Fully realizing America’s attention is fixated on the Super Bowl (I like the Patriots over the Giants in a close shootout, 27-24), I figured now would be the perfect time to get some thoughts down on how the NL Central will shake out this season. We’re just days away until pitchers and catcher report to spring training and opening day is just around the corner, believe it or not. Let’s go ahead and break-down each team’s offseason transactions as well as how I think the division will shake out before preseason action gets under way.
Key additions: INF Jed Lowrie
Key losses: (?)
Breakdown: No matter how you slice it, the Houston Astros were simply awful last season. They finished with MLB’s worst regular-season mark at 56-106 and were statistically atrocious in nearly every facet imaginable. Trading Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the deadline for young talent may be one positive for the Astros moving forward, however, there’s no denying that manager Brad Mills won’t have much offensive firepower to work with to start next season. It should be interesting to see how his opening-day lineup looks. Houston ranked 28th in team ERA (4.51) and 26th in BAA (.266) last season, and failed to bring in any noticeable pitching to help bolster their dismal staff. Still, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ are three respectable arms that make up Houston’s rotation.
Why they’ll finish here: Every team in the division managed to improve in one way or another this winter with exception to Houston. The fact is, they’re just not ready to compete. Look for 2012 to be another rebuilding year for the Astros as they try and work in their bevy of acquired prospects.
Key Additions: SS Clint Barmes, RHP Erik Bedard, OF Nate McLouth, 3B Casey McGehee
Key Losses: OF Ryan Ludwick, RHP Jose Veras
Breakdown: The Pirates showed massive signs of improvement early on last season, particularly on the mound. Prior to the All-Star break, they ranked eight in team ERA (3.44), sixth in saves (27) and 18th in BAA (.256). Their stellar pitching carried them to a 47-43 overall mark at the All-Star break, however, things would only go south from there. Post All-Star break, their staff posted a 4.78 ERA and allowed a opponents to bat .288. Needless to say, their offensive offered little to no support, ranking 28th in runs (256), BA (.241) and OBP (.301). Losing Ryan Ludwick will have an obvious impact to their offensive production. However, they were able to make up for it by adding Clint Barmes, Casey McGehee as well as bringing back Nate McLouth.
Why they’ll finish here: While there’s no doubting the Pirates are a young team on the rise with a ton of potential, the stiff competition in the NL Central will limit their success in 2012. They were able to add some pieces this offseason, but they’re talent just isn’t ready to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the division.
Key Additions: 1B Anthony Rizzo
Key Losses: 3B Aramis Ramirez, RHP Carlos Zambrano, 1B Carlos Pena
Breakdown: The Cubs have clearly elected to go young with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer running the show. And while that may not equate to immediate success, it will prove to be the more sensible move for the organization moving forward. Last season, Chicago finished second to last in the division at a 71-91 mark, mainly due to the fact that their rotation failed to produce even after acquiring Matt Garza. Collectively, they finished with MLB’s sixth-worst team ERA (4.33) and hoarded just 76 quality starts. Rumor had it that they were shopping Garza this winter, but nothing came to fruition. With Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena now gone, the Cubs will be desperate for power while 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo gets his feet wet. Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro will remain the only true power threats to start 2012.
Why they’ll finish here: Long-term, the Cubs have as bright a future as any team in the division. Right now, though, there’s simply too much ground to make up for he pieces that were lost this winter.
Key Additions: OF Carlos Beltran, LHP J.C. Romero
Key Losses: 1B Albert Pujols
Breakdown: Albert Pujols’ absence will hurt St. Louis’ chance at the division crown, without question. His importance to the Cardinals’ lineup over the past few seasons has been immeasurable. However, these Cardinals are still a very potent bunch. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, David Freese all return and with the addition of Carlos Beltran, it’s only inevitable they’ll rank at or near the top of all offensive categories in 2012.
Adam Wainwright, who missed all of last season with a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, be a refreshing addition to St. Louis’ rotation that will return Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and possibly prospect Shelby Miller.
While they’ll finish here: Without Pujols, the Cardinals figure to be a team predicated off their strong rotation and bullpen. Beltran will prove to be a sumptuous addition but, in reality, does this team have the offensive firepower necessary to take the division? I’ll have to see it before I believe it.
