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March 25, 1999

NL Central Notebook

by Christina Kahrl

CHICAGO CUBS (1998: 792 runs allowed, 5th NL Central)

Steve Trachsel, R
Kevin Tapani, R
Jon Lieber, R
Terry Mulholland, L
Scott Sanders, R or Kurt Miller, R

Rod Beck, R
Terry Adams, R
Matt Karchner, R
Felix Heredia, L

Andrew Lorraine, L
Marc Pisciotta, R

Life after Kerry may not be as bad as some people are expecting. Sure, Kevin Tapani's 19 wins last year are a great demonstration of the value of run support: he got it, and Mark Clark didn't. Okay, it's almost certainly false hope that Terry Mulholland is going to somehow keep his under-three ERA pitching regularly in the rotation, since he hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 as rotation regular since 1993; in the wake of the injury to Terry Adams, Mulholland is being temporarily assigned to the bullpen. Sure, every year I keep guessing that this will be the year Steve Trachsel breaks through. I still think it's possible; he's relatively young at 28, he's never had a major injury, and he has flashes of dominance. For better or for worse, they're all relatively durable by today's standards, and I doubt any of them will totally collapse. If anyone might bust out for a great year, it's Jon Lieber. His established level is about as good as either Trachsel or Tapani, but his control and ability to dice up right-handed batters could be especially important in games against divisional rivals. The fifth spot in the rotation is still open, but it looks like Scott Sanders is going to grab the job. He's had an even worse-than-usual hangover period from his stint with the Mariners, but he could still end up being a modest surprise. He's probably better suited to be the top set-up man for Beck in the pen, but the Cubs will have to kick around Sanders or Kurt Miller in the fifth slot until Jeremi Gonzalez heals up (probably August). Overall, the Cubs should have four solid starters, but no one is really a strong candidate to break through and have a great season.

In the bullpen, the Cubs' problems are still pronounced. Bad back or not, Rod Beck is neither a source of strength or weakness. The key will be making him relevant. Matt Karchner continues to be bad news, and Terry Adams' persistent injury woes need to be tackled before the Cubs can even figure out how to straighten him out. Felix Heredia could be more valuable if he's taken out of the lefty specialist role. That seems unlikely, because Riggleman is almost robotic in his observation of platoon splits. Who wins the last spot or two in the pen is less important than the figuring out that they may have to start over and find four new relievers.

Cubs defense was a weak spot last year, and that probably won't change significantly. They were the worst team in the majors at turning the double-play last year, and infield range with older players like Gary Gaetti and Mickey Morandini playing regularly is poor. The outfield defense is weak; Henry Rodriguez and Glenallen Hill will always require defensive replacements, while Sammy Sosa has lost a step going into the gaps. Lance Johnson is no longer a primo glove in center, and his weak arm is always worth taking extra bases for Cubs opponents. There are a couple of reasons to hope for improvement: Hernandez to Morandini to Grace could improve from playing together for a second season, and adding Benito Santiago should be a significant improvement behind the plate.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: fifth

CINCINNATI REDS (1998: 760 runs allowed, 3rd in NL Central)

Pete Harnisch, R
Brett Tomko, R
Jason Bere, R
Steve Parris, R
Steve Avery, L

Danny Graves, R
Scott Sullivan, R
John Hudek, R
Gabe White, L
Denny Reyes, L
Scott Williamson, R

On the DL
Denny Neagle, L
Stan Belinda, R

Reds pitching was solidly in the middle of the pack last year. After trading for Denny Neagle and bringing in Steve Avery, the staff may improve considerably. Much will depend on whether or not Neagle is healthy (he's expected to return from the DL a week or so into the season), and whether he sticks around. That will depend on how competitive the Reds are by the end of July; if they aren't, he's gone, and don't be surprised to see Rob Bell cutting his teeth. Pete Harnisch is having back problems, but effectively taking a year off in 1997 should still bode well for his ability to toss 30+ starts and an ERA at least a half-run better than league average. Brett Tomko is capable of breaking out this year; he was relatively unlucky last season, when he wasn't being badgered by his manager. There's been plenty of bluster about Jason Bere, but he still isn't pitching well, he's still wild and hittable, and I'm basically not buying the hype. Steve Parris is underrated but also relatively fragile; he's quite capable of having a good streak or two. Steve Avery is temporarily in the rotation, and returning to the NL may be good for him. In his case, the Reds should settle for mediocrity, and I expect he'll get Bere's spot in the rotation for keeps by May. Overall, the rotation is fragile, combustible, and may get broken up if the Reds aren't competitive, but the potential for a better-than-average group is there.

