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March 11, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Unwinding the Misery Clock

by Larry Granillo

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Kirk Minihane of WEEI.com wrote on Tuesday that Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is "a forgotten man in the eyes of many if not most Sox fans." With a seemingly full rotation and a bullpen to match, the 44-year-old knuckler has little room to breathe this spring, and his 5.42 ERA since the 2009 All-Star break isn't helping matters. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Wakefield is fighting for his baseball life (in fact, someone did).

Meanwhile, on the other side of Florida, Miguel Batista is also fighting for his baseball life. Signed by the Cardinals in January, the 40-year-old hurler has been quietly making his case in Jupiter for a spot on the Opening Day roster. A beneficiary of the Adam Wainwright injury, Batista has a shot at making the squad in a long-relief role or even as a spot starter.

If either player is able to survive to see the start of the regular season, he ll become one (or two) of only seven players still in the majors to have been playing big-league ball the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates finished the season with a winning record. The Pirates finished that 1992 season with a 96-66 record en route to a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Braves in the National League Championship Series, and both Batista and Wakefield played a part in it one way or another. Both pitchers made their major-league debuts for the Pirates that year. Batista pitched in two innings of an early-April loss to the Phillies before being sent off to Montreal (and not pitching again in the big leagues until 1996). Wakefield had a more complete rookie season, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting after going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts for Pittsburgh.

Since then, the fortunes of Wakefield, Batista, and the Pirates have diverged. In seventeen seasons of big-league play since Sid Bream ended the Pirates’ season in Game 7, Wakefield has been a part of only two losing ballclubs, even winning a World Series with the 2004 Red Sox (he was left off the 2007 playoff roster). In Batista's fifteen seasons since his cup of coffee in 1992, he has played on five winning teams. He won a World Series as well, with the 2001 Diamondbacks. The Pirates, on the other hand, have seen no winning seasons in that time and haven't sniffed the postseason since leaving Fulton County Stadium that October night. Their high-water mark in the intervening lean years came in July 1997, when they held a one-game lead in the Central before finishing the year in second place at 79-83.

That dubious run hasn't been for a complete lack of quality players. In their eighteen consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have fielded such legitimate All-Stars as Denny Neagle, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, and Jason Bay. Sure, none of those players is Barry Bonds (whose final play in the black and gold was the off-the-mark throw home that allowed Bream to score), but they all had multiple quality years for the Pirates. It was a mixture of bad trades, bad drafts, bad management, and bad owners that kept these great individual seasons from meaning anything come September and October.

The 2011 Pirates, like every other Pirates team this century, hope to end that run this year. Though, as ever, the odds are as stacked against them, this squad has something no other Pirates team has had throughout their recent run: a core of talented young players. Not since the second-place finish of 1997, when a 23-year-old Kendall caught pitches from a 24-year-old Jason Schmidt, have the Pirates had two similarly talented players so young. In 2011, they have three: right fielder Andrew McCutchen and third-baseman Pedro Alvarez will both spend the season as 24-year-olds, while left fielder Jose Tabata will play 2011 as a 22-year-old.

It's asking a lot to expect a handful of players as young as McCutchen, Alvarez, and Tabata to lift a team out of such an extended funk, so fans should probably take a deep breath and let off some of the pressure. But baseball is a strange game in which anything can happen (*cough* 2003 Royals *cough*). Back in 1992, no one expected to see the 26-year-old Tim Wakefield still pitching nearly twenty years later or the cup-of-coffee-drinking Miguel Batista closing in on his 100th victory; nor did anyone expect to see the respected Pirates still searching for their next .500 season in 2011. Why, then, should Pirates fans expect "the same old thing" again this year?

***

When I moved to Milwaukee in August of 2005, the Brewers were three games under .500 and presumably on their way to their thirteenth consecutive losing season. They too had not had a winning season since 1992, when they finished 92-70 and second to the eventual champs, the Toronto Blue Jays. Only three years removed from a 106-loss season, things were not looking too rosy for the Brew Crew. When Ben Sheets was knocked out for the season only two weeks after I arrived in town, the end seemed in sight.

But there was reason to hope, and it came in the form of youth: a 22-year-old Rickie Weeks would end the year with 94 starts at second base, while a 21-year-old Prince Fielder was busy in a part-time pinch-hitter/backup role, slowly acquiring experience against big-league pitching. And though those two were hardly the extra push the Brewers used to finish that 2005 season at 81-81, their experience laid the groundwork for future success and gave Milwaukee fans an extra source of optimism when peering into the future.

Many believe that that future has arrived. In the past five years, the Brewers have had only two winning seasons, but that hasn't kept fans from expecting more out of their team. With the Brewers' core, homegrown players all between the ages of 25 and 28 this year, and with the acquisitions of former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke (as well as fellow 2010 Opening Day starter Shaun Marcum), the hope from that 2005 season could actually pay off this season. With Fielder in his walk year and the other homegrown talents in Braun, Weeks, and Gallardo signed for at least the next four years, the team has nothing to worry about but winning.

