March 29, 2003
Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: NL Central
NL Central W L Win% GB
St. Louis 97 65 .599 ----
Houston 84 78 .519 13.0
Cincinnati 78 84 .481 19.0
Pittsburgh 72 89 .447 24.5
Chicago 67 95 .414 30.0
Milwaukee 56 106 .346 41.0
This year's prediction:
1) HOUSTON ASTROS
84-78 (.519) | 2nd Place (13.0 GB)
749 Runs Scored (5th) | 695 Runs Allowed (6th)
I flip-flopped many times on the top 2 teams in this division, but in the end it came down to Jeff Kent. I really think that his addition to the offense will be huge and he is in for a gigantic year offensively, as he moves from the worst park to hit in to one of the best.
If you look at the raw numbers, it shows Houston as the 5th best offense and the 6th best pitching staff last year. Because of their home ballpark, those numbers don't really tell the truth. In reality, their pitching was a lot better than 6th and their offense was probably closer to the middle of the pack. That's good news for the 'Stros because by adding Kent their offense takes a huge leap up and their pitching was actually pretty great last year.
The offense now features a 3-4-5 of Bagwell, Berkman and Kent - who had EqAs of .310, .321 and .319 last year. Essentially, the only change from last year is that Kent is at 2B, Biggio is in the outfield and Daryle Ward is in Los Angeles. So actually Jeff Kent basically replaces Ward in the lineup, which is a gigantic upgrade. I'd say that switch is probably good for 40-50 runs over last year, which would put the Astros at about 800 runs scored.
I also see no reason why the pitching staff can't be at least as good as last year. The only 2 pitchers that pitched over 120 innings for them last year were Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, who are both back and should perform similarly. Dotel and Wagner are both back, so the bullpen will be solid. The rest of the rotation has some question marks, but they really don't even have to be good to be way better than the 3-5 starters were last year.
Kirk Saarloos made 17 with a 6.01 ERA, Dave Mlicki started 16 games with a 5.24 ERA, Shane Reynolds started 14 games and had a 4.86 ERA. After Roy and Wade, they just weren't very good. This year the 3-5 starters appear to be Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson and Brian Moehler. I don't think Robertson or Moehler will be very good, but I like Redding and, as a group, they should be able to at least give some league-average innings.
With a 3-4-5 of Bagwell, Berkman and Kent and some decent contributors in Biggio, Blum, Lugo and Morgan Ensberg (who deserves to play 3B everyday), this offense is going to score runs. If Richard Hidalgo snaps out of his 2 year funk and plays anything like he did in 2000 (.314/.391/.636 with 44 homers and 42 doubles) then they will be incredible, if he doesn't they'll just be very good.
This division is very deep in "okay" teams, but I don't think they really have any upper-level, 100-win squads. However, I think Houston has the best chance of turning into one of those, so I am going with them to win the division.
Prediction: Jeff Kent will hit .320+ with 40 homers and a ton of RBIs. In fact, he is my pick for NBBMVP (Non Barry Bonds Most Valuable Player).
2) ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
97-65 (.599) | 1st Place
787 Runs Scored (2nd) | 648 Runs Allowed (4th)
The Cardinals were really a very good baseball team last year. They finished 2nd in runs scored and 4th in runs allowed and won 97 games. So why do I have them in 2nd place? Injuries and starting pitching.
Right now they are looking at Matt Morris (great), Woody Williams (very good, but injured last year), Brett Tomko (career ERA 4.46), Jason Simontacchi (11 wins last year and a complete and total fluke) and Garrett Stephenson (career ERA of 4.53, missed the entire 2001 season and had a 5.40 ERA last year).
The offense will once again be very good, with Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds and Renteria (a very underrated player) leading the way. At the same time, they also have Mike Matheny and Fernando Vina in the lineup. Vina used to be a good little player, but he slugged .338 last year and looks fairly close to done. If J.D Drew can't come back soon, they are looking at Eli Marrero in RF for extended time. Marrero is a good player, but he's more of utility guy, able to start at catcher and in the outfield, providing great flexibility. With him in right field full-time until Drew returns, they are looking at a horrible bench.
