March 31, 2011
Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners.
NOTE: Ian Casselberry will be playing the role of DB in today's performances.
'Duk: Welcome to the divisional previews, Ian! With DB on the DL with a case of opening day fever, you're coming in from the 'pen to help close out our previews. And lucky you — here's the six-team NL Central, the biggest of the bunch, to tackle!
It is, of course, the home of Cincinnati Reds, who interrupted their 15 years in the wilderness by winning their first division title since 1995. Their roster contains the reigning NL MVP (Joey Votto(notes)), plenty of hot young talent (Jay Bruce(notes), Drew Stubbs(notes), Aroldis Chapman(notes)) and arguably the best defense in the NL.
And yet it seems like no one except Joe Sheehan — who has them ranked the third-best team in baseball — is giving them the love they probably should be commanding. What gives? Was it the playoff sweep by the Phillies? The size of their market? A bad smell coming from Dusty Baker's way?
Ian Casselberry: First of all, it's a pleasure to be here, 'Duk. Long time reader, first time previewer. It took me a while to get loose in the 'pen, but I think I'm ready to go. And best wishes to DB. I always thought opening day fever was a state of mind, not an actual illness.
The Reds just didn't do anything exciting in the offseason to grab headlines. Not that they needed to make any big additions; they look to have a great team and spent their money locking those components up. That playoff sweep probably didn't help, though. Maybe some people felt they were a fluke. Maybe they were eliminated from the postseason before anyone could take note that they were in the playoffs. Had they stuck around longer, more fans could get to know the team and appreciate the talent they have. That would've been the first chance many would've had to see Joey Votto in action.
But it's the team that makes the moves that gets attention, and this winter, that team was the Milwaukee Brewers.
'Duk: Indeed, the Brewers made some of the offseason's biggest waves, signing staff ace/power forward Zack Greinke(notes) and prying Shaun Marcum(notes) away from the Toronto Blue Jays. Look ma, a real live pitching staff!
I love the fact that GM Doug Melvin, when faced with the prospect of seeing Prince Fielder(notes) walk away for nothing at the end of this season, decided he'd rather get one more year of MVP-caliber numbers than a package of prospects that may or may not pan out. It's not hard to see the potential in this team and it's going to be a fun season at Miller Park, so long as they can keep Greinke off the glass and that lineup keeps mashing the ball. Think they keep pace with the Reds?
Ian: I believe they can, if they stay healthy. But that's already a question, as you detailed so well in your Spring Swing visit to Maryvale. Greinke begins the season on the DL, as does Corey Hart(notes). And Marcum dealt with shoulder tightness toward the end of the spring.
But for all the publicity Greinke and Marcum received, the Brew Crew already had a fine starting pitcher in Yovani Gallardo(notes). He could end up being the best of their top three, and I'm actually picking him for the NL Cy Young Award.
The lineup should also be strong with MVP candidates in Ryan Braun(notes) and Fielder. I particularly like what you mentioned about Fielder. There's a lot at stake for him in a contract year, and maybe that's what Melvin was thinking in keeping him. Melvin also hasn't been afraid to make a big midseason trade, as we saw a couple of seasons ago with the CC Sabathia(notes) deal, which is another reason they should contend. (That farm system probably isn't as plentiful after that Greinke trade, however.)
'Duk: Wow, a bold prediction from the newcomer! Gallardo has always projected as more of a really good No. 2 starter than a staff ace to me, so I think it's definitely a positive to surround him with some depth. And you're right about that farm system. With Keith Law ranking it dead last this year, it's win or else for the Crew right now.
Hey, have we really gone this far without talking about baseball's biggest elephant in the corner, aka Albert Pujols'(notes) contract situation with the St. Louis Cardinals? It's definitely going to be a sideshow — there are already Cubs jerseys with his name floating around — but will it have any impact on the season? Personally, I think Pujols is going into super-focused, super-crush mode and end up with another MVP award to his name. That's pretty much his nature. And yet it won't make a lick of a difference on a team that's already feeling a payroll crunch, suffered the worst season-ending injury of spring training with Adam Wainwright(notes) and might be under the biggest delusion in recent memory when it comes to them thinking that Lance Berkman(notes) can play the outfield.
Any way you can convince me otherwise?
Ian: Whenever players say that they don't want to talk about contract stuff during the season and shut off negotiations, I usually think it's an eye-roller. But in Pujols' case, I think he'll back that up. He's a machine and already tuned out this stuff. And though it may seem like a boring pick, there's absolutely no reason to think he won't be NL MVP.
I keep wondering if we've been too quick to write off the Cardinals' chances with Wainwright out for the season. But then I look at the rest of that pitching staff, and it's ugly behind Chris Carpenter(notes). It may have not been enough to win the division even with Wainwright. And how about that infield besides Pujols. Will they hit 15 home runs between them?
