In what was expected to be the major league's worst division, the National League Central currently features two of the leagues hottest teams, one of them being baseball's best club thus far into the season. Here is a look at the N.L. Central division standings as of May 6th, 2007 (all scheduled games completed):
If baseball's biggest story this season hasn't been A-Rod's recording setting April or the unfortunate death of St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Josh Hancock, it has clearly been the emergence of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Coming into today's games, the Brewers are a major league best 21-10, quickly taking a 5 game lead in the division. The big question here is can the Brewers, whose fans have endeared years and years of misery, continue winning and bring a playoff team to America's Dairyland?
Even before the season started, it was safe to say the Brew Crew were in the mix for a playoff spot; given this extremely hot start, that sentiment is solidified even further.
While Jeff can give you a better rundown of the Crew; there are a couple of things I want to point out:
1. Where's Ryan Braun?
Brewers' third baseman (namely Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino) have hit for a collective .630 OPS this season, simply intolerable from that position. Ryan Braun, the team's top offensive prospect, is hitting .358/.426/.716 with 8 homers in 95 AB's in the Pacific Coast League for the Brewers AAA affiliate Nashville Sounds. Am I missing something here? Is the organization making the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" excuse? If Counsell and Graffanino continue to produce they way they are right now (which is a pretty good bet), I won't be at all surprised to see Braun in the major league lineup soon. How exciting would that infield be?
2. Is there a better setup/closer combo than Derrick Turnbow and Francisco Cordero?
A major reason as to why the Crew have "overachieved" this season, at least by Pythagorean Records, is their ability to win close games. The Brewers are 8-4 in one to two runs games and a major reason as to why they are succeeding in these close games is because the strength of their bullpen, namely Turnbow and Cordero. The two have combined to pitch 26 innings and have struck out 41 batters while yielding just 3 earned runs (all from Turnbow). Each of these two could close for just about any team and they have been instrumental in the club's success so far this season.
The Brewers are in this thing for the longrun. Some of their players (Jeff Suppan, J.J. Hardy) may be playing a bit over their heads, but this can be compensated by a few players (Bill Hall, Corey Hart) returning to projected form.
I couldn't agree more. While I've already commented on Braun, you can't forget Gallardo who dominating is in the very-hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.
There isn't a spot for Gallardo yet, but if he finds his way into the major league rotation in 2007, it probably won't be a bad thing.
What about the other scorching hot team in the Central, the Chicago Cubs? Over their last 10 games, the Cubs have gone 8-2 seemingly jumping right back into things in the Central even though they haven't gained ground on the Brewers.
A couple comments on the Cubbies:
1. How good are Jason Marquis, Rich Hill and Ted Lilly?
When you combine the three on the season, here is what you get: 118.2 innings, a 2.20 ERA and a combined VORP mark of 39.8 runs.
In all fairness Marquis may be returning to his 2005 form. His batted ball data and peripherals are very similar to that of his 2005 season and we might actually see an above average year from a guy who put up an ERA+ of 74 a season ago. A 2.09 ERA however, isn't sustainable for a pitcher of his caliber.
Similar things can be said for Ted Lilly and Rich Hill who aren't likely to sustain sub-3.00 ERA's the entire year.
2. Is Derrek Lee back?
With all of the Soriano-madness surrounding the Cubs this winter, the fact Derrek Lee was returning to the lineup healthy was seemingly forgotten.
On the season Lee is batting .416/.492/.619 with 2 home runs in 113 AB's, the batting average fueled by a line drive percentage of 28.6%. While Lee isn't showing the power he displayed back in 2005, he should pick things up powerwise and he is once again a force in the Cubs lineup.
What about the Reds? They too have a couple of questions on hand:
1. How bad is the bullpen?
Currently the Reds are dead last in the National League in relief pitcher's ERA at 4.56 and also rank 11th in the N.L. with a 63% save percentage. Their K/9 mark of 7.29 is solid, but this could be their Achilles Heel for the 2007 season. David Weather has been surprisingly good as the team's closer, but can he pitch better than his PECOTA projected 4.86 ERA?
