2016 All-Star Ballot (part 1)

Every team in baseball has played more than 40 games, at this point.  And, you know what that means . . . we’re half way to the All-Star break!  So, I thought it was about time to discuss who is looking like an All-Star this year.  Emphasis on this year.  Unlike some voters, I don’t really care what a guy did last season, and whether or not he was “snubbed” from the Mid-Summer Classic a year ago.  How are you performing right now?  Are you putting up All-Star numbers?  If not . . . better luck next year.  Well, that, or you have about another month or so to get your act together if you want my vote(s).

Since it’s still early in the season, we won’t spend a ton of time discussing each position.  But, I do think it’s worth taking a look to see who is actually performing like an All-Star.  Because, there may very well be some surprises.  Keep in mind, the stats listed are all prior to last night’s games.

Catcher

AL – This is always one of the more difficult positions for me.  Trying to find the appropriate balance between offensive production, and defensive prowess is debated more behind the plate than anywhere else on the diamond.  At this point, though, in the American League, the decision is fairly easy:  Matt Wieters (BAL) – .283/.330/.455, 4 HR, 16 RBI.  There’s only one catcher in the AL with more than 100 PA’s that is legitimately out-performing Wieters offensively (McCann), and Wieters is lightyears ahead defensively.  On the flip side of that coin, there’s really only one catcher in the AL that is significantly better than Wieters behind the plate (Perez), and Wieters is head and shoulders ahead of him offensively, at this point.  So, for now, I believe Weiters is the best balanced candidate in the AL.

Others to watch:  Brian McCann (NYY), Jason Castro (HOU), Salvador Perez (KC)

NL – The catcher position in the National League is perhaps a little easier to decide:  Wilson Ramos (WSH).  Ramos is far and away the best offensive catcher in baseball, at this point.  His .347/.389/.525 slash line is especially impressive at a position that doesn’t really emphasize offense as much.  And, Ramos is middle of the pack defensively.  Depending on the metrics, there are about half a dozen catchers in the NL performing better than Ramos behind the plate.  But, only 2 of those are even having slightly above-average seasons offensively (Posey & Castillo).  For now, Ramos’ offense is so much better, that I think he deserves the vote.  But, if Posey heats up offensively, or if Molina or Lucroy make strides on defense to surpass Ramos, there could be a lot of fluctuation here.

Others to watch:  Buster Posey (SF), Yadier Molina (STL), Jonathan Lucroy (MIL)

 

First Base

AL – The choice here is easy:  Miguel Cabrera (DET).  Now, while I said it was an easy choice – that doesn’t mean it isn’t close.  Hosmer is just a notch behind Cabrera in pretty much every offensive category.  And, Cabrera even has him beat defensively at the moment.  Cabrera is quietly having another impressive season – .315/.388/.537, 9 HR, 26 RBI.

Others to watch:  Eric Hosmer (KC), Carlos Santana (CLE), Chris Davis (BAL)

NL – Another choice that was pretty easy, but still very close:  Anthony Rizzo (CHC) – .240/.379/.526, 11 HR, 34 RBI.  The bizarre thing about Rizzo’s stat line is that his OBP, and ultimately his OPS (which leads all NL first basemen), are both very high, in spite of the fact that his batting average is as low as it is.  But, that just further proves how obsolete of a stat batting average is becoming.  Rizzo is also one of the top fielding first basemen in the league.

Others to watch:  Brandon Belt (SF), Paul Goldschmidt (ARI), Chris Carter (MIL)

 

Second Base

AL – Wow.  There are some second basemen in both leagues that are having really impressive seasons, but likely won’t get close to starting in the All-Star game.  Mainly because there are two guys having unbelievable seasons.  In the AL, it’s Jose Altuve (HOU) – .328/.413/.582, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 SB.  If he keeps this up, he could be in the MVP discussion.  Well, if Houston doesn’t continue to tank, that is.

Others to watch:  Robinson Cano (SEA), Ian Kinsler (DET)

NL – Potential MVP candidate in the NL:  Daniel Murphy (WSH) – .387/.420/.607, 6 HR, 28 RBI.  He’s playing so well, I don’t think there’s more than one second basemen in the NL that has a shot at catching him before the break.

Other to watch:  Ben Zobrist (CHC)

 

Shortstop

AL – What a loaded position this is in the American League!  And, loaded with youth, which means we get to enjoy this for several years to come.  Right now, my vote goes to:  Xander Bogaerts (BOS) – .346/.397/.495, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 6 SB.  Bogaerts is also an excellent fielding shortstop.  His overall numbers are leading, but not necessarily overshadowing, others at this position.  So, there could be a decent amount of fluctuation between now and July.

Others to watch:  Francisco Lindor (CLE), Carlos Correa (HOU)

NL – While this is another position that often places an emphasis on defense, the two best offensive shortstops in the NL are so far ahead of everyone else, I’m going to ignore the fact that they are both a little below average with the glove.  Right now, my vote goes to a guy you’re going to have to write in:  Aledmys Diaz (STL) – .352/.386/.599, 6 HR, 23 RBI.  Taking the place of the injured Peralta, Diaz has played his way into the starting job, regardless of what happens to Peralta in my mind.  And, while Story had the hot start to the season, Diaz is batting almost 70 points higher, and his OPS is 40 points higher.  Plus, Story is striking out at an alarming 31.9%, while Diaz only 9.2%

Others to watch:  Trevor Story (COL), Zack Cozart (CIN), Corey Seager (LAD)

 

Third Base

AL – Two more no-brainers here.  In the American League, we’re looking at another potential MVP candidate:  Manny Machado (BAL) – .308/.367/.610, 12 HR, 26 RBI.  And, Machado is arguably one of the best gloves in the game – regardless of position.

