FanIQ NL Central Preview

The Reds-Cardinals Rivalry Will Only Heat Up [FanIQ NL Central Preview]

3/14/13 in MLB   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

Blog Photo - FanIQ NL Central PreviewLast season, the NL Central was divided into three tiers. The Reds and Cardinals battled at the top and both made the playoffs. The Brewers and Pirates had their moments, but in the end were fighting for a .500 finish. Finally, the Cubs and Astros spent the year somewhere between bad and craptacluar. With the exception of the Astros heading to the AL West to be craptacular, those three tiers should pop up again in 2013.
Once again note that teams are listed in predicted order of finish, and that all lineups (which are projected for Opening Day) are from Bold indicates new acquisition. Italics indicate rookie.
Cincinnati Reds
Projected Lineup
CF Shin-Soo Choo
2B Brandon Phillips
1B Joey Votto
LF Ryan Ludwick
RF Jay Bruce      
3B Todd Frazier
SS Zach Cosart
C Ryan Hanigan
Projected Rotation
RHP Johnny Cueto
RHP Mat Latos
RHP Bronson Arroyo
RHP Homer Bailey
LHP Aroldis Chapman
Closer: RHP Jonathan Broxton
Key Losses: 3B Scott Rolen, OF Drew Stubbs, C Dioner Navarro, RP Bill Bray
For a team that won 97 games last year, few seem to be talking about the Reds. Their entire offseason boils down to two moves. The first is the trade for Choo. On the good side, it gives Cincinnati a table setter (.381 career OBP) that can get on base a lot in front of Votto. The risk comes on defense. Having traded Drew Stubbs for Choo, the Reds plan to put Choo in center, where he has 10 career major league starts. There is no guarantee he can handle center, and the other two starting outfielders, Ludwick and Bruce, are ill fit for center even more. Still, Choo is a big offensive upgrade to add to a lineup that was surprisingly below average in scoring last season.
The second big move is Aroldis Chapman’s move to the rotation, which has been hotly debated all winter, and still is being debated, even with manager Dusty Baker. Chapman has been an ace closer, and most seem to think he should stay that way. However, 160-180 innings of someone as talented as Chapman is likely to have more value in the end than 60 innings, no matter how good those 60 innings are. The drop-off between Chapman and likely closer Jonathan Broxton just won’t be that big unless Broxton is awful, and even then, the Reds can plug in someone else. Anyone that has played fantasy should know of the replaceability of closers. Chapman adds to what was a fantastic rotation last year. All four incumbents made over 30 starts and 200 innings, very reasonable workloads for those worried about what Dusty will do to Chapman’s arm. Here’s another Cincinnati surprise: The Reds led the NL in runs allowed per game, even with their hitters’ park.
The Reds have been quiet this offseason, but with a team that’s almost entirely hitting their prime, particularly the stars Votto, Bruce, Cueto, and Latos, Cincinnati should be right there at the end once again.
Projected Record: 93-69
Down on the Farm: The hot name in the Reds’ system is OF speedster Billy Hamilton. He’s the fastest man in organized baseball, but he’s not quite ready for the bigs. He still has to fully learn center field, and keep his gains at the plate through the high minors. We could see him late in the season for a cameo, and possibly for good in 2014.
