March 2, 2012
NL Central 2012 Preseason Preview, Part II
1. Have the Brewers done enough to cover the loss of Prince Fielder?
The Brewers seem to be content replacing the overall production of the Prince/Yuni/McGehee trio on the offensive and defensive side. By upgrading the third-base offense with Ramirez, upgrading the shortstop defense with Alex Gonzalez, and putting in a hopefully balanced Gamel at first, the team may end up balancing out the offense and defense from those three.
Stephani Bee: Switching Ramirez in for Casey McGehee was a great move by the Brew Crew to beef up their offense at the hot corner, and though that cushions the blow of losing Prince Fielder, that's not enough to cover the type of lumber they lost. Relying on Mat Gamel to cover the offensive void at first base seems like a pipe dream in the near term. First base has always been blocked for Gamel, so steady at-bats at the big-league level will help him adjust and gain some comfort, but he has struggled to hit lefties before. He might need a platoon.
You make a good point about Milwaukee concentrating on defense, but we can't pretend Aramis Ramirez is going to be a saviour afield. Some of the runs he generates on offense are going to be eaten by the runs he returns on defense. The Brew Crew made a couple solid offensive adjustments this winter, but they will need some strong pitching to help overcome the loss of their top bopper.
Still, it's hard to overstate just how horrible the Betancourt/McGehee left side of the infield was on both the offensive and defensive side. Balancing out the power on one side and steadying the defense on another should bring the team much closer to the middle of the pack in that pairing. That may not seem like much, but try to imagine how good the Brewers might have been last year if they had even a passable shortstop/third base combo.
SB: Hey, you can't underscore the importance of a player like Yuni; I mean, how often are you going to find a player who uses all the vowels in his name? That's a five-tool (well, in Yuni's case, six-tool) threat. But yes, McGehee was atrocious at third base, save for his three-homer game, which accounted for nearly a quarter of his jacks last year.
2. Will the team offer a contract extension to Zack Greinke or Shaun Marcum?
The Brewers should absolutely start approaching Greinke about a contract extension. He doesn't have an agent at the moment, but showing interest in keeping a guy around can't hurt when you're at the negotiation table. Given their seeming disinterest in signing Marcum to an extension, I think he'll be walking at the end of the season and the Brewers will nab the draft picks.
LG: It's kind of funny, the way some Brewers fans seem to think that Greinke had a bad year last year. It certainly wasn't his Cy Young campaign of 2009, and he did tend to give up a few too many home runs, but that "down year" was still good for a 3.83 ERA and a league-leading 10.5 K/9. Greinke struck out 201 batters in only 171 innings in 2011. If Zack is up to it—and you're right, the lack of an agent makes this interesting—the Brewers should definitely try to extend him.
Marcum had a horrible September and October and, as such, seems to have left a bad taste in fans' mouths. That's a shame, because Marcum and his killer changeup was a major part of Milwaukee's early success (especially while Greinke was injured). You say the team is disinterested in signing Marcum. That may be so, but it also might be a reaction to Marcum himself wanting to wait and see. I can't expect Marcum to be a Cy Young contender like Greinke and even Gallardo, but he's a very valuable frontline starter. If he can be had at a reasonable price, Brewers fans should be happy with a possible Marcum extension.
SB: Greinke's FIP was just 2.95, which is a better testament to his true pitching skill and his 2011 campaign. A smidgen of it was luck—his .323 BABIP was a slight spike from his usual marks around .310—but that K rate was still tasty despite his "struggles." If you get a chance to extend a 28-year-old with his ability, you do it.
I'm not totally against a Marcum extension; I just haven't heard much about Milwaukee being interested in tacking on a few years to his stay. Marcum's lack of velocity concerns me, but plenty of pitchers have succeeded despite an inability to throw great balls of fire. If I have to pick between Greinke and Marcum, I'd obviously go with Greinke, but if Marcum can stay healthy, that's a solid second prize.
3. How many runs will the middle of the order score this year?
If the Brewers can go back to a sensible lineup, with a solid on-base guy who really knows his way around the basepaths at the top of the order, there's good reason to expect a lot of runs from the Brewers. Braun should still be his slugging self and Ramirez will definitely benefit from that sort of protection. If Hart can find comfort in the five-spot, the middle of the order should be able to lead the team to another 700-plus run season.