Others to watch:  Nick Castellanos (DET), Travis Shaw (BOS), Josh Donaldson (TOR)

NL Nolan Arenado (COL) – .307/.383/.620, 14 HR, 34 RBI, and another excellent fielding third baseman.  Arenado isn’t as far ahead of the rest of the pack as Machado is, but it’s enough to say he’s the clear choice.  But, don’t be surprised if one or more of these others catch up with him.

Others to watch:  Kris Bryant (CHC), Matt Carpenter (STL)

 

Outfield

AL – It kinda makes me chuckle that no one is even talking about Trout, in spite of the season he’s having (.321/.411/.564, 10 HR, 31 RBI).  It’s almost like we just expect that from him now.  But, probably even more surprising was my third choice in the outfield: 1) Jackie Bradley, Jr. (BOS) – .342/.413/.618, 8 HR, 33 RBI; 2) Mike Trout (LAA), and . . . 3) Michael Saunders (TOR) – .322/.388/.570, 8 HR, 15 RBI.  Be honest – who saw that coming?  And yet, he is the clear choice, as everyone else is well behind him in overall offensive production.

Others to watch:  Mark Trumbo (BAL), Nelson Cruz (SEA), Jose Bautista (TOR)

NL – I don’t think there are any surprises here, other than perhaps the order: 1) Yoenis Cespedes (NYM) – .298/.381/.660, 14 HR, 35 RBI; 2) Dexter Fowler (CHC) – .316/.435/.533, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 6 SB; 3) Bryce Harper (WSH) – .260/.451/.565, 11 HR, 30 RBI, 7 SB.  Braun is neck-and-neck with Harper in overall offensive production, but lags way behind in defense, which is why Harper definitely gets the nod here.

Others to watch:  Ryan Braun (MIL), Christian Yelich (MIA), Stephen Piscotty (STL)

 

And, if you don’t know who to vote for at DH . . . you probably need to start reading a different blog.  Hahaha.  Let’s just say it’s your last chance to see him in the Mid-Summer Classic.  Happy voting!

Buy or Sell

One week down . . . 25 to go. With that much baseball left to play, you would think people would hold off on making too much of what has happened in just 5-7 games. But, as we often do, we get wrapped up in stories that get us excited early in the season. So, here are 3 trends I think we should “sell” (aka – don’t expect it to continue), and 3 we can “buy.”

SELL

1. The 5-1 Cincinnati Reds. Beating the Pirates 2 out of 3 is nice. But, it was at home, and neither win was dominant. And a sweep of the Phillies? Not exactly something to brag about, since the Phillies are probably the worst team in the NL. So, that 5-1 record is pretty deceptive. 

2. The 5-0 Orioles. The last remaining undefeated team. Sounds pretty good, right? Well… who exactly did they beat? The Twins and Rays. Two teams likely to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions. And, Baltimore’s offense wasn’t exactly on fire – 4.5 runs per game. When they face some good competition, we’ll have a better idea who Baltimore is. 

3. Trevor Story (COL). It’s a nice story (yeah, I said it), the way he has started the season. But, let’s be real, folks. Every game he has played thus far has been against a lot of mediocre pitching in the thin air of Coors Field. The guy had an .817 OPS in the minors. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not bad. But, this isn’t the next Tulowitzki. He’s going to come back down to earth, and I hope you weren’t foolish enough to trade for him in your fantasy league. 

BUY

1. The 4-1 Royals. So many “experts” were picking the Tigers or Indians or maybe even the White Sox to win this division. Here’s my question: what has changed? The Royals still have the best defense in baseball. They still have one of the top 2 or 3 bullpens. They still have an offense that puts the ball in play and pressures your defense and pitching. And, they still have starting pitchers that – while they may not be All-Stars – will pitch a lot of innings with a bend-don’t-break approach. It should surprise none of us if KC reaches a 3rd consecutive World Series. 

2. The Chicago Cubs offense. Through their first 6 games, they are averaging 7 runs per game – best in the NL. Obviously they won’t keep up that pace, especially this week in the cold air in Chicago. But, the additions of Heyward and Zobrist have helped round out an offense that got a little too homer-happy when it got to the NLCS. This now is an offense that is 2nd in the NL in OBP, leads the league in walks, and has some pop as well (6th in HR). 

3. The mediocrity that is the AL West. I was shocked to see a lot of folks picking one or more Wild Card teams to come out of the AL West before the season started. But, if you look at the division today, you’ll see what I expect we’ll see at season’s end. There’s only one team with a winning record right now – the 4-3 A’s. I’m not saying Oakland will win the division. Just that 84-86 wins is probably all you’ll need here. Every team has major holes that will be exploited by the better teams in the AL. Whether it’s offense (OAK – 3.28 runs/gm against so-so pitching; LAA – nothing beyond Trout), pitching (HOU – worst ERA in AL; TEX – very suspect beyond Hamels & eventually Darvish), or just plain mediocrity (SEA – middle of the pack in pretty much everything), this is not an exciting division. 

2016 Top 10 First Basemen

When compared to the previous two posts in this series, deciding who the top 10 first basemen are is a much more straightforward task.  This is an offense-first position.  Not to say that defense is entirely irrelevant – we will certainly consider it.  But, it will not weigh nearly as heavily on the decision-making process as it did for CF and SS.  Let’s take a look at the list from MLB Network’s “Shredder.”