The bullpen is somewhat up in the air, but not in a bad way. Jack McKeon has stated that he wants to use Danny Graves as his closer, but don't be surprised if it's still effectively a closer by committee situation. That may change after the All-Star break, as flamethrower Scott Williamson may get handed the job at that point. Gabe White is a durable, rubber-armed lefty, and it looks like Denny Reyes will get to pitch in long relief most of the year, before eventually going back to starting. After how much the Dodgers overworked him down on the farm, the Reds are right to be cautious with him. Scott Sullivan may break down after two years with a heavy workload, and John Hudek is wild and homerun-prone, but as middlemen go, they're adequate. The pen is neither a major source of strength or a weakness, with its most notable feature being its small price tag.

Reds outfield defense is going to improve this year. Mike Cameron is an outstanding defensive player in centerfield, which should do wonders in terms of limiting the damage Dmitri Young does in either corner of the outfield when he plays. Jeffrey Hammonds and Michael Tucker both play a corner well. Greg Vaughn isn't going to get much credit, but he isn't immobile or a serious problem. Neither Eddie Taubensee or Brian Johnson are great catchers, but they aren't Lenny Webster either. In the infield, the Reds can probably expect improvement on the corners, in that Aaron Boone has good range and anticipates the deuce well, and Sean Casey almost has to improve from last year's near-immobility. Barry Larkin has lost more than a step at short, however, and that may explain the decision to play Pokey Reese at second, as a sort of overcompensation. The Reds may turn to a platoon of Jeff Branson and Mark Lewis, which won't help defensively. Reds pitchers will only really have Cameron to thank on a consistent basis, and I don't see Reds defense as an asset.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: second

HOUSTON ASTROS (1998: 620 runs allowed, 1st in NL Central)

Shane Reynolds, R
Mike Hampton, L
Jose Lima, R
Sean Bergman, R
Chris Holt, R

Billy Wagner, L
Jay Powell, R
Doug Henry, R
Xavier Hernandez, R
Scott Elarton, R
Trever Miller, L

Much has been said about how badly the Astros are hurt by Randy Johnson's departure, but I don't completely buy it. Maybe I'm being overconfident in Larry Dierker, but so far, it looks like Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton are solid, Jose Lima is in the right ballpark with the right manager, and if Sean Bergman collapses (very possible) or Chris Holt isn't really healthy (also possible), the Astros will be able to promote Scott Elarton from the pen. Yes, Elarton is in the mix for a rotation spot right now, but Dierker has said that if Holt is healthy (and he has been so far), Elarton will return to the pen, especially if the Astros can't find that extra reliever they're shopping for. The Astros do have the benefit of a great pitcher's park, a great offense, and one of the game's better managers to limit whatever struggles their rotation may endure.

The Astros' pen is a source of concern for the time being. Although Billy Wagner is outstanding, and the relatively unheralded addition of Jay Powell gives them a very good right-handed alternative late in games, persistent arm woes plague Xavier Hernandez, and Trever Miller has been miserable in camp. Doug Henry has turned himself into a solid middle reliever, and as long as Elarton is in the pen, the Astros can afford to yank a struggling starter early and get three or four quality innings in long relief from him. Looking forward to what might happen in the next few months, don't be surprised if the Astros end up trading for a left-handed reliever to supplant Miller.

