Wednesday, August 15, 2007

State of the Baseball Union: NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers (62-57)
My Prediction: 83-79, 2nd place

At Current Pace: 84-78

The Brewers have experienced their fair share of ups and downs so far this season. They got off to a great start and then slowed down, allowing the Cubs to catch up with them. They've really stumbled as of late, but fortunately for them so have the Cubs (who've lost 7 of 10). The Brewers now possess a 1.5 game lead in the NL Central, and it's become a real neck-and-neck race with Chicago.

So what chance do the Brewers have of making their first postseason in 25 years? I'll give them the edge over the Cubs, but it's such a small edge that it may prove irrelevant over the 7 weeks left in the season.

Offensively, the Brewers have scored 568 runs, tops in the Central and 5th in the NL. I think they can keep up this pace; they've got good depth offensively and have several players due to bounce back from a slow first half. They'll be getting full-time play from Rookie of the Year-to-be Ryan Braun (348/392/666), as well as Corey Hart (276/340/505) and J.J. Hardy (274/326/468). They should also get better production from Rickie Weeks, who struggled mightily in the first half (209/336/358). And then, of course, there's Prince Fielder (289/383/614), who isn't going anywhere.

I'd be more concerned with the pitching staff. The team's 4.42 ERA is 9th in the league, and is notably worse than the Cubs (4.01). The Cubs are also working with a stronger defense (.710 DER to the Brewers' .687, which ranks 13th in the NL).

Milwaukee's bullpen is actually doing fine. Francisco Cordero is still doing fine as closer, and the Brewers have gotten good work out of Derrick Turnbow, Brian Shouse, Matt Wise, and trade acquisition Scott Linebrink. Each of those five has an ERA above the league average.

No, the Brewer's big problem is their rotation. They've gotten great work from ace Ben Sheets, but injuries have again limited his performance to just 119.1 IP. He's on the DL now, but should be coming off soon. The sooner the better, because the Brewers' best starter after him has been young Yovani Gallardo (4.20 ERA in 8 starts). Gallardo, the team's top prospect, has been a godsend even though he's not been as dominant as hoped. Because after Sheets and Gallardo, here are the pitchers who have started the most games for Milwaukee:

Jeff Suppan: 25 starts, 4.90 ERA, 54:80 BB:K ratio in 150.2 IP

Dave Bush: 22 starts, 5.07 ERA, 136.2 IP, 33:102 BB:K ratio but 19 HR allowed

Claudio Vargas: 21 starts, 4.87 ERA, 118.1 IP

Chris Capuano: 21 starts, 4.96 ERA, 114.1 IP, 46:99 BB:K ratio

Without Sheets, the Brewers are in serious trouble, even if their offense is good. The best-case scenario is that Sheets comes back and pitches well, Gallardo improves, and Capuano starts pitching m0re like his previous self (4.33 career ERA). If they can do that, then they can survive the low-end garbage pitching of Suppan and Vargas at the back of the rotation.

It's a tough call to make, but I'm going to go out on a limb and pick the Brewers to hold on and win the Central. They've got their share of problems, yes, but then so do the Cubs . . .

Chicago Cubs (60-58)
My Prediction: 78-84

At Current Pace: 82-80

The Cubs, after a first half that saw everything go wrong, are starting to turn things around and play to their potential. It's really surprising how many things are going right for the Cubs. Although, as you can see from my prediction, I was pessimistic about their chances to begin with.

But really, who could have predicted such strong work from all these people:

Mark DeRosa: 288/363/418

Mike Fontenot: (297/347/443)

Ted Lilly: 3.51 ERA, 41:124 BB:K ratio, 151.1 IP

Rich Hill: 3.85 ER, 140.1 IP, 48 BB:K ratio

Carlos Marmol: 1.83 ERA, 22:61 BB:K ratio in 44.1 IP

Jason Marquis: 4.18 ERA, 140 IP (although Marquis' numbers are really a great start followed by a few months of pitching like ... well, himself.)

The Cubs have also gotten strong production from several different relievers (Angel Guzman, Michael Wuertz, etc.), which is one of the biggest improvements in this year's squad, to my mind. Give Lou Pineilla credit for getting creative with job descriptions in the bullpen. He's taken the talent available to him and done a fine job deploying it, with the success of Marmol the best example.