  1. goldschmidtPaul Goldschmidt (ARI)
  2. Joey Votto (CIN)
  3. Miguel Cabrera (DET)
  4. Anthony Rizzo (CHC)
  5. Edwin Encarnacion (TOR)
  6. Jose Abreu (CHW)
  7. Adrian Gonzalez (LAD)
  8. Freddie Freeman (ATL)
  9. Chris Davis (BAL)
  10. Brandon Belt (SF)

Perhaps it’s because of the more singular focus of the position – but, when I first look at this list, I don’t see any glaring weaknesses.  I might re-order a couple of them – I know Adrian Gonzalez has an excellent glove, but his age makes me think he might slide down on my list.  I love Eric Hosmer as a leader and clutch player,  but I would be surprised if his stats from the last couple years will be enough to push him into the top 10.

Here is my top 10, after crunching the numbers:

  1. Paul Goldschmidt
  2. Anthony Rizzo
  3. Joey Votto
  4. Miguel Cabrera
  5. Edwin Encarnacion
  6. Jose Abreu
  7. Lucas Duda (NYM)
  8. Brandon Belt
  9. Freddie Freeman
  10. Adrian Gonzalez

thedudejpg-6ae460fd45583e12The first thing I did after compiling my list, was go look at what the various analysts on MLB Network did with Duda.  Not a single one had him ranked in their top 10.  I don’t get it.  I mean, I understand that he doesn’t belong in the top 5.  But, the guy ranks in the top 10 in every offensive category I considered over the last two years at first base – something none of the guys ranked below him can claim.  And, he’s not a detriment defensively – I’d say he’s average.  I can’t, for the life of me, explain his exclusion.

The inclusion of Duda meant someone was going to be left out – and, for me, that was Chris Davis.  I know he has the excellent power (ranks 7th in SLG at 1B), but he just doesn’t quite have enough in the other categories to overtake any of the others.  When it came down to Davis or Gonzalez, it actually came down to defense.  They are neck and neck offensively, and Gonzalez is the Gold Glove winner.  As I expected, Gonzalez did move down on my list, due to his age.  Belt & Freeman’s overall offensive production is better than Gonzalez – and Gonzalez is one of the worst baserunners at 1B.  Plus, Belt has the best UZR at 1B the last two years, while Freeman is no detriment defensively.

Anthony-RizzoThe biggest mover on my list (aside from Duda) is Anthony Rizzo.  There’s only one first baseman who ranked in the top 5 in every category I considered – wRC+, OBP, SLG, BsR, DRS, UZR – and, it’s Rizzo.  A couple guys might have the upper hand on him in one or two categories, but Rizzo is the more complete player.  Add to this the fact that he’s entering his age 26 season, and there are a lot of reasons for him to move up the list.  Goldschmidt has a strong hold on the #1 spot (his #7 ranking in UZR is the only spot he wasn’t ranked #1 or #2 over the last two seasons), but Rizzo might be closing the gap.

2015 Predictions: NL Central

nl_centralThis is easily the most competitive division in the National League.  I’m not quite ready to say it’s the best division in the NL, but it might very well be.  If Milwaukee hadn’t collapsed at the end of last season, we might have seen three playoff teams from this division in consecutive years.  And, the Reds would have been much more competitive if they hadn’t had their lineup decimated by injuries.  The Cubs . . . well, they were the Cubs.  But, they have high hopes for this coming season.  Here’s how I see the division playing out this year:

  1. Pittsburgh Pirates (90-72)
  2. Chicago Cubs (88-74)
  3. St. Louis Cardinals (86-72)
  4. Milwaukee Brewers (73-89)
  5. Cincinnati Reds (71-91)

For those of you who know me well enough to know who my favorite team is, let me say this:  I really did use the numbers to develop this analysis.  In fact, I made a couple minor adjustments to move my team down a spot, just because the first result didn’t make any sense at all to me.  Okay, so now that I feel like I have kept most people from calling me a “homer,” let’s take a look at why each team landed where they did…

Pittsburgh

The Pirates are an impressive team.  They have the best offense in the division, without a doubt.  Marte and Harrison are excellent bats – and, will only get better as they approach their prime years (26 & 27 years old, respectively).  The addition of Cervelli behind the plate will make for a nice replacement for Martin, who signed with Toronto.  A full season of Gregory Polanco at age 23 will be exciting to see.  And, we haven’t even mentioned the perennial MVP candidate, McCutcheon (who’s only 28 years old!).  Their bullpen is excellent, with 3 relievers with WHIPs below 1.10 (Melancon’s was 0.87 last year!).  Their defense is also very good – but, will probably only be 3rd best in this division.  The starting rotation is a bit of a concern.  But, Cole, Worley and Locke are all very young (24, 27 & 27) and look to be coming into their own.  And, they brought back Burnett, who was a nice veteran presence and influence on the young pitching staff his last stint in Pitt.

Chicago

Until I did my own analysis of the stats, I expected the Cubs to be contenders in 2016 – not 2015.  But, when you look carefully at how they stack up in this division, it’s pretty impressive.  The additions of Lester and Hammel will give them the best rotation in the division, top to bottom.  Lester, Arrieta, and the fairly unknown Kyle Hendricks all had an ERA+ over 150 last year.  The addition of Motte also helps bolster what is now the best bullpen in the division as well.  Four excellent relievers in Motte, Rondon, Strop, and Ramirez (all with WHIPs under 1.10 and K/9 rates of 9.5 or higher) are going to make it difficult to score on the Cubs in late innings.  The offense is the biggest unknown.  If everything remains about the same, they will rank in the middle of the pack in this division.  But, Rizzo, Castro and Soler haven’t even reached their prime years yet.  And, who knows what eventual starting 3B Kris Bryant will bring to Wrigley.  And, Fowler will be a great addition in CF.  The team defense and speed will be better, but still near the bottom of the division.

St. Louis

It’s no surprise that the Cardinals remained mostly under the radar this offseason.  That has been their M.O. for several years.  The trade for Jason Hayward surprised me, because while it fills a need in RF after the tragic loss of Oscar Taveras, they only get Hayward for 1 year, while giving up 4 years of Shelby Miller, who has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.  But, I’ve been proven wrong more than once by this organization.  And, even with the loss of Miller, they do still possess the second best starting rotation in the division, thanks to Wainwright, Lynn and Wacha.  However, Wainwright is no spring chicken anymore (33), and the back end of their rotation is highly questionable (Lackey’s another year older, and whoever their #5 starter ends up being, will be unproven).  A rotation with question marks could be overcome by a stellar bullpen (see 2014 Orioles).  But, the Cardinals bullpen is only middle-of-the-pack in this division.  Granted they are very young, but they’re also very unproven – several of their best relievers had a WHIP over 1.40 last year.  The offense is also rather mediocre.  Aging Holliday and Peralta are two of the best weapons available, and Hayward is best known for his defense – not his offensive prowess.  They do have the best team defense and speed combination in the division, which will help them be competitive.  But, this division is significantly better than it was a year ago, so I think they will take a slight step backwards.

Milwaukee

Were it not for the Red Sox & Braves collapses of 2011 (the worst I can remember), I think more attention may have been paid to how badly the Brewers finished last season.  On August 25th, the Brewers were 73-58 – 1st place in the division with a 2 game lead on St. Louis, and a 6 game lead on Pittsburgh.  They only won 9 games in their next 31, finishing 82-80 – well out of the playoff picture.  How Roenicke kept his job, I’ll never quite figure out.  And, management in Milwaukee hasn’t done anything significant this offseason to improve the team either.  If anything, they’re slipping further away from being a winning team.  With other teams getting better, Milwaukee is getting older, and less talented.  Their rotation is the worst in the division, with the only bright spots being the potential of Fiers and Peralta who are young, and already above-average pitchers.  Also, once you get past Broxton, the Brewers’ bullpen is uninspiring.  There has been talk of re-signing Francisco Rodriguez, or trading for Papelbon.  But, even that would only bring them to mediocre level.  The offense is the lone bright spot for Brewers fans.  They’re second only to Pittsburgh in this division.  Braun, Lucroy and Gomez are an excellent middle of the order.  But, that’s not enough to overcome the rest of this competitive division.

Cincinnati

Cueto is stellar, and might very well have been the best pitcher in the division last year.  Chapman is a lights-out closer, who is just now coming into his prime years (turns 27 later this month).  But, once you get past these two well-known commodities, the pitching staff in Cincy is sub-par.  They’re counting on Leake, Cingrani and Axelrod to make significant strides, since they traded away the only two starters outside of Cueto that finished 2014 with an above-average ERA.  And, Bailey has only had 2 completely healthy seasons out of the last six.  The bullpen is also lack-luster, with two of their best relievers sporting WHIPs in excess of 1.50 last year.  And, it’s not like they have the offensive fire-power to cover up some of their lack of pitching, like Milwaukee does.  If everyone is healthy, Votto, Bruce, Mesoraco and Frazier are formidable.  But, not frightening.  They will be one of the best defensive teams in their division.  But, they are lacking in so many other areas that they will fall well behind the other teams in this division.

All-Time Greatest: Cincinnati Reds

If you visit the Cincinnati Reds’ Great American Ballpark, or their museum/HOF, you will notice that they lay claim to being the “first professional baseball team”, or you might hear them say something like they’ve played baseball continuously in Cincinnati longer than any other team.  But, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that both of these claims are a bit of a stretch.  Yes, the first professional baseball team of any sort was established in 1869 as the Cincinnati Red Stockings.  And, that team survived two seasons before disbanding after the 1870 season.  A new team was founded in 1875, also named the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and were a charter member of the National League’s first season in 1876.  However, after the 1880 season, that team was banned from the National League because they refused to close their stadium on Sundays, and their ballpark marketed beer, leading to the bankruptcy of the team.  After not fielding a team in 1881 (other than some random assortment of players thrown together by a journalist, who went and played a weekend exhibition against a St. Louis team that wasn’t even recognized as a professional team), a newly reformed Cincinnati Reds franchise began play in 1882 as a part of the new American Association.  This team was allowed to join the National League in 1890, and is the same franchise that is still playing in Cincinnati today.  So, to lay claim to being the oldest team in baseball, or the longest-standing team in baseball is a bit of revisionist history, at best.

All that being said, there have been some fantastic players come through Cincinnati.  They’ve retired 8 player’s numbers, and there are 8 players in the baseball HOF who primarily played in Cincinnati.  They also have won 5 World Series titles (’19, ’40, ’75, ’76, & ’90), and have been National League champions 4 other times (’39, ’61, ’70 & ’72).  They’ve had 10 different players win the MVP, and 7 Rookie of the Year winners, but they’ve never had a Cy Young winner (though, one of their MVP’s is Bucky Walters, who won the MVP as a pitcher before the Cy Young award existed in 1939).  So, here are the top 5 to come through Cincinnati:

65642-004-2E2A929D5 – Joe Morgan (’72-’79) – Morgan’s total statistics are impressive – 2,517 hits, 689 stolen bases, 268 home runs (held the record for most by a second baseman when he retired).  But, what many don’t realize, is that outside of a 6-year run when he was excellent (batting in the middle of a lineup filled with HOFers), he was a mediocre batter at best – a .706 OPS in 13 full seasons.  But, it’s those 6 years in Cincinnati that propelled him onto this list.  In 8 seasons with the Reds, Morgan was an All-Star every year.  He won the Gold Glove 5 times, and (most importantly) won the MVP in back-to-back seasons in ’75 and ’76.  On the Reds’ all-time lists, he ranks 2nd in OBP (.415 – passed just this season by Joey Votto), 4th in OPS (.885), 10th in runs scored (816), 5th in walks (881), 2nd in stolen bases (406), 4th in adjusted OPS+ (147), and 9th in runs created (919).

larkin20514 – Barry Larkin (’86-’04) – Larkin spent his entire career in Cincinnati.  You certainly have to respect him for that, since the Reds only made 2 postseason appearances in his 19-year career.  Players today would have been asking to be traded, or signed with another team at their first opportunity.  But, Larkin wasn’t that kind of guy.  Had he not played during the same era as the greatest defensive SS in history (Ozzie), then he likely would have won more than the 3 Gold Gloves he did.  He still was an All-Star 12 times, and won the Silver Slugger at shortstop 9 times.  And, he won the ’95 MVP, leading Cincinnati to the postseason.  He ranks 3rd all-time on the Reds’ runs scored list (1329), 2nd in hits (2340), 2nd in doubles (441), 9th in HR (198), 6th in RBI (960), 3rd in walks (939), 3rd in stolen bases (379), and 2nd in runs created (1381).

pete_rose3 – Pete Rose (’63-’78, ’84-’86) – Simple accumulation of statistics doesn’t impress me – which is why Rose is this far down the list (and almost even further down).  Yes, Pete Rose leads all Cincinnati Reds in history in runs scored (1741), hits (3358), doubles (601), walks (1210), and runs created (1805); and yes, he’s 4th on their all-time RBI list (1,036).  But, all of those can mostly be attributed to the fact that he also leads all Reds players in plate appearances – and, it isn’t even close, as the 2nd place player trails Rose by more than 2,700.  He isn’t in Cincinnati’s top 30 in OPS, even though he’s tied for 8th in OBP (.379).  So, when you start comparing Rose’s production on an at-bat by at-bat basis, he just doesn’t stack up to some of the other players in Reds history.  Yes, Rose was an excellent player, but let’s not make him out to be more than he was:  a primarily singles hitter, who drew a lot of walks, and managed to stay healthy longer than anyone else.  Rose did, however, win some awards along the way – Rookie of the Year in ’63, MVP in ’73, and he won 2 Gold Gloves and appeared in 17 All-Star games.

robinson_frank2 – Frank Robinson (’56-’65) – Robinson had some really good years left in him after he left Cincinnati (in particular his Triple Crown & MVP year in ’66 in Baltimore), which is why his trade to Baltimore is considered one of the most lopsided deals in history (especially since Robinson was just 30 years old at the time).  But, in his 10 years in Cincinnati, Robinson was absolutely dominant.  His average season looked like this:  .303/.389/.554/.943, 32 HR, 101 RBI, and just 79 K’s.  In 10 seasons in Cincinnati, Robinson led the league in OPS 3 times, doubles once, and intentional walks 4 consecutive years.  He won Rookie of the Year in ’56, MVP in ’61, a Gold Glove in ’58, and appeared in 6 All-Star games.  And, even though he only played 10 seasons in Cincinnati, he still ranks 5th on their all-time OBP list (.389), 1st in SLG (.554), 2nd in OPS (.943), 5th in runs scored (1043), 9th in hits (1673), 7th in doubles (318), 2nd in HR (324), 5th in RBI (1009), 8th in walks (698), 2nd in adjusted OPS+ (150), and 4th in runs created (1208).

07_12_2010Johnny_Bench1 – Johnny Bench (’67-’83) – 1968 Rookie of the Year; 1970 MVP; 1972 MVP; 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from ’68-’77 (led the league in caught-stealing pct. 3 times – career .991 fld. pct.); 13 consecutive All-Star games from ’68-’80 (14 total); retired with the all-time record for most home runs by a catcher (389); 4 National League pennants, and 2 World Series rings.  All in Cincinnati.  And, when his name came up for the Hall of Fame, he received the 3rd highest percentage of votes at that time in history (96.42%).  Bench is considered by many to be the greatest catcher in the history of the game – and, there’s little room for argument, in my opinion.  After 17 seasons in Cincinnati, Bench ranks 4th on their all-time runs scored list (1091), 5th in hits (2048), 4th in doubles (381), 1st in HR (389), 1st in RBI (1376), 4th in walks (891), and 3rd in runs created (1239).

That’s how I rank them.  What did I get wrong?  Tell me in the comments below.

2013 NL MVP

Let me start this post by saying that I have no idea why some names are being thrown around.  Let me start with Clayton Kershaw.  I always have a problem with giving the MVP to a starting pitcher.  The guy plays in less than 25% of the team’s games.  And, even in the games he plays, he’s going to average somewhere around 6-7 innings, if he’s an elite pitcher.  So, on an innings basis, even a great starting pitcher is likely going to participate in less than 15% of his team’s innings played.  Yes, I agree that there is some trickle-down effect when you have a great ace like Kershaw.  Yes, I think it has an impact on the rest of the starting rotation, and the bullpen.  But, that can’t possibly be compared to the guy who plays 150 games, has 500+ AB’s, and plays a defensive position.  I’m sorry, but unless a pitcher was just other-worldly in his performance (see Pedro Martinez, 1999), then I don’t believe his impact is significant enough to warrant being in the MVP conversation.

Next, I actually saw an MVP headline that read “Division rivals Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina are in the mix with slugger Paul Goldschmidt…”  This is a joke, right?  Yadier Molina for MVP???  Based on what? His Gold Glove award?  Which, by the way, I don’t understand how he won, considering he trailed Russell Martin in nearly every significant defensive stat for catchers – including the sabermetric stats which were supposed to be included in this year’s voting consideration.  So, outside that award, there’s no evidence to suggest he was the best defensive catcher this season.  And, he probably was about the 3rd or 4th best offensive player on his own team, nevermind in the National League.  But, I digress.  Here are the five most deserving candidates for MVP in the NL:

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves#5 – Freddie Freeman (ATL).  Freeman had an excellent season.  He finished 6th in wRC+ (150), 6th in OBP (.396), and 8th in SLG (.501), giving him the 7th best OPS (.897) in the NL.  He hit 23 HR, drove in 109 (2nd), and bat .319 (3rd).  He’s a good fielder as well at 1B, though I wouldn’t call him elite just yet.

#4 – Joey Votto (CIN).  Votto seems to consistently find himself in the MVP conversation.  Though, this year, there doesn’t seem to be quite as many talking about him.  Perhaps they’ve come to expect big numbers from him, and since they weren’t as gaudy this year, they’re disappointed.  Well, whatever the reason, Votto should be on everyone’s radar.  He finished the year with the 2nd best wRC+ (156), led the NL in OBP (.435), finished 4th in OPS (.926), hit 24 HR, drove in 73, while batting .305.  Another fine year for Votto.

jayson-werth-home-run-interview#3 – Jayson Werth (WAS).  If you weren’t looking at this list, and had to guess who finished with the best wRC+ in the NL, how many names would you go through before getting to Werth (160)?  Or, how many names might you pass before guessing Werth was 3rd in the NL in SLG (.532)?  Yet, I’m hearing nothing about him as even a contender for MVP.  No, he didn’t play for a playoff team (though, they certainly made a valiant push in the second half of the season).  But, I don’t care.  One player can not solely carry a team to the playoffs these days.  That argument is antiquated.  Werth had an excellent year, in spite of missing practically all of May, and not really playing like he was fully injury-free until mid-June.  Despite his health issues, he also finished 5th in OBP (.398), 2nd in OPS (.931 – leading the league with a 1.023 OPS after the All-Star break), hit 25 HR (8th), drove in 82, and bat .318 (5th).  I don’t think I’ve heard anyone talk about Werth as a serious candidate.  But, they should.

#2 – Andrew McCutchen (PIT).  So, the argument in the NL really comes down to the final two players.  Is it McCutchen or Goldschmidt?  McCutchen finished 4th in wRC+ (155), 3rd in OBP (.404), 6th in SLG (.508), 6th in OPS (.911), 5th in SB (27), and 7th in batting (.317).  He also hit 21 HR, and drove in 84.  He was a gold glove finalist in CF, and consistently made excellent plays.  There are a lot of people who say he should win.  And, they certainly have some excellent numbers to point to.  But, as I was looking through their stats, McCutchen and Goldschmidt are so close in so many areas.  McCutchen has better speed, but Goldschmidt has better power.  And everything else is so close, I was hard pressed to find a big difference . . . until I looked at batting with RISP. I was shocked at what I saw.  Here’s McCutchen’s slash line with RISP:  .282/.389/.365/.755.  A .755 OPS with RISP!!  When his team needed him most to make something happen, McCutchen’s OPS dropped over 150 points compared to his season average.  And, it wasn’t like he lacked for opportunity – 156 AB’s with RISP.  So, when that stat jumped out at me, the choice was clear . . .

paul-goldschmidt-2#1 – Paul Goldschmidt (ARI).  Goldschmidt led the league in SLG (.556), OPS (.952), HR (36), and RBI (125).  He also finished 2nd in wRC+ (156), 4th in OBP (.401), stole 15 bases, and bat .302.  He won the Gold Glove at 1B (though, I can’t see how, based on all of the stats – finalist, yes, but shouldn’t have won).  And, just to show you the difference, his OPS with RISP was 1.146.

2013 NL Manager of the Year

Unlike the American League, the National League playoff picture was pretty much set in stone a month before the season was over.  So, there weren’t very many teams making that final push, or having to win the last week of the season in order to make it in.  And, because of that, I see fewer legitimate candidates in the NL.

Candidates:  Fredi Gonzalez (ATL), Mike Matheny (STL), Clint Hurdle (PIT), and Don Mattingly (LAD).

The only playoff team whose manager didn’t make the cut is the only playoff team that has (or is even likely to) fired its manager: the Reds’ Dusty Baker.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Dusty is highly overrated.  He can take a good team to the playoffs … and that’s about it.  Not once do you see him take over a scrappy, underwhelming team, and get them to overachieve.  Not once did he take a good team, and make them a great team.  In fact, with all the good teams he has managed over the years (in San Fran, Chicago and Cincinnati), only two of them ever made it past the first round of the playoffs (’02 Giants lost the World Series and ’03 Cubs lost the NLCS).  Yes, he led a lot of teams to the playoffs, but those were frequently good teams that needed a good manager to help them navigate their way through the playoffs to a championship.  Dusty is not the man for that job.  But, I digress…

As I remove candidates from this list, let’s keep in mind that these are still this year’s 4 best managers.  They all did something very well, or they wouldn’t be on this list in the first place.  But, the first one off the list for me, is the guy that might end up winning the award – Mattingly.  Mattingly did a very good job managing a team of stars.  But, what I think we might forget in this discussion is that the Dodgers were in last place when they promoted Yasiel Puig.  And, almost immediately, he helped them catch fire.  Mattingly had to manage the fire, yes.  But, this is the least impressive of the four, to me.