This is a good team and has been for quite a few years, but they have an awful lot of injuries and that rotation worries me quite a bit. Plus Isringhausen was huge for them last year and he's hurt too, so the pen is in some trouble.
They need Woody Williams to stay healthy for 200 innings and they need their injured guys to make quick comebacks. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if they won 90+ games and the division, but I like the Astros offense just as much as the Cardinals' and I think they 'Stros have a better pitching staff.
3) CHICAGO CUBS
67-95 (.414) | 5th Place (30.0 GB)
706 Runs Scored (11th) | 759 Runs Allowed (11th)
I really wanted to go out on a limb with the Cubs and put them in 1st or 2nd place. I thought about it for a little while and decided that in order to finish in the top 2 spots they would probably need to win 85+ games. They won 67 last year.
As much as I love their front 3 of Wood, Clement and Prior (and you know I love pitchers that strike people out, so I am basically drooling over them), I just don't think it makes sense to predict any team to improve by 20 games, barring some pretty major acquisitions. So, I stuck them in 3rd.
The pitching staff is potentially extremely good. Kerry Wood and Matt Clement are 2 of the top young starters in baseball and I think Mark Prior will be better than either of them. In fact, there isn't a pitcher in the world right now that I would take over Mark Prior if I were beginning a team. I think he's going to win multiple Cy Youngs and will finish his career as a Hall of Famer. I usually like to be conservative with young, inexperienced pitchers, but he is just on a whole different level.
It would not surprise me if he won the Cy Young award this season (although that would also include something happening to Randy Johnson, I guess) and it would surprise me if he didn't win 15+ games and finish in the top 3 in the league in strikeouts.
On a semi-unrelated note: I think Prior and Mark Teixeira will be two of the best players of their generation and they were both taken after the Twins selected Joe Mauer with the #1 pick in the 2001 draft. Now, I love Mauer and think he's going to be a stud catcher for many years, but Prior and Teixeira are ready right now and there is some value in that, because there are a lot of things that could go wrong in the time it takes Mauer to get to the majors. Still, how great were the first 5 picks of that draft if I think Teixeira and Prior are both once-in-a-lifetime, Hall of Fame players and I am still not upset that the Twins took Mauer? By the way, I think the D-Rays will probably feel like complete idiots for taking Dewon Brazelton instead of Teixeira after Teixeira hits his 35 homers this year and establishes himself as the young power hitter in MLB. Of course, it won't be the first time they'll feel that way.
I also like certain aspects of the Chicago offense. The core of Sammy Sosa, Hee Seop Choi, Mark Bellhorn and Moises Alou is very good, particularly if Alou bounces back to his pre-2002 level. Aside from that however, there are a few major holes.
Plus, Mark Grudzielanek, Alex Gonzalez and Corey Patterson will not only be everyday players, 2 of them will likely bat 1-2 in the lineup. The OBPs of those 3 guys last year were .284, .312 and .301. Sammy Sosa isn't gonna have a whole lot of "ducks on the pond" this season. He'll probably hit 50 homers and drive in 97 runs, at which point some member of the Chicago media (I'm looking at you Rogers!) will start saying how he isn't a clutch player or some other crap.
I like this team for the long-term because their starting pitching could be unbelievably good if Juan Cruz and Carlos Zambrano come around. I still think they need to take some steps to improve the offense, which is why I have them in 3rd.
This division is wide open at the top though and it definitely wouldn't surprise me if they made a run at the division title this year.
4) CINCINNATI REDS
78-84 (.481) | 3rd Place (19.0 GB)
709 Runs Scored (9th) | 774 Runs Allowed (13th)
The Reds were 9th in the NL in scoring last year and could potentially lead the league this season.
Plus, they moved Aaron Boone (who hit .241/.313/.439 with 26 HRs in 2002) to second base in order to get Brandon Larson into the lineup. Larson isn't young, so he isn't really a "prospect" anymore, but he hit .340/.393/.667 last yeat at Triple-A and then .275/.362/.549 in 51 at bats with the Reds. He's not going to slug .667 or even .549, but he could definitely be a valuable player offensively.
