— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, May 01, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The N.L. Central through April 29th.
Vs. East	15-24
Out of division
The NL Central gets no respect. On the other hand, it does very little to deserve it, either. The teams in the Central are a paltry 15-24 vs. the NL East, and 16-23 vs. the NL West. The four preseason "contenders"?St. Louis, Houston, Chicago and Cincinnati?are a combined 23-29 outside the division.
But the Central might not be quite as bad as it seems. In fact, all six teams are underperforming their Pythagorean projections. The Cardinals and Brewers could easily have two additional wins, which is a lot for this point in the season. Houston and Pittsburgh are underplaying their Pythagorean projection by about a game. Chicago and Cincinnati are just about breaking even.
So far, the Cardinals? offense has lived up to its billing. The Cardinals are averaging nearly six runs a game, second only to Colorado in that category and that?s despite limited early-season playing time for Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew. Instead, the Cardinals are getting production from unexpected sources like Mike Matheny (.357 OBP) and Tino Martinez (.915 OPS). When your leadoff man (Fernando Vina) is hitting .200 with three walks, and you?re still scoring six runs a game, offense isn?t a problem.
Thanks to Woody Williams, the top of the starting rotation has been very good. Williams didn?t give up a run until his last start, in heavy rain at Atlanta. His 0.69 ERA makes him, not Matt Morris, the ace of the staff to this point in the season. Morris (2.53) has also been good, despite pitching in some tough luck. The other starters had been dreadful early in the season, but all three (Garrett Stephenson, Brett Tomko, Jason Simontacchi) turned in good performances in the past week.
St. Louis needs continued good work from the starters, because the bullpen has been absolutely horrible. Without Jason Isringhausen as an anchor, La Russa?s usual formulaic bullpen usage is out the window. The bullpen?s best performance of the year came immediately after its worst performance of the year?and all in the same game. The worst of the team?s relievers (Jeff Fassero and Russ Springer) blew a 5-run lead in the 9th inning. But the rest of the bullpen shut out the Marlins for 11 innings, and St. Louis finally emerged with the win.
- Tony La Russa is nothing if not creative. When Albert Pujols hurt his throwing elbow, La Russa didn?t let that keep his big slugger out of the lineup. He?s running Pujols out there anyway, under orders not to throw the ball. And in the process, he has created baseball?s first "designated thrower." When Pujols is in LF, Edgar Renteria is under orders to run into the outfield every time Pujols gets the ball, serving as a really, really short cutoff man. La Russa has even hinted that he might put Pujols in RF, when the Cardinals play in ballparks with a shorter RF fence. Under that scenario, Fernando Vina becomes the designated thrower.
- Tino Martinez started serving his reduced three-game suspension for his role in a fight with Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Miguel Batista last night against the Mets.
The Reds lost Ken Griffey Jr., yet have more home runs than any NL team not playing in Coors Field. And despite that, they?re still 10-16, arguably playing worse than the Brewers. Sure, the new stadium seems hitter-friendly, but the Reds have given up a whopping 176 runs, 33 more than the next-worst team in the league. Their ERA away from Cincinnati is 7.23. To put it in perspective, the Reds are giving up an average of nearly five runs more per game on the road than the Montreal Expos.
The offense is better, although, admittedly, that wouldn?t take much. Austin Kearns is a masher, with an OPS of 1.005 through Tuesday. Adam Dunn?s .899 OPS isn?t that far behind, and Sean Casey has seen a resurgence at the plate, getting on base at a nearly .400 clip.
In a familiar scene, the Reds are waiting anxiously for Barry Larkin to return from an injury. His return could help, but not like the Barry Larkin of two years ago. He got on base only about 30% of the time last season, and was struggling before going out with the calf injury earlier this year.
-The Reds? #1 draft pick in the 2002 draft, RHP Chris Gruler, underwent arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He?ll be out nine months to a year.
-By the way, am I the last person to realize the "Great American Ballpark" was a corporate name? I thought it was just cheesy, but now I realize it?s cheesy and a corporate sellout.
-Bob Boone recently complained to the Cincinnati Enquirer about his team?s inability to get down bunts, and threatened to become Earl Weaveresque, by emphasizing the three-run homer.
The Killer B?s have turned into the Killer B.
Jeff Bagwell is still Jeff Bagwell. He leads the majors with 10 home runs, and has an OPS of 1.067. If he keeps it up, he?ll have his best season since at least 2000. If you?re looking for something negative to say about him, he has a strikeout streak of seven straight games. I think the Astros will take the tradeoff.
