Sunday, January 30, 2011

2010 NL Central in Review

Chicago Cubs

W-L:  75-87 (5th place in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  73-89

Payroll:  $124.9 million (2nd in NL)

R/G:  4.23 (10th in NL)

ERA:  4.24 (13th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .679 (12th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster

Team LVPs:  Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez

Defensive Stars:  Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee

What Went Right:  It wasn’t all bad news for this fifth-place club.  The Cubs had six starters make as many as 18 starts.  The highest ERA of the bunch was the respectable 4.22 mark compiled by Carlos Silva.  The club also had two ace relievers in strikeout machine Carlos Marmol (138 K in 77.2 IP) and starter-turned-situational reliever Sean Marshall (90 K in 74.2 IP).

There were a couple bright spots in the lineup.  Geovany Soto bounced back from a dismal 2009 to reclaim his credentials as a superstar catcher, hitting 280/393/497.  Free agent signee Marlon Byrd did better than expected, hitting 293/346/429 and acquitting himself well in center field.  Kosuke Fukudome, considered a failure considering his high salary, contributed well offensively, hitting 263/371/439 and providing some much-needed on-base work for the team.

What Went Wrong:  The Cubs fell remarkably short on both sides of the ball.  While they’ve got a strong enough pitching staff to weather the storm, the future of their lineup isn’t too promising.

Above, I mentioned the fine ERAs compiled by Chicago starting pitchers.  The problem was that only two of them – Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells – pitched more than 150 innings.  Some of this was due to injuries (Carlos Silva’s heart problem) that are not likely to recur.  Then there was the Carlos Zambrano incident, which saw the mercurial hurler banished to the bullpen despite his status as one of the team’s best starters.  Although in light of his behavior on the field – and in the dugout – it’s easy to see why he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Looking ahead, the Cubs have, I think, three reliable starters:  Matt Garza, Dempster and Zambrano.  Dempster is good, but he’s also going to be 34 next year and is expensive.  Zambrano is good, but God only knows what’s going to happen next with him.  They’ve gotten lucky with the work done by Carlos Silva, plus they’ve got a useful guy in Randy Wells.  Still, it’s hard to predict much of a bounce-back from the returning 2010 starters, meaning a lot of responsibility falls on Garza.

Another big problem with the 2010 pitching staff was that the non-key players were almost uniformly terrible.  But they’re not bound to be so bad again next year, especially since some of the ugly ERAs posted by relievers seem out of line with their actual performance (such as Andrew Cashner’s 4.80 ERA despite impressive work).

However, it’s much harder to be optimistic about the starting lineup.  The lineup is losing Derrek Lee and replacing him with Carlos Pena.  Pena’s not going to help the Cubs like Lee did in his prime, and actually runs the risk of being a drag on the offense.  Granted, a lot of production should be made up by a healthy Aramis Ramirez, plus good work from young Starlin Castro.  But the success of the infield rides on the production of the risky Pena, unless the team upgrades at second base (Blake DeWitt, currently).

The outfield isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, either.  Soriano is decent in left, Byrd should be about average in center, and Fukudome would be great if he could just find another 10-15 homers.

The trouble is that the Chicago outfield will make $37 million in 2011 ($18 MM for Soriano alone).  The Cubs were 2nd in the NL in payroll last year and finished fifth.  They’re not going to climb out of that hole until they can remove some of those “toxic assets” from their balance sheet.  And it would help if they had a few more guys like Castro to replace them.

Notes:  The free-spending days of the Cubs seem to be behind them.  Jim Hendry’s shopping spree did help propel the Cubs to back-to-back division titles, but it also helped place them in their current mess.  … Maybe the new owners were scared by those empty seats at Wrigley Field.  They should be.  Cubs fans used to be counted on for good attendance even in the down years.  But all this success in recent years – and yes, this is what qualifies as success for this franchise – the fanbase may have been spoiled, now wanting to win every year … If the Cubs do return to contention, it will be because of Castro, Cashner and some young blood.  Cubs fans may like it when the team drops $100 million on a free agent, but the results haven’t been pretty in the past.  Of Hendry’s big free-agent deals, only the Ted Lilly contract really worked out for the team.

