And now, the team heavy but talent-light NL Central:
Chicago: It’s hard to imagine this team actually won their division as recently as 2008. However that season must have woken a slumbering billy goat and since then it’s all been downhill both on and off the field for the Cubs, with diminishing win tallies despite increases in spending and more and more headline-grabbing tumult in the dugout. Little wonder then that they reached out to Theo Epstein to try and right the ship and end sports’ longest championship drought, as he had done a decade earlier in Boston.
Epstein is a smart enough GM, and smart enough to know that the approach he used in Beantown (ie: throwing money around at veteran stars like a drunken sailor or sober Steinbrenner) isn’t going to play in Wrigley Field. There simply aren’t enough good building blocks in place yet to build around. So, as Epstein says , “We’re not looking for the lucky hit…we want sustained success.” he adds as a caveat, “I’m not going to put a timetable on it, but there’s a lot to get this to where we want it to be.” Cases in point: 7 game winner Randy Wells is pegged as their #2 starter and 29 year-old career minor leaguer Bryan Lahair is a possibility to be the cleanup hitter.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the Cubs comes via subtraction: hot-headed Carlos Zambrano and feisty Aramis Ramirez, the franchise pitcher and infielder for the past half decade or so, are both gone. So eager was Epstein and Co to rid the clubhouse of Zambrano (dubbed a ‘sociopath’ by Athlon sports for what its worth), they will pay over $15M out of his $18M salary just to have him pitch anywhere but Chicago. (see last week’s notes on Miami…). That said, it leaves them with an oft-injured , older, pitcher with a career losing record and ERA almost a run higher than Zambrano’s to be their staff ace. (Canuck Ryan Dempster). There is indeed a lot of work to do!
Paul Maholm is a good addition however, the southpaw never quite got it all together in Pittsburgh, but then again- he was pitching in Pittsburgh! Look for his ERA to drop once again from last year’s respectable 3.66 and, at this point in their careers, people to notice that he is an upgrade from Carlos Z. His win tally might not soar though, just as in Pennsy, chances are he won’t be backed by a lot of run support. A team that was smack in the middle of the league in hitting last season(654 runs scored, 8th in the league) has given up its two big power bats- Ramirez and Carlos pena- and have done little to replace their combined 173 RBI. Shortstop Starlin Castro is the NL’s “it” boy and why not? In only his second year, he swatted over 200 hits in ’11. Yet he can’t carry the offence single-handedly and unless he works on his defence he may end up costing the Cubs as many games with his glove (last year a league worst 29 errors contributing to the team’s stat as the worst fielding in the game) as he wins with his bat. Alfonso Soriano is having a good spring training, but is an “old” 36 and last hit 30 homers in the Dubya Bush era.
Ace:Starlin Castro- and that’s never a good thing for a “marquee player” to be a defensive liability who’s logged fewer than 300 career games.
Wild Card: David Dejesus- generally a good all-around outfielder but he needs to show that his lacklustre season last year was a fluke or a function of playing in Oakland rather than a start of a steady decline (.302 in last two years in KC down to just .240 last year).
Joker: Andy Sonnastine- there must be a reason one time 13 game winner and star of emerging Rays staff has been relegated to less and less significant roles in their bullpen over past three seasons.
2012 Prediction: 68 wins, 5th place. Too bad for them this will be the last season with Houston in division to shield them from basement.
Cincinnati: if there’s an 80s pop song that reflects the Reds attitude this year it would be “While You See A Chance, Take It”. Seeing the World Champions lose their franchise player and superstar manager as well as the upstart Brewers losing their biggest bat (and suspecting that they would be without their MVP for two months, which as we know didn’t transpire); faced with their own superstar, Joey Votto, being a free agent at the end of the season, it was now or never. Thus the Reds added a top-flight starting pitcher and closer to try and seize the chance to make the playoffs for the second time in three years.
It could happen too. For a small-market team lacking in bonafide star power, there are few gaping holes in the Cincy lineup. Their starting rotation isn’t brilliant but is better than most of their competitors. Mat Latos isn’t likely to match his 2.92 ERA of 2010 from San Diego but likewise if healthy isn’t likely to be stuck at 9 wins like he was last year pitching with next to no run support. With this lineup, Latos should be able to top 200 innings at last and win well into the double digits, benefitting again from being away from the national spotlight. Bronson arroyo is starting to show his age a little, but even in a down season where he suffered thru mono last year he managed to log 199 innings and is valuable. Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey presumably make up the remainder of a very respectable and young staff and Ryan Madson makes for a very acceptable replacement for Francisco Cordero at the tail end of the bullpen. The Reds still need to decide on what to do with expensive fireballer Aroldis Chapman and he needs to learn that pitching means more than just firing a ball in the general vicinity of homeplate at 102. 49 walks in 62 innings (between minors and majors) won’t get the job done even when he limits opponents to a stingy .147 average.
