MLB Coverage: Pirates, Reds & Brewers Chase In The NL Central

The St. Louis Cardinals might be riding high with the best record in the National League, but there’s three worthy contenders right on their heels in the Central Division. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a snapshot look at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, assess how each has looked through the first 5 ½ weeks of the season and what might lie ahead. Today’s MLB coverage will lay out each team’s pros and cons and then move into an extended discussion of each.

PITTSBURGH (18-14, 2 games behind St. Louis)
PROS: Bullpen great, power on offense, reasonably productive
CONS: Problems with starting pitching and getting runners on base

The Pirates’ ‘pen was supposed to be a weak point after they traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox. But instead, the revamped bullpen is the biggest reason Pittsburgh is in second place coming into Wednesday’s games. The relievers’ ERA is fifth in the National League and more importantly, they’re closing out their save chances. Pittsburgh has nailed 14 of 17 save chances, well above the league average, which is two-thirds success.

Jason Grilli has been unhittable in the closer’s role, with Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon being the same in setup. Meanwhile, Hanrahan is struggling, and the Red Sox’ early success has come in spite of the former Pirate closer, rather than because of him.

The offense needed someone besides Andrew McCutchen to hit and 24-year-old Starling Marte has stepped up. With a .393/.524 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage, Marte is outperforming McCutchen in the early going. This is what Pittsburgh needs—while McCutchen is hardly performing badly (.331/.457), he’s not MVP-level. Last year the Pirates relied on McCutchen to be at MVP pace every month and when that predictably didn’t work out, he began to press and the offense completely tanked. This year’s team is also getting help from veteran catcher Russell Martin, over from the Yankees, and putting up a .362/.543 stat line in the early going.

What the offense does not do, however, is get runners on base consistently. While the team slugging percentage is a solid 6th in the National League, the on-base percentage is only 11th. It’s the latter that keeps you going during the inevitable stretches during the summer when power slumps. Pedro Alvarez has been a disaster at third, and even when he’s not, his value is hitting for power. Garrett Jones is the same at first base, and second baseman Neil Walker is hurt. Furthermore, even Marte’s high numbers are driven by his batting average of .325, rather than walks. That’s fine, but again, you need players who can draw walks to keep an offense up in down times.

And if the starting pitching does not improve, the offense will need to be kept up. While A.J. Burnett and the surprising Jeff Locke have been solid, James McDonald has been a disaster is now being sent to the disabled list. The big question mark right now is how effective will Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens be when they come off the DL over the next few weeks. Your answer to that probably determines your outlook on the 2013 Pirates. I’m pessimistic—this team has possibilities, but after last September I’ve really got them on the “prove it to me first before I believe” list.

CINCINNATI (19-15, 2 games back of St. Louis)
Pros: Great pitching from start to finish, consistent runners on base and MVP candidates in the lineup.
Cons: Lack of depth to the offense, very poor power early on.

The Reds are fourth in the National League in ERA, with the starters being even higher at second. This is in spite of Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto being on the disabled list. Cincy already had a deep rotation, with Mat Latos stepping up to be great (2.23 ERA), Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey solid and Mike Leake serviceable. What they also got was a call-up in Tony Cingrani, who’s posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts.

Had Cincinnati kept to its original plan of moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, they would likely have never called up Cingrani, the pen would lack a closer—Chapman’s 7-for-7 on save chances—and it’s at least possible Chapman’s career would be negatively altered (see Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz). Give the Reds credit for at least recognizing their own stupidity and changing course.

Joey Votto is having a vintage year, with a .463/500 stat line—not to beat a dead horse here, but Votto draws walks. It’s why, even his power is a little down, with only four home runs, he remains a supremely productive offensive player. And I think it safe to say the home runs are going to come. Shin-Soo Choo has embraced his new team and new position in centerfield with a monster start, at .465/.587. Choo was a very underrated rightfielder across the state in Cleveland until injuries slowed him the last couple years. It’s easy to envision a dark-horse MVP run in hitter-friendly Cincy.

