Monday, June 16, 2008

How's it Going at the 1/3 Mark? NL Central

Well, the NL Central is always full of surprises, which is fun if you're a fan, but can be pretty frustrating if you're an analyst. My predictions went along with the prevailing wisdom: the Cubs were the team to beat, the Brewers stood a good chance, the Reds were a dark horse, the Cards would finish fourth, and the Astros and Pirates would fight over last place. Well, it hasn't exactly worked out like that so far.
The one thing that has worked out is the Cubs as favorites. The Cubs have the best record in baseball despite dealing with some injury issues and some guys who haven't performed up to snuff. This is actually good news; if the Cubs can post a .645 winning percentage with flaws, what will they do if they can get everything fixed?
Offensively, the Cubs have had pretty much everything go their way. And, even better, they don't seem to be playing too far over their heads. They lead the league in scoring, with Aramis Ramirez (303/416/496) and presumptive Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto (288/376/532) leading the way offensively. Mark DeRosa may be hitting over his head (305/390/473), but even if his batting average settles down, he's still an asset.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Cub offense is that it hasn't had all the pieces clicking simultaneously. Derrek Lee has had some mild struggles (286/345/511, which is great for most people but just decent for him). Kosuke Fukudome (295/405/430) has played very well, but without the 20 HR-power he was supposed to have. And Alfonso Soriano (283/332/547), who's had injury troubles before, just got hit in the hand with a pitch. Soriano was actually getting booed some at Wrigley Field, which I find hard to understand, since he's hitting right in line with his career numbers.
If you dig deep enough, you can find some Cubs who are having enormously good luck that isn't likely to last, especially up the middle. Ryan Theriot is a fine ballplayer, but he's hitting 311/389/375, and when that batting average comes back down to earth, so will everything else, because he can't do much else at the plate. Ronny Cedeno, who got off to a blistering start, is already returning to his former hitless ways (287/357/386). In center field, Reed Johnson has turned back into a pumpkin (263/340/374) and while new addition Jim Edmonds has been pretty good thus far (297/333/500 in 69 PAs), you can't count on him to stay both healthy and productive.
So the Cubs are in good shape offensively, which is good news, because their pitching staff isn't as strong. Carlos Zambrano is pitching like an ace again, which is no surprise. But the only other starter off to a really good start is Ryan Dempster, who just can't be counted on with his history. Ted Lilly has been having terrible luck. He's got a 26:77 BB:K ratio in 79 innings, which is excellent. But he's also allowed 14 HR in that span. Lilly's always been prone to the long ball, but this year it's ballooned his ERA up to 5.13. I would expect Lilly to return to form this year, at least to some degree.
The Cubs have also had trouble filling out the back end of the rotation with consistently good workers. Jason Marquis has been decent (4.24 ERA), but with his strikeout numbers, he's due for a big fall. Rich Hill and Sean Gallagher have done decent work, but they can't get them both to stick. If I were the Cubs, I wouldn't be obsessing so much over the outfield; I'd look into getting a one-year rental on a reliable starting pitcher. Because if Ryan Dempster does revert to form and Ted Lilly keeps struggling, their rotation is going to be Carlos Zambrano and the Four Horsemen.
On the bright side, the bullpen has been good. Kerry Wood (2.48 ERA) has been excellent (and healthy) as closer, and may have finally found his niche. This has the ripple effect of keeping Carlos Marmol (2.14 ERA) in the multi-inning setup role that he thrived in last year. In fact, the Cubs have gotten good work up and down their bullpen. The only reliever who's really been a liability has been Bobby Howry (5.08 ERA in 33.2 IP). Their success may not continue forever, but at least they're in a strong position now, with a fair lead in their division.

