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2013 MLB Preview: NL West

2013 MLB Preview: NL Central

We continue our countdown to Opening Day, wondering if the Reds can stay on top

The Reds go for a repeat, the Cardinals try for another playoff run, and everyone wishes the Astros were still there to kick around. Grantland’s countdown to Opening Day continues with a look at the NL Central.

CINCINNATI REDS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Shin-Soo Choo (.276/.370/.462)
2B Brandon Phillips (.279/.328/.426)
1B Joey Votto (.300/.423/.542)
LF Ryan Ludwick (.253/.324/.451)
RF Jay Bruce (.258/.340/.498)
3B Todd Frazier (.247/.311/.444)
SS Zack Cozart (.252/.299/.403)
C Ryan Hanigan (.269/.359/.350)

Baseball’s resident hitting savant missed 51 games last year, landing on the DL with a knee injury, then getting on base but failing to hit for power when he returned; a healthy Votto this year will make a big difference. Votto aside, the biggest change comes at the top of the order, where Choo adds much-needed on-base ability, especially compared to the Drew Stubbs–Cozart duo that topped the order while Votto was out last year. Bruce has cranked 91 homers over the past three years but still strikes out about two and a half times more often than he walks. The Reds are hoping that the big breakout comes in 2013, Bruce’s age-26 season. The supporting cast offers enough thump to make this a top-10 offense.

Keep an eye on Cincinnati’s defense, though. Even Scott Rolen on his last legs was and is a better glove man than Frazier at third. Center field could be considerably uglier, with Choo a virtual lock to be one of the league’s worst at that position. The defensive downgrade from Stubbs to Choo could cost the Reds something like two wins this year, negating a big chunk of the major offensive gap between the two. Votto, Phillips, and Cozart rank as one of the best defensive infield trios in the majors, and Hanigan gets high marks for his defense, too. But if the Reds’ pitching staff struggles a bit more than it did last year, the third-base and especially the center-field situations would be a likely reason why.

The wild card here is Billy Hamilton. Blessed with world-changing speed (and an all-time minor league record of 155 stolen bases last year), Hamilton has a chance to give the Reds a weapon they sorely lacked last year. His own defense will bear watching, too, given Hamilton only recently made the transition from shortstop to center field himself.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Johnny Cueto (193, 3.63)
Mat Latos (197, 3.51)
Bronson Arroyo (165, 4.80)
Homer Bailey (173, 3.84)
Mike Leake (167, 4.42)

We covered the Aroldis Chapman decision already: There are plenty of good reasons to leave the Cuban Missile in the bullpen, but Chapman in the rotation would’ve been wildly entertaining to watch, and possibly a huge boost to an already above-average Reds rotation. Cueto was phenomenal last year, and Latos was one of the best pitchers in baseball after a miserable April. There are holes, though, starting with the strikeout-lacking, gopheriffic Leake and third starter Arroyo, just a year removed from one of the worst seasons for any pitcher in the past decade. General manager Walt Jocketty cited the Reds’ top five starters making 161 of the team’s 162 starts last year as a reason to keep Chapman as the closer. But it could just as easily be interpreted as a huge stroke of luck that might not hold this year, given everything we know about pitcher health.

The bullpen shouldn’t have any such concerns. The new, ground-ball crazy version of Jonathan Broxton is back after some strong late-inning work, and will form an excellent righty-lefty combination with fellow re-signed reliever Sean Marshall. Get to the sixth inning with a lead, and you like the Reds’ chances.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Choo’s OBP jolt, a Bruce breakout, a healthy Votto, and a full year of Frazier energize the offense; Cueto puts up another borderline Cy Young season; a deep bullpen locks down the late innings again; and the Reds win another NL Central crown, with a shot at more this time.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Arroyo melts down again, the Reds’ outfield defense produces nightmarish results, and instead of another division title, Cincinnati finds itself in a dogfight just to sneak into a wild-card spot.