If only the offense were nearly as successful. You'll notice that the only real surprises on the offensive side of the ledger were Mark DeRosa -- who's played more outfield than infield -- and Mike Fontenot, who isn't really that good. Sure, the Cubs have gotten the usual great work from Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, but here's a short list of their offensive disappointments:

Alfonso Soriano: 297/336/511 (no, that's not bad, but it's very disappointing considering his salary and the expectation that he would hit like an MVP at Wrigley)
Ryan Theriot (286/348/367): Theriot's a great guy to have on your roster and is a good emergency fill-in at second, but there's no reason for him to come to bat more than 400 times (416 PAs and counting)
Cliff Floyd (290/366/382): Say goodbye to power. The Cubs entered the season with too many corner outfielders on the roster; why then did they end up moving their second baseman (DeRosa) to right field? It's because Floyd and Jacque Jones (see below) couldn't keep their jobs.
Jacque Jones (265/326/375): This guy shouldn't even be on the club anymore. He should have been traded in the offseason while he still had some value. As it is, he's just dead weight on the roster.
Matt Murton (263/335/391): The good news (relatively speaking) is that Murton is much better than this. And he's also much cheaper than Jones and Floyd.

Cesar Izturis (246/298/304): Thank God the club finally left the Dusty Baker era once and for all. Izturis is horrible, and he's now right where he belongs: Pittsburgh.

The Cubs' inactivity at the trade deadline may seriously come back to haunt them. They've got plenty of players on the roster, yes, and many of them are expensive. But that's doesn't mean that they actually have someone to play catcher or shortstop, and they're still short two outfielders.
As much as things have gone right for the Cubs' pitching staff so far, their lineup has been pretty disappointing. The best plan now would probably be to release Jacque, move Soriano to left, and install Felix Pie in center. Pie hasn't hit well so far this year, but he's not much worse than Floyd and Jones and is at least much cheaper and a good defender. It would also be a good move for the future to get him more at bats at the big-league level.

As for catcher, the best thing would have been to keep Michael Barrett, but I can understand that there were some personality issues there (how extreme they were depends on whom you ask). Without Barrett, they should have just promoted Geovany Soto. He's not great, but he's not bad either (Koyie Hill is bad) and he's cheap. Instead the Cubs made a trade -- premeditated, I assume -- to get one of the worst players in baseball, who also comes with a pretty big salary. Jason Kendall has hit well for the Cubs so far, but don't count on that lasting very long.

If the Cubs do lose the NL Central to the Brewers, it will mainly be their own fault. They've done a very poor job of maximizing production from their lineup, although to be fair, a lot of that is due to the large amount of inefficient dollars being spent on otherwise useless players.

If the Cubs do win the NL Central, it won't be because of Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, Jason Marquis or even Ted Lilly. It will be thanks to Lou Pineilla (for removing the shackles of ignorance from the pitching staff's deployment) and the guys who were here to begin with: Lee, Ramirez, Hill, Marmol, and others. If you could find a measure for dollars spent compared to positive effect on the team, this year's Cubs would have to rank as one of the worst ever. The team has improved, yes, but not nearly in proportion to the money spent, and most of the improvement came not from the new players acquired but from a better understanding of the talent they already had.

So even if the Cubs do win the division, it may not exactly be something to be proud of. Because they'll be winning it in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars they spent this offseason.

St. Louis Cardinals (56-60)
My Prediction: 86-76

On Current Pace: 78-84

The Cardinals are fooling themselves if they think they're going to get back into contention this year. They're slowly working their way back to .500 -- and bully for them -- but I can't see them making it past the Cubs and Brewers. The Cardinals just aren't that good.
Their offense is especially weak. The glory years of Pujols/Rolen/Edmonds are over, and the Cards need to get to work about replacing the latter 2/3 of that troika. Rolen and Edmonds are still falling far sheet of even their career averages. And considering their respective salaries, this is very bad for the organization.
After Pujols and Chris Duncan (276/371/522), the Cards haven't gotten consistently good production from anyone. They've gotten some promising work from some part-timers, and this might lead some to believe that the Cards just need to put it all together to succeed. But I'm very dubious.
Assuming that Pujols (1B), Rolen (3B), Duncan (LF) and Edmonds (CF) are in the lineup, who's filling in elsewhere? In the outfield, the Cardinals have gotten decent work from Juan Encarnacion (290/330/440), but even that modest production is above what we'd expect from him. There's also been some promising work done by Brendan Ryan, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and, most recently, Rick Ankiel. But what the Cardinals have here is a small group of very good bench players but no one to step up with significant offense, the kind of offense that's needed for a batting order with so many holes.
In the middle infield, the Cards have deployed David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. Eckstein has been fair, as usual (295/342/358), but Kennedy has been the worst player on the team this year, hitting 219/282/290 in 306 plate appearances! If they'd replaced Kennedy with a halfway decent guy, they'd already be above .500.
And catching is Yadier Molina, whose defense is so good that it almost makes up for his dreadful offense (268/337/318).
The Cardinals' batting order isn't getting any better. I know Cardinals fans are optimists, and there's a lot to get excited about with the promotion of Rick Ankiel to the majors. They rank 11th in the NL in runs scored, and are a lot closer to last than they are to first.