Speaking of which, it's hard at this point to see any team passing the Cubs. The Cardinals are currently in second place and, I must admit, are playing far better than I ever anticipated (even though they're outplaying their Pythagorean record by 3+ wins). A whole lot of things are going right for them. Albert Pujols (347/475/631) has been excellent and Troy Glaus (264/368/443) has been pretty good. That I expected. But who in the world expected Ryan Ludwick (312/384/654) and Skip Schumaker (308/375/432), former bench players, to be vying for spots on the All-Star team? Not only that, but Rick Ankiel is hitting well (250/333/466), and Yadier Molina has actually been somewhat better than awful at the plate (299/358/382). The only real holes in the lineup are in the middle infield, and boy are they holes.
The trouble is that even though overachieving is inspiring, it doesn't last forever. Schumaker's relying a lot on a batting average that it's hard to see him sustaining. He's a promising player who got a late break into the majors, but I just don't see him staying at All-Star caliber all season long. Ludwick's been around since 2002, and his career batting mark is 266/335/497, and that's including this season.
What about the pitchers? Can they pick up the slack? As good as the pitching staff has been, I think it's HIGHLY unlikely that they'll be able to sustain it. Here is the Cards' current rotation, along with their ERAs:

Adam Wainwright (3.14)
Kyle Lohse (3.77)
Todd Wellemeyer (3.67)
Braden Looper (4.34)
Joel Pineiro (4.41)

The only one of those guys who's really that good is Wainwright, and even then a 3.15 ERA is a bit above his head. I suppose that Looper and Pineiro might continue giving the team yeoman work at the back of the rotation, but I cannot in good conscience predict that, when the season is over, Kyle Lohse or Todd Wellemeyer will have an ERA below 4.00 (or 4.25, for that matter). I respect Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan for their ability to reinvent starters who've been cast off from other organizations, but there's a limit to what two men can do.
Their bullpen has been pretty good, but there's no one there who inspires great confidence in their ability to continue (especially closer Ryan Franklin).

The Brewers were supposed to be the team to challenge the Cubs for NL Central supremacy, as they did last year. They were anchored by one of the best young, homegrown infields in the game. Here's how that infield stands now:
1B -- Prince Fielder (286/377/482)
2B -- Rickie Weeks (210/325/358)
SS -- J.J. Hardy (248/323/352)
3B -- Bill Hall (217/283/392)
You can forget any other aspect of this team. If these guys don't get their asses in line and start hitting, this team will never make the postseason. Outfielders Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Gabe Kapler are doing fine, but they can't make up for the terrific struggles of Weeks and Hardy.
The pitching staff had a chance to be good, but when they lost Yovani Gallardo for the season, that was a bad omen. Ben Sheets (2.72 ERA) has been excellent, but he's also made of glass. And behind him, the team hasn't been able to find anybody other than Jeff Suppan who can even keep the team in ballgames. And don't ask about the bullpen; it's worse.
This was a team that had a great chance this year, but my God, they've had almost everything go wrong. They're still contenders in the long wrong, but if this season continues on to a disastrous ending, it's going to cost some people their jobs (starting with you, Mr. Yost).

Would you believe that the Pittsburgh Pirates are 34-36 and in 4th place? It won't last, but it's nice enough that they've lasted this long as a relevant franchise. If you want to know how they're doing it, look no further than their outfield:

LF -- Jason Bay (283/393/526)
CF -- Nate McLouth (293/381/556)
RF -- Xavier Nady (314/376/510)

These guys have been a godsend, because other than catcher Ryan Doumit, the rest of the batting order stinks. And this isn't all smokes and mirrors. Bay really is this good, and McLouth is at least partly this good. Nady isn't this good at all, but it doesn't really matter; I've heard the Pirates are shopping Nady and maybe Bay (whose contract is up soon) in trade offers. It may disappoint the fans, but it would be great for the team to restock their think farm system by trading away a superstar free-agent-to-be, and a superstar-in-disguise.

