NL Central spring preview: Big questions in smaller division
NL Central spring training preview (cont.)
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2012. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: Can Shin-Soo Choo play centerfield?
As I wrote at the time of the three-team, nine-player trade that brought him to Cincinnati, Shin-Soo Choo could be as much as a four-win upgrade over the 2012 version of Drew Stubbs as the Reds' new centerfielder -- provided that he can actually play centerfield. Choo has played just 10 games there prior to this season, and only one since 2007.
Just how large of a gamble the Reds are taking here depends on who you ask. Choo was regarded as a superlative defensive rightfielder in Cleveland, but advanced fielding metrics graded him harshly for last season. Still, he's a player with enough speed to regularly steal 20 bases at a high percentage, and while he's very likely to be sub-par in center, he won't be so bad that the total package of his fielding (which includes one of the best throwing arms in the game), baserunning and hitting (.289/.382/.458, 133 OPS+ over the last four years) won't still be several wins better than what the Reds got out of Stubbs last year.
If Choo just can't hack it in center, one solution may be for him to simply swap places with rightfielder Jay Bruce, who played 35 games in center as a rookie in 2008. Whatever the arrangement, there's little chance that, barring injury, Choo and Bruce won't be a significant upgrade over what the Reds got from Stubbs and Bruce last year.
The Big Battle: Aroldis Chapman's attempt to become a starting pitcher
For the second straight spring, lefty relief ace Aroldis Chapman is coming to camp with the intention of making Cincinnati's starting rotation. A year ago, Chapman earned a spot with a dominant spring but was shifted back to the bullpen just before Opening Day in reaction to the news that intended closer Ryan Madson would miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. This year, the Reds have Jonathan Broxton lined up to close with lefties Sean Marshall and Manny Parra in set-up roles, clearing the way for Chapman's long-anticipated conversion back to the role he filled for the Cuban national team prior to his July 2009 defection.
However, as great as the soon-to-be-25-year-old Chapman's potential as a starter might be, Cincinnati's rotation won't be the easiest nut to crack. The Reds five incumbent starters -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake -- combined to start 161 games last year, and the weakest performance in that quintet was a nearly league-average season from fellow 25-year-old Leake, who was the eighth-overall pick in the 2009 draft. Chapman has front-of-the rotation potential, but he'll also likely need to be on an innings limit for the coming season, further complicating the matter as the Reds would surely like to have him available for their very likely return to the postseason.
Still, for the team to maximize his value, Chapman's conversion to starting has to begin sometime and putting it off won't eliminate those stumbling blocks.
The Big Prospect: CF Billy Hamilton
Hamilton is the fastest player in baseball. The 155 bases he stole last year (at an 81 percent success rate, no less) were the most ever in a single season in the majors or minors, breaking by 10 a 28-year-old record held by Vince Coleman. Yet, Hamilton is not a one-trick pony. He hit .311/.410/.420 in a season split between High-A and Double-A last year at the age of 21 and the tales of his range afield are as astounding as those about his speed and daring-do on the bases. Hamilton will move from shortstop to centerfield this spring, a natural conversion given tales of him ranging from shortstop to the warning track in leftfield to catch a fly ball the leftfielder lost in the sun or into the rightfield gap to catch a would-be double. He's a long shot to relieve Choo in center should the Reds' new centerfielder struggle this year, but he could emerge as a secret weapon on the postseason roster and should be Cincinnati's starting centerfielder in 2014.
The Big Question: How healthy is Jaime Garcia?
The Cardinals have a deep pool of starting pitchers coming into camp, but having already lost Chris Carpenter for the season, they don't want to have to dip into that depth a second time before they even play their first exhibition game. That puts increased importance on the health of Garcia's shoulder. Garcia hit the disabled list last June with what was labeled a shoulder strain or impingement. After two and a half months on the shelf, he returned and posted a 3.25 ERA in nine starts down the stretch. However, Garcia only lasted two innings in his lone postseason start due to further issues with the shoulder, angering teammates by taking the ball despite feeling discomfort prior to that start, and immediately being removed from the playoff roster.
A subsequent MRI diagnosed a partial tear of the labrum and rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder, but after three other doctors recommended surgery, Garcia and the Cardinals opted for Dr. James Andrews' recommendation of rest and rehabilitation. Thus far, that has worked, with Garcia gaining strength via a throwing program that has him on pace with the rest of the team's pitchers. Of course, he looked great last September, as well.