Cincinnati pitching should be adequate or better this year but just as with the team’s of the glory years,their fortunes will be largely based on their hitting. Joey Votto hit 29 homers and hit better than .300 while Jay Bruce drove in 97 in his fourth big league season yet both were deemed disappointments. A return to form by them could mean each of them in the .300+/35/110 type category and a potent run-scoring machine behind all star Brandon Phillips and with speedy Drew stubbs on base. Scott rolen can still hit when he’s healthy, but those times have been getting fewer and farther between in the past couple of years. Juan Francisco is the heir apparent for the position, with 19 home runs and 68 RBI in a combined 110 games between levels last year although one wonders how mobile or durable a 243 pounder will be at the hot corner.
Ace: Joey Votto- too bad for Ontario that the best player ever to come out of Toronto was ignored by the Blue Jays as a kid.
Wild Card: Scott rolen- if he’s healthy, he’s as good a 3B as there is and a guy who will deliver a .280 avg, 70+ RBI. Key word “if”. Athlon only ranks him 27th out of big leaguers at his position.
Joker: Aroldis Chapman- there’s a lot less buzz around the Cuban this year than last, perhaps because people saw first hand last season what I warned of here a year ago- just because he can throw 100mph doesn’t mean he should be on a mound.
2012 Prediction: 89 wins, 2ndplace
Houston: it’s never a great sign for fans when a team’s mainly making news for their uniforms rather than their players. But such has been the case for the lacklustre Astros, who have been in the headlines lately for their plan to introduce retro jerseys complete with a gun design on them, in honour of their original name, the Colt 45s. Perhaps it’s appropriate, because if there is a TV show title that befits the ‘stros, it must be “Just Shoot Me.” And perhaps more than re-introducing old 1960s style unis, perhaps they’d be better off calling up Larry dierker or Jose Cruz, Sr., or other legacy players of that era to take to the field . One wonders if even a 70 year old Dierker might not be as effective as some of the current crop of Houston hurlers which helped the club lose a franchise record 106 last year.
The scary thing is that Houston lost 106 with two legitimate stars with them for most of the season (hunter pence and Michael Bourn) and no one’s obviously stepping in to replace that type of productivity. Carlos Lee can still hit, and would be the ideal DH for the team next year in their inaugral American League season, but in the meantime will not be likely to improve on his .275, 18 homers of last season with his 36th birthday looming and the likes of Brian Bogusevic and Jimmy Paredes surrounding him in the lineup. Jays fans will be watching with interest to see how Brett Wallace fares; the onetime cornerstone of the Roy Halladay trade has stumbled since being handed off to Houston for speedy Anthony Gose and is no longer even a sure bet to make the club. Jordan Schafer was the top pickup in their trade to Atlanta last year is quick and good on the basepaths but probably a year and another hitter behind him away from being a star.
Their starting rotation isn’t awful with Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 191 innings in ’11) and Brett Myers atop it, but is still woefully short of being contention-worthy, besides which, if Rodriguez gets off to a decent start he’ll likely be pitching elsewhere by the All Star break. The bullpen is far less encouraging and Brandon Lyon as a closer and the likes of Wilton Lopez and Aneury Rodriguez in the middle innings should give encouragement to any opponents who happen to find themselves trailing by the sixth inning.
The Astros have a few good prospects in the minors and should be able to add to that this year by jettisoning Lee and Rodriguez in return for more youngsters. Whether donning Astros or Colt 45’s garb, this is a team which has a shot at being good…in around 2014 or 15. In the meantime the best they can hope for is that they don’t shoot themselves in the foot too much with poorly-guided trades and redoubtable free agent signings (that’s right Jack cust, we were looking at you!)
Ace: Wandy Rodriguez. Hardly an ace really, but a pretty decent pitcher who’s logged back to back 11 win years for a bad team. Expect him to finish the year elsewhere.
Wild Card: J.A. Happ- once a highly touted kid in the Phillies organization, at 30 the time has come to live upto his reputation.
Joker: Jack Cust- rather slow-footed outfielder cum one-trick pony who’s one trick (hitting dingers) has faded of late (from 25, while striking out 185 times in 2010 to just 3 while still K’ing 87 times last year.) the wear and tear of playing in field rather than DH’ing is unlikely to improve his production.
2012 Prediction: 56 wins, 6th place.