— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, April 25, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: N.L. Central
The N.L. Central through April 20th.
It’s been really hard for me to get excited about the National League Central Division this year, and I think that’s primarily because there doesn’t appear to be any team that stands out from the crowd. Yes, the Cubs are playing well and the Reds aren’t, but three weeks into the season there’s no reason to think that the Cubs are significantly better than the teams just below them, nor any reason to think that Cincinnati is significantly worse than the teams just above them. Two weeks from now, any one of these teams could be riding a streak that jumps them from the lower half of the standing to the top half, or vice versa. Pennant races involving three or four mediocre teams don’t really turn me on and there’s a good chance that, come the dog days of summer, that’s exactly what we are going to see in this division.
All stats in the capsule descriptions below are through April 20.
The Cubs could easily stay atop the division all season, for a number of reasons. They have Sammy Sosa - thanks to his batting helmet, which saved him from serious injury at the hands of a Salomon Torres up-and-in fastball. Sammy is off to a .333/.518/.683 start, with 5 HR and 20 RBI.
The Cubs also have the best 1-3 starters in the NL, in Kerry Wood (3-0, 3.12, 29 K/11 BB in 26 IP), Mark Prior (3-1, 1.50, 31 K/6 BB in 30 IP), and Matt Clement (2-1, 2.59, 22 K/12 BB in 24.1 IP). The starters (including Shawn Estes and Carlos Zambrano) are averaging nearly 6 1/3 innings per start.
Dusty Baker has taken charge. I think a lot of people expected Dusty to sit Hee Seop Choi in favor of Eric Karros at the first sign of trouble and he could have done that when Choi was hitting just .208 on April 13. But Dusty has maintained the platoon, and Choi has gone on a mini-binge to lift his totals to .300/.500/.675.
The Cubs as a team have been one of the best in the league at getting on base, keeping their team OBP over .360. This is a marked departure from recent seasons when their OBP has been in the lower third of the league. Baker might deserve some of the credit for this, as his San Francisco teams were always good at getting on base even considering the impact of Barry.
Finally, Chicago has been playing excellent defense. The Cubs have the best rate of converting fly balls into outs in the NL, and are second to Arizona in converting ground balls into outs.
The only real problem area so far has been in the bullpen. Temporary closer Joe Borowski and LOOGY Mark Guthrie have been excellent, but Kyle Farnsworth has been fighting his control with eight walks in 8 1/3 innings, Mike Remlinger has been up-and-down, and Juan Cruz and Dave Veres have been pretty bad (although Cruz did set a record for consecutive strikeouts). A healthy Alan Benes and Antonio Alfonseca (who could be back by May 1) might help here.
Surprises include Mark Grudzielanek (.347/.380/.467) and Alex Gonzalez (.325/.373/.442) at the top of the order, and backup C Paul Bako (7-16 with a triple and 3 walks in 7 games). It’s unrealistic to expect them to continue to maintain those levels of production. The only real disappointment has been 3B Mark Bellhorn, who was 1 for 26 at one point but has recovered to .214/.339/.370.
It’s early, but the Cubs have the potential to be a breakout team. They have more young and talented players ready to move into key roles than the other teams in the division and for that reason could actually become a very good team very quickly.
St. Louis Cardinals
I don’t share the general disdain among statheads for Tony LaRussa’s managing skills - you can’t argue with his record of success, especially in St. Louis - but his blind allegiance to platoon matchups and his propensity for double-switching at the drop of a hat do tend to irritate me a bit. Case in point: the April 14 game against the Brewers. The Cards had a 7-5 lead with two outs and no one on in the ninth inning, and Russ Springer had thrown two scoreless innings in relief. With Geoff Jenkins due up, LaRussa went out to the mound, brought in lefty Steve Kline, and also removed his best defensive OF, Kerry Robinson, in favor of converted catcher Eli Marrero in a double switch. Granted the move worked, as Jenkins made the last out, but it was pointless; why yank a pitcher who is pitching well and who is one out away from closing the door just to get a left/left platoon advantage - not to mention double-switching into a defensive disadvantage?
LaRussa has had to do a lot of juggling just to keep the team afloat. J.D. Drew (just reactivated) has been out all year, and Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Fernando Vina have been limited by injury as well, forcing bit players like Orlando Palmeiro, Robinson, Eduardo Perez, and Miguel Cairo (who batted cleanup in one game) into key roles. All of the Cardinals’ roster players, with the exception of Wilson Delgado, have played in at least 10 of the Cardinals’ 17 games.
