NL Central Hot Stove preview (cont.)
2011 Results: 72-90, 4th place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 610/712
Pythagorean Record: 70-92
Pending Free Agents: 1B Derrek Lee, OF Ryan Ludwick, SS Rony Cedeņo, C Chris Snyder, C Ryan Doumit, SP Paul Mahokm
Prospects on the Verge: CF Starling Marte, SP Jeff Locke
Building For: To prove the first-half of 2011 wasn't a fluke (even though it was)
Strengths: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez's potential, the element of surprise
Biggest Holes: Shortstop, catcher, run scoring, run prevention
Targets: SS Ramon Santiago, C Rod Barajas
On July 19, 95 games into their 2011 season, the Pirates had a .537 winning percentage and a half-game lead in the NL Central. From that point on, they went 21-46 (.313) and fell 24 games behind the eventual division champion Brewers. The difference between the two performances was run prevention. In those first 95 games, the Pirates allowed 3.8 runs per game. In the last 67, they allowed 5.3. So which performance was real? As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but the Pirates' pitching staff doesn't inspire much confidence in proving it was the former.
Their best starter in 2011 was Jeff Karstens, a 28-year-old righty with a strikeout rate of 5.3 men per nine innings and a career ERA entering the year of 5.07. Looking to 2012, their best starter is likely to be James McDonald, who was a nice pickup for the unnecessary Octavio Dotel at the 2010 trading deadline, but will be 27 in the coming season and would likely be no more than a mid-rotation starter on any other team. The Pirates' bullpen this year was overly reliant on veteran retreads such as Jose Veras, Chris Resop and Jason Grilli. Meanwhile, their offense, which showed some promise coming into the year with young talent such as third baseman Pedro Alvarez joining 2010 Rookie of the Year runners up Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and burgeoning star Andrew McCutchen, flatlined, outscoring only the inept Padres, Giants and Mariners despite a strong showing from McCutchen.
So, while the Pirates may have been buyers at last July's trading deadline, adding Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, both now free agents, an aggressive approach to this offseason is likely misguided, though certainly they should be able to do better than last year's "big" winter additions of Lyle Overbay and Kevin Correia. Ramon Santiago could be an asset on both sides of the ball at shortstop, while Rod Barajas could be a quality stop-gap behind the plate while the organization waits to see if prospect Tony Sanchez's bat is going to come back to life this season. Meanwhile, until someone other than McCutchen emerges as a meaningfully above-average player, there's not much sense in the Pirates trying to win-now with a team that's not ready to win now.
2011 Results: 71-91, 5th place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 654/756
Pythagorean Record: 70-92
Pending Free Agents: 1B Carlos Peņa, OF Reed Johnson, SP Rodrigo Lopez, RP Kerry Wood, RP John Grabow, RP Ramon Ortiz, 3B Aramis Ramirez
Prospects on the Verge: CF Brett Jackson, C Welington Castillo, 3B Marquez Smith
Building For: Their own "the 25."
Strengths: New front office, Matt Garza, bullpen
Biggest Holes: First and third base
Targets: 1B Albert Pujols, 1B Prince Fielder, Ramirez, UT Michael Cuddyer
The Plan: Theo Epstein's Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in his second-year as GM in Boston, but the team he took over in November 2002 had just won 93 games. Epstein, who was just named the Cubs' new President of Baseball Operations, and his new GM Jed Hoyer, pilfered from the Padres, have far more work to do in Chicago than they did in Boston. The 2011 Cubs had some legitimate major league assets, including ace Matt Garza, developing shortstop Starlin Castro, power-hitting catcher Geovany Sotto, and some live bullpen arms, but that can't compare to the core Epstein inherited in Boston. The Cubs are also burdened by some bad contracts, chief among them Alfonso Soriano's, which calls for him to earn $18 million in each of the next three seasons, and a lack of compelling prospects on the farm behind centerfielder Brett Jackson.
