This is a tale of two divisions. The top half, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati all have legitimate playoff aspirations as well as good offenses. The other 3 teams, Chicago, Houston, and Pittsburgh will all struggle to reach even .500. This may be the most balanced divisional fight in baseball, because the top-3 teams appear, at least on paper, to be evenly matched. Let’s take a look:
The 2011 Milwakee team was a very balanced one, finishing 8th in baseball in runs allowed and 11th in runs scored. The Brewers were 6 games better than their Pythagorean record indicated as well, so some regression to the mean could occur in 2012. The Brewers will also be without Prince Fielder in the upcoming season, but they will be getting a full year from Zach Greinke. The 2012 Brewers will once again possess a strong pitching staff, maybe in the top-3 in the league, but the big question will be on offense.
The 2012 team will probably not score as many runs do to the absence of Prince Fielder so it will be interesting to see if the pitching can pick up the slack. Fielder was an OPS machine, .981, and provided plenty of ribbies as well, tallying 120. Mat Gamel is the first in line to fill Fielder’s rather larger shoes, but the drop-off in production could be rather steep. Granted, Gamel has only received sporadic playing time in the majors over the past 4 season, he has only hit .222/.309/.374 in just under 200 at-bats. That would rank as one of the lowest marks for a 1st baseman so Gamel will have to improve or Milwaukee would be wise to look elsewhere.
The lineup will probably see some increased offensive production in at a couple of positions however. Freshly signed Aramis Ramirez will be replacing the Casey McGehee, who was abysmal in 2011. McGehee received 600 plate appearances and posted an abysmal .223/.280/.346. Ramirez on the other hand, was a Silver Slugger winner, who posted an OPS .200 points higher.
Milwaukee also dodged a bullet when they Ryan Braun’s 50 game suspension was revoked. Losing the 2011 NL MVP for nearly a third of the season would have been crippling to the Brewers playoff chances. The rest of the outfield is made up of speedster Nyjer Morgan and power player Corey Hart, who hit 26 dingers a year ago.
The Brewers have also added Alex Gonzalez, who’s bat is about equal to the man he is replacing in Yuniesky Betancourt, but who‘s glove should provide more value.. The Brewers should see a large upgrade on the defensive; improving at 3rd and 1st This could help their pitching staff, which is fronted by two Cy Young candidates.
The staff will be the real strength of the team, and could finish as one the 3-4 best in baseball by season’s end. Zach Greinke will probably throw somewhere between 30-45 more innings. Greinke dominated hitters in following the All-Star game, posting a 2.59 ERA. He also led the league in strikeout rate, throwing an absurd 10.5 per 9. Possessing an above average fastball and a devastating curve, Greinke has the makeup to win another Cy Young award.
His teammate Yovi Gallardo had his first top 10 finish in the Cy Young last season posting an impressive 17-10 record with a 3.52 era and an elite k/9 rate of 9.0, placing him 6th in the National League. Gallardo’s makeup has always impressed scouts and at 25 he should be entering the prime of his career. Gallardo and Greinke should be able to win quite a few games. The rest of the rotation is returning from 2011 as well. Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and, Chris Narveson all have the ability to be quality mid-rotation starters. Marcum in particular, uses an excellent change-up to fool hitters and is a solid 3rd starter on a playoff contender.
The Brewers bullpen should be deep again in 2012. The end game duo of John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez is about as reliable as they come in today’s game. Each posted an elite ERA+, both topping 200, while striking out more than a batter per inning.
While many early forecasts have projected the Brewers to be in the mix, very few people believe the team will be as strong without Fielder’s bat. The Braun-Fielder partnership was the engine behind the Brewers offense a year ago, and unless the team’s pitching takes another step up, other batters will have to step up in order to put Milwaukee in the playoffs.
St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis had a banner year in 2011, racing all the way back to pass Atlanta for the wild card before vanquishing all foes in the playoffs. The Cardinals will be missing a few key members from that team going into 2012, but also welcome in fresh talent. Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan will be difficult to replace in the hearts of Cardinals fans. With the hiring of Mike Matheny, the welcoming back of Adam Wainwright, and the signing of Carlos Beltran the Cardinals will be an interesting study in 2012.