The problem the Reds have to deal with is an offense that’s only 10th in the National League in slugging percentage. When you consider how easily the ball flies out of Great American Ballpark, it makes you wonder just how bad the power showing would be if this team played in San Diego. Jay Bruce is the big culprit, with only one home run. Bruce is a streaky hitter and will likely get on a tear that will lift his numbers, and the team’s overall. But even during last year’s run to the NL Central title, the Reds’ slugging numbers were low for the park they’re in.

If you have to pick a weakness though, that’s the one to pick. It’s better to have great starting pitching, solid relief and a lineup that consistently puts runners on base, with a couple MVP-caliber players mixed in, and live with some low power totals across the board. It’s why, of the three teams under review today, Cincinnati is clearly the one with the brightest future over the next twenty weeks of the regular season.

MILWAUKEE (15-16, 4.5 games back of St. Louis)
Great offense in all phases, with young players performing and good veterans on the way back. Plus a late-inning combo in the bullpen.
Cons: The pitching staff is a disaster for the first seven innings of a game.

Remember Jean Segura? He’s the minor league shortstop that was the focal point of the deal that shipped Zack Greinke to the Angels last year. Segura’s putting up huge numbers, at .384/.530, while Greinke is no longer with the Angels and on the disabled list. Someone in Anaheim needs to get fired and Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin deserves a big thumbs-up. Even allowing for the inevitable cool-down, Segura is a good defensive shortstop and has quickly established he can contribute with the bat.

Carlos Gomez is also tearing it up, at .412, and an otherworldly .636 slugging percentage. Ryan Braun continues to be steady, with a .410/.571 stat line that has him well on pace to be in the MVP conversation if voters overlook his latest controversy regarding PEDs (unlikely) and his team turns it around (up in the air). The Brewers rank in the National League’s top four in both OBP and slugging. Even if you allow some slumps from the players currently hitting, you can factor in better months ahead for Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, each of whom are slow out of the gate.

When the offense can slug the team to a lead, the Brewers can turn to Tom Gorzelanny and new closer Jim Henderson to close the game out. But anything prior to these two is a complete crap-shoot. Actually that might be kind, because a crapshoot implies you don’t know what will happen, whereas the Brewer pitching staff has been predictably bad.

The team-wide number of worst ERA in the National League speaks for itself. We can add to this that John Axford has definitely proven that his masterful 2010 season as the closer was a fluke. He was awful last year and quickly lost his job to the flame-throwing Henderson this season. The rotation is 14th in the NL in starters’ ERA, with only Kyle Lohse pitching effectively. Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with only a DUI arrest being noteworthy in his early campaign.

Where the Brewers did get some help, was three nice starts by 25-year-old Hiram Burgos. Now the team is in the midst of a schedule stretch where they can get by on four starters due to off days, so manager Ron Roenicke has decided to skip Burgos. Let’s see if I’m following this—your rotation is a train wreck, you get a kid who comes up and starts pitching well, and the first chance you get, you bury him in the bullpen. Brilliant.

It’s the latest reason why I don’t see the Milwaukee pitching staff making this a playoff team. The offense will keep hitting and if Gallardo joins Lohse in making an effective 1-2, the Brewers can have a winning season, which probably keeps them on the fringes of the wild-card discussion throughout the summer. But I wouldn’t expect September baseball in my home area to have anything to dent the fanaticism for the Green Bay Packers when the time comes.


NL EAST: Roy Halladay going to the disabled list is the big news here, but I wouldn’t write the Phillies off too quickly. They’re off to a slow start at 16-18, but still lurking behind Washington and Atlanta and any staff with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee can keep a team in the wild-card conversation. Especially with Kyle Kendrick pitching well.

NL WEST: If you were in Las Vegas at the start of the season, I wonder what the odds were on the Colorado Rockies being in first place, and the Los Angeles Dodgers in last. Or the odds if you parlayed the two. After an offseason of trying to rival the Yankees in spending, the Dodgers are now trying to rival the Pinstripes in the length of the injury list.