NL Central: in my last blog I looked at the National West and told you why the Giants wouldn’t have another giant season. Today I’ll move a little closer to home, geographically and interest wise…the Central. When I was a little kid, the Reds were my team, in the years immediately prior to Toronto getting its own squad. Thanks to local boy Joey Votto, they’re once again a team of interest around southern Ontario . But will they be a playoff team of interest?
CHICAGO – it’s that time of year again- Robins start returning to our lawns and some major sports publication will trumpet out its prediction that this will be the Year of the Cub. This year the honour seems to go to USA Today’s columnist Bryce McRae. Unfortunately for Illinois fans, it seems equally reliable that by the time the robins are stuffing worms into their little ones squawking beaks, the Cubbies will be 15 games out , have at least one lead-gloved infielder who’ll have made 15 or more errors and will have at least one starting pitcher on the 600 day disabled list. Will this be the year they break the 102 year drought? Short answer – No.
Long answer, no and here’s why. They’re aging. They’re overpaid. They’re self-destructive. They are cursed by a billy goat. Acquiring Matt Garza was a solid move which will help their already decent rotation and Kerry Wood should excel in his second tour of duty at Wrigley if he can stay healthy this time around. However, all eyes will be on Carlos Zambrano, and wondering which Zambrano will show up this year: the volatile and ineffictive one of last year’s first half or the calmer ace who ended 8-0 down the stretch. Chances are the answer is neither, Zambrano is neither the front of the pack ace the C’s thought they were getting when they rewarded him with his megacontract, nor a second-rate, losing pitcher he devolved into early in 2010. An even better question is whether he’ll be wearing pinstripes as the pitching-poor Yanks go trolling for a starter or two and the now more financially-prudent Cubs look to cut costs.
The other Carlos, newly acquired Pena, should have fun knocking balls out of Wrigley, but is little more than a latter day Dave Kingman. He could hit 50 homers but come in under .200 and well under .500 slugging. Cubs fans no doubt hope Aramis Ramirez will show the same fire at the plate he’s already shown in the dugout this spring, and indeed will rebound to numbers closer to his pre-2010 .286 avg, 30homer per 162 games lifetime numbers. Alfonso Soriano is no longer a five-tool star, and Kosuke Fukodome has never established himself , and the ham-fisted infielders will do little to assist the pitching. Pena will do little to improve on their 29th ranking in fielding last season. There’s still some fight in the little bears, but it seems to be directed at each other, not the opposition. 2011 Prediction: 69 wins, 5th place.
CINCINNATI – The Reds have done a tremendous job building a winner on a tight budget in a small city lately. After their surprise divisional win last season, they did little to change the overall shape or chemistry of the team, so the potential is certainly there for another great season. The rotation, even without stalwart Aaron Harang, is among the league’s best , and with youngsters Mike Leake (8-4,4.23 as a rookie who skipped minor leagues) ,Travis Wood and Homer Bailey all under 25, they could be sharper than they were last year . Bronson Arroyo anchors the squad as one of the more underrated starters of the last decade.
Of course, all eyes (and radars ) will be on Aroldis Chapman. Where will he fit in, and how will he progress? No one can argue that as a fireballer, Chapman is currently without equal. However, a smart hitter will catch up to even a 110 mph fastball, or walk if the ball is constantly over his head or off the plate. Some compare him to a young Randy Johnson, but seem to forget that the young Johnson , the Montreal-era Big Unit, was spectacularly erratic. Less charitable types compare him to a young Daniel Cabrera. This writer was unimpressed with the Cuban’s playoff showing last fall and think he’s at least two years away from being a useful, winning pitcher. Best case scenario- if he stays in the bullpen, he’ll be an OK set-up guy, if he is given the chance to develop into a starter, he’ll be the most-talked about but least-winning of their rotation.
Joey Votto will show his MVP wasn’t a fluke, and as long as he’s healthy is a shoo-in for another .300/35/100+ campaign, numbers Jay Bruce may come close to matching as well. It seems hard to imagine that Bruce is still only 23. Scott Rolen is aging, but still a decent bat and great glove, and Brandon Phillips is solid at second, but shortstop could be a bit of an adventure on the Ohio R this season. If they’re in contention mid-summer, one might foresee them picking up a veteran who can hit for that position, as Atlanta did last year. The Reds are, given the market and economics, one of baseballs best franchises, and this year will give them reason to feel good again. Good, but not great. 2011 prediction: 88 wins, 2nd place. A Chapman– if in bullpen, 80K in 60 innings, if a starter, a 6+ walk no hitter but 16 losses and ERA over 4.00.