Cincinnati Reds

W-L:  91-71 (1st in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  92-70

Payroll:  $73.4 million (10th in NL)

R/G:  4.88 (1st in NL)

ERA:  4.02 (8th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .699 (3rd in NL)

Team MVPs:  Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Jay Bruce

Team LVPs:  Orlando Cabrera, Aaron Harang

Defensive Stars:  Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips

What Went Right:  The Reds’ offense wasn’t really that good.  They didn’t have the raw talent to back up their standing as the top-scoring team in the league.

But for one year, at least, it worked fine.  Joey Votto won the MVP with a career year, batting 324/424/600.  Scott Rolen stayed (relatively) healthy AND productive, at a 285/358/497 clip.  Jay Bruce was the most valuable outfield defender in baseball, plus he hit 281/353/493.  The team got solid work from veterans like Brandon Phillips and Ramon Hernandez, plus some young talent like Drew Stubbs.  There were still some trouble spots, but the lineup should be quite good again in 2011.

What Went Wrong:  Not a whole lot went wrong.  The Reds looked like an 85-win team and went 91-71, so there wasn’t a whole lot of room for disappointment.  The real troubling aspect of the 2010 team was that the pitching staff was good rather than great.

The young pitching talent that was supposed to fuel the Reds’ comeback was instead a mixed bag.  Johnny Cueto pitched well, finishing with a 3.64 ERA in 31 starts.  But his 138 strikeouts in 185.2 innings don’t bode well for a future ERA under 4.00.  Plus, the 24-year-old has been used a bit roughly by Dusty “The Mangler” Baker.

Mike Leake got off to a fine start, but his ERA eventually caught up to his middling peripherals, and he’ll have to fight for a spot in the stacked rotation.  Homer Bailey showed flashes of greatness, but until he shows any kind of consistency or durability, it’s tough to project him as a future stud.

The news wasn’t all bad, though.  Travis Wood made just 17 starts, but they were quite good.  He struck out 86 batters (against just 26 walks) in his 102.2 innings, for an ERA of 3.51.  Edinson Volquez made a promising return from Tommy John surgery, striking out 67 batters in 62.2 innings despite showing a wild streak typical of TJ survivors.  Plus, there was that Aroldis Chapman kid you may have heard about, whose fastball flashes anywhere from 100 MPH to Mach 1.

Overall, the progress made by the Reds’ young pitchers is encouraging.  I’m hesitant, though, to pencil in any great leap forward in 2011.  Wood looks poised to break out, but there are still questions about Bailey, and Cueto may end up fading a bit.  The Reds won’t be able to count on stalwart Aaron Harang, whose injuries consigned him to ERA massage therapy at Petco Park.  Bronson Arroyo got a shiny, new contract, but he’s living on the edge with his low strikeout rate.

Hopes for a return to contention in 2011 rely on the pitching staff’s ability to make up the ground lost by an offensive regression.  And I’m not comfortable making that assumption just yet.

Notes:  Despite significant issues at shortstop and left field, the Reds failed to address either issue in their offseason.   If you want to upgrade over Paul Janish, that’s fine – but is Edgar Renteria really an upgrade? … Chapman would be an ace if he could handle a starter’s workload, but there’s good reason to be skeptical that he can.  I’d love to see the Reds try, but wouldn’t be too disappointed if he were just a lights-out closer … There’s nothing wrong with settling for Jonny Gomes in left field if you have to.  There is a problem if you don’t realize that you’re settling.

2011 Prognosis:  The Reds will be contenders, but will need the pitching staff to live up to its hype if they want to hold off the Cardinals.

Houston Astros

W-L:  76-86 (4th place in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  69-93

Payroll:  $71.3 million (11th in NL)

R/G:  3.77 (15th in NL)

ERA:  4.09 (7th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .678 (14th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Lance Berkman

Team LVPs:  Tommy Manzella, Carlos Lee

Defensive Stars:  Michael Bourn

What Went Right:  Well, the stadium didn’t burn down.

There’s very little hope for this franchise.  Any good news from 2010 is marginal when considering the future.  Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt played well enough to get traded away and get the Astros some useful parts, though not anybody they can build the team around.  If they’d been traded three years ago, maybe they would have brought back such a return.