Key Additions: 3B Aramis Ramirez, SS Alex Gonzalez, RHP Jose Veras
Key Losses: 1B Prince Fielder
Breakdown: The Brewers cruised to their first division title in franchise history last season thanks to NL MVP Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and their refurbished rotation. This year, they look to do the same. The only difference is they’ll have to do it entirely without Fielder and partially without Braun. Last season, Milwaukee led the National League in slugging percentage (.425) and second in OPS (.750). Without Fielder, those figures are certain to drop, though they managed to go out and get Aramis Ramirez to help shore things up. Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf make up one of baseball’s best front-four starting rotation. Greinke’s 3.83 ERA was the highest among the four and if not for his rib injury to start last season, each would have eclipsed the 200 inning mark.
Why they’ll finish here: A team typically known for their slugging ways, the Brewers must figure out how to play small ball in start 2012. Without Ryan Braun for the first third of the season, it will be difficult for Milwaukee to keep pace with the upper-echelon teams in the division.
Key Additions: RHP Mat Latos, RHP Ryan Madson
Key Losses: RHP Edinson Volquez, INF Yonder Alonso, RHP Francisco Cordero
Breakdown: When healthy, the Reds have proven to be a near unstoppable force in the batter’s box. Between perennial MVP-candidate Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs, they’re easily the most well-balanced lineup in the division right now. But if there’s one clear things that’s limited their success, it’s their pitching. The Reds finished fifth-worst in team ERA (4.16) and tied for last in shutouts last season. The addition of Mat Latos will give Dusty Baker’s rotation some much-needed talent to complement Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto.
Why they’ll finish here: After capturing the division crown in 2010, the Reds’ 2011 campaign was certainly nothing to write home about. Yes, they’ve been relatively quiet this winter and haven’t added much new talent, but that shouldn’t take away from the talent that’s already in place. Their offensive firepower will simply be too much for the rest of the division to handle.
After a magnificent 2011 regular season in which he produced massive MVP-caliber numbers, Prince Fielder has solidified himself as this offseason’s hottest free-agent commodity. The only question is, where will he sign?
Several teams will battle it out for the right to MLB‘s most famous vegetarian, but some are beginning to separate themselves from the pack as the postseason winds down. With the offseason just around the corner, here’s an in-depth look at the six teams most likely to nab Fielder this winter.
2011 Team Payroll: $68 million. Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): Ivan Rodriguez ($3 million), Mike Morse ($1.05 million), Tom Gorzelanny ($2.1 million)
Maintaining MLB’s ninth-lowest payroll, the Nationals finished their 2011 campaign with a surprisingly competitive 80-81 mark, despite the absence of Stephen Strasburg. Ranking 17th in baseball in home runs (154), 24th in RBI (594), 25th in OBP (.309) and 22nd in SLG (.383), the Nationals lacked the offensive power necessary to compete in a power-packed NL East. With the addition of Fielder and a Bryce Harper promotion, that could change substantially.
The Nationals won’t have nearly as much money to throw at Fielder as some of the more desperate teams, but they do have one thing going for them: young talent. Fielder would be wise to recognize the tremendous potential in D.C., with Strasburg, Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and a slew of up-and-coming prospects making the Nationals top competitors for No. 28 this offseason.
2011 Team Payroll: $86 million. Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): David Aardsma ($4.5 million), Jason Vargas ($2.5 million), Brandon League ($2.3 million)
If Fielder is keen on getting his money’s worth this offseason, he should look no further than Seattle, where it’s safe to say they’ll be desperate to gain big-time offensive firepower. Ranking dead last in runs scored (556), hits (1,263), RBI (534), OBP (.292) and SLG (.348) in 2011, the Mariners will likely set their sights on Fielder’s big bat in order to reshape their once-proud franchise.
Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Team Payroll: $63 million. Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): Kelly Johnson ($5.8 million), Yunel Escobar ($2.9 million), Frank Francisco ($4.0 million), Brandon Morrow ($2.3 million)
Picturing Prince Fielder and Jose Bautista in the same lineup is frightening.
The Blue Jays, who have now gone 18 illustrious seasons without a postseason appearance, would be thrust into postseason contention with the addition of a talent such as Fielder. With the talent they’ve already assembled, an AL East title may be on the horizon.