Managing icon Tony La Russa left the Cardinals in style a year ago and Dave Duncan appears to have left the team for the duration of the season as well. If will be interesting to see if Matheny can generate more wins out of this roster, or if La Russa was truly maximizing his talent level. The old skipper loved to play the bullpen matchups and was constantly tinkering with his lineup. Matheny may opt to maneuver a little less, and may give players more defined roles. The 2012 Cardinals will be an interesting study in the replacement of a manager, particularly one with no major league experience.
The key story in St. Louis however is the loss of Albert Pujols, and the issue of replacing his production. Lance Berkman will slide over to 1st, which will improve the Cardinals’ defense for obvious reasons. Berkman was a star with the bat in 2011, hitting for an elite .959 OPS but he was a sore sight in the outfield. His replacements in the outfield will be former centerfielder Carlos Beltran.
Beltran still has a fair amount of skills in his repertoire, playing above average defense, while possessing a good batting eye, and solid power. The days of 40+ steals are gone however, as Beltran has only stolen 7 bases the past 2 seasons combined. Beltran, who had a similarly elite .920 OPS splitting time between the Giants and Mets last year. Most importantly for Beltran was the fact that he played 142 games and finished 2 at bats shy of 600, the first time he had gotten above 500 since 2008.
If Beltran stays healthy and Allen Craig recovers from his knee by May, the Cardinals could produce close to the same number of runs as 2011, which led the National League. It should also be interesting over the course of the season to see how the Cardinal offense produces without Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup. Much like Milwaukee, the pitching staff will determine how far the Cardinals go.
Adam Wainwright, owner of the most devastating curve in baseball, is returning after an elbow injury cost him all of 2011. The Cardinal pitching staff ranked in the middle of the NL a year ago and didn’t even get to throw Adam Wainwright for even 1 inning.
Ideally Wainwright will throw about 200 in 2012, and if his prior performance holds, those will be Cy Young caliber innings replacing the 180 innings split between Edwin Jackson, now in Washington, and Kyle McClellan. Wainwright who has an ERA+ of at least 155 the last two seasons he was healthy will replace what McClellan and Jackson combined to make into a league average pitcher who went 11-8 with their opponent’s OPS sitting in the mid .700’s. Wainwright, combined with a full year of the revamped bullpen should make the Cardinals solid contenders going into 2012.
Chris Carpenter is already is having injury problems, which is of little surprise because of his 2011 workload. Carpenter led baseball in innings pitched a year ago, pitching a combined 263.1 innings between the regular season and playoffs. He has never thrown for more than 200 innings 3 consecutive seasons in his career and is now 36 years old. If he can give the Cardinals 120 good innings, they may consider themselves lucky.
The rest of the rotation composed of the sneaky good Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and as of now, Lance Lynn. Garcia has a deceptive curveball, and has posted a career ERA of 3.27 in 374 career innings. The bullpen will benefit from a full year of Jason Motte, Mark Rzepczyski, and others rather than Ryan Franklin and Miguel Bautista.
This team has a lot of interesting pieces and will more than likely be a contender in the deep National League. The effect Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan had on the Cardinals over the past decade has been large and led to 2 World Series titles. A new regime may bring in some fresh ideas, renewed vigor, and the Cardinals could perform exceptionally well maybe winning 95 games. Or Albert will be missed, Carpenter as well as other veterans can’t stay healthy, Matheny is in over his head, and Dave Duncan really was working magic. It will be interesting no matter what happens for the defending champs in 2012.
After winning the NL Central in 2010 expectations for Cincinnati were sky-high going into 2011, but the Reds failed to deliver. The Reds finished a mediocre 79-83, and that was mostly due to a pitching staff that was 20th in baseball. The offense was strong again in 2011 finishing 2nd in the NL in runs, led by Joey Votto. The Reds will need some improvement on the pitching staff in order to compete, and that is why they traded for Padres ace Mat Latos in the offseason.
Latos will join Jonny Cueto, who just missed winning the ERA title in the NL a year ago due to a lack of innings pitched, at the top of the Reds rotation. Latos and Cueto both strikeout an above average number of batters, and could form one of the best 1-2 combos in baseball in 2012.
Latos dropped off some in 2011 from his stellar 2010 campaign but he’s only 24 and possesses a mid-90s fastball, a power slider, a solid changeup, and an average, seldom used curveball. If he could develop his curve a little further, Latos would probably be a Cy Young contender for years to come. As he currently stands he is a pitcher with All-Star potential and a top 10 Cy Young finish on his resume.
