I profiled Norris a few weeks ago.)

Regression player – Probably one of those veterans I mentioned earlier, which would be especially unfortunate for this already-down team.)

Regression pitcherWilton Lopez (Brandon Lyon is a terrible closer and there are going to be a lot of days like Opening Day for him, but I’m not sold that Lopez is the answer.  His nearly invisible walk rate last year [0.7 BB/9] is unlikely to hold another year.  He has great control throughout his minor league control, but not that good.  Meanwhile, his underwhelming strikeout rate for a reliever [6.7 K/9] leaves him an unappealing fit for the closer’s role.)

Why they can win – They can’t.  They just can’t.  Their pitching, specifically the top three of their rotation, is better than Pittsburgh’s, but Pittsburgh has an overwhelming advantage in every other facet of the game.

Why they won’t win – Mainly because they aren’t a good team and unfortunately, there isn’t much light at the end of the tunnel, either.

Conclusion/Bottom Line – Until they realize that the team they have right now is nowhere near winning and actually blow it up (move Wandy, Myers, Lyon, Lopez [he’s 27] and Lee) and stopping signing shlubs like Bill Hall or trading viable parts for even bigger shlubs like Clint Barmes, then they are destined to remain a bottom feeder for years to come.  They don’t realize it, though and a microcosm of that is how they handled the Myers situation last year.  They took a gamble on him and paid off in spades so they should have moved him midseason for parts to re-stock their garbage farm system, instead they sign him to a 3-year deal for $28 million dollars.  That’s the Houston way, also referred to as the stupid way.

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