Even before Adam Wainwright was taken out of the picture, the National League Central figured to be interesting. As Larry Granillo noted just a far-off week ago, our initial riff on the team's potential playing time splits suggested that the division's front four figured to be separated by seven games, with the Cardinals out in front with 87 wins, and the Cubs bringing up the rear with 80.
A grouping that tight figured to provide fans in Cincinnati and Milwaukee as well as Chicago and St. Louis every reasonable expectation that this was their year, and that every injury, every acquisition, every role change, and every tactical decision could shift the division's balance of power. Absent Wainwright, though, that proposition just got more interesting still, as it immediately dropped the Cards into a make-believe tie on our depth charts, dropping them to 85 wins and magnifying the importance of the decisions made in the weeks to come in camps in Arizona and Florida.
You can imagine what this means in each camp, making spring's exercise less a matter of fun in the sun and more one of critical decisions. Tony La Russa already needed to sort out how to fashion usage patterns in an infield where Skip Schumaker, David Freese, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig might all need to move in and out of the lineup to cover for one another's limitations. Now, in a tighter field, making the right call becomes that much more important.
In Milwaukee, any confidence that they can start counting chickens was taken down a peg with the immediate loss of Jonathan Lucroy to a busted pinkie. Not that Lucroy is all set to be Johnny Bench just yet, but anything that puts Wil Nieves on an Opening Day roster seems antithetical to contention, and losing any regular in Milwaukee runs up against the team's lack of depth in position players.
In Cincinnati, there are more than a few knife-edge decisions, the outcomes of which won't be known for weeks yet. Will Dusty Baker make room for somebody more dangerous to right-handed pitching than Jonny Gomes in left field? Will he count on Ramon Hernandez's nice 2010 and keep Ryan Hanigan's tasty OBP on the pine more than you or I might wish? What's Aroldis Chapman for? Which two pitchers from among Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, and Mike Leake are going to be in the rotation?
Which makes the Cubs camp and its early news that much more interesting: Mike Quade's already pegged Ryan Dempster as his Opening Day starter, leaching any Big Z drama from a team already looking forward to a turned page on that score. Which is not to say there aren't major decisions on Quade's plate, some more obvious than others. The obvious nice problem to have is seeing how he will sort out the outfield playing time, squeezing four useful regulars into three jobs. If Blake DeWitt struggles, does that create an opening for Jeff Baker to remind people of what he did in 2009? Could Darwin Barney get reps as the best defensive option available?
Even the Astros can entertain notions of relevance. PECOTA doesn't parse full-season performance from in-season improvement, so factors like Wandy Rodriguez's huge in-season turnaround potentially get undervalued. Last year's team was 59-52 after it stopped bonking about with bad ideas in cleats like Pedro Feliz. You know and I know it's going to be hard for this team to score runs once the BABIP fairy leaves Chris Johnson jilted and if Michael Bourn's OBP tanks. Last year, the Astros ranked 85th all time out of more than 1400 teams in the Retroshheet database in OBP; they also finished in the bottom 10 percent of all teams in unintentional walk rate, and that's counting Lance Berkman's contributions, which they're not going to get from Brett Wallace. If they keep their best other OBP source, Jeff Keppinger, pinned to the pine once his foot's healed up, this situation gets worse, not better. However, the question about how they see themselves owes little to what you or I anticipate—reality may squash their ambitions in short order, but by virtue of last season's improvement, they have reasons to harbor them in the meantime.
All of which adds up to fun for everyone, save for those mournful Cardinals fans who haven't gotten past the bitter reality that they're going to have to get by without Wainwright. But even here, history ought to offer some reassurance—the 2006 world champs didn't have Wainwright in the rotation, after all. Letting your chances rest on Anthony Reyes' passing association with fame isn't recommended procedure, but if the NL Central doesn't have a 90-win team in it, the Cards can once again stretch to fill the tall order of winning their league's equivalent of the midget Olympics.
The other key consideration is that, as imperfect as the depth charts might be this early in spring training, they do a great job of capturing the essence of the proposition: the NL Central's going to be tight, and as a result, the stakes rest that much more on the foibles of individual elective decision-making. Counting myself among the permanent doubters when it comes to the sabermetric canard that managers don't matter, so much depends on things we might take for granted, but won't know until the half-dozen dwarves of the division swing into action. Ron Roenicke comes highly recommended for good reason, but what if he's as bad as Eric Wedge, once a former managerial prospect with promise, when it comes to the logistics of operating a big-league bullpen?
The big problem for any NL Central contender is that whichever one (or two, perhaps) survives the marathon is going to have to go up against the Big Fours in San Francisco and Philadelphia, which might seem to make that comparison to the 2006 Cards a bit of a stretch. However, even there, it isn't inconceivable to see a Brewers/Phillies or a Cubs/Giants matchup going the distance—whatever the sum of their limitations, even these bids for contention don't reflect deeply flawed ballclubs, just ones with more modest strengths relative to the league's projected favorites.
As the weeks to come provide the answers we're all looking for, the real joy to be taken as a fan or as an analyst is that the exercise matters. Even when we think we know everything that's going to happen, and operate with informed anticipation, few projections survive contact with reality. The entertainment value from simulating the outcome takes nothing from the ways in which events change our assumptions, demanding action and reaction, from those inside the game to those of us following it. That's just the bliss of baseball, even in the wake of something as sad as seeing Adam Wainwright departing the stage—everything matters, will matter, and should matter. If that isn't exactly the same thing as Bud Selig's “hope and faith,” maybe it's something even better.
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I railed against this in detail back in December, when I was decrying the signings of Barmes and Hall. Is it me, or could the Astros be a better club if they'd quit compounding their biggest deficiencies?