State of the NL Central

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The National League Central, like all the other divisions, is turning out exactly as we thought.

Wait, what? It’s not? Oh, how embarrassing. Actually, if you just flip-flop the Pirates and Brewers and the Astros and Cubs, the THT staff’s predictions were spot on. (Hey, Bud, can you take care of that for us?)

Of course, there’s plenty more baseball to be played, so positioning is likely to change between now and the end of the year. For now, let’s take a peek at the big stories of the moment in the NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds

Joey Votto is pretty good. There, that ought to cover it, so let’s move on.

Oh, you want more? Well how about this: Votto went 1-for-3 Sunday and his batting average suffered for it. Of course, that one hit was a two-run homer, so his slugging percentage benefited, and his season triple-slash marks are now .359/.484/.653.

Everyone knows Votto is a beast, but after a slow start to the season, he’s demonstrating why it made sense for the Reds to extend his contract for another decade beyond next year at a cost of $225 million. After a May that saw him hit .355/.483/.677, Votto’s June features a .434/.527/.776 line that would make Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Ted Williams envious.

No, it hasn’t been solely Votto who has propelled the Reds to the division lead—Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier are hitting well, and Johnny Cueto and the bullpen have provided the pitching support. However, if the Reds are to maintain their division lead, Votto needs to continue bludgeoning baseballs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

After last year’s strong first 100 games, is this a case of “Here we go again…” with the Pirates, where a late fade drops them off the radar as the postseason push heats up? Or is this another indication that management finally is getting things going in the right direction in the Steel City?

Most likely, it’s both. The Pirates are no longer the laughingstocks of the league, but they’re also not ready to contend for the playoffs. A 38-32 record belies the fact that the Bucs have been outscored on the season, if just barely.

A .500 mark would be the best thing to happen to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season, but such a feat is hardly notable for any other baseball franchise. Even with two wild card spots now available, it’s difficult to see a way for a break-even team to reach October.

However, the incremental gains the Pirates are demonstrating, along with strong drafts and free-agent signings the last few years, show a team on the rise after an excruciating run of pathetic performances. And an end to Pittsburgh’s string of 19 consecutive losing seasons would be something close to nirvana for players, management and fans.

St. Louis Cardinals

Who needs Albert Pujols? Well, just about every team, that’s who, including the Cardinals. However, Carlos Beltran has done a tremendous job helping to fill the void left by the departure of The Machine.

Beltran is in the neighborhood of a .300/.400/.600 season thus far, and he swatted his 20th homer on Sunday as the Cards moved back within two games of the division lead. He’s never going to be the defender of his youth, but Beltran has manned center field occasionally this season with Jon Jay (among many others) having spent time on the disabled list.

Speaking of injuries, the Cardinals have been bitten by the injury bug as hard and often as any team outside San Diego. Jay, Lance Berkman (shifted back to first base when Pujols left), Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter are among the players who have spent some or all of the year on the DL. The loss of that much talent to injury undoubtedly will impact a team’s competitiveness, but no one will feel sorry for last year’s World Series champs after their highly unlikely run to October glory.

At this point, the Cards are trying to assess their needs and determine what pieces they need to attempt to add to their puzzle as they make a push to return to the playoffs. The uncertainty of Carpenter’s, Berkman’s and Garcia’s return dates complicate their plans, but ownership and fan support typically makes a late-season run likely in St. Louis.

Milwaukee Brewers

Though Milwaukee was last year’s division champion, setting a club record for regular-season victories in the process, the team finds itself languishing in fourth place with a losing record and negative run differential. Responsibility for the dropoff from last season can be shared among just about every member of the team—with a few exceptions.

After winning the 2011 NL MVP award, Ryan Braun had a few minor difficulties this past offseason. However, he has shaken off those distractions to again be one of the most valuable players in the league. A .320/.401/.617 line with 20 homers and 13 steals will set both sabermetricians’ and fantasy gurus’ hearts aflutter. No problems there.

Zack Greinke is setting himself up for a massive free-agent payday this winter with an 8-2 record, 2.81 ERA, and 99 whiffs in his first 96 innings. The Brew Crew has the ace starter every team relishes.

Before a fractured right hand May 27, Jonathan Lucroy put up a .345/.387/.583 triple-slash mark that any player, let alone a catcher, would be quite happy with. (Well, maybe not Joey Votto.) He’s unlikely to keep that up when he returns, but the catching position has provided some very nice pop (13 total homers) for Milwaukee.

Shaun Marcum has been very solid for the Brewers, going 5-3 with a 3.39 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 82.1 innings. However, he just went on the DL with elbow discomfort, never an encouraging sign, but particularly this season, which may come to be known as “The Year of the 100 Tommy John Surgeries.”

