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March 25, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

The Starting Block

by Larry Granillo

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By this time next week, we'll be busy poring over the first real box scores of the year and arguing over whether the Giants can repeat based on the outcomes of one night's worth of games. After a long spring of "the best shape of his life" stories, a multitude of injuries, drunk driving arrests, and T.J. Simers' and Murray Chass's ongoing efforts to pen the most despicable story of the year, it feels wonderful to be so close to meaningful baseball.

Baseball fans really have only have two modes: waiting for Opening Day and waiting for the playoffs. With Opening Day just around the corner, let's examine the season's first prospective matchups to see what kind of first impression 2011 might make on National League Central fans.

***

For the first time since 1998, the Cincinnati Reds will be playing baseball on the very first day of the season rather than watching two other teams kick things off the night before. It's as close to the tradition of having Cincinnati host the first pitch of the season as Major League Baseball has come in years, even if the Reds will throw their first pitch an hour after the Nationals' and Yankees' games will have begun.

The Reds will open their season as reigning division champs against their top competitor for the crown in the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers, of course, revamped their pitching rotation in the offseason so that they could more convincingly challenge the Reds and Cardinals in what is, in all likelihood, Prince Fielder's final season with the Crew. Debate raged all winter over which of Milwaukee's two aces would make the Opening Day start in Cincinnati: the incumbent, Yovani Gallardo, or the newcomer, Zack Greinke. The decision was made for the Brewers at the start of the month when Greinke proved too injured to pitch this spring after cracking a rib in a game of pick-up basketball.

On the bright side, Gallardo is a fantastic pitcher to have as a "fallback" Opening Day starter. He was the acknowledged ace of the club in 2010, when he posted superlative 9.7 K/9 and 0.6 HR/9 rates. The only knock on Gallardo's game is that he tends to throw too many pitches early in the game, leading to a high walk rate and some short outings (3.6 BB/9 and 185 IP in 31 games). Of course, his defense didn't help those tendencies. Although he is entering his fifth big-league season, Gallardo is still just 25.

His counterpart on Thursday will be Edinson Volquez, who was forced to sit out the first part of spring training due to a visa issue. The Reds are hoping that Volquez will return to his 2008 form, when he finished second in the league in strikeouts and eighth in ERA. It's been almost two years since he underwent Tommy John surgery, which should bring him back to full strength. Volquez's peripherals never seemed to suffer while he was recovering, but the early divisional matchup against the potent Brewers should prove to be a welcome challenge.

***

The third major player for the Central crown will also be in action on Thursday, as the St. Louis Cardinals play host to the stripped-down San Diego Padres. The Cardinals, of course, suffered the most significant pitching injury of the spring when ace Adam Wainwright was shut down for Tommy John surgery in February. Wainwright had a strong case as the best pitcher in the Central, so his loss will certainly be felt. In the wake of the Wainwright news, Cardinals fans could at least take some solace in the presence of the team's co-ace, Chris Carpenter. It was only two years ago that Carpenter finished second in the Cy Young voting with a 2.24 ERA, and he remained a valuable contributor last season.

Shortly after Wainwright's season was cut short, Carpenter was pulled from a start with a strained hamstring. He sacrificed a few starts to the injury, but his recovery has gone well enough for Tony LaRussa to have named him the Opening Day starter last week. It will be Carpenter's second consecutive Opening Day start. The Padres have yet to make an official announcement, but all signs point to Mat Latos getting the Opening Day nod. As a 22-year-old in 2010, Latos was able to put up a 2.92 ERA in Petco Park. Between Carpenter and Latos, this could be the best Opening Day matchup in the division.

***

Only three of the NL Central's six clubs will open their seasons on Thursday. The others will all play their first games on Friday. Like the Reds and Brewers, two of the remaining three clubs will open up against each other. In Wrigley Field, the Cubs will play host to the Pirates on Friday. This is a battle between 2010's fifth- and sixth-place finishers, but that doesn't mean that the matchup will feature two terrible clubs: the Pirates lost 18 more games than the Cubs last season, which put them in a class of their own. What's more, the 75-87 record that the Cubs earned last year is deceiving. Chicago finished the season 24-13 under new manager Mike Quade, while key players like Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano put up vastly better numbers in the second half of the season. With new acquisitions like Carlos Pena and Matt Garza also in the foeld, the Chicago Cubs of Opening Day 2011 will be a much better team than their 2010 counterparts.

The Opening Day showdown between the Pirates and Cubs will also feature an interesting quirk: the pitching matchup will feature the division's first and last pitchers to be designated for Opening Day duty. Back on February 21, Cubs manager Mike Quade announced that Ryan Dempster would be getting the Opening Day nod this year. More than a month later, on March 23, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle finally announced that Kevin Correia would get his begrudging nod.

With 215 innings pitched, 208 strikeouts, and a 3.85 ERA in 2010, Dempster was the Cubs' strongest full-time starter (Zambrano had the stronger numbers overall, but he also had that six-week sojourn in the bullpen). By naming Dempster the Opening Day starter so early in spring training, Quade helped to alleviate any tension that a position battle might have precipitated.

The story was a little different for the Pirates, who were better than their 57-105 record indicated (but not by much). Their pitching staff consists of Correia, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald. None of them stands out as an Opening Day starter just yet, which explains the delay in making a choice. In the end, it came down to Maholm and Correia, with Correia getting the call. Neither Correia's 2010 numbers (5.40 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 145 innings in San Diego) nor his spring training numbers (6.38 ERA, 15 strikeouts) seem strong enough to warrant his selection, which likely came down to age and experience, attitude, and upcoming matchups.

***

Finally, the Astros will open their season Friday on the road in Philadelphia. While the Astros won't have to face any divisional rivals until the second series of the season, they definitely drew the toughest initial assignment. Houston will be facing down the Phillies' vaunted rotation all weekend, but nothing will be tougher than Opening Day, when Brett Myers will attempt to outpitch reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay.

Houston's Opening Day assignment has gone to Roy Oswalt in each of the last eight years, with Wade Miller's 2002 start marking the last time that someone other than Oswalt threw out Houston's first pitch. Many expected Wandy Rodriguez to get the nod. Rodriguez is the longest-tenured Astro, having been with the team since his 2005 rookie season. He's also a consistently good pitcher, having put up ERAs between 3.02 and 3.60 in each of the last three seasons and struck out between 8.2 and 8.6 batters per nine with home run rates of between 0.7 to 0.9 HR/9 over the same time span.

Myers, however, had a career year in 2010 at age 29. His 3.14 ERA in 2010 was more than half a run better than his previous career best (3.72) and over a run better than his career ERA (4.20). His home run and hits-per-nine rates were also the best they've been in the past three years, with his HR/9 making a miraculous drop from 2.3 to 0.8 between 2009 and 2010. Myers was able to turn his excellent 2010 into a two-year, $23 million contract extension this offseason. It also earned him the Opening Day assignment. If he fails to retain his newfound ability to limit home runs on fly balls, some Houston fans might be upset that he supplanted Rodriguez from the Opening Day gig, but Myers' excellent 2010 was more than deserving of the Opening Day nod from manager Brad Mills. Of course, whether being allowed to face Roy Halladay on Opening Day can really be considered a "prize" is a different question.

Related Content:  Will Myers,  Opening Day,  Year Of The Injury

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