Let me start this by telling you that I love baseball. I love watching it on TV, I love watching it live, playing fantasy baseball, reading about it, baseball video games, and I can sit for hours on end just combing over stats. It’s a sickness. Blackburn has been kind enough give a purpose to my sickness and turn the keys over to me to give everyone something a little less bleary to think about than the Flyers season.
I’m going to kick off our divisional baseball previews by trying to bait you in with the only division most of you care about, the National League Central. I know most of our readership is composed of Reds fans, so why not start off this little experiment with the part of it that will make everyone call me an idiot. The order I list the teams is the order in which I think they will finish in the division. The over/unders listed are from Atlantis Casino is Reno. Their lines are usually the first ones to come out, and therefore the most widely used. These are the initial lines. Wouldn’t want a bunch of bad gamblers (re: Blackburn) to affect what we have to work with. If you’re curious where I’m getting my statistics, best to check Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference first.
The temptation to go with the Cards here and troll all the Reds fans is great, but I just can’t do it. The Reds finished 2012 at 97-65, for the second best record in the majors, and six wins above their Pythagorean expectation (tying the Giants as the second luckiest team in MLB).
Offseason: The Reds weren’t the biggest players during the off-season, making only one big move, but they made it count. The Reds acquired OF Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians. They also brought back left fielder Ryan Ludwick and closer/side-show Jonathan Broxton. The trade for Choo was a good one for the Reds, as they didn’t have to give up a lot to get a quality player who is on his last year of his contract, but shouldn’t be hard to resign, should they feel inclined to do so.
Arguably, the two biggest movies the Reds made this off-season were internal ones. They brought back manager Dusty Baker, and moved former closer Aroldis Chapman into the rotation. Baker brings a lot of pluses to the game as a skipper: experience, personality, a great connection with the front office and his players. What he doesn’t seem to bring however, is knowledge of how to manage a baseball team in-game situations, or how to break anybody out of a slump, be it a pitcher or batter. There are certainly worse managers out there, and Dusty does win, but at what point will he finally get this talented team over the hump? The move of Chapman into the rotation is a smart one. Many fans may not feel that way if he doesn’t turn out the be an ace, but the value of a starting pitcher, even a decent number three starter, is greater than that of an elite closer. Assuming his arm can handle the workload, and we have no reason to think it can’t, the team is far better served in the long run to attempt this move now, while there is still time for adjustments to be made.
2013 Outlook: The Reds go into this season with some things to figure out. Will Choo be able to handle CF? Metrics show that he has been declining as a fielder the last few years (-16 UZR/150 last year). His speed is adequate for Smallpark, and he still has one of the best arms in the game. He has very minimal experience in center though, and Jay Bruce, who has a comparable skill set, has more experience at that position. Regardless of who slides into center, it seems obvious that late game substitutions will have to be made, with Ludwick likely to come out, and Chris Heisey likely to come in to man center, sliding the starter over to left.
What to expect from Brandon Phillips? While still flashy with the glove and able to swipe 15 bags a year, his bat doesn’t quite live up to his reputation. His monster 2011 season was propped up by a .322 BABIP. Taking that year out, he has only ever been slightly above league average offensively (he actually comes in slightly below average for his career, but we will only consider his time with the Reds for this). If Phillips glove starts to slip, and his hitting continues on a gradual decline, or steep decline if you are talking about his plate discipline (swings at 40% of pitches outside the strike zone), he could quickly lose his standing as one of the best overall 2nd basemen in the league.
How will the rotation fare this year (I would guess Chapman is a revelation, and everyone else regresses a little)? Will Broxton be able to stay healthy and effective (Not likely)? How will Frazier handle his first season as a full-time starter (not seeing a sophomore slump. Big year coming)? When do we see Billy Hamilton (barring injury, not until early September)? Does Dusty always have his head up his ass because he likes the smell (definitely)?
Impact Prospect: Going beyond Hamilton here because, as I mentioned, I don’t think we see him until much later in the season. I am going to go with J.J. Hoover, who the team acquired last year from the Braves in exchange for Juan Francisco. He is a big kid with a good fastball/slider combo that could immediately help the Reds out of the bullpen (which is likely his permanent home).
Over/Under 88.5 Wins: I’ll take the over on this, but not as easily as you think. This team is an easy regression candidate with some concerns about consistency and adjustment periods for key players Choo and Frazier. There is a lot of talent on this team though, and the division isn’t that strong, so getting to 90-92 wins shouldn’t be out of their reach.
St. Louis Cardinals
Offseason: The story of the Cards offseason is one of pure subtraction. Gone are Kyle Lohse, Lance Berkman, and thanks to injuries, Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal. While these are some bigger names, the Cardinals top ranked farm system has provided the depth needed to replace these players. With no major offseason additions, that farm system will try to be the saving grace for all RedBird fans this year.