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Jon Jay (.282/.344/.397)
RF Carlos Beltran (.265/.347/.464)
LF Matt Holliday (.281/.367/.473)
1B Allen Craig (.283/.337/.478)
C Yadier Molina (.289/.350/.426)
3B David Freese (.272/.342/.424)
2B Matt Carpenter (.257/.350/.388)
SS Pete Kozma (.226/.284/.328)

The Cardinals have one of the two best hitting prospects in the game on the verge of crashing the majors. Unfortunately, Oscar Taveras is an outfielder, and the Cardinals are loaded at that position. The Cardinals’ fate might rest in the hands of whoever starts at the two middle-infield spots. For now, it looks like Kozma will handle short with Rafael Furcal out, and Carpenter will wrest the second-base job away from the wholly unremarkable Daniel Descalso. The Carpenter move in particular bears watching: If he can prove even adequate defensively at a position where he has little experience, St. Louis could end up with an asset, given Carpenter’s solid bat.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on the Cardinals’ health. Beltran played 151 games last year, but the specter of his injury-plagued 2009 and 2010 seasons lingers; Craig’s got a ton of power, but we’ve yet to see him navigate a full season in the big leagues; and Freese’s 2012 marked the first time he’d even played more than 100 games in a season.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Adam Wainwright (174, 3.13)
Jaime Garcia (161, 3.34)
Jake Westbrook (152, 4.16)
Lance Lynn (150, 3.81)
Shelby Miller (133, 3.87)

Garcia’s shoulder injury is a little nerve-wracking, but the lefty’s back this spring and throwing fine, after seeing four surgeons over the winter. This is a very good rotation if Garcia’s upright for 30 starts, with Wainwright another year clear of Tommy John surgery, Lynn coming off an impressive 2012, and Miller poised for a breakout now that he’s apparently locked down the fifth starter’s job.

The Cardinals’ bullpen struggled at times last year, but should be improved with rocket-armed Trevor Rosenthal on the team from day one. Keep an eye on Jason Motte, though. Over the weekend, news broke that Motte would likely start the season on the DL with an elbow strain. Mitchell Boggs has the stuff to fill in, but the pen’s depth will be tested if Motte’s injury lingers. Rosenthal is your deep fantasy sleeper here.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Miller and Rosenthal give the pitching staff a huge jolt, everyone stays healthy, and the Cardinals topple the Reds and win the division. Even in that best-case scenario, don’t be surprised if GM John Mozeliak keeps his eyes peeled for middle-infield help. Carpenter will probably look shaky at times, though second-base prospect Kolten Wong could be ready for the majors sometime this year. Shortstop isn’t going to be pretty regardless, and you wonder if someone like Stephen Drew or even Jimmy Rollins could be pried away, depending on how other races go.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Garcia’s shoulder pushes him under the knife, Westbrook’s deal with the devil expires, Miller’s not ready for prime time, and the Cardinals’ pitching can’t keep up with its loaded offense, relegating the team to its first playoff miss in three years.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
RF Norichika Aoki (.288/.344/.395)
2B Rickie Weeks (.252/.345/.443)
LF Ryan Braun (.302/.373/.540)
3B Aramis Ramirez (.280/.341/.494)
C Jonathan Lucroy (.274/.330/.421)
CF Carlos Gomez (.249/.302/.418)
1B Alex Gonzalez (.248/.285/.412)
SS Jean Segura (.278/.326/.402)

You have to like some of the things the Brewers have done to surround Braun with complementary talent. The signing of Aoki to a two-year, $2.5 million deal ranks as one of the biggest steals any team has pulled off in years, with the Japanese import and fan favorite1 hitting .288/.355/.433 and posting a three-win season in his major league debut. Segura gives Milwaukee an asset at least a dozen other teams would kill to have: a 23-year-old shortstop who can field the position and, assuming his minor league track record translates, hit (and run) enough to warrant an everyday job. Flipping J.J. Hardy for Gomez three-plus years ago looked like a terrible deal for a while, but Gomez’s 2012 breakout included 19 homers and a .463 slugging average to go with the expected 37 steals and terrific center-field defense, culminating in a recent three-year contract extension.

