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Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Predictions: NL Central

We continue our prediction series by heading westward, this time touching on the NL Central. 2013 will represent the first time ever the NL Central has had only five teams, with the Astros moving on to the AL West. That probably means several lost wins for all of these teams, but I still expect the top two teams in this division to match the top two from the NL East for best teams in the league (with maybe one NL West team thrown into that mix for good measure, but I’ll get to them later). With that, what exactly can we expect from those two teams, as well as the other three?


Cincinnati Reds
Record Last Season: 97-65
Key Additions/Retentions: Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Donald, Ryan Ludwick, Jonathan Broxton
Key Losses: Drew Stubbs, Scott Rolen, Ryan Madson (who was hurt all of last year anyone)
Anything Else: Aroldis Chapman is probably moving to the rotation
Ryan Ludwick had his best season since 2008, despite being 33
The current plan is to start Choo in center field, something he’s never done
Injuries kept Joey Votto to only 111 games last year
The rotation was unusually healthy, with five starters making 161 starts

Maybe it’s the Cardinals fan in me being skeptical, but I can see several reasons to be skeptical of the Reds’ ability to repeat as NL Central champions. To start, despite Cincinnati winning the division last year by nine games, the two teams are much closer than it would appear. The Cardinals actually had a better Pythagorian won-loss record (the predicted won-loss record based on the number of runs a team allows and scores), 93 wins to 91, which is usually a better indicator of performance going forward. So they’re starting more or less on equal footing, rather than with a huge lead. They filled a hole in center with right fielder Shin Soo Choo, and while Choo can hit (131 OPS+ or better four of the last five years), he’s moving to a tougher position even though both Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating say his defense in right dropped off sharply. Also, the rotation was healthy to an extent that probably won’t happen again, and both Bronson Arroyo and Ryan Ludwick had a small bounce back year amidst a larger trend of decline.

There are several reasons for optimism, though. They might get 50 more games from an uninjured Joey Votto (5.9 Fangraphs WAR in only 111 games last year), and Aroldis Chapman may be moving to the rotation. If Chapman immediately becomes an ace, that would more or less quiet most reasons for concern, giving them both extra starting depth and another quality pitcher. Really, leaving him as closer seems like the riskier option right now. He doesn’t really need to be an ace-he just needs to be a more attractive option than Bronson Arroyo to be an upgrade in 2013. If one of their five gets hurt, Arroyo is not a bad sixth man. Keep Chapman in the bullpen? They’ll again have a solid endgame, but they won’t have a good backup in case of injury, and they’ll be minimizing their potential upside-a good starter always beats a good closer. In my opinion, what happens in 2013 really depends on what pitching configuration they leave Spring Training with. They have apparently decided to keep him as a closer, which, in my opinion, might be leaving enough on the table to keep them from being favorites.


St. Louis Cardinals
Record Last Season: 88-74
Key Additions/Retentions: Not much...Ty Wigginton and Randy Choate are all that probably qualify
Key Losses: Skip Schumaker, Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter (both of whom were hurt most of last year)
Anything Else: Jaime Garcia will hopefully be more healthy
Rafael Furcal is hurt, and will probably be replaced by Pete Kozma at short
Top prospects Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal will both probably pitch more, with Miller looking like the favorite for the last starter job
Matt Carpenter learned second base this offseason
Allen Craig could stand to be a little healthier
As mentioned, the Cardinals actually had a better expected won-loss record than the Reds last season, based on their run differential
Oscar Taveras, one of the game’s top prospects is waiting in the wings at AAA

Let’s assume the Cardinals and Reds were about equal in 2012, quality-wise. Did St. Louis do enough this offseason to keep pace with Cincinnati? Well, they didn’t really add anyone. Actually, I’m a little disappointed in their offseason. They just cut Ronny Cedeno and traded away Skip Schumaker, both of whom would have made better bench plays than Wigginton (although, to be fair, they haven’t been using Schumaker in that way the past few years anyway, so I’m not sure they would have this year). They always seem to need bullpen help, though, so I’m less upset about them overpaying for Choate. And the losses of Berkman, Furcal, and Carpenter won’t hurt as much as they would appear-injuries kept those thee to a combined 1.8 WAR last year, not exactly a huge ditch to climb out of. Lohse is actually the bigger loss (3.6 WAR)

What about room for improvements? Well, Allen Craig missed over 40 games last year while hitting .307/.354/.522. 40 more games of that could help drastically. Third baseman Matt Carpenter is learning second base to address the Cardinals’ weakness up the middle, and prospect Kolten Wong could be ready by midseason should that fail. St. Louis’ second baseman were worth about 1 win combined last year, so if Carpenter can play a competent second while keeping his 125 OPS+ from last year, it would be a massive improvement over 2012. Jaime Garcia was limited to only 120 innings last year, although he’s a somewhat frequent injury concern. Shelby Miller is one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and it looks like he’s taking the fifth starter slot. A rotation of Adam Wainwright (now a year off of Tommy John surgery), Lance Lynn, Miller, Garcia, and Jake Westbrook, with Joe Kelly (who did well last year as a fill in) and Trevor Rosenthal (another top prospect) in the wings sounds more than solid.