2. Will Adam Dunn be traded?
Dunn has a $13M team option for next year and it is unclear whether the Reds have the payroll flexibility or the desire to exercise this option. Dunn is hitting .266/.360/.532 on the season and his PECOTA projected line of .267/.390/.574 would appeal to quite a few teams. The Reds could certainly cash in on a few promising players if they decide to trade Dunn, but it is too early to decide if they will be buyers or sellers at this season's deadline.
Onto the Houston Astros:
1. How good can Hunter Pence be?
With the offense scuffling and Chris Burke hitting .234/.337/.351 on the season, Hunter Pence has been called up and is now the team's starting centerfielder. Pence's PECOTA projected stat line of .278/.338/.489 is solid for a center fielder and it is nice to see him finally get a taste of the big leagues. He's no star, but he's a heck of a lot more useful than Burke.
2. Will Brad Lidge be traded?
Banished from the closer's role following a rough start to the season, Lidge now finds himself as a middle relief pitcher in the Astros bullpen with Dan Wheeler getting all of the high leverage situations. Despite his struggles, GM's love the "proven closer" tag. Lidge isn't going to close in Houston any longer and it might be best for both parties that a trade is made. A fresh start might be all that Lidge needs and he could bring the Astros a useful player in return.
How about the Pittsburgh Pirates:
How good are Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell?
Even in one of the major leagues worst rotations can you find a couple of gems. On the season, Gorzelanny and Snell have combined to pitch 78.1 innings and have an ERA of 2.65. In a rotation that includes the struggling Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tony Armas, Gorzelanny and Snell are creating a very difficult lefty-righty punch for opposing hitters. Each have plenty of time until they test the market and could be the face of the Pirates rotation for years to come.
Will Adam LaRoche pick things up?
In trading Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge to the Braves, the Pirates were hoping to receive the .285/.354/.561 slugging first baseman their weak offense desperately needed in Adam LaRoche. Instead, LaRoche has opened the season hitting a mere .163/.272/.286 with 3 big flies in 98 AB's. I'd expect LaRoche to start hitting around his PECOTA projected .283/.353/.526 line soon, but the fact his strikeout percentage has risen and the fact he is hitting the ball with less authority (21.6% HR/OF% in 2006, 10.8% HR/OF% in 2007) is concerning.
Last and well in the case of the standings least, the St. Louis Cardinals:
1. As if the death of Josh Hancock wasn't a big enough hit to the pitching staff, the rotation's ace in Chris Carpenter will have surgery and miss close to three months. Can the rotation survive?
Probably not. The Cardinals team ERA of 5.07 was awful to begin with; remove Carpenter for three more months and you have yourselves some major pitching woes. The only real bright spot of the Cardinals rotation has been Braden Looper who is the 25th best pitching in baseball according to VORP (9.8 runs). Anthony Reyes probably won't pitch as poorly as he is now all season, same for Adam Wainwright, but even in this weak division, the Cardinals dim light just got a whole lot dimmer with Carp going under the knife.
Will David Eckstein be traded?
If the Cardinals believe they are out of contention come July 31st of this year will they consider dealing the soon-to-be free agent David Eckstein? Eckstein has struggled mightily to open the year, hitting .216/.280/.247, but if he picks things up, he could be a trade candidate come deadline time. While Eckstein isn't the most productive of shortstops, he does have a reputation as a hard worker and a grinder, something GM's tend to overvalue from time to time. He is a fan favorite in St. Louis, and it looks like any sort of extension talks will begin following the season, but if he can fetch the Cardinals a useful, young player, he could be dealt.
It's far too early to call anyone a clear favorite in this division, but from the looks of things, the Central could be a dogfight between the Cubs and the Brewers. You can't count anyone out yet, but those are the two teams showing the most promise.
Even with the Brewers hot start, I still say the Cubs are favorites, but I may be regretting that quote a few months from now, especially if the Brewers get Gallardo and especially Braun into useful major league roles.