The 3-4-5-6 hitters - Edmonds, Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Edgar Renteria - are the strength of this team, and the best middle of the order combo in the league. Despite having to leave several games early, Edmonds is off to an unreal .444/.554/.844 start. Pujols, who has been limited to pinch-hitting duties recently, is hitting .347/.450/.551, while Rolen is at .274/.444/.613 and Renteria at .351/.407/.622. Tino Martinez (.313/.380/.484) and Mike Matheny (.358/.386/.478) are also off to hot starts.
The problems for the Cardinals are on the pitching and defense side of the game. The defense has been average - good in the outfield (partially because Robinson has had to play a lot with Edmonds having problems), weak in the infield. Matt Morris and Woody Williams have been excellent - with the latter having yet to give up a run, earned or unearned, in his three starts. The other starters have been bad, and the bullpen, except for Kline, has been inconsistent. The Cards have blown four of eight save opportunities.
The Cardinals have also been unlucky. They are 0-6 in one-run games, which explains why they’re hanging around .500 despite a 103-81 RS/RA differential. That luck should even out; when the walking wounded return to full health the Cards should have the best offense in the division. The question will be whether LaRussa and Dave Duncan can piece together a pitching staff that can keep the team in games, without blowing out any arms. The early returns are not promising, and there doesn’t appear to be any short-term help available in the farm system. If Chuck Finley resigns with the team, as rumored, and can get up to speed quickly, that will add another arm to the mix. The Cardinals need someone among their starters to join Morris and Williams so that LaRussa won’t burn through the bullpen and the bench before July.
The Astros combine the worst of both worlds - a groundball oriented staff with a poor infield defense behind them. Houston has allowed the highest percentage of GB/BIP in the league, but has the third-worst rate of converting ground balls into outs in the league. In spite of that, the Astros have a respectable 3.84 team ERA, mostly because they’ve done a good job of keeping the ball in the park (which is also related to the groundball tendencies of the staff). These guys would probably kill to get the infielders of the Cubs or Pirates behind them.
While the pitching has been decent (for the most part), the offense hasn’t. Jeff Bagwell has been lights-out (.333/.429/.722, with 8 HRs in 18 games). Richard Hidalgo (.333/.411/.508) is off to a hot start after two years of struggles. But the Astros aren’t getting consistent offense from anyone else, wasting the production that they are getting from Bagwell and Hidalgo. Jeff Kent hasn’t hit for power (.456 SLG) although he has kept the BA and OBP relatively close to career norms. Lance Berkman is drawing walks but hitting for neither average (.229) nor power (just 2 EBH so far and a .326 SLG), not what you expect from your #4 hitter. Berkman also missed the last week with a sprained elbow. Craig Biggio isn?t getting on base (.292 OBP) although he has gone deep six times; largely as a result of Biggio’s struggles, Bagwell has just 13 RBIs with his 8 HRs.
The Astros took a gamble in spring training by releasing Shane Reynolds and giving rotation jobs to youngsters Jeriome Robertson and Tim Redding, to supplement aces Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller and veteran soft-tosser Brian Moehler. So far, at least, the gamble hasn’t backfired on Houston, although neither has it paid off. Robertson has had one horrible start, one outstanding start, one start during which he was undermined by the defense, and one sort-of-OK start. Redding has had one outstanding start, one decent start, and one poor effort. The rest of the staff has shown similar up-and-down tendencies. Oswalt has an 8 IP/1 ER start and a 6 2/3 IP/10 R/5 ER start, while Miller has a 3 1/3 IP/5 ER start and 7 IP/0 R start in his mix, and Moehler managed a 5 IP/2 ER effort in between 4 2/3 IP/5 ER and 4 IP/5 ER efforts.
The bullpen has been doing its job, for the most part. Closer Billy Wagner has converted four of five save opportunities, primary setup man Octavio Dotel has a 1.80 ERA and 12 Ks in 10 IP, and Brad Lidge has been a major find as a middle reliever, complementing Ricky Stone (who hasn’t allowed a run). Lefty Bruce Chen has been the only real weak link. When the starters have struggled, the bullpen has generally kept the Astros in the game.
The Astros need a healthy Berkman to start producing, and a return to some semblance of past form by Biggio and Kent. They’re going to have to figure out a way to deal with the lack of defense in the infield, as well. Geoff Blum and Julio Lugo aren’t giving them much with the bat, to be sure, and if they aren’t helping with the glove, then there’s no point in keeping them around.