Speaking of Kelly and Rosenthal, with those two in the bullpen, it should be a lot better than last year’s edition-only six of 2012’s nineteen Cardinal relievers had relief ERAs below 4, and three of those six were Kelly, Miller, and Rosenthal after their promotions from the minors. New starting shortstop Pete Kozma probably won’t hit as well as he did at the end of 2012 (.333/.389/.569 in 26 regular season games), but again, he has a low bar to clear with last year’s middle infielders. And in the event someone falters, outfielder Oscar Taveras is regarded as one of the top three prospects in the game. That’s a solid fallback option. Maybe some of the other players regress from highs last year, but I see more than enough to be optimistic about. The NL Central will be quite a fight.


Milwaukee Brewers
Record Last Season: 83-79
Key Additions/Retentions: Tom Gorzelanny
Key Losses: Jose Veras, Shaun Marcum (who was, again, hurt part of last year)
Anything Else: Corey Hart will start the season injured
Prospect Jean Segura will be the starting shortstop the whole year
Aramis Ramirez had a rather late career year (6.5 fWAR, his best ever) at the age of 34
The bullpen was abnormally bad in 2012
Rickie Weeks had a down year, too; whether that’s a sign or an anomaly remains to be seen
Ryan Braun may be suspended for the ongoing Biogenesis thing, but I doubt it to be totally honest
The team also loses a half-season of Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf
Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers were impressive in their mid-year call-ups

I know the Brewers had a putrid bullpen last year (24-32 in one-run games, most blown saves in the majors with 29). However, it doesn’t look like it slowed them down too much-they were still within two games of their expected won-loss record. Maybe a better bullpen could have made them the NL’s answer to the Orioles, but that seems like an extreme best-case scenario. Braun and Ramirez will probably be good again, but both had some of the best seasons of their careers last year; I’m not sure how much room there is for improvement. Rickie Weeks might bounce back, and Segura will probably be a little better in his age-23 season. Overall, this will again be a good-hitting team, I think.

But like last season, I’m not sure the pitching is up to par. I mean, the the top three are Yovani Gallardo, Estrada, and Fiers. Not that those latter two weren’t impressive in their first full seasons, but they were also 28 and 27, respectively. I don’t see the bullpen being massively better, either. For a team that was just barely above .500, I just can’t see them picking up the ten to fifteen wins needed to keep up with the Reds and Cardinals.


Pittsburgh Pirates
Record Last Season: 79-83
Key Additions/Retentions: Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli
Key Losses: Joel Hanrahan, Kevin Correia
Anything Else: The Pirates get a full season of Wandy Rodriguez
Top prospect Gerrit Cole may be called up later this year
Starling Marte will also probably be playing a full season
James McDonald had a fast start to 2012, but seemed to wear down
Gaby Sanchez didn’t hit well after they acquired him, but he’s hit better than his predecessor, Casey McGehee
They also picked up Travis Snider, who has hit well in the minors-there’s upside, at least
Former number two pick Pedro Alvarez showed upside, hitting 30 home runs with a 117 OPS+ at the age of 25

The Pirates are like the Brewers-there were good things last year, but probably not enough to put them in contention with the division’s top two. I do think they’ll break .500 for the first time in two decades, though. The improvements from replacing Rod Barajas and McGehee with Martin and Sanchez will probably be worth a win or two on their own. I think Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, James McDonald, and Pedro Alvarez will form a strong core, too, possibly being even better than last year. Unlike the Brewers, I like the potential upside of the rotation a lot, between Cole, McDonald, and AJ Burnett last season.


Chicago Cubs
Record Last Season: 61-101
Key Additions/Retentions: Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa, Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker, Scott Hairston, Nate Schierholtz
Key Losses: None, really
Anything Else: Matt Garza will probably be injured to start the season
The Cubs also lose half of a season of Ryan Dempster
Anthony Rizzo will be playing a full season

The Cubs are another team rebuilding that will be more about setting up for the future. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are both young and might see huge jumps in their performance. Edwin Jackson and Scott Baker will both add some stability to the rotation. In the ideal scenario for the Cubs, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano will be gone for prospects at midseason. There’s really not too much else to add here.


Final Predicted Finish:
St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
Chicago Cubs

Maybe I’m overestimating the Cardinals and underestimating the Reds. However, I have been showing a tendency to go with high potential teams, and I do think those two fall into that category-I’ll take hope from Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Carpenter, and Oscar Taveras over hoping for one more year from Ryan Ludwick, Bronson Arroyo, and the rest.

I think the predicted Pirates/Brewers switch also shows that belief. I think both are right around 81 wins, but I like the young Pirates to top that more than I do the older Brewers. Maybe with the right breaks, Pittsburgh will make it a three-team race. I still like the Cardinals the most, though.

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