Behind Enemy Lines
With a quarter of the season in the books, it's time that our foes in the NL Central got the once over.
St Louis Cardinals
I know this is unthinkable, but could these Cardinals possibly surpass last year's hundred and five thousand wins? It's just that everyday the Cardinals seem to find a new way to win. Starter's put you in a hole? "No problem", says Albert Pujols as he wipes out the deficit with one swing. Still trailing by six in the ninth? "I'll fix that", says Jim Edmonds in the middle of a seven-run rally. Facing Roger Clemens rather than Danny Graves? "That's where I come in", says Mark Mulder while reeling off a 10-inning complete game shutout. Scott Rolen out injured? "You called?", says John Mabry. Phoenix birds never die, Redbirds just never lose. Or at least never lose often enough.
This is a more balanced and well-rounded team than last year too. Thanks to the addition of the old reliable and very good version of Mark Mulder (at a price mind, though Haren has uncharacteristically so far struggled with walks and home runs in Oakland, Calero is injured and Daric Barton's not yet started hitting) and the return of Matt Morris from the land of the gopher ball (he gave up 35 last year!) have really improved the rotation, and Chris Carpenter is up there with the pair of them - while his ERA is currently over 4.00, his peripheral numbers are far better than that, and the .317 batting average on balls in play that's currently holding him back will come down. Neither Marquis nor Suppan are great pitchers (Marquis in spite of his early numbers), but the Cardinals may not have to worry about either for too much longer. Waiting in the wings at Triple-A are two of the more impressive young pitching prospects in the game. Their numbers so far this season (in the very offensive Pacific Coast League)...
|Adam Wainwright||2.26 ERA||59.2 IP||54 H||4 HR||7 BB||49 K|
|Anthony Reyes||2.44 ERA||55.1 IP||35 H||5 HR||9 BB||48 K|
The pair have the stuff to justify those kind of numbers too. Reyes, drafted in 2003 in the 15th round because of injury concerns, works in the low- to mid-nineties with his fastball and throws a good slider and impressive changeup. Wainwright, acquired by the Cardinals in the deal that sent JD Drew to the Braves and bouncing back from a 2004 that was all but a write-off due to a shoulder injury, throws in the mid-nineties with a changeup and a great curveball. If both young pitchers are healthy, though that's always been a big if, the Cubs could be spending a lot of time over the next few years staring upwards at the Cardinals unless they can construct a powerful offence of their own that can rival the Big Redbird Machine.
The Brewers, much like last year, aren't off to a bad start at all. Unlike last year though, they may not completely fall off the face of the earth come the second half. And, given the sheer amount of talent they have in the minor leagues, this is an exciting franchise to follow.
On the pitching side of things, the loss of Ben Sheets, one of the best pitchers in the game, actually hasn't hurt as badly as it might have done, if at all - his replacement, Wes Obermueller, has pitched well over his head and his peripherals, posting a 2.86 ERA in his four starts. That won't last, but it needn't, since the return of Sheets from his inner ear infection (whenever that may be, he's currently in extended spring training) should see the continuation of that kind of performance anyway. Behind him, Davis, for whom the key to his considerable success last year was keeping the ball in the park, had scarcely reached the 50-inning mark before giving up his tenth home run on the year, but a complete game shutout in his last outing could herald a return to form just in time to off-set the regressions from Cy Young candidates to just above-average innings-eaters that are doubtless about to befall the improved Victor Santos and very promising Chris Capuano. Despite fifth starter Gary Glover (with him the Brewers can only hope Jose Capellan - the main prospect they received for Danny Kolb - quickly learns to throw something besides his Kyle Farnsworth fastball), all in all though, this rotation should be very much a strength, to the doubtless surprise of some. Behind them the bullpen is decent if unspectacular.
Decent if unspectacular probably describes their offence best too. Though Brady Clark and Lyle Overbay (Over-rated-bay!) should come back down to earth, that ought to be softened by improvements from Carlos Lee and JJ Hardy (who's in the middle of a pretty horrid rookie slump that shouldn't disguise the fact he's a very capable hitter, particularly for a shortstop). Otherwise this offence is filled by players that make do rather than excel, and so their offence so far has been little better than the Cubs'. This year is a year too soon for top prospects Richie Weeks and Prince Fielder to provide a much needed shot in the arm (both have serious strikeout issues), but the Brewers, on the back of their improving rotation and Carlos Lee's big bat, I think have a decent enough shot at five hundred for the first time since 1992.
