Scouting the National League Central
The St. Louis Cardinals enjoy the finest collection of talent in the National League Central. The depth of their organization helped the Redbirds overcome and persevere in 2013 as champs.
In the offseason, their rivals in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh did little. Meanwhile, St. Louis addressed its needs quickly, leaving little doubt the Cards are the NL Central front-runners again in 2014.
With St. Louis widening the gap, where does that put the Pirates and Reds—two 90-win teams? Will the Cubs’ collection of stud prospects propel them from out of the basement? What will a post-suspension Ryan Braun look like?
Dissecting key roster components—starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, defense—determines where each team ranks in the four categories.
Even with news of renewed discomfort in Jaime Garcia’s surgically-repaired left shoulder, St. Louis is the cream of the crop. Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller are elite-level starters. Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez would be top-three caliber pitchers on most staffs. Joe Kelly and his blazing fastball acquitted himself well during four postseason starts in 2013. Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, John Gast and Tyler Lyons are just a few quality arms waiting.
Right in St. Louis’ rear-view mirror talent-wise, depth is what separates the champs from Cincy. Durability concerns for Johnny Cueto are legit, but he’s still just a year removed from a 19-win season. Homer Bailey has two no-hitters, a $105 million deal and five straight seasons of improvement in ERA and WHIP. He’s finally arrived. With at least 30 starts and 185 strikeouts in four straight seasons, Mat Latos is poised for a breakout (20-win?) season. Lefty Tony Cingrani’s a strikeout machine who only needs to harness his control. Mike Leake may be a younger version of the departed Bronson Arroyo. Prospect Robert Stephenson and his filthy stuff could be ready by 2015.
That’s right, Brewers ahead of Pirates. The signing of Matt Garza, a solid-but-not-spectacular arm, gives Milwaukee better quality throughout. Yovani Gallardo isn’t the same strikeout pitcher, but he’s still a quality innings-eater. Marco Estrada is wildly underrated. Health is the only thing standing in his way. Kyle Lohse isn’t special, but he takes the ball every fifth day. Wily Peralta posted a 3.15 ERA after July 1 and struck out 7.7 batters per nine innings (K/9).
Losing AJ Burnett, who took more money to sign with the Phillies, is a major blow. His departure, along with Jeff Locke’s second-half collapse last season, chips away at the staff’s luster. Francisco Liriano was brilliant, but can he pitch 200 innings for the first time in his career? Gerrit Cole has ace potential. Pittsburgh may need him to make that step this season. Can Charlie Morton maintain his strikeout gains and ground-ball rate? Wandy Rodriguez needs to stay out of the trainer’s room. Edinson Volquez needs to pitch like it’s 2008. Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are on their way.
While Cubs hitting prospects are knocking on the door, the pitchers haven’t reached the doorstep. Jeff Samardzija is the clear-cut ace whose long-term value may be as a trade pawn. Travis Wood should expect a bit of a reality check this season. Edwin Jackson is an overpaid arm who’s teased teams for too long. Carlos Villanueva is more valuable as a reliever. Jake Arrieta and Arodys Vizcaino offer upside potential.
1 (tie). Cardinals
By the end of April, Jason Motte could join a St. Louis bullpen that includes Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez. Should C-Mart be used as a starter, hard-throwers like Keith Butler or Sam Freeman could be in the mix. Randy Choate is still an effective situational lefty. Kelly is a swingman with the stuff to compete on the back end. Seth Maness is a double-play-inducing machine.
1 (tie). Reds
Aroldis Chapman is as dominant as they come in the ninth. But behind him are some health question marks in Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall. J.J. Hoover looks like Alan from “The Hangover” with the beard, but he’s got imposing stuff. Improvement against right-handers would make him closer-worthy. Sam Lecure’s K/9 is just under 10. Alfredo Simon owns two straight seasons with an ERA under 3. Lefties hit .167 against Manny Parra last season.
Jason Grilli can be as filthy as Rosenthal or Chapman. However, age and health issues make him a bigger question mark. Mark Melancon owns a closer’s skill set and ridiculous control. Southpaw Tony Watson dominates lefties (.206) and righties (.192) alike. His strikeout rate took a hit in the second half, but he made up for it with incredible control. Justin Wilson is a lefty with a nasty ground-ball and strikeout arsenal.
Milwaukee has some interesting pieces and could have a very nice bullpen if all goes well. Jim Henderson has his moments with control, but the strikeouts tend to offset those issues. Francisco Rodriguez still has the skill set of a closer. Brandon Kintzler was great from June on. Tom Gorzelanny is better suited for the bullpen, where he held lefties to a .184 average. Michael Blazek has a live arm with big upside.
Chicago’s bullpen, like most of its team right now, lacks pizzazz. But there are a few pieces to build on. Jose Veras certainly isn’t lights-out, but he’ll get the job done more often than not. Pedro Strop has dominating stuff, but can’t locate the catcher’s mitt at times. Blake Parker closed in Triple-A and impressed during his debut. Hector Rondon could prove he’s a true back-end option this season.
Matt Carpenter is the division’s best leadoff hitter. The meat of the Cards’ lineup is so dangerous because of the combination of power and plate discipline exhibited by Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina. Jhonny Peralta’s signing at short gives St. Louis more versatility. The speed of Peter Bourjos and Kolten Wong offer the Redbirds an added dimension.
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick give Cincinnati plenty of lineup thump. Billy Hamilton’s ability to get on base and wreak havoc with his outrageous speed will be the difference.
Dubbed as "baseball's biggest fraud" by Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk, a vintage Braun could make a dynamic Milwaukee lineup. A return to All-Star form has been speculated, but that’s assuming he hasn’t been cheating all along. Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura give the Crew a trio with that unique power/speed combo. Jonathan Lucroy has emerged as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. And Aramis Ramirez is an RBI machine when healthy.
Pittsburgh’s lineup has four quality bats, then a significant drop in production. The front office failed to add a run-producer to a team that was ninth in the NL in RBI last season, despite being third in homers.
While Cubs fans wait for the bevy of hitting prospects to graduate, it’s the Anthony Rizzo show on the North Side. Starlin Castro regressed, but has youth on his side. The team took worthy fliers on Mike Olt and Chris Coghlan.
Phillips has his lazy moments, but mostly he’s stellar. Zack Cozart is a fine complement at short. Billy Hamilton’s speed should make him a major upgrade in center over Shin-Soo Choo. Frazier, Bruce, Votto and Chris Heisey all are plus defenders.
St. Louis was third or fourth in this category until revamping its look up the middle with Bourjos in center, Peralta at short and Wong at second. Then, top it off with the most influential defensive player in baseball in Molina behind the plate.
Pittsburgh is solid throughout defensively and has some standouts in Andrew McCutchen, Clint Barmes, Russell Martin and Starling Marte. Neil Walker has made strides with his glove at second.
Darwin Barney isn’t as good as his Gold Glove from two years ago indicates, but he forms a good right side of the infield with Rizzo. Luis Valbuena can pick it at third. Welington Castillo is solid behind the plate. Junior Lake displayed a better glove in left, but is improving in center.
Carlos Gomez is the one true defensive asset in Milwaukee. He’s got a special glove in center. Segura has the tools to be a good defender at short, while Lucroy has decent components behind the dish.