Saturday, April 7, 2012

Predicting the NL Central

Let's pause for a moment of silence, for 2012 will be the last time that a Major League Baseball team will ever finish in sixth place. Unlike many other divisions, there's not much suspense over who will be the answer to that trivia question. The intrigue in the National League Central is at the top, where its best three teams are so evenly matched that we could see a three-way tie. However, when the dust settles, I suspect the order of finish will look very familiar:

1. Milwaukee Brewers (91-71; 2nd playoff seed)
Milwaukee won 96 games in 2011, but they actually significantly outplayed their Pythagorean record of 90-72. This is the only thing that gives me pause in picking them to repeat, though it bears mentioning that that was still the best Pythagorean record in the division. Contrary to popular wisdom, what propelled them to such heights was not the hitting combination of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but rather an underrated starting rotation—one that returns intact in 2012. In fact, the Brewers had the division's best pitching staff by far (638 runs allowed; the Cardinals were second with 692). As long as they have this built-in advantage, the offense need only be passable.

That's good, because Fielder is famously no longer with the team, and you can expect a corresponding drop in Miller Park's run proliferation. However, the Brew Crew did sign Aramis Ramírez to plug the hole in the lineup left by Fielder, which should recoup a healthy portion of their offensive losses. Ramírez has a reputation of a player on the decline, but it's looking more and more like he just had a freakishly bad season in 2010; every other year since 2003, he has posted an OPS+ of 126 or higher. Make no mistake, his three-year, $36 million contract was a financial blunder, but that won't show in the 2012 standings.

Otherwise, virtually the entire NL Central–winning 2011 team returns, and so I believe the Brewers are primed for a similar performance in 2012. In a weak-ish division, this should be sufficient for a return trip to the postseason. However, it's close enough that, before the reversal of Braun's suspension for alleged use of a banned substance, I favored my current number-two pick for the division crown.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (90-72)
That number-two pick, the Cardinals, still has a lot going for it—but they also had a remarkably similar offseason to the rival Brewers, losing their own slugging first baseman. If you're going to knock Milwaukee down a notch for losing Fielder, you should do the same for St. Louis and Albert Pujols; as far as relative placement in the standing goes, the two defections cancel each other out, in my view. It's even more of a wash when you consider that the Cardinals also cushioned their blow with a new free-agent signing of their own: Carlos Beltrán, who is a much better deal at two years, $26 million.

Instead, St. Louis's major offseason addition—and the reason for my original hunch to pick them for the playoffs—was not an addition at all, but rather old friend Adam Wainwright back from the disabled list. Wainwright figured to pair with Chris Carpenter to give the Redbirds a pair of true co-aces that would dominate the NL Central two out of every five days. The problem? Carpenter's old injury woes have flared back up, and it's now uncertain whether he will even pitch before the All-Star Break. Again, it's one step forward, one step back.

Behind Wainwright, I'm surprisingly bearish about the rest of the rotation: I fear the aftereffects of Jaime García's increased 2011 workload, and Kyle Lohse got lucky with his 3.39 ERA in 2011 (it came with career outliers in BABIP—.269, too low—and K/BB—2.64, too high). Neither will be helped by the departure of the game's most wizardly pitching coach, Dave Duncan. (For the record, I don't think Tony La Russa's departure will have a tangible impact on St. Louis's record, but boy is it going to be difficult for new manager Mike Matheny to keep it together under the weight of those expectations.)

The Cards do return the NL's best 2011 offense, although to be honest I'm not sure how they achieved that distinction. They'll have Rafael Furcal's .298 OBP setting the table this year, joined by at least two should-be bench players from the group of Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay, and Tyler Greene. I expect their run output to decrease to Milwaukee levels, but their pitching won't quite improve enough to reach the Brewers' excellence. They'll miss the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.

3. Cincinnati Reds (86-76)
I'm sorry, but I just don't buy the hype around the Reds. Their trade for Mat Latos was nice, but he's not what I think of when I think of a big-time ace—he was merely average last year (102 ERA+) and will be moving from MLB's most pitcher-friendly park to a very hitter-friendly environment in Cincinnati. He at least will give the Reds a co-ace with the brilliant Johnny Cueto, but the rest of the rotation (Bronson Arroyo, 5.07 ERA; Homer Bailey, 4.43 ERA; Mike Leake, 4.24 FIP) won't scare anyone. In fact, the Reds had the NL's worst FIP in 2011, suggesting a regression from a pitching staff that wasn't very good to begin with (its 4.16 ERA was 12th-best in the NL).

Using the same type of analysis I did to throw water on the Marlins' season, Cincinnati's three major acquisitions this winter were Latos (4.0 fWAR in his breakout 2010), part-time outfielder Ryan Ludwick (2.0 wins in 2010), and closer Sean Marshall (2.8 wins in 2011). Added to the Reds' 79 wins in 2011, that totals 88 wins for 2012. Indeed, in my opinion, 90 is their ceiling. (Even in 2010, they maxed out at 91.)

