NL Central: Mostly, the arms hold form

Once upon a time, a division battle was formed. The champs were setting up to withstand blows both left and right. The makers of ale added premium hops from Canada and Kansas City. A Bird’s wing was clipped and a Ray was beamed to Chicago. By air or by sea, two were plotting a chart to the cellar.

The story has been blown off course at a few points, but the dust is starting to settle and the real stories of the 2011 National League Central are really not far off from what was teed up in March. We’ll be checking in on the pitching staffs at this juncture; the bats will wait until our second check-up.

With Memorial Day and a third of a season behind us, the Pirates are near .500 and have the league’s co-leader in pitching wins. The Cubs have put as much as 60 percent of their rotation on the disabled list and are charging backwards toward the Astros. The Cardinals have established themselves as division leaders without the services of their ace. The Brewers had to wait for their new stars to get healthy while the Reds got to fully explore the depth of their rotation stock.

Cardinals

Any season that looks to be a rough one for the Cardinals turns into a season in contention. They keep doing it, year after year,, and 2011 is no different, with the Redbirds in first place with a patchwork pitching staff. Adam Wainwright losing the season to Tommy John surgery would normally be a gut blow to any team’s hope, but the Cardinals have the Midas touch of pitching coach Dave Duncan and a generally weak division on their side.

Wainwright’s injury and the subsequent focus on the rotation turned out to be a distraction for Cardinal followers. The real issues were in the bullpen and took a couple of months to sort out. The Cardinals are actually on the low-end of relievers used (11), but on the high-end of closers used (seven guys in save situations, five in earnest).

Ryan Franklin was horrid, blowing four out of five saves before Tony LaRussa started cycling through his other relievers. Fernando Salas emerged as closer after Eduardo Sanchez, Mitchell Boggs and Trever Miller all seemingly were given a shot. Boggs is now being stretched out in Triple-A and is targeted for the rotation, perhaps this year.

Outside of a rain-induced start for Miguel Batista, the Cardinals got to June with five starters. When Kyle McClellan‘s impresive season was disrupted, Lance Lynn answered the call and made his major league debut.

The rotation is not in perfect shape without its ace, and moreso with McClellan’s hip injury. When placed on the DL, the erstwhile relief pitcher was already within reach of his normal inning total. It’s not clear how much longer the Cardinals would’ve been able to run him out.

But Chris Carpenter‘s 1-5 win-loss record says nothing about his contributions and Jaime Garcia has been dominant (outside of one epically bad start in Colorado). Jake Westbrook has been solid and Kyle Lohse has been putting his healthy forearm to good use and filling the strike zone. They may not have their big three, but they have a more-than-solid four.

Brewers

The Brewers finished 2010 with one big problem: pitching. The Miller Park inhabitants could score runs, but preventing them was a whole different story. A pair of trades lurched the Brewers toward respectability and legitimate contention. Or so it seemed. As it turned out, they had to wait a little bit before things would come together.

Zack Greinke‘s ribs slowly healed after an offseason basketball injury derailed his spring training. Rounding into shape, the former Cy Young winner is now fronting the Milwaukee rotation. Fellow new arrival Shaun Marcum started slowly but began dominating with his change-up. There were some concerns about his shoulder, but those are fading into the dark corners of April’s memories. Returning ace Yovani Gallardo completes the trio that could be the best group in the division, due to Wainwright’s hiatus.

With a big three now intact, the Brewers are bolstered by two lefty curveball throwers in the back of the rotation. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Chris Narveson was very good early on, and Randy Wolf has been solid. The Brewers really don’t need Narveson to act like a front line starter, and Wolf can hit some speed bumps. They’re not guys you want slotted two-three, but four-five works like a charm.

While the rotation was coming into focus this spring, the Brewers still had to deal with their bullpen. They’ve managed to put together a group that gets it done with ground balls and not a lot of strikeouts. The bat missers on this team are in the rotation.

John Axford is the closer as planned, and his supporting cast (which includes Marco Estrada, the newly acquired Sergio Mitre and Kameron Loe) is coming together nicely. Outside of Estrada, the Brewers’ primary relivers are worm killers. Five members of the bullpen have a groundball rate higher than 50 percent, and only Estrada and Zach Braddock have below-average rates.

Reds

The Reds were this author’s pick to repeat as division champions. A few events have intervened.

Arrest. Injury. Demotion.

In in a bizarre occurence, Mike Leake was nabbed for shoplifting. We all need t-shirts, one way or another. Leake also found himself struggling on the mound (again) and was sent to the minors. That was more bizarre, since his only no-major league pro experience had been in the Arizona Fall League.

While in Louisville, Leake had a chance to catch up with Aroldis Chapman. Chapman had a stint of low velocity (for him) early in the season, but recovered. Sort of. His control is still nonexistent (for the most part) and his shoulder balkly. DL and rehab were the course of action, and Chapman is still in the minor leagues. Leake, meanwhile, came back up when Edinson Volquez was demoted.

The Reds have used nine starters already. Two have been consistently effective, although those guys haven’t combined for a dozen starts yet. Leake has split time between Louisville, the bullpen and the starting five. Volquez made 10 starts and struck out 53 in 51 innings—along with 38 walks. Travis Wood and Bronson Arroyo have struggled, while Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey have excelled.