SB: If Weeks is able to keep away from a sojourn to the disabled list, then the Brewers have themselves a solid leadoff man who can get on base and knock one out of the park, which sets the table well when you're trying to bring up the heart of the order. Braun is coming off an MVP season, and this winter's excitement notwithstanding, there's no indication that he shouldn't still be a monster producer. Bringing in Ramirez to get on base at a steady clip and help barrel some balls over the fence will cushion the loss of Prince, and as you said, if Hart can find comfort hitting in the heart of the order, the Brewers shouldn't have too much trouble scoring runs. Our measures predict about 740 runs per game, and if the big players stay healthy, that seems completely reasonable, and it puts the Cardinals and Reds within reach.
LG: The Cardinals had the top offense in the National League with 762 runs in 2011. if the Brewers can put up those kinds of numbers while Greinke, Gallardo, and Marcum have another solid year together, they'll be looking pretty good in that division race.
SB: And considering there is no guarantee of a repeat performance from Lance Berkman, nor any complete assurance of Carlos Beltran's health, the number of runs the Cardinals will score should be lower. The Red Birds would do well to make sure moths stay away from Matt Holliday's ears.
4. Is Yovani Gallardo still the team's number-one pitcher?
LG: Greinke's Cy Young Award and fantastic K-rate in 2011 probably make him the better bet for the "ace" label. However, Gallardo has plenty of bright spots. he does have three consecutive 200-plus strikeout seasons, and his walk and strikeout rates have each been improving during that time frame. It should also be noted that Gallardo is two years younger than Greinke and will only be pitching his age-26 season in 2012. As you said, neither pitcher is much of a slouch. I'll tell you this much, though: The Opening Day start is about 98 percent certain to go to Gallardo this year.
SB: The Brewers have a superb 1-2 punch in Greinke and Gallardo, with a near guarantee of 400 innings and 400 strikeouts per year. I just think that Greinke's extra "stuff" is what puts him over the edge as the staff ace.
But Gallardo shouldn't pout. Jon Heyman will be keeping tallies of his Opening Day starts to ensure that those who make the most are rightfully enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
5. Do the Brewers have another division title in them?
The real answer will depend on how the Cardinals and Reds play their season out. St. Louis did win the World Series last year, but it took an almost miraculous September to even make the playoffs, while the Reds couldn't even manage a winning record. The Brewers can most certainly repeat as division champions, but they aren't going to get it through another 96-win campaign. Will 90 wins be enough to top St. Louis and Cincinnati?
SB: Do the Brewers have the ability to win a division title this year? Absolutely. Do I think they will? Maybe. Losing Prince Fielder crashes some of the team's offensive support, but guys like Rickie Weeks (health permitting), Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart aren't mud; they'll be able to produce some big numbers in the heart of the order and help soften the feeling of being royally flushed.
The team, as you said, is going to be relying heavily on the pitching staff—particularly their front three starters of Greinke, Marcum, and Gallardo—to keep them close in games, and that should be enough to get by. The Cardinals are smarting from the loss of Albert Pujols and pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan, but Adam Wainwright will be back (in what condition is another matter), and they signed up for a season of Carlos Beltran in a better hitting environment than Citi. Meanwhile, Cincinnati largely kept its offensive unit together while making a major pitching upgrade by acquiring Mat Latos, and Devin Mesoraco should make regular contributions at the dish and behind it. The coming season should bring a three-team race for the crown, and Milwaukee should absolutely be in the midst of it.
LG: If only these predictions were easier business, eh? No matter who wins, fans of the NL Central should be happy to see an exciting and competitive top half of the division.
SB: Hey, spring is supposed to be a time of optimism for Cubs, Pirates, and Astros fans!
[Editor's note: The following exchanges were written several days prior to A.J. Burnett's unfortunate meeting with a bunted ball.]
1. What can the Pirates expect from A.J. Burnett? Is he broken beyond repair?
SB: Following his trade to Pittsburgh, Burnett made comments about the Yankees trying to tinker with him too much after the 2009 World Series, and maybe that did open a can of worms the team was unable to contain in 2010 and 2011. If it did, then there is probably still some hope that Burnett can return to his old mechanics and be more successful.