Throughout this whole entry, I haven't even mentioned the St. Louis pitching. That's because they rank 14th in the NL in ERA, behind only Houston and Cincinnati (who hit in more hitter-friendly parks). And they'd be even worse than that if it weren't for the fact that their mediocre bullpen somewhat makes up for their catastrophic starting rotation.
Sorry, but the Cards aren't going anywhere this year, and in any other division, they wouldn't be going anywhere next year either.

Houston Astros (54-65)
My Prediction: 75-87
On Current Pace: 74-88
Carlos Lee is a good hitter, and he's done a wonderful job so far this year (302/356/536). But if there's ever been a free agent signing more irrelevant to a team's postseason chances, I can't think of one. The Astros are a team barren, barren of talent. They're very top-heavy, with legitimate stars like Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, and Lee, but no mid-level players to fill in the gaps. Instead, it's a long drop from the stars to the rest of the roster, which is 5th-place material, easily. By the time the Astros are able to rebuild their roster into something of a contender, Lee will be much older and no longer justifying his salary. That's the real waste of his contract; the fact that it's money that won't mean a damn thing to the team's long-term interests and would have been better off invested in draft picks and scouting.
As it is, the Astros are lucky to have Berkman, Pence, and Lee backed up with unlikely slugger Luke Scott (255/355/507) and Mike Lamb (296/375/478). That means they only have four gaping holes in the lineup (well, five, now that Pence is on the DL).
In the middle infield, the Astros have defensive expert Adam Everett at shortstop, but he's also the team's worst hitter (228/275/316), and that's saying something. At second base, the Astros will be lucky to rid themselves of Craig Biggio (248/285/396); the future Hall-of-Famer is no longer justifying a spot in the lineup, which was evident last year, but oh well. His replacement-in-waiting, Chris Burke, hasn't fared any better (224/304/360).
The Astros still have Brad Ausmus behind the plate, and we can only hope that they've finally run out of sentimental reasons to keep this millstone (233/313/319) around their necks.
Next to Lee and Pence, the Astros need someone else in the outfield. They haven't much luck so far, as they've given over 250 at bats to the dreadful duo of Orlando Palmeiro and Jason Lane.

The sad part isn't how bad the Houston lineup is, it's how predictably bad it was going into the season. Not to mention the fact that it should be worse; Lamb and Scott aren't usually this good.

On the pitching side of the equation, things are equally depressing. Only the Reds and Marlins have allowed more runs and, just like with the offense, this eventuality was not only thoroughly predictable, it's going to be their reality for the near future. Top pitching prospects Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz were traded to the Rockies for Jason Jennings, who's been so awful (6.15 ERA in 16 starts) that the Astros couldn't even trade him away.
Roy Oswalt has been one of the NL's best pitchers (3.32 ERA in 172.2 IP), as advertised. But here's the rest of their rotation:

Jason Jennings: 6.15 ERA, see above
Woody Williams: 5.09 ERA, 41:78 BB:K ratio
Wandy Rodriguez: 4.34 ERA in 139 IP; 41:120 BB:K ratio
Matt Albers: 6.20 ERA in 9 starts

Neither Jennings nor Albers are really this bad, but that's small consolation. Williams is indeed this bad, and league-average pitching is the best you're going to get out of Wandy.
In the bullpen, the story is the continuing yo-yo act by Brad Lidge. Lidge sports a 3.26 ERA, with a 20:66 BB:K ratio in 49.2 IP. Considering their future prospects, it's insane that the Astros haven't traded Lidge by now, especially given the fact that every contending team is always looking for bullpen help. The 'Stros did trade Dan Wheeler, but they didn't get prospects in return; they got a mediocre 29-year-old corner infielder (Ty Wigginton).

The Astros aren't going to be doing much winning this year or next. They do have some hope in prospects such as Pence, but they've let so many positions on the field go to pot that they're now left facing a complete overhaul if they want to compete. It's doubtful that the team will trade big-money guys like Lee or Oswalt (at least not yet), so we're probably left with a couple more years of the team acting like contenders even though we all know they aren't. That's a depressing prospect, especially for a franchise that's been one of the league's best for over ten years now.

