Chicago: The cupboard is not as bare here as widely believed – but it’s close. Firstly, the Cubs have two of the game’s emerging stars in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro (when he’s watching the game he’s in). There is also an able and patient management structure, from field boss Dale Sveum through president Theo Epstein. Behind them are three of the higher-potential impact position prospects in infielders Javier Baez and Junior Lake, and outfielder Jorge Soler.
The problem is, the next most interesting thing about the Cubs is the debate over whether they should commemorate the centennial of Wrigley Field next year (to note 100 years since it was built, as Weeghman Park, for the Chicago Whales of the long-gone Federal League) or in 2016 (to note 100 years since Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved them to his stadium).
Because possibly for the next four seasons, Rizzo and Castro and the When’s-The-Centennial question might be the only things to talk about at 1060 West Addison Street. Cubs fans have to hope Rizzo and Castro are still there by the time Baez and Soler (and to a lesser degree, Lake) get there. And they have to hope that some pitching finds its way there, too. Because right now there’s none, other than the intriguing Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa and his counterpart among domestic spelling confusion, Jeff Samardzija.
Cincinnati: Lost in the debate that lingered through nearly the length of this lengthiest spring training – does Aroldis Chapman close, or get moved to the rotation – was the fact that on September 7, 2012 Chapman imploded. He faced seven Astros in the ninth, struck only one of them, gave up four hits (including a three-run homer to Matt Dominguez), and blew a 3-2 Reds’ lead. Three days later he walked three of the five Pirates he faced. Dusty Baker then gave him 12 days off, and although Chapman recorded saves in his last three appearances, he was no longer the untouchable pitcher of the season’s first five months (4 innings, 3 K’s, 3 BB, 1 hit). He then nearly coughed up Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants (5-1 lead: two walks, two wild pitches, a hit) while following up with clean but irrelevant innings in the losses in Games 3 and 5.
My point is that, as often happens, debate obscures trouble. Any weaknesses Chapman showed in Arizona this spring (5 strikeouts, 4 walks, in nine innings – an opponents’ batting average of .294) could be attributed to the aborted starting experiment rather than something like, say, a pre-critical-mass arm problem.
That Cincinnati has at least one viable alternative in the pen (Jonathan Broxton was lights out this spring) is not the point. Chapman, as starter or reliever, is the pitching centerpiece of a team in a division where the contenders can all hit, and are separated by their mound strength. If Chapman is not the guy he was most of last year, the Reds are down one asset. As it is now, his failure to convert to the rotation means Cincinnati can’t survive any more of the past yo-yo seasons from the likes of Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. If something serious happens to Chapman, Broxton will adequately replace him – but the bullpen depth, which already hits Manny Parra levels surprisingly early, will be taxed.
Obviously the Reds are improved offensively. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the game’s underrated outfielders (career OPS: .847. Matt Kemp’s career OPS? .853 ) and provided his back woes of the last two weeks are transient, will handle both the leadoff spot and centerfield with ease. That’ll give Billy Hamilton a year to learn to play the position in the minors and become a Vince Coleman-like figure in Cincinnati (without so much of the throwing-firecrackers-at-fans part).
But as Chapman goes, so go the Reds.
Milwaukee: That the Brewers think Corey Hart will be back far earlier than the original July/August timeframe is indicated by their willingness to stick Alex Gonzalez at first base – rather than a prospect like Hunter Morris or a retread veteran – in his absence. With Hart’s bat, the Brewers’ new formula – in which at least four of the guys (Aoki, Gomez, Segura, Weeks) are as much about getting on as getting over – can churn out runs. Without him there’s a dead spot in the middle of the lineup and suddenly Ron Roenicke is depending on catcher Jonathan Lucroy to drive in 90 runs.
The Brewers’ starting pitching may have been better than thought even before they ransomed Kyle Lohse from The Island Of Misfit Scott Boras Clients. Yovanni Gallardo is a stud and Wily Peralta will eventually be one, leaving quality needed from only two of the group consisting of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Chris Narveson, and the AAA rotation.
Milwaukee can win this division but all the ifs will have to turn in their favor. Lohse will have to succeed outside of St. Louis, Hart will have to heal quickly and hit hard, and Peralta will have to be ready now. Because the bullpen could be a disaster. John Axford blew 9 of 44 save chances last year, briefly lost his job to a terrified looking Jim Henderson – and there is no depth behind them short of imported lefty specialists Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny.
Pittsburgh: With a few breaks the Pirates could leap into contention this season, but if the Brewers need all the ifs to run in their favor, Pittsburgh needs that from ifs nobody’s yet envisioned. It speaks to the degree the franchise has shed its farce label that Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin chose to sign up rather than stay with the Yankees; it speaks to reality that only after he rallied with a strong September did Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin manage to hit .211 last season.
There’s always something like that with the Bucs. Here they can go and trade off closer Joel Hanrahan for a hatful of Boston prospects and try to turn ace set-up man Steve Grilli into his successor – yet this also means that they are relying on a 36-year old novice closer, who made his major league debut five weeks into this millennium yet in all that time has had exactly 11 save opportunities (five of them last year – three of which he blew).
Andrew McCutchen is a great player and Pedro Alvarez and maybe Starling Marte have the potential to be nearly if not great. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are living up to the pitching hype. But the Pirates can find a cloud for any silver lining. The same people who chose and developed all five of those men (and Neil Walker too) gave pitching prospect an over-slot bonus of $2,250,000 three drafts ago. Last year they had to convert him to being a first baseman. He hit .213 – as a 21-year old facing 18-year olds in rookie ball. That a draft choice named Stetson might prove to be all hat and no cattle as pitcher and hitter would just about sum up the Pirates.
St. Louis: You know what would be really cool? If Jon Jay could play shortstop and Oscar Taveras could play second base.
Over the last few years the Cardinals have developed a reputation as the Drs. Frankenstein of the middle infield. They’ve tried to make Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, and now Matt Carpenter into second basemen, each with ineffective if not entirely unhappy results. Now would be the time for one of their creations to rise from the operating table, because the middle infield is the only hole in an otherwise dominant ball club – but what a hole it is.
Carpenter showed some usefulness filling in at first and third last year (and he’s due back to fill in for David Freese at third as the season starts), but there’s no sign he’s a second baseman. And Pete Kozma’s credentials as a defender at short are passable, but the hitting he did down the stretch and in the playoffs last September and October is just about all anybody should expect. The Freese injury may be the happiest of accidents, shuffling Carpenter off second and forcing the definitionally adequate Daniel Descalso into the lineup at second TFN.
Otherwise the Cards are just great. Won’t miss Chris Carpenter or Kyle Lohse. Still producing kid pitchers in clusters (this year’s – after previews last year – Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly), still two or three deep at the back end of the bullpen (Motte’s hurt? Get Boggs and Salas ready). The aforementioned Taveras could step in if (when) Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran get hurt. Yadier Molina is as good as they get.
So – how much does an offensive hole at short and a defensive hole at second hurt an otherwise impeccably built team? We’ll see. I think the Cardinals can get through the division. After that? Notice what happened to the Tigers when they tried to sneak poor execution past the Giants.
I’ll take the Cardinals in a tight race over the Reds with the Brewers finishing third – and I’m not sure if they’re a factor or not (ask Corey Hart). Pittsburgh’s fourth (maybe challenging for third). The Cubs will finish last.
But one passing thought: what if the Rangers, who have too many middle infielders but not enough outfielders and actually sent Jurickson Profar down, and the Cardinals, who have too few middle infielders but too many outfielders and actually just sent Oscar Taveras down, had the collective cajones to swap Taveras straight up for Profar?
First of all, this photo of my six-year old niece helping me keep score at the Yankees’ opener doesn’t have a thing to do with the NL Central. It’s just that it represents her first tentative steps towards fandom, and is to my mind fully representative of the rituals of the sport. Just the other day she ceaselessly quizzed her ball-playing older brother about what all the players do. Now she’s trying to figure out what the hieroglyphics represent, and carefully entering abbreviations at my instruction, and asking with delighted amazement: “What does that mean?” (She also insisted we take a walk, I told her we’d go wherever she wanted in the park because she was in charge. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know”).
The history of winning the World Series and then altering your uniform the next year to advertise the fact is a star-crossed one. The 2009 Phillies, 2007 Cardinals, and 2005 Red Sox all dipped their toe into the pool and wore special gold trim on their unis for their first one or two home games. The 2011 Giants wore a particularly garish patch all season long. Not one of them repeated their previous year’s triumphs. Go back into history and there are greater calamities still: the 1920 Cleveland Indians overcame the mid-season death of their star infielder Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, then surged past the scandal-ravaged White Sox to grab their first pennant, then won the World Series in large part because of an unassisted triple play by Chapman’s double-play partner Bill Wambsganss.
Next year, Wamby and his teammates dressed in these uniforms:The “Worlds Champions” finished second in 1921, did not seriously contend for the pennant again until 1940 (when they were decimated by an internal player revolt against their manager, earning the players the nicknames “The Crybabies”), didn’t win another Series until 1948, and haven’t won one since.
The 1927 Cardinals did something similar, although a little less garish, were punished by being crushed in the ’28 Series by the Yankees and the ’30 A’s, but were winners again by 1931.
The 1906 New York Giants wore these modest little outfits, at home and abroad, to celebrate their 1905 title. The Giants fell out of contention in ’06 and ’07, suffered the singular ignominy of the 1908 pennant race and the Merkle Game Controversy in ’08, watched the president of the National League kill himself over that controversy in ’09, didn’t compete in ’10, had their ballpark burn down in ’11, lost the epic series on the Fred Snodgrass “muff” and the Mathewson Wrong Call in ’12, lost another Series in ’13, watched one of their cast-off pitchers lead the last place team past them and to the Series title in ’14, saw the team break up amid gambling rumors in ’15, won 26 in a row and still finished only fourth in ’16, lost the ’17 Series when nobody covered the plate on a rundown from third base, and didn’t come out of it until they won the Series of 1921 and 1922.
I’m not suggesting wearing a uniform devoted more to bragging than team identification caused these calamities, but there is a remarkable amount of trouble associated with teams that merely tinkered with their jerseys after they prevailed. The Cubs went from wearing a simple “C” for their 1907 shirt to a “C” with the “Cubby Bear” nestled inside in 1908. They repeated the title that year, but changed the jerseys to an even more ornate version with “Chicago” spelled vertically down the buttons in ’09, and you might recall what ’09 was the start of for the Cubs.
This is a very very very long way of leading up to this question: This gold-lettered uniform the Cardinals wore Friday? Why did they wear it?
I mean, none of the teams in the National League Central are among baseball’s best this season. They just aren’t and more over, they know it. The division has been drained by the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and despite producing two playoff teams, a World Champion, and a (brief) Cinderella Team, it wasn’t a very good division last year, either.
I’m saying the title might come down to superstition. So why tempt it? I mean, the caps are a little kitschy but the unis are kinda nice. But did you notice that after wearing it for one day, David Freese is already hurt again?
ST. LOUIS has to be the default favorite, but Carpenter’s gone, Wainwright has looked like crap, Berkman’s already suffered two minor injuries that could linger and limit him, or explode and finish him. Among all humans who’ve never managed before, Mike Matheny is probably the 2nd best choice to try to start on the big league stage (Robin Ventura is the 1st), but on what experience will he call if the injuries continue, or the bullpen falters, or Carlos Beltran is sidelined by a scratched nostril,or the Cards all get blood poisoning from the jinxed gold-flecked unis?
Conversely, managerial experience is no automatic indicator of success – ask CINCINNATI. We all love Dusty Baker, one of the great human beings, but his reluctance to trust youngsters has imperiled the career of Aroldis Chapman and is now reflected in his insistence on catching Ryan Hanigan more than Devin Mesoraco. The Ryan Madson injury will only make Dusty even less willing to trust anybody under 35, and I just have to wonder if at some point ownership is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say “we have committed 297 and a half million dollars to the least important quadrant, the right side of the infield” and disappear into the Arctic or something. How on earth is a market like Cincinnati supposed to produce such revenues? Is the news about the Minnesota Twins censored on the internet in the southern half of Ohio? More immediately, there’s a serious question about every Red pitcher (except Chapman, and of course he is used only as the 6th or 7th most important man on the staff).
The Conventional Wisdom suggests Aramis Ramirez was brought to MILWAUKEE to partially offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Nuh-uh. He was brought in to offset the disappearance of Casey McGehee. The Brewers’ swaggering line-up of 2011 looks awfully human with Gamel and Gonzalez and Ramirez in it in 2012. Randy Wolf looks like he’s at the end of the line and the internal dissatisfaction with Zack Greinke is astounding. It’s a very good bullpen, but in any other division this would not be a serious contender.
If Jeff Samardzija and either Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are for real, CHICAGO may be better than expected, but not much. LaHair has hit well in the NL and Rizzo in the PCL and the obvious move would be to stick LaHair in the outfield, which is already a defensive wasteland, call up Rizzo, and let ‘er rip. Or better yet, off-load David DeJesus or Soriano or Byrd for whatever you could get for them, and give Brett Jackson a shot out there, too. But even if the Cubs hit, past Garza and maybe Samardzija the rest of the rotation is dubious and the bullpen (with the possible exception of rookie Rafael Dolis) will give away a lot of games.
There is a narrow pinhead through which PITTSBURGH might squeeze, and force their way into contention. Revivals from Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett would give a good bullpen something to save. Andrew McCutchen might blossom into an MVP candidate. Starling Marte might come up next month and hit .330. But masked by the completeness of the Buccos’ post-play-at-the-plate collapse last year was what happened to the fuel of their brief spring in the sun. Jose Tabata vanished. Garrett Jones vanished. Kevin Correia vanished. Jeff Karstens vanished. Inexplicably, Pedro Alvarez vanished and the Pirates insist on still playing him. Midnight struck and Clint Hurdle was suddenly managing a pumpkin farm. Everything that went right last year has to go right again this year – and then some.
There is one bright spot in HOUSTON. If the new owner and Poor Brad Mills (the manager’s new first name) had had to have taken this team into the American League this year, the Astros might’ve gone 30-132. There may be sparkles from Jason Castro behind the plate, Jose Altuve at second, and Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Schafer in the outfield, but it is plausible that beyond Carlos Lee there might be nobody on this team who hits 15 homers. There certainly aren’t going to be any starting pitchers who win 15 games. Good lord, as I read this to myself, it dawns on me: all the starting pitchers might not win 35 games among them.
2012 N.L. CENTRAL FORECAST:
Man, I have no idea. If these teams were scattered among the other divisions there wouldn’t be a lead-pipe-cinch pennant contender among the six of them. I guess St. Louis will win, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee behind them, and Chicago and Pittsburgh arguing over fourth, and the Astros disappearing from National League history like the Cheshire Cat. The pennant race might prove variable and exciting, but it will not be good, and it will make fans in places like Toronto and Seattle and Miami wish that realignment were a reality.
If you have a fantasy league team – or just like to play Closer Roulette – there is nothing more perversely fascinating than to watch an actual big league club suddenly go to Bullpen Plan B, or even Plans C and D, seven weeks into the season.
I met Rory Markas at KNX Radio in Los Angeles in 1989 and by the next year was fortunate enough to have him working for me as my weekend sports anchor and reporter at KCBS-TV downstairs in the same building.