'Duk: Is that you trying to bait me into making a snide remark about Ryan Theriot(notes)? It is! Isn't it? Well, I will not be fooled into making a comment about the latest in a long line of St. Louis scrappiness, even if he wore out his welcome with the most forgiving of fans — the thousands of Wrigleyville women who were wearing "The Riot" shirseys to go along with their Kosuke Fukudome(notes) rice hats. (What's that? My avoidance was snide in itself? Ah, well.)
Speaking of the Cubs, I've been toying with the idea of going ultra-contrarian and penciling them in for a division title. Sure, it all depends on Alfonso Soriano(notes) playing like he's five years younger, Aramis Ramirez(notes) staging an Adrian Beltre(notes)-type contract year and Kerry Wood's(notes) arm not falling off his body in his Wrigley Field swan song. But that rotation is pretty good as long as Carlos Zambrano(notes) stays away from the men in the white coats and Carlos Marmol(notes) is on the verge of elite closer status if he's not there already. And c'mon: That three-headed second base spot of Darwin Barney(notes), Jeff Baker(notes) and Blake DeWitt(notes) is going to be a monster!
To quote the dearly departed Ron Santo: This ... is ... the ... year!
(I'm not doing a good job of convincing you, am I? I'm not even doing a good job of convincing myself.)
Ian: Was my Theriot baiting that obvious? Maybe almost as obvious as you trying to get me to agree with you on the Cubs, so you're not alone out on the limb? But picking the Cubs really doesn't sound that crazy. You forgot to mention Carlos Pena. How many home runs could he hit at Wrigley Field? Someone else I'm excited about is Andrew Cashner(notes). It's going to be much more enjoyable watching him take the mound every fifth day than Carlos Silva(notes). Won't it be fun to see a starter with pure strikeout stuff again?
A lot of things have to go right, and several players have to come through with decent-to-good seasons. But if all of that happens this year, the Cubs will be a factor. At the very least, they should be a lot closer to the Reds and Brewers at the top of the division than the Pirates and Astros near the bottom.
'Duk: I'm not as down on Houston as some are. I'm excited to see if Brett Wallace(notes) can do anything to prove he's the next coming of Jeff Bagwell or Lance Berkman, and the team is usually good for one good extended run (plus one really bad one). But that doesn't mean they're a good team. Nor does it mean the onfield product will be the biggest baseball story in Houston, either.
No, that would belong to Drayton McLane's sale of the team, another year peeling off Carlos Lee's(notes) albatross contract (one more year after this one!) and the fans hoping that a new GM will be brought in to replace Ed Wade and take advantage of those McLane/Lee departures. As for the Pirates ... well, do I have to go any further than that?
Ian: Am I nuts for thinking I'd rather have the Pirates' roster than the Astros' right now? Houston probably has it over Pittsburgh in starting pitching. Brett Myers(notes), Wandy Rodriguez(notes) and J.A. Happ(notes) are a decent top three. Definitely better than Kevin Correia(notes), Paul Maholm(notes) and Ross Ohlendorf(notes). But I look at the Pirates' everyday lineup and see encouraging upside.
Andrew McCutchen(notes) looks ready to have a breakout season to me. I also want to see how Pedro Alvarez(notes) benefits from spending the full year in the majors, rather than waiting for that June call-up to delay his service time. Neil Walker(notes) should have a good year at second base. And I like the back end of Pittsburgh's bullpen, with a hard-throwing Joel Hanrahan(notes) closing games and one of the most underrated set-up men in the league with Evan Meek(notes).
Plus, no ownership drama!
'Duk: Well, to paraphrase my beloved dude: "You're not wrong, Ian, you're just an a***hole." While I agree I'd definitely make the Astros walk the plank if I had to pick one of the two franchises to sail into the future with, I also feel compelled to say that two exciting young players does not a complete season make. We're looking at another year in the 60s for these Pirates as they continue to wait for the future to arrive. Which is a shame, because I know their eventual "good" season is going to qualify as one of baseball's best stories in quite some time once it finally gets here. But, man, have we all been waiting a long time for PNC Park to feel alive.
I will give you last word.
Ian: Is this the toughest division to figure out? I feel like it could be the most competitive division in the NL. Yet it's also a very real possibility that the Reds might just run away with the thing. Rather than figuring out how the other contenders can hang with them, maybe we just have to accept that Dusty Baker has the best team. The lineup, starting rotation and bullpen all look impressive.
Get well soon, DB.
* * *
Predicted order of finish in the NL Central
'Duk: 1. Reds, 2. Brewers, 3. Cubs, 4. Cardinals, 5. Astros, 6. Pirates
Ian: 1. Reds, 2. Brewers, 3. Cubs, 4. Cardinals, 5. Pirates, 6. Astros
NL Central MVP
'Duk: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Ian: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
NL Central Cy Young
'Duk: Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
Ian: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
NL Central Rookie of the Year
'Duk: Darwin Barney, Cubs
Ian: Aroldis Chapman, Reds