Next, I would likely remove Gonzalez.  In part, because of the fact that this was a different kind of team than what he managed a year ago.  The front office in Atlanta worked hard this offseason to add some key offensive talent (B.J. Upton & Justin Upton).  Yet, in spite of that talent, this was a fairly inconsistent team this season.  They had an unbelievable home record (won nearly 70% of their games!), but a losing record on the road.  They had an incredible August, but a losing September.  They beat up primarily on a bad division, but for some reason struggled against teams like the Padres, Brewers and Giants.  I feel like this team underachieved a little, so I can’t give the award to Gonzalez.

So, we’re down to the final two, and this is a very close call in my mind.  Both of the guys on this list deserve a lot of credit for getting their teams to where they were at the end of the season.  Both of these guys managed teams that were not loaded with big stars.  Both of these teams finished well ahead of where most expected them this year.  So, my vote is going to go to the guy who helped make history . . . and that’s not Mike Matheny.  Matheny did a great job with the team in St. Louis, and I really don’t have a reason not to give him the award, other than . . .

hurdlex-largeClint Hurdle.  While I mentioned Dusty Baker as a guy that I’ve come to the conclusion is one of the most overrated managers in the game – Clint Hurdle is probably one of (if not the) most underrated managers in the game.  He took the Rockies to the World Series – a team that has only made the playoffs 3 times in its 21-year existence.  And, ever since he took over the Pirates in 2011, they’ve gone from perennial cellar-dwellar, to a team that felt like it was on the brink of doing very well.  And, this year, they did it.  Not only did they break that 20-season streak of losing seasons, but Hurdle carried this team all the way to 94 wins.  So, he gets my vote . . . for whatever that’s worth.

Why & Why Not – Reds

Cincinnati-Reds1The Cincinnati Reds are 7 games back in their division – but, are the #2 Wild Card team in the NL.  The Reds have played well this year, and are looking toward finishing the year better than they have in recent playoff runs.  In spite of winning the division and making the playoffs 2 of the last 3 seasons, they’ve gone a combined 2-6 in the postseason, and have yet to win a playoff series since 1995.  If they make it into the postseason this year, it almost definitely will be as a Wild Card team (since both Pittsburgh and St. Louis are well ahead of them in the division).  But, can they make a serious run at the World Series?

3 Reasons Why

  1. Good Eye – Cincinnati has the best walk percentage in the NL (9.1%).  In fact, only Boston and Oakland have been issued more BB’s than the Reds in all of baseball.  Free-swinging teams don’t tend to last very long in the postseason – so, this bodes well for the Red Legs.
  2. 113004267_crop_650x440Good Glove – the Reds have committed the 3rd fewest errors in the NL (54), and are just .001 behind the NL leader in team fielding percentage.
  3. Good Arm – the pitching staff in Cincinnati knows how to pitch away from the bats of their opponents.  They possess the best K/9 average (8.18) and K/BB ratio (3.00) in the NL.

3 Why Not

  1. Sluggish – the Reds aren’t exactly what you might call a “fast” team.  Let’s put it this way: there are 4 players around the league that have stolen as many or more bases than the entire Reds team (33).  And, before you just chalk that up to Dusty Baker not sending them often enough, they also have the worst Speed rating in the entire NL (a stat that measures baserunning speed in addition to stolen bases).  Putting the pressure on the defense – at least on occasion – is an important piece of a successful playoff run.
  2. A Little Lucky – the Reds have the 2nd lowest BABIP (batting avg. on balls in play) rate in the NL against their pitching.  So, while they do have a respectable team ERA and WHIP, they’ve also been the benefactors of some lucky bounces, and fortunate location of the balls that have been hit.  That luck isn’t always going to hold up in the postseason.
  3. Deadline Duds – in spite of some obvious holes on their team, the Reds didn’t even appear to make an attempt to improve themselves at the trade deadline.  Now, their claim is that they expect those holes to be filled in the coming days & weeks by guys coming off of the DL – Sean Marshall, Johnny Cueto, Ryan Ludwick, & Jonathan Broxton.  But, who’s to say those guys will be effective?  Who’s to say if they’ll actually return at all (Marshall’s return has looked imminent, only to be slowed on two occasions by further issues)?  Acquiring bullpen help and/or a right-handed bat would have made a lot of sense if they are serious about their chances this year of going deep in the playoffs.

How do you think the Reds will finish 2013?  Vote now:

2013 All-Star Ballot #1

It’s hard to believe, but by the end of this week, we will already be 1/3 of the way through the 2013 season.  That means a lot of things:  1) I believe we should be seeing the teams that are legitimate playoff contenders emerge.  There are going to always be a couple teams that fade or catch fire the last month or so of the season, and make things interesting.  But, for the most part, we’ve seen enough of each team to see who they really are going to be in 2013.  2) With just two months left until the non-waiver trade deadline, it’s time for some teams to start thinking seriously about whether they will be buyers or sellers.  That might be a little premature for teams hovering around .500 who have had a little bad luck here and there.  But, most teams know who they are, and can recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and should know what kind of season they will be able to sustain with their current lineup.  3) We’re just a little more than a month from the All-Star game!