Aramis Ramirez has been about as expected, providing a .270/.345/.488 line with nine homers, 42 RBI and speed and defense your grandmother probably could match.

Aside from those contributions, it’s been a sea of mediocrity or worse. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf have been disappointing in the rotation. Norichika Aoki has been solid but unspectacular, while Corey Hart has provided thump but little else. Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks and Cesar Izturis (filling in for the injured Alex Gonzalez) all have been atrocious.

The core is there for Milwaukee, but the surrounding cast needs to step with some assistance for the Brewers to make some noise in the division this year.

Houston Astros

Just about everyone (and literally everyone among THT voters) expected the Astros to be awful. Anything other than a cellar-dweller finish would have been an upset. Imagine our surprise to see Houston not on pace to challenge the 1962 Mets for the worst record in modern major league history.

No, a 30-42 mark is anything but great, but it doesn’t scream, “Look at the hideous beast that is the Houston Astros!” In fact, a few players are shining brightly as the ‘Stros look ahead to life in the American League West starting next season.

A middle infield consisting of Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie is a good start for a franchise looking to build toward contention a few years down the road. The diminutive Altuve is hitting over .300, somehow slugging .450 and stealing a few bases a month while manning the keystone. He’s the type of player any fan can root for. Lowrie, acquired from Boston for the now-injured Mark Melancon, has 13 long balls and 13 doubles, takes some walks, and holds his own at shortstop.

Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Carlos Lee all are performing well as they audition for other teams, since none of these three is likely to be an Astro after July 31. The haul from these potential deals should help push the Astros back to relevancy some time in the middle of the decade.

Chicago Cubs

Do you think this is what Theo Epstein envisioned when he took over the Cubs front office? He had his work cut out for him ending the Curse of the Bambino on Boston, but the Red Sox weren’t nearly as bad then as this year’s Cubbies are now. At 24-47, no team has a worse record, and a brighter future looks to be quite a way out in the future.

Dealing Ryan Dempster seemed to be item No. 1 on the agenda before he went on the DL. A trade still should happen, but Dempster’s injury and the chunk of the season lost because of it will eat into the return Epstein and crew will garner for their top starting pitcher. Matt Garza could join Dempster on his way out of town, but Garza’s middling performance won’t yield much bounty.

The annual debate about whether anyone would be crazy enough to assume Alfonso Soriano‘s pact is heating up again, as is his bat, with 13 homers and a .478 slugging percentage now to Soriano’s credit. Even so, Chicago would have to eat a big chunk of this contract to send Soriano packing.

Other than dealing every old and/or expensive player in sight (Carlos Marmol comes to mind, as well), Epstein needs to figure out if Bryan LaHair is for real, and, if so, how to find room for him and Anthony Rizzo in the same lineup—and soon. Aside from that, the plan should be to avoid more free-agent pitfalls, draft well, and be patient.

Cubs fans, it’s once again time to wait ’til next year. (Actually, it’s more like 2015, but I was trying to be kind.)

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    I don’t care about .500, I care about winning. I don’t care about wild cards, I care about division titles. And I don’t care much about division titles, I care about world championships. I’ve been alive for three, and I know this team (probably) isn’t going to be the fourth, but it’s headed in the right direction. Somehow you failed to mention the Pirates have one of the best rotations in the game right now, and the fact they’re just a few runs scored under what they’ve allowed means they’ve made a huge offensive gain from the horrid start to the season that put them on a pace to be one of the worst offensive teams in history.

    Still too many holes in the lineup right now, though, but we’ll see what kind of trade magic Huntington can work in the next month or so.

  2. John said...

    Look at the Pirates schedule the rest of the way.
    33 of 91 games against teams over .500.  20 of those are at home.
    Despite the fact that the media loves them, the Card are not that good.  The Reds are pretty good, but have suspect starting pitching and a bullpen that is all of a sudden not as comfortable as it was just three weeks ago.
    The Pirates might not win, but barring injuries, they’ll be around all season…. and if somehow they can learn how to hit….

  3. Greg Simons said...

    bucdaddy, I could (and maybe should) have mentioned McDonald and Burnett, bur Correia and Bedard have only been mediocre.  The development of the arms in the minors will have a huge impact on how good the Pirates are over the next several seasons.

    And it’s nice to see two Pirates fans speaking up, and for there to be some positives to build upon.

  4. matskralc said...

    Bedard has a FIP of 3.41, xFIP of 3.93, and has contributed 1.3 WAR so far.  I don’t know if that’s exactly what I’d call mediocre. grin

    Correia, though…very mediocre. 5.32, 4.76, and -0.3.

