Thursday, October 30, 2008

2008 NL Central in Review

Chicago Cubs
W-L: 97-64 (1st in NL Central)
pW-pL: 98-63
Payroll: $118,345,833 (3rd in NL)
R/G: 5.31 (1st in NL)
ERA: 3.87 (T-2nd in NL)
DER: .703 (1st in NL)
Team MVPs: Ryan Dempster, Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto
A Drag on the Payroll: Kosuke Fukudome (257/359/379, $6 MM), Jason Marquis (4.53 ERA in 167 IP, $6.4 MM), Bobby Howry (5.35 ERA in 70.2 IP, $4 MM)
What Went Right:
It's hard to imagine a much better result for the pitching staff than what they got. They got a great return by Kerry Wood as closer as well as another excellent setup season by Carlos Marmol. And if Carlos Zambrano wasn't quite as good as usual, Ryan Dempster more than made up with it by hurling a very unlikely All-Star season. He was backed up by Zambrano, Ted Lilly and trade acquisition Rich Harden (who worked out a whole lot better than I predicted).
In the lineup, the Cubs had a series of good-but-not-great performances by their regulars (Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, etc.) bolstered by a series of unlikely successes by their backups (Theriot, Fontenot, even Mark DeRosa).

What Went Wrong: Other than the postseason flop, things went relatively well. You could have asked for a better show from Zambrano, Lee, and Soriano, but that's just nitpicking if you're the best team in the league. Kosuke Fukudome was the biggest disappointment, in terms of what was actually expected. He was supposed to be a mini-Bobby Abreu, with speed, defense, on-base skills, and a little pop. Instead, he hit 257/359/379. The OBP was there, but he wasn't any sort of Bobby Abreu. Now there's a chance that his fortunes could improve given another year in the states. But with the Cubs under pressure to win now, they're not likely to be patient with a poor performer in the outfield (see: Pie, Felix). So if he doesn't work out next year. he may be looking for redemption on another club.
Notes: As someone who once wrote a blog titled "Fire Jim Hendry," I must confess that my feelings have cooled since then. I'm still not his biggest fan, but I must admit that he seems to be avoiding some of the mistakes that plagued him in the past. If he can continue to do so, he's got the goodwill to stay in Chicago for a while ... Third Baseman Aramis Ramirez was voted the NL Hank Aaron award winner for offensive performance. What the hell kind of criteria was there for that one? ... There are few pitchers as volatile (and fun to watch) as Carlos Zambrano. I don't mean that negatively, exactly, just that you never know just what you're going to get ... Even considering the outsized contributions of Dempster, Theriot, and Fontenot, the Cubs should still be the best team in the Central next year, barring some daring moves by their division rivals.

Cincinnati Reds
W-L: 74-88 (5th in NL Central)
pW-pL: 72-90
Payroll: $74,117,695 (1oth in NL)
R/G: 4.35 (12th in NL)
ERA: 4.55 (13th in NL)
DER: .671 (Last in NL)
Team MVPs: Edinson Volquez, Joey Votto
A Drag on the Payroll: Alex Gonzalez (Did not play, $4.6 MM), Corey Patterson (205/238/344, $3 MM)
What Went Right: The Cincinnati youth movement had a fairly good year in 2008. Joey Votto took over at first base and had a fine year (297/368/506), and Jay Bruce settled into the majors, even if his performance was disappointing (254/314/453).
On the pitching side of things, Dusty Baker rode young pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto into the ground. Volquez had a good season (3.21 ERA, 196 IP), but you have to be worried for the young pitchers, as anyone who's seen Dusty at work before can tell you.
What Went Wrong: Everything else was basically a shambles. Rotation stalwarts Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo both struggled. Arroyo's performance wasn't surprising, considering (4.77 ERA in 200 IP). But Harang's difficulties (4.78 ERA in 184.1 IP), exacerbated by his handling by Baker, are more puzzling and disturbing. The Reds have the talent, on paper, to field a top-notch rotation. But if both the veterans and rookies are being undermined by Baker's handling, then it will be a tragic waste of talent.
The once-vaunted Reds' offense has disappeared, as their poor attempts to find help for Adam Dunn have been largely unsuccessful. So they got rid of Dunn . . . hmm. They are getting a big boost from Votto and Bruce (and to a lesser extent, Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips), but they'll need a truly potent lineup to contend in the Central, especially if their pitching problems persist. And unless Walt Jocketty can swing one of his winning trades, that won't be happening for a while.
Notes: The luster has worn off in Cincinnati, as the attendance indicates. With the trading of Griffey and Dunn, the Reds are also losing their last marquee players. That's not their chief worry, but it certainly won't help their attendance ... With Jocketty as GM, maybe the Reds will finally break their long, strange fascination with middle relievers ... Here's hoping the front office will be able to take a stronger hand in the construction of the roster, if only to deny Corey Patterson another 366 at bats (205/238/344) ... Brandon Phillips has become the team's biggest star, but his offense isn't what it's cut out to be (261/312/442). It's not bad for a second baseman, but it's not great either, especially in that park. The good news is that he's become one of the better defensive second basemen in the game.

Houston Astros

W-L: 86-75, 3rd in NL Central
pW-pL: 77-84
Payroll: $88,930,414 (7th in NL)
R/G: 4.42 (11th in NL)
ERA: 4.39 (9th in NL)
DER: .697 (4th in NL)
Team MVPs: Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt
A Drag on the Payroll: Brad Ausmus (218/303/296, $2 MM)
What Went Right: Their Pythagorean record indicates they weren't quite as good as they looked. The good news is that they lived up to their best-case scenario: their role players weren't very good, but they got fine production from Lance Berkman (312/420/567), Carlos Lee (314/368/569), Roy Oswalt (3.54 ERA, 208.2 IP).
What Went Wrong: The Astros have absolutely no depth and a poor farm system, a deadly combination. The players added by the team, Miguel Tejada (283/314/415) and especially Michael Bourn (229/288/300) were disappointing. The team did trade for Randy Wolf (3.57 ERA in 12 starts), who gave the team some well-needed good innings. Closer Jose Valverde did well (3.38 ERA, 83 K in 72 IP), unfortunately, ex-closer Brad Lidge starred in Philadelphia and won a World Series.
Notes: Is Roy Oswalt the forgotten pitcher of the NL? He's not a grizzled Hall-of-Famer (Maddux, Pedro, Randy Johnson), and he's not a young ace (Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb). He's just a 30-year-old, consistently excellent pitcher ... Is Ed Wade's clock ticking yet, or is that just wishful thinking on my part? ... With Brandon Backe struggling mightily, Houston got a big boost from an unlikely source: Wandy Rodriguez (3.54 ERA in 25 starts) ... It's a bit rash to make predictions this early, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Astros become next year's Mariners. They're a team that isn't really a contender, but management isn't able to tell the difference, and so they leverage this imaginary contention into a short-term strategy of "win-now," which ends up hurting the team in the long-term and short-term. I should say that the Mariners of 2008 were a particularly egregious example of this; few teams fall all the way to 100 losses a year after contending, especially when you're sporting a $100 MM+ payroll.

Milwaukee Brewers

W-L: 90-72 (2nd in NL Central; NL Wild Card)
pW-pL: 87-75
Payroll: $80,937,499 (8th in NL)
R/G: 4.63 (7th in NL)
ERA: 3.87 (T-2nd in NL)
DER: .700 (2nd in NL)
Team MVPs: C.C. Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder
A Drag on the Payroll: Jason Kendall (246/327/324, $4.25 MM), Jeff Suppan (4.96 ERA, 177.2 IP, $8 MM), Eric Gagne (5.44 ERA, 46.1 IP, $10 MM), David Riske (5.31 ERA, 42.1 IP, $4 MM)
What Went Right: An awful lot, under the circumstances. The C.C. Sabathia trade worked out as well or better than anyone could have hoped. Ben Sheets stayed healthy enough to make 31 starts and throw 198.1 innings with a 3.09 ERA. Combined with Sabathia, the two made the biggest difference in the 2007 and 2008 teams, pushing the '08 squad into the postseason for the first time since 1982.
Another, less-hyped, mid-season acquisition happened when the team grabbed Ray Durham from the Giants. Rickie Weeks was struggling (234/342/398) at second, so the team decided to get an injection of offense. Durham hit very well in Milwaukee (280/369/477) and provided a high-OBP player in front of the team's sluggers, something they were often at a loss for.
What Went Wrong: Like the Astros, the Brewers' off-season moves didn't work out too well. In the "drag on the payroll" section, you can note Gagne and Riske, who were brought in to anchor the bullpen and ended up doing nothing of the kind. The decision to move Ryan Braun (285/335/553) into the outfield and to get Mike Cameron (242/331/477) turned out quite well. Braun's replacement at third, Bill Hall, didn't hit worth a darn (225/293/396), but his defense was strong, and he was part of a team-wide improvement in defense that boosted the whole squad.
The Jeff Suppan contract continues to look like a disappointment, with Suppan again struggling (4.96 ERA in 177.2 IP) despite an improvement in team defense. And with the injury to Yovani Gallardo, the team often had a difficult time filling out the back end of the rotation.
Notes: If the team loses both Sabathia and Ben Sheets, it will be an uphill battle to return to the postseason in 2009. That may explain the team's decision to shop around Prince Fielder in the hopes of getting one or two good, young pitchers ... As poorly as GM Doug Melvin fared with his offseason moves, he gets the lion's share of credit for engineering the mid-season turnaround by acquiring Sabathia and Durham ... With Cameron leaving as a free agent, the team may decide to move Rickie Weeks to center. It may be his last hope to settle in and harness his talent in the majors ... The Brewers should be looking for a new catcher. They haven't had a backstop worth a darn since Dave Nilsson in the late 90's ... The infield as a whole was a disappointment for Milwaukee. Prince Fielder was the only one to have a good year. J.J. Hardy is becoming more and more available, as the Brewers have the young talent to replace him ... The health and success of Yovani Gallardo could prove to be the single determining factor in the team's 2009 success.