Granted, it’s easier said than done. Toronto has a number of contracts that will need to be restructured this winter, including re-signing Brandon Morrow to a respectable new deal. The money won’t be flowing quite as much as it will in Seattle; however, there’s more to be had than his $15.5-million contract with Milwaukee. This deal could certainly be a possibility.
2011 Team Payroll: $125 million. Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): Aramis Ramirez ($14.6 million), Jeff Baker ($1.2 million), Matt Garza ($5.9 million), Carlos Pena ($10 million)
With Theo Epstein now running the free-agent show in Chicago, anything is possible. Inking Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142-million deal last December, the former Red Sox general manager isn’t hesitant toward wafting around vast amounts of cash.
Wrigley Field has been a home away from home for Fielder throughout his career. Batting .298 with 11 HR and 34 RBI to go with a 1.003 OPS in 49 games at the friendly confines, Fielder should be Chicago’s primary offseason target as the Cubs prepare for next season.
San Francisco Giants
2011 Team Payroll: $117 million. Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): Mark DeRosa ($6 million), Carlos Beltran ($20 million), Cody Ross ($6 million)
It remains to be seen whether San Francisco chooses to pursue re-signing Carlos Beltran, but with the way things turned out, it would shocking if they did. Struggling to produce runs at the plate all season long, the Giants will be on the hunt for a bat such as Fielder, who can also take over the reigns at first base along with driving in runs.
Other than signing Tim Lincecum to a contract extension, San Francisco doesn’t have much else on their plate this offseason. We’ll see if that plays into their aggressiveness with Fielder.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2011 Team Payroll: $138 million
Noteworthy Expiring Contracts (with 2011 salary): Joel Piniero ($8 million), Fernando Rodney ($5.5 million); Howard Kendrick ($3.3 million)
The Angels avoided arbitration by re-signing Jered Weaver back in August, locking the star right-hander up with a five-year contract extension worth roughly $85 million, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, tries to woo the slugger to Anaheim.
They Angels will look for more starting pitching via free agency or trade this winter, but there is one clear lingering issue restraining Mike Scioscia’s ballclub from postseason contention: the ability to hit the long ball.
Stacked up against AL teams, the Angels ranked eighth in home runs (155), 10th in RBI (629) and 11th in OBP (.313), and still nearly snuck into the playoffs. With the addition of Fielder, they could be early favorites to represent the AL in the World Series next season.
While the baseball cosmos remained fixated on the critical ALCS Game 3 bout between the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night, word broke on Red Sox GM Theo Epstein’s job status with the club, and how he may be on the cusp of joining the Chicago Cubs.
Rumor has it, we may be just hours away from an official announcement, said Steve Buckley—a Red Sox beat writer for the Boston Herald.
According to the Buckley, the only holdup preventing the deal from materializing is how “the Red Sox are going to want “something real” in return, and how they would ideally still like to keep Epstein as their general manager.
Here’s exactly what Buckley had to say:
“Two baseball sources have confirmed that Theo Epstein is on the cusp of leaving his job as general manager of the Red Sox to accept a position with the Chicago Cubs that is believed to include powers greater than he has in Boston, with an announcement expected to be made “within the next 24 to 48 hours.”
Chicago, who fired GM Jim Hendry back in April, are certainly in need of Epstein’s services.
If the Cubs are in fact able to corral Epstein to Wrigleyville within the next few days, it may not be out of the question to suggest a colossal free-agent addition to a Chicago clubhouse desperate for leadership in talent within the next few weeks. One notable target, among many, would be free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder.
Let’s be honest: without the addition of a home-run threat to their lineup such as Fielder, 2012 doesn’t look to be any different than that of 2011. Ranking 19th in MLB in runs scored (654), 20th in home runs (148) and 21st in RBI (610). With Aramis Ramirez likely on his way out, these Cubs will need to upgrade in a huge way offensively this offseason if they expect to contend for a division crown.
Epstein has been known for his gargantuan signings in the past as a member of the Red Sox, and with the amount of payroll he’ll be able to fill up this winter, it’s certainly a possibility to suggest Fielder could be playing for Mike Quade and company in 2012.