Good pitching. Outstanding defense. No offense. It seems to me I’ve heard this song before.
The Pirates and Cubs are the only teams that are in the top five in the NL in both percentage of fly balls converted into outs and percentage of ground balls converted into outs. Even though Pokey Reese has been struggling defensively and Aramis Ramirez is making his usual share of errors, the Pirates are still getting outs on balls in play. In turn, this has helped the Bucs’ pitching staff to post a 3.38 ERA over their first 18 games.
But the pitchers can’t win games by themselves - and the hitters aren’t helping. The team suffered a blow when Brian Giles, the team’s only consistent offensive threat, went on the 15-day DL, but the offense was struggling before then. The Bucs scored 33 runs in the first four games of the season, and 37 over the next 14, scoring more than three runs in a game exactly twice in that period. The fact that the Bucs were 5-9 over those 14 games is a tribute to the pitchers and fielders.
There have been a couple of bright spots on offense. Jason Kendall, after two injury-plagued years, is showing signs of returning to his 1999 form, delivering three early-season home runs while hitting .328/.414/.525 start. Randall Simon, acquired to platoon with Kevin Young at 1B, has been productive at .313/.340/.521, while Reggie Sanders, picked up after the start of spring training to play RF, banged out 4 HRs in the first week of the season. But there’s been precious little else. After his hot start, Sanders has cooled off considerably. Ramirez raised hopes for a return to 2001 form with 7 HRs in spring training but hasn’t carried that into the regular season, banging just one longball while hitting .234/.315/.344. New leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton has a .276 OBP. The DP combo of Reese and Jack Wilson is struggling to stay above the Mendoza line. The bench players - Matt Stairs, Rob Mackowiak, Abraham Nunez, and Craig Wilson - have been spectacularly unproductive as well. Before the season, there were a number of Pirate fans who were second-guessing the team for making Craig Wilson the backup catcher, figuring that having him as the only replacement for Kendall would limit his appearances and make it difficult for him to find a groove. That appears to be exactly what is happening, as Craig Wilson has played in only seven games so far, starting three, and has yet to have a hit in 18 plate appearances. The Bucs really can’t afford to let a guy who had 29 ML home runs in just over 600 ML PAs coming into the season rot on the bench playing once every 10 days or so.
With only a couple of exceptions, the starters - Kris Benson, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Jeff Suppan, and Jeff D’Amico - have delivered a string of good-to-outstanding performances, keeping the team in games day after day. Fogg was recently put on the DL after straining an abdominal muscle, with Salomon Torres (who has pitched very well in relief) the probable replacement. Suppan has been the best of the group, winning each of his first three starts and allowing just one ER in each of them. The Pirates have not lost a game this season in which they have scored at least four runs, which speaks volumes both about how well the starters have done and how poorly the offense has performed. Closer Mike Williams and LOOGY Scott Sauerbeck, along with Torres, have been generally effective out of the pen, but primary setup man Brian Boehringer has struggled and the rest of the relievers have been inconsistent, partially because the starters have been so solid that the middle relievers aren?t getting much work.
The Pirates went to great lengths to acquire veteran role players to fill spots in the offseason, in an avowed effort to reach the .500 mark for the first time since the glory days of the early ‘90s. So far, they’ve gotten everything they could have hoped to get from Simon, some early production from Sanders, and Lofton and Sanders appear to have helped the outfield defense. But it’s happened at a cost - arresting Craig Wilson’s development - and the offense isn’t a whole lot better off now than it was a year ago. Giles’s return (to health and to form; he was off to a slow start) will make a difference, but the Bucs need to get more ABs for Craig Wilson somehow, and figure out a way to get some of the other players like Lofton and Ramirez going. The pitchers are carrying the team now, as they did early last season, but I would be surprised if that continued indefinitely.
The Brewers have climbed to semi-respectability by winning eight of 13 after an 0-6 start during which they looked like a team that would lose 100 games. But they did it with mirrors to some extent - during those 13 games the Brew Crew was outscored 68-56. Six of the eight wins in that stretch were by one or two runs.
