Tuesday, May 6, 2014

NL Central: Cardinals, until someone else

The St. Louis Cardinals have transitioned comfortably out of their Tony LaRussa-Albert Pujols period, taking their run to the World Series in 2013. The Cardinals have challenges from within the division in the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. All three went to the playoffs last year.


Michael Wacha is emblematic of the St. Louis Cardinals these days, a young pitcher who mows them down (Eric Fischer/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).


By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

At the end of the 2013 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals already had been to the Fall Classic without Albert Pujols and they had the unmistakable mark of a young club getting better.

So, it's going to be hard to pick against the Cardinals in the National League Central until someone beats them. The Cincinnati Reds, who have shared division titles with the Cardinals for the last four years, are still around. And now they are joined by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Together, those three clubs presented the best divisional race across the game in 2013.

By 2013 WAR, the Cardinals have seven of the best 120 pitchers in the game, well more than their fair share, and six of them are kids. And they've added 6.3 in 2013 WAR to their infield by bringing in Mark Ellis and Jhonny Peralta.

If Ryan Braun can come back with a big year for the Milwaukee Brewers, they could enter the mix. The only club in this group with no chance of playoff contention is the Chicago Cubs.

Following is a list of each team in the division, giving each club's "top half" position players by 2013 WAR, its "second-level" position players, its top-level pitchers and second-level pitchers. For the top-half position players, we give the player's position and where he ranked at the position across big league baseball in 2013 WAR, then the actual WAR value for the player. For every other category, we give the player's overall 2013 WAR ranking, understanding that pitchers and position players are ranked separately.

More about all of this, including some important clarifications, can be found here. Bear in mind, though, that the 2013 WAR totals for each club only include these top players, and every club will have players with little, no or negative WAR value that actually would drag down its totals.

St. Louis Cardinals (50.3 in 2014 WAR)

Top-half position players — 2B: Mark Ellis, 10, 3.0; SS: Jhonny Peralta, 8, 3.3; 3B: Matt Carpenter, 2, 6.6; RF: Allen Craig, 15, 2.3; LF: Matt Holliday, 9, 2.7; C; Yadier Molina, 1, 5.7. Totals: six players, 23.9 WAR.

Second-level position players — Jon Jay, 167, 1.5; Matt Adams, 187, 1.2; Shane Robinson, 208, 1.0; Peter Bourjos, 227. 0.8. Totals: four players, 4.5 WAR.

Top-level pitchers — Adam Wainwright, 8, 6.2; Shelby Miller, 32, 3.4; Joe Kelly, 61, 2.6; Kevin Siegrist, 95, 2.0; Lance Lynn, 102, 1.8; Michael Wacha, 111, 1.7; Seth Maness, 114, 1.6. Totals: seven pitchers, 19.3 WAR.

Second-level pitchers — Trevor Rosenthal, 135, 1.4; Randy Choate, 165, 1.2. Totals: two pitchers, 2.6 WAR.

Of this club's players, 19 were top-half performers by WAR in 2013. They might miss the magic bat of Carlos Beltran, who tided them over for a couple of years without Pujols, but the Cardinals seem to be doing well as a team without stars.

Well, they have one star. Molina might be the best baseball player in the world right now. The Cardinals' young pitching staff very likely isn't as good without him. Molina may be the one player who his club can least do without. If he were to go missing, this club might be a house of cards.

Pittsburgh Pirates (44.0 in 2013 WAR)

Top-half position players — 2B: Neil Walker, 6, 3.9; 3B: Pedro Alvarez, 11, 3.4; CF: Andrew McCutchen, 3, 8.2; LF: Starling Marte, 1, 5.5; C; Russell Martin, 6, 4.3. Totals: five players, 25.8 WAR.

Second-level position players — Jordy Mercer, 133, 2.1; Jose Tabata, 191, 1.2, Clint Barmes, 201, 1.1; Gaby Sanchez, 225, 0.8. Totals: four players, 5.2 WAR.

Top-level pitchers — Francisco Liriano, 49, 3.0; Mark Melancon, 94, 2.0; Justin Wilson, 108, 1.7. Totals: three pitchers, 6.7 WAR.

Second-level pitchers — Tony Watson, 146, 1.4; Gerrit Cole, 151, 1.3; Jeff Locke, 172, 1.1; Vin Mazzaro, 190, 0.9; Jason Grilli, 206, 0.8; Brandon Cumpton, 209, 0.8; (6, 6.3)

The 2013 numbers don't reveal an ace pitcher, but Cole will become one very soon. With Liriano behind him, the Pirates are good at No. 1 and No. 2. But the next three spots in the rotation are iffy. Fortunately for the Pirates, Melancon, Wilson, Mazzaro, Watson, Wilson, Crumpton and Grilli make up one of the deepest relief staffs around.

