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Spring training 2014: Touring the NL Central

It’s week three of our preview series highlighting each division in baseball, and up today is the Astros’ former home, the NL Central.

Oh the forlorn nostalgia. It has been but one year since the Astros were forced against their wills into the AL West division, and the thought that we'll no longer be playing so many games against those familiar teams in the Senior Circuit certainly brings a sense of bitterness for many fans. In truth, though, the Astros may benefit from getting out when they did, as today's NL Central is a much stronger division than it was just a few years ago.

The NL Central's top three teams (St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) all finished in the top five in team ERA, and each of those teams won at least 90 games; no other division in baseball had more than two 90-game winners. The division's total combined winning percentage amongst its five teams was .520, second only to the fearsome NL East's .534, with all four of the other divisions being below .500.

The Incumbent

Sporting a Yankees-esque level of consistency on half the budget, the mighty St. Louis Cardinals captured the division title in 2013 while winning 97 games. It was their eighth division title in the last 18 years, and culminated in their fourth World Series appearance in the last decade. The Red Birds won with a balanced combination of elite offense and defense; they finished third in team runs scored (783) and fifth in team ERA (3.42), the only team in the Majors to be a top five team in both categories.

Their farm system, while not quite as stacked as recent years thanks to some callups, is still to class in terms of depth, and with a boatload of strong, young talent, there should be no shortage of arms available to them when needed.

St. Louis mostly stood pat this off-season, and their success or failure will hinge largely on the same core group that it has for the last 3-5 seasons. They did shore up the outfield by aquiring a true plus defensive centerfielder in Peter Borjous, though it cost them fan favorite and 2011 World Series hero David Freese. The Cardinals hope top prospect Kolten Wong and their biggest free agent signing, Jhonny Peralta, will solidify the infield enough to where his loss won't hurt them.

The Rivals

A near decade of mediocrity behind them, the Reds are fresh off a 90-win season, their third in the last four years, and a loss in the new National League Wild Card game.

Though solid on offense (12th in MLB in team runs scored), it was the strength of their pitching that carried them into the playoffs; the Reds' hurlers posted the fourth best team ERA (3.38), the number one team WHIP (1.17) and allowed the lowest team batting average against (.236) in the Majors.

Unsurprisingly, the Cincinnati has chosen to mostly stand pat this off season, opting for smaller free agent tweaks like Brayan Pena and Skip Schumaker, while focusing on retaining what they already have working for them, resigning Manny Parra and extending Homer Bailey, among others.

The offense will continued to be anchored by perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto and thirty-bomb threat Jay Bruce, while Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick will look to regain their 2012 form after disappointing years. The wild card is the Mach Man, Billy Hamilton; if he's able to hang with Major League pitching and make the transition to the outfield work, he could provide a dynamic presence at the top of the lineup.

The Phoenix Force

Normally the end of a streak is a sad moment, but when said streak is one of twenty straight seasons without a winning record, much less a playoff berth, it instead brings shouts of joy. Pittsburgh rose from the ashes of futility in a brilliant blaze of glory, finishing just behind the Cardinals with a shocking 94 wins.

The total was impressive (and perhaps unsustainable) considering their 634 team runs scored was just the 20th best mark in the Majors, and they were the worst offensive team by that measure in the playoffs. Much like the Reds, it was thanks to pitching; their 3.26 team ERA was the third best mark in the Majors after only the Braves and Dodgers, and they finished in the top ten in team batting average against (2nd), WHIP (7th) and strikeouts (9th).

Unfortunately though, the Pirates lost one of their best arms when the Phillies swept up A.J. Burnett in February. Their number two starter gone, the Buccos will hope that Wandy Rodriguez returns to good health and top prospect Gerrit Cole continues to develop into a frontline pitcher to fill in behind the reborn Francisco Liriano. Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton also had breakthrough years, and they're both good groundball pitchers playing in a big home ballpark. Another top prospect pitcher, Jameson Taillon, is also on the horizon in the minor leagues.

The bigger concern is the offense. MVP Andrew McCutchen is a superstar who's just entered his prime and Starling Marte is a rock-solid offensive contributor with a strong glove, but after that, things look downright bleak. Martin, Walker and Tabata are solid but unspectacular. Sanchez gets killed by right-handed pitchers. Alvarez is Chris Carter without the big walk rate. Where do the runs come from? A repeat of the 94 win season doesn't look to be in the cards; the question is how much will they slide.

The Sleeping Giant

While not as bad as the Astros, the Cubbies have had a rough three years, with 91 losses in 2011, 101 in 2012 and 96 in 2013. Despite a lineup that included some interesting young players like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo, the Cubs managed just 602 team runs, third worst in baseball, ahead of only the White Sox and Marlins. Their pitching wasn't as terrible, but with their 4.00 team ERA being the 21st worst mark in the Majors, it's little wonder they nearly lost 100 games.

That would all be changing before long, though. The Cubs, under GM Theo Epstein's leadership, have built up an impressive pool of talent in the minor leagues, and it figures to begin paying dividends before long. While they don't have a great bevy of young pitching, seven of Baseball America's top 100 prospects for 2014 belong to the Cubs, and five of those are position players.