2013 Outlook: This should be an interesting season for the Cardinals. while the middle of the order production would appear to still be coming from Holliday, Beltran, and Craig, The rest of the lineup has something to prove. Yadier Molina is coming off the best season of his career, and has certainly looked to develop into a premier hitting backstop, but you want to see guys prove it. This especially applies to catchers, whose bodies can undercut their skills on any given day.
Health will be a pretty major concern for this team. Beltran and David Freese both played 140+ games last year, but both have track records of not being able to make it close to that workload. Holliday is 33 now and may need a few more days off than he used to in order to stay healthy. Adam Wainwright is entering his second season after Tommy John surgery. He made it through the whole season last year, but his strikeout numbers were down, and his ability to go deep into games was clearly diminished. He will have to return to his ace form for this team to contend. Jaime Garcia seems to be the forgotten about man in the rotation. After a very good 2011 season, he was up and down during the first half last year. An always scary shoulder injury cost the groundball inducing lefty most of his 2012 second half. If he can rebound to the same level he was on in 2011, this could be a very good rotation.
The middle infield will be a big question mark. The 2B and SS positions are likely to be filled by a rotation of Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and Matt Carpenter. They also have prospect Kolten Wong waiting for his chance, but my guess is the team will try to get him a little more experience (and delay his service clock). If one of these guys can produce at a higher-than –average rate, we are looking at, potentially, the best team in the NL Central.
Impact Prospect: Shelby Miller is the consensus #2 prospect in the Cards farm system. He should join the big league rotation as the fifth starter this year. Miller, though, had some struggles at the high stages in the minors, and his development seemed to stall out a bit, so his ceiling for this season is probably a little low. The player to watch for, especially if Carlos Beltran goes down, is Oscar Taveras. This kid is special. He has the best qualities of Vlad Guerrero, including the quirky swing, only from the left side. He is a consensus top 5 prospect in all of baseball. He can play some center, but will probably be better in right field. He possesses the kind of bat that can make an immediate impact upon being called up. The only question with him is how long the Cards will let him destroy the opposition at AAA.
Over/Under 85.5 Wins: This feels like an easy Over. Barring a slew of major injuries, this team has a ton of talent that should easily allow them to get to 86 wins, but probably more. They will no doubt be in the hunt for the wild card, and most likely, the NL Central crown. With a team like this though, it’s always better to check the injury report before placing a wager.
Offseason: The Cubs spent a good part of their off-season working to trade veteran players tying up payroll that won’t be around when the team is ready to contend. Alfonso Soriano still mans left field, still can’t do anything but hit home runs, and will be making $18 million this year (and next), so the Cubs tried very hard to move him, even offering to eat most of his salary. They also failed to move the always solid and underrated David DeJesus, whom nobody fucks with.
The Cubs brought in the consistent Edwin Jackson on a good contract to replace the also consistent Ryan Dempster. To fill out the rotation, they signed Scott Baker, a very good pitcher for the twins two years ago who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John. Neither of these guys will blow you away, but both have always been steady guys you can depend on to toe the rubber and give you a good chance to win, as both guys are slightly above league average pitchers for their careers.
It’s also worth noting that the Cubs have informed the agent of Closer Carlos Marmol that he should expect to be traded. Marmol has some of the best stuff you will ever see, but zero ability to control it, or his mental faculties.
2013 Outlook: This is a team that doesn’t look like it has any shot to contend, so why do I have them finishing third in the division? We can start with the fact that the bottom of the NL Central is very likely to be a jumbled mess of mediocrity. So who rises to the top of Shit Mountain? I will take the sad sack Cubbies. They have a solid, if unspectacular rotation, which will be fronted by Jeff Samardjsjdhiondfnia, but this staff doesn’t have a true ace. It has 5-6 guys who will go out and keep you hanging in. Matt Garza’s health is a major concern, as he hasn’t seemed to be healthy in a year and a half.
The team’s ability to score runs will all depend on what kind of season they get from Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo had a real rough start to his career, fighting for the Mendoza Line during his early time with San Diego. Since then, he has improved on a near daily basis. The real guy to watch here will be Castro. He has been on the verge of a real superstar caliber season for a couple of years now. Last year though, he showed a little improvement in his batting eye, and a lot of improvement in the power and baserunning categories. His numbers last year look comparable to 2011, but his BABIP was nearly 40 points lower. If that normalizes, we might see a real breakout campaign from Castro. Something along the lines of Derek Jeter in his prime, only less walks. Castro has even improved with the glove enough to not be a complete butcher at SS.
If this team can keep the rotation healthy, and maybe get a couple breaks with their young players, they have a great chance to be the best of the bad teams in the NL Central.
