NL Central preview (cont.)
WINTER GRADE: C-
The Brewers couldn't afford to keep Prince Fielder, so it's hard to criticize them for losing him, and signing Aramis Ramirez to upgrade third base was a good first step toward replacing him, but that was the extent of Milwaukee's moves.
Carlos Peņa would have fit wonderfully, as would have an upgrade at shortstop, but neither materialized, nor did an extension for starter Zack Greinke, who could prove to be the next star they can't afford to keep.
Instead, the one player they did shell out big money for, Ryan Braun, got embroiled in a major controversy this offseason. Speaking of . . .
KEY QUESTION: Did the positive drug test and the resulting controversy get into Ryan Braun's head?
Spring training statistics rarely mean anything, but Brewers fans have to be a little freaked out about the fact that Braun is hitting just .161 with two extra-base hits in 31 at-bats in camp. It's hard to imagine that Braun will enter the season with a clear head. Whereas his MVP win should have been a validation of his talent, one worries that Braun feels the need to go out and validate the award by putting up an identical season to prove that the first didn't come thanks to a pill or a syringe. Braun's 2011 season wasn't wildly out of line with his previous career performance, but it was a career year, the likes of which would typically be followed by some regression. Add the pressure of keeping the offense afloat without Fielder and the weight on Braun's shoulders must be immense.
X-FACTOR: Mat Gamel
Gamel opens the season as the Brewers' first baseman and will be charged will making up the portion of Fielder's production not covered by Ramirez. If Ramirez can repeat his 2011 performance, that should be achievable, something on the order of a win and a half above replacement per Baseball-Reference.com's WAR. If Ramirez struggles or gets hurt, however, Gamel's burden increases.
Gamel has the potential to get the job done. He's a career .301/.374/.512 hitter in 1,247 plate appearances at Triple-A, and surpassed that line at that level last year while transitioning from third base to first. However, he's also 26, a career .222/.309/.374 hitter in the major leagues (admittedly in just 194 PAs), and three years removed from being rated the 34th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Also, the Brewers seem unlikely to let him start against lefties despite lacking a solid righthander to replace him in the lineup (moving Corey Hart to first base would just require another lefty in the outfield, and will also have to wait until Hart returns from knee surgery). If Gamel can be productive and shake that platoon tag, the Brewers could repeat as division champs. If he's a bust, they could miss the playoffs entirely.
"Ryan Braun's only going to get better. He wants to be liked and he's going to hear some boos. There's going to be a target on his back but he has to have a big year. . . . Aramiz Ramirez is a good pick up. He'll be motivated. I think he could hit 25-30 HRs but he's no replacement for Prince Fielder. Mat Gamel's in a tough spot trying to replace Prince, too. He has a chance to his 270 with 18 to 22 HRs. He can be streaky at times but he's got bat speed and has a chance to be a solid player just not a star. . . . Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford give them an outstanding options in the eighth and ninth. That's where they could still be very tough. I could see them winning this division again."
WINTER GRADE: A-
The Pirates didn't turn themselves into contenders over the winter, but that wasn't really a possibility. What they did do was lock up their star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen into his early 30s, which alone gives the Pirates high marks. The cheap, one-year deal they gave to Erik Bedard, a pitcher who is very good when healthy and could be flipped for talent at the deadline (last year, he netted Trayvon Robinson for the Mariners), was also smart. The "minus" is for A.J. Burnett, Casey McGehee, and Nate McLouth, three upside plays that seem to have little upside, and for giving Clint Barmes a two-year deal that cracked eight figures.
KEY QUESTION: Which version of the Pirates will show up?
Last year, Pittsburgh went 42-37 from May through July and briefly took over first place after the All-Star break, but was just 18-38 to finish the season. The difference was run prevention. Through the end of July, the Pirates allowed just 3.9 runs per game. Over the final two months, they allowed 5.4 runs per game.
What happened was a near total collapse of the Bucs' starting rotation. Paul Maholm's season was ended by a shoulder strain in mid-August. Kevin Correia went 11-6 with a 3.74 ERA through July 3, but just 2-6, 7.68 thereafter before an oblique injury ended his season in mid-August. Jeff Karstens went 8-5 with a 2.49 ERA through the end of July but just 1-4, 6.56 thereafter amid shoulder soreness of his own.