Geoff Jenkins missed the first week of the season, but since his return he’s been whaling away at a .367/.415/.714 clip, and has blasted 4 HRs and driven in 13 runs in his first 12 games. Alex Sanchez has been hitting the heck out of the ball (.347/.378/.480), but (a) not drawing many walks, and (b) running the Brewers out of far too many innings - he’s been caught stealing five times in eight tries and has been picked off two other times. Ned Yost needs to put the lid on him. Royce Clayton has also been smoking the ball early (.328/.416/.582, with 4 HRs) and the Brewers have gotten a decent contribution from Scott Podsednik off the bench. Richie Sexson has 5 HRs but only 8 RBI, partially because of Sanchez’s baserunning misadventures and partially because, while Jenkins was out, he was pitched around a lot with runners on base. That’s likely to continue even though Jenkins is back. Jeffrey Hammonds was disappointing even before his latest injury, and John VanderWal hasn’t been productive as the replacement for first Jenkins and then Hammonds; expect to see Podsednik given more of a chance to play
The Brewers have built a pitching rotation out of one prospect (Ben Sheets) and rejects from other organizations (Glendon Rusch, Todd Ritchie, Wayne Franklin, Matt Kinney). So far the results have been mixed, but on balance more positive than negative. Sheets has kept the Brewers in the game in all five of his starts to date, although he’s only got one victory. Ritchie took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against his former shipmates in Pittsburgh and has pitched well otherwise except for a poor outing against the Cardinals. Kinney has had quality outings in two of three starts. Rusch and Franklin have struggled, except for one Rusch outing against the Pirates. Overall, the starters have been about as good as Milwaukee could have expected. The problem is that there’s no upside - what you see is what you get.
The bullpen, quite honestly, is a mess. Mike DeJean has been acceptable as the closer, but the Brewers have had problems getting the game from the starters to DeJean. Luis Vizcaino, who was supposed to be the key setup man going into the season, has been hammered almost every time out. LOOGY Valerio DeLosSantos has been hit hard as well. Milwaukee has been trying to force-feed youngsters John Foster, Shane Nance, and Matt Ford into bullpen roles, and so far only Ford (pitching mostly in mopup roles) has been consistently effective. Curtis Leskanic has been decent, but is still recovering from an injury that cost him all of 2002 and the Brewers are being careful with him; expect him to get more key innings as the season progresses.
For a team built on the cheap, the Brewers aren’t really all that bad. There’s a little bit of offense, a little bit of pitching, a couple of guys who pique your interest here and there. Ultimately, though, there’s no reason to watch this team. Jenkins and Sexson are good players, but they’re not the kind of players around whom you can anchor a team. Sheets is a decent enough guy to have as a number 3-4 starter, but he’s not a typical staff ace. If you pick off enough cheap role players and lesser starters, you can build a team that doesn’t embarrass you day in and day out, and that really seems to be all that the Brewers are trying to do here.
The big move here in the offseason was the decision to let Todd Walker go, and move Aaron Boone from 3B to 2B and put Brandon Larson into the lineup at third. This had a domino effect:
The Boone experiment at 2B is over for the time being, but may be revived when Russ Branyan is healthy. I think the Reds would just be compounding their mistake by trying that again; Boone should be left at 3B where he’s comfortable and the Reds should look elsewhere to solve the 2B problem.
It certainly didn’t help matters when Ken Griffey went down with yet another injury five games into the season, and Barry Larkin joined Junior on the shelf a few days later. The replacements - Reggie Taylor and Ruben Mateo in the outfield (with Austin Kearns playing some CF as well) and Felipe Lopez at SS - have weakened the team offensively and helped little if any on defense.
The Reds have hit the trifecta - little offense outside of Kearns and Sean Casey (although Adam Dunn is delivering an occasional long ball), little quality pitching outside of starter Paul Wilson and reliever Scott Williamson, and poor defense. Cincy is hoping for improvement offensively once Griffey, Larkin, and Branyan are back, and that will probably happen. but there’s little hope for the pitchers. Jimmy Anderson, who opened the season as the #2 starter, is gone after four starts with an 8.27 ERA, replaced by Chris Reitsma (who many felt should have been in the Opening Day rotation). Opening Day starter Jimmy Haynes is gone to the DL after four starts with a 12.74 ERA. Danny Graves and Ryan Dempster are still around as starters, as is Wilson and now Reitsma, and Jeff Austin will get a shot as the #5 starter. If the defense continues to stumble - and there’s no particular reason to think things will be any better with the missing players back on the field - the pitching staff isn’t likely to show improvement, and the Reds will have to hope they can outslug their opposition.