HOUSTON – My first recollection of Wandy Rodriguez was, as far as I can remember, him shutting down the Blue Jays in an interleague game perhaps five years back, outdueling a hot Roy Halladay. Right away I figured, “he’s the best damn pitcher I’ve ever seen… named ‘Wandy’ “. Well, today at 32, he’s one of the better pitchers in the NL, he’ll have a chance to face off against Halladay again , this time in Texas and Pennsylvania, and he’ll have a key player in the trade of Roy H playing first behind him (Brett Wallace). Small world.
Rodriguez is joined by two ex-Phils , JA Happ and Brett Myers, in a pretty solid rotation, but with limited offence and a bullpen anchored by (smaller world- former Halladay teammate) Brandon Lyon isn’t going to do them any favours or make any of them significant winners in ’11.
Granted, Hunter Pence is outstanding and would be a household name if he played in New York or Boston, this could be the year he really breaks out and establishes himself as one of the game’s premier outfielders, and Michael bourn can run like the wind, but this team which was 28th in runs scored last season did nothing to improve that number, and thus did nothing to improve on last year’s 76 wins. 2011 Prediction: 70 wins, 4th place.
MILWAUKEE – some teams opt to continuously tread water, others reside on the East Coast and continuously spend big to remain constants, while some are content to contend- once in a while (can you say “mar-lins”.) The Brew crew are realists, they know that they’re not in the position of luxury bigger, wealthier teams are to spend like drunken sailors (note I didn’t say “drunken Pirates!”) too often, so they’d better maximize their opportunities when they come knocking. Well, they heard a rappin’ at the door this past winter and decided not to let that visitor turn heel. IE- the Brewers surprised many, didn’t sell off Prince Fielder before he walks away for greener diamonds, and did mortgage bits of their future to make an all-out run for the glory this season.
First and foremost, they shocked the baseball world by outbidding AL East teams to pick up 2009 Cy Younger Zack Greinke. Then they shocked the Canadian baseball world by picking up another primo starter from the Jays, in return for their top prospect, who just so happened to be a Canuck. They picked up an offense-minded shortstop (Yuniesky Betancourt) to take over from light hitting Alcides Escobar. They kept the rest of the nucleus of their team together, hoping the key additions will propel them well over their under-whelming 77 win total of ’10. Will the gamble pay off?
Obviously there are question marks, not the least of which is just which Zack Greinke will arrive? The almost unhittable 2009 award winner or the pedestrian 2010 model of a 4.17 ERA. Now another question mark has been added in whether ZG will be ready to take the mound come opening day. My feeling is this: Greinke won’t be a Cy Young winner in blue and yellow. Neither though will he be the disgruntled , ineffective pitcher of last season who had no offense to help him along. Even if he starts the season on the DL, a rib injury should allow him to get back to start 26-29 games, and he’ll deliver an ERA between where it’s been in the past two years. With monster hitting behind him, he’s still a good bet for 16 W. As is under-rated Shaun Marcum, whom I”m well familiar with. Marcum isn’t overpowering but can bring it when needed and reminds me a little of a young Greg Maddux. His ERA should plummet in the NL, in a less-longball oriented stadium and where , presumably, his routine won’t be all messed up late in the year by adding a sixth man to the rotation as was the case in Toronto. (He was only 3-4 while his ERA rose nearly half a run in August-September and put some of the blame on the shakeup in pitching days)Randy Wolf is reliable and that means that all in all, the Brewers have adequate pitching for a post-season run.
Having merely “adequate” pitching isn’t all that promising…unless you have massive powers of destruction with the bats. Which Milwaukee just so happen to have. They may not be the 61 Yankees or Sparky-era Reds, but they’re the closest thing the NL has to those legendary squads. If he wasn’t playing in a city of about 600 000 people (NYC by comparison: 8 200 000) , Ryan Braun might be quickly mentioned when the topic of “Best Player in Game” came up.Few other players under 30 could hit over .300 and drive in 100+ and have it considered a disappointing campaign, as Braun’s was last year. He’ll “bounce back” this season, as will Prince Fielder (who’ll be looking ahead to a mighty big carrot of a New York contract ahead) from his “dreadful” 32 hr, 83 rbi season. Add in Corey Hart who has thankfully made people stop thinking of one of the low-points of 80s music when they hear that name; another .300/30/100+ capable player. Casey McGehee has 175 RBI in his first 282 big league games and thusly made young Brett Lawrie expendable. Expect big years from all of these young guys, a solid campaign from their other two infielders (Weeks and Betancourt) and their 750 run output of last year to rise by a century. First the Packers, then the baseball team… something special is brewing in wisconsin this year! 2011 prediction: 95 wins, first place. World Series odds: 12-1.