St. Louis CardinalsBlog Photo - FanIQ NL Central Preview
Projected Lineup
CF Jon Jay
1B Allen Craig
LF Matt Holliday
RF Carlos Beltran
C Yadier Molina
3B David Freese
2B Matt Carpenter
SS Pete Kozma
Projected Rotation
RHP Adam Wainwright
LHP Jamie Garcia
RHP Jake Westbrook
RHP Lance Lynn
RHP Shelby Miller
Closer: RHP Jason Motte
Key Losses: 1B Lance Berkman, SP Kyle Lohse, UT Skip Schumaker, SP Chris Carpenter (injured), SS Rafael Furcal (injured)
No Albert Pujols, no Tony LaRussa, and no Dave Duncan? No problem. The Cardinals rode a MVP-caliber season by Yadier Molina, a rejuvenated Beltran, and some young flamethrowers to another playoff berth, ruining the Nationals season before falling to the Giants in the NLCS. Spring training has not gone well for the Cardinals, as both Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal have been deemed out for the season. The team also lost Lance Berkman to Texas, and let go the still unsigned Kyle Lohse. At first glance, it looks they did little to replace them, but with the Cardinals, the replacements will come internally.
St. Louis was second in the NL in scoring, and there’s plenty of reason to think they can be right up again. Matt Holliday might be the game’s most consistent star, and will probably hit right around his .295/.379/.497 line last season. Molina and Beltran may take a step back due to the wear down of catchers (especially one who plays 138 games like Molina) and age, but those two plus Holliday make for an excellent middle of the lineup, with Molina of course providing even more value as the game's best defensive catcher. The rest of the lineup is also above average with the exception of Kozma (his .952 OPS last year was a total fluke), and as such, is poised to put up a lot of runs.
The rotation, however, looks like a red flag for at least this year. The four incumbent starters ERA+ in order: 97, 98, 97, 102. All with the exception of Garcia are durable, but they are average, and other than Wainwright and maybe Garcia, that’s their ceiling. Luckily for the Cardinals, there’s a lot of talent ready to crack this rotation. The first of them is Miller, who’s been a top prospect a few years and has ace potential. Also waiting in the wings is Joe Kelly, who made 16 starts for the big club last year, and Trevor Rosenthal, who spent time in the bullpen. The common factor for all three is that they throw gas and can miss bats. All three should be in the rotation soon.
There’s a lot of potential in St. Louis, and they are very much capable of making the playoffs again. At the same time, there’s a lot of exciting young talent waiting for its close-up, and while this could be a bit of a transition year, the Cardinals are as posed for the future as any team in the majors.
Projected Record: 89-73
Down on the Farm: Many prospect analysts consider the Cardinals to have the top system in baseball. The three aforementioned pitchers are a big reason why, but the biggest reason is consensus top 3 overall prospect OF Oscar Taveras. Taveras hit .321/.380/.572 as a 20 year old in AA, which is about as impressive as one can get. He’s not ready yet, but could be ready in 2014 to replace Beltran. 2B Kolten Wong meanwhile, will be a solid cog and could be ready for Busch Stadium at some point this season.

