The Race for the N.L. Central Crown

By Travis Green

As we sit here on July 18th, 2010 the Milwaukee Brewers lead the Cardinals and Pirates by a half of a game, the Reds trail by three and a half games, and well the rest of the division doesn’t have a chance!

The question around St. Louis is who is the biggest divisional threat to the Cardinals, but the question around the country is who will win the Central?

There are many factors that play into this discussion, many in which I will bring up, but of course the one element we can not include is injuries.

Of course these are all predictions, but many of them are backed by stats and other meaningful reasons.

Which brings me to contestant number one and a team we will discredit right away, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

An up and coming Team, but a few too many hurdles to clear this season

Pittsburgh it’s been fun, please keep showing up because you are on your way and with maturity and a few veterans to go along with a very good manager, the Pirates will be a very fun team and interesting team to watch in the next few years, but sorry not 2011.

The Pirates have too many hurdles in the way, including a low payroll brought about by very poor years in attendance, and ownership going cheap. Yes the Buccos will be in on a bats that could be shopped this trade deadline, but the Pirates will not surrender their farm system for a rental. So that takes them out of the running for a guy like Carlos Beltran, or Carlos Pena, in whom they reportedly have very little interest in.

There are a few other options such as Michael Cuddyer (if available), Josh Willingham, Conor Jackson, all which are intriguing, but probably not enough to push them ahead in the Central.

However, there have been reports that two players who are on their radar are Hunter Pence, and Aramis Rameriz. Personally I discredit Rameriz, who has a option for 2012, and a no-trade clause. But Pence would be a great get, but will the Astros be will to trade a player whom they’d have to play against a lot up until at least 2013? This trade is highly unlikely, but if it did happen the Central would be that much closer.

The other question for the Pirates is “Are they buyers?” At this point you may say “Of Course!”, but not so fast. Ten of the next 13 games the Pirates play are against teams above .500, and the other three being against a division rival the Cincinnati Reds. The other three in order are the Cardinals, Braves, and Phillies, which coincidentally leads up to the July 31st trade deadline.

And further reason more to count out the Pirates: The Pirates are 11-17 against teams above .500 and the still 36 games against teams above .500. And 33 games against teams below .500 in which they a 38-27 record against this season. As I said this team has a lot going for them but this season and their remaining schedule is not one of them.

The next culprit on the list is the Milwaukee Brewers. The first place team in the N.L. Central. The team that struck first among all teams in baseball as far as the trading frenzy is concerned, and more importantly took the first swing in the N.L. Central title bout.

Will K-Rod Push Them To A Title?

The Brewers improved their bullpen drastically with the trade of Francisco Rodriguez, but of course everyone was so concerned about the game finished clause in K-Rods contract. If K-Rod were to finish 55 games on the season he would have gotten an $17.5 million option for next season. But if you noticed I said “would have.”

That clause is no longer in play as he and his agent Scott Boras have waived it for added compensation this season. So Milwaukee got a steal, however that does not solve their bullpen situation. The team is still weak from the left side, and can you get K-Rod to buy into being a set-up guy or can the two “closers” be merge into one, and still play nice?

Humans are egotistical, especially when they make a lot of money, and are brought on to do a certain job, if they feel threatened they become very territorial, will this cause more problems than it alleviates? That’s a question that will have to play itself out.

With the addition to the ‘pen, additional money being spent of K-Rod, and bleak farm system to make any more deal, are the Brewers finished making deals? If GM Doug Melvin has proven anything, the answer is no!

The Brewers will be in on a couple of guys, but do not expect them to go big. Yes they have kicked the tires on Beltran, but do they have the money or prospect needed for the big outfielder?

So expect the Brew Crew to look for infield help, nothing too big, but I would not count out Aramis Rameriz considering he could be had at a relatively cheap price and would waive his no trade. That would be the best option for the Brewers, however I do not expect a big name such as that. Look for a guy like Jamey Carroll, Wilson Betemit, or Ty Wiggington to be a solution to some problems at 3B or Shortstop. A few other SS could pop up on that list.

If the Brewers can add another average bat to the lineup, and take out Betancourt or a slumping Casey McGehee it would certainly help their cause.