The rest of the rotation appears as if it will be composed of Mike Leake, and some combination of Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman, and Jeff Francis. Leake, Bailey and Chapman are all young pitchers, and Cincinnati would be wise to put each in the starting rotation to gain experience. Leake has shown the ability to be a solid mid-rotation starter and Bailey has never quite lived up to his first round promise, but possesses a couple of quality pitches.
Aroldis Chapman has the most potential and is a flame throwing Cuban who needs to be starting games. It’s a waste of his talent to only pitch him 40-60 innings in the bullpen when he is nearly unhittable, allowing a .147 opponent’s batting average. He does some control issues, as evidenced by his 41 walks in 50 innings a year ago. This problem can only be corrected by experience, which Chapman sorely needs.
Cincinnati’s bullpen is still up in the air after the season-ending injury to Ryan Madsen, the teams projected closer. This unit may struggle and could be the Reds’ Achilles heel all year. The offense on the other hand should be just fine.
The Reds enter 2011 with what appears to be the best offense in the National League. They were 2nd in runs scored a year ago, and the Cardinals losing Albert Pujols, Cincinnati could lead the league in scoring. The lineup is deep, and could have as many as 5 above average hitters in 2012.
Joey Votto is the best of all of them, as evidenced by his .309/.416/.531 split 2011. If he can reprise his 2010 form, which saw him win the MVP, Cincinnati will add a few runs to their total. Votto drives the ball to all parts of the field, with excellent power (he hit 29 homers and 40 doubles a year ago). Expect more of the same this year.
Another excellent hitter is Brandon Phillips, who has excellent pop for a 2nd baseman, plays good defense, and gets on-base at a solid clip. Phillips is a poor base runner as are most of the Reds, so Cincinnati will again look to get runs on and slug them home.
The young outfield of Drew, Stubbs, Jay Bruce, and Chase Heisley should be productive as well. Each player is under 28 and they all should be entering their primes. Bruce is the best of the 3, with excellent power to go along with an innate ability to draw a walk.
The Reds will need the offense to lead the National League in runs if Cincy wants to play deep into October. The pitching staff has only a couple above average arms, and the bullpen is rather shallow. A midseason trade could mitigate these issues, and the Reds could be active players on the market come midseason.
The Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2012 with a slight bit of optimism after finishing 4th in the Central in 2012. Over the past 19 seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates have been the worst professional franchise in North American sports history, with a losing record in every one. Last season Pittsburgh was precariously in first on July 19th only to have the wheels fall off finishing the year 24-43 with a .358 win %.
The team was a paper tiger a during that midseason run to the top of the NL Central, and their second half slump was more indicative of their true talent level. The Pirates scored only 610 runs, good for 4th worst in baseball and their hitters averaged an OPS+ of 87, 10 points below the league’s equilibrium of 97. And that woeful production included McCutchen’s stellar 127 OPS+, 23 steals, and 23 homers. McCutchen did slump massively in the second half last year hitting .216/.330/.392 after an All-Star caliber start to the year.
The rest of the offense is a mix between league average talents, and young players coming off of disappointing seasons. Jose Tabata had a rough sophomore year, playing only 98 games, showing very little pop, while walking at a below average rate. He’s still only 23 so there is some time for improvement, but some improvement from the young outfielder needs to be seen. 2nd baseman Neil Walker is another talented youngster, but he has a bit of a strikeout problem, which limits his productivity. This lineup will have to grow-up if it wants to produce enough runs to finish near .500.
Pittsburgh’s pitching was slightly below league average last season, thanks to a stellar bullpen, but offense appears to be the more pressing issue. Gerrit Cole was last years #1 overall pick and projects as a very high upside top of the rotation starter according to most talent evaluators. John Sickles believes the team has the 12th best minor league system and Baseball America’s list has 6 of the Pirates 10 best prospects as pitchers.
AJ Burnett, who moves from a bandbox in the most brutal division in baseball into the cozier confines of PNC Park and the gentler NL Central, should have a solid 2 years in Pittsburgh. The rest of the pitching staff is a mishmash of retreads, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Eric Bedard, etc., etc. Ideally the rest of the rotation is further bolstered into one of a competitor from within. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Tallion, and other highly touted prospects will have to make an impact to finally get a winning season.
It will probably be another long season in Pittsburgh in 2012. The team doesn’t appear to have the offense to compete with St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. If the Pirates’ pitching regresses in any way things could be downright ugly. A lot will have to break right for Pittsburgh to compete including the reclamation pitchers panning out, Karstens having another year where he outperforms his talent, McCutchen putting up an MVP season, and the young players all stepping up and playing well.