Moving to the NL comes with the oft-noted joys of pitching in a friendlier league, and moving to the NL Central means running away from powerhouses like the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Starts against the punchless Orioles will also be replaced with playing the even more punchless Astros, so Burnett is in a great environment to try again.
He's not broken beyond repair; Burnett actually pitched reasonably well in the early going. The Yankees can't afford to have pitching repair projects that serve as punching bags to the rest of the league because that could cost them a chance at October (though the impact is less significant with an additional wild card), but the Pirates do have that luxury and lack the New York spotlight. It might take some time for Burnett to get back on track, but I think he'll do much better in his new environment.
LG: Exactly. I'm not a fan of the "New York spotlight" or "tinkering" excuses, but there's always room for a once-good pitcher to bring himself back to form. Who knows what Burnett can do, but the Pirates run very little risk in trying to find out.
2. When will something go right for Pittsburgh? When will the team contend?
Down on the farm, the Pirates have three superb young pitchers in Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia, but none of them will be ready before 2013, and so much can go wrong in player development. The same goes for some of Pittsburgh's other top prospects: Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman should be ready to go in 2013, but Josh Bell, one of the best hitters in the 2011 draft, will need years of seasoning.
The Pirates should at least post a winning record within the next three years, but contention is going to take a lot more time.
LG: The problem with the Pirates—well, one of many—these past 20 years is that they've never seemed on the brink of doing something good. Even though they've always seemed to carry at least one legitimate All-Star, there's never been that "oh, we're only one year away!" moment (like many Nationals fans might be feeling right now). Sadly, the team doesn't seem to be any closer to that moment right now though, as you say, they have some pieces that might make them close. But until we get on that doorstep, they'll always be "only a few years away."
SB: And in some years, the Pirates were just lucky that MLB requires that there be one All-Star rep per team. There are some potential bounce-backs on the team, like A.J. Burnett and Casey McGehee, which could make the team look more respectable. Burnett could also prove a good tutor for some of the younger pitchers; hey, how many pitching coaches have been brilliant major-league pitchers?
Even when the Pirates do get their top prospects up to the majors—and we're going with the extremely unlikely assumption all of them make it—they'll still need some adjustment time in the majors before they'll look like legit contenders.
3. What kind of performance will Pedro Alvarez have?
SB: Right. Alvarez definitely isn't a lost cause here, and since the Buccos are going to be caught on a sandbar for the foreseeable future, they should give him every chance in the world to succeed at the big-league level. Alvarez has shown the ability to make adjustments in the major leagues before—his 2010 campaign can attest to that—but he's going to have to continue to refine his approach and bring back that hit tool that made him such a threat in the minors.
It's going to be slow going, but I think Alvarez will be able to put up solid big-league numbers. My guess is that this year is the big transition year, where he starts off slow and catches fire as adjustments sink in and he starts to recognize pitches better.
4. Let's brighten the day of long-suffering Pirates fans: How does this team win the World Series in 2012?
Jeff Karstens is going to lose his moniker of "Scary Fly-Ball Guy" as he keeps every single ball on the ground this year. That's right. No strikeouts. No walks. Just ground balls, baby. It takes the Pirates' defense some getting used to, since they're used to sleeping around the diamond when Karstens pitches, but once the pillows and sleeping bags are tossed aside, the Buccos' defensive unit actually looks halfway decent.
Pedro Alvarez cranks it up this season, showing that he's the beast in the middle of the order that the Pirates always dreamed he could be, and Nate McLouth returns from obscurity in Atlanta to tomahawk the team to the NL lead in runs scored. Andrew McCutchen keeps on keeping on, and the Nuttings go nuts and dole out a 20-year (one for each consecutive losing season, with one to grow on), $250 million extension for the center fielder. Pirates fans are just happy that someone wants to stay in Pittsburgh for the next 20 years.
Casey McGehee, still tipsy from his time in the Vortice of Suck with the Brew Crew, will get lost on his way to the field one day, but he'll start a musical act with Daniel McCutchen, James McDonald, Kyle McPherson, and Michael McKenry. Naturally, they'll call themselves "The Great MCs" (their original name was "The McCatchys"). Their music will become the Pirates' inspirational theme music, making teams quake even harder than when Fenway plays "Sweet Caroline."