Defensively, the Astros look like a strong team. Outfield defense will be strong with both Richard Hidalgo and Carl Everett on the field, pending the arrival of Lance Berkman for left field. Derek Bell continues to be overrated defensively, but he isn't a serious problem. The infield defense will feature the usual good work from Bagwell and Biggio on the right side, and continued adequacy from the left side; Ricky Gutierrez is neither brilliant or bad, while Ken Caminiti will probably pull off the occassionally spectacular play to cover for his declining range. Given the choices of Meluskey, Bako, or Eusebio behind the plate, none of them are going to kill the running game or make people remember Johnny Bench, but none of them have serious problems behind the plate. Overall, Astros defense looks relatively strong, although not as good as the Cardinals could be.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: first

MILWAUKEE BREWERS (1998: 812 runs allowed, 6th in NL Central)

Scott Karl, L
Steve Woodard, R
Jim Abbott, L
Bill Pulsipher, L
Brad Woodall, L

Bob Wickman, R
Chad Fox, R
Eric Plunk, R
Al Reyes, R
David Weathers, R
Mike Myers, L
Valerio De Los Santos, L

Rafael Roque, L
William VanLandingham, R

On the DL
Cal Eldred, R

It's a good thing the Brewers have a talented bullpen, because they're going to need it, again. Scott Karl looks hurt, and his effectiveness has been steadily declining. Jim Abbott looked fine last September, against weak lineups from the Royals and Twins. Much as I'd like to see him succeed, he's a good candidate to flop. Bill Pulsipher should hand his job to somebody else by June, and Cal Eldred may not be very good, even if he heals up. It says volumes about this team that William VanLandingham could win a spot in the rotation. Although Rafael Roque has earned a crack at the rotation, he has an option to burn, so I'm betting that Brad Woodall gets first shot at the fifth slot. It isn't all bad news: Steve Woodard could have a breakthrough season this year, and is as good a pick as any to be a token Brewer in the All-Star game. After several collapses, I expect the Brewers' rotation will have Roque and top draft pick Kyle Peterson in it after the All-Star break.

The bullpen is a different matter altogether. Although Bob Wickman isn't your prototypical closer, he's good for 70 or 80 quality innings, however Phil Garner chooses to use him. Chad Fox and Al Reyes can be dominating at times, and Eric Plunk is a useful middle reliever. David Weathers was surprisingly effective as a mop-up man and long reliever last season; restricted to relief work, I suppose it's possible again, but he's been extremely bad over the course of his career. Mike Myers is a handy situational reliever, and De los Santos has one of the best lefty fastballs in baseball. Although Garner overused his pen last year, there's enough talent here for him to spread the work around, to try to restrict the damage done by the rotation.

Brewers defense is interesting, in that it's always hard to tell where pitching ends and fielding begins; the Brewers have a bad rotation, but several players with excellent defensive reputations. Jeff Cirillo and Fernando Vina really are outstanding defensive players; both have good range and outstanding anticipation on the double-play. Either of Jose Valentin or Mark Loretta are adequate at shortstop, although for different reasons: Valentin has good range, while Loretta is more reliable. Sean Berry should be an improvement at first over Dave Nilsson or John Jaha. The outfield was horrible last year, but the hope is that Marquis Grissom's bad buttocks are healed up so that he can run and gun in center again. There's not much to be done for Jeromy Burnitz or Geoff Jenkins, so if Grissom can do anything to recapture even a sliver of his former glory, this pitching staff could use it. Behind the plate, the Nilsson experiment won't be helpful defensively.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: sixth, again, but there's potential to pass the Cubs if they shake up the rotation early enough.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES (718 runs allowed, 2nd in NL Central)

Francisco Cordova, R
Jason Schmidt, R
Pete Schourek, L
Jose Silva, R
Chris Peters, L

Rich Loiselle, R
Jason Christiansen, L
Mike Williams, R
Elmer Dessens, R

Kris Benson, R
Marc Wilkins, R
Todd Ritchie, R
Jim Dougherty, R
Jason Phillips, R
Jeff Tabaka, L
Scott Sauerbeck, L

Basically, things are wide open in the bottom half of the rotation. Kris Benson may not open the year in the rotation, but Chris Peters is hurt, Jose Silva is always potentially hurt, and I'm not sold on Pete Schourek being a good risk, great playoff start for the Red Sox or no. However, Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova could both be just coming into their own, and Silva's up-side if he does stay healthy is very good. Benson will almost certainly get an opportunity, most obviously if the problems in the bullpen lead to a return to the pen by Peters.

