There’s no guarantee the NL Central will sweep the wild-cards, nor is there even a guarantee they will get one, with both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves in the pictures. So the stakes are high for the NL Central’s power trio. The Notebook Nine will focus on the Brewers, Cards and Pirates, with three pertinent thoughts for each team as we head into the homestretch…
*The two key under-the-radar players for Milwaukee are Khris Davis in left field and starting pitcher Mike Fiers. Davis has quietly hit 20 home runs, while Fiers has made four starts and four relief appearances and posted a 1.54 ERA in the process. With Matt Garza on the disabled list and Ryan Braun now hitting like he’s not on PEDs, the bat of Davis and the arm of Fiers will continue to be critical.
*Speaking of Braun, a common theory held at the start of the season was that, if clean, he might prove to be the kind of hitter who would hit .280, hit 20 home runs and finish with 85 RBIs. In other words, still pretty good, but no longer an elite player. Braun’s numbers to date—he’s hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs. Let’s never again here the “he would have been good anyway” argument that gets thrown up the enablers of PED-using players. Clearly, the drugs are the difference between being good and great.
*Braun’s failure to play up to his $10 million per year contract would normally kill a small-market franchise, but the Brewers have gotten big-time production all year from Carlos Gomez in centerfield (.347 OBP/.483 slugging percentage) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.367/.481). Both players are showing a little bit of slippage though, and they need to find way to keep producing for one more month.
*The training staff in St. Louis is either the greatest in the world, or they notoriously overstate how bad injuries are. Yadier Molina is the latest to make a faster-than-expected recovery. The catcher, one expected to be out to mid-September at least, and possibly gone for the year, will make his return to the lineup tonight. This comes with the Cardinal offense already improving—they still rank 12th in the NL in runs scored, but that’s after a season mostly spent at 14th.
*Two big keys behind the pickup of the St. Louis offense are shortstop Jhonny Peralta and left fielder Matt Holliday. Peralta began to gain steam prior to the All-Star break after a terrible start, and now has a stat line of .339/.455. Holliday has been effective getting on base all year (.364 OBP), but has finally elevated his slugging percentage past the .400 mark. The Cardinal offense is still far from the force it’s been in recent years, but at least the lineup is no longer doing a fair imitation of the San Diego Padres.
*The trades to bolster the starting rotation have not worked. John Lackey has been disappointing, with five starts and a 4.50 ERA. Justin Masterson has been an absolute disaster, with a 7.43 ERA in his five times to the post. In fact, the Cleveland Indians, who dealt Masterson, appear to be the real beneficiary, as they’ve nudged back into the American League wild-card race since the deal. With Michael Wacha still rehabbing his shoulder, and Adam Wainwright struggling since the break. St. Louis’ starting pitching is in bad shape at a bad time.
*Your key under-the-radar contributor in Pittsburgh is third baseman Josh Harrison, at .338/.494. We’ve also seen a good year from Starling Marte in left, with a .349 OBP and Neil Walker continues to be a steady offensive producer at second base.
*Pittsburgh has had pitching problems all year, but perhaps their rotation is coming together while St. Louis’ falls apart. Gerrit Cole is back off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has been better of late, and Vance Worley seems to have again found the form that made him a rising star in Philadelphia. In fact, every single Pirate starter has an ERA in the 3s. There’s no real ace, but Pittsburgh can expect to be in the game each night.
*Could Andrew McCutchen steal another MVP award? He’s not gotten a lot of media attention, with the focus going on Giancarlo Stanton in Miami and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. But what if the writers take their usual route of deciding they don’t want to vote for a player on a non-playoff team (presuming Stanton’s Marlins can’t make up the 5 ½ games separating them from the postseason) and they don’t want to vote for a pitcher? McCutchen, with shiny numbers of .402/.537, stands ready to win the award again if the Pirates at least get a wild-card.
At the start of the season, I picked St. Louis to win this division, Milwaukee to make the playoffs and Pittsburgh to be strong enough to get into the playoffs, but knocked out by the strength of the division’s schedule. If the Brewers and Cardinals just flip and the Pirates stay where they’re at, we’ll have an unprecedented situation—I’ll have been right. Just for that alone, I’ll stay with my preseason picks and call that as the final outcome, with Atlanta riding the weak NL East into the second wild-card slot.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Charlie Manuel was fired today as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s an unfortunate move, but also hardly surprising, given how much the Phils have disappointed for two consecutive years. I don’t see it as Manuel’s fault—the organization shoved all its chips on the table with big contracts to veterans and those vets just couldn’t stay healthy consistently—but it’s hard to deny that it’s time for the Phils to take a new direction.
The new hire needs no introduction to anyone who watched baseball in the 1980s or early 1990s. Ryne Sandberg was one of the game’s great second baseman when he lead the Chicago Cubs into the National League Championship Series in both 1984and 1989, and if not for a guy with the last name of Jordan, “Ryno” would be the most beloved Chicago athlete of our lifetime. He’s been the third base coach for Manuel, and now we’ll see if this turns into a real shot at his first managerial job.
Philadelphia’s failure to catch fire is one of the reasons the National League playoff race remains devoid of major drama. Washington joins the list, and Arizona is fighting to keep from sliding off the ledge. As we sit here on August 16, the five playoff teams—Atlanta, Los Angeles and the NL Central’s Big Three—remain comfortable in their position with only the Diamondbacks even within six games.
Arizona has chances to make some hay in the week ahead. They have NL Central-leading Pittsburgh coming in for three games, and the Pirates are coming off a rough stretch where they were swept in Colorado and lost a couple crushing games in St. Louis. The Diamondbacks then host the Reds, who are currently the team most directly in front of Arizona, although a recent Cincy hot streak has tightened the NL Central race up enough that any of the three could vulnerable to an Arizona charge.
Los Angeles is 7 ½ games up in the NL West, with Atlanta still rolling right along at 14 ½ in front in the NL East. The best races remain in the American League, which TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage updated earlier this week.
TheSportsNotebook continues with the theme of this week’s MLB coverage and that’s basic statistical snapshots for each division. Today’s focus is the NL Central. We completed the American League earlier this week, and the National League started yesterday with the East. Now we turn our attention to the division that stands poised to sweep the wild-card berths if the season ended today.
As we’ve done in each other divisional overview, we’ll first list each team’s league rank in the offensive categories of runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Then do the same on the pitching side for starters’ ERA, bullpen ERA and save percentage. After touching on a couple notable individual performances for each team, we then move to some general comments.
St. Louis Cardinals (55-35)
Starters’ ERA: 1st
Relievers’ ERA: 8th
Save Chances: 27/38
Notable: The Cards lost closer Jason Motte for the season, but Edward Mujica has stepped in and done his best Mariano Rivera imitation, closing 25/26 save opportunities, with a 2.33 ERA. And Yadier Molina is making his case for NL MVP, with stat line of .383 OBP/.479 slugging percentage.
Comments: This organization just keeps on ticking. They lost Motte in the pen, Jaime Garcia in the rotation and Rafael Furcal in the everyday lineup, but that just keep on churning. They need depth in the bullpen to survive this tough divisional race, but that’s something that will likely be added between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. And Chris Carpenter, after looking like his career was finished, is making a minor league rehab start on Monday and could be in St. Louis by August.
Pittsburgh Pirates (54-36)
Starters’ ERA: 2nd
Relievers’ ERA: 2nd
Save Chances: 33/42
Notable: Jason Grilli deserves to be in the MVP conversation, as the closer spearheads an elite bullpen, with a 28/29 closing rate and 2.09 ERA. Andrew McCutchen isn’t lighting up like he did through August of last year, but he’s still having a solid season, with a .376/.465 stat line.