Thing is, Arroyo and Wood have each made more starts than Cueto and Bailey combined. Cueto missed April while on the DL, and Bailey is there now. Even swingmen Sam LeCure and Matt Maloney dealt with injuries, thinning out the bullpen and the rotation depth. The Reds are very thankful for that rotation depth: It’s kept them from falling out of contention. Guys will need to get healthy and/or on track during June… or the upstart Pirates could sneak past.

Pirates

This is a good pitching staff. Along with the Cardinals, the Bucs are one-two in the division in strike rate, SLGCON and groundball rate. They are on the low end of whiff rates, while the Cardinals are not.

The names may not evoke awe, but the Pirates have their own big three. Kevin Correia was a an unimpressive choice for Opening Day, but is now tied for the league lead in wins. Paul Maholm has been a solid, veteran presence and Charlie Morton has emerged as the ace with comparisons to Roy Halladay. Morton does throw a cutter, sinker and breaking pitch, but the similarities don’t stop there. They have similar body and delivery types, and have posted similar results in 2011.

While the excitement in Pittsburgh has generally been reserved for the Pirates’ up-and-coming position players, the pitching has taken this team out of the cellar and near the .500 mark. The Pirates haven’t had a winning team in nearly 20 years. Could the streak be coming to an end?

Joel Hanrahan has been closing games for the Pirates since late 2010, and he’s been very effective in 2011. His strikeout rate has dropped from over one-per-inning in his career and he’s now averaging five fewer strikeouts per nine innings than in 2010. But he hasn’t blown a save and his fastball/slider combo are just as wicked as before. No cause for worry at the moment—unless you’re an opposing hitter.

Cubs

The Cubs figured to rely on pitching as their strength in 2011. Spotty defense and questionable offense were clearly going to be the problems. The defense has been sub-standard but the offense has shown signs of life. The pitching staff has been, for the most part, a disaster.

Matt Garza was doing just fine as the new No. 3 guy until a minor elbow issue put him on the DL. He’s due back soon, but the timing was awful. The Cubs were already scraping the barrel for starters.

Andrew Cashner got past five innings in his first start in April, and is now on the 60-day DL with a rotator cuff strain. Carlos Silva stomped away in a huff after spring training, and has watched from the Yankees farm as nine different Cubs took the ball as starters. Randy Wells came back from a forearm strain, but is still not 100 percent.

Doug Davis and Rodrigo Lopez weren’t even Cubs in March, and both have started games. Davis remains in the rotation for now, having made just one good start after a few awful outings. At least Jeff Russell is no longer “starting” games (bullpen days) and Casey Coleman is working things out in Iowa.

In front of Garza, things haven’t been perfect either. Ryan Dempster started poorly, but has regained his form. Carlos Zambrano has been himself, not great, but quite good. Outside of Sean Marshall, the bullpen has been dicey. As of late, super closer Carlos Marmol has been losing velocity and getting hit very hard. At this point, the Cubs are just trying to stay ahead of Houston.

Astros

Let’s see. Mark Melancon has done nicely in the wake of Brandon Lyon‘s injury. Jordan Lyles looked nice in his debut.

What else? Wandy Rodriguez is on the DL, Brett Myers is looking nothing like the ace he was last year, J.A. Happ is a No. 4 starter, nothing more, and Bud Norris may be the best pitcher on the staff.

It’s been a train wreck. Like the Cubs, the Astros have a low groundball rate at a high SLGCON against. Unlike the Cubs, the Astros staff doesn’t miss bats. Like the Brewers, it’s the starters who miss bats and the relievers who kill worms.

Wandy’s injury was a shame; he was pitching well and fronting the staff. Myers has started to round into form, but until Lyles came up, the Nelson Figueroa/Aneury Rodriguez innings were very costly. Rodriguez, a Rule 5 acquisition, has moved back to the bullpen where he seems best suited. Figueroa was outrighted to Triple-A, where he seems best suited.

Summary

Some of the finer points may have been hard to pick up in a crystal ball, but the top three teams in the division are the teams expected to be in that mix. The Cubs’ regression and the surge by the Pirates are not too terribly far-fetched, even with only the slightest benefit of hindsight.

As of this writing, the Reds, Astros and Cubs are the bottom three in NL team ERA. The Pirates, Brewers and Cardinals are five, six and seven. Yes, the Bucs and the Brewers have the best staff ERAs in the division. OK, maybe that would’ve sounded far-fetched three months ago.

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    It’s clear that Cubs manager Mike Quade already needs to be fired. Any manager who pitches to Albert Pujols two days in a row with the game in the balance shows he knows as much about his job as Sarah Palin knows about Paul Revere.

  2. Chicago Mark said...

    Disagree Jim C.  Many managers would have pitched to Albert.  Would they all deserve to be fired?  Quade probably won’t be managing next year.  But hopefully it’s because the new GM wants his own group.

  3. Jim C said...

    Yes, Mark, in the current condition of the Cardinal lineup, any manager who pitches to Pujols with the game on the line and first base open should be fired. Especially after he beat you the day before, driving a ball out of the park that was down and away.

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