At first base they have Sean Casey, who I am just about ready to stick a fork in, but who is just a year removed from 3 straight seasons with a .300+ batting average.
The lineup could score a lot of runs and I think they'll have to, because I don't think a whole lot of the pitching staff. They were 13th in the NL in runs allowed last year and they didn't really do anything to improve in the off-season.
They signed Paul Wilson to fill a spot in the rotation, which is okay. But he's injured and won't be that great anyway. Danny Graves joins the rotation after being their closer for several years, but I don't think he'll be going Derek Lowe on the league anytime soon (then again, who thought Derek Lowe was going to go Derek Lowe on the league?). I just don't see this staff finishing any better than about 10th in preventing runs, which is why I've got them in 4th.
Predictions: Adam Dunn will hit 40 homers and walk 120 times - at least. And the Reds will lead baseball in homers hit by outfielders by a pretty big margin.
5) PITTSBURGH PIRATES
72-89 (.447) | 4th Place (24.5 GB)
641 Runs Scored (15th) | 730 Runs Allowed (10th)
The Pittsburgh Pirates did something extremely hard to do last season: They managed to simultaneously have the 2nd best hitter in the entire National League and still have the worst team batting average, slugging % and on-base % in the whole league.
Brian Giles, one of truly underappreciated superstars in the history of baseball, had another fantastic season. In fact, check out his numbers for the past 4 years:
Year G AVG OBP SLG BB HR 2B EqA
1999 141 .315 .418 .614 95 39 33 .330
2000 156 .315 .432 .594 114 35 37 .335
2001 160 .309 .404 .590 90 37 37 .323
2002 153 .298 .450 .622 135 38 37 .349
That's greatness and it is the best kind of greatness: consistent!
Despite that, the Pirates hit .244/.319/.381 as a team.
I thought it might be interesting to see how they hit without Giles, so I subtracted his contributions and came up the non-Brian Giles Pirates team offense of...
.238 / .299 / .355
So not only were the Pirates awful offensively last year, they weren't even spread out awful! I mean, they didn't have a whole bunch of crappy players spread throughout the lineup, they actually had one great hitter and a bunch of guys that hit like pitchers.
It is amazing that Giles was able to drive in 103 runs while playing in a lineup with a bunch of guys that got on base 29% of the time.
What's that you say? I am supposed to be previewing their 2003 season? Oh, yeah, right.
You know what? I actually like the Pirates as a team to surprise people in 2003. They won 72 games last year, which isn't completely awful, and that was a 10-game improvement over 2001, which is nice. And actually, they were hanging around .500 for quite a while last year. On July 22nd hey were 47-52 (.475), but they then went 25-37 (.403) to finish the year.
You already know all about what I think of Brian Giles and I expect him to continue to be a .300/.400/.600 player, just as he has been for his entire Pittsburgh career. And the Pirates actually made quite a few changes to that horrible rest of the offense over the off-season.
Last year, the Pirates played Kevin Young at first base, full-time. He got 525 plate appearances and hit .246/.322/.408.
This season, Young is still with the team, but they also brought in Randall Simon in a trade with Detroit. Randall Simon gets a lot of flak because he refuses to take walks, but he can actually be a very useful player, if used correctly. Believe it or not, I devoted the better part of an entire entry to Randall Simon and Kevin Young back in February (I know, I can't believe it either):
Before I say anything, let me remind everyone that Kevin Young has been one of the worst first basemen in baseball for quite a while. Over the last 3 seasons he has hit a combined .246/.314/.414, including .246/.322/.408 last season.
That said, Kevin Young is not a completely useless baseball player, he is simply a bad starting first baseman. Give him 450-500 at bats and he'll be at the bottom of the league in 1B value, but put him in certain situations - like playing only against lefties - and he can be pretty good.
The same goes for Randall Simon. As a 500 at bat first baseman, he is below average. As one half of a platoon he can be very productive.