PITTSBURGH- a tale of two cities. While little-market Milwaukee seem to do things right and take chances, similarly-sized Pittsburgh seem to just roll along, year in year out, without a plan. Unless the plan is to continue to suck and to live in the fading glory of their Stargell/Sanguillen/Oliver days.
Lyle Overbay got run out of Toronto by fans who never warmed up to the firy red-head and felt short-changed by his predictable .270/20/70 type numbers, a victim perhaps of the team over-promising and under-delivering. He came into Canada annointed as the one who’d make people forget about Carlos Delgado. He goes into Pennsy with lowered expectations and a greater chance to succeed, and his unnoticed fielding prowess will certainly help his pitchers knock a wee bit off their inflated ERAs. In the National, with a fresh start, a .290 season and 50 doubles aren’t out of the question for Lyle. But all that will do little to assist a squad which was dead last in the National last year in hitting, although it might ease the pain (minimal as it might be) of the departures of Akinori iwamura and Delwyn Young.
Paul Maholm at times looks like he’s about to turn the corner and become a real top-flight starter. That’s usually when the lefty then goes on a five or six game losing streak allowing about a run per inning. On a better team, with hitting and better fielding, he might be better than 9-15, but in Pittsburgh, his chances of improving that will be slimmer than a teenaged Dominican infielder. Only this year, with Zach Duke gone, he’s gotta be the ace. An ace in a hand which can’t even put together a pair of twos. Sorry, western Pennsylvania– you are cursed by being on the wrong side of the state. 2011 Prediction: 54 wins, 6th place.
ST LOUIS – Tony LaRussa has been on the bench for more wins than all other managers in the division combined. Dave Duncan makes good pitchers Cy Young candidates, average pitchers excellent and me, of 50mph heater and age surpassing Livan Hernandez, if I was on mound, into , well at least Paul Maholm. This is a team where management can get things done.
But as I started jotting notes for the season last month, I wasn’t convinced they could get a playoff berth done this year. Now with Adam Wainwright out of the picture for the year, the chances are greatly diminished from “dim”.
The question on everybody’s mind is no doubt what will Albert do? After an acrimonious off-season where he demanded the sun and moon and the team failed to show serious interest in signing him beyond this fall, one wonders what type of player he’ll become– a driven type who delivers something above and beyond his humanly limits to prove a point and earn dollars (aka, another, more talented Adrian Beltre), or one who’ll goof off, pout, answer his phone during the game and be confident enough in his earning powers to basically sabotage his team’s prospects until they trade him (ie , Manny being Manny, the Sequel). If it’s the former, and I suspect that just might be the makeup of Pujols, Barry Bonds’ asterisked home run record may be at risk. Either way, he’ll be close to his career .600+ slugging percentage and collect his 2000th hit early in his 11th season. The future Hall of Famer will hit, but the real Q may be “who will he hit for come Labour Day?” If the Cards haven’t ponied up at very least a quarter bil by the All-star game, my bet is that he’ll be doing his thing somewhere on the East Coast, not by the Gateway to the west. And if the Cards do sign the bank over to him, they may well be limiting their ability to compete and keep other talent thru the decade. While in Missouri, Pujols will have help around him in the lineup from Matt Holliday who should be back into the 30 homer club in ’11 and Colby Rasmus, but the contribution of Lance Berkman with the bat is dubious given that the oft-aching slugger hit below .250 last season and has seen his power diminish from an average of one longball per less than five games prior through 2009 to less than one in eight games last year. His contribution with the glove, as a newly minted outfielder is even more in doubt.
Duncan’s coaching prowess will help a good staff, and Chris Carpenter, though now on the downside of his career, is still dominant at times and Ryan Franklin is about as reliable as any NL closer. But they have a huge hole to fill with the loss of Cy runnerup Wainwright, and have a rival that does what they do- only better- a few states to the north. 2011 Prediction: 84 wins, 3rd plce.
Next time out we’ll look east and see if every prognosticator in the world will be proven right by the other Pennsylvania team.