2015 National League Central Preview

(Picture from MLB)

 

You know what? I don’t care that it’s mid-February. I don’t care that we’re still looking down the barrel of another two months of cold for most of the country. I don’t even care that all the free agents don’t have new teams yet. We’re less than 30 days away from the start of MLB Spring Training & it’s absolutely not too early to start to preview & predict the upcoming 2015 Major League Baseball season. We’re heading to the heartland of America to see if a long time loser can finally emerge into the light of the playoffs.

 

Brewers  Milwaukee Brewers (5th in National League Central)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all convinced that the Brewers will be bad. The NL Central may be the most evenly matched division in baseball, and if the Brewers fire on all cylinders to make a playoff push, I wouldn’t be shocked at all. But someone has to finish last, and well, I’m picking Milwaukee. Oh? Reasons? Sure, I’ve got reasons. Questions at the back end of the rotation, severe regression from SS Jean Segura , uncertain production from new 1B Adam Lind & incumbent RF Khris Davis . Now, if LF Ryan Braun gets back to MVP form, & rookie SP Jimmy Nelson takes the league by storm, sneaking into a Wild Card spot is possible.

Best Case Scenario – All Star C Jonathan Lucroy & CF Carlos Gomez carry the offense. Lind manages to hit lefties even a little bit, and stays in the lineup every day. The underrated rotation headed by SP’s Matt Garza , Kyle Lohse , & Wily Peralta becomes much more properly rated as they each win 17+ games. Braun finds out he is not on any drug testing schedule and takes full advantage of the opportunity. The Brewers snag a Wild Card spot.

Worst Case Scenario – Everyone underachieves. They trade Garza & Lohse at the deadline to boost the worst farm system in the league. Braun gets tested every other day. Pork futures crater on Wall St, driving the cost of sausage through the roof. The Wisconsin state economy collapses.

 

Pirates  Pittsburgh Pirates (4th in National League Central)

After two years of making the playoffs, I think it’s time that the Pirates take a small step backwards. But then again, the Pirates could also win the division. It’s just so wacky. I think losing C Russell Martin is going to hurt more than they think it will, I don’t like 3B Josh Harrison to repeat his 2014 performance, & the back end of the rotation doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. And at the end of the day, I just like other teams more.

Best Case Scenario – OF Andrew McCutchen is an MVP candidate again. SP Gerrit Cole emerges as an ace. SP A.J. Burnett still has some gas in the tank. Harrison proves 2014 wasn’t a fluke. OF Gregory Polanco seizes the RF job in spring training and doesn’t let go for the next eleven or twelve years. New C Francisco Cervelli does just enough of a Russell Martin impression to get by. The Pirates contend for the division and take the Wild Card.

Worst Case Scenario – Everyone plays well but it’s not enough to move up. Polanco & Cole don’t take the steps forward needed to contend. The farm system doesn’t provide any reinforcements. The Pirates get pushed off the front page by Steelers training camp & ice hockey, whatever that is.

 

Cubs  Chicago Cubs (3rd in National League Central)

Okay, this could go really, REALLY badly. I can admit that. The rotation behind SP Jon Lester doesn’t look much like a contender. Aside from All Star 1B Anthony Rizzo & SS Starlin Castro , the lineup is filled with potential and league average players. The whole thing seems to ride on future star 3B Kris Bryant coming to the majors and being an immediate contributor and RF Jorge Soler taking his 24 game audition from last season and applying it to 140 games. I also think the Cubs have at least one trade to make for a starting pitcher, which would effect their 2015 outlook significantly.

Best Case Scenario – Bryant, Soler, Rizzo, & Castro form the foundation of an elite offense. Lester anchors the rotation while SP’s Jake Arrieta & Jason Hammel emerge as 15-game winners. The Cubs trade from their impressive stockpile of position player prospects to acquire one of the soon-to-be free agent aces that may be available come July. New manager Joe Maddon steers this collection of talent to a playoff spot a year earlier than expected.

Worst Case Scenario – They’re the Cubs. They’ve been living in the Worst Case Scenario for more than 100 years now.

