Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 NL Central Preview

1) Chicago Cubs
2) Cincinnati Reds
3) Milwaukee Brewers
4) St. Louis Cardinals
5) Pittsburgh Pirates
6) Houston Astros


This is by far my boldest prediction of 2011: The Chicago Cubs will be NL Central champs. First of all, the NL Central is this season's biggest tossup. Not much separates the top 4 teams. I could see any of them  inning the division and a couple of them (Reds and Brewers) running away with the division if their pitching catches up to their offense. I just happen to think the Cubs have something going this year that will leave them bathing in champagne when all is said and done.

The Cubs are led first and foremost by their pitching. Huh? Yes, the staff finished with the 13th most runs allowed in the NL last year, but I really like the additions they made this off season and expect a bounce back from Carlos Zambrano. Matt Garza escapes the brutal AL East (where he actually performed quite well) and Andrew Cashner brings hope to the back end of the rotation. Their bullpen has 3 high strikeout guys in Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall. I also like the defense up the middle with Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney at the keystone and the criminally underrated Marlon Byrd in center. Most importantly, they have shed the bloated contract and bloated gut of Carlos Silva. Their offense could be in the top 3rd of the league as well. Aramis Ramirez just cannot be as bad as he was last year when injuries limited him to 124 games. Carlos Pena joins Garza in the Escape From AL (staring Kurt Russell as Jim Hendry) and I expect him to bounce back after a flukey season in which his BABIP was .222. Increased contribution from Tyler Colvin (see 10th Man) and natural progression from 21 year old Castro should also provide a boost to this offense. Add in the fact that there appears to be no other above average rotation in this division besides the Astros, and I think the Cubs offense will take a big step forward.

My Reds are defending division champs and a trendy bet to repeat, but I get the feeling that this is one of those young teams whose improvements are giant in one year and then they regress a little to the mean. Or maybe I'm shooting for a little reverse jinx. Their offense is going to absolutely mash once again. Paul Janish is the only below average hitter. I expect a HUGE Jay Bruce breakout and another MVP type season from Joey Votto. Their defense should be one of the best in the NL with potential Gold Glovers at every position except catcher and left when Johny Gomes plays. Unfortunately the pitching staff gives me night terrors despite its considerable starting depth. There is a lot of talent on the staff, but most of it is young and injury prone, which is essentially Dusty Baker's Kryptonite. "A 24 year old pitcher that throws 94? I must pitch him 250 innings at 120 pitches per start!" With a bullpen that could be a serious weakness beyond Aroldis Chapman, the Reds could be on the losing end of a lot of 9-8 games. Still, with the offense, youth, defense and starting pitching depth, this team could win 96 games and run away with the division.

The Brewers are "all in" this year. Unfortunately I think they have a better chance at making the World Series of Poker than the World Series of Baseball (get it? All in?). This is a very top heavy team. Zack Greinke (when he recovers from his basketball injury; why was there not more outrage over this?), Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum form a top 3 that matches up even with the Phillies top 3. Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee and Corey Hart (when he recovers from an accident he suffered while wearing his sun glasses at night) are a great meat of the order. Then there is a massive drop off to the next level of talent. The back of the rotation is brutal. Carlos Gomez, Yuni Bettancourt and the catcher platoon is weak. The bench of Craig Counsell, Mark Kotsay and Nyjer Morgan combined for 10 HR last year. The bullpen seems very shallow. And the defense, just by adding Bettancourt, could be the worst in baseball, negating a lot of the improvement made in the starting rotation. I think too much can go wrong here and we will see a little of this early in Hart's and Greinke's absences.

St. Louis is the last of the NL Central contenders and the team that Baseball Prospectus likes best to take the division. If the Cardinals do finish 4th, it would be the worst finish in Albert Pujols' career and just the second time they have finished this low (they were fourth place at 86-76 in 2008 in a surprisingly strong NL Central). Even more impressive, the team has finished below .500 just once, in 2007 a year in which no non-Pujols player made 500 plate appearances, Chris Carpenter was lost to Tommy John surgery and Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes combined to start 46 games. I see a similar scenario this season. With Matt Holiday already out due to his burst appendix (and no timetable for a return, though it should be soon) and Adam Wainwright going under the knife, this team is Pujols, a promising young outfielder (Colby Rasmus in 2011, Chris Duncan in 2007), one ace (Carpenter in 2011, Wainwright in 2007), a potentially bad bullpen (versus a strong one in 2007) and a lot of questions. Holiday will ultimately be fine, David Freese is a sleeper for a strong season and Jaime Garcia could avoid the sophomore slump (although for comparison, the 2007 team got a strong 22 starts out of Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro), but this just feels like an incomplete team with a lot of holes.

