MLB 2014 Preview: National League Central

Cardinals CF Peter Bourjos aims to help his new club replace Carlos Beltran.

CARDINALS

The Cardinals were once again one of the best teams in MLB last year. After winning a brutal NL Central, they advanced all the way to the World Series. This team simply knows what it is doing.

In advancing to the World Series, the Cardinals did so with below replacement level play at shortstop. To address this, St. Louis signed performance enhancing drugs (PED) suspendee Jhonny Peralta for 4 yr/$53MM. Even without knowing how much PED helped Peralta’s offensive production, it is safe to assume his .374 BABIP is unrepeatable. From a Sabermetrics perspective, Peralta is interesting because the Indians considered him to be a poor fielding SS and traded him to Detroit. The Tigers used him at 3B and reluctantly played him at SS. All of a sudden he started playing good defense (he posted the 3rd best UZR/150 amongst all qualified SS in the trailing two year period). Expect him to produce league-average offense (wRC+ of 100) and below league average defense going forward, but that’s coming from a jaded Indians fan.

Peralta aside, the Cardinals remain a great team. They cannot possibly be worse on the left side of the infield, when they posted a combined -1.2 fWAR between 3rd and SS. Trading 3B David Freese to the Angels for OF Peter Bourjos should be an adequate way to compensate for the loss of Carlos Beltran (i.e., by proxy, as Bourjos will man CF). Freese will be replaced by Kolten Wong (who will move Matt Adams from second to third) and Wong projects to be an approximately 2 WAR player. Sometimes you gotta beat the man to be the man, and this team is still the man when it comes to the National League.

PIRATES

After late-season collapses in 2011 and 2012 cost the Pirates a shot at breaking .500 for the first time since 1992, they broke through in a big way by winning 94 games and advancing to the divisional playoffs. Pittsburgh had a good team (12th in offense/defense WAR and 13th in pitching WAR) that exceeded its talent level by nailing down games late in high leverage situations. That begs the question of whether or not Clint Hurdle can press all the right buttons again this year, yet this is still a very good team, even with some regression in high leverage run prevention.

The most significant loss for the Pirates this offseason was SP A.J. Burnett. Burnett was incredibly valuable the past two seasons posting a combined WAR of 7.0 after coming over from the Yankees. The Pirates failed to give Burnett a qualifying offer which, despite any thinking to the contrary, means they were probably comfortable with his departure. I take this as a sign that they are ready to bring SP Jameison Tallion up to the bigs earlier than expected. He should be able to step in and be a solid BOR to MOR contributor with lots of long-term upside. As far as new acquisitions, SP Edinson Volquez is an interesting one. He has consistently underperformed his FIP over the course of his career, but it’s hard to give up on strikeout pitchers. Apparently the Pirates hope to pull the same trick with Volquez that worked so well with Francisco Liriano.

If the 2013 Pirates outperformed their talent level, they were still a very good ballclub. It would be a surprise to see the season play out without Pittsburgh contending in the division for most of the year.

REDS

Although the Reds won 90 games and earned a Wild Card spot last year, we no longer have Dusty Baker to kick around. The Reds fired the veteran skipper, and although many analysts will consider this addition by subtraction, the impact of a MLB manager is overrated by fans. The success of Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem is just too strong for me to see this any other way.

Losing OF Shin-Soo Choo, however, will almost certainly be subtraction by subtraction. Choo has been criticized for his inability to hit LHP, and it is a real issue, but he posted a fWAR of 5.2 last year and remains overall a well above average hitter. Outside of RF Jay Bruce, your guess is as good as mine about what happens in the Reds outfield. One of the best units in baseball last year could be among the worst this year. Speedy CF Billy Hamilton is the most dangerous weapon on base in a generation, but he will struggle to get there (0.310 OBP in AAA last year). Getting on base was not a problem for Hamilton prior to AAA, but will he do it against stronger pitching?

Despite the negative take on the outfield, the Reds can be expected to contend for the Central once again. They still have a very good infield (outside of catcher, where they are atrocious), and a pitching staff that should be at least average. A full season of SP Tony Cingrani could give them a nice shot in the arm, if he can duplicate the successes that yielded a WAR of 1.3 in 104.2 innings.

BREWERS

The 2013 season was tumultuous for the Brew Crew. Their 74-88 record yielded a fourth place finish in the NL Central, and former NL MVP Ryan Braun damaged his reputation with a suspension for using PED.

Milwaukee’s most significant offseason move was signing SP Matt Garza for 4 yr/$50MM. In 2013, the Brewers pitchers were wretched (28th in fWAR), so Garza is a major improvement to their staff. He is a solidly above average pitcher if healthy, but he pitched only 155.1 innings last year and 103.2 the previous year. Garza can probably be counted on to post 3 WAR if he can pitch 180 innings or so, but that is a very big if. Although the price that the Brewers paid for him is the market rate for talented pitchers with warts (see Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco), these types of deals only make sense for some teams and Milwaukee does not figure to be that type of team. A 30-year-old pitcher with an injury history is likely to spend significant time on the DL and will put up his best numbers early in the contract. In addition, the Brewers were far more than one Matt Garza away from contending last year.

Milwaukee fans could argue in favor of Ryan Braun returning as an MVP-caliber player and SP Yovani Gallardo reverting to above average form, but those are sunny projections. The Brewers are still better than the Cubs, but they lag behind the rest of the division. Sometimes, teams can get lucky and leapfrog one or two teams, but this division returns three talented playoff teams.

CUBS

Following the Chicago Cubs requires a lot of patience. The arrival of uber-executive Theo Epstein (and protégé Jed Hoyer) was no doubt a welcome sign to Northsiders, but the club’s championship drought will continue for at least one more summer.

Although the Cubs sat on their hands after a dismal 66 wins (21st in team fWAR for offense/defense and 26th in pitching), this was likely a wise move because they are more than a couple of players away from competing. Their major move was trading OF Brian Bugosevic to Miami for OF Justin Ruggiano. Ruggiano is essentially a 1.5 to 2 WAR player (though I would like if somebody could explain to me the 4.5 WAR that Oliver is projecting). Bogusevic is strictly a platoon player, and not a particularly great one, so this may be a move we look back at on some point and say, “There’s Theo being Theo.”

The most interesting aspects of the upcoming season for the Cubs are going to be what happens with SP Jeff Samardzija and what infield prospects Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara bring to the table in the second half of the season. Expect Samardzija to be rumored constantly in trade talks, and with the wheeler-dealer Diamondbacks apparently interested, anything could be on the table.

Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Ty Whetstone

Ty Whetstone is a lifelong baseball fan that was turned on to Sabermetrics by posting on baseball message boards. In his real life, he works as an accountant. He enjoys traveling with his family and playing golf in his free time.