The Cubs had a notable offseason by hiring Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox and pledging to rebuild. Jim Hendry is no longer around to recklessly overspend on players like Carlos Zambrano, who’s also gone, and Alfonso Soriano, who still has 3 seasons at $18 million on his deal, so the Cubs should be better off. But the 2012 will be a rough one for the Cubbies, who are looking at a 90+ loss year. There are only a few truly talented players on the roster, and the team doesn’t appear much different from the one that finished 18th in runs scored and in the bottom-10 in runs allowed.
Starlin Castro is now the star of the organization, and appears to be headed toward a fine career. Castro was an All-Star in 2011, leading the NL in hits while posting a .307/.341/.432 line. He has the speed to steal 20+ bases and could eventually hit 20+ home runs in a season. He comes with a couple of drawbacks, as he doesn’t draw many walks and plays erratically in the field, ranking as one of the worst shortstops defensively. It’s important to keep in mind that he just turned 22, so there is plenty of room for improvement. Expect quite a few more All-Star appearances for the shortstop in the future.
Most of the projected 2012 lineup probably won’t be a part of the next winning Cubs team, and no one in particular stands out. Anthony Rizzo, who the Cubs acquired in the offseason, is the future 1st baseman, but will start the year in Triple-A to get more seasoning. He could be a solid power bat in the future with an above average ability to draw a walk. Players like Rizzo are tough to acquire and the Cubs did a good job of nabbing him.
The Cubs enter 2012 with a bland pitching staff as well. Jeff Samardzija made the most of his opportunity to win a rotation spot and could provide a boost to the rotation. He had a 2.97 ERA last year in 88 innings while striking out 87 batters. Granted all this production was out of the bullpen, but the talent level to be a quality starter is there for Samardzija.
Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster will be atop Samardzija in the rotation, and both are quality starting pitchers as well. The Cubs may look to trade one or both of these players during the season, and Garza in particular could bring in quite a haul. Garza has been league average or better the last 5 seasons straight and is a reliable strikeout pitcher with a career ERA of 3.83. He’s just entering his prime at age 28 and could bring back a couple of prospects with high ceilings.
Theo Epstein has already moved the Cubs into rebuilding mode. They will probably further that process this season and the results could be grim. A .500 season is a long shot, so expect the losses to pile up on the North Side of Chicago.
Man oh man is this team broken. The major league roster is wrecked, particularly on offense and there doesn’t appear to be reinforcements coming. 2012 will be a struggle for Houston, and the best outcome for their season is that the few remaining veterans play well enough to bring back something useful in a trade. The Astros had the 3rd worst pitching staff in baseball and the 5th worst offense in 2011, the marks of a truly terrible team. The outlook for 2012 appears to be just as grim.
The pitching staff could be slightly better if Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Bud Norris improve, but none of the 3 is frightening. Each player could be traded by the All-Star break and the best-case scenario for Houston is that all 3 pitch well enough to draw interest.
The most talented player in the lineup is probably Carlos Lee. Lee had a bounce back year in 2011 hitting for a 117 OPS+, which was 2nd on the team after Hunter Pence, who was traded mid-season. The only other Astro who was remotely productive a year ago was Michael Bourne, who was shipped out to Atlanta. These were smart moves by the Astros front office, because they need to replenish their farm system in order to compete. Houston’s system ranks in the bottom half of baseball still, but has improved on its dead last ranking in 2011
This team needs to continue trading away any and all talent because things won’t be getting any easier in the near future either. Houston is slated to jump to the American League West in 2013, putting them in direct competition with the high-spending Rangers and Angels, which is no easy task. The rebuilding process for the franchise will probably take years, and the next competitive.
St. Louis Cardinals
NL Central MVP: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
NL Central Cy Young: Zach Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers
The top-3 teams in the division probably won’t be separated by more than 4 games. I think this division will be a dog fight, with around 88-90 wins taking the crown. The National League is so balanced this season that all 3 of these teams will compete for the Wild Card as well. I think that Cincinnati will score the most runs in the NL and that will be enough to get past Milwaukee, which will pitch well but won’t score enough, and St Louis, where Albert’s lineup presence will be missed. The bottom 3 in the division should all look to trade any veterans they have in order to further build for 2013 and beyond.