It will likely talk a couple more seasons; as with the Astros, there's a lot of promise in Chicago right now, but that's all it is until these prospects come up and actually prove themselves on the field. In the meantime, the Cubs will hope that Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel can provide a solid pitching foundation to build on, while the young players like Rizzo and Castro look to continue developing. They added former top prospect Mike Olt from Texas, once-promising Jake Arrieta from Baltimore, and top-rated pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino, whom they acquired from Atlanta following the 2011 season, is finally healthy again.

If all breaks right, they could, in a perfect world, actually compete for a Wild Card spot this year, but that's wildly unrealistic. It won't be long, however, before it's a legitimate possibility, and if the rebuild ends up going as well as Esptein has planned it, they could be a dominant force in the division for years.

The Astros?

What are the Brewers doing? Well, they're looking a lot like Houston did not too long ago; that is to say, dysfunctional.

It's a sort of quiet dysfunction, because like the Astros, the Brewers aren't one of the storied, hallowed, worshiped 100 year old franchises. When the cracks start to show in what those teams are doing, there's media uproar. But no one is talking much about the Brewers.

They have problems, though, problems that are deeper than a 4th place finish in their division after a 74-88 season. Sure, you might say that they weren't awful; they scored 640 runs last year, good for 19th place and one ahead of division rival and 90-game winner Pittsburgh, and you might also point out that their 3.84 team ERA was right in the middle of the pack (16th). And then there's the fact that Ryan Braun missed half season due to that suspension and...hey, they could be better, right?

Sure, they could be. But will they, and enough, and for how long? Things seem bleak. Ryan Braun saw a dramatic decline in power before the suspension last year and is thirty years old. Yovani Gallardo is solid, but he's always been more of a #2-#3 starter rather than an ace, and he's seen a slow but stead decrease in velocity in the last 2-3 seasons. Kyle Lohse is solid, but xFIP has been predicting a regression for a few years now, and he's not getting any younger either. They went out and got Matt Garza, but he's more of the same; solid, but probably not a game changer.

Carlos Gomez had a really nice year, but was it real? Repeatable? We'll see. Jonathan Lucroy looks like a solid offensive catcher, but not the type to carry a lineup. Sure, they have some nice parts, but how nice? The Astros had parts. They had Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez, and they went out and signed Carlos Lee and traded for Miguel Tejada and Michael Bourn and...they were sorta decent for a little bit. They even almost made the playoffs in 2008. But they were getting old and didn't have a minor league pipeline to feed new talent into the team.

So they tried to patch holes; Jason Jennings, Preston Wilson, Woody Williams, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Ty Wigginton, Ivan Rodriguez, Randy Wolf, Kazuo Matsui, Jose Valverde, Pedro Feliz, Brett Myers, Clint Barmes, Bill Hall...this guy used to be a solid pitcher, this guy one an award a few years ago, that guy hit 25 homers five seasons ago, this one has been injured...a little more bondo here, slap some duct tape there, fresh coat of paint and, hey, if everything holds together, maybe something good will happen.

But it almost never does; history is against the Brewers, big time. Rickie Weeks is three years removed from his last full, well-above-average offensive season (2010) and will be 32 years old in September. Aramis Ramirez was hurt for much of last year, which is no surprise given that he's going to be 36 years old before the All-Star Game takes place. Who the heck is their first baseman? It's time for a rebuild; hopefully Milwaukee's ownership will wake up to that fact in less time than it took in Houston.

Best Offseason Move

Cardinals acquire OF Peter Bourjos and OF Randal Grichuk from Angels for 3B David Freese and RHP Fernando Salas

Wow. I don't know that you can go so far as to call this a robbery, but it might not be far off. Salas is a solid-but-unspectacular reliever, which makes him a dime a dozen, especially when you consider the Cardinals' internal pitching depth. Grichuk is an interesting prospect with very solid raw power and a decent run tool as well. He doesn't walk much, but he's cut down on his strikeouts significantly in the last two seasons, and could still develop into a solid regular in the outfield.

But what this deal really down to is Bourjos and Freese. Freese is a pretty darn good player when he's healthy, playing at least average defense at the hot corner, a meaty OPS and 20 home run power. The problem is that he hasn't always been healthy, he's benefited from high BAbip numbers during his best seasons and, due to coming up at an older age, is going to be turning 31-years-old before May. These three factors combine to heavily stack the deck against him continuing to be a productive player, and if 2013 was any indication (.262/.340/.381), the bottom could fall out at any moment.

Meanwhile, Bourjos will be turning 27 and entering his prime years just before Opening Day and is an excellent centerfielder. His glove is one of the best, and arguably the best, you'll find out there, and despite not walking much, he's a better offensive player than he's given credit for. The fact is that he provides value; 9.0 WAR over 1,136 career plate appearances means that he's averaged 4.0 WAR for each 500 PA, roughly a season's worth. That's an excellent player, and would have made him the seventh-best centerfielder in baseball during 2013.