Look what happens when we stop playing Simon and Young (that sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?) against all pitchers and start playing them against only lefties (Young) and only righties (Simon).
Kevin Young versus lefties:Year AB AVG OBP SLG
1999 159 .308 .378 .535
2000 129 .264 .321 .488
2001 74 .270 .386 .486
2002 106 .283 .377 .519
Randall Simon versus righties:Year AB AVG OBP SLG
1999 200 .325 .379 .460
2001 213 .319 .351 .437
2002 341 .320 .342 .510
Simon did not play in the Majors in 2000, which is why that line is missing from his stats.
Kevin Young and Randall Simon, like many "mediocre" Major League baseball players, can be valuable if used in the right situations. A Young/Simon platoon could very easily combine to hit .285/.360/.500, which is pretty damn good.
I've decided that there are two different types of crappy baseball players:
1) The crappy-when-relied-upon-too-much type of player.
Kevin Young and Randall Simon are perfect examples of this. When you put them in full-time, everyday roles, they become a negative to a team, but when you limit them to spots where they can thrive and use whichever skills are their best, they can be valuable players.
Eric Karros is another good example of this type of player. He stinks as a full-time 1B (hit only .271/.323/.399 last year), but is very good at hitting lefties (.287/.369/.487 against them in the past 2 seasons) and would make an excellent platoon option at 1B, much like Kevin Young.
2) The crappy-when-relied-upon-at-all type of player.
I would classify this group as the Rey Ordonez/Neifi Perez's of the world.
They can't hit lefties and they can't hit righties and, to make matter's worse, they somehow seem to manage to convince multiple teams to waste hundreds of at bats on them every year.
Okay, how was that?
A few hundred words on Pittsburgh's first base situation. I managed to say that Kevin Young and Randall Simon, together, form a nice first baseman. And, while they are crappy players, they are the better classification of a crappy player, because they are not completely useless.
I really think that, if they are put into a strict platoon, Simon and Young will be much better than the Pirates' 1B situation last season.
The other 3 spots in the infield remain the same.
The middle-infield combo of Jack Wilson and Pokey Reese is never going to remind anyone of Jeter and Soriano offensively, but they are, in my opinion, the best defensive middle-infield in baseball. So, I guess you could say that while Jeter and Soriano aren't going to remind anyone of Wilson and Reese defensively...nevermind.
Believe it or not, Pokey Reese was not a completely horrible offensive player last year. He hit .264, drew a reasonable amount of walks and went 12/13 on steal attempts. He had an EqA of .247 last year, which is only .012 points behind MLB second basemen as a whole. And he more than makes up for that with his great defense.
Jack Wilson, on the other hand, was a completely horrible offensive player last year. Well, actually, that isn't even true. While he did hit .252/.306/.332 last year (which is just plain bad), he did extremely well against left-handed pitching, hitting .360/.402/.526 in 114 at bats. Of course, depending on how you want to look at that you could also take that to mean he did horribly against right-handed pitching (.223/.280/.278), but I am trying to be positive here.
Wilson is also a great defensive player and he's still only 25 years old, so he's got a chance to make himself a useful hitter yet. The fact that he did well against lefties last year in significant at bats is a sign that he at least has some skills offensively that he could perhaps build upon.
I don't think Wilson or Reese will be significantly better in 2002, but not every lineup is strong 1-8 and, with their defense, they aren't complete liabilities.
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez had a complete collapse last year.
Year Age AVG OBP SLG HR 2B
2001 23 .300 .350 .536 34 40
2002 24 .234 .279 .387 18 26
It is just not supposed to work like that. A 23 year old that hits .300 with 74 extra-base hits isn't supposed to hit .234 with a .387 slugging % at age 24.
It is pretty obvious from those numbers that something was wrong with Ramirez last year and something was - he suffered a severe ankle injury in April of last season and it was a major issue the entire year. He generally played through the pain, but he wore a big plastic thing on it the whole season and his performance obviously suffered.
