KNOW THY ENEMY Breaking down the NL Central by Tony Wilson
he 2010 Milwaukee Brewers weren’t widely expected to take the NL Central crown over the 2009 champion St. Louis Cardinals—or even the 2007 and 2008 champion Chicago Cubs. Then again, neither were the Cincinnati Reds, whose big bats took them from a fourthplace ballclub in 2009 to the NL Central winners in 2010. The 2010 NL Central race never had more than two contenders, really, at any point during the year. The Reds had a two-game lead in the division in August, but lost three straight to the rival Cardinals, falling a game back. Then a timely seven-game win streak put the Reds back on top for the rest of the season, their first division championship since 1995. Aside from the surprising 91-win Reds and the Cardinals finishing with a record over .500, the rest of the division was slapped with the same “mediocre” tag it held the previous year. The Brewers, Astros, and Cubs all finished within two games of each other (77, 76, 75 wins, respectively), while the Pirates remained in the league’s basement. With teams acquiring new managers and new faces coming and going, it appears that the teams on the outside looking in a season ago have a chance to improve. The Cincinnati Reds are no longer the hunters, looking for their chance to shine—they’re the targeted, looking to retain the championship they earned in 2010.
CINCINNATI REDS The 2010 Cincinnati Reds shocked quite a few by taking the NL Central title from the Cardinals. Led by NL MVP Joey Votto, the Reds had a lot to be proud of despite dropping the NLDS to Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies. Votto was a shining star for a Reds offense that ranked in the top two in the NL in four major statistical categories: first in runs with 790, first in batting average at .272, second in © 2011 Maple Street Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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2011 MILWAUKEE BREWERS Volquez missed a large portion of the year after recovering from Tommy John surgery, coming back toward the end of the season to finish 4–3 with a 4.31 ERA. The most important thing, though, is that he finished healthy. Volquez will step back into the rotation in 2011, and if he stays healthy, he gives the Reds starting five another potential weapon. It’s difficult, however, to forecast with any accuracy what 2011 holds for the young righty. While Harang was the Opening Day starter, Arroyo emerged as the team’s most valuable starter. He was the only Reds pitcher to throw over 200 innings (215.2), and had an impressive 1.15 WHIP. A big-name prospect that was looking to explode on the scene in 2010 was Johnny Cueto. He has an extremely bright future for the Reds after he hurled 185.2 innings and maintained a respectable 3.64 ERA. There were some question marks surrounding Cueto entering 2010, but he convincingly answered them and put himself into a great position for 2011. One of the brightest spots for the future comes in the form of a 100-plus mph fastball. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman caught the eyes of American scouts in the World Baseball Classic in 2009. In 15 games in 2010 with the Reds, Chapman gathered a 2–2 record with a 2.02 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. He also notched 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And one more thing—he has the MLB record for fastest pitch, a mind-boggling 105 mph. According to manager Dusty Baker,
Johnny Cueto has improved in almost every statistical category since entering the league in 2008.
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on-base percentage at .338, and first in slugging percentage at .436. Votto took home the MVP in a landslide, and deservedly so—his .324 batting average, 37 bombs, and 113 RBI showed that he’s one of the league’s elite hitters. It wasn’t all bats for the Reds, as three of them took home Gold Gloves: Scott Rolen earned his eighth; Brandon Phillips, his second, and Bronson Arroyo, his first. The success of the 2011 Reds lies on the shoulders of yet another season of consistent hitting. Votto, Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Jonny Gomes, to name a few, will all need to match their productivity from 2010. Every starter that was around in 2009 had more hits in 2010—some crushed 2009’s numbers, some merely improved. Either way, big bats were the formula for success for Cincinnati. The hitting numbers for the Reds improved so much in 2010 that it doesn’t seem possible for that sort of consistency to continue for a team that wasn’t consistent until last season. They have the lineup of hitters to do it, but it is almost the same lineup that was a fourth-place club in 2009. They have the names to do it, and gaining invaluable experience throughout their division championship and the postseason will only help them in 2011. On the mound, the Reds did just enough to let the bats do the damage. Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aaron Harang, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey, and Edinson Volquez were all starters in 2010, but no one was significantly better than the other.