Read on for those Tier Two teams.

Pittsburgh PiratesBlog Photo - FanIQ NL Central Preview
Projected Lineup
LF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker
CF Andrew McCutchen
1B Garrett Jones
3B Pedro Alvarez
C Russell Martin
RF Travis Snider
SS Clint Barmes
Projected Rotation
RHP A.J. Burnett
LHP Wandy Rodriguez
RHP James McDonald
RHP Jeff Karstens
RHP Kyle McPherson
Closer: RHP Jason Grilli
Key Losses: SP Kevin Correia, RP Joel Hanrahan, C Rod Barajas
The losing streak was so close to being snapped, and yet ended up so far away, as a September swoon resulted in the Pirates’ 20th consecutive losing season. There was some speculation that GM Neil Huntington would pay for it with his job, but he stayed and continued to tweak the roster that is waiting for reinforcements, especially on the pitching side, from the farm before they can vault into true contention.
This is necessary because while McCutchen is the MVP caliber stud, the rest of his generation of young talent hasn’t panned out the way Pittsburgh hoped, with the exception of Neil Walker. They were hoping Pedro Alvarez, would be a star, but he is way too much of a Three True Outcomes (homers, walks, and strike outs) guy to be more than a complimentary piece. Jose Tabata, meanwhile, isn’t even guaranteed a starting job after a disastrous 2012. The Pirates did make a big upgrade at catcher in Russell Martin. Unlike Rod Barajas last year, Martin can hit a little and take walks, even if losing the Yankee Stadium bump means he won’t hit 20 homers again. Martin is also much better than Barajas at throwing out runners and he’s one of the best at framing pitches. Overall, this was a slightly below average offense last year that does have some room to get slightly above.
For most of the year, the rotation was the strength of the Pirates, particularly Burnett and McDonald. However, both struggled in the second half, especially McDonald, contributing to the downfall. A happy medium this year for both would be huge for Pittsburgh. Those two plus Wandy Rodriguez give the Pirates three very solid mid-rotation starters. That’s not good enough to contend now, but the real prizes are on their way. Former #1 pick Gerritt Cole could see the bigs this year, and former #2 pick Jameson Taillon has an outside chance of it as well. If they hit their potential, we will be hearing from the Pirates very soon.
For this year though, it’s all about breaking the longest losing streak in sports. I was skeptical in previous seasons they could do it, but this year? In McCutchen We Trust, if only just barely.
Projected: 82-80
Down on the Farm: Cole and Taillon are the top prospects, but another pitcher, SP Luis Heredia, is also starting to get noticed and is still just 18. On the hitting side, SS Alen Hanson and CF Gregory Polanco both broke out in A-ball and project to at least above average regulars. The organization was loaded last year in A-ball West Virginia. Now that group will move to either High A Bradenton or AA Altoona for 2013.
Milwaukee BrewersBlog Photo - FanIQ NL Central Preview
Projected Lineup
RF Norichika Aoki
2B Rickie Weeks
LF Ryan Braun
3B Aramis Ramirez
C Jonathan Lucroy
CF Carlos Gomez
1B Alex Gonzalez
SS Jean Segura
Projected Rotation
RHP Yovani Gallardo
RHP Marco Estrada
RHP Michael Fiers
LHP Chris Narveson
RHP Wily Peralta
Closer: RHP John Axford
Key Losses: SP Shawn Marcum, OF Nyjer Morgan, LHP Manny Parra, RP Francisco Rodriguez, C Yorvit Torrealba
Bullpens are notoriously hard to predict. A great bullpen can take a team to new heights, like the 2012 Orioles, or it could destroy a team, like the 2012 Brewers. Milwaukee had one of the worst bullpens in the game last year, and as a result, they fell quickly out of contention and traded Zach Greinke. From there, they went 29-13 to get back above .500. Not surprisingly, the Brewers made a lot of changes in the bullpen, adding Mike Gonzalez, Burke Badenhop, and Tom Gorzelanny to the mix.
The Brewers were the #1 offensive team in the NL last year, but signs point to that not being repeated. Sure, Braun is likely to remain at superstar level, Ramirez will probably be as consistent as ever, and there’s no reason Aoki will drop from a solid rookie season. However, Lucroy is unlikely to repeat his .881 OPS (although he’ll still be one of the better offensive catchers), and the first base situation is even worse. Corey Hart is out at least six weeks and Mat Gamel is out for the year. Thus, Milwaukee turns to Alex Gonzalez for the time being. That’s the 36 year old shortstop Alex Gonzalez with a career batting line of .247/.292/.399, not exactly first base material.
With Greinke and Shawn Marcum gone, Gallardo remains of the team’s former Big Three. He’ll be flanked by Estrada and Fiers, two pleasant surprises last year. Both pitchers are similar: right handed, don’t issue many walks, are surprisingly adept at striking guys out, and are fairly extreme fly ball pitchers. That last one is the problem at Miller Park and limits their ceiling. Naverson is coming off a shoulder injury and doesn’t have much upside regardless, while Peralta is an intriguing prospect but one who has to prove he can avoid free passes. The bullpen, meanwhile, probably can’t get any worse, and it was a plus than John Axford rebounded down the stretch after struggling most of the year.
Milwaukee is as middle of the road as it gets. Their ceiling feels like a bit above .500 like 2012; their floor a few games below. Thus, I’ll punk out and put them right in the middle.
Projected Record: 81-81
Down on the Farm: Their attempts to go for it (which did result in an NLCS appearance at least) have left the Brewers with an almost barren and still developing farm system. Peralta is their top prospect and the only one even sniffing the top 100 lists.

It'll be Wait Til Next Year for the Cubs again, but how close are they to contention? Read on to find out.