The "pickup basketball" injury announced earlier this week that should keep Greinke out for the start of the season does bring some cause for concern. Still, the consensus is that the Brewers are merely being overly cautious with their new ace and that there is little reason to expect Greinke's return to be significantly delayed. If that is true, the concern should be minimal. Missing three games in April will have little effect on the standings in September and might even help Greinke stay fresh as the playoff push begins. In any case, a playoff-capable team should be ready and able to absorb a missed start or two from its pitchers. The Brewers, with their top-ranked offense and a rotation still headlined by Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, qualify as such a team.

***

The Cincinnati Reds are the Central's defending champions, having ridden the MVP-winning bat of Joey Votto and his cohorts to a 91-71 record in 2010. Despite a failure to win a single game in the Division Series against the mighty Phillies, the "misery clock" for Reds fans has been officially reset to zero.

However, it wasn't long ago that the "misery clock" was a real thing for Cincinnatians. After a successful decade in the 1990s that saw a World Series sweep, a League Championship Series appearance, and a Barry Larkin MVP award, the 2000s were a big disappointment. Votto and his teammates entered the 2010 season with the Reds riding a nine-season losing streak, having last topped .500 in 2000. The closest they had come since was an 80-82 third-place finish in 2006.

Unlike the Brewers, that 2006 Reds club did not feature many pieces from the 2010 division-winning edition. Brandon Phillips, Bronson Arroyo, and Aaron Harang were already in town, but the main contributors from 2010—such as Votto, Scott Rolen, and Jay Bruce—were somewhere else. It wasn't until 2008, when Bruce and Votto both saw extended action, that Reds fans were able to get a real taste for the future. Pirates fans might appreciate knowing that during that 2008 season Votto was 24 years old and Bruce was 21.

Defending the division crown this year will be tough, considering the balanced pitching and offense boasted by both the Cardinals and Brewers. But Reds fans can look to their young stars, their steady veterans, and their best-in-the-National-League offense and see how it could happen. The "misery clock" can still be turned back for another year.

***

Speaking of "misery clocks", it seems the perverse delight of Cubs fans—and the sadistic delight of Cardinals fans—to remind everyone that it has now been 102 years since the North Siders last won a World Series (and 65 years since they've even been to the Fall Classic). While that’s true, it's not like the Cubs haven't had any recent success.

It was only three years ago, after all, that the Cubs finished the season with 97 wins and the second-best record in the majors. In fact, since Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire slugged it out in 1998, the Cubs have been to the postseason four times. They have dropped below .500 in six of those thirteen seasons, however.

There is little doubt, though, that the 2010 season was a big disappointment. While the inconsistent Cubs were projected to win only 79 games by Baseball Prospectus, they were expected to finish second in the division. Instead, they finished the season in fifth place, with only 75 wins, as poor seasons from established stars and some internal strife took their toll.

Twenty-one-year-old Starlin Castro is expected to be the Cubs' starting shortstop on Opening Day. If he can improve on his rookie campaign, in which he showed that he could more than handle big-league pitching at age 20, the Cubs will have a shot to finish above .500 and in the playoffs. Of course, a return to form from the likes of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano would go a long way as well.

***

As the only two National League Central clubs to have reached the Fall Classic since the division was created, the Astros and Cardinals are in a different place, historically, than their division rivals. Fans in Milwaukee or Pittsburgh would love to be only five years removed from the World Series, for example.

However, the two teams' recent trips to baseball’s big dance are about all they have in common. The Astros made it to the World Series in 2005 at the tail end of their feted Hall-of-Fame-caliber duo's careers. And though Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were not the focal point of that club—strong seasons from Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg, Roger Clemens and others had more to do with their success—they were emblematic of the team as a whole. Old teams tend not to maintain their success for very long, and the 2005 Astros were no exception.

Six years later, the only player of note left on the Astros is 32-year-old Wandy Rodriguez. Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Brett Myers are quality players who will contribute some wins, but none of the team’s key contributors is under 28. In the wake of the season-ending injury to Jason Castro, Astros fans will need to root for some quick improvements from Brett Wallace if they want to get a glimpse of their uncertain future.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, still control the best player in baseball in Albert Pujols and a slew of quality players in Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and more. Even with the devastating injury to Adam Wainwright, St. Louis remains the favorite to win the division. In the ten seasons that Pujols has graced the league with his magnificence, the Cardinals have finished below .500 only once, in their 78-win, championship-hangover 2007 campaign. We should not expect that to happen again. While it's understandable that some fans are a bit nervous about the possibility of Pujols leaving after the season, it's not something we need to consider as far as this season is concerned. Besides, Matt Holliday's contract and the presence of Colby Rasmus should calm panicking Cardinals fans. The Cards and their recent run of success aren't going anywhere.

No team (not named the Yankees) is going to win every year. In fact, some teams might seem like they won’t win in any year. Even during down years, fans do their best to hope and pray, but when they can see the future of their team—as this year's Pirates fans can with Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez or 2005 Brewers fans could with Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder—that hoping and praying comes easier.

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