The Big Battle: Starting Rotation
With Carpenter out, a healthy Garcia would be one of just two Cardinals starters, along with ace Adam Wainwright, guaranteed a rotation spot coming into camp. Third-year righty Lance Lynn and veteran groundballer Jake Westbrook have the inside track to two of the remaining three spots, but both will be in a battle against youngsters Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. Miller and Rosenthal are among the organization's top prospects and they, along with Kelly, had some level of success in their major league debuts last season.
At least one of those three young arms will wind up in the Opening Day rotation, and the 22-year-old Miller might be the best bet. Miller struggled a bit in his Triple-A debut last year due to a high opponents batting average on balls in play and a bit of gopheritis, but his other peripherals remained strong. After a September call-up, he struck out 20 men in 17 big league innings between the regular and postseasons, proving his stuff (mid-90s fastball with movement, plus curve, change) works in the bigs.
The safe choice, however, would be Kelly, who will be 25 in June and posted a 3.74 ERA in 16 starts for the Cardinals last year. Rosenthal, who turns 23 in late May, struck out 40 men in 31 1/3 major league relief innings last year (also split between the regular and postseasons) with a fastball that averaged 97.7 miles per hour. He is a better bet to be used out of the bullpen in the near term, though he started exclusively in the minors the last two years and a has a curve, cutter and changeup that should allow him to thrive in either role.
The Big Prospect: OF Oscar Taveras
Taveras is a flat-out stud. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo listed him as the third best prospect in baseball coming into this season. ESPN's Keith Law had him second. Last year, in a season in which he didn't turn 20 until mid-June and was just his second year in full-season ball, Taveras made the leap to Double-A and hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs, 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts and just 56 strikeouts.
Taveras needs to draw more walks and may have to move from centerfield to a corner pasture, but the rest is superstar stuff. What's more, it's stuff that we could very well see in the major leagues in the coming season. Taveras will open the year in Triple-A, but that level is unlikely to contain him. Any sort of crack in the Cardinals outfield could be filled by Taveras, and once he's up, the Cardinals will have a hard time sending him back down.
The Big Question: Can the team's young starting pitchers replace Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum?
In 2012, Greinke and Marcum combined to give the Brewers a 3.57 ERA over 42 starts and 247 innings. This year, Greinke is a Dodger, Marcum is a Met and the Brewers will be looking to young arms such as rookies Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers to replace those lost innings.
The good news is that Peralta and Rogers combined for 67 innings of a 3.22 ERA across a dozen starts last year. While they're unlikely to be that stingy in the coming season, it's worth remembering that the Brewers rotation has also deleted Randy Wolf's miserable 2012 performance. Mix Wolf in with Greinke and Marcum and you get 387 1/3 innings of a 4.35 ERA. That's still not a slam dunk for a group of young pitchers getting their first extended big league look, a group which could also includes Tyler Thornburg as well as 27-year-old sophomore Michael Fiers, who posted a 6.99 ERA over his final 10 starts last year, but it's not an unreasonable expectation.
Then again it's not the sort of performance that young group is particularly likely to improve upon, either, which could leave the Brewers short of a playoff berth for the second straight year.
The Big Battle: Starting Rotation
Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada have the top two spots locked up and Fiers, based on his aggregate 3.74 ERA last season, and the 23-year-old Peralta, the teams' top prospect, have an inside track to the next two. Neither of the latter two should be guaranteed anything coming into camp with Rogers and Thornburg also jockeying for position and Chris Narveson working his way back from May 2012 surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
Worth noting: Gallardo is the only one of those seven to have made 30 starts in a major league season, and the 31-year-old Narveson is the only other one to have qualified for a major league ERA title, having done so exactly once with a 4.99 ERA in 2010.
The Big Prospect: RHP Johnny Hellweg
Hellweg, part of the return in the deal that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels, is a 24-year-old, 6-foot-9 righty with a triple-digit fastball who posted a 3.38 ERA in 21 Double-A starts last year, but who struggles with his command and may ultimately find himself in the bullpen. Hellweg will spend the early part of this season in Triple-A working on repeating his delivery, refining his control, and mastering his changeup, his third-best pitch behind his calling-card heater and plus curve. If all goes well, he could present as yet another young arm to go into that rotation mix and one with significant potential. If not, he'll likely be moved into the bullpen, where he can scrap the changeup and likely earn a promotion in the second half of the season.
The Big Question: Is Gerrit Cole ready?
The top pick in the 2011 draft, Cole made his professional debut at High-A last year and cruised through that level as well as Double-A before finishing his season with a quality start at Triple-A (6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 7 K). The Pirates have said that they want Cole, now 22, to open the season back in Triple-A, but all reports are that he's ready for the major league test, and given Pittsburgh's flirtations with contention in each of the last two seasons, the team would have good reason to let him beat out the likes of Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez and Kyle McPherson for the final spot in its Opening Day rotation.