Comments: The pitching has been this good in spite of injury problems that are in the process of working themselves out, with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez healthy again. It’s adding a bat or two at the trade deadline that will determine if this Pirate team can do more than make the playoffs. But the long drought without a winning season (1992 was the last one) is surely over and it would be a shock not to see the Buccos in at least a wild-card game.
Cincinnati Reds (51-40)
Starters’ ERA: 3rd
Relievers’ ERA: 7th
Save Chances: 24/34
Notable: The pitching of Mike Leake, with an 8-4 record and 2.69 ERA in 18 starts, is a big reason the Reds have weathered the various injuries to Johnny Cueto. Offensively, Joey Votto is making his own case for the MVP race, with another big year, at .431/.506.
Comments: Cincinnati is another team that needs bullpen depth, and as well as the starting pitching has done without Cueto, it’s impossible to imagine winning a division race of this quality without your ace. Furthermore, Cueto’s return could allow rookie Tony Cingrani to go into the bullpen where he can strengthen that area.
Chicago Cubs (41-49)
Starters’ ERA: 7th
Relievers’ ERA: 14th
Save Chances: 21/39
Notable: What might this team be doing if veteran starting pitcher Edwin Jackson were pitching up to form, instead of having a 5.11 ERA after 18 starts? The power is a nice surprise, and Nathan Schierholtz’ .504 slugging percentage is the biggest reason why.
Comments: If we weren’t waiting on where the Cubs are going to deal Matt Garza, the relevant question would be whether they could spend the second half making a run at .500. This team deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve accomplished, and if the bullpen wasn’t such a train wreck, they’d already be breaking even. But seeing Carlos Marmol leave town is probably cause enough for celebration on the North Side right now.
Milwaukee Brewers (37-54)
Starters’ ERA: 15th
Relievers’ ERA: 3rd
Save Chances: 20/31
Notable: Yovani Gallardo was supposed step up and carry the starting pitching, but he has instead posted a 4.83 ERA in 20 starts and gotten pinched for drunk driving. The offense has more bright spots, but how do you not focus on shortstop Jean Segura, with his .354/.485 stat line. Someone in the Angels’ front office needs to be fired immediately for trading this kid for two months of Zack Greinke in 2012.
Comments: It’s been kind of a lost season in Milwaukee, with the steroid allegations surrounding Ryan Braun and his relationship with the BioGenesis clinic. And when you have the worst starting pitching in the league, it doesn’t give a lot of reason to hope on a night-to-night basis. At the very least, Segura is one of several everyday players having good seasons and the local fan base can keep their sights pointed to August 9. The reason for that date? It’s when the Green Bay Packers start preseason games and get everyone’s mind on football season.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
St. Louis continues to get the respect in Las Vegas, and they’re a (-110) favorite to win the NL Central. Even though Pittsburgh has a four-game margin on Cincinnati, both the Pirates and Reds are 2-1 picks to finish first place. That’s not a lot of respect for the Pirates, but I guess that’s what having losing seasons every year since 1992 gets you. The Brewers and Cubs are a 1,000-1.
The Cincinnati Reds are riding high in the NL Central race, with an 84-56 record and the 9.5 game lead they hold is the highest of any divisional leader. If this were a political campaign, the networks would be calling it and you’d see the image of Dusty Baker next to the division standings with the check-mark next to him indicating a race that was over. It’s a remarkable achievement for a team that lost its closer (Ryan Madson) in spring training, it’s best setup man (Nick Massett) about the same time and pulled away from St. Louis and Pittsburgh during a period when their best player (Joey Votto) was on the disabled list. Let’s take a look at how the Reds did it.
You would not expect a team that plays in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball to do it with pitching, but that’s exactly what Cincinnati has done. They stand second in the NL in ERA and I’m sure if a sabermetrics guru ran park-adjusted numbers the Reds would also be ahead of league-leader Washington. Johnny Cueto has to be the frontrunner for the Cy Young Award and should at least be in the MVP discussion. The ace has 17 wins and 2.58 ERA in his 28 starts. Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos each have 12 wins and ERAs in the 3.60s, and Homer Bailey’s 10-9 record with a 4.03 ERA will satisfy any manager in the #4 spot.
One thing that can’t be overlooked is that all four starters have made the full complement of 28 starts. As much bad luck as the Reds had with the injuries noted above, they’ve had it in spades when it comes to their starting pitching and I’m just Baker will take his end of the trade-off.
And if the starters don’t go deep into the game, there’s no shortage of relievers who can get it done. Aroldis Chapman is high-profile closer and has 35 saves with a 1.61 ERA. In spite of a rare blown save on Friday night, he’s still got an astonishing 24 of those saves since the All-Star break and the ERA since the midway point is a buck-thirty. In front of Chapman, the Reds have gotten good work from Alfredo Simon, who’s brought his career back from a murder charge a few years ago when he was in Baltimore. Simon’s ERA is 2.47, while Sam LeCure and Logan Ondrusek give a righty-lefty combo that can get outs in setup work. And though Jose Arredondo has cooled after a good first half, the Reds added Jonathan Broxton at the trade deadline. The former Dodger closer has a 3.55 ERA since coming to Cincy and is capable of pitching better.
The offense is 7th in the league and using the same park-adjusted effects, we’d have to see this is an average attack at best, especially by playoff standards. Votto had a dazzling .474/.607 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the 300 at-bats he posted before his injury. He’s now back and getting back in the groove for the postseason. In the meantime, Cincinnati owes a debt to the following players who got the job done in his absence…
*Jay Bruce is the key supporting player and he lifted his game drastically after the All-Star break, delivering a .370/.632 stat line with 15 home runs since the mid-July break.
*Brandon Phillips has hit .323 since the break and after a slow start lifted his seasonal stat line to a respectable .335/.454. He also provides veteran leadership at second base.
*Todd Frazier has been the spark this team needed. He first took over for Scott Rolen at third base when the latter was injured. Then Frazier shifted over to first in Votto’s stead. Wherever Frazier has played, he has hit, with a season-long line of .347/.525 and popping 18 home runs in 373 at-bats.
*Speaking of Rolen, he came back at the right time, when Votto went down and delivered a .408/.496 line since the break. He’s back to nursing the bum shoulder that’s hindered him since 2006, but he came through when the Reds needed him the most.
*Ryan Hanigan was supposed to be replaced by stud rookie Devin Mesoraco at catcher, but it’s the veteran Hanigan who came up with a .405 on-base percentage in the season’s second half.
*Some of us thought Cincinnati had a big hole in centerfield and that Shane Victorino made sense as a trade deadline acquisition. I don’t regret thinking that, but while Victorino went to Los Angeles and struggled, Cincy incumbent Chris Heisey has delivered a .362/.538 stat line since the break.
Cincinnati can now focus on postseason positioning. They are 5.5 games up on San Francisco for the #2 seed, which would ensure homefield advantage in the Division Series. The Reds are 2.5 games back of Washington for the top seed, which carries homefield throughout the World Series thank to the National League’s All-Star game win.
The NFL season starts tomorrow in Cincinnati, with excitement there for the Bengals. But the football team can’t match the ceiling of the Reds, who have a division locked up and the pitching to go deep into October.
The Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals start a three-game series tonight on the banks of the Ohio River, and both teams are hot on the heels of the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, with the Reds one game out and the Cardinals 2.5 off the pace. With the Reds-Cards set for national TV coverage this weekend on Saturday Fox and Sunday ESPN, TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at both teams…
Cincinnati (47-38): It’s pitching that’s keeping the Reds in contention right now, as they ranked third in the National League in team ERA. But it’s not the starters that deserve the credit. Save Johnny Cueto, whose nip-and-tuck with New York’s R.A. Dickey for the Cy Young Award, the Cincy starters have had issues. Mat Latos has the record at 7-2, but a 4.13 ERA is too high. Mike Leake and Homer Bailey are both in the low 4s, and Bronson Arroyo is at 3.73. While Cincinnati is a very hitter-friendly park, facing National League Central competition is not exactly going through Murderer’s Row. Dusty Baker has a right to expect more from his 2 thru 5 starters and if each were to pitch like they’re capable, this could be a devastatingly good rotation.
But the bullpen has made up for what the starters have lacked. Aroldis Chapman may have finally given up some runs after an extended stretch at a 0.00 ERA, but he’s got 11 saves and a buck-83 ERA since being given the closer’s job. Sean Marshall, whose job Chapman took, is better suited for setup work and he has a 3.00 ERA. Jose Arrendondo and Alfredo Simon have been lights out, while Logan Ondrusek has joined Chapman as a solid lefthanded presence. Throw in some respectable work from Sam LeCure and you have a relief corps that has thrived in spite of losing last year’s closer, Francisco Cordero, to free agency and prime setup man Nick Massett to injury, though the latter may be back towards the end of this month.
Cincinnati is squarely in the middle of the league in scoring runs, at eighth and when you’re in this kind of hitters’ park that means the offense is subpar. This may come as a surprise to casual observers, since Joey Votto gets so much ink. With a .471/.617 stat line for on-base percentage/slugging percentage, Votto not only deserves all that ink, he in fact deserves more, because his supporting cast is not getting it done. Jay Bruce hits home runs—18 to be precise, but does not hit with consistency, either in terms of getting on base or hitting in the gaps. Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has had his moments and he looks like a good, rising young player, but the body of work is at .298/.409 and that’s not going to cut it for the short-term. Scott Rolen has done nothing since returning from his latest battle against the aging shoulder and Daniel Stubbs is a serious offensive liability.
Where the Reds might hope for better is from second baseman Brandon Phillips, currently at .332/.428, but that’s not terrible and Phillips has the ability to pick it up a notch. Ryan Ludwick has popped 12 home runs in left field. Like Bruce, he needs a more well-rounded offensive game, but unlike Bruce, there weren’t a lot of expectations on Ludwick, so anything he gives is a bonus. Ultimately the decision Baker has is what to do with Todd Frazier. When subbing for the injured Rolen, Frazier not only hit a memorable home run that was done with barely the flick of a wrist, he posted an excellent .345/.556 line in 180 at-bats. I’d just find it hard to believe that in a win-now year in the Queen City, he wouldn’t get full-time at-bats. Frazier can play the outfield along with being a third baseman, so the manager has options for getting him in the lineup. But get him there he must.
St. Louis (46-40): Injuries defined a lot of St. Louis’ first half, with Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jon Jay all logging extended time on the disabled list. Carpenter’s gone for the year, but Jay is back and Berkman and Garcia are both on the way. That’s mostly good news, but with the Cards needing more pitching help while still sporting the league’s best offense, it’s fair to say they’d have preferred to get Carpenter if they could choose whom to have back.
Adam Wainwright hasn’t been able to return to his status as a Cy Young-caliber pitcher after missing last season with elbow surgery. Wainwright’s ERA is at 4.56, way too high for a National League team, especially when you consider he never has to face the league’s best offense, given it’s his own. The positive is that Wainwright’s worst outings were in April, and it’s a reasonable hope that he might gradually gain steam down the stretch. Lance Lynn has won 11 games, logged over 100 innings and posted a 3.41 ERA, marking a successful conversion from the bullpen. Jake Westbrook has been steady, at 3.75 and 100-plus innings, though like Arroyo in Cincinnati, I’d like to see that ERA come down a little bit. Where rookie manager Mike Matheny has gotten a lot of help is from Kyle Lohse, whose won nine games with a 2.79 ERA and a workmanlike 116 innings. Lohse is not St. Louis’ most renowned pitcher, but he seems to be at his best at points in the season where he’s needed the most. Matheny’s also gotten some nice work out Joe Kelly, with a 2.70 ERA in his few appearances in Garcia’s stead. The latter struggled to a 4.48 ERA, although perhaps some of that was due to the shoulder injury that ultimately shelved him until the early part of next month.
Where St. Louis pales in comparison to Cincinnati—and Pittsburgh for that matter—is in the bullpen. Jason Motte has stayed in the closer’s role after taking the job down the stretch last season and has 20 saves, but with a 3.05 ERA he’s not exactly lights-out. Mitchell Boggs has been lights-out as a lefthanded setup man, but everyone else is shaky to say the least. I have to think another round of getting bullpen help is going to be on the St. Louis agenda for the trade deadline. But even though the moves worked last year, betting on setup relievers is unpredictable enough to make Roulette look like a percentage play. Threading the needle at the deadline two straight years is a tall order indeed.
I haven’t given a lot of ink to the offense, but I’ll just focus on the fact that second base is a weak point, and even though shortstop Rafael Furcal made the All-Star starting lineup, he’s average at best. Why focus on the negative? Because these two spots are the only areas that stand out. Everywhere else is loaded with All-Star caliber production and that’s before Berkman gets activated from the DL, probably within the week.
After this weekend, the next head-to-head meeting in the St. Louis-Cincy-Pittsburgh troika (and you can read about Pittsburgh’s pros and cons in Saturday’s NL report where they were the featured team) is August 3, when the Reds host the Pirates. Between now and then, Pittsburgh probably has the toughest schedule of the three. Granted, none of the teams have a brutal slate ahead, but the Pirates do open the second half on the road and then return home to play Miami, a potentially dangerous second-half team. For their part, Cincinnati hosts Arizona for four starting Monday, while St. Louis has a four-game home series with Los Angeles. But there’s no shortage of games with the Cubs or Astros for either team between now and August 3.
How will it all shake out? We have to reserve the right to a mind-change pending the July trading frenzy, but right now Las Vegas tells us the Reds are the favorite, at 6-5 to win the Central, with the Cards at 9-5. The Pirates are a 2-1 shot, showing that the smart money is still not sold on the division leader. I concur across the board and lean Cincy to win a close race right now, and I don’t believe a second playoff team comes out of this division.
It’s no secret that the St. Louis Cardinals are struggling. They’ve got injuries and the pitching that is healthy just isn’t very good, either in the rotation or the bullpen. Since the middle of May they’ve been plummeting in the standings, now in third place in the NL Central, trailing both the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates. But they got a couple wins over Houston the last two nights to get back over .500 at 30-28, they’ll start getting players returning from the disabled list in the next couple weeks and possibly more after the All-Star break. And this offense has been absolutely fearsome, even when not entirely whole.
Of St. Louis’ top nine hitters—the ones with 100 at-bats or more—seven of them are potent threats that can be a leading hitter on any offense. Rafael Furcal leads off and has a .373 on-base percentage. Matt Holliday’s OBP is similarly strong and he’s hit ten home runs. David Freese has some work to do with getting on base regularly, but the power is still there, and he’s gone deep sixteen times. John Jay is one of those who’s been on the DL and is set to come off soon, and he’s got an elite-level .395 on-base percentage and his .438 slugging is respectable by any measure and solid for someone not relied on for power. Matt Carpenter’s gotten his chance to play thanks to Lance Berkman’s injury and even though Carpenter himself had to hit the DL—also to come off soon—he posted a .356/.519 OBP/Slugging line. The only two players not in on the offensive muscle are Tyler Green and Daniel Descalco, who split time at second base.