But oh man, first base is going to be a disaster, at least for the first few weeks of the season. Prince Fielder’s departure after the 2011 season opened the door for decent-bat, no-glove prospect Mat Gamel to seize the job. Knee injuries kiboshed that plan, thrusting Corey Hart into the position … only to see Hart go down to a knee injury of his own. He’s supposed to be back in early-to-mid-May, but coming off surgery in January, we’ll believe it when we see it. That leaves 36-year-old Gonzalez, he of the 1,559 career games exclusively at shortstop and the .292 career on-base percentage, to hold the fort for now. Major League Baseball is reportedly going hard after Braun after his name came up in the Miami Biogenesis scandal and he avoided a suspension in the wake of testing positive for elevated testosterone levels following the 2011 season; the league’s reckless lawsuit against Biogenesis makes that clear. The Brewers owned the sixth-best offense in baseball last year. If the league nabs Braun — on the up and up or not — a Braun-less, Hart-less offense, combined with a potentially shaky pitching staff, could make for a long year in Milwaukee.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Yovani Gallardo (194, 3.55)
Marco Estrada (121, 3.65)
Mike Fiers (134, 4.04)
Chris Narveson (87, 4.34)
Wily Peralta (153, 4.37)

Fiers and Estrada fared extremely well in their first crack at full-time rotation jobs, with near-elite peripheral stats almost across the board. Don’t bet the farm on it happening again: Both pitchers are soft tossers compared to the average right-handed starter, with Estrada’s fastball averaging just 90 mph and Fiers coming in at 88. Velocity isn’t everything, of course. But two low-velocity, fly-ball pitchers toiling in one of the friendliest home-run parks in the league doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does trusting the fourth starter job to a pitcher who threw nine innings last season.

Fortunately, they now have more options. Monday morning, news broke that Kyle Lohse had agreed to sign with the Brewers, pending results of a physical. The ZiPS team-less projection for Lohse is a strong one: 169 innings pitched, 3.60 FIP. That would work out to about a three-win season (Wins Above Replacement, not that outdated, team-dependent stat with little to no analytical value), marking a sizable upgrade over whatever Narveson or Peralta would likely give them. Moreover, the move gives the Brewers some badly needed starting pitching depth. Milwaukee’s options after Narveson and Peralta looked awful before this move, and an injury to one of the team’s better starters could’ve been devastating. If the deal goes through, the Brewers will forfeit the no. 17 pick in this summer’s draft, losing about $2 million in slot money in the process (the Cardinals would gain the no. 28 pick and about $1.65 million in slot money). Milwaukee will live with that sacrifice.

Being a three-true-outcomes hitter can work in today’s game — you accept the strikeouts, if they come with tons of homers and walks. A three-true-outcomes pitcher, as John Axford was last year with 12.1 strikeouts, 5.1 walks, and 1.3 homers a game, probably belongs in Triple-A. The Brewers reinstalled him in the closer spot, which he lost at one point last year. But given Axford’s question marks and the lack of dominant arms ahead of him,2 the bullpen could struggle again this year. Which puts even more pressure on Milwaukee starters to pitch into the seventh inning on a regular basis, something they might not be able to do.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Gallardo goes from de facto no. 1 starter to Cy Young contender, and the twentysomething trio of Estrada, Fiers, and Peralta prove able wingmen, giving the Brewers the pitching support they sorely need. Braun avoids suspension and puts up MVP-caliber numbers again, Hart’s back in early May, Gomez follows through on 2012’s breakout, and Segura makes a splash in his first full season, making Milwaukee a playoff contender and one of the biggest surprises in the league.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: MLB pops Braun, the pitching staff falls apart, and the Brewers battle the Cubs in a quest to stay out of last place.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
LF Starling Marte (.264/.311/.428)
2B Neil Walker (.270/.332/.430)
CF Andrew McCutchen (.283/.372/.480)
3B Pedro Alvarez (.236/.315/.451)
1B Garrett Jones (.253/.313/.446)
C Russell Martin (.238/.329/.373)
RF Travis Snider (.253/.312/.403)
SS Clint Barmes (.237/.291/.353)

Dare we say … that doesn’t look too bad! Marte’s strike-zone judgment can best be described as “How could this guy possibly be leading off? Did Dusty Baker just become the manager?”; Snider was once a very highly touted prospect who’s now very much a project; and Barmes is one of the worst everyday hitters in the game. But you’ve got an MVP-level center fielder in McCutchen, an above-average second baseman in Walker, Alvarez coming off a 30-homer season, the addition of Martin to add true stability to the catching spot for the first time since Jason Kendall’s heyday, and yes, Marte and Snider do at least offer some potential at the outfield corners. At the very least, this lineup should fare considerably better than last year’s 26th-ranked offense.

