One Boom/Bust Candidate for Every National League Central Team

Andrew MeaseContributor IFebruary 14, 2012

One Boom/Bust Candidate for Every National League Central Team

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    Every year you have players on any given team who either exceed expectations or not meet expectations; boom or bust if you will.

    Last year you could say that one of the biggest booms was the emergence of Mike Napoli in Texas or Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston and even Starlin Castro with the Cubs.  Even guys who were expected to be good but went above and beyond in National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and National League MVP winner Ryan Braun.

    Then you have guys who busted and just did not produce last year like new Angels first baseman Albert Pujols who easily put up his worst season in his career as he failed to hit over .300 or drive in at least 100 runs. 

    We’ll take a look at the newly revamped National League Central after the departures of arguably the top two free agents and find one bust and one boom candidate for each team.

Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Milwaukee Brewers will be an interesting team to watch this year, especially in the early part of the season with the impending suspension of reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun and the departure of Prince Fielder.  The Brewers were able to bring in former Pirate and Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez to help offset the production by Fielder.  The only question is who will rise above expectations and who will drop below.

    Boom: Starting Pitcher Zack Greinke. 

    Greinke is entering a year in which he will be a free agent at the end of it for the first time in his career, and if history is any indication of how he could perform, we could be seeing a Cy Young candidate. 

    Greinke, the American League Cy Young award winner in 2009, burst onto the scene in 2004 as a 20-year-old with the Kansas City Royals and spent the next six seasons there having some good years (2009) and some bad ones (2005).   After a solid 2010 season, the Royals, in a rebuilding mode, shipped Greinke to the Brewers for a trio of young promising stars.

    Last year, his first with the Brewers, he went 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA.  Very solid numbers that even if he repeats would warrant him, at 29 years old, a very lucrative contract in free agency.

    Why will he boom?

    It's pretty simple as to the reason he will boom.  He's a very good pitcher with above average stuff when he is on.  You can't also not to mention the impending free agency, in which he will represent himself.  All signs point to a very tough Greinke this year.

     

    Bust: Third Baseman Aramis Ramirez.

    Ramirez spent the last eight and a half seasons with the Cubs after unceremoniously being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a very controversial move at the time.  Over the offseason which saw the Brewers lose Prince Fielder to the Tigers and the aforementioned pending suspension to the reigning NL MVP, Braun, the first two months of the season will provide a tremendous amount of pressure to Ramirez.

    Last year with the Cubs Ramirez hit .306 with 26 home runs and 93 RBIs along with 35 doubles; one of his better statistical seasons in his career.  Ironically, it came with free agency pending after a very lackluster 2010 season.

    Why will he bust?

    It's not so much that Ramirez will bust this season in statistical categories, but he has the dreaded responsibility for carrying the offense the first two months of the season with Braun likely out until Memorial Day.  Not to mention replacing the big stick that manned first base at Miller Park for the last handful of years.  Can he also live up to the three year, $36 million contract?

St. Louis Cardinals

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    After winning the 2011 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals had to deal with a very tumultuous offseason as they lost a long time superstar in Albert Pujols.  However, the Cardinals will get back a pair of supremely talented pitchers in Chris Carpenter and the returning Adam Wainwright.  Plus, they will still field a pretty solid offense centered on a re-emerging Lance Berkman and ever steady, and healthy Matt Holliday.

    Boom: Outfielder Matt Holliday.

    The departure of Albert Pujols certainly does not help the Cardinals lineup, but having a healthy Holliday certainly will help.  I don’t think you can expect Coors’ Field Holliday, but you also don’t really have to worry about even seeing last years version either.

    Holliday will have a remotely pressure free year as all eyes will be on Berkman to see if he can repeat last years performance, Carlos Beltran the teams newest addition, or the returning staff ace in Adam Wainwright. Holliday isn't story No. 1 in St. Louis, so that automatically helps him out.

    Why will he boom?

    For Holliday to be a breakout performer this year, he’ll need to climb above that magical .310 batting average mark that he has hit consistently in his career and top the 30 home run plateau.  Both are definitely in Holliday’s future.

     

    Bust: Third Baseman David Freese.

    Yeah, I know.  I already have a theme with National League Central third basemen busting, but I doubt the trend will continue long.

    Simply put, his World Series performance won’t hold up.  Too many expectations after the break out World Series performance.  So far in the major leagues Freese has played in just 184 games over three seasons with a .298 average, 15 homers, and 98 RBI’s.  In the 2011 postseason, he played in 18 games, hit .397 with five homers and 21 RBI’s; oh, and a 1.258 OPS. 