I left out one player from the litany because he deserves his own special paragraph. That’s Carlos Beltran, who was the de facto replacement for Albert Pujols (the Cards moved Lance Berkman from right field to first base and brought Beltran in to play right). Beltran responded to the pressure by delivering a .367 OBP, hit 16 home runs and has a .561 slugging. A player that’s been up and down in recent years, Beltran looks locked in and his play is a huge reason St. Louis is keeping themselves afloat in difficult times.
It all adds up to a team that leads the National League in runs scored, and is at the top in both OBP/Slugging. There’s a possibility they’ll get Berkman back in late July from his knee injury, although I’m not ready to count on that, and I even wonder how much better an injured Berkman is going to be over a young Carpenter.
There are still problems for manager Mike Matheny to deal with, especially in the bullpen. The medical team still has starting pitchers Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter to get healthy. If they can even get the starting pitching healthy and consistent, it can be enough to win this division, thanks to an offense that’s resembling a modern-day Murderer’s Row.
Around the rest of the NL Central…
Cincinnati (31-25): The depth problems in the Cincinnati offense are going to catch up to them sooner or later. Jay Bruce and Joey Votto are genuinely outstanding. Bruce has hit 13 home runs. While Votto’s only gone deep nine times, he’s ripped 24 doubles and has a .620 slugging. But with rookie shortstop Zack Cozart slumping badly and no one else coming through there’s too much pressure on the two big guns to carry the offense. And Johnny Cueto can only pitch every fifth day.
Pittsburgh (29-27): Setup man Jason Grilli has to be driving Detroit Tigers’ fans crazy right now. After a few years of mediocrity, he comes to Pittsburgh and is lights-out with a 1.64 ERA, as the Tiger bullpen is a mess. The Pirate pen is anything but. Clint Hurdle has any incredibly deep relief corps with four relievers—including Grilli—who have ERAs under 3 and two more with ERAs under 4. And that’s just the middle and setup men. Closer Joel Hanrahan isn’t quite as dominant as last year, but he’s still 15/17 on save chances with a 2.86 ERA. This offense never gives the pitching staff much room for error and the relievers are responding to the challenge.
Milwaukee (26-31): Last week in this space, it was noted that Milwaukee had a nine-game homestand to make a move. They’re 3-3 so far with the Padres coming in this weekend. At this point it’s a missed opportunity, but a series win over the weekend at least keeps them breathing and a sweep turns the homestand into a success. In a year where it seems mostly bad news or underachievement is the norm for this organization, let’s give a thumbs-up to starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. His second-half collapse and subsequent postseason problems are the biggest reason the Brewers fell short of the World Series and I wondered if he could come back. A 4-3 record with a nice 3.39 ERA shows Marcum is back to being a good #3 starter. Now if Yovani Gallardo started being a top-of-the-line arm again Milwaukee might have something.
Houston (24-33): Last week’s report panned the Astros pitching for giving up 40 runs in four games to Colorado. The arms really improved this week. In six games they only gave up 45 runs, holding opposing offenses to a dazzling 7.5 runs per game. Sorry Houston fans, I’m still bitter about this coming immediately after I sung the pitching staff’s praises. I need no help in looking foolish, but this staff certainly y rushed to help me along.
ChiCubs (19-38): A lost season for the Cubs is shaping up well for new GM Theo Epstein. There will be no one to argue when it’s time to dump players and with Chicago getting an unexpected good year from first baseman Bryan LaHair (.390/.598), Theo will have a bonus trade chip. LaHair is 30 years old and the future at the position belongs to Anthony Rizzo. With contenders looking for extra bats and usually getting desperate in July, Epstein could find a taker somewhere like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh or San Francisco. Maybe even Philadelphia might see LaHair as a short-term solution pending Ryan Howard’s injury situation.
At the start of the week the Milwaukee Brewers were left for dead by most baseball observers, including me and including pretty much every Brewer fan I see—and given that I live thirty miles from Miller Park that’s a fair number. Then catcher Jonathan Lucroy, swinging a red-hot bat, broke his hand in a freak accident and joined Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel as starters on the disabled list. And this week began with a four-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, merely the team with the best record in baseball. As far as the good people of Wisconsin were concerned, the time had come to shift the conversation to fishing, summer vacations and early talk on the Green Bay Packers. But then the Brewers delivered a shocking four-game sweep of the Dodgers and put themselves back on the radar. Can the good times last long enough for Milwaukee to really get back into the hunt?
For all the talk of injuries—and there’s been a lot. Not only are the three Opening Day starters above all out, the latter two for the season, but Cesar Itzuris and Travis Ishikawa, the replacements at short and first are also on the list of walking wounded. But in spite of all that, Milwaukee’s biggest problem is that, to borrow a phrase from former NFL analyst John Madden, “stars aren’t playing like stars.” Consider the following…
*While Zack Greinke has had some brilliant starts this season, including last night’s 6-2 win that punctuated the sweep, his 3.46 ERA isn’t Cy Young-caliber and it was presumed at the start of the season that he needed to be more than just pretty good.
*Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with a 4.22 ERA in eleven starts, with the worst outings saved for the biggest games against division rivals.
*Randy Wolf didn’t have great things expected of him, but the #3 starter is usually a reliable innings-eater with a tolerable ERA. But 5.73 is not tolerable.
*John Axford has been erratic at closer. While a blown save, something he didn’t have last year, was inevitable, he’s also lost two games and with a 3.26 ERA has been less than reliable. He’s part of a bullpen where only Kameron Loe has an ERA below 3.
*Then we come to Rickie Weeks…the man who was the best second baseman in the National League a year ago, the culmination of steady improvement year-by-year, is hitting .158. His power, normally pretty good for a middle infielder at the top of the order is gone, with a slugging percentage of a meager .294. He’s taking his walks, with 31 free passes, but he’s struck out an astonishing 65 times. Weeks has morphed into Adam Dunn without the home runs. Then couple that with the fact centerfielder Nyjer Morgan has been almost as bad, and there is no one to set the table.
A lack of runners on base means that another solid season from Ryan Braun can’t have the kind of offensive impact it otherwise would. More alarmingly, it means Braun doesn’t have to given anything to hit. This past week, opposing pitchers got the message and they walked the Brewer slugger seven times.
Milwaukee’s record sits on 23-28, good for fourth place in the NL Central and 5.5 games off the pace. They begin a nine-game homestand against third-place Pittsburgh, then last-place teams in the Cubs and Padres. If the Brewers are going to make a move, now’s the time and the personnel on hand simply has to play like its capable.
Around the rest of the NL Central…
Cincinnati (28-22)—Brandon Phillips got his bat going this week, hitting .364 and making up for a slump by otherwise hot-hitting rookie shortstop Zack Cozart. And Todd Frazier, the young third baseman in for the injured Scott Rolen, hit well, including the home run that went viral. Cincy hit well and pitched well, but some luck was missing as they only played .500 ball over the past week.
St. Louis (27-24): The trying times in St. Louis keep getting more challenging, as they lost three of four to Philadelphia last weekend and then proved to be the perfect antidote to the slumping Braves, who beat them two of three. It’s the pitching that’s the problem, as Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia all got hit hard, and Garcia’s schedule start tonight at the Mets will be skipped as the club flies him back to St. Loo and get his elbow checked.