Fortunately for Epstein and Hoyer, Jackson should be ready to man centerfield on the North Side in the coming season. That means the new administration's most urgent task is replacing their corner infielders and makes Chicago a prime landing spot for one of the two top free agents on the market, first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Signing either one would earn the new administration a lot of slack with the fan base, which can't have been happy with Epstein's recent mention of replacing the iconic Wrigley Field scoreboard with a "giant Jumbotron" as a way to improve team revenues, as well as weaken an intra-division rival.
As for third base, the master plan had been to have Ramirez hand the position directly to Josh Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, but after the club picked up Ramirez's $16 million option for 2012, Ramirez voided it, forgoing his $2 million buyout in the expectation of landing a multi-year deal. Vitters has disappointed and won't be ready next year, so the Cubs are left contemplating giving Ramirez what he wants. Ramirez will be 34 in June and has become increasingly brittle, but third base has become one of the thinnest positions in the majors, making Ramirez by far the best option at that position on the market. For proof, one need only consider that Wilson Betemit, a platoon player with an iron glove, and 38-year-old Casey Blake are among the few alternatives.
However, Epstein and Hoyer solve the Cubs immediate concerns, the tasks of fielding a competent team for 2012 and building a potential champion will unfold on two different timelines. There's a reason the Cubs gave Epstein a five-year contract: It may take at least that long to build a championship-level team.
2011 Results: 56-106, 6th place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 615/796
Pythagorean Record: 62-100
Pending Free Agents: SS Clint Barmes, OF Jason Michaels
Players with Options: none
Arbitration Eligible Players: C Humberto Quintero, SP J.A. Happ
Prospects on the Verge: None immediately behind the wave that hit Houston this season
Building For: Rebuilding, in nearly every way.
Strengths: Bullpen, low expectations
Biggest Holes: The lineup, the farm system
Targets: Prospects via trade
The Astros are a team in transition. They are about to have a new owner, assuming the $680 million sale to Houston businessman Jim Crane can be finalized by the Nov. 30 deadline. One sticking point in those negotiations is the fact that Major League Baseball has asked the Astros to accept a potential move to the American League West as part of its revamped scheduling and playoff system, which could go into effect with the 2013 season. That move would give every division in baseball five teams, but would also require the Astros to employ a designated hitter, which is sort of like asking a stone for another drop of blood.
See, the Astros are at the nadir of a major rebuild. In July 2010 they traded first baseman Lance Berkman and ace Roy Oswalt, and this past July they dealt outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn and second baseman Jeff Keppinger. When they hosted the Cardinals in the last series of the season to help decide the NL wild card, they were effectively running out a Triple-A, if not Double-A lineup. With shortstop Clint Barmes likely to depart as a free agent this winter . . . well, it wouldn't be much different with or without the banjo-hitting Barmes, would it?
The Astros aren't planning to fill their lineup with veteran placeholders. Eleven players made their major league debuts Houston in 2011, and nine others who still qualified as rookies were on its active roster at one point or another. In 2012, the Astros are going to continue to let the kids play and try to trade their few remaining veterans -- outfielder/first baseman Carlos Lee, who is heading into the last year of his contract, right-handed starter Brett Myers, who is in the last guaranteed year of his, lefty starter Wandy Rodriguez, their most valuable major league property, and closer Brandon Lyon, a hard sell coming off labrum surgery -- for whatever prospects they're worth, which may not be much.
The catch is that the Astros don't have any particularly compelling prospects to play. They did well to add teenage slugger Jonathan Singleton and right-handed starter Jarred Cosart in the Pence trade with Philadelphia, but neither is likely to make an impact in 2012. Righty starter Jordan Lyles was the consensus top prospect in the organization prior to the 2011 season, but he already made 15 starts (and five relief appearances) in '11 with underwhelming results and profiles as a mid-rotation arm at best. The Astros do have some young, live arms in their bullpen, but none of the position players behind Lyles on last year's prospect lists -- led by pint-sized second baseman Jose Altuve, relocated second baseman Jimmy Paredes, and outfielder J.D. Martinez, nor catching prospect Jason Castro, who will return from a year lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee -- is guaranteed to develop into a legitimate major league starter. Of course, all three will start on 2012 Astros. Another 100-loss season seems almost guaranteed.
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