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The Achilles’ Heel for NL Central Teams

 

 

When a division loses a franchise superstar like an Albert Pujols or a Prince Fielder, it becomes virtually impossible to make strides in the right direction. Both exited stage right last season and baseball fans everywhere were left to wonder how the division would be affected. The NL Central, top to bottom, proved to be one of baseball’s worst divisions in 2012. Which ultimately begs the question: What will it have in store for us in 2013? Certainly this offseason’s losses appear to be much easier to bear: Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, and Lance Berkman make up a few of the top names. One could argue the Astros’ move from the National League to the American League improves the division more than anything that’s happened this winter. So as we look ahead to the 2013 season, let’s take a closer look at the division and each team’s Achilles Heel. These weaknesses could potentially prevent some teams from contending, some from making the playoffs, and others from getting a shot at the Fall Classic come late October:

Reds :Runners in Scoring Position. Timely hitting was not one of the Reds’ specialties last season. Take Bruce for example. At first glance, his 35 homers and 99 RBI’s from a season ago look beyond impressive. With runners in scoring position, however, he is a mediocre .236 hitter. Reds’ second-year man Todd Frazier is still learning the nuances of the game, and his .245 average w/ RISP highlights an area that could definitely use some improvement. Shortstop Zack Cozart has batted at various spots up and down the lineup. But wherever Dusty Baker pencils him in, he is practically nonexistent at the plate with ducks on the pond (.182 w/ RISP.) And if you think bringing a pinch hitter in will solve the issue, think again. Xavier Paul, Devin Mesoraco, and Jason Donald have a history of struggling to punch runners in from second and third. Both Shin-Soo Choo and Brandon Phillips have respectable numbers when hitting in clutch situations. Since they’ll likely be the table setters at the top of the lineup for most of the upcoming season, there will be a minimal amount of opportunities with runners on base. Amongst NL teams, Cincinnati ranked 12 th last season in RBI with runners in scoring position. That put them in the same company as the Astros, Cubs, and Marlins; teams that owned three of the worst five records in all of baseball. Knowing how infrequent the Reds like to steal or show any aggression whatsoever on the basepaths, this is a problem that could prevent them from taking the division.

 

Cardinals :Middle Infield. There’s an endless list of players the Cardinals have tried to use at shortstop and second base recently: Adam Kennedy, Cesar Izturis, Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Pete Kozma. As this list shows, the Cardinals have not been able to get consistent production up the middle since 2007. Going into Spring Training, the Cards have their fingers crossed in hopes that they’ll get something out of Rafael Furcal at short and Daniel Descalso at second. There will be a sense of urgency in St. Louis this year because frankly the window of opportunity is on the verge of closing. Many pundits feel this season could be the last year with Wainwright-Carpenter atop the rotation since time is on short supply for Carpenter. Defense is not a problem for the Cards’ middle infield tandems; it’s strictly the hitting that has been a concern. Daniel Descalso hit just .227 in 2012, including a meager .118 with runners in scoring position. Furcal tore the cover off the ball throughout April and May, hitting a phenomenal .323 during the first two months. Those numbers took a nosedive thereafter, and the issues Furcal had with his right elbow did not help matters. If Furcal does wind up on the disabled list again, expect manager Mike Matheny to call up prospect Ryan Jackson, who is a Top 20 Prospect within the Cards’ organization and is regarded as having a superior glove and bat compared to Pete Kozma. Regardless of who they send out there, if the Cardinals expect to keep up with the Reds at the top of the division, they’re going to need much bigger offensive contributions from the guys up the middle.