But would the extra bat ignite an anemic offense which averages 3.5 runs on the road compared to 5.25 at home. They are a drastically different team away from their Brewery compared to the road, 33-14 at home and 18-31 on the road. ]

Breaking down the numbers would take hours, but they do have the advantage of playing two more home games than road games with their remaining schedule with 32 away from Miller Park and 34 in front of the home fans.

The Brewers are 19-18 against teams above .500 and have 33 games remaining against both teams below and above .500. So their record of 32-27 will help against the under .500 teams, but if they want to win the division they will need to improve on that.

We move on to the Cardinals. A team that by all means should have left the conversation months ago, with the injuries, and inconsistent starting pitching, and of course the most notable bullpen troubles.

How will the Cards answer the trade made by the Brewers, and heated contest of the division?

However the Birds on the bat sit just below the coop, at a half game out. How might you ask? Well Lance Berkman is the key, as well as some very good pitching from Kyle Lohse early, and Fernando Salas keeping there late it the games.

With all that being said, it’s still an uphill battle for the Redbirds. There is much speculation and many questions on what this team needs to push it back to their familiar territory on top of the division.

Defense, bullpen help, starting rotation help, and of course where in the world is Colby Rasmus? And will he be traded?

The Cardinals can improve defensively, as they have the sixth worse defense in the Majors, but if you improve the D, will you affect the O? The Cards purposely took a hit in D to add to the offense with acquiring Ryan Theriot. Many have questioned their unwillingness to move Theriot over to second, and keep his bat in the lineup, but with Skip Schumaker playing perhaps the best defense at 2B of his career why take a hit there too, while losing offense?

The Cardinals would love to have it both ways with defense and offense, but right now it just isn’t seemingly possible, so barring a Colby Rasmus trade, the lineup maybe the same come seasons end (well that is as close to the same as it can be with Tony La Russa.)

So where do the Cardinals improve on their pitching in the bullpen? Or remove Kyle McClellan and acquire a starter? It is good to have options such as that, but they are very risky options. Do you mess with K-Mac’s psyche and move him back to the ‘pen and hope he returns to last years form? Or do you trade for a relief pitch i.e. Heath Bell, Mike Adams, etc., and suffer with McClellan as your fifth starter?

I choose option one, because there are more options out there in my mind. The bullpen is a strange situation, guys such as Heath Bell and Mike Adams are questionable since they pitch in a pitcher friendly ballpark in San Diego, and trading for a closer is always a gutsy decision, because they are not machine a lot go into their makeup, and you take them from their surroundings and things could snow ball fast. Salas has not been horrible, Dunc and La Russa seem comfortable with him back there, and K-Mac would help guys settle into their roles, especially with the recent flare up of Eduardo Sanchez’s shoulder, and he helps the left handed batter situation.

Prime dealing options: Brett Myers, Barry Zito, Jon Garland, Carl Pavano, and Edwin Jackson are all options among Starting Pitching. Or hey maybe the Cardinals can finally get their guy Mark Buehrle from the White Sox? Doubtful.

As far as relief pitching is concerned the Cards could look to Toronto and their surplus of bullpen arms, or talk to a team who has apparently called the Redbirds about Rasmus in Washington and ask for Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen.

Sticking with the trading Rasmus idea, other teams such as Colorado and Tampa seem to have interest in the young star, and may be in play in the Cardinals could pry away either a Jeremy Hellickson or Ubaldo Jimenez, but the Cards GM John Mozeliak said a deal for Colby is “highly unlikely.”

The Redbirds need to acquire another starting pitcher to remain in this discussion for the title, and according to Paul Morosi of FOX Sports are one of the more aggressive teams in searching for a starter. Mo has been known to wheel and deal, so I’d be surprised to see him stand pat.

The Cardinals are in one of the more comfortable situations in the Central as far as remaining schedules are concerned, they have 35 games left with teams under .500 and have a 35-26 record thus far against those teams. They will however face 32 teams with records above .500 including a dangerous four game road trip to Philly in mid-September.

Finally the Reds will round out the discussion. They have had a tumultuous year to this point, but only find themselves 3.5 games back.

Under performance has killed them thus far but do they have a few moves up their sleeves?

This team probably has one of the better teams on paper, but under performance has been a problem.

With Zach Cozart taking over at Shortstop they look to put a few of the woes behind them, but with a slumping Scott Rolen, and Edgar Renteria they will need a lot more to help them out.

Those two players were being counted on to be leaders, in the nice mixed locker room of young and old, but how can you expect them to lead with batting averages below .245?