Know Thy Enemy he’ll continue to pitch from the bullpen in 2011. The Reds’ combination of big-time bats and improved pitching gives them a positive outlook for 2011. The fans now expect the team to contend, and another season of success won’t be a shock to anyone. The Reds were on the incline in 2010, and if they continue to progress in a division that is winnable year after year, the team from across the river could be once again popping champagne come October.
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ST. LOUIS CARDINALS The St. Louis Cardinals were widely expected to walk away with the division prior to 2010. They had the pitching, the hitting, and the big names needed to formulate a championship ballclub. But, as teams with high expectations can do, the Cardinals underachieved. While they finished second in the division and had a better than .500 record, this was a team that expected to not only make the postseason but be a World Series contender. The reason expectations were so high Adam Wainwright finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting was because of a player you might have heard in 2010 after finishing third in 2009. of—Albert Pujols. It took Pujols a little while to get going, but he ended the season with spectacular great year, ranking in the top 10 in the NL in ERA (third at numbers, per usual, finishing second in NL MVP voting to 3.57), home runs allowed (second-fewest at 133), and WHIP Cincinnati’s Votto. With hitters like Pujols and Matt Holliday, (sixth at 1.30). The Cardinal rotation looks to be stellar yet the Cards have the power and experience that you look for in again in ’11, led by Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and a quality team. Jaime Garcia. All three had 13 or more wins a season ago, Pujols remains a statistical anomaly. While he finished and all three pitched incredibly. Wainwright and Garcia kept with the worst batting average of his career (yes, .312 is his ERAs of 2.42 and 2.70, respectively, while Carpenter was no worst), Pujols remains one of the best hitters in baseball—and slouch himself, clocking in at 3.22. Add in starts from Kyle of all time. He’s eclipsed .300, 100 RBI, and 30 home runs in Lohse and Jake Westbrook, and the Cards have one of the each of his 10 years in the league. He’s a sure-fire, first-ballot best staffs in the league. Hall of Famer, and it’s safe to say that he’ll put up similar Ryan Franklin will be another key contributor out of the numbers in his 11th season. bullpen. While his ERA wasn’t anything amazing, at 3.46, he Aside from the consistent power of Pujols and Holliday, kept his WHIP to a team-best 1.03 and notched 27 saves. A however, the Cardinals were lacking at the plate. They were a quality closer is key to winning games and the Cardinals have middle-of-the-pack team from a hitting perspective, in spite one for 2011. of having the NL’s second-best team batting average at .263. The Cardinals didn’t finish the season the way they Players like Colby Rasmus, Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina, wanted to in 2010. However, led by Holliday, Pujols, Brendan Ryan, and Felipe Lopez all batted under .300, while Wainwright, and Carpenter, the Cardinals are primed to take Pujols and Holliday each batted .312. The supporting cast for back the NL Central crown from the Reds. Barring anything the Cards need to hold up its end of the bargain in order for extraordinary, the St. Louis Cardinals will be back in the the team to improve on its sixth-place finish in runs scored. discussion as one of the NL’s elite and will be a contender The St. Louis pitching staff, on the other hand, had a in October. © 2011 Maple Street Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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2011 MILWAUKEE BREWERS
The Houston Astros season was just about over before it could even get started. The ’Stros started 0–8, and any momentum going into 2010 was crushed instantly. It ended with a sub-.500 finish of 76–86, good for fourth in the division. So, the organization let some of their big names go and started to replenish the minor league system. Once it became clear that the team wasn’t going to make any sort of playoff run, the Astros traded away two of their best players in Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. They shipped Berkman to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline for Triple-A pitcher Mark Melancon and Single-A infielder Jimmy Paredes. The Astros added some talent to their minor league teams in the deal, though it’s unlikely they’ll contribute in 2011. For Oswalt, they received lefty starter J.A. Happ along with prospects Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar. Happ will be in the 2011 rotation, but it will be a tough task to fill the void left by Oswalt. Young star Hunter Pence had arguably the best year of anyone on the team. He played 156 games, second to only Carlos Lee’s 157, hitting 25 home runs, driving in 91, and finishing the season batting a respectable .282. It was his second year in a row batting .282 with 25 homers, and his consistency