Tagged: Lance Berkman

The Albert Pujols Deal So Far

Albert Pujols is playing in his 82nd game as an Angel tonight against the Baltimore Orioles, and its safe to say the first half of the 1st year of the rest of his career has been a bumpy one. Pujols had the worst April of his career, taking 31 games to hit his first long ball as a member of the Angels. The team predictably struggled as well, going 8-15 in the month of April before dominating throughout May (18-11) and June (17-9). Admittedly, the MVP-level of play from Mike Trout has probably been the biggest driving factor behind the Angels success, but when your slugging 1st baseman starts doing just that it doesn’t hurt either. On the other side of the coin, is the St. Louis Cardinals, who objected to matching the lofty $240 million/10-year deal Pujols was able to net and spent their money elsewhere while hoping big 2nd halfs from David Freese, Rafael Furcal, and Allen Craig would carry over to 2012. So far each team is solidly entrenched in the playoff chase, and both sides should have reason to feel happy about the transition of the future-Hall-of-Fame 1st baseman from the Midwest out to LA.

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The Art of the Double Steal

The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!

The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.

There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.

The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.

About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.

Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.

The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.

Around the League

-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.

-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.

-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand  has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.

-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.

3 Up, 3 Down: Midweek Edition

3 Up

  1. Extensions for Brandon Phillips and Ian Kinsler. Both of these talented 2nd basemen will now play for their respective teams until 2017. Kinsler is getting $82 million from Texas and has an option for 2018 as well. He has been a plus defender, possessing a strong arm and excellent range. Kinsler also has excellent power and speed, especially for a 2nd baseman, twice hitting more than 30 homers and stealing more than 30 bases. Phillips is getting $72.5 million from Cincinnati, and like Kinsler, he is also good with the bat and the glove. He’s a 3-time Gold Glove winner, with 20 homer power and a .272/.322/.433 career slash. Phillips will be 36 when his contract finishes, so it may run past his prime, but he is still an excellent 2-way player. Both of these players are in the top-5 at 2nd base, and their contracts should play out nicely for Texas and Cincinnati.
  2. Cardinal’s offense sans Pujols. Quick name the highest scoring team in baseball? Could it be Detroit, with their fearsome heart-of-the-order. Nah, the best offense so far resides down by the river in St. Louis. (Although Detroit is 1st in average runs per game, St. Louis has played 2 more games.) 6 regulars are hitting over .300, led by the impressive David Freese. Freese has continued his hot hitting from the 2011 playoffs, currently leading baseball in RBIs and is hitting .444/.464/.778 with 3 dingers. Yadier Molina, Lance Berkman, and the newly acquired Carlos Beltran have been excellent around Freese, combining for 5 doubles, a triple, and 5 homers. This offense hasn’t missed Pujols one bit and is easing the burden on a rotation that is missing Chris Carpenter.
  3. Fun Around the League. Houston pulled out some fantastic looking Colt .45 throwback jerseys yesterday against Atlanta. I think they should scratch the Astros name and go back to Colt .45’s, with these jerseys, when they move to the AL in 2013. They are the sharpest-looking throwbacks in baseball. Elsewhere, the Kansas City Royal’s Jeff Francoeur had some fun with the fans out in Oakland during a rain delay last night. It was the 2nd Annual Bacon Tuesday in Oakland, and Francoeur, being a lover of bacon, took action. He tossed a ball, wrapped with a C-note, to some A’s fans and instructed them to get him some bacon. They came back with said bacon, gave him a t-shirt, and dedicated the celebration to him. Francoeur is a fun player, who really enjoys baseball, and always keeps things lively.

3 Down

  1. Mark Trumbo’s Transition to 3rd Base. With the signing of Albert Pujols and the return of Kendry Morales, many wondered what the Angels would do to get the talented Trumbo playing time. He was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up last year, and has solid homerun power, so it is important to get his bat in the lineup. In Spring Training, LA worked Trout at 3rd and has given him 2 starts at the position so far. Trumbo has looked horribly out of sorts, making 3 errors in 18 innings of playing time. Most of Trumbo’s talent is tied up in his ability to drive the ball, because he doesn’t hit for a high average, draw a good number of walks, or play good defense. He may find himself stuck on the bench, because the Angels have Alberto Callaspo, who is an above-average defender with a league-average bat.
  2. Minnesota’s offense. On the opposite end of the spectrum from St. Louis, we have the Minnesota Twins. The offense has been completely anemic, preventing the team from winning even one of their 1st four games. The team is hitting a collective .165/.252/.240 which all rank in the bottom 3 in baseball.  Six regular players, including Joe Mauer, are hitting under .200 and the team has scored 6 total runs in 4 games. Minnesota does not have a strong enough pitching staff to support such an anemic offense, and if things continue along this path, it will be a long season in the Twin Cities. One positive in the lineup is Justin Morneau, who doesn’t appear to be having any ill-effects from his concussion syndrome, hitting .308/.400/.462. Hopefully he can keep that production up, because Morneau is an MVP candidate if healthy.
  3. Ozzie Guillen’s Mouth. When the Marlins hired Guillen in the offseason, it wasn’t a question of if he would say something stupid, but when. Well, one week into his 1st season in South Beach he has already been suspended for 5 games for comments about respecting Fidel Castro. Well I don’t think he should have been fired, the suspension seems just a little too light. The Marlins should have expected this kind of nonsense when they made the hire. Guillen has always said anything and everything when talking to the media, and he has finally topped himself with his latest idiotic comments.

Division Previews: National League Central

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:

Milwaukee Brewers

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.

Cincinnati Reds

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.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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.

Chicago Cubs

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.

Houston Astros

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.

Predictions

*Cincinnati Reds

Milwaukee Brewers

St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates

Chicago Cubs

Houston Astros

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.