The bad news is that Correia and Karstens were pitching over their heads in the first half and Maholm, whose option was declined, is now a Cub. Worse yet, Charlie Morton, one of the two Pirates starters who remained consistent down the stretch, will open the season on the disabled list as he's still recovering from October hip labrum surgery, as will Burnett, acquired as a change-of-scenery gamble only to suffer a fractured orbital bone in bunting practice during his first week in camp. Morton could be ready by mid-April, and Bedard will help if he can stay healthy, but don't expect much from Karstens and Correia, nor from Burnett, who has been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons.
X-FACTOR: Pedro Alvarez
Alvarez was the Pirates' "Big Question" coming into camp, and thus far the answer he has provided has not been the one the Pirates wanted to hear. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez entered 2010 as the eighth-best prospect in baseball, reached the majors in mid-June of that year, and hit .306/.355/.577 that September. Then last year it all fell apart. Around injuries and demotions, he finished the season with a 56 OPS+ (100 is average), the 10th-worst mark among hitters with 250 or more plate appearances last season.
This spring, he's hitting just .167/.182/.310 with two extra-base hits and one walk in 42 at-bats. Alvarez was supposed to be one of the best hitters in baseball, not one of the worst. McCutchen is fulfilling his potential and the farm system is stacked with potential ace pitchers, but if Alvarez, now 25, isn't able to find himself soon, the rebuilt Pirates could be missing a key structural support.
"Eventaully they've got to start winning some games and not just for a couple months. . . A key for them could be Casey McGahee. If he rebounds a little bit he could end up beating out Pedro Alvarez at third base. . . . Alvarez might always be a low-.200s hitter with some power. He also has to work on his defense, making the routine play. He's getting real close to being a guy they'll have to move to first base. . . All of their starting pitchers are middle-of-the-rotation guys. There are no No. 1 or 2 pitchers there."
WINTER GRADE: B-
Did the Cardinals lose one of the best hitters in baseball history or avoid an albatross of a contract that could have tied their hands for the next decade? Chances are that the second half of Albert Pujols' career will fail to live up to the impossible standard of the first half, making the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels a burden, but there's a lot of gray area in there. Extending Lance Berkman in September and singing Carlos Beltran to replace Berkman in right could go a long way toward filling the hole left by Albert, but then Beltran, the younger of the two, will be 35 in late April and both have had significant performance fluctuations in recent years.
Using the Pujols savings to extend catcher Yadier Molina into his mid-30s at roughly $15 million a year was a questionable move given how catchers age, the mileage Molina already has on him and the fact that he's coming off a career year with the bat. The Cardinals also replaced one of the winningest managers in major league history in Tony La Russa with a man who has never managed or coached at any level in Mike Matheny. Any of those moves could go either way, thus the middling grade.
KEY QUESTION: Can Lance Berkman do it again?
This question could have been about Adam Wainwright's return from a season lost to Tommy John surgery, but I have fewer concerns about Wainwright's ability to recover a significant amount of his pre-surgery value than I do about what Berkman's age-36 season will look like. Certainly, Berkman should regress some from what was his best season since 2008, but how much? Was his 2011 season a comeback or a last gasp? Was his weak 2010 really just a slow recovery from that March's knee surgery? What of the fact that he hit just seven home runs in the second half of 2011 and slugged .438 in the playoffs?
Nagging wrist and shoulder injuries contributed to that power outage, but those aren't the kind of injuries that his move to first base are likely to help, particularly given that they were on his glove side. Berkman is a key part of the Cardinals' attempt to survive Pujols' departure. Significant regression on his part could be deadly in what promises to be a tight race.
X-FACTOR: Chris Carpenter
Carpenter, the Cardinals ace a year ago and a major reason that they won their 11th world championship, was supposed to be a given for this team, but a stiff neck in camp led to a diagnosis of nerve irritation in his pitching shoulder and an open-ended disabled list stay to start the season. If Carpenter spends a significant amount of time on the shelf, or struggles upon his return, that will undermine the return of Wainwright, whose added run prevention was supposed to help balance the loss of Pujols' run creation. It could also open the door for the Reds or Brewers to take the division. If Carpenter returns quickly and effectively, however, the Cardinals could be in the driver's seat in the Central even without their departed superstar slugger.
"The biggest concern right now is Chris Carpenter. If he can't return until late in the season they're in trouble. . . . Their lineup's not as good but how can you take Albert Pujols out and be as good? . . . I think they'll struggle a bit. They don't have the kind of team you need to repeat."
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