Impact Prospect: Not much to write home about for this season. Most of the team’s top talent is at least a couple of years away, with Javier Baez and Jorge Soler looking like future stars. For this season, we will certainly see some more of Brett Jackson and his god awful approach at the plate. Arodys Vizcaino, the former Braves farm hand, is coming back from Tommy John, but has a good chance to contribute out of the pen and as a spot starter. He has the stuff, now it’s a question of health and role.
Over/Under 72 Wins: This is a tough one. 72 feels about right for this group, but since I chose them to finish third in the division, and somebody has to win some games, I will take the over, just barely. This team should be pretty happy to get to the area of 78 wins.
Offseason: This is a team that seemed to feel that they were all set for this season, as they barely did anything this off-season. Their big move was signing Tom Gorzelanny to replace the departing Francisco Rodriguez. They finished 83-79 last year, two wins below their Pythag. They don’t have any players you can really expect to make a big jump to boost the team over the hump and into contention for a division title, other than young SS Jean Segura, who was acquired in the Zach Greinke deal at last year’s trading deadline.
2013 Outlook: The Brewers will feature a potent lineup that has the potential to produce a lot of runs. The problem is that there may be more potential here than results. Carlos Gomez had what was no doubt a career year last year, so expecting him to regress is not unreasonable. Rickie Weeks free swinging ways weak wrists finally caught up to him last year. Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart are who they are, so expecting a jump in production from them would be dumb. Ryan Braun is one of the best all around players in the game, and can be expected to continue to be that (but you may also wonder when the distraction from all the steroid stuff he has been involved with might start to be an issue). Jonathan Lucroy is one of the most underrated players in baseball, and he is a terrific option behind the plate. A big part of the season will depend on what the team gets out of Norichika Aoki and Segura. Aoki was one of the best rookies in the NL last year, and brings a solid all around game. Segura was always a well thought of prospect, but as an all around solid player, not a future superstar.
The rotation is anchored by Yovanni Gallardo. He is a fastball/curveball pitcher with good control who racks up big strikeout numbers and is one of the most consistent players in the league (17th in MLB over last 4 years in Win Probability Added). He is a work horse who doesn’t get due and proper. The rest of the rotation is a bit of a question mark. Marco Estrada is your typical innings eater, and Michael Fiers is a young guy with potential, but overall, nothing to get real excited about behind YG.
Impact Prospect: Another team with not a lot to choose from. Most of the guys to choose from were on the team at the end of last season. Wily Peralta has always been a decent prospect, and he should get a rotation spot out of camp. If he can break through and be a good number two or three starter, it would give the team a much better chance of going somewhere.
Over/Under 79.5 Wins: Most people are going to agree with me on this one, but I will take the under. I just don’t like the way this team plays. Too much free swinging, no rhyme or reason to the way the team in constructed, a leadoff man who doesn’t walk. While there are players to really be excited for on this team, as a whole, they end up being pretty lackluster.
Offseason: The Pirates have been rebuilding for the future since Truman was president, so making a bunch of splashy moves during the offseason and sacrificing long-term goals for short-term success isn’t the smart way to go. They acquired Wandy Rodriguez at the deadline last year, and he is around for another year. They brought in former Blue Jays farmhand/flop Travis Snider to hopefully take over the full-time job in right field. The biggest move of the off-season though, was trading closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston for a group of lower level major league players, including now set-up man Mark Malancon and reserve outfielder Jerry Sands.
They also brought in Russell Martin to take the catcher/DL spot. Not even Russell Martin is excited about this move.
2013 Outlook: With all the minor league talent they have been stockpiling, it has been nice for their (few) fans that the Pirates have managed to win some games the last couple of years. In a couple of years this could be the best team in the NL Central (nah, they’ll still be the Pirates). Andrew McCutchen is locked up long-term, Neil Walker is a very good 2nd basemen, and the rotation should be better than average with AJ Burnett, Rodriguez, and James McDonald as the anchors. This is enough for the Bucs to be a team worth keeping an eye on, but you have to score runs to win games, and that will not be the Pirates strong suit this year.
Impact prospect: Lots and lots of guys have potential to make their debuts this year. Stud pitchers Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole are aces in the making. Young SS Alen Hanson will be needed sooner than later, as incumbent Clint Barmes can’t hit air with his bat. Starlin Marte was always a highly thought of player, who made his debut last year. It was the best debut, but you hope the experienced gained with benefit him this year. Overall, if Cole gets an early enough call-up, he could be what this team needs to finally push them to a .500 record.
Over/Under 79 Wins: There isn’t much talent on the offensive side. They are one long-term injury to one of their top three starting pitchers away from really bottoming out. That might not be the worst thing for them at this point, but nobody wants their team finishing in the cellar (except maybe Cubs fans). Unfortunately, I don’t see this being the season the Pirates break their under .500 streak. Take the under, and ride it like your average Yinzer slut.
I’ll be breaking down the other divisions as we move closer to the season. And as always, feel free to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments.