2011 NL Central Preview

added 3/29/2011 by Patrick Hajovsky

Late last season, I posted a column at Astros Daily that argued one might legitimately say the Astros could contend in 2011. After the offseason moves by the Astros and other NL Central opponents, I re-read that column and thought it needed to be updated as we head into the season this Friday.

Looking at it again, I stand by my earlier prediction, and there are four key elements to this stance:

1) The NL Central is not a juggernaut, which I'll present in more detail below.

2) The arrogance of folks like Baseball Prospectus, who use only run scoring projections to make season-long predictions. These are absurd markers to completely base a prediction model and this can be seen quite clearly with the Astros, where the BP folks have missed the mark five years running. The defenders of this approach quickly label you an anti-stats, head-in-the-sand know-nothing. I'd say the same of the proponents, and point to actual results - their inaccuracy with their Astros projections. I think the Astros will score enough runs this year to, once again, beat their projections.

3) The trouble with youth is that they're so young. It is impossible to predict the results of a young team because you simply have no reliable database to build from despite a wealth of minor league numbers. However, a young, hustling squad with obvious talent and room for improvement will likely produce increasingly positive results as the season progresses.

4) This is a game called baseball. It's not only specifically designed to break your heart, it’s designed to make you forget it did that to you and keep you coming back for more. So punishment, here is thy glutton.

The key element in a projection of contention is whether or not your team is as good as everyone else. I think the 2011 Houston Astros are right there in the mix. Below is a quick look at the key roster additions and analysis of the 2011 NL Central.

(And one quick disclaimer. I will never, ever write, "If they stay healthy, then they’ll win." I can predict some injuries will hamper teams, of course, but the "if they stay healthy" line makes me gag every time I hear someone say it. It's sort of like, "He's in the best shape of his life." So, for the purposes of my analysis below, let's just stipulate that all of this is based on the predicate, "If they otherwise stay healthy." Thanks.)

Pittsburgh Pirates
Key Addition: Clint Hurdle, Mgr

Get a winning record for one season this century, just one time, and then we'll talk. Otherwise, let's move on.

Chicago Cubs
Key Additions: Matt Garza, SP; Kerry Wood, RP; Carlos Pena, 1B

While I think Tyler Colvin is certainly someone to watch, the addition of Carlos Pena to fill out the 3-4-5 spot in the order is something the Cubs will not be happy about. They are paying Mr. Pena $10 million after coming off a year where he hit .196 (that's one ninety-six, one….ninety….six) with an OPS of .732. If it were an outlier, fine. But Pena has had four straight years of declining numbers and he'll be 33 in May. In other words, these are the prime years where we're seeing his decline. And you thought the Astros were overpaying Carlos Lee!

Add in Starlin Castro's less than "starlin" .347 OBP, and I think we're going to see a Cubs team with a very limited run-scoring potential, which will strain a volatile pitching staff. The Cubs helped themselves in that department this week by releasing Carlos Silva (and publicly slamming him as well). Will they be so lucky with Carlos Zambrano, as he gets frustrated with a lack of run support?

Matt Garza will also have a much tougher time producing than he's done in the past. For the AL East champion Rays in 2010, Garza received an average of 5.2 runs per game, and the team lost only four times when Garza put out a quality start. Watch that 5.2 go down, and that four go way up this year. It's going to be a tough year in Wrigleyville without some kind of offensive upgrade.

Milwaukee Brewers
Key Additions: Zach Greinke, SP; Shaun Marcum, SP; Nyjer Morgan, OF

In my prior column, I said, "Unless the pitching staff is overhauled (read: a lot of money is spent to sign some front-line starting pitching), 2009 will be the high water mark of the Prince Fielder Era, with an end date of October 2011 (possibly earlier)."

Well, they listened. Into Brewerland steps Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum to compliment Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf. Of course, Greinke is out until May with a cracked rib, but the offensive firepower of Corey Hart, Ryan Braun and "Mr. Contract Year" Fielder should keep them in contention, and this is especially so with the recent pickup of Nyjer Morgan to set the table.

These moves by the Brewers tell me that they see the NL Central as something that can be had, and they're serious about getting it before Fielder ships out of Wisconsin faster than a Democrat senator. They should be commended for their aggression, especially if, as Baseball America projects, they have the worst farm system in the majors. An extended fallow period could be right around the corner for the Big Blue Brew Crew, but 2011 should help ease the coming pain a bit.

St. Louis Cardinals
Key additions: Lance Berkman, OF; Gerald Laird, C; Nick Punto, 3B; Ryan Theriot, 2B/SS

Listen, this team has Albert Pujols. So if the threshold is "contention", that alone qualifies them. But digging a little deeper shows there is less than what meets the eye, especially with the loss of Adam Wainwright for the season.

I never thought I would say that pitching would be thin for a team coached by Dave Duncan, but the pitching is looking tissue-esque once you get past Chris Carpenter, who is already dealing with nagging injuries this spring. Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse are veterans, but are declining. Lohse, in particular, has yet to prove he can pitch a full season without serious injury, despite his brilliant 2008 campaign. Westbrook had a nice mini-resurgence in 12 games with the Cardinals late last year (3.48 ERA, 1.253 WHIP and 113 ERA+), but his recent history suggests lesser results are to be expected.

For offense, the pickups of Berkman, Punto and Theriot are meant to solidify the attack around Pujols and Matt Holliday - and they may do just that. Punto is a steady bat, a tough out and an excellent free agent signing. Berkman, however, has simply not played that much outfield (read: any) since his leg injuries of the past few years and, when he did play there, it was mostly left field at Minute Maid Park, which even Carlos Lee can handle adequately. That's a gimpy leg to fill out the 3-4-5 lineup production focus (pun intended).