 

Reds   Cincinnati Reds (2nd in National League Central, Wild Card)

Maybe I’m crazy, but I look at the Reds roster & I see All Star caliber players at C, 1B, 3B, & RF, along with viable starters at 2B, CF, & LF. The rotation is anchored by SP Johnny Cueto , who in any other year would of won the Cy Young. SP Homer Bailey has the stuff to be an ace. Closer Aroldis Chapman is basically unhittable. What am I missing here? Yes, 1B Joey Votto had an injury plagued season, but he’s arguably the best pure hitter in baseball when healthy. RF Jay Bruce had a down season, but he’s only 27 and 2014 is a clear outlier. He can be expected to back to career norms. Add those two to the breakout seasons C Devin Mesoraco & 3B Todd Frazier enjoyed and the Reds offense looks much improved.

Best Case Scenario – Votto & Bruce are healthy all season. Frazier & Mesoraco don’t regress at all. CF Billy Hamilton takes a big step forward in his 2nd season. SP Tony Cingrani is healthy and stabilizes the back of the rotation. The Reds get Cueto signed to an extension.

Worst Case Scenario – Votto has lost all power due to his knee injury. 2B Brandon Phillips is well & truly done as a viable major league regular. Cueto, refusing to agree to an extension, gets traded in July. The All Star game in Cincinnati is marred by Chapman stating at a press conference that Skyline Chili is the worst thing he’s ever tasted & he can’t understand why anyone would ever put cinnamon in chili in the first place.

 

Cards  St. Louis Cardinals (1st in National League Central)

The Cardinals are excellent. It feels like they have been for decades & it feels like they always will be. They’ve done such a great job of stocking the pipeline with talent & picking up players who fit what they are trying to do, it’s almost impossible to get ahead of them for any consistent length of time. And this year doesn’t look like it’ll be any different. After tragically losing rookie RF Oscar Taveras to a car accident, they used the depth they’ve built to acquire RF Jason Heyward . 2B Kolten Wong is ready for the regular starting 2B job after using the 2014 season to break in. It’s a vicious cycle for the rest of the National League.

Best Case Scenario – Everything goes as planned. SP Adam Wainwright is healthy & contends for the Cy Young. Heyward provides his standard excellent defense and gets back to the offensive production that tagged him as a future star as a rookie. SP’s Carlos Martinez and/or Marco Gonzalez emerge as the next wave of Cardinals excellent starting pitching. The rest of the NL despairs.

Worst Case Scenario – The Cubs trade for SP’s Jordan Zimmerman and David Price . The Reds & Pirates wildly exceed all expectations. Even the Brewers are good. All of which just means the Cardinals will be even better. I’m not sure there is a Worst Case Scenario for St. Louis, short of catastrophic injuries to all key players. We’ll be watching October baseball in St. Louis again. Get used to it.

 

We’re almost done folks. Only the National League East left to make fun of… I mean, preview. Join me, won’t you?

 

 

Joe Maddon and the NL Skippers

(photo courtesy DailyHerald.com)

My previous article noted the deck chairs on the American League ship have been slightly rearranged to make room for 4 new managers in 2015. Only a couple teams in the National League will be under new guidance this season, but one of those – Chicago Cubs with Joe Maddon – will be asked to steer a ship that’s been taking on water fast over 5 straight losing seasons.

Joe Maddon – Chicago Cubs

Team President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have seen the Cubs finish 5th in the NL Central during all three seasons of their reign, but they now have a brand name manager in Joe Maddon who inherits a much hyped farm system loaded with talent. 2B Javier Baez and OF Jorge Soler are already in the bigs with 3B Kris Bryant and SS Addison Russell waiting in the wings. The list doesn’t stop there, but I will.

Maddon, who comes over from the Tampa Bay Rays, replaces one 73-win year from Rick Renteria. Doesn’t Maddon’s quirkiness and success at making the Rays contenders over the last 9 years have to be what the Cubs need? The alleged plan is to forge an identity centered on still young talent (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro), the promising prospects, and a Jon Lester led rotation. If Maddon plays his part to build a annual playoff contender that would be impressive, but to win pennants and a World Championship on the North Side would be epic.