The bullpen is potentially a disaster, especially in the wake of trading Riccardo Rincon to the Indians. Rich Loiselle has always been hittable, and Mike Williams was a journeyman for a reason. I have almost no faith in Dessens. Jason Christiansen is the best relief pitcher they have, and there's a danger that he could be overworked. Marc Wilkins and Jeff Tabaka are both still hurt, which opens up opportunities for a journeyman like Todd Ritchie or Jim Dougherty, or kids like Jason Phillips or Rule 5 pick Scott Sauerbeck. Gene Lamont may be able to put something together, but I don't like the look of the clay he has to work with.

Pirates defense is bad. Brant Brown is challenged as a centerfielder, and neither Brian Giles or Jose Guillen are exceptional in the corners. The infield, with Ed Sprague at third, Pat Meares at short, Warren Morris at second, and Kevin Young at first, should leak like a sieve. Jason Kendall is a fine catcher, but that's not going to help much. The position players are almost as weak defensively as they are offensively.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: third

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (1998: 782 runs allowed, 4th in NL Central)

Donovan Osborne, L
Darren Oliver, L
Kent Mercker, L
Kent Bottenfield, R
Manny Aybar, R or Jose Jimenez, R

Juan Acevedo, R
Ricky Bottalico, R
John Frascatore, R
Scott Radinsky, L
Lance Painter, L

Rick Croushore, R
Curtis King, R
Mike Mohler, L

Who's survived long enough to pitch for this year's Cardinals? Matt Morris? Gone. Alan Benes? The best case scenario is that he might be back by August. Might. Given that this is the team that rushed Morris back too soon in April last year, they may not let Benes fully heal up either. Darren Oliver and Donovan Osborne are both question marks as far as how long they'll remain healthy. Kent Mercker may be good for 30 starts, but that's if you really want them. Kent Bottenfield may end up having a solidly mediocre season as a rotation regular, and I like what Jose Jimenez might be able to do in a single season. Manny Aybar may get a serious look in the rotation, and he's probably ready, but he struggled with Tony LaRussa last year, and is probably the bait to land Fernando Vina from the Brewers. Given this cast, I won't be surprised if the Cardinals bring Benes back too soon, rush Rick Ankiel up, or give serious consideration to rushing Mark Nussbeck or Chad Hutchinson. They'll almost certainly goof around with bad ideas like starting Mike Mohler or Brian Barber. I had expected the Cardinals to make the winning bid on Orel Hershiser, but I was wrong. While the Cardinals have Mark McGwire, Ray Lankford, Eric Davis, and J.D. Drew as their offensive core, they need to quickly resolve their rotation problems if they want to seriously push for the wild card or chasing the Astros.

The bullpen is equally unsettled. Juan Acevedo is the closer, for the moment. If Ricky Bottalico is all the way back, Acevedo may end up in the rotation by May, where he'll pitch brilliantly, if briefly. Given LaRussa's track record, Acevedo will get burned out as a starter. Bottalico and Frascatore are serviceable enough, although it's been overlooked that Bottalico hasn't really been good since 1996. Frascatore basically had a bad month, followed by some useful innings for the rest of the year. If you've read Mike Wolverton's piece on relievers, you'll understand why I'm reluctant to endorse the signing of Scott Radinsky, especially since "Rad" is leaving Chavez Ravine behind. Lance Painter is not among the better lefty situational relievers in the league. Rick Croushore's screwball could still make him an effective middle reliever, assuming he isn't still waiting for that Jeff Bagwell shot from last July to come down. Curtis King may get his opportunity, but he's been extremely hittable, and he'll hand it back.

The Cardinals should be a relatively strong defensive team. The left side of the infield, Fernando Tatis and Edgar Renteria, are very good. If the Cardinals do land Vina from the Brewers, they'll have one of the best defensive infields in the league. Mark McGwire's a bit more spry than Steve Garvey these days, but nowhere near as mobile as he used to be. The outfield defense should be excellent. Lankford and Drew have outstanding range, and Eric Davis is no slouch. Since I expect Lankford and Davis to miss a few games, Darren Bragg is handy enough for a corner. Behind the plate, Eli Marrero is very smooth, and a full season from him should be an improvement on last year's jumbled situation.

Projected runs allowed rank in the division: fourth

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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