 

Brewers : Bullpen. To say that the Brewers relief corps imploded last season would be the understatement of the century. The Brew Crew had the worst bullpen in the majors in 2012 with 29 blown saves and 11 leads lost. These late-inning gaffes cancelled out most of the firepower Milwaukee’s offense generated, costing them a return back to the postseason. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez took turns in the closer role throughout the season and both experienced their fair share of struggles. General Manager Doug Melvin knew that fixing the bullpen was going to be his top priority, and he literally gave it a complete overhaul. The Brewers parted ways with Rodriguez, along with Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, and Manny Parra. Then Melvin did some shopping and brought in Burke Badenhop in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. Then, he added a few more cogs to the bullpen, LHP Tom Gorzelanny and LHP Mike Gonzalez. Each addition that Melvin has brought in this winter has undoubtedly been an upgrade and will take some of the pressure off of the Brewers young starting rotation. The major concern remains to be the closer role, and whether or not John Axford can work out the kinks and get his dominant stuff back. Melvin has publicly expressed his confidence in Axford having a bounce back season, and maybe he will. The Brew Crew just need somebody to stop the bleeding out of the bullpen, and if they do, there’s no reason to think that they can’t make a run at a Wild Card this season.

 

Pirates : Getting on base. At one point last June, Pittsburgh was hands-down the hottest team in baseball. This was thanks in large part to great starting pitching, a stifling bullpen, and an offensive juggernaut that scored runs in bunches. That offensive production, however, made only a few cameo appearances and was inconsistent all year. If there’s one thing the Buccos’ lineup does not lack, it’s power. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Garrett Jones all had 25+ HR last season which is remarkable considering half their games are played at the pitcher-friendly confines of PNC Park. Pittsburgh’s 170 long balls last season seemed like night and day compared to the measly 107 home runs they collected in 2011. Driving in runs has been another strong suit for the Pirates, as the three previously mentioned players belted 85+ RBI just a season ago. So they’re launching long balls, knocking in runners from scoring position, but getting on base in the first place has been an entirely different story for Clint Hurdle’s squad. Outside of McCutchen, not a single player was able to put up respectable on-base percentage numbers last season. Pedro Alvarez routinely squandered opportunities, ranking 2 nd in the NL in strikeouts. Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, and Jose Tabata dealt with woes at home while Clint Barmes couldn’t seem to get his bat going on the road. ‘Cutch can do a lot, but the Pittsburgh faithful can’t do expect for him to do it all. The biggest and most glaring problem for them has to be at the top of the order. Last season, the Pirates gave a whopping total of six players an opportunity to hit in the leadoff spot, and collectively they had a .291 OBP. So Clint Hurdle has to shuffle through his options (Starling Marte, Alex Presley, Russell Martin, to name a few) and determine which two hitters will be able to set the table for McCutchen. The Pirates have one of the best all-around hitters in the game today. They cannot continue to let all those hits go to waste.

 

Cubs : Everything when it comes to Offense. It’s fair to say the Cubs offense ranked near the bottom of the NL in virtually every offensive category in existence last season: Second to last in batting average, second to last in RBI, last in on-base percentage, second to last in OPS, and second to last in walks. Yes, Theo Epstein still has quite a few things left on his rebuilding to-do list. Much of the focus this season for the Cubs’ front office has been to upgrade the pitching staff, but not much has been done to improve their lineup. The questions going into Spring Training are literally endless. Who will be the Cubs’ leadoff man? Can Nate Schierholtz and Ian Stewart be an everyday player? Where will Dale Sveum decide to put Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano in the batting order? Will Darwin Barney be able to get on base more often? But maybe the guy that could be the biggest difference-maker and a potential X factor for the Cubs lineup is their young first baseman, Anthony Rizzo. If Rizzo can find a way to chip in 25-30 home runs while driving in 85-90 runs, this Cubs offense suddenly becomes somewhat tolerable to watch. Rizzo had a solid end to his 2012 campaign, hitting .292 with 5 HR and 17 RBI in the month of September. If he can continue putting up these numbers, it takes a ton of pressure off of Soriano and gives them the flexibility they need to move Castro to different spots in the order. Other young guns that potentially could give this offense a facelift include Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, prospect Junior Lake, and everyday catcher Wellington Castillo. Regardless, 2013 certainly has all the makings of another rebuilding year for the Northsiders.

 

 

By: Kreg Miller
MLBcenter.com Staff Writer

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