Walt Jocketty will need to pull off some magic as they look for another OF, possible starter, and more bullpen help.

Bullpen help has been a common theme among the Central division, and the Reds are keeping with the trend, and will most likely acquire small help like they did last season leading to the Central division berth. But this season they need more than just that.

The offense has been there most of the time for the Redlegs, but they are still in search of an Outfield bat and do not be surprised to see them talk about the CF from the Mets Carlos Beltran. The Mets are willing to deal Beltran and eat some of his contract if it means better prospects in return for the aging OF, and the Reds have the ammo to do it, but will they? Or do they save that for a starting pitcher?

Many have discussed the need of an ace for the Reds, I have been one of them but with Johnny Cueto emerging as possibly that guy they may not need to go all in on a possible ace such as Ubaldo Jimenez and come up slighted. So best case scenario for the Reds is Cueto becomes that guy, Bailey or Volquez fill in nicely as a number 5 and the Reds acquire a veteran type starter.

There are a couple of positives to this scenario, the Reds will take one of the starters off the market from the Cardinals, they still have money, and prospects to acquire Beltran, and they get a Cardinal killer in Beltran. And as we know there’s nothing better the Reds love doing more than beating the Cardinals, this is evident when Brandon Phillips said he felt like Joe Carter in the ’92 World Series after he hit a walk-off home run against the Cards???

Maybe they should set their expectations a bit higher?

Moving along the Reds will be in contention with the list shown previously in the Cardinals section: Brett Myers, Barry Zito, Jon Garland, Carl Pavano, and Edwin Jackson.

Add to this list a guy named Ted Lilly something many may sneeze at, but if you can get Lilly to keep the ball in the park, which has been tough this year, and throughout his career, he is a very good late season option.

He adds stability, a veteran leadership, a left handed arm (once again to beat the Cardinals), and his second half numbers are night and day compared to his first half: 51-37 4.11 ERA compared to his career first half numbers of 68-69 4.29 ERA. And let’s not forget what he did for the Dodgers last year after be dealing by the Cubs: 7-4 with a 3.52 ERA.

No he’s not Jimenez or Pavano, but Lilly can be had for cheap, and still give you the prospects and money to acquire a bat such as Beltran or other outfield options like B.J. Upton, Carlos Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Ryan Ludwick who may all be had at the right price.

The Reds are still the favorites, but a move by the Redbirds and Brewers could flip flop a few of these teams

In my overall review of the Central division I still like the Reds chances. They have the most in the farm to improve their team this season. Us Cards fans know Jocketty is never shy about making a move that catches his eye. They didn’t get near the production from Votto the first half that they did last year, and you can expect that to change, and if they acquire another bat, along with improving the pitching staff, they become the favorites.

The Cardinals have some decisions to make but are also in deal mode, and with John Mozeliak at the helm, anything is possible, and don’t believe the “highly unlikely” words from Mo on Colby if I am not mistaken Brett Wallace was deemed untouchable before Matt Holliday became available. The right deal comes along and the Centerfielder may be in new confines.

The Brew Crew improved first, but do they have the pieces to finish that improvement off? Or will they be like many things in America, left unfinished until further notice or more money and supplies become available?

And the Pirates, they say they’re willing to deal prospects for the right deal, and really interested in Pence, which if the Pirates are for real, that move would be great, but let’s wait until this current 15 game stretch is over to consider them 100% buyers.

Here are my projections:

Who cares where the other two finish?

I want to go with the Birds but I just have a sneaking suspicion the Reds may be the most active come the deadline, and we all know what Jocketty can do. Deplete a system for the future, for the now!

Finally the projections according to the first half stats if they were to continue into the 2nd half:

Brewers (86-76)
Cards (84-78)
Reds (83-79)
Pirates (82-80)

It shall be fun stuff the rest of the way out, with the Central division leaders playing meeting often down the stretch, hoping to stake claim on the title that earns them a spot in the 2011 MLB Playoffs.

(Please Note the numbers being used for .500 teams both below and above are based winning percentages as of July 18th, and not while the teams played, or after that.)

(Note:,,,, as well as the websites that the pictures are linked to were used in this article.)


One Response to “The Race for the N.L. Central Crown”

  1. Like your blog except I’m a cubs fan. Good article man. Keep up the good work

    -Chris Jelinek

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