While Ramirez's power did go down last season, it didn't drop as much as you think. His slugging % dropped 149 points, but 66 of those points were simply from his batting average going from .300 to .234. That also accounts for almost the entire drop in OBP.
Saying this now, after his awful season, sounds like 20/20 hindsight, but Ramirez walked only 40 times in 655 PAs during his fabulous 2001 season. I've said it before and I'll say it again, a player who's game is based so largely upon batting average can collapse very quickly when some of those singles stop dropping.
Ramirez's batting average dropped 66 points last year and even if you simply subtract 66 points from his 2001 OBP and SLG, he still has a bad line of .234/.284/.470. Batting average fluctuates more than almost anything else in baseball, so, considering the injury also, it isn't that surprising he had a bad year. I would almost guarantee Ramirez plays better this year and, if he can approach his 2001 numbers, he'll be a gigantic boost to their lineup.
Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall is another guy that a lot of people think will improve quite a bit, but I'm not so sure. He was a great hitting catcher from 1997-2000, but his last two years have gone .266/.335/.358 and .283/.350/.356. His power, which was never great, is almost completely vanished and he hasn't come close to the .320 batting averages he posted earlier in his career. I wouldn't bet against him having a better 2003 than his 2002, but I don't think he'll ever hit like he did in the late 1990s.
A month ago it looked like Giles would be playing centerfield and the other 2 outfield spots would probably go to Matt Stairs and Craig Wilson, thus making the outfield very good offensively and possibly the worst in all of baseball defensively. Now Wilson and Stairs are on the bench because the Pirates signed both Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders. This pushes Giles back to LF, where belongs, and improves their defense quite a bit.
Lofton is no longer a great CF, but he is way better than Giles would have been. Plus, Sanders is one of the top defensive RFs in baseball.
Offensively, I don't think the Pirates will be platooning very much, but if they wanted to there is a great opportunity.
vs RHP = .265/.357/.433
vs LHP = .248/.322/.339
vs RHP = .237/.313/.430
vs LHP = .289/.358/.537
Really, Sanders should probably only be an everyday player against lefties and Lofton should be on the bench against lefties.
Craig Wilson hit .313/.376/.482 against lefties last year, so he could step into the lineup in RF, with Lofton going to the bench. This would mean Giles would play CF against lefties or Sanders would.
Against righties, Sanders heads to the bench and Matt Stairs (who hit .249/.355/.494 against RHP last year) would replace him in RF.
Like I said, I don't think the Pirates will do that, but it would help them score some more runs.
It wouldn't surprise me if Pittsburgh won 78-85 games this year and possibly finished as high as 3rd in the division.
6) MILWAUKEE BREWERS
55-106 (.346) | 6th Place (41.0 GB)
627 Runs Scored (16th) | 821 Runs Allowed (15th)
The Brewers were really bad last year. [How bad were they, Aaron?] They were so bad that they're the only team that finished in 6th place. [rimshot!]
But seriously folks, at least they have a nice stadium. Oh, wait...nevermind.
You've got to seriously wonder what the hell is going on with this franchise.
Every team goes through periods of losing and my own Minnesota Twins just recently ended about a decade of last places finishes, so it isn't so horrible that the Brew Crew stunk last year (or the last 5 years). But this is a team with absolutely zero direction at the Major League level.
They stunk last year, no doubt about it. They scored the fewest runs in the National League and gave up the most runs of any team not playing in Coors Field.
Then they declined to offer arbitration to their best player from last season, Jose Hernandez. You may not think that Jose Hernandez is a great player, but he was very good last year and was far and away the best Brewer. He hit .288/.356/.478 with 24 homers and 24 doubles.
According to Baseball Prospectus' "Runs Above Replacement Level," he was the best shortstop in the National League and the 5th best in all of baseball (behind the big 4 in the AL). Despite all that - the .288 batting average, 2nd on the team in on-base %, the 24 homers from a shortstop, the good defense at a key position - the Brewers became fixated with one of his more meaningless stats: strikeouts.
