Sizzle. Fizzle. The two phases of play in the 2011 National League Central division.
What was expected to be a three-team race turned into four. And then—in the blink of an eye—it was over.
The last time we checked in, the fading Reds were surprisingly going to the second division while the Pirates were leading the race.
The sizzling race turned to fizzling in a matter of days. The Pirates and the Cardinals started following the Reds while the Brewers took off.
Checking our crystal ball
Here at THT, we can proudly say we saw some of this coming. THT Forecasts were predicting (around July 18) the following winning percentages for the rest of the season:
Reds .573 Cardinals .529 Brewers .522 Pirates .371 Cubs .492 Astros .426
And actual records since our last check-in (through August 27):
Reds .526 (-.047) Cardinals .487 (-.042) Brewers .769 (+.247) Pirates .350 (-.021) Cubs .500 (+.008) Astros .308 (-.118)
The number in parentheses is how far off the actual records are from the projected ones back a couple weeks ahead of the non-waiver trading deadline.
The Brewers have gone nuts, blowing away expectations. The Reds and the Cardinals both fell short of the forecast (and out of the race), while the Bucs were just about as bad as expected. The Cubs matched expectations better than any of the six, while the woeful Astros have actually gone well below their forecast.
We were projecting the rest of the season, so these teams all have a chance to move closer to, or further away from, these projections as we move into and through September.
Passing the Bucs
The Pirates only went as far as their pitching staff could take them. Granted, that was first place in early August, but the finish line is a little more down the road. The Pirates may have hit the wall shortly after their peak, but the taste of success should make 2012 the most highly anticipated season in their recent history.
During an August series with the Cubs, both the Chicago radio and TV broadcast teams made the same observation (same press notes?)—that the Bucs had worked their staff past its normal limit.
We’ll look at this problem a little more closely after the season (in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2012, coming this fall), but for now the situation can be summarized by a brief review of their 2011 innings leaders (through August 28) and those same pitchers’ 2010 workload. Numbers include minor and major league totals.
Correia almost reached 200 innings as a Padre in 2009, and Maholm’s 2010 workload was typical for the veteran. Morton’s lack of a full major league season is important, but he hasn’t reached his red zone by any means. McDonald hasn’t worked this much since the low minors, and Karstens has pushed past anything he’s racked up in the last five plus years.
Whether it be by exposure to big league hitters or by workload alone, three out of five Pirate starters have gone into new territory, and Correia is on the DL.
Change in Chicago
The Cubs began their second annual late-season surge under Mike Quade. The 2011 edition wasn’t so much of a surge, though, and it doesn’t appear to be sustainable into September.
The Chicago pitching staff is still not intact, with Andrew Cashner‘s return to the 2012 rotation being predicated on staying healthy in the September bullpen and getting stretched out in the Arizona Fall League. Meanwhile, he rehabs in the Southern League, and the 2011 rotation is at three-fifths strength—which is essentially the level it’s been since early April when both Cashner and Randy Wells hit the DL.
The second regular (well…) pitcher who has gone absent, thereby keeping Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez around, is none other than the currently suspended Carlos Zambrano. You may have heard about that. And the Jim Hendry firing. The Cubs have quietly commenced a GM search, and there has been no news on Big Z as both parties await the settling of their grievance.
With Hendry out and Zambrano likely gone, what remains to be seen is how the many other changes are coming for the Cubs. Will Quade be back? Will Aramis Ramirez‘s option be picked up? Will Ryan Dempster exercise his? Will the high-priced, highly-touted 2011 draft class work out? At least we can address the first few topics this winter. While there is hope on the North Side, but the present and near future look rough.
Talking about rough, batting against the Brewers is no treat. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have the well-deserved reputation as a solid offensive duo, enough to keep the offense chugging without the injured Rickie Weeks.
But it’s the pitching staff that has pulled this team away from the pack of contenders they were with in July. Adding Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke to the front of their rotation this offseason not only gave them a great one-two punch, it turned Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf into a formidable three-four pair.
Fifth man Chris Narveson had a strong first half but hasn’t been terribly impressive of late. To make matters worse, he cut his hand fixing his glove and ended up on the DL. He’s also spent some time (when off-days allowed) in the bullpen since being reactivated. I think we know who is going to be out of the playoff rotation already.
The Brew Crew looks set in the late innings, too. Takashi Saito (84 career saves), Francisco Rodriguez (291) and John Axford (65) all have big league closer credentials of some form. Heck, K-Rod reworked his contract so the Brewers could work him as a set-up guy without triggering his ultra-expensive 2012 option.
LaTroy Hawkins (87) is far removed from his days as a closer and doesn’t strike batters out enough to merit high leverage work, but he’s more than adequate as a middle relief and occasional set-up option.
They still have time to blow this thing, but the pitching looks too deep, and Weeks could be back in a just a few, um…weeks.
Did you hear about Fielder’s walk-up music? Apparently the big man went to the plate three times with three different songs about money in one game. Red herring or the first sign of an extension for Prince?
Houston’s Jordan Lyles is picking up minor league innings in relief. Watching their Oklahoma City affiliate play is the best way to stay in touch with recognizable players in that organization.
Hey, Aroldis Chapman is good again. He was lights out in July but leveled off a bit in August. Still, from July 18 to August 26, the Cuban southpaw struck out 27 batters in 17 innings of work. That makes his seven walks seem like no big deal (correctly). Opponents have managed just eight singles and one double against him (during the same period ).