I don't know about you, but the only team in the NL Central that I can bring myself to really, really dislike is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals, though our big rivals, at least play great baseball, the kind of baseball we only wish our Cubs could play. The Reds at least have a fun offence and the Brewers a promising future. And the Astros, well, for some reason I kind of both admire and pity the gung-ho approach that has yielded results but brings with it a very miserable future. The Pirates though don't play good baseball, they aren't fun (at least to me) , they don't have a great farm system, and they don't spend any money at all. All they have is a nice stadium. Oh, and Oliver Perez, but he's not been so great this year either, as my fantasy team is really finding out. That of course only causes me to resent the Pirates even more.
Since I can't put that resentment aside, let's just leave at this short and not very sweet assessment - the Jason Kendall trade isn't working out too badly (since Mark Redman's pitching very nicely), and they won't have a record comparable to the Cubs' at the end of the year. They also won't finish ahead of the Astros.
The Cubs will go from playing over the weekend the team that used to never be able to find a good fifth starter to the one that's now taken that mantle. Here's how the Astros' rotation breaks down so far...
|One through four||3.42 ERA||247.0 IP||226 H||20 HR||65 BB||190 K|
|Five||11.81 ERA||26.2 IP||40 H||10 HR||12 BB||20 K|
Ew. Brandon Duckworth and Ezequiel Astacio are the guilty parties. Wade Miller meanwhile is pitching quite nicely in Boston.
The Astros' other big problem, besides owning a 4-10 record in one-run games and a 2-19 record on the road (2-22 in three days' time we hope), has been the offence, which, Craig Biggio and the very underrated Morgan Ensberg aside, has hit .234/.295/.345. And you thought the Cubs' offence had it bad?
Will that last? Well, Lance Berkman can and will hit a lot better than he has in limited playing time after coming back from his injury, and young second baseman Chris Burke, who's now ripping it up at Triple-A after not really being given the shot he deserves, could definately help matters. That would give the Astros four at least decent offensive options. With Jeff Bagwell out for most of the rest of the season at the very least, though, it's hard to see where any other offence will come from. They need another Beltran trade. The problem is they don't have parts nor payroll to spare.
All the same, I struggle to believe that a team with a top four to their rotation as good as Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte and Backe will finish with just the 56 or 57 wins they project to at their current pace. Sorry, throws like a girl, no first-pick in next year's draft for you!
Allow me to direct you to what Dan Szymborski wrote when Eric Milton signed his contract with the Reds...
Imagine Carl Lindner taking $25.5 million in cash out of his bank account. After defecating on the money, Lindner proceeds to strangle the Filipino hooker that witnessed his currency defoulment in full view of a group of tourists with video cameras, Lindner then charges into a police station brandishing an empty shotgun. On top of this, he admits that he picked Sam Bowie in the NBA draft, pre-empted the Raiders/Jets game with Heidi, and advised Neville Chamberlain in the late 30's. Uncle Carl is likely to get a better return on his investment under the set of conditions laid out in the previous paragraph than from his investment in Eric Milton, who's as overrated as Eric Gregg is fat.
Er, yeh, I think that about covers it. We were all saying it back then, but Dan O'Brien disagreed on the basis of, er, his "durability" (er, 17 innings in 2003?), his "history of providing significant innings" (which sounds like durability again to me), his "walk-to-strikeout ratio" (I'd give him that one if it wasn't for the home run ratio), his "stuff" (er, Milton's 4.85 career ERA?) and Milton's "competitiveness and work ethic". Right. Okay. So, after 9 starts, how's Milton doing?
|*Eric Milton||7.16 ERA||49.0 IP||65 H||15 HR||12 BB||26 K|
And that not only sums up Eric Milton quite nicely, but it sums up the Reds' pitching staff as a whole. The only team in all of baseball (including the Rockies) to have given up more runs so far is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and those poor guys have to face the best offensive division in all of baseball. And you could probably just about pay for their entire team this year with Eric Milton's $25.5m.
Nice offence or not, they're not going anywhere until the pitching improves. And that's not happening this year.
I still struggle to believe that the Cubs are worse than any team in this division besides the Cardinals. That though speaks more of the division than it does the Cubs, and it's going to take something extremely special from this team if they're going to ensure the wild card and that final playoff spot come from the Central. Right now, that's looking highly unlikely, if not yet completely impossible.