and ability to get better will be keys to Houston’s success in ’11. Top prospect Jason Castro got himself acclimated to the major leagues in 2010, playing in 67 games. However, he hit only .205 with an awful .286 on-base percentage and .287 slugging percentage in 195 at bats, so there is room for improvement. Castro has the ability to be a successful catcher for Houston, but will need to use spring training and the 2011 season to improve upon a rather disappointing effort last season. With Oswalt now out of Houston and the Astros no longer having a “stud” pitcher, the team will rely on the likes of Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Happ, Bud Norris, and Nelson Figueroa. Rodriguez is the “ace” according to the most recent Astros depth chart. In 2010, he finished with an 11–12 record, 3.60 ERA, and 1.29 WHIP. Myers, the second starter, was more impressive, going 14–8 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Happ showed a lot of promise and had been mentioned previously in other trades, but the Phillies didn’t want to part with him. He’s a quality young pitcher that has the ability to have an impressive 2011. If Rodriguez and Happ can improve and Myers can build on his successful 2010, the Astros rotation could actually be a strong point for the club. Barring the return of Nolan Ryan, the Astros don’t seem primed to be a legitimate force in the Central. Letting go of Berkman and Oswalt makes it difficult to forecast the Astros as even a fringe contender, but the road is paved for the
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future. Some of the younger prospects, both already with the club and those that were acquired last season via trade, will need to gain experience to make the Astros contenders down the line. Players like Pence, Castro, and Happ give the team a solid nucleus of young players for the future.
CHICAGO CUBS The 2010 season marked a second consecutive year of mediocrity for the Cubs. It also marked the end of consistent and well-liked Derrek Lee’s time in Chicago. The big-payroll, big-flop Cubbies have the names to be competitive in the Central, but will new manager Mike Quade be able to fill the shoes that Sweet Lou left?
Hunter Pence’s defense lagged behind his hitting, as he committed a NL-high six errors as a right fielder last season.
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Know Thy Enemy ceiling. Add him to 2008 NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto, the best hitter on the team with a .393 onbase percentage and 17 home runs in 2010, and the Cubs have an impressive young nucleus up the middle. On the pitching side, ace Ryan Dempster was the most consistent and effective hurler for the Cubs in 2010. He led the team in most statistical categories, including starts, wins, quality starts, and strikeouts per nine innings (for starters). The story for the staff was inconsistency and injuries, as only Dempster and Randy Wells started more than 23 games. In order for the Cubs to have any success in 2011, they will need to get more—and more reliable— innings out of the rotation. The Cubs do, however, have two solid relievers in Sean Marshall Aramis Ramirez will look to replicate the success that made him and Carlos Marmol. They are both an All-Star in 2005 and 2008. strikeout machines, with Marmol Quade was the biggest addition to the Cubs clubhouse striking out 16.0 batters per nine innings and Marshall an during the early part of the winter, although he’s not a also-impressive 10.8. They can’t do it themselves, though, completely new face. He led the Cubs to a 24–13 record to and the club will need to find some quality relievers to fill the close out the 2010 season, but he has a lot of experience and middle innings. personality to replace in the manager’s office. Quade instantly The outlook on the 2011 Cubs seems to be that they turned the squad around after Piniella retired—the team was could struggle yet again. Their big-name players haven’t 5–20 in the 25 games leading up to his leaving—and the new produced like big-name players. They have changed leadermanager’s handling of the players and situations, on and off ship with Quade, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to the field, impressed general manager Jim Hendry enough to keep the locker room under control like he did at the end hand the reins to him for 2011. of 2010. But, if the big names like Soriano and Ramirez can While the addition of Quade gives North Siders some get back to their 2008 form and younger players like Castro optimism, the play on the field should radiate some concern. and Soto continue to improve, the Cubs could turn it around Starlin Castro was the only everyday player to finish the quickly—much like the Reds did a season ago. season batting .300, which he hit right on the dot. The highly paid, underachieving Alfonso Soriano was widely viewed as a PITTSBURGH PIRATES disappointment after he batted a mere .258 and struck out a Another season, another dismal finish for the Pittsburgh team-high 123 times. It’s not surprising, then, that the Cubs Pirates. It seems like walking the plank