Pittsburgh (25-25): A sweep of the Cubs and series win over the Reds have put Clint Hurdle’s team back to .500 as the come into Milwaukee this weekend and will be subject to careful observation by yours truly when I’m out there Sunday, something I’m sure that’s a motivating factor in the Pirate clubhouse. Almost as motivating as the fact that in the last four starts by A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Erik Bedard, they have combined for 26.1 IP and zero runs. And the offense, abysmal this season actually outperformed two NL teams in runs scored. Andrew McCutchen got some help from 27-year-old rookie first baseman Matt Hague, who went 6-for-19 with a couple doubles. Kudos to Hurdle for taking a shot with Hague rather than continuing to fail with “safe” veterans.
Houston (22-29): Forget I praised them last week. The Astros went into Colorado for a four-game set and gave up forty runs! There are individual hitters—actually quite a few—still swinging good bats, but after a week like that, no good can be said.
ChiCubs (18-32): A sweep of San Diego earlier this week finally ended a long losing streak. The Cubbies got offense from the middle infield—Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney combined for 17 hits and four home runs—and the corner outfield as veterans David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano had good weeks. All the better to increase the trade value of the outfielders, as I’m sure DeJesus will be moved this summer and Soriano might if GM Theo Epstein can find someone to take his contract. A tip of the cap also goes to the bullpen, especially middle men Shawn Camp and Casey Coleman. Each pitched in three games, averaged more than an inning per outing and did not allow a run.
The Houston Astros are one game under .500 coming into Saturday’s games, and while some of that can be attributed to the benefit of just playing the hapless Chicago Cubs this week and sweeping them three in a row, let’s remember this—at the start of the season it was supposed to be the Astros who were the hapless team that everyone fattened up on. Not only are they better than that, the ‘Stros are just three games out of first place in the NL Central as we approach Memorial Day. And if that weren’t surprise enough, it’s pitching that’s getting it done.
Lucas Harrell’s outing Friday night in Dodger Stadium, where he outgunned Clayton Kershaw 3-1 is the latest in a solid year for the Houston starters. Harrell’s 4-3 with a 3.72 ERA. Wandy Rodriguez is even better, going 4-4 with a 2.14 ERA, while Bud Norris is sitting on 5-1 and 3.14. Norris and Harrell are the young arms and the building block of the future, while the organization will have a decision to make regarding Rodriguez. The odds are heavy that the best decision will be to trade him in July, but if this three games out of first stuff holds, it’s going to be tough to justify that. J.A. Happ, the #4 starter could make the decision a lot easier by pitching better, as he’s 4-3, but with a 4.56 ERA. To put the ERAs in context, while they do come against National League lineups in a weak division, Houston’s Minute Maid Park is also a very hitter-friendly environment.
If Happ and fifth starter Jordan Lyles (5.29 ERA in three starts) can start pitching better, it can settle the decision on what to do with Rodriguez. If Houston has three or four solid young starters to build with, they can deal Wandy and still compete this season.
The bullpen was an abomination a year ago, but has turned into a reliable unit this time around, with Wilton Lopez being that “comes out of nowhere” arm for manager Brad Mills. Lopez has appeared in 25 games, is averaging about an inning per outing and the ERA is a buck-75. Brandon Lyon has been equally lights-out in another setup role at 1.65 in 16 innings pitched. Both are setting the table for Brett Myers, who’s closed 12 of 13 chances at 1.59 ERA.
Myers is a similar decision to Rodriguez as a trade chip, and I suspect dealing him would be even easier for Houston, so long as Lopez keeps pitching well. Lyon’s got experience as a closer, so Mills could use a Lopez-Lyons combo in the final two innings and trade Myers for more young talent, and given the way the market for quality relief pitching opens up at the trade deadline as injuries pile up, I think it’s safe to say Houston could command a hefty return.
On balance, the Astros pitching is better than anyone could have expected. The young arms are pitching well, they have two quality trade chips to invest for the future and the present still has them competitive.
Houston’s 22-23 mark is good for third in the NL Central. Here’s how the other five teams stack up…
Cincinnati (25-20): Even with Johnny Cueto getting hit by Colorado last night, the Reds have passed St. Louis, thanks to winning a weekend interleague series in New York last week and then sweeping Atlanta four straight. Their own pitching has come around, with Homer Bailey delivering three straight solid starts, all against either the Yankees or Braves. Bailey’s performance is critical for the long-term success of the staff, as he’s one of the arms that provide depth in the rotation. The offense lacks similar depth, as was seen in the last week when a 1-for-21 stretch from Jay Bruce meant the team finished in the NL’s bottom half offensively.
St. Louis (25-21): Injuries are piling up in St. Louis, with Lance Berkman out until at least late July, joining Chris Carpenter and the Cards are also missing John Jay, though he’s expected back pretty quickly. The good news is that Mike Adams, the young first baseman who steps into the void left by Berkman has gone 7-for-22 and Adam Wainwright threw a complete game shutout against San Diego, continuing the gradual improvement that has marked his May. A ten-game road trip starts Monday and includes the Braves and Mets, so the Cards have a testing time ahead of them.
Pittsburgh (21-24): The no-hit/good-pitch paradigm continues to define the Pirates, even in the short-term. Clint Hurdle is trying some new things, inserting 24-year-old Josh Harrison at third base in place of Pedro Alvarez and Harrison ripped off a .360 on-base percentage /.565 slugging percentage in the last week. He was the only one who hit though, and in spite of good pitching from A.J. Burnett and James McDonald the Buccos continue to wallow along. They’re hosting the Cubs this weekend and the Reds early next week.
Milwaukee (19-26): If it’s not injuries, the Brewers are hit by bad luck elsewhere. In spite of a stretch where they’ve been 4th in the NL in runs scored and 6th in ERA, that’s not translating into wins, as they’ve gone 6-8. Yovani Gallardo dominated Ian Kennedy in a game at Arizona last night and Zack Greinke continues to be sharp. The lineup’s had hot stretches from Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez. In short, this is everything Milwaukee needed to win games and they still struggle. The counterpoint to this—when that 6-8 stretch includes the Twins, Cubs and Astros, you lose all rights to speak of bad luck. Just get it done.
ChiCubs (15-30): The Cubbies have lost ten straight. Bryan LaHair, the first baseman who was off to such a hot start has just one single in his last 15 at-bats. Darwin Barney at second base is 3-for-18. Starlin Castro at short is 7-for-26, which doesn’t sound awful until you add in that there’s no walks and ten strikeouts. The Cubbies have the worst offense in the league over the last week and starting next Friday they begin a 10-game road trip that takes them up to interleague play. All of which is going to make dealing the team’s major pieces—i.e., Matt Garza—all the easier for new GM Theo Epstein.
As we hit interleague action in MLB this weekend, everyone has 35-plus games behind them and we’ve covered a little more than 1/5 of the schedule. TheSportsNotebook continues its evaluation period that’s going on this week. This post focuses on the National League. Please also check the American League overview from earlier today and the individual reports that were run yesterday, with an All-Star ballot put together for both theAL & NL.
Atlanta (23-14): Whether you believe in the Braves for the long haul or not, at least we know they didn’t drag the residue of last September’s collapse with them into 2012, the way a team from up New England did. The Braves have bashed their way to the top of the NL’s toughest division, 2nd in the NL in runs scored thanks to a lineup that’s getting contributions up and down—no one’s been a star and no one’s been an easy out, so it’s very feasible that Atlanta will be an offensive force this year. The starting pitching just has to get better though. Even with Brandon Beachy dazzling with a 1.60 ERA, Mike Minor has been a huge disappointment in his first full year as a starter and the middle three—Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Randall Delgado are floating around the high 3s, which isn’t bad, but given the higher standards that exist in the National League for this stat, it’s not championship-level either.
