Some rather notable moves have been made by teams within the NL Central this season. The Cubs added a couple of ex-Rays (did you see what I did there?) in Matt Garza and Carlos Pena. The Brewers greatly revamped their rotation with the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. And while the Reds have been mostly quiet on the hot stove front, they still look to field a very strong team come this spring. The Cardinals moves seem to be rather lateral to me, but at least on paper, the division looks to be closer in talent than it has in …well…maybe ever. What are your thoughts on the division headed into 2011, and how do you see it shaking out?

Erik: I, for one, welcome our new Brew Crew overlords. Their starting pitching has been worth a whopping 14 WAR over the past two seasons, the worst in all of baseball. With Prince Fielder rapidly approaching free agency, I admire Doug Melvin’s cajones to go all in and add a very solid arm in Marcum and a potential Cy Young winner in Greinke. Their lineup already is already the envy of the National League and now they finally have the pitching. The Reds may have over-performed some last year, but they should benefit from a full season from Edinson Volquez, assuming all goes well coming back from Tommy John, and it won’t hurt them to have a full year of Mr. 105 MPH fastball in their bullpen, either. I think Fred Lewis is an underrated addition to a deep ballclub.

I’m less impressed with the trade for Matt Garza considering what the Cubs gave up, but at least on paper the Cubs look to be decent, although I don’t think they will be able to hang with the big three. I don’t think there really is a favorite to win the division; but the Reds, Brewers and Cardinals are equally good. Bold (!!!) prediction: The team with the least amount of injuries will win all of the Tostitos. I’m going out on a limb, I know.  Having said that, I’m nervous about the amount of mileage put on Chris Carpenter’s arm last season.

Andy: In 2010, the Brewers and Reds led the NL in offense (wOBAs of .339 and .334 respectively) and neither of them will lose significant offensive parts next season. What makes them so dangerous, however, is that each of their rotations will get a boost in 2011. Sure, everyone’s talking about the Brewers’ acquisitions of Greinke and Marcum, but don’t forget about Yovani Gallardo whose numbers (9.73 K/9, 3.02 FIP) may have been under-appreciated in a rotation that ranked 14 out of 16 NL teams in FIP last year. Meanwhile, the Reds (12 out of 16 NL teams in FIP) will benefit from a healthy Edinson Volquez. If needed, they could also expedite Aroldis Chapman’s career as a starting pitcher.

While the Cardinals and Cubs have added names to their rosters, I’m not convinced that either team is greatly improved. That’s more damning of an assessment for the Cubs since the Cardinals’ pythagorean record (based on runs allowed and runs scored) suggested poor luck in 2010. Not only was Derrek Lee’s offensive output better than Carlos Pena’s last season, but Bill James projects that to hold true for next year. Garza is an intriguing addition. Although he’s built a reputation of outperforming his FIP, it’s fair to wonder how the friendly confines of Wrigley will accommodate his propensity for generating fly balls. Another peculiar thing about this trade is that all of the Cubs’ starting pitchers had FIPs below 4.00 last year. So, how big of an upgrade do they really think he’ll be?

Much like Erik, the Cardinals acquisitions of Berkman and Theriot strike me as horizontal at best. I feel comfortable assuming that Berkman will help the team offensively (especially in OBP), but his outfield defense will cost them runs. Still, I expect him to be a plus player. Theriot would have been solid insurance for the middle infield, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a lower WAR than Brendan Ryan in 2011 (assuming Boog gets regular playing time with the Mariners). The Cardinals are banking on better luck and team chemistry to win the division.

While I love watching Cardinals’ baseball regardless of the product on the field, I’m glad the talent level has risen in the NL Central. Unfortunately, most of that talent will play for the bad guys. Although the Brewers have made the most obvious upgrades, I think it’s premature to hand them the division. I do, however, expect them to hang with the Cardinals and Reds for much of the season and make it a three-way race. You might have noticed that I left out the Astros and Pirates. That was intentional.

Steve: It’s hard not to be impressed with what the Brewers have done this off season.  Adding two pitchers of the quality of Greinke and Marcum can only help a rotation that has been near the bottom of the league for most of the recent past.  I could easily see those two combining for 8-9 WAR in the NL, which would be an 8-9 win improvement over the replacement level mess the Brew Crew has been rolling out there.  Their big hole now becomes shortstop where they inherited Yuni Betancourt as part of the Greinke deal.  That said, their offense will still be very good.