The Houston Astros are 33-37, just 1/2 game out of the league basement. But honestly, they're doing better than I expected. Lance Berkman, already an MVP-caliber hitter, is having a career year (360/445/704), and the quickly aging Miguel Tejada hasn't been as bad at shortstop as I'd feared (300/334/480). But after that, the cupboard is pretty bare. Carlos Lee is having a good year, although not by his standards, and Ty Wigginton is hitting well, but that's not likely to last. Hunter Pence has struggled, and the rest of the team is a series of predictable disappointments. If the Phillies make the playoffs this year, the Houston fans really need to rub Ed Wade's nose in the Brad Lidge-for-Michael Bourn trade. Because Lidge has rediscovered himself in Philadelphia whereas Bourn, a one-dimensional outfield whose one dimension isn't hitting, is batting 234/290/314.
Ranked by VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), 4 of the top 5 Houston pitchers are relievers. And while it's true that they've gotten some good work out of journeyman guys (Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary), it says a lot more about their woeful starting pitching.
Coming into the season, I expected that the Houston rotation would be Roy Oswalt and his band of fools. The problem is that even Oswalt is struggling (5.06 ERA), and there's certainly no one there to take his spot.

The best-case scenario for this team in 2008 is 4th place. And remember -- this is a team built to win now.

The one time I actually pick the Reds to do something good, and they disappoint me. So what went wrong? Why are the Reds in last place?
Problem #1 is that they're 9th in the league in runs scored, even in their bandbox ballpark.
Problem #2 is that they're the 3rd-worst team in the league at preventing runs, which indicates both a bad pitching staff and a bad defense.
So who are the culprits?
Edwin Encarnacion gets a lot of bad press, but he's really not the Reds' worst problem. His hitting is decent (248/332/457) even if his defense is atrocious. Ken Griffey, Jr. (248/361/397) and Ryan Freel (298/340/359) have been worse. All this trade talk surrounding Griffey makes me wonder why anyone would really want him? He's not the worst player out there, but he is the worst player out there making $16 million. He's just about done and needs to leave gracefully. Freel isn't as old as Griffey, but he is in his 30's, and considering his injury history, he's not going to be much more useful in the future than Junior.
But there have been two big drags on the Cincinnati offense. One has been well-documented: Corey Patterson. Patterson hit 194/231/350 before the Reds finally brough up Jay Bruce, who could hit better than that with one hand lopped off. Dusty Baker is to blame for paying him, but then Dusty isn't the one who signs the checks and promotes players from the minors; management deserves just as much blame for letting the Patterson fiasco occur.
But there's another problem, nearly as big, that hasn't gotten much attention. That is that the Reds catchers have been awful. Just dreadful. And this was just as predictable as the Patterson debacle. Paul Bako is hitting (241/318/411), which is poor even for a catcher. And David Ross (wh0 was supposed to be the everyday guy) is hitting 231/351/323. It was no surprise coming into the season that these guys sucked. The only difference is that the rest of the lineup isn't producing enough to cover for them like they did in years past.
Hearing that the Reds are having pitching problems is nothing new. But it's different this year. Aaron Harang has been the staff anchor, pitching 101 innings, and while he has had some long-ball trouble (14 allowed), his BB:K ratio (20:89) shows that he's done much better work than his 4.10 ERA would indicate. Plus, the Reds have unleashed Edinson Volquez on the world. I'm very skeptical that Volquez will keep up his ERA (1.64) in GABP with his walk rate (44 in 88 IP), and I also think he's been homer-lucky to have only allowed 3 so far this year. But if you strike out 105 guys in 88 IP, it's hard to argue that you're anything but legit.
I thought the Reds would have good support behind these two coming into the season with Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, and maybe Homer Bailey, but that hasn't worked out. Cueto has a 5.42 ERA, and while he's better than that, he is still maturing as a pitcher, so he may not get much better this year. Bronson Arroyo's 5.31 ERA may get better, but we just have to accept that Arroyo's only league average at his best. And Homer Bailey still has a long way to go on the journey from the minors to the majors.
The Reds' bullpen has been drastically improved this year, not just with the signing of Francisco Cordero (2.64 ERA in 13 SV), but also with better work from Jared Burton, Bill Bray, Kent Mercker, and Jeremy Affeldt. That's small consolation if you're in last place, but it's a start.

So it looks like the drama in the National League will not be coming out of the Central, where the Cubs looked poised for a cakewalk even if they do stumble along the way.

Next up: the NL West, or Why the Rockies Are Making Me Look Like a Damn Fool.

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