Washington (22-14): The starting pitching has had to carry Washington, with the bullpen hit hard by injuries to Brad Lidge and Drew Storen and that’s likely to persist until at least the All-Star break. Then there’s the whole problem with the offense, which is 14th in the league scoring runs and with Jayson Werth out for the year and Danny Espinosa having come down to earth after such a good year in 2011, the Nats are not likely to see significant improvement here. Even if Ryan Zimmerman heats up at third base—and he will—Adam LaRoche is way over his head right now, so that cancels each other out. But when you have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman you have four extraordinary young arms. When you have Edwin Jackson you have a reliable stabilizer. And when Davey Johnson is your manager you know he doesn’t need that much of an opening to produce wins. Washington might not continue their current 98-win pace, but they’re here to stay in the division and playoff races.
NY Mets (20-16): It’s nice to see this team off to a good start after enduring so many rough headlines because of the Madoff ownership situation and it’s even nice to see Johan Santana pitching well. But don’t get any ideas. The pitching overall is still a real weak point and that was even before Mike Pelfrey was lost for the year. The offense has overachieved to date, ranking 6th in the league in scoring runs thanks to David Wright having an MVP-caliber season and Daniel Murphy being a big contributor. But they need substantial improvement from Lucas Duda and Ike Davis if the offense is going to keep hitting. I think a more realistic goal for this team is to beat their preseason Las Vegas Over/Under win total of 72 and by that measurement they’re off to a very good start.
Miami (19-17): Ozzie Guillen’s troops are coming hard, having gotten through the rough first month and now having played their way back into the race behind strong pitching, with Anibal Sanchez being the best and Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano all having good years. Now the offense has to work its way into form. Giancarlo Stanton has got his power stroke back and Jose Reyes is getting on base. Omar Infante is having a tremendous season at second base. That will come down to earth, and when it happens Hanley Ramirez has to get his bat in gear and on the pitching side Josh Johnson has to get back in rhythm.
Philadelphia (18-19): Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are the only Phillie players getting on base with any regularity and Hunter Pence and Ruiz are the only ones driving the ball with any power. Shane Victorino has tailed off sharply after a good start and believe it or not, even the pitching only ranks in the middle of the National League in ERA. It’s hard to pinpoint one area in particular, other than middle relief. Otherwise it’s most a series of pitchers—Cole Hamels excepted—being just a bit below their norm. I’m sure Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will soon join Hamels in churning out Cy Young-caliber starts, but at this point in the season it’s fair to say that for as many bad predictions as TheSportsNotebook makes, going hard against the Phils in the NL East—and to even miss the postseason entirely—doesn’t look too bad right now.
St. Louis (21-15): A deep and talented offense has ripped the ball left and right and scored the most runs in the National League, even with Lance Berkman on the disabled list. Given this team has put runs on the board for three straight years, there is no reason to think that will change. The pitching is a mystery right now. St. Loo is getting great work from Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook. But Adam Wainwright is really struggling in his attempt to come back from the elbow surgery of last spring , Jaime Garcia’s seen his ERA gradually nudge upward over 4 and Chris Carpenter is still out and now his return is pushed back to late July. To top it off, the bullpen depth isn’t there. I’m not necessarily saying the Cardinals won’t win the division, but it’s definitely not the runaway they were making it look like early.
Cincinnati (18-17): The Reds are top-heavy when it comes to their personnel. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are getting it done in the everyday lineup, while Johnny Cueto looks like a Cy Young winner in the rotation and Bronson Arroyo’s having a solid year at #2. Aroldis Chapman is good for a lockdown three outs of the bullpen. But they can get enough help? Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart’s bat goes in and out, while Brandon Phillips—whose bat is desperately needed—has been mostly out. In the rotation, Mat Latos has to take his 4.54 ERA and knock a run off it. Then Dusty Baker has a challenge in putting together the bullpen around Chapman. I think the Reds are one of baseball’s most interesting teams going into the summer.
Pittsburgh (17-19): We always knew Erik Bedard could still pitch if he stayed healthy. He’s healthy, so is his 2.57 ERA and the Pirates have the NL’s third-best pitching staff, thanks also to James McDonald and a very good bullpen. What they can’t do is score. At all. Andrew McCutchen is having another All-Star year in the outfield, but to say he lacks help is a woeful understatement. The Pirates might as well have the pitcher’s spot up with the other eight positions in the order for all the help the everyday players are giving. Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones are the prime culprits and they have to hit if this team is going to finally finish on the right side of .500.
Milwaukee (16-20): Don’t think this is about Prince Fielder’s being absent, or Ryan Braun no longer having his alleged steroids. Braun is having a big year and along with Jonathan Lucroy has helped the Brewers stay in the NL’s upper crust on the offensive side. The pitching is awful, with presumed ace Yovani Gallardo and closer John Axford being the biggest culprits. Zack Greinke has pitched well and Shaun Marcum has bounced back from a terrible finish to 2011, but unless one of these two are on the mound a disaster seems imminent. And now that Alex Gonzalez is gone for the year at short, the defense is going to suffer. The early season hope of 85 wins—the Las Vegas betting number—looks like a pipe dream right now and the current pace of 72 looks painfully realistic.
Houston (15-21): A recent slide took the shine off what had been a nice start for the Astros and they’re current pace would set them at 68 wins by season’s end. That would still exceed expectations and while I don’t think Houston will many games, the rebuilding project deserves some good marks for the pieces that are coming into place. Jose Altuve is a nice second baseman swinging a good bat. Jed Lowrie has been solid since coming over from Boston. The young pitching shows continued promise, with Bud Norris and Lucas Farrell, and veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers—the latter in the closer’s role are pitching extremely well and enhancing the value they can bring back at the trade deadline. Houston’s moving to the American League next season and if the team is looking for the start of a new era, the early returns are positive.
ChiCubs (15-21): It has to suck to be one of the top three starters on the Cubs. If you’re Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza or Jeff Samrdijza you’re having a perfectly good year, but there’s no offensive help and no bullpen help. Bryan LaHair is the main bright spot of the offense, hitting 10 home runs in his rookie year. Starlin Castro’s been decent at short and can kick it up a notch, but beyond that David DeJesus’ ability to get on base is all that’s left. Perhaps the bullpen will work out now that Carlos Marmol has been removed from the closer’s job, but this is still hit and miss. On three days out of five the Cubs can compete for seven innings. The other two days and the other two innings? Not so much.
LA Dodgers (24-12): Is this the best team in baseball? That’s one the standings tell us in mid-May. The Dodger resurgence has been keyed by an offense that not only has Matt Kemp picking up right where he left off in what should have been an MVP year in 2011 (for reasons having nothing to do with Ryan Braun’s alleged and never proven steroid use), but Andre Ethier is having a big year, while young catcher A.J. Ellis is off to a blazing start. Clayton Kershaw looks poised to make a run at a second straight Cy Young Award. Now the problems—the bullpen has good setup people, but closer Javy Guerra has been inconsistent, and how much longer can Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly keep their ERAs in the low 2s? Eventually Chad Billingsley’s going to have to come closer to resembling Kershaw than looking like a #4 starter. I’ve got the Dodgers in a group with the Orioles—I respect what they’ve done and they are definitely better than expected, but let’s hold off on the postseason plans.
San Francisco (18-18): The Giants are what they are—good pitching, lousy offense. But thus far the pitching has been merely good and not excellent, which isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of a meaningful offensive attack. Tim Lincecum is the main culprit, with a 5.77 ERA. He looked to be coming around before again stumbling his last couple times out. The everyday lineup really needs Pablo Sandoval to come back strong from his hand injury early next month, because right now left fielder Melky Cabrera is the only one keeping the lineup afloat. The problems with this team are real, but if you’re worst concerns surrounding Lincecum and Sandoval you at least have good reason to be optimistic about the future.