A still-excellent offense will unquestionably help the Reds and keep them in the thick of the race. But this Reds team is neither as bad as their showing last year nor as good as their overachieving 2010.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)
Although Pennsylvanians may make me twirl three times and spit to say it, this could be the year that the Pirates finally break their streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. If they do, it will be thanks to their rotation, each member of which is capable—and maybe even likely—to post an ERA under 4.00. The bullpen, led by 40-save closer Joel Hanrahan (1.83), also cannot be considered a weakness any longer. I predict that the Pirates will have the NL Central's second-best pitching, which should at least guarantee that they will remain relevant in 2012.

However, as I wrote in February, the lineup is another matter. Pittsburgh has one established bopper—Andrew McCutchen—and I approve of the Clint Barmes acquisition (his defensive runs saved actually make him, on net, one of the best shortstops in baseball). Beyond that, they need breakout seasons from several youngsters, including José Tábata, Alex Presley, and former first-round pick Pedro Alvárez. (It would also be very nice if Brewers castoff Casey McGehee could rediscover his power.) One of these players could improve in 2012, but the odds of them all doing so are unlikely. Unfortunately, there's no realistic reason to believe that the Pirates will score more runs this year than their division-worst total of 610 in 2011.

The Pirates are sort of the mirror image of this year's Kansas City Royals, who have an undeniably talented offense but must see multiple young arms step up in their rotation to be truly competitive. However, both historically feeble teams should cease being a punchline this year. As long as the Pirates' pitching upholds its end of the bargain, the team will push .500 no matter what the offense does.

5. Chicago Cubs (62-100)
It's remarkable to think that some people picked the Cubs to win the division last year. That certainly won't be the case this year, as there's a new baseball ops department in town that has already set its sights back on the future. Gone from an already-bad 71-91 club are several key offensive weapons, including Aramis Ramírez and Carlos Peña, who accounted for much of the Cubs' scoring in 2011. This year, the only lineup regular who is deserving of his role is Starlin Castro; contact hitter Marlon Byrd may be forced to bat third this year as a result. The cleanup hitter may have to be out machine Alfonso Soriano, as he's the only Cub with power; other options are limited to the unsatisfactory (Darwin Barney's sad .313 OBP) to the unacceptable (Ian Stewart, who couldn't even hit at Coors Field).

The rotation, meanwhile, isn't bad, featuring names such as Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm. The only potentially dominant starter, however, is Matt Garza, who has a reputation as an ace but has yet to put it all together. Even if he does so this summer in Chicago, he's prime trade bait for this rebuilding club, which would obliterate what is perhaps their only strength. (Some would argue that the bullpen is as well, especially if Jeff Samardzija spends the season there, but Carlos Mármol's control problems—he typically gives up six walks per nine innings—are impossible to ignore.)

Still, Chicago's pitching fooled few in 2011, even with Garza, Dempster, et al. Now that they will rank close to last in offense as well, the Cubs are just lucky that there's one team to arrest their fall to the NL Central cellar.

6. Houston Astros (55-107)
That team is the Astros. I've read several season previews in the past month that compared the Astros to an expansion team. As they prepare to take on an entirely new identity with their move to the American League West, Houston's new owners are filling their roster with minor-league players and players discarded from other squads. Like the Cubs, it is a complete mystery where any offensive production will come from; their supposed power threat and likely cleanup hitter, Carlos Lee, could muster only 18 dingers in 2011. Among the lowlights from his supporting cast are Jordan Schafer, a former Braves prospect who has never had an OPS+ above 75, and young José Altuve, whose OBP was only 21 points better than his batting average in 2011 (he walked five times). Others, such as Jason Castro and Jed Lowrie, have promise but must get over the injury bugs that have plagued their careers.

The pitching is at least led by two major-league-caliber starters: Wandy Rodríguez and Bud Norris. As a result, look for them to be traded when the Astros fall out of contention. The rest of the rotation is basically an extended tryout for a couple gifted minor leaguers, such as Jordan Lyles, and some who should have been given up on by now, such as JA Happ, who is now 29 and has enjoyed all of one good season. Their decision to install Brett Myers in the closer's role probably made the rotation even worse, but it's not like Myers was a solution, either.

I'll be much more interested to tune into the Astros during the first Cuomo administration; at least they are a team with talent and not an incompetently assembled collection of washed-up, overpaid veterans. Unfortunately, most of this talent should, in an ideal world, still be playing at AAA. Houston will be completely overmatched this year, and one hopes that this second straight year of triple-digit losses won't go to the organization's head.

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