This is simply not a dominant Cardinal lineup that can consistently produce runs. The Redbirds will contend, but a prolonged losing period will cost them at some point.

Cincinnati Reds
Key addition: Edgar Renteria, SS

The Reds, as expected, are near the top of everyone's projected NL Central standings. For reasons to be unconvinced, though, look no further than the "Key Addition" - 35-year-old Edgar Renteria. Really? That's your answer to improve the offense of a Reds team that was quickly and decisively swept out of the playoffs? That features Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs with underwhelming power numbers in support of Joey Votto? That has a rapidly declining Scott Rolen?

Cincinnati is putting a ton of pressure on a Dusty Baker-managed pitching staff that, in many cases, overperformed in 2010. Bronson Arroyo posted his lowest WHIP (1.145), OBA (.234) and Runs Allowed (95) of his career, but given those numbers, his ERA+ was a lower than expected 103. Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto (diagnosed this spring with the dreaded "shoulder inflammation") limped into the playoffs, and Homer Bailey remains an injury concern. Can Aroldis Chapman and Edinson Volquez make up the difference Assuming Chapman even starts, it's hard to see how. Volquez is currently the staff ace but has never been able to complete 200 innings in a season - a minimum threshold for a Dusty Baker voodoo doll, um, pitcher.

The pitching will have to rely on an offense consisting of Votto at first, Brandon Phillips at second, Renteria at short and Rolen at third. Injuries will follow this team all year, and a below .500 record is not out of the realm of possibility.

And now, the Houston Astros. Let's compare the starting pitching with the rest of the division:

Top 3 starting pitchers:
Chicago Cubs: Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza
Milwaukee Brewers: Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf (with Greinke due back in May)
St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook
Cincinnati Reds: Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto
Houston Astros: Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ

You can certainly say that with Greinke, the Brewers' count goes up to four, but that listing is the very illustration of parity. To say the Astros shouldn’t be in contention with this rotation is to ignore the level playing field. It is time as well for Bud Norris to prove he can beat other teams besides the Cardinals. If he does, the Astros' starting pitching is as good or better than anyone in the division.

I mentioned earlier that the problem for the Cubs is in run production. That's certainly the projection among statisticians for the Astros as well. As of June 22 last season, the Astros were projected to score a grand total of 551 runs - one of the lowest totals in club history. However, the team that takes the field in 2011 bears almost no resemblance to that eyesore of a lineup. Projections of that sort are notoriously suspect when projecting young hitters such as Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson.

The Astros simply cannot win or even be in contention if the production doesn't increase above the 690-run pace set after June 22. While one can question whether the injury to Clint Barmes seriously impacts this effort, the injury to Jason Castro definitely does - if he would have developed as expected. Thus, Wallace and Johnson can and must improve. I think they will.

Hunter Pence has been a source of irritation for years, but not from anything he's done. The club markets Pence as "the next great Astro", which he isn't. But he definitely compliments the offensive effort with his yearly 20+ HRs and .280 average (the definition of a complementary offensive player). Bill Hall brings a needed veteran bat with some power as well.

That brings me to Michael Bourn. While he rates as the fastest player in the NL, you can't steal first. His OBP of .354 and .341 is not conducive to run production. He needs to get on base much more consistently. If he doesn't, the team should consider a trade while Bourn still has the appearance of value.

One season of low OBP for a young lead-off hitter can be seen as an adjustment. Two seasons are the beginning of a pattern. Three seasons, and he becomes Willy Taveras. It would be better to go with a young, comparable Brian Bogusevic in center field if that continues, and trade Bourn. Whether that happens or not, run production, and thereby contention, is dependent on improvement in this metric.

Left out so far is Carlos Lee. His horrible 2010 campaign can be attributed to a lot of things - age-related decline, disinterest, bad mechanics, etc. I certainly agree with the age-related part, but I think the mechanics argument deserves a hearing, due only to the number of pop-ups that seemed to plague his apocalyptic first half last season.

I am not persuaded that any ballplayer is really disinterested, so while Lee simply doesn't come across as a player that overly cares when the team loses, different players react in different ways and a certain stoicism is necessary when you’re dealing with the dual threats of a long season and the failure associated with playing the game. Whatever the case, Lee was well outside the norm in 2010 and the numbers suggest he should rebound in his penultimate contract year, if only to be dealt to a contender.

Looking objectively at every team in the division, the Astros have a team that can contend for the division, although not yet the pennant. To be clear, I don't think they will win the division. For that honor, I predict the Brewers will have a very similar year to the 2010 Reds and lock the matter up by mid-September.

I do believe, however, the Astros will be within striking distance not only past eight games into the season (an improvement from 2010), but will be there for Labor Day as well. I predict they will finish the season at or around the 82-win mark.

So often in the last few years, I've envied teams that have good young talent and were on the rise. Those teams play hard every day, and often excite their fans with the clear promise of better times ahead. Last year, the Astros of Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee and Pedro Feliz, along with the hustling Hunter Pence, were clearly not one of those teams. This year, the Astros of Brett Wallace, Chris Johnson, J.A. Happ and Michael Bourn, along with the leading-the-way Hunter Pence and the waiting-in-the-wings Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles are, and it's going to be exciting to watch. The Astros have not gone more than three seasons without at least a .500 record since the 1962-68 seasons. That streak won't end in 2011.