Consider the following:

Chicago’s National League franchise has been around since the inception of the NL in 1876.  Since being rebranded as the Cubs in 1903, they have won 10 NL pennants. Following a World Series loss in 1906 the Cubs won back-to-back World Championships in 1907 and 1908. That was a long time ago. Wonder if they had t-shirts, hats, and a couple ten-inch disc records produced to celebrate the achievement? Lending historical perspective, Henry Ford’s first Model-T was being produced late in 1908.

The issue with the Cubs entering the 2015 season is that their resume looks way less impressive than it did after 1945, which was the last time they managed to reach the World Series. It didn’t happen with Jim Frey in 1984. It failed to happen with Don Zimmer in 1989. It also didn’t work with Jim Riggleman in 1998. Dusty Baker tried hard, but failed in 2003, before Lou Pinella fell short in 2007 and 2008. 38 years of nothing (1946-1983), followed by just these 6 playoff appearances from 1984-2008. However, in all of those years the Cubs started the season tied for 1st place. Hope springs eternal. All Aboard!!!

Chip Hale – Arizona Diamondbacks

It started promising in 2011 for Kirk Gibson with a 94-win team and a playoff appearance, but back-to-back 81-win seasons preceded the D-Backs going in the tank with a 64-98 mark last season. Give Alan Trammell (1-2) partial credit for managing the final 3 games.

Enter Chip Hale who most recently served as a coach for Bob Melvin’s Athletics from 2012-2014. Hale previously spent time as a coach with the Diamondbacks from 2006-2009 when Melvin was the Arizona manager.

Hale’s previous managing experience consists of 3 seasons with the Diamondback’s AAA affiliate in Tucson. He was an infielder who also played parts of 6 seasons with the Twins and 1 season with the Dodgers during the 1990s, but only accumulated 159 career hits.

What about the other 13 skippers in the NL?

Bruce Bochy – San Francisco Giants

9th season for Bochy in San Francisco and 21st overall as a manager where he continues to compile hall of fame credentials. 2010, 2012, and 2014 ended with a World Series trophy in his hands. In Game 7 of last year’s World Series, Bochy made one of the all-time brilliant managerial moves by bringing Madison Bumgarner in relief to start the 5th inning and letting it ride. Bumgarner was fresh off a complete game shutout in Game 5 just three days earlier. 5 scoreless innings later Bumgarner got the Royals’ Salvador Perez to pop out to Pablo Sandoval in foul territory with the game tying run on third base to win the World Series. Bochy also won an NL Pennant managing the San Diego Padres in 1998.

Bud Black – San Diego Padres

9th season for Black in San Diego who replaced Bochy in 2007 after the Padres had been bounced from the Division Series round in back-to-back seasons. Black’s never gotten the Padres to the postseason with his best effort being a 90-win 2010. Expectations are high for a revamped Padres’ team roster that looks much different from what the organization ran out there during 4 straight losing seasons.

Don Mattingly – Los Angeles Dodgers

5th season for Donnie Baseball in Los Angeles. His tenure is highlighted by back-to-back NL West titles, but with playoff defeats to the St. Louis Cardinals in both seasons. Clubhouse chemistry might be less toxic this season and Mattingly gets to look super smart by handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw at least once a week.

Clint Hurdle – Pittsburgh Pirates

5th season for Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh. 94 wins in 2013 and 88 wins last year, plus superstar OF Andrew McCutchen both years has given Hurdle the opportunity to bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1990-1992 when a “slender” Barry Bonds and half a pack of cigarettes were still a part of the Pirates dugout during the Jim Leyland era.

Ron Roenicke – Milwaukee Brewers

5th season for Roenicke in Milwaukee. The highlights have been being tied two games apiece vs the Cardinals in the 2011 NLCS and leading the NL Central by 6.5 games with a 51-34 last season. The lowlights have been the end of that NLCS, the end of last season, and the end of Ryan Braun being trusted following 2012.