Hard to believe there were two center fielders more productive than McCutchen last year. Alvarez ranked only 11th among third basemen, but he was the big bopper in this lineup. Martin is a plus behind the plate wherever he goes.

Cincinnati Reds (40.1 in 2013 WAR)

Top-half position players — 1B: Joey Votto, 3, 6.4; 3B: Todd Frazier, 13, 2.7; RF: Jay Bruce, 2, 5.1. Totals: three players, 14.2 WAR.

Second-level position players — Brandon Phillips, 160, 1.7; Zack Cozart, 161, 1.6; Ramon Santiago, 214, 0.9; Billy Hamilton, 232. 0.7; Derrick Robinson, 241, 0.7. Totals: five players, 5.6 WAR.

Top-level pitchers — Mat Latos, 27, 3.8; Homer Bailey, 43, 3.2; Mike Leake, 51, 3.0; Tony Cingrani, 75, 2.2; Aroldis Chapman, 93, 2.0. Totals: five pitchers, 14.2 WAR.

Second-level pitchers — Sam LeCure, 126, 1.5; J.J. Hoover, 131, 1.4; Johnny Cueto, 135, 1.4; Alfredo Simon, 161, 1.2; Manny Parra, 237, 0.6. Totals: five pitchers, 6.1 WAR.

The Reds only have three position players in the top half across the majors in 2013. The average club has four. Problem here is that Phillips apparently began his decline in 2013, and Frazier doesn't seem likely to repeat as a top-half third baseman. Shin Soo Choo was a good player for the Reds last year. Now, they're counting on Hamilton to take his place.

But the Reds are very strong across their pitching staff, with five good starters and five tough relievers. The preseason injury to Chapman figures to be a terrible blow to this club.

Milwaukee Brewers (35.0 in 2013 WAR)

Top-half position players — SS: Jean Segura, 5, 3.9; CF: Carlos Gomez, 2, 8.4; LF: Ryan Braun, 15, 2.0; C: Jonathan Lucroy, 9, 2.9. Totals: four players: 17.2 WAR.

Second-level position players — Scooter Gennett, 130, 2.1; Khris Davis, 180, 1.3; Jeff Bianchi, 203, 1.1; Logan Schafer, 235, 0.7. Totals: four players, 5.1 WAR.

Top-level pitchers — Kyle Lohse, 40, 3.3; Tyler Thornburg, 97, 1.9. Totals: two pitchers, 5.2 WAR.

Second-level pitchers — Marco Estrada, 121, 1.5; Matt Garza, 126, 1.5; Jim Henderson, 143, 1.4; Brandon Kintsler, 158, 1.2; Francisco Rodriguez, 169, 1.2; Donovan Hand, 225, 0.7. Totals: six pitchers, 7.5 WAR.

Braun and Gomez are excellent players with warts. If they can put it together, and if Lohse, Estrada and Garza are a bit better, this team figures to win some games. But they do not appear capable of matching the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds in general weaponry.

This club also needs a first baseman worse than any other club across the game. On those frequent days when they were writing in Yuniesky Betancourt at first base, they were punting.

Chicago Cubs (25.1 in 2013 WAR)

Top-half position players — 1B: Anthony Rizzo, 14, 2.6; C: Welington Castillo, 5, 4.4; (2, 7.0)

Second-level position players — Luis Valbuena, 163, 1.6; Nate Schierholtz, 171, 1.4; Emilio Bonifacio,184, 1.3; Donnie Murphy, 207, 1.0; Junior Lake, 222, 0.8; (5, 6.1)

Top-level pitchers — Travis Wood, 17, 4.4; (1, 4.4)

Second-level pitchers — Jose Veras, 135, 1.4; Carlos Villanueva, 144, 1.4; Jeff Samardzija, 185, 1.0; Chris Rusin, 211, 0.7; Wesley Wright, 214, 0.7; Blake Parker, 222, 0.7; James Russell, 225, 0.7; (7, 6.6)

It's easy to tell that the Cubs are sadly lacking in top-half position players and top-level pitchers. The Cubs have three total. The average club has eight.

One might expect to see a concentration of talent on those second levels for a rebuilding club, but it's not obvious that the Cubs can expect much growth from the names we see here. Of this club's position players, Castillo is the best. Rizzo receives much critical praise, and he might settle into a long career as a top-half first baseman, but it's not obvious that he will reach the upper echelon. Lake looks like a nice player, kind of the way a lot of guys look like they might be nice players.

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