Pittsburgh and Houston are bad. They are probably the worst teams in baseball. Pittsburgh has some hope in the form of its young quartet of Andrew McCutcheon, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata, but their pitching straight up sucks. Houston has some hope in its above average rotation of Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Meyers, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris, but their hitting could be Mariners level bad and Carlos Lee may be the worst defensive left fielder in history at this point. At least Pittsburgh has some upside and a potentially decent core. Houston is in the middle of a sale, has an almost completely barren farm system, has to deal with idiot writers not voting Jeff Bagwell into the Hall of Fame and has probably the worst uniforms in baseball. Not a good time to be an Astros fan.

Player to Watch Under 25:

Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Reds, 23 years old

I bet you thought I was gonna choose Jay Bruce here. I would have, but I think my boy deserves his own post. Instead, I'll go with The Defector (his actual nickname is allegedly the "Cuban Missile", which is cool in itself, but I've always thought "The Defector" would be a great nickname for a Cuban player in MLB).

Chapman burst onto the scene last year pumping 105 MPH heat out of the Louisville Bats bullpen and was quickly promoted to Cincinnati where he was clocked as high as 103.9! Speed is not the only thing this real life Sidd Finch brings to the table, as his high 80's slider is probably his best pitch and he has been developing a swing and miss change-up in Spring Training. The Defector is not just a thrower, he can flat out pitch. And he's a fellow lefty! His combination of mind blowing speed, plus command, and knee buckling movement is quite literally must watch.

There is some good news and bad news with Chapman's current career trajectory. The bad news is that he is wasting away in the Reds bullpen and potentially doomed to the closer's role despite an overwhelming starting pitching profile. The good news is that Dusty Baker is currently his manager. How is this good news? Well if the Reds were handling Chapman properly and made him a starter, Ol' Dusty would probably be salivating at the opportunity to hang 120+ pitches on another flame throwing youngster. Here are Kerry Wood's pitch counts from June 15 - July 21 in 1998 when he was just 21 years old: 117, 121, 104, 118, 122, 128, 123. And Kerry Wood's pitch counts from the 1999 season: 0 (Out for the season for Tommy John surgery). So maybe Walt Jocketty is onto something here. Stash the phenom in the bullpen away from the wrath of Dusty and capitalize on that $30 million investment when Dusty packs up his toothpicks and rides off to the Small Ball and RBI Retirement Community with Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver. Until then, we will all enjoy random deployments of 104 MPH fastballs and feces inducing sliders.

Honorable mention: Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Travis Wood, Jay Bruce, Brett Wallace, Yovani Gallardo, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutcheon, Jaime Garcia, Colby Rasmus

10th Man:

Tyler Colvin, OF, Cubs

$41.5 million. This is the combined 2011 salaries of Alphonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Carlos Pena. $401K. This is not your retirement fund. This is the 2011 salary of Tyler Colvin, a young man who will backup the aforementioned trio, despite strong evidence that he possesses superior baseball playing ability to each of them (NOTE: As of this writing it does appear that Colvin will be starting in right for the Cubs, but the analysis holds up).

I have been keeping an eye on Colvin since my days with the Reds when I saw him in a few games as a member of the Daytona Cubs. Back then he profiled as a free swinging center fielder with lots of pop and no plate discipline. Since, he has grown into his body more and been forced off center field, but still projects to be a solid right fielder. He has improved his plate discipline, last year walking in a respectable 7.6% of all plate appearances. Most importantly, he has maintained that sweet power stroke (wow that sounds gay!). In 2010 he had 20 HR in 395 plate appearances and registered a .246 ISO (isolated power= Slugging%-Batting%). To give you some perspective, this would have ranked 12th in baseball had he recorded enough plate appearances.

While I expect some bounce back from Pena, solid though unspectacular play from Fukudome, and another under the radar good season from Soriano (who bounced back nicely last year with 2.9 WAR), I think Colvin will outplay all of them this year. If the Cubs are going to take the division as I predict, it will take some breakout campaigns and Colvin, along with Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner, is the best bet to deliver.

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