Chicago CubsBlog Photo - FanIQ NL Central Preview
Projected Lineup
CF David DeJesus
SS Starlin Castro
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Alfonso Soriano
RF Nate Schierholtz/Scott Hairston
3B Ian Stewart
C Welington Castillo
2B Darwin Barney
Projected Rotation
RHP Jeff Samardzija
RHP Edwin Jackson
RHP Scott Feldman
LHP Travis Wood
RHP Carlos Villaneuva
Closer: RHP Carlos Marmol
Key Losses: 1B Bryan LaHair, SP Chris Volstad
Last year was the bottom out year for the Cubs as they lost 101 games. For the offseason, Theo Epstein and his brain trust made some reasonable upgrades at decent prizes, most notably Edwin Jackson. Jackson will never be a star, but he’s above average, durable, and still only 29. At 4 years and $52 million, you can do much worse. Jackson will be the #3 starter once Matt Garza comes back from his lat injury (remember the above rotation is for Opening Day), behind Garza and Samardzija, one of last year’s pleasant surprises.  The other new starter Feldman is more of a stopgap, but at least is only signed for a year. Overall, it’s a decent but far from spectacular rotation, particularly if Garza is traded.
The lineup last year couldn’t even scratch out four runs a game, so there’s nowhere to go but up. The bottom line is the only potential stars are Castro and Rizzo, and as such they are the building blocks. The other decent young assets in this lineup are Castillo, who showed potential after a 106 OPS+ year (good for a catcher) in 2012, and possibly outfielder Brett Jackson, who can be a starter if he cuts down on the whiffs. Guys like DeJesus and the right field platoon are solid vets, but won’t be on the next good Cubs team. Soriano finally stopped being terrible at least, although it still probably wasn’t enough for someone to take the last two years of that massive deal. Second and third base remain black holes unless Josh Vitters actually figures it out. Like the pitching, the lineup could be decent, but it will be far from great.
Carlos Marmol is still the closer, but who knows if he actually ends the season in that role.
The rebuild is moving at a decent pace, but it won’t be quick, and guys like Garza and DeJesus could still be traded. If you squint hard enough, .500 is possible, but the real goal of the year is for what young talent is on the North Side to take another step forward.
Projected Record: 69-93
Down on the Farm: Not surprisingly, Epstein has been focused on building the farm system, and as such has a few exciting prospects in the low minors. SS Javier Baez tops the list after a breakout .889 OPS in A-ball as a 19 year old with power potential. The team’s first round pick last year, OF Albert Almora, and Cuban signing OF Jorge Soler also have great tools that need time to develop skills. The cupboard is barer closer to the big leagues, but we could SP Arodys Vizcaino, acquired in the Paul Maholm trade, in Wrigley at some point this year depending on how has Tommy John recovery goes.

Those are my picks and predictions for the NL Central this season. What are yours?
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4/1/13   |   kramer   |   11004 respect

(Edited by kramer)

The starting rotation is a complete mess and a comedy of errors to start the season for the Bucs.  They really only have 3 starters.  Offseason acquisition Francisco Liriano isn't ready to start the season, and the Pirates are being very stubborn with Gerritt Cole, refusing to bring him up until at least June like they did with Andrew McCutchen a few years ago.  With as disastrous as the rotation looks, they're only hurting themselves by not putting Cole in the rotation to start the year.

I'm also extremely nervous about Mark Melancon's ability to keep a lead in the 8th inning to even set things up for Jason Grilli to close out a game.

3/20/13   |   punditty

Pete Kozma is going to be interesting to watch this year. Go Redbirds!

3/14/13   |   Scott   |   54650 respect

Eric_ wrote:
Yeah, that's why I don't have them winning the division. They have a lot of young arms, and at least 1 or 2 should develop, but for this year, I think they're a bit behind the Reds. I may have misjudged Lynn though, because for some reason I thought he was around 30, not 25. Oops. blush

Lynn still has to prove that last year was no fluke. With Carpenter out for the season, Lohse unsigned and Garcia injury prone, the Cardinals will need him to step up and be another Waino type work horse.

3/14/13   |   Sharp Square   |   11959 respect

I don't see the Cards really taking much more of a step up for this season and maybe even a tick down if they have any kind of injury problems in the starting rotation. Reds are clearly the class of this division for me , cards are always scrappy and may make it somewhat of a decent race, maybe. 

I actually get as much or more enjoyment watching the cubbies and pirates out of this division cheeky

3/14/13   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

Scott wrote:
If the Cardinals are going to compete with the Reds for the division title, they'll need their young arms to take another giant step forward.

Yeah, that's why I don't have them winning the division. They have a lot of young arms, and at least 1 or 2 should develop, but for this year, I think they're a bit behind the Reds. I may have misjudged Lynn though, because for some reason I thought he was around 30, not 25. Oops. blush

3/14/13   |   jvardaman   |   3 respect

Offense is definitely going to be the key to this year's Reds. With that rotation (if Chapman is thrown in at the 5) they will be in just about every game this summer. If the offense can stay slightly better than mediocre, this team will win a lot of games. As far as the Cards go, I only disagree with you saying Lynn has reached his potential. He has only been a major league starter for one year, so he can only improve on a season where he still won 18 games. If both of these teams can stay healthy-- and that's a big if-- this will be one of the best races in the Bigs.

3/14/13   |   huskerdoug2009   |   2796 respect

I agree with Scott on the Cards.  Was sad to see Carpenter injured again.  The man is a poor man's Orel Hershiser in terms of toughness.  I still think the Reds could use more offense to make a serious playoff run though.

3/14/13   |   Scott   |   54650 respect

If the Cardinals are going to compete with the Reds for the division title, they'll need their young arms to take another giant step forward.