Many people (myself included) wondered why Houston, a hopeless team, bothered to spend money on a B-level starter like Brett Myers.  The Astros were vindicated, though, when Myers pitched like his old self, notching 180 strikeouts for an ERA of 3.14.  That gave the Astros an opportunity to trade the reinvigorated ex-Phillie.  Instead, they re-signed him to a new contract.  Here’s hoping that he stays reinvigorated and gives them another chance to trade him.  Not that they will, I guess.

Wandy Rodriguez had another good season, pitching nearly 200 innings with a 3.60 ERA.  The Astros just signed him to an extension, giving them another good-but-not-great pitcher over the age of 30. 

What Went Wrong:  For years, the Astros built their team around a handful of veterans and some luck.  Now the veterans are gone.

The lineup went from bad to Pirate-ish, thanks mainly to Carlos Lee’s bat-astrophic season (246/291/417).  He was supposed to be the foundation of the batting order, along with the since-traded Berkman.  The 2011 team will just have to rely on Hunter Pence’s return to decency and Michael Bourn’s speed.

Bud Norris, supposed to shore up the pitching staff, instead finished with an ERA of 4.92, although his peripherals were better than that.  Ditto for Felipe Paulino’s mark of 5.11, although any hope for his improvement will have to come in the unforgiving Denver atmosphere.

Notes:  I’ve read several articles this offseason about teams needing starting pitching.  Should I send Ed Wade a link, perhaps? … With the Rangers in ascendance, this marks the first time in team history that they’ve been better than the Astros for any significant length of time.

2011 Prognosis:  The Astros probably won’t finish in last place, but it won’t be long before they fall behind the Pirates – that’s the Pirates.  With the team now for sale and no hope in the upper minors, the Astros are the most hopeless franchise in the National League.

Milwaukee Brewers

W-L:  77-85 (3rd in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  76-86

Payroll:  $75.9 million (9th in NL)

R/G:  4.56 (4th in NL)

ERA:  4.59 (14th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .673 (15th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo

Team LVPs:  Alcides Escobar, Doug Davis, Trevor Hoffman

Defensive Stars:  Jim Edmonds, Carlos Gomez

What Went Right:  There weren’t any big surprises in Milwaukee, but the ongoing excellence of the offense is worth remarking upon.  In addition to a fine season from Prince Fielder (261/401/471), the Brewers fielded a strong outfield.  Ryan Braun (304/365/501), Jim Edmonds (286/350/493) and Corey Hart (283/340/525) all struck the ball fairly well.  Rickie Weeks finally stayed healthy, showing a hint of what he’s capable of at 269/366/464 for 160 games.  The Brewers don’t lack for offense …

What Went Wrong: … but they do lack most everything else.

The starting rotation was a big disappointment.  Randy Wolf provided a poor return as a free agent investment, posting a 4.17 ERA (95 ERA+) with a staff-leading 87 walks in 215.2 innings.  Yovani Gallardo led the club in strikeouts with 200, but even his season was somewhat disappointing, thanks to 75 walks of his own in just 185 innings.

The rest of the rotation was, predictably, a mess.  Jeff Suppan finally got run out of town, with a Boeing-esque ERA of 7.84 in 15 games.  Doug Davis, with a 7.51 mark in 8 starts, was little better.  Manny Parra once again proved a disappointment (5.02 ERA) despite notching more than one strikeout per inning (129/122).  Dave Bush and Chris Narveson were some better, but just enough to prevent total catastrophe.

The bullpen was a work in progress.  The end of Trevor Hoffman’s career (5.89 ERA) opened the door for Jon Axford to be the team’s closer.  Axford carpe’d the diem, posting a 2.48 ERA with 24 saves and 76 K’s in 58 innings.  There was some good news, as the ERA’s posted by Todd Coffey (4.76) and Carlos Villanueva (4.61) were belied by relatively solid peripherals, although both did their part to contribute to the staff’s 582 walks allowed, second-most in the league.

The defense was pretty dreadful, a performance that accurately reflects the underlying talents.  Fielder, Braun and Casey McGeehee are all professional hitters who only play defense out of necessity.  Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks are functional at best.  Plus, the most promising gloves on the team (Carlos Gomez, Alcides Escobar) belong to the most hopeless hitters.  This will be a big issue for the team in 2011, especially since they’ve traded Escobar for Yuniesky “The Albatross” Betancourt.

Notes:  Kudos to GM Doug Melvin for realizing that 2011 is the year for the Brewers to go for it.  Fielder and Weeks will be free agents after the season, with Zach Greinke likely departing after 2012.  Braun and Gallardo are two great pieces to build around, but that’s assuming the farm system doesn’t collapse like a flan in a cupboard … The team’s decision to go all in makes their decision to extend Corey Hart (3 yrs/$27 MM) a bit puzzling.  Hart doesn’t have a consistent track record, and even at his best he’s not a superstar.  Still, if he performs well, the contract should be easy enough to trade … Despite the fact that he didn’t dominate in 2010, Gallardo is the Brewers’ best pitcher, not Greinke.

2011 Prognosis:  Greinke and Shaun Marcum will make the Brewers strong contenders.  Apres, le deluge.

Pittsburgh Pirates

W-L:  57-105 (6th in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  54-108

Payroll:  $37.4 million (16th in NL)

R/G:  3.62 (16th in NL)

ERA:  5.00 (16th in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .669 (16th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell

Team LVPs:  They lost 105 frickin’ games.

Defensive Stars:  See above.

What Went Right:  The results at the major league level were ugly.  Not just ugly -- baboon-butt ugly.

But the Buccos did see some encouraging work by their young stars.  Andrew McCutchen continued his good work at the plate, hitting 286/365/449 and going 33/43 in stolen bases.  His defense rates as poor (-15.5 runs according to UZR*), but there’s still plenty of upside there. 
* – Ultimate Zone Rating

Two other key prospects reached the majors:  3B Pedro Alvarez and OF Jose Tabata.  Alvarez ranks as the stud of the group, hitting pretty well (256/326/461) in his rookie season.  Tabata didn’t fare quite as well, finishing at 299/346/400.  His ceiling in the majors is much more iffy, but he’s young and cheap and should at least be useful.  Neil Walker also rates as a promising guy, hitting an impressive 296/349/462 as the team’s second baseman.  But Walker’s defense at the keystone is still very much a work in progress.

The good news is that the Pirates have a plan.  It’s not a really complicated plan.  They’re spending top dollar in the amateur draft and in the international amateur market.  The results are starting to creep up to the majors, and they’re quite promising.  The previous Pirate regime never would have allowed the team to lose 105 games.  They would have panicked, spending money on C-level free agents or trading away young talent in order to field a much less offensive 70-win team.  It’s what they did for years.  But this group has the balls to lose 105 games, because they know it’s best for the team.  I can respect that.

What Went Wrong:  In the scheme of things, very little went wrong.  When you field a replacement-level team, you can’t be surprised when you finish dead last.  Not just dead last, but last across the board – last in offense, pitching and defense.  I’m sure the Pirates would have liked more improvement from their top prospects.  They would have really liked to see signs of life from their starters, a group of guys who are too old to be called prospects anymore.  But they can’t be too shocked.  They must have suspected that Paul Maholm and Zach Duke wouldn’t be around to see the Pirates’ return to contention.

Notes:  The five pitchers who made the most starts for Pittsburgh in 2010 managed just 408 strikeouts.  Put all five of them together, and they just beat out Nolan Ryan’s 1973 season (383 K’s) … According to DER, the Pirates barely edge out the Brewers for last in National League defense.  But if you account for their ballpark, as BP’s Park-Adjusted Defense Efficiency does, they rank last by a healthy margin, nearly twice as bad as the number-fifteen team … The Pirates cornered the market on busted top prospects in 2010, playing Andy LaRoche, Jeff Clement, Delwyn Young, Lastings Milledge, Bobby Crosby and Hayden Penn.  It’s worth trying out these guys, though, even if just one of them pans out.  Together, they made about as much as a free agent middle reliever.

2011 Prognosis:  Barring a revelation of pitching adequacy, last place again.

St. Louis Cardinals

W-L:  86-76 (2nd in NL Central)

Pythagorean W-L (pW-pL):  92-70

Payroll:  $113.2 million (5th in NL)

R/G:  4.54 (6th in NL)

ERA:  3.57 (T-3rd in NL)

Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER):  .692 (6th in NL)

Team MVPs:  Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter

Team LVPs:  Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Lohse

Defensive Stars:  Brendan Ryan, Yadier Molina

What Went Right:  If you just look at the Cards’ best five or six players, they match up with any other team in the league.  Other teams would love to have a lineup with Pujols, Holliday and Rasmus combined with a rotation led by Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia.  But there was a big difference between these six stars and the other guys on the Cardinals. We’ll get to that later, though.