Fredi Gonzalez – Atlanta Braves

5th season for Gonzalez in Atlanta. Following 94 and 96 win playoff seasons in 2012 and 2013 respectively the Braves dropped to 79 wins last season.

Terry Collins – New York Mets

5th season for Collins with the Mets. The previous win totals of 77, 74, 74, and 79 last year speaks to the Mets consistency at being mediocre.

Mike Matheny – St. Louis Cardinals 

4th season for Matheny in St. Louis. Back-to-back NL Central titles. Three straight trips to the NLCS including a pennant in 2013 before losing the World Series to Boston.

Mike Redmond – Miami Marlins

3rd season for Redmond in Miami where he gets to continue enjoying Giancarlo Stanton moon shots and the cheesy home park special effects that follow. 85 losses in 2013 was better than the 100 losses in 2013.

Ryne Sandberg – Philadelphia Phillies

3rd season for Sandberg in Philadelphia. Ryno took over from Charlie Manuel with 42 games to play in 2012 in what was the first of two 73-win seasons.

Walt Weiss – Colorado Rockies

3rd season for Weiss in Colorado. 74 and 66 wins won’t get much done in a fierce NL West.

Matt Williams – Washington Nationals

2nd season for Williams in Washington. The defending NL East champs won 96 games, but lost to the Giants in the NLDS.

Bryan Price – Cincinnati Reds

2nd season for Price in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker had taken the Reds to the postseason in 3 of the previous 4 seasons. Price, an injured Joey Votto and a poor Jay Bruce effort took them to 76-86 last year.

Thank you baseball-reference.com and wikipedia.com for helping me fill in the blanks.

Chicago Cubs Should Target Miguel Montero

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

This is expected to be a very busy off-season for the Chicago Cubs . With their talented young prospects ready to make their mark at the big league level, and a ton of payroll flexibility to work with, the time to strike is now.

Acquiring impact starting pitching is probably the top priority for the Cubs this off-season. They have been strongly connected to Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jason Hammel, Francisco Liriano and a host of other starting pitching options throughout this early out-of-year rumor season. It seems highly possible that they land one, if not two of the pitchers mentioned above.

Another player who the Cubs had been connected to countless times was catcher Russell Martin. Well, on Monday Martin signed a five-year, $83 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays , taking him off of the free agent market. With the other free agent options at the catcher position being less than desirable (a poorly aging A.J. Pierzynski is probably the next best option, it is that bad), the Cubs will have to look at the trade market if they wish to upgrade from their current situation.

Current Arizona Diamondbacks backstop Miguel Montero would appear to be a great fit, and Arizona is reportedly interested in moving him . While he may not bring the Cubs elite-level veteran leadership like Martin would have, at 31-years-old, Montero has been around the block, and would bring some nice experience to a very young Cubs’ clubhouse.

Montero is considered to be good, but not great, defensively behind the plate. However, one of the strongest skills in his possession is his elite ability to frame pitches, something that Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs’ front office places a premium on for a catcher, and that incumbent Welington Castillo has struggled mightily with since reaching the majors.

Montero is coming off of back-to-back down years at the plate, but his extremely low BABIP suggests that he has run into some bad luck, and natural progression seems possibly, if not likely. His career slash line of .264/.342/.421 does not jump off of the page at you, but he has been a productive hitter for the catcher position.

Being a left-handed hitter only adds to Montero’s value to the right-handed heavy Cubs’ line-up. Also, acquiring him would not have to completely force out Castillo. At only 27-years-old, Castillo still has plenty of upside, and would be a very strong back-up catcher option. In fact, Castillo is a much better hitter against left-handed pitching, with Montero being much better against right handers. A platoon is not only likely to be effective offensively, it would help keep both players fresh throughout the long and grueling MLB season.

The Diamondbacks still owe Montero $40 million over the next three seasons. His relatively high contract, coupled with his recent offensive struggles, makes me think that the Cubs could get Montero at a discounted price. This is a great buy-low opportunity for a player who fits the Cubs’ needs perfectly.

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