Worst Offseason Move

Pirates stand pat

Okay, this might be cheating a bit, both because it's not a specific transaction and, really, not even a transaction at all. I'd like to tell you the worst thing a team did in this division was the Matt Garza signing, but considering how he's held his velocity, considering that his contract, even if the option year vests, will be up before he turns 35, considering that he's making less than $13 million a year when the market for starting pitching has been so crazy that Masahiro Tanaka, without facing a single professional batter in the States, got $22 million a year for the next seven years, I can't call this signing bad. It's dumb for the Brewers because they should probably be rebuilding, but the move, in a vacuum, is certainly not an unreasonable one.

The Pirates, on the other hand, what are they doing here? A 90 win season after two decades of agony, a playoff appearance, their star wins the MVP, the fans are showing up again at last, they have a great young pitching core with more on the way... now is the time to go for it! They didn't need to get crazy and start throwing armored trucks worth of cash around, but they needed to do something. Losing A.J. Burnett is a blow, but with the young pitching they have, it shouldn't damage them too badly, especially if Wandy Rodriguez is healthy. But they needed a bat, or two even, pretty badly.

Remember that they were in the bottom third of MLB teams in runs scored last year. They have almost nothing of note on the infield, and especially at first and second base. Cory Hart would have been an ideal pickup. Perhaps Kendrys Morales could have helped. Resign Justin Morneau, pull off a trade, something. As it stands, regression seems to be in order, and with the Cardinals and Reds so strong at the top of the division, a Wild Card spot looks like a best case scenario.

Most Intriguing Move

Reds Acquire LHP David Holmberg from Diamondbacks for C Ryan Hanigan

This trade vexes me, not because I don't see the value or logic on one side, but because I can't decide which side came out ahead. Holmberg is hardly a name prospect, but he's seen a decent uptick in velocity recently and has a nice curveball and changeup for secondary pitches, as well as strong command. He could easily end up being a solid mid-rotation arm. That makes me want to like the trade for Cincinnati, and normally I would. In fact, I nearly put this down as the best offseason move, but when I started to look into it, I discovered something that surprised me; Ryan Hanigan is a really good catcher.

He walks a lot, and in fact he walks more than he strikes out (12% walk rate, 10.1% strikeout rate on his career), he hits for a passable average, and those have combined to make him a really solid offensive catcher, and from 2009 through 2013, he's posted a .359. Ready for this? That's the seventh best mark in the Majors during that span of five years. It's better than Yadier Molina, better than Mike Napoli, better than Miguel Montero, better than Brian McCann. I was a little flabbergasted that I had never realized just how solid Hanigan is with the stick.

What's more, he's also an elite defensive catcher. From 2009 through 2013, he's posted a 48.5 defensive rating under Fangraph's defensive metric, which is the sixth best mark in the Majors during that span. Better than Kurt Suzuki, Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Mathis, Gerald get the idea. The point is that, PA for PA, Ryan Hanigan has been probably one of the ten best catchers in baseball for the last half decade. Did you ever think of him as such? I know I didn't.

So a guy who could become a rock-solid #3 starter for one of the quietly-great catchers in the game. Holmberg is more upside than sure thing, but Hanigan is 30 years old and his best days may be past him (he's coming off a down season offensive). Who's better? I don't know. What's more is that the trade doesn't seem to make sense for either side; the Reds' current rotation is good and they have some more good prospects as it is, so it will be tough for Holmberg to crack it right now, and Brayan Pena and Devin Mesoraco are inferior to Hanigan. On the other side, the D-Backs already have Miguel Montero, so did they trade a solid young starting pitcher prospect to bring in one of baseball's best catchers and have him act as a backup?

Like I said; a vexing move. I don't know what to make of it.

Divisional MVP Prediction

It comes down to Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto in this division; they're the clear-cut two best position players. Yadier Molina is in the conversation as well, but catchers can get injured or have down years at the plate more easily than other position players.

Votto's age and failure to hit thirty bombs in any of the last three years would seem to point to a decline, but it's probably too early to write him off (as an elite MVP candidate that is, not as an excellent player; there's no question he should still be that). Andrew McCutchen is just coming into his prime, peak years and posted 8.2 WAR last year. The steals and defensive value give him a pretty big advantage over Votto, so unless McCutchen has an off year, Votto pretty much needs to light the world on fire with his bat to make up the difference.

Winner: Andrew McCutchen

Projected final standings

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2. Cincinnati Reds

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

4. Milwaukee Brewers

5. Chicago Cubs

I see the Cardinals and Reds battling for the division title, both in the 90 win range. The Pirates will fall off into the upper 80's win range and look for Wild Card, though a good move or two at the deadline and a hot streak could lead to some magic. The Brewers have just enough established talent for me to predict them in the cellar, but if everything breaks right for the Cubs and their young players develop, it could happen. For 2015 and on I see the Brewers struggling mightily to stay out of the cellar; they need to hope their veterans have a strong first half and then make the tough decision; deal Braun, Gallardo, Garza, Lohse and Weeks at the deadline to start a full rebuild.