Arizona (16-21): As the record shows the Diamondbacks aren’t hitting on all cylinders, or even a few right now. They need Chris Young in centerfield and starting pitcher Daniel Hudson back from the disabled list. Eventually they need Stephen Drew to make it back from the surgery he had on his ankle last July. So to a certain extent, Arizona has an excuse. But Justin Upton’s having a terrible year and while the starting pitching hasn’t been bad—Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders have all been decent—none have excelled, the way Kennedy did a year ago on his way to 20 wins. I think this team can get it turned around, as they get healthy and Upton gets hot. Whether they get an uptick in the three pitchers mentioned will decide if they can push back over the top.
Colorado (14-21): You would expect a team playing in Coors Field to be strong on scoring runs and less so at stopping them, and the early returns bear that out this year. But there are some underlying factors worthy of note. Even though the Rockies’ have the league’s third-best offense, it’s top-heavy with Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer being the only ones having really good years. While you can certainly expect Troy Tulowitzki to come around, the lack of depth in the offensive attack suggests it will be tough to carry this high level of success much farther. Pitching-wise, there’s not much reason to think the staff with the league’s worst ERA will get much better this year, but the Rocks are doing the right thing and at least choosing to struggle with young pitchers with an upside. Alex White, Drew Pomeranz and Christian Frederich are all getting a trial by fire in big leagues and that will only help in the years to come.
San Diego (13-24): The play of Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso at the infield corner spots is all the Padres have to hang their hat on in the everyday lineup. Edinson Volquez—who came over with Alonso in a deal with the Reds for Latos, a trade looking positively one-side for the Pads right now—is having a sound year, and even Jeff Suppan is finding a career revival in Petco Park. But on the subject of Petco, a good staff will have a team ERA better than sixth in the National League in this place, and that’s where San Diego is right now. Perhaps the return of starter Tim Stauffer from the DL will give them a boost, but when your success to this point has fallen this heavily on Suppan I think it tells you a lot about your long-term chances.
MAY MULLIGANS: The preseason picks here at TheSportsNotebook were Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona to win divisions, with a Miami-Milwaukee wild-card game. I’m going to stay patient with Arizona and see what happens between now and the All-Star break. They’ll play better and the Dodgers will come down to earth, and I’m not sure what to think about San Francisco yet. I’m certainly sticking with Miami. As for Milwaukee—well, in honor of the June 5 gubernatorial recall election that’s happening here in Wisconsin where I live, I’m recalling the Brewers, and replacing them with Washington. The NL East will sweep the wild-card spots this year.
The NL Central is on my mind today as I get set to head off for a Wednesday afternoon matinee game in Milwaukee between the Brewers and Reds, as Zack Greinke takes the mound against Johnny Cueto. With the Reds’ ace getting the call, it’s an ideal time (well, at least for me, and I hope for you too) to take a look at the Cincinnati rotation. Because as the Reds sit 15-14, in second place and only 3 ½ back of first place, even after St. Louis’ blazing start, it’s the starting pitching that will determine if Dusty Baker’s team can make a real run at winning this division for the second time in three years. Here’s the rundown on what the five Reds’ starting pitchers are doing in 2012…
*Cueto is a Cy Young candidate—never mind that, he’s the Cy Young frontrunner. He’s 4-0 with a 1.31 ERA, and this while calling one of America’s friendliest hitters’ parks home. The only downside is that the ERA simply has to go up. But Cueto has been a rising star and now it’s time to get serious and think about him for pitching’s top individual honor.
*Bronson Arroyo has been up and down in his effectiveness over the years, but the big positive is that he always takes the ball every fifth day. This year he’s doing so to positive effect, with a 2.75 ERA that includes shutting down weak lineups in the Cubs and Brewers the last two times out.
*Mat Latos’ season numbers aren’t impressive, with a 4.93 ERA. But the park effects factor can mitigate some of that, and an even bigger factor is that the 24-year-old seems to be finding his rhythm. He threw six shutout innings his last time out and if he gets settled in, the Reds can be ready to take off.
*Homer Bailey’s ERA is the same 4.93, although that jacked up quite a bit last night when the Brewer offense scorched him. I’m not sure whether to cut Bailey a break because the ERA is disproportionate to one bad start this early in the year, or to wonder how he get ripped by an offense that’s fallen apart with injuries. Right now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
*Mike Leake has been inconsistent in the #5 spot at 5.17, so the nicest thing we can say is that most teams have problems are. Still, when you take this rotation as a whole you see very doable potential for a steady four-man group with one clear stopper at the top. That’s the formula for long-term success over the summer. It does require a few other factors, such as depth in the lineup and finding someone besides Aroldis Chapman who can get key outs in the late innings, but everything begins with the starting pitcher and by that standard, I think Baker has to feel good about where his team’s at right now.
Around the rest of the NL Central…
St. Louis (19-11): The offense is still churning out runs. As David Freese and Yadier Molina cooled down, Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal heated up. But the pitching stumbled in recent games, with Jamie Garcia and Kyle Lohse both being hit hard over the weekend against Houston. The Cards bounced back and won two straight in Arizona this week going into tonight’s finale that will send them back home.
Houston (14-16): We talked a little bit last week about Houston’s young hitters coming through. But how about what the pitching did? Brad Norris threw six shutout innings at the St. Louis lineup in the weekend series where the Astros won two of three. Wandy Rodriguez went eight strong against a hot Miami team on Monday, and shut down the Mets prior. And 24-year-old Aneury Rodriguez made his first start of the year against the Marlins and gave up just two runs in six innings. If the Astros can get pitching, they’ll make an improbable run at .500.
Pittsburgh (13-16): Last week, TheSportsNotebook’s story last week was that Pittsburgh had a chance to make some hay in the standings with a homestand against beatable teams. They lost the first series to Cincinnati, but bounced back beating Washington last night, so the ultimate fate of this opportunity moment remains up in the air. Kudos to A.J. Burnett for a big eight-inning effort against the Nats, helping make up for a weekend where fellow starters Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton struggled against the Reds.
Milwaukee (13-17): In the last week Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel were each lost for the season with ACL tears, and the city had a brief scare when Ryan Braun suffered a tight hamstring. With nothing going well, the news that Braun is going to open a restaurant with Aaron Rodgers is about the biggest thing Milwaukee has to cheer right now.
Chi Cubs (12-18): How ‘bout the Cubbie pitching? Ryan Dempster’s unexpected strong start rolled with a dominating 7 IP/1 ER outing against an Atlanta team that had otherwise carved up opposing lineups. Jeff Samardizja may not have made a living catching the ball, as a former Notre Dame receiver, but he’s getting it done hurling the ball, with excellent outings against both the Reds and Braves. And Paul Maholm’s last three starts have been of the 6 IP/1E R variety. Now if only Carlos Marmol was consistent at the back end and the team scored an occasional run.
If you’re looking for a team to break out of the NL Central muddle that’s piled up behind frontrunning St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be a team to keep on your radar over the next couple weeks. The Pirates’ record of 10-14 is certainly nothing special, but there’s an intriguing nuance in that record—Pittsburgh has played six series against teams other than St. Louis. They’ve got a 3-2-1 record in those series. It’s nothing that suggests a burgeoning powerhouse, ready to shoot up the ladder to second place, but it does suggest that Clint Hurdle’s team might make some hay when they begin a nine-game homestand against Cincinnati, Washington and Houston on Friday.