Jose Hernandez strikes out a lot. In 2001 he struck out 185 times in 152 games and last year he struck out 188 times in 152 games. Actually, Jose Hernandez was 1 strikeout short of tying the all-time Major League record for strikeouts, which is 189 by Bobby Bonds. And he still had 11 games left to play. Basically, he was set to become the new record-holder. All of sudden the Brewers freaked out and decided it would be a horrible thing if a guy that struck out 188 times in the first 90% of the season was allowed to strike out 1 more time in the remaining dozen or so games. So they benched him, their best player, for 8 of the final 11 games and he finished the year 1 short of the MLB record.
I have this theory about good managers and general managers that I like to bring up a lot on this blog. It is that the good ones are able to see what a player can do, not what he can't. The Milwaukee Brewers did the exact opposite with Jose Hernandez.
He did so many things well last year...
He played good defense at shortstop.
He smacked 50 extra-base hits.
He hit .288.
He drew a decent amount of walks.
He was 2nd on the team in OBP.
2nd of the team in runs batted in and runs scored.
He was one of the top 5 players at his position in all of baseball.
And yet the one thing they fixated on and decided was more important than anything else is that he made 188 of his outs by way of striking out last season, instead of grounding out to the second baseman or popping up to shortstop or any of the other "acceptable" methods of making outs that the Brewers employed so very much last season.
No, they saw those Ks and they freaked out. They benched their best player for the final 2 weeks of the season for no good reason and then they declined to offer him arbitration at the end of the year.
Hernandez signed with the Rockies where he'll have a fabulous season and do you know who Milwaukee's shortstop is now? Royce Clayton.
The same Royce Clayton that hit .251/.295/.365 last season and is a career .258/.311/.372 hitter. You wanna know the funniest/worst part about it? Royce Clayton strikes out a lot too! In only 342 at bats last year he struck out 67 times. That is once every 5 at bats. If you project him to have the same amount of ABs that Jose Hernandez had last season (525) he projects to strike out 103 times.
So you got rid of .288/.356/.478 and replaced it with .251/.295/.365, because, if given 500 at bats, the first guy will strike out 180 times and the second guy will strike out "only" 100 times.
That says just about all you need to know about the Milwaukee Brewers. Seriously, what else would you need to know? They're gonna finish in last place (6th place) again this year and if Richie Sexson isn't careful with his strikeouts, he'll probably hit another 35 homers and get released next off-season so the team can sign Randall Simon and his improved rate of contact.
You know what? I don't want to end this rant yet. I have one more bug in my ass regarding the Brewers. You see, last off-season the Brewers biggest "fan" tried to eliminate my favorite team. I just thought I'd take one last chance to compare the two franchises, Minnesota and Milwaukee, and see which one would be a better candidate for contraction...
Minnesota - 42 years (1961-2002) or 102 years if you include their days as the Washington Senators.
Milwaukee - 33 years (1970-2002) or 34 years if you want to include their season as the Seattle Pilots.
Minnesota - 2 World Series Championships, 3 American League Championships, 6 Division Championships (or 3, 6 and 9 if you include the Senators).
Milwaukee - 0 World Series Championships, 1 American League Championship, 2 Division Championships.
Minnesota - 23,759 fans per game in 2002, while playing in one of the worst ballparks in all of baseball.
Milwaukee - 24,311 fans per game in 2002, while playing in a brand new stadium (with a leaky roof that makes noise when it opens and closes).
FAN SUPPORT MOMENTUM:
Minnesota - 2002 saw an incease in attendance by 8% over 2001 and 92% over 2000.
Milwaukee - 2002 saw a decrease in attendance by 30% compared to 2001.
Minnesota - 179-144 record over the past two seasons, a .554 winning %.
Milwaukee - 124-200 record over the past two seasons, a .383 winning %.
Minnesota will win more in 2002, draw more fans in 2002 and they'll do so despite an awful ballpark and the dark cloud of contraction looming over the heads for most of last season and off-season.
I don't have anything against Milwaukee fans (really!), but I am glad their team stinks, their front office doesn't have a clue, their fans don't care and their brand new ballpark leaks. Yep, this is Bud Selig's team all the way.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****