would be better than were 10th in the NL in runs (685), seventh in batting average playing baseball in Pittsburgh. However, a couple bright spots (.257), 11th in on-base percentage (.320), and ninth in slugemerged for the Pirates in the form of Andrew McCutchen, ging percentage (.401). For the team to sniff the success it had Neil Walker, and the addition of manager Clint Hurdle. The in 2008, the bats will need to regain some life. Pirates haven’t had much excitement since the days of Jim A bright spot for Chicago is the 20-year-old Castro. A Leyland and Andy Van Slyke, but McCutchen, Walker, and prospect entering the 2010 season, Castro led the team in Hurdle are much needed pros for Pittsburgh. batting average and had a respectable-for-a-shortstop .755 The 2010 Pirates were completely inept offensively, OPS, while playing in 124 games. That’s quite a workload for ranking 16th in the NL in runs (587), 16th in batting average such a young shortstop, and Castro has an almost limitless (.242), 15th in on-base percentage (.304), and 14th in slugging © 2011 Maple Street Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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manager can only do so much to improve a team as bad as Pittsburgh, he will be able to instill an attitude in a young team that will trickle down to everyone. They haven’t had a personality like Hurdle’s since Leyland, and he’ll improve the team from a mental standpoint. Believe it or not, the Pirates pitching was even worse than their hitting. The Pirates staff ranked dead last in the majors in ERA (5.00), WHIP (1.49), and batting average against (.282), and were 28th in quality starts, with 28. They just have a young, inexperienced staff that, frankly, can’t get any worse in 2011. The Pirates rolled out 11 different starting pitchers in 2010, meaning they never had a solid rotation. Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, and Ross Ohlendorf had the most starts for the squad, but they had only a combined 18 wins against 41 losses. The team didn’t make any significant upgrades over the winter, so it appears to be more of the same for the Pirates. Since 2008, the Pirates have been utterly dominated by the divisional opponents. They’re 18–29 against Chicago, 20–29 against Cincinnati, 17–29 against Houston, 21–26 against St. Louis, and a dismal 11–36 against Milwaukee, the worst percentage during this span against any National League Andrew McCutchen’s 33 stolen bases in 2010 point to him being one of the fastest players in the NL Central. opponent. History does not serve the Pirates well. It looks to be another bleak season for the percentage (.373). Ouch. In order for this team to be even Buccaneers, one that will cause more frustration and hopelessremotely competitive, which seems like a long shot, it will ness for fans. They have young potential, it’s just a matter of need to find some source of offense. A couple pieces are in taking baby steps and developing it. The team can’t hope for place but not enough to pull the team out of the dumpster an instant turnaround, it needs to be done from the roots up. in 2011. This is a team built for the future, and the organization will McCutchen was an exciting leader in the field and has treat this season as a stepping stone to competitiveness as it improved with his bat. He finished the season with a .286 attempts to develop young players. average, 16 homers, 56 RBI, and a .449 slugging percentage. He’s easily the team’s best and most dynamic player, which is OUTLOOK something the Pirates desperately need. While many in and around the division have deemed the NL Second baseman Neil Walker also showed some promise Central “mediocre,” there is some star power in the form in his rookie campaign. After struggling in 40 plate appearof guys like Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Albert ances in a 2009 call-up, he broke out to the tune of a .296 Pujols, and Matt Holliday. And it has been relatively competiaverage, .349 on-base percentage, and .462 slugging. Those tive for the last few years. A season ago, the Pirates were the are solid numbers for such a young middle infielder, and only team completely out of the race early in the season. Since it’s a step in the right direction for Pittsburgh. Walker and 2001, the NL Central has put two teams in the postseason McCutchen look to emerge as leaders on a team that’s lacked four times, tied for the most in the National League with the leadership—they have the talent, it’s just a matter if they can NL West. It’s safe to say that the 2011 NL Central will be a build on it in 2011. competitive, winnable division for all teams involved. MSP Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007. He took the Pirates job in the offseason and Tony Wilson worked as a fantasy baseball and football writer for the provides a hard-nosed approach and championship experience Sporting News and currently works in publishing. He resides in the suburbs of Detroit. to a team that hasn’t had a winning record in years. While a
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2011 MILWAUKEE BREWERS