The Reds had enough guys on the correct side of the aging curve (old Cardinals are the exception it seems) that some true talent improvement could be expected.  Between that and the aforementioned full year of Volquez will probably equate to a similar season as last years from a record perspective.

I agree with my counterparts on the Redbirds moves being lateral at best (likely the other way).  The best way for the Cards to improve now is by some better luck from Skip (assuming he gets run out there every day) and Yadi, better health from Freese, and a full slate of playing time for Colby Rasmus (hint hint Tony).  I echo Erik’s concerns about Carp on the pitching side, and worry about the depth of the rotation given the injury histories.

Like Erik, I’m not a huge fan of the Garza deal for the Cubs.  While he may be a 3-4 win pitcher, he’s likely bumping a 2 win guy, so it’s only a marginal improvement.  Will the Cubs be better than last year?  Yeah probably.  Will they be good enough to make a run at the top?  Probably not.

The Pirates and Astros are still the Pirates and Astros.  While they both have some solid young pieces, they are likely not ready to compete with the big boys in the division.

It’s pretty clear that the Central will be a tough division this year with 3 quality teams and a fourth that could be dangerous if the chips fall right.  If I had to go out on a limb right now I’d probably give the slightest of edges to the Reds.  They have the most well rounded team of the big three.  They out field the other two teams by a pretty solid margin (and the Cards and Brewers likely got substantially worse), while having a top fight offense and solid (and deep) pitching.

Readers, now you tell us.  What do you think the finish in the Central will look like this year?

Erik Manning

Erik became addicted to Cardinals baseball as a young lad growing up on the mean streets of O'Fallon, MO. He moved away to Tulsa to attend Bible College, where he met his wife, who talked him into moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also known as the Bermuda triangle of baseball. His dream is to see the blackouts end, and his other interests are theology and philosophy of religion. He is the parent of two young boys.

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3 Responses to “Roundtable: A New and Improved NL Central”

  1. Very impressed with your analysis and facility with the relevant tools. I am Cards fan but not happy with their moves. Brewers look formidable. Hope Berkman finds fountain of youth.

  2. Can’t argue with the statistical points you guys make. Here’s my “intagibles” response.

    Reds – Gotta figure they will regress. Gomes will not repeat the same season. Rolen won’t stay healthy, and you just don’t want Cairo playing 3B every day. Renteria won’t stay healthy, but Janish is probably better. Phillips will likely have a better year than last, and Stubbs/Bruce still haven’t achieved their ceiling. Can’t see Votto repeating. He had one heck of a season last year. The guy is very talented, but those were incredible numbers. Their rotation may be deep, but do they really scare you? It’s not like they can throw a Waino, Carp, Garcia or Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum at you in a three game set. Volquez and Cueto can deal, but they also kill themselves with too many baserunners.

    Brewers – Have to have the fewest question marks of the big 3. Can they trust Axford for a whole season to anchor the pen? He was a bit shaky down the stretch last year. Marcum has to stay healthy. Gallardo needs to allow fewer baserunners. Braun and Fielder both had “down” years for their standards last year, so you can probably expect them to return to form. Can Rickie Weeks stay healthy for an entire year again? I wouldn’t put money on it. What can you expect from Corey Hart? He was hot early last year, but cooled off quite a bit.

    Cards – Have to have the most questions marks. Can Freese stay healthy? What can you expect from Theriot? Will Skip bounce back? Is Colby-gate a thing of the past? Can Berkman stay healthy and cover more than 10 square feet of RF? Will Carp stay healthy? Was Waino’s elbow issue just a minor issue for last year or will it carry over? Will Garcia repeat? If the Cards get a positive on most or all of these, then they probably will the Central, but what are the odds of that happening?

    Cubs – I just don’t see how adding Garza and replacing DLee with Pena changes that team much. Zambrano is one second from another blow-up. I just don’t see how they have a chance to compete unless the Reds, Brewers, and Cards all underachieve.

    I think you can pretty much flip a coin between the top 3. I think Erik is right. It’s so close, whoever has the fewest injuries will win the division.

    • All valid points. I think we’re all in agreement that the differences are minuscule.

      Thanks for the response.

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