The other two B?s?Biggio and Berkman?aren?t exactly killing opponents? pitching. Biggio is well-known for the body armor he wears to the plate, but he plays center field like he?s wearing a full suit of the stuff. But he?s reached base at least once in every game during the past two weeks, and his OBP is steadily on the rise, even if it?s still a paltry .316. So far, Biggio is not far above replacement level in CF.
Lance Berkman is in the same boat as Biggio. He hasn?t hit well since returning from an elbow injury on April 22nd, and Jimy Williams will bump him down to the 5th spot in the batting order, elevating Jeff Kent to cleanup. Kent, meanwhile, has been a good pickup, but not good enough to help the Astros overcome the struggles of Biggio and Berkman.
In spring training, we heard a lot about the young, promising arms in the starting rotation. Well, they?re still young, and still promising, but they?re not delivering much yet. Despite a reputation as flame-throwers, they?re in the middle of the pack in strikeouts per nine innings, but 14th in the league in walks per game.
-Jeff Bagwell passed a milestone when he picked up his 2000th hit against the Expos in Montreal.
17 HR?s, tied for last in the NL
Team OBP of .304
Team SLG of .354 (2nd to last, ahead of Mets by .001)
If only we could combine the Pirates? offense with the Reds? pitching, we would have something resembling the Cleveland Spiders. The Pirates have a team OBP of .304 (last in the NL). They have a team SLG of .354 (next to last, .001 ahead of NY). They have hit only 17 home runs, and eight of those come from Reggie Sanders and Jason Kendall. In fact, Sanders, Kendall and Randall Simon are the only three hitters who see regular playing time and are appreciably above replacement level. It?s no wonder the Pirates ended their last homestand with five straight losses.
-Brian Giles took batting practice Tuesday, for the first time since spraining a ligament in his right knee on March 10. Doctors hope to decide when he?ll return to the lineup by later this week.
-Reggie Sanders dimmed the lights and lit candles in the clubhouse Saturday in an effort to relax the team. It?s unclear whether he also sacrificed a chicken.
For the first time in years, Sammy Sosa can take a day off, and Cubs fans can still feel like they have a chance to see a spectacular performance out of someone in the home uniform. Their pitching staff has been spectacular, striking out 9.24 batters per nine innings, tops in the National League. It will be interesting to see whether they come back to earth as the weather continues to get warmer. Some of those early gems were pitched in frigid, pitcher-friendly temperatures. Still, the numbers are very impressive for the four big horses in the rotation:
Kerry Wood		48 K?s in 39 IP
The bullpen also features five pitchers averaging more than 10 K?s per nine innings.
Not only is the pitching very good for the Cubs in the early going, but the offense is scoring runs, too. The Cubs have scored 150 runs?seven more than the powerful Cardinals. Dusty Baker was ridiculed for plopping Mark Grudzielanek down at the top of the order, but it hasn?t hurt the offense too much. Grudzielanek?s OBP is still only .336, but he?s not the black hole some feared (see Fernando Vina). Sammy Sosa has only five HR?s, but his OPS is well over 1.000, and Moises Alou is chipping in with a .366 OBP. Hee Seop Choi is making the most of his playing time, with an OPS of 1.028, and even Eric Karros is getting on base 41 percent of the time.
-Corey Patterson leads the team in RBI?s with 22, one ahead of Sosa.
-"Slugger" Eric Karros actually has a lower SLG (.412) than OBP (.415).
Milwaukee Scouts from Disney were in Milwaukee Tuesday to check out Miller Park more closely. They?re preparing to film scenes from a new Bernie Mac movie, Mr. 3,000, on July 23-24. In honor of this upcoming event, here?s a little ditty for the Brewers? marketing department.
A sausage race can pack them in
In other news, the Brewers still stink. They?re 15th in the NL in ERA (5.29) and 11th in the NL in runs scored (104). They?re already six games out in a division without a runaway leader. And the only part of the team that was suspected to be decent this year, the bullpen, has been less than impressive. That bullpen took a hit when Valerio De Los Santos was put on the disabled list with tendonitis in his left shoulder. He had been counted on as the bullpen?s key lefty, but had posted a 5.73 ERA in nine games.
Richie Sexson is the team?s biggest bright spot, with eight homers and a .955 OPS. Starting pitcher Matt Kinney has been good, too, though. He has a 2.48 ERA, with 26 K?s in 29 IP.
This space for rent.