  5. John S. said...

    Greg,
    As a Cincy fan, I have to say the only other portion not included in your assessment is the fact that the Reds Mgr. Dusty seems to blow the team’s chemistry up yearly.  He thinks that being up 4 games to the second place Pirates is enough.  He thinks, “I like veterans, so let’s play Scott Rolen when he gets healthy again”.  So, since Rolen came back they are 2 – 5 to well below .500 teams.  In the last 10 games he’s played they are 3 – 7.  Why insist on inserting a sub .200 batting Rollen for the hotter bat of Frazier (almost 100 pts higher, double the number HRs & RBIs, etc.).  Anyone outside of Votto that gets praises seems to get bench for a time with Dusty.  That’s right you praised Fraizier…Dusty takes him out – makes sense?!?!

  6. Greg Simons said...

    Bob, I thought about including the Cards’ large run-differential edge, but I didn’t want it to seem like excuse-making by a Cards fan.  I do hope their record catches up with their differential.

    John, I’ve never been a fan of Dusty Baker.  Of course, there’s a difference between being a fan and admitting to a manager’s success, and Baker has had his share.  Is that because of his influence or because of the players he’s had?  Probably mostly the latter, as is the case with nearly all managers.  Baker has a rep as a guy who prefers veterans and abuses young pitchers.  True or not (and I think it’s mostly true), that rep will be part of his legacy.

  7. bucdaddy said...

    Of course Correia is mediocre. He’s the No. 7 starter, forced into the rotation because Morton and Karstens were hurt. What would you expect out of a No. 7 starter? That’s supposed to be the mop-up long guy in blowout losses. The fact he’s been mediocre and not some soul-sucking black hole in the rotation has been a blessing. Give the guy a little credit. Lots of teams would like to be getting a 95 OPS+ out of their No. 7 starter.

    Although I guess now he’s technically No. 6, since it looks like Lincoln goes back to the pen with Karstens in the rotation again.

  8. bucdaddy said...

    Look, I got into a long argument about this at Bucs Dugout, and I’ll try to summarize my POV about it:

    No baseball team is a collection of great players. Can’t be. There just aren’t enough great players to fill 750 major league jobs. There probably aren’t enough to fill all the roster spots on ONE team. Most teams are collections of some pretty good players, maybe one or two great ones if you’re lucky, plus a lot of competent players and a lot of mediocre and sub-mediocre players. If you’re like most teams, you can’t afford to go out and buy up some stars, so you have to try to improve incrementally. Replace your merely competent players with some good players, that’s improvement. Replace your mediocre players with competent players, that’s improvement. Replace your sub-mediocre players with mediocre players, that’s improvement.

    And, of course, replace your soul-sucking black holes with even sub-mediocre players, that’s improvement.

    Kevin Correia is somewhere around sub-mediocre. He’s not a good pitcher (though he can pitch well occasionally) and never will be. But Pirates fans, of all people, ought to know that there are far worse guys we could be running out there every five days than Kevin Correia, ESPECIALLY given that Correia isn’t supposed to be anywhere near a rotation. He’s a pitcher in a role that should be easy to upgrade, except it’s funny sometimes how hard it can be to find replacements for “replacement-level” players.

    So it’s about your expectations. If you want all aces in your rotation, then sure, Kevin Correia sucks. You’re also living in a fantasy world. But if you look at what most teams are running out there in their No. 5 slots and your realistic expectations are more like “I just hope we don’t have to give five starts to Yoslan Herrera to run up a 9.82 ERA again,” then Kevin Correia starts to look pretty damn good.

  9. Greg Simons said...

    bucdaddy, please consider this my mea culpa.  I knew the Pirates pitching has been good this year, but it’s been better than I realized.  Second-fewest runs allowed in the majors, behind only the Nationals.

    Unfortunately, the offense has plated the second-fewest runs, a single run ahead of the Padres, who call Petco Park home.

    On the Cubs front, Rizzo is in majors now, so it’s nice to see Theo and Jed are reading my column.  Let me know if you need any more advice, fellas.

  10. dave silverwood said...

    tHE ONE THING NOT MENTIONED HERE IS THE FACT ANY DAY NOW THE REDS GM WILL AWAKE. Jocketty hopefully will wake up and see the situation closely and with all the brain power that he has stored up he will reconize 1. We need a lead-off guy,2. Phillips tries ,but is not a clean-up man and 3. Rolen can not play everyday as he did in Phillie and Cardinal land——hopefully he will make some moves.

  11. Bob said...

    Nice overview, Greg. It’s looking like a very interesting division, and I like seeing the Buccos competitive.

    Can’t wait to see what midseason deals Jocketty and Mozeliak swing—and honestly I’m surprised neither pursued Oswalt more aggressively when they had the chance.

    Here’s the N.L. leaders in run differential, offered without comment:

    StL +68
    Cin +37
    Was +33
    LA +33
    Arz +24

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