Alex Presley will be traded midseason for Lance Berkman, the real Presley of baseball, and he'll be one of the prime offensive forces for the Pirates. But the real surprises? Brandon Wood, Jeff Mathis, and Robb Quinlan. (Quinlan and Mathis will be FedExed to the Steel City, and while the package will look plenty beat up when it arrives at PNC Park, Pittsburgh will decide the package's components are still useable.) These Angels castoffs are going to fly in harmony as they guide the team to heavenly realms, while Carlos Lee canters over a rainbow on his unicorn just beyond the outfield wall.
A.J. Burnett will laugh in the face of all Yankees fans as he fronts the Pirates' rotation and pitches seven no-hitters during the season. Nolan Ryan will charge the mound following the Buccos' Game Seven World Series victory and put Burnett in a headlock, and to escape sure asphyxiation, Burnett will attempt to punch Ryan in the head... only he'll break his hand and his knuckles, a la Kevin Brown, and that will kinda put a damper on the champagne celebration. Those partying in the clubhouse will prove to be so inexperienced with handling the bubbly that a few eyes will be gouged out. But nobody in Pittsburgh will care because the Pirates actually won something and eye patches totally fit the theme, right?
LG: Again, how am I supposed to compete with this? It's so unfair.
You forgot to mention the part where Charlie Morton uses his new-found sinkerball (which, legend has it, he learned after a fiddle duel at the crossroads at midnight) to match Burnett no-hitter for no-hitter. The seven sets of starts of back-to-back no-hitters turn Burnett and Morton into major celebs, with the pair appearing on every late-night talk show known to man. Eventually, Morton sells his story to Hollywood and a film starring Brad Pitt is made. Pitt loses the Oscar to a Marcel Marceau biography.
In the meantime, the Great MCs start touring with the Wyld Stallyns. The music press fail to realize that world peace only comes to be when the two groups are paired up; any time the Great MCs take a show off, situations flare up around the world.
It's not all that difficult of a path to a World Series now, is it?
5. When should the front office try to extend Andrew McCutchen? Should they?
SB: Agreed. The Pirates have faced considerable turnover in recent years, and like the Cubs, the Pirates have few players currently on their major-league roster to build around. McCutchen is one of them, though. He has been remarkably consistent with the bat, and while his strikeout rate spiked last year, he also showed more power than he has before. A few extra whiffs are worth the extra runs. McCutchen can do a bit of everything—hit, run, and play defense. This is the guy Pittsburgh should be looking to build its team around, and since most of their top prospects won't be in the majors until McCutchen has exhausted his required six-year stay, it'd be a travesty to lose a guy who helped give the franchise some semblance of respectability.
Hey, Pittsburgh, let me break this down nice and easy for you: Sign this guy to an extension. Now.
1. With Albert Pujols gone, who is the new key to the Cardinals' success?
Tommy John surgery claimed the Cardinals' ace last year, but Wainwright was rehabbing by summertime, so he should be ready to take to the mound by Opening Day. His control might suffer during the season, but getting innings tossed by your regular rotation horse is far more valuable than relying on a fringe fifth starter. If Wainwright can come back and get his strikeout totals near his previous levels and keep hitters from putting the ball in play like he normally does, he's going to be an extremely important man every fifth day.
LG: I wholeheartedly agree. The Carlos Beltran signing was a major coup for St. Louis, and a repeat performance from Lance Berkman would go a long way to another championship, but it's the return of Adam Wainwright that will make the biggest difference for St. Louis. Carpenter has the Cy Young, but it's Wainwright who has been the team's best pitcher since 2009. If he can make it back to anywhere near full strength, the Cards will have a formidable pitching staff to go with that offense.
SB: And this is where questions about the loss of Dave Duncan will come in. How much will the Cards be able to coax out of Wainwright in his return? Will Kyle Lohse turn back into a pumpkin? It's probably time to delve into the impact of St. Louis' other significant offseason losses.
2. What kind of impact will the loss of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan have on the team's success?