Albert Pujols had an off year; he was just the second-best player in the league.  Albert hit 312/414/596, tossing in 14 steals and fine defense as well.  For most folks that’s a career year, but Albert hit 327/443/658 in 2009.  There’s no need to worry, though.  He should “bounce back” in 2011.

Even with the comfort of a long-term contract, Matt Holliday managed to put up top-notch numbers in his first full season in St. Louis.  He hit 312/390/532 with strong defense in left field.  It’s an encouraging sign for the Cardinals, who are banking on the fact that this late-bloomer can stay at this level for a few more years.

Center fielder Colby Rasmus was rumored to be in Tony LaRussa’s doghouse, which isn’t such a bad thing when you consider how many good players have been there in the past.  Cardinal fans worry, though, that LaRussa will deem young Rasmus expendable, and they’ll lose the only promising young position player in the whole system.  Rasmus hit well in 2010, but his potential goes beyond his 276/361/498 showing.  Hopefully LaRussa won’t send him Rolen out the door.

The starting rotation returned the two studs from 2009, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and both men once again rated as two of the best pitchers in baseball.  They were joined, unexpectedly, by 23-year-old Jaime Garcia.  Garcia was considered to be a promising prospect, but even the Cardinals must have been surprised when he got off to a red-hot start.  He cooled off a bit as the season progressed, but still finished with an ERA of 2.70 in 163.1 innings.  Garcia probably isn’t as good as that ERA, but he should be one of the best #3 starters in the league.

What Went Wrong:  Even considering the success of Garcia and Rasmus, the Cardinals are having a tough time finding players to fill the holes in their roster.  LaRussa was left to sift through several unpalatable options, especially in the infield.  In all fairness to GM Jon Mozeliak, LaRussa seems to be getting even more prickly as he gets older, with an all-or-nothing attitude to many players, not necessarily commensurate with their on-field value.

After Pujols, the Cardinals infield was a mess.  Third baseman David Freese hit fairly well (296/361/404), but he’s not the long-term solution there.  Glovely shortstop Brendan Ryan was much worse, finishing the season at 223/279/294, a hitting performance that not even Ozzie Smith could salvage.  Still, Ryan’s skills on defense are valuable.  Not that he’ll be around in St. Louis to show them off, having been shipped to Seattle.

The worst offender, though, was second baseman Skip Schumaker.  Schumaker hit 265/328/338 while looking like the converted outfielder he is on defense.  In spite of this, he may yet be the team’s second baseman in 2011.  No one really knows why.

The back end of the rotation suffered as well, though this was harder to foresee.  Kyle Lohse struggled through the season, limping to the finish line with a 6.55 ERA that reflected the fact that he was less than 100%.  Ditto for Brad Penny, who looked pretty sharp before injuries cut his season short at just 9 games started.

In their place, the Cards turned first to Jeff Suppan, then Jake Westbrook.  Suppan failed to inspire great hope, while Westbrook did a fine job of picking up the slack.  The Cards re-signed him to be their fourth starter, a position he should fill quite well.

The pitching staff should be set for a rebound in 2011, with a healthy Kyle Lohse rounding out the best starting staff in the division.  Hopes for the offense are more cautious, since it’s hard to count on Lance Berkman being healthy or Ryan Theriot being anything better than adequate.

Notes:  It’s fun to watch Yadier Molina snap off throws to first base, catching baserunners napping.  It’s much less fun to watch this career 268/327/361 hitter wield a bat.  Even a small drop in defensive value will quickly make him a backup catcher … Watching Tony LaRussa manage the team’s marathon loss to the New York Mets was maddening in the extreme.  Has any manager since Billy Martin been so good and at the same time so infuriating? … The Cardinals needed another hitter last year, so they traded for Pedro Feliz.  They still needed a hitter, but at least Feliz could make his prize-winning blueberry muffins, or whatever it is he does at this point.

2011 Prognosis:  Their stacked rotation and offensive fire power may give them a slight edge over the Reds, but things would be a lot safer if they added another bat.

Next Up:  The NL West

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