I was in Cincinnati last Saturday to see the Reds and Cubs play each other, and it caught me off guard when the usher handed me an All-Star ballot.  How quickly this season has already gone!  So, it’s time for us to take a look at the players who deserve to be the starters in the All-Star game.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

C:  Carlos Santana (CLE) – this is an incredibly close race right now.  Santana and Joe Mauer (MIN) are clearly the two to choose from right now (though, J.P. Arencebia might have something to say before the voting is over).  Santana leads Mauer in HR (8-4), RBI (22-16) SLG (.512-.484) OPS (.909-.892) and wRC+ (150-143).  Mauer’s defense is a good bit better, but I can’t ignore the fact that he only leads Santana in OBP (by .011) and batting average, offensively.  It’s a tight race – and one that will be fun to keep watching.

1B:  Chris Davis (BAL) – he has been unconscious so far this season! An incredible 1.165 OPS, 17 HR, and 47 RBI through just the first 1/3 of the season.  He is well on his way to the best season of his career, which could be 40+ HR, 120+ RBI fairly easily at his current rate.  At this point, Davis is the only option that makes sense.  But, if he falters over the next month, there are some who could overtake him (Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Swisher, and Prince Fielder, to name a few).

2B:  As usual, the debate comes down to Dustin Pedroia (BOS) or Robinson Cano (NYY).  Pedroia has the OBP edge, while Cano has the SLG edge, which is why their OPS’s are only .015 apart.  Cano has the HR & RBI edge, but Pedroia has the SB, batting average, and fielding edge.  So, the tipping point for me came down to wRC+ – a stat that measures the player’s ability to produce runs for his team.  Both are doing very well, but at the moment Dustin Pedroia has a slight edge over Cano (136-132).  Obviously, this could change fairly easily over the next few weeks, so keep an eye on this race.  And, don’t snooze on Ian Kinsler, either.  He’s playing very well.

SS:  Jhonny Peralta (DET) – .339/.389/.494 . . . that’s really all I need to say.  Peralta leads the league in every one of those stats.  He also leads the league in wRC+ (138).  J.J. Hardy may be the big home run hitter (10 HR, 32 RBI), but Peralta has him beat in every other offensive category.  Plus, Hardy’s measly .284 OBP demonstrates the weakness in his game – it’s an all-or-nothing type of swing.  I would consider voting for Jed Lowrie (OAK), before Hardy at this point.  But, Peralta is the clear choice for now.

3B:  Miguel Cabrera (DET) – were it not for Chris Davis and his 17 home runs, guess who would be leading the league in all 3 Triple Crown categories again?  .373, 14 HR, 57 RBI.  As great of a season as last year was for Cabrera, he’s on pace for an even better one this year.  There are some other guys at this position having excellent seasons right now (Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado), but no one holds a candle to Cabrera at this point.

OF:  Jose Bautista (TOR – .299, 12 HR, 28 RBI, .995 OPS, 166 wRC+), Kelly Johnson (TB – .299, 10 HR, 33 RBI, .931 OPS, 154 wRC+), and Mike Trout (LAA – .299, 10 HR, 37 RBI, .932 OPS, 154 wRC+).  Johnson is probably the only surprise here.  I doubt many outside of Tampa realize how well he’s playing.  As for other contenders, keep an eye on Adam Jones (BAL – .318, 10 HR, 35 RBI, .880 OPS, 134 wRC+), Alex Gordon (KC – .333, 6 HR, 31 RBI, .869 OPS, 136 wRC+), and Alex Rios (CHW – .289, 10 HR, 28 RBI, .867 OPS, 130 wRC+).  Overall, though, this was a much easier decision than I expected.

DH:  David Ortiz (BOS) – no big surprise here, since the DH position has been fairly weak over the last few years.  I honestly have no idea why we’re voting for a DH All-Star, when there won’t even be a DH in the All-Star game (played in a NL park).  But, be that as it may, Ortiz’ stats are pretty good – .339, 8 HR, 34 RBI, 1.000 OPS, 162 wRC+.  Kendrys Morales (SEA – .300, 6 HR, 28 RBI, .852 OPS, 139 wRC+) and Travis Hafner (NYY – .258, 8 HR, 25 RBI, .886 OPS, 138 wRC+) are the only legit contenders with Ortiz right now.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

C:  Buster Posey (SF) – for now.  His stats are at the top of the league for catchers, offensively (.304, 7 HR, 31 RBI, .906 OPS, 153 wRC+), and he’s throwing out 21% of base-stealers which is about league average.  But, there are three other catchers that have legit arguments at this point.  1) Evan Gattis (ATL) – the only reason I don’t have him as my vote right now is because he has only played about half as many games behind the plate as the rest, so his defensive stats are inconclusive with so little data.  But, offensively, he’s a beast – .271, 12 HR, 32 RBI, .946 OPS, 155 wRC+.  2) Yadier Molina (STL) – as usual, he’s throwing out better than 41% of baserunners, but his offense is lagging behind the others – .346, 3 HR, 27 RBI, .862 OPS, 141 wRC+.  3) Russell Martin (PIT) – very impressive defensively, throwing out more than 41% of baserunners, and currently has a spotless fielding pct. (1.000).  But, his offense is even a notch behind Molina – .255, 6 HR, 12 RBI, .802 OPS, 127 wRC+.  Keep an eye on this race!

1B:  Joey Votto (CIN) – at first glance, you would think the choice should be Paul Goldschmidt (ARI), with his stats: .324, 12 HR, 40 RBI, 1.002 OPS.  And, his HR & RBI numbers are definitely ahead of Votto.  But, Votto leads Goldschmidt by 30 batting average points, nearly 30 OPS points, and has a significant edge in wRC+ (183-169).  His low RBI total (just 26) has more to do with the runners ahead of him than his ability to drive them in.  Goldschmidt is having a great year, but for now, I’ll give the nod to Votto.

2B:  Matt Carpenter (STL) – 4 HR and 18 RBI doesn’t usually sound like All-Star talent.  