If the Pirates are going to make a move, they are going to have find hitters who will drive the ball with some authority. The only slugging percentages that are productive right now belong to Pedro Alvarez at third, who lifted his numbers with hot week, and Garrett Jones at first base, slugging .482 on the season. But they need more from Andrew McCutchen. The centerfielder is hitting .303, but has only one home run and in drawing only six walks, he’s not a productive as his batting average suggests. I don’t mean to imply McCutchen isn’t playing well, but the Pirates locked him up to a big long-term deal this offseason to be a star and he has to earn that contract with complete offensive performance. The coming nine games would be a good place to start. And rightfielder Jose Tabata simply has to do something—he’s batting .221—or some of us, like myself, have to stop talking about his potential.
The starting pitching is getting the job done, as Erik Bedard, James McDonald and Kevin Correia all have ERAs under 3. Doing that for the entire season might be unrealistic, but there’s no reason to think that in general, Hurdle’s got a good top three. Bedard’s health is the biggest X-factor. And don’t be fooled by A.J Burnett’s 8.04 ERA in three starts. He got barbequed last night in St. Louis for seven runs and left in the third, but his other two starts—another against the Cardinals and one against the Braves—were both excellent.
I wasn’t a big believer in Pittsburgh at the start of the season, so I’m not necessarily predicting a breakout. What I am saying is that if you were a believer, now is the time for the team to justify that optimism. And all of us should be paying attention in a division looking for a challenger to St. Louis. Here’s a look around the rest of the NL Central…
St. Louis (16-8): The bats have reached some level beyond scorching hot, averaging close to ten runs a game in the past week. I can rattle off the hot hitters and bury you with numbers, but how about we just cite David Freese. I choose him because he’s hitting .250 this week and popped a couple home runs, but he’s the coldest hitter in the everyday lineup. I’m also going to cite Jon Jay, who had an on-base percentage of .636. I cite him because a couple hours ago I picked him up for my Fantasy team, meaning an 0-for-15 stretch is sure to follow.
Cincinnati (11-12): As this article goes online the Reds are playing the Cubs, and hold a 1-0 lead so they could be .500 by the time you read this. And I don’t think they can be too unhappy. Cincy has gradually played better baseball, is getting very good pitching and enjoyed a power surge from Jay Bruce who homered in four straight games. If Pittsburgh is the challenger to watch in the short term then Cincy is the one with the best long-term prospects for making a move on the Cardinals.
Milwaukee (11-14): On Monday night, Ryan Braun hit three home runs in San Diego’s Petco Park. Tuesday and Wednesday the team was shut out. It’s the latest in an up-and-down year that includes Yovani Gallardo’s inability to even be competitive against St. Louis. The Cardinals rocked the Brewer ace last Friday night, the second time this year, they’ve run him off the mound early. There’s time to get things fixed, but this team has problems right now.
Houston (11-14): It’s a sign of how low expectations were in Houston that this record makes them kind of a nice early story, as they come off sweeping the Mets three straight. The Astros are doing it with the bats, with second baseman Jose Altuve continuing a strong start, along with shortstop Jed Lowrie. Young centerfielder Jordan Schaefer, acquired from Atlanta in the trade that shipped Michael Bourn out of town, had a .389 OBP over the past week. The starting pitching continues to show why the ‘Stros likely finish in the season in last place anyway, but Brett Myers is handling the closer duties well, nailing down three chances this week in perfect order.
Chi Cubs (9-15): If the Cubbies can continue to get the kind of starting pitching they got this last week from Jeff Samardizja, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm, they can make a move up the standings. The team ranked 7th in the NL in ERA over the past seven days, but the offense continues to struggle.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ offseason personnel turnover has been well-documented, from Albert Pujols to Tony LaRussa. Now let’s add to that, a trip to the disabled list for Chris Carpenter, a terrible start for Adam Wainwright, who’s got a 9.88 ERA in his first three starts and a sub-.200 batting average from Matt Holliday entering Monday’s games. What does that all add up to? In St. Louis it adds up to…well, first place in the National League Central with an 11-5 record.
Wainwright may be struggling to get re-established after missing last season with elbow surgery, but in the meantime Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn are pitching like Cy Young Award candidates, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte have the last two innings in good shape and a deep offensive lineup has more than enough weapons to wait for Holliday to get up to speed. The Cardinals have won six of nine against the Brewers & Reds, the two teams presumed to be their chief contenders for NL supremacy and will host Milwaukee this weekend.
Elsewhere in the NL Central…
Milwaukee (7-9): If you look at the offense individually you won’t be overwhelmed—Rickie Weeks and Aramis Ramirez are slow out of the gate, and Corey Hart is the only hitter who’s really hot. But collectively, the Brewers are sixth in the National League in runs scored thanks to consistently driving the ball in the gaps. Ryan Braun, with a mediocre OBP, but a solid .473 slugging percentage is emblematic of this lineup right now. Pitching’s been a big problem early—last in the National League in ERA and last in the OBP and slugging allowed. With numbers you like this, you can spread blame around, but let’s focus our ire on Zack Greinke. After a brilliant opening start against St. Louis, Greinke’s ERA has still jumped to 5.09.
Cincinnati (7-9): The ratio of 16-1 is the number that has to alarm Dusty Baker and Reds’ fans. That’s the number of walks vs. the number of home runs for Joey Votto. Give the first baseman his due for his plate discipline and .444 OBP, but he needs more support to ensure getting the kind of pitches he can take deep. Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips are off to poor starts, but on the positive rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has a .353 OBP. The rotation is top-heavy, with Johnny Cueto looking like Cy Young material, Bronson Arroyo with a 2.91 ERA and Aroldis Chapman dominating at the bullpen. The bottom of the rotation and the depth in the bullpen has to be more consistent.
Pittsburgh (6-9): Erik Bedard has a 2.63 ERA in four starts. He’s 0-4. Does that tell you enough about the state of the Pirates’ offense, the worst in the National League by any measure? Andrew McCutchen has an OBP over.400 and everyone else is terrible. This is the problem for manager Clint Hurdle and he’s getting the pitching to compete, with Kevin Correia sharp in two starts, James McDonald looking like he can build on a promising 2011 and A.J. Burnett returning from his broken eye bone to toss seven shutout innings against the Cardinals on Saturday. But the lineup needs more than one player resembling a major leaguer.
Houston (6-10): No one expects the Astros to be good, but this still a heartening start, as the team is doing a nice job scoring runs and even pitching pretty well. Wandy Rodriguez has a 1.42 ERA and young Lucas Farrell looks good. If Bud Norris and J.A. Happ can get settled in, Houston will have something in the rotation. Two young hitters are leading the charge offensively. Second baseman Jose Altuve is hitting .321, while left fielder J.D. Martinez has done it all—hit .309, drawn 11 walks and popped three home runs. And as I type this I’m watching the Astros-Brewers game on Monday night, and newly acquired shortstop Jed Lowrie just unloaded into the right field stands at Miller Park. The game is the first of six against the Brewers and Reds on the road that will test this young team.
Chi Cubs (4-12): As demonstrated by the record, the Cubs are doing nothing well as a team, but Starlin Castro at short and Bryan LaHair at first, the two prize pieces of young talent in the everyday lineup, are off to a strong starts and David DeJesus is providing a solid veteran presence in rightfield. Ryan Dempster is pitching brilliantly, while Matt Garza is at least acceptable. But the rest of the staff, starter or reliever, is awful, and Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano are doing nothing. I’ve come to expect this from Soriano, but in my Fantasy draft I used a high pick on Soto and drew hoots and catcalls from some Cubbie fans I was drafting with, so his .136 batting average is completely unacceptable.