The Duncan loss may be even worse, though. We've heard raves about Duncan's ability to squeeze years out of pitchers for a long time now, and with good reason. Now that he's gone, will Adam Wainwright be able to get back to full health so quickly? And how will Chris Carpenter fare at age 37? With Pujols in Los Angeles of Anaheim, St. Louis will look to its starting rotation to pick up some of the slack. If I were a Cards fan, it sure would be comforting to see Dave Duncan at the reins for one last round.
SB: I, too, have never been a fan of La Russa's management style, particularly as it pertains to pitching. Mike Matheny is an unknown quantity here, but new managers can have a positive impact on their teams—see the Arizona Diamondbacks. I don't think that managers make a ginormous difference in a team's performance, but so long as Matheny doesn't have a Jim Tracy-esque in-game managerial style, the Cardinals should be okay with a new skipper.
The bigger loss is definitely Dave Duncan, who made a career of turning trash to treasure and coaxing innings out of injury cases. Losing a guy who can get the best out of his group of pitchers is going to be a difficult pill to swallow, particularly since Adam Wainwright is going to be a crucial component of the 2012 Cardinals. St. Louis isn't going to be able to replace what Pujols brought offensively, so the pitching staff is going to be even more prominent in the team's success. The Cardinals just have to hope that their pitchers' arms don't explode without Duncan's magic touch.
LG: Yeah, those probably aren't the kind of fireworks Cardinals fans are hoping for in the 2012 season.
3. Which loss had/will have a greater impact: losing Adam Wainwright last season, or losing Albert Pujols this season?
LG: You won't find an argument from me. Wainwright is a fantastic pitcher and his return is worthy of cheers. But Albert Pujols is still Albert Pujols and, even in his "off year", he dominated the St. Louis offence for five out of six months. Anyone who tries to pretend that Pujols isn't still one of the best hitters in the game is deluding themselves (probably because they can no longer eat at his bestatued restaurant). There are more than enough tools in the St. Louis offense to ease Prince Albert's loss, but the hole is still rather large.
SB: And relying on guys older than Pujols to fill that void makes it seem even less likely that the hole gets filled sufficiently.
4. Can Lance Berkman replicate his success from 2011?
SB: Elvis Presley had a foot out the door in his mid-30s, and the same looked to be true for Fat Elvis going into 2011. He wasn't at all the potential MVP candidate he was in his Houston heyday, and certainly didn't impress during his trip to the Big Apple, but maybe that new training regimen really was the fountain of youth, or perhaps Dave Duncan rubbed the Puma's belly and made his whimper a roar again. Either way, we're looking at a 36-year-old guy who will asked to be a key cog in an offense that no longer has the protection Albert Pujols provided. I have a hard time seeing Berkman replicating a .301/.412/.547 line, but I agree, he should still be a crucial middle-of-the-order hitter.
LG: One big plus working in Berkman's favor is that he'll be playing first base this year. Before last season, Berkman hadn't played the outfield since 2007, which made his 2011 even more remarkable. The defensive burden will be eased a lot in 2012, though, with Pujols no longer at first and Beltran roaming the right field. Whether that will be enough to keep Berkman from entering his sequined-jumper phase is anybody's guess.
SB: That's true. Playing first base comes with higher expectations for offense, but playing the position might also preserve Berkman's legs and allow him to pick up where he left off in 2011.
Is there any way that Cardinals rookies can haze the older players now that Tony La Russa is out of the office? If so, they have to have a night where they dress up Fat Elvis as... well, Fat Elvis.
5. Will the Carlos Beltran signing be seen as a steal by the end of the season?
LG: It might be hard to believe, but 2011 Carlos Beltran posted only his second .300 average since 2003 and the second highest on-base percentage of his career. For a man that New Yorkers seemed to want out of Queens in 2010, he still has a lot left in his bat. I don't know if "steal" is the right word to describe Beltran's deal with St. Louis, but it is certainly a great deal for the team. The annual salary is nice and reasonable, but the best thing about the contract is its length. At two years, the Cards can expect to get the two best years remaining in Beltran's career without paying out for any more than that. And even in the worst-case scenario, St. Louis only has to deal with one extra year of gloom—and I don't expect that to pass.
SB: Excellent point about the length of the contract. If Beltran can perform as well as he did last season, then this deal just looks even sweeter. So many teams get caught up in paying out the nose until former offensive stars are in their 40s, but Beltran will still rest somewhat comfortably in his 30s by the end of this deal.