Pittsburgh Pirates

W-L: 67-95 (Last in NL Central)
pW-pL: 67-95
Payroll: $48,689,783 (15th in NL)
R/G: 4.54 (9th in NL)
ERA: 5.10 (Last in NL)
DER: .675 (15th in NL)
Team MVPs: Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm
A Drag on the Payroll: Freddy Sanchez (271/298/371, $4 MM), Jack Wilson (272/312/348, $6.5 MM), Jason Michaels (228/300/382, $2.15 MM), Matt Morris (9.67 ERA, 22.1 IP, $9.5 MM)
What Went Right: The development of Nate McLouth and Paul Maholm.
What Went Wrong: The utter lack of development elsewhere. The Bucs did get a good collection of mid-level major leaguers when they traded away Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, but they're still missing any potential impact players. But that's a high standard to set, and for a team that's one year into a major rebuilding program, they haven't fared too badly.
Notes: If I were running the team, next on the trading block would be Adam LaRoche. He's getting older and more expensive for this team, and would be a good fit for the team that's left out of the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes and ends up desperate ... Let's hope the team that traded for Matt Morris is finally dead ... While I would be sensitive to the fans, I don't think you can trade Jack Wilson soon enough. I guess you could hope for another career year ... Trading away Nady and Bay was a good move, but it does leave the team empty in the outfield ... The infield isn't a whole lot better, although slotting in Andy LaRoche is a big boost. The team made the mistake of signing an extension with Freddy Sanchez after a career year. Of course, the previous administration made such mistakes a habit ... The Pirates have some promising young starters. The difficulty is keeping them all healthy and productive at the same time. No one there's going to be an ace, but even B-level young pitching is a big asset for any team, especially one that's trying to claw its way back to respectability.

St. Louis Cardinals

W-L: 86-76 (4th in NL Central)
pW-pL: 86-76
Payroll: $99,624,449 (5th in NL)
R/G: 4.81 (4th in NL)
ERA: 4.20 (7th in NL)
DER: .694 (T-6th in NL)
Team MVPs: Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick, Troy Glaus
A Drag on the Payroll: Chris Carpenter (1.76 ERA, 15.1 IP, $10.5 MM), Mark Mulder (10.80 ERA, 1.2 IP, $6.5 MM), Joel Pineiro (5.15 ERA, 148.2 IP, $5 MM), Jason Isringhausen (5.70 ERA, 42.2 IP, $8 MM)
What Went Right: A lot. The Cards did a lot better than I expected, and you can lay that extra performance right at the feet of unlikely stars Ryan Ludwick (299/375/591) and Skip Schumaker (302/359/406). Schumaker had a career year that faded as the season went on. But Ludwick's season was so amazing as to make people wonder if this journeyman was better than we used to think. My answer would be yes, but that there's a less than 1% chance he has another season like this.
And who could have guessed that this team's staff aces would have been Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse? Again, neither are likely to be as good in the future, even if they do pitch better than they used to, before they came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan.
What Went Wrong: Injuries. The team was really hurt by the loss of Chris Carpenter (15.1 IP), although they knew coming into the season that any innings at all would be a bonus. Jason Isringhausen also suffered injury troubles, but at this point in his career, he's not a shutdown closer and probably won't be again. The most foreseeable problem was that of Mark Mulder. It was a long shot that he could come back and contribute, and that proved to be true. Unfortunately, it may be that his career is over as well.
The Joel Pineiro experiment didn't fare as well in 2008 (5.15 ERA in 148.2 IP). The middle infield of Aaron Miles, Adam Kennedy, and Cesar Izturis was a huge drag on the lineup. Only the late addition of Felipe Lopez gave it a boost. But Lopez isn't a full-time solution to the Cards' problems.
Notes: Re-signing Kyle Lohse to a long-term deal with just 2008 as justification could prove to be a big mistake. They're paying Lohse to pitch at his very best for four straight years. Nobody pitches at their best for four years, especially when they haven't been able to sustain their best level for a significant period in their career. There's far more downside than upside to the deal, which is confusing, since this is not a team that can afford to dump $40 million on downside ... Albert Pujols suffered through injuries again, but was still the league's Most Valuable Player. This guy has almost punched his ticket to Cooperstown already; can he actually get better? ... When you look at the good-luck performances on this team, it seems that the Cards have a lot of work to do just to compensate for the production lost to regression. A healthy Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright would go a long way toward accomplishing that, but there's no one in the lineup that's going to pick up the slack and perform better than they did in 2008.

NEXT UP: The NL WEST! . . .

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