Cincinnati Reds: (51-67)
My Prediction: 78-84
On Current Pace: 70-92
The Reds are doing worse than even I predicted. Wow.
Some local sources are still in denial; the Cincinnati weekly Citybeat actually ran a cover story claiming (once again) that all the Reds needed were some relievers. I should point out that Citybeat ran a baseball story with the same gist four years ago, and I wrote back saying that they were deluding themselves (my response was published). It would seem that time had proven me right, but learning from past mistakes isn't high on the list of requirements for sportswriters.
The Reds rank 7th in the NL in runs scored right now, with 553. Considering their ballpark, that's a travesty, and it demolishes the Citybeat argument. The Reds' best hitters have been Ken Griffey, Jr., Adam Dunn, and Scott Hatteberg, all of whom will be gone sooner rather than later. Fotunately, the Reds do have some A-level hitting prospects, such as Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, but unless they can hold onto Dunn or find some way to replace these guys, it will all just come out even.
The rest of the Reds' order is full of qualified successes. Brandon Phillips has done well (271/317/460), but he's not the All-Star many Cincinnati fans see him as. His unlikely career after failing in Cleveland's farm system is inspiring, just not quite historic. He's done a good job on defense, but he's not the sort of player you can build a franchise around, especially not with that OBP.
Josh Hamilton has been a great success (278/369/541), and there's really not much I can say about him except that he's still probably too good to be true. That's not to say that he won't stick around as a very useful player, but we can't assume that the first 241 plate appearances of his pro career are going to be a representative sample.
Ryan Freel is a heck of a utility player and has become an institution in the Queen City, but I hate to burst your bubble, he's not good enough to start everyday. He can be a great help filling the super-utility role, but he'll be 32 next year and hasn't learned to stop running into walls. As a result, he's played in just 75 games this year and hit an awful 245/308/347.
Edwin Encarnacion has had a terrible year (261/336/371). I've predicted big things for Edwin (well, big as in he'll be a quality everyday player), and it may just be a rationalization, but I wonder if the Reds' total ambivalence toward Edwin and the silly minor league stints aren't hurting him. This is a lot like what happened to Austin Kearns, where the Reds were far too focused on a player's faults and just wouldn't let them do what they do best. And for Edwin, that's (usually) hitting. He's also the only guy on the current lineup who can reliably be expected to be around the next time Cincinnati contends.
The Reds need offense; they especially need offense that they can rely on for the foreseeable future. Combining Bruce and Votto with (hopefully) Encarnacion and Dunn would be a good start, but considering the upper management, I really don't think the Reds are able to accurately determine their problems and issues.

The Reds have one of the worst pitching staffs in all of baseball; their team ERA of 4.83 is the worst in the NL, and their DER of .677 ranks them 15th in the league in defense (just ahead of Florida).
That ain't good.
The Reds do have a good 1-2-3 starting rotation projected for the near future in Bailey-Harang-Arroyo. The problem this year is that Bailey wasnt quite ready for the majors after all, and Bronson Arroyo fell off a cliff. Arroyo isn't as good as he was last year, when he was one of the best in the league, but I think he's a solid #3, and let's hope (for the Reds' sake) that he is.
After that, the Reds need help. Matt Belisle's move to the rotation has worked out about as well as you'd expect (5.40 ERA in 23 starts), and while Bobby Livingston has done well so far, he's not apt to keep it up. But still, in the scheme of things, having three good starting pitchers for the foreseeable future is a victory for the Reds. And let's not forget Aaron Harang, who is indeed better than people think.
The Reds' bullpen has been a big problem, yes, and luckily this year Wayne Krivsky didn't try to solve it by driving a dump truck out to the Relief Pitchers' Landfill and loading up. The Reds have shown patience with their in-house pitchers and, while things have gone horribly, they haven't yet panicked and made things worked like I expected them to. I wouldn't be averse to seeing them sign a mid-level innings eater to a free agent deal, but they need to avoid the Baltimore Solution of buying out every free agent reliever. And considering this administration's track record with relief pitchers and impatience, that may be exactly what they do. And can you blame them? It would be Citybeat off their backs.

The Reds have some good pieces to put together a contender and may actually be in better shape, long-term, than Houston or even St. Louis. But that requires that the front office uses what talent they have well and does a good job of targeting areas for improvement.

Which likely means that Krivsky & Co. will screw it all up again and get fired. Let's just hope (as Reds fans) that those rumors about Walt Jocketty are true . . .

Pittsburgh Pirates (49-68)
My Prediction: 69-93
On Current Pace: 68-94
I pledged in these entries to discuss major league baseball teams. I've already discussed the 5 major league teams in the NL Central, so I don't see any need to discuss the Pirates.

Have a nice day.

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