In a couple of years, if and when top prospects like Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco crash the big leagues, it could be much better than that.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
A.J. Burnett (172, 3.94)
Wandy Rodriguez (180, 3.55)
James McDonald (151, 4.10)
Jeff Karstens (121, 4.01)
Jonathan Sanchez (108, 4.78)

Again, the standard here is to aim for respectable and hope for much more in a couple years’ time. No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole has progressed just the way you hope a potential future ace might, and electric-armed Canadian Jameson Taillon had a big coming-out party during the WBC, adding to his own hype. For now, the Pirates will take slightly-above-average bulk innings from Burnett and Rodriguez, and maybe a long-awaited breakout from McDonald, as they wait for the cavalry.

The bullpen isn’t great, but it does have an intriguing story in Jason Grilli. The fourth overall pick way back in 1997, Grilli never lived up to the hype, settling in as a middle reliever and flitting among five teams before landing in Pittsburgh. At age 36, he’s got the first multi-year contract of his career, the closer job, and a chance to do something with it, having improbably pumped up his fastball usage, velocity, and strikeout rate over the past three years.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Marte and Snider surprise, McDonald replicates his impressive 2010 post-trade numbers into 200 big innings, and the Pirates challenge for second place in the division.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The young guys don’t come through, Burnett turns back into a pumpkin, and ownership begins to lose faith in the baseball ops crew before the coming crop of exciting prospects can make it to Pittsburgh.


CHICAGO CUBS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF David DeJesus (.262/.343/.399)
SS Starlin Castro (.294/.334/.446)
1B Anthony Rizzo (.279/.351/.503)
LF Alfonso Soriano (.249/.301/.470)
RF Nate Schierholtz (.261/.318/.415)
3B Luis Valbuena (.247/.321/.378)
C Welington Castillo (.240/.312/.398)
2B Darwin Barney (.270/.310/.360)

When you’re in the middle of a major rebuild, might as well give young players a chance to prove themselves, even if they’re far from elite prospects. So Valbuena gets a look as the better half of a third-base platoon, and Castillo gets a chance to translate his solid minor league numbers into big-league success, rather than getting relegated to backup duty behind a veteran with no upside. Castro and Rizzo are the only two true building blocks, while Soriano remains, as ever, trade bait.

On the defensive side, keep an eye on the double-play duo. Barney rated like Bill Mazeroski last year according to advanced defensive metrics, while Castro’s arm is so erratic that you can count the debates calling for a position change by the dozen, and he just turned 23.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jeff Samardzija (169, 3.49)
Edwin Jackson (187, 3.66)
Scott Feldman (109, 3.83)
Travis Wood (171, 4.39)
Carlos Villanueva (111, 4.06)

When you’re in the middle of a rebuild and lack pitching depth, might as well take cheap flyers on players whose peripheral stats trounce their superficial ones. Scott Baker will likely miss the first half of the season with continued elbow problems, but Feldman could provide some useful innings as a no. 4 arm. Samardzija’s emerging as one of the most dynamic young starters in the league, and Jackson is a perfectly solid and reliable pitcher who gets grief for not turning into the ace many expected years ago, and for the changing economics of the game rewarding no. 3 starters like the aces of 15 years ago. Jackson set career bests in strikeout rate and walk rate last year, even as his fastball lost a tick. With a four-year contract in tow, the expectation is that he’ll either be part of the next winning Cubs team, or trade bait for a needy team at some point in the next couple years.

When Matt Garza comes back from his lat injury, this could be a legitimately good starting five.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The starting rotation emerges as one of the best in the National League, keeping the Cubs in games and making them tougher to beat than most expect. A big Rizzo breakout might be imminent; if you’re in a fantasy league, go get him.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: There are no expectations for this team for 2013. A worst-case scenario would involve, say, something that rhymes with Shmommy Shmon for Samardzija, and a $50 million lawsuit from the popcorn guy the next time Castro fires one into the sixth row.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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