    A lot of people will be expecting so much more out of Freese when in reality he’s a .300 hitter with maximum 15 homers a season at third base. It was magical what he did in the latter stages of the Fall Classic against the Rangers, but he isn't a player capable of replicating that magic on a consistent basis.

    Why will he bust?

    The power leaves a lot to be desired, especially at third base, and his postseason, especially World Series, power and clutch display will cause a lot of people to expect more than what he can produce with the skills he has.  In one word, over rate.  I'm not saying Freese is overrated, anything but that.  I'm saying that a lot of people will over rate what he can do simply due to his fantastic World Series performance.

Chicago Cubs

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    An interesting offseason in Chicago as it brought in former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein in hopes of reversing the Curse of Bartman....Oh wait, I think I mean the Billy Goat Curse.  Either way, the Cubs for over a century have been without a championship and have affectionately bought into the "Lovable Losers" moniker they have established recently.  They also must contend with losing two big offensive pieces in Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. What will 2012 bring for the Cubs?

    Boom: Third Baseman Josh Vitters.

    Vitters will have the chance to sink or swim in the majors after the departure of Aramis Ramirez.  Will former Rockies infielder Ian Stewart start at third?  Or will Vitters have the chance to start there.  Vitters has been pretty disappointing in the minors since the Cubs drafted him third overall in 2007, and many have already labeled Vitters as a bust.

    With the Epstein era set to begin, however, Vitters has the chance to make an impression and earn a spot as the starting third baseman for the Cubs in 2012 even without seeing a single pitch on the Triple-A level.  In the past he's been compared to a young David Wright, but he will need to back that up to prove those comparisons.

    Why will he boom?

    I think he booms because of the label that has been applied to him since he hasn't soared through the minors and has struggled a bit along the way.  Although, very few prospects rise through the ranks rapidly AND produce extremely well along the way.  With the void created at third base and a new management team coming in, Vitters is VERY LIKELY to get boosted from a failing prospect to an every day player, and he will cash in.

     

    Bust: Short Stop Starlin Castro.

    Was there a better player in baseball through April than Starlin Castro?  Well, of course there was, but by the time May 1 rolled around, not many were playing that way.  Castro at the end of April was hitting .348 with one HR, two triples, 12 RBIs and four steals.  Not bad, but he ended his season with a .307 average, nine triples, 10 homers, 36 doubles and 22 steals. 

    His average actually dipped below .300 before an impressive August and September run brought his final average to .307.  Can that be attributed to him hitting a wall midsummer? (July was by far his worst month, hitting just .250).  Either way, he was seen as a breakout star at just 21 years old last year.

    Why will he bust?

    Simply put, he's 21, 22 on opening day.  He's gotta regress before he gets better, and he's certainly been a very good player since joining the Cubs in 2010 as a 20-year-old when he hit .300.  He will be seen entering the year as one of the best short stops in the majors and unless he maintains that lofty rank, he will be seen as a disappointment.

Cincinnati Reds

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    The Cincinnati Reds seem to be the front runner for the National League Central crown as they bolstered their already solid pitching staff in the form of a trade (Mat Latos from San Diego) and a signing (Ryan Madson).  The Reds are also a very popular pick to make a surprise run to the World Series potentially.  Who should you be watching on the Reds this coming April?  Aroldis Chapman, Madson, Latos, Edinson Volquez, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce among others.  Who, of those guys will boom, and who will bust.

    Boom: Pitcher Aroldis Chapman.

    Will Chapman be a starter in 2012 or will he continue in the bullpen role for another season?  Mark Sheldon wrote a piece in October about Chapman being in the mix for a starter role in 2012. Walt Jockerty, the Reds GM was quoted in saying:

    "That was the plan all along -- give him one more year in the bullpen and then stretch him out to [start],"

    In January, fellow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Cliff Eastham wrote an article outlining the possible scenarios if Chapman does indeed make the rotation in 2012.

    Why he will boom?

    Simply put, whether he is a starter or a reliever, Chapman is an impact player.  He can throw his fastball well into the triple digits which has been extremely well documented.  The only question is whether his arm can hold up to 150 plus innings with that fastball.  If it does, we could be seeing a massive star.

     

    Bust: Starting Pitcher Mat Latos.

    This was a tough decision between Latos and another new arrival in Ryan Madson.  Can Latos continue to do what he did so well in spacious Petco Park in San Diego?  Same question with Madson, only with can he repeat last year?

    In the last three years, Latos went 12-13 with a 3.11 ERA at Petco, and went 15-16 with a 3.57 ERA away from Petco.  Last year, Latos went 9-14 with a 3.47 ERA and 185 K's which is very solid, as well.

    Why will he bust?

    I think he'll bust from pitching a full season in a ballpark made for hitters.  If he can continue to produce 180 plus strikeouts, that will help, but you'll see his ERA rise even by a quarter run this year at Great American.  Petco was spacious while Great American is a hitters paradise.  He enters into a tough situation this year, and I ultimately think the young Latos will end up with an ERA above 4.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    For the first time in, well, a long time, the Pirates found themselves atop the National League Central standings at the All-Star break and even a bit beyond that.  Then the Jerry Meals incident came and went and the Pirates went into their usual August and September slump that took them back to the bottom portion of the NL Central.  Can the Pirates rebound?  If so they need continued breakout performances from Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and company.  They also need emergence's from a couple of pitchers and even more so from Pedro Alvarez.

    Boom: Third Baseman Pedro Alvarez.

    This is Alvarez' year to perform or he could fall out of favor quickly.  After a rough start to last season, the Pirates quickly utilized Alvarez' options and sent him back to Triple-A Indianapolis for some additional seasoning and brought him back to the club later on in the season to not even remotely good enough production.

    Alvarez, in the midst of a season in which he hit just .191 with four homers, 19 RBI's and nine doubles in 74 games, lost his starting spot to upstart Chase D'Arnaud during the course of the season.  Entering spring training without a guaranteed position at third base, Alvarez must impress or his time in Pittsburgh could be on the way out.

    Why will he boom?

    .256, 16 HR, 21 2B, 64 RBI's in 95 games.  That was his 2010 line, and very similar to what I think you can expect from him this year.  Anything even remotely close to the rates he posted in 2010 will be considered very successful for him, though I think you may be looking at a .260 hitter this year with over 30 homers and close to 40 doubles.  The Pirates need a feared hitter in the middle of the lineup and Alvarez will be it.

     

    Bust: Pitcher Jeff Karstens.

    During the months of June and July in 2011, who was arguably the best pitcher in the major leagues?  If you answered Jeff Karstens you would be correct.  He posted records of 3-0 and 2-1 with ERA's of 1.52 and 2.06 respectively in the two months, and posted two earned runs or fewer in 13 of 14 starts midway through the season.

    Karstens can't possibly continue what he did last year, especially in the middle part of the year.  I mean a 9-9 record, 3.38 ERA is what he put up.  Staggering numbers for a guy that isn't near that level of pitching.

    Why will he bust?

    It's pretty simple.  Those stats WON'T continue, they can't possibly continue.  If he were to go 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA or even anything close to .500 and mid 3 ERA, I'd certainly take it because he just isn't that good.  Any Pirate fan, or even baseball fan will take last years production and insane streak with a grain of salt.

    It was a fantastic story for about a month and a half, but it was a deviation, not the standard.

Houston Astros

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    What an interesting few years it's been in Houston.  From the constant rebuild since the Killer B's, Bagwell and Biggio left town, to even the departures of Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Brad Lidge, Astros fans are hurting.  Now the team will enter its last in the National League Central before it's move to the American League West starting in 2012.  Will the Astros make their way out of the basement, or will they spend their last NL Central season there?

    Boom: Pitcher Wandy Rodriguez.

    Rodriguez was one of a few bright spots on the Astros last season as he put up solid numbers as he went 11-1 with a 3.49 ERA, and added in 166 K's in 30 starts.  It's not quite his 2009 numbers in which he posted a 14-12 record with a 3.02 ERA and 193 K's, however.

    Despite the attempts of the Astros front office, they were unable to strike a deal to trade Rodriguez who is often seen as only being good due to pitching in the National League.  Rodriguez has all the tools to succeed where ever he goes as long as he is being given a chance.  Although, playing for the tough to watch Astros makes his value slip the longer he stays in that purgatory.

    Why will he boom?

    He'll boom because in the last three seasons he's been the most consistent piece the Astros have.  Period.  He is consistently producing ERA's in the low-mid 3's and is striking out between 160 and 200 a year.  If the offense can give him even a slight bit of support, he could be an above .500 pitcher.

     

    Bust: Shortstop Jed Lowrie.

    Acquired this offseason from the Red Sox after he fell out of favor there, the oft-injured Lowrie will see more playing time in Houston as well as an increased role.  Lowrie was always seen as having a lot of potential, but he could never really fulfill it in Boston.

    Last year he hit .252 with six homers, 14 doubles, 36 RBI's in 88 games.  The 88 games marked the most in his 4-year career in Boston.  His best year came in 2010 when he hit .287 with nine homers, in just 55 games.

    Why will he bust?

    He'll bust simply because he's not that great of a player.  He is seemingly always a lock to spend more time on the disabled list than on the diamond.  The inconsistency at the plate also hurts him, as well.