Cole, who compliments high-90s heat with an outstanding high-80s slider and an above-average changeup, projects as a true ace and will likely force his way up to the big leagues at some point this season. The only question is if he can do it in March.
The Big Battle: Outfield corners
The competition to be one of Andrew McCutchen's wingmen should be a compelling one this spring as there are five men vying for those two spots, not counting first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who would like to push Garrett Jones back into rightfield. The player the Pirates would probably prefer to see capture one of the two corner jobs is 24-year-old Starling Marte, who, as a rookie last year, hit .257/.300/.437 with 12 steals in 47 games down the stretch, 38 of them starts in leftfield, after hitting. 286/.347/.500 with 21 steals in 99 games at Triple-A.
In early December, general manager Neal Huntington suggested that Marte and 25-year-old Travis Snider, who continued to confound after coming over from the Blue Jays at the trading deadline, would start in the corners in the coming season, but he later retreated from that comment. Last year's Opening Day starters Alex Presley (27) and Jose Tabata (24) remain in the mix, and one can't count out Jerry Sands, a 25-year-old former Dodgers prospect. Sands hit .288/.362/.552 with 55 home runs for Triple-A Albuquerque over the last two seasons only to be dealt to the Red Sox in the massive Adrian Gonzalez trade last August and to the Pirates in the Joel Hanrahan swap in late December, after Huntington's comment on the team's likely outfield starters.
The Big Prospect: RHP Jameson Taillon
Having dealt with Cole above, let's give some attention to Taillon here. A year younger than Cole and two inches taller at an impressive 6-foot-6, Taillon, who was drafted out of high school with the second overall pick in 2010 (the one that came after Bryce Harper) is pitching prospect 1-B in the Pirates' system. Taillon has a devastating fastball/curveball combination and a developing changeup. He cracked Double-A late last year at the age of 20 and went 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in three starts while striking out 18 men in 17 innings against no home runs and one walk.
He'll likely start the season back at Double-A, but should jump to Triple-A quickly and could earn a September call-up. He and Cole should both be in the Pirates' rotation next year and both have ace potential. Their emergence could be what finally pushes Pittsburgh back over .500 and possibly all the way to the playoffs.
The Big Question: How healthy are Matt Garza and Scott Baker?
Don't look now, but if everyone's healthy, the Cubs have a pretty strong starting rotation. Imagine a top four of Garza, Edwin Jackson, Baker and Jeff Samardzija with a fifth starter taken from a group that includes Travis Wood, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. There's no dominant ace there, but for a team coming off a 101-loss season, that's something to dream on.
Early reports on Garza, who missed the second half of last season with a stress fracture in his pitching elbow, are positive, but he won't attempt to throw any breaking balls until March. Baker, meanwhile, is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and while he's progressing nicely thus far, the team is prioritizing a full recovery over a timely one, leaving open the possibility that he could start the season in extended spring training.
The Big Battle: Outfield
The Cubs seem likely to open the season with lefties David DeJesus in centerfield and Nate Schierholtz in right with Scott Hairston serving as a righthanded alternate to that duo. Hairston was the most productive of the three last season, slugging .504 with 20 home runs for the Mets, and centerfield prospect Brett Jackson, who made his major league debut late last season, has received high marks from manager Dale Svuem after retooling his swing with Svuem and the team's hitting coaches, James Rowson and Rob Deer, in the offseason to cut down on his strikeouts. Team president Theo Epstein said back in early October that Jackson and third-base prospect Josh Vitters would open the season in Triple-A, but Jackson could change that by translating that mechanical change to game action in March.
The Big Prospects: SS Javier Baez and RF Jorge Soler
Baez, who just turned 20 in December, hit .294/.346/.543 in his full-season debut last year at age 19. The ninth-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Baez projects as a .300 hitter with 30-homer power in the majors. He will be tested in High-A this year as multiple scouting reports describe his approach as "reckless" and his aggressiveness at the plate will be exploited as he moves up the ladder.
Soler, who turns 21 later this month, defected from Cuba in 2011 and signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs last June, after which he hit .299/.369/.463 with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts in his U.S. debut. Soler projects as a power-and-speed threat in rightfield, where he'll also get to show off his impressive throwing arm, a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat whose true potential will come into clearer focus in this, his first full season in the States.
Neither Baez nor Soler is expected to reach the majors before 2015, but along with teenage center fielder Alberto Almora, who was not invited to major league camp, they form a trio of blue-chippers whose arrival could mark the final stage of the Cubs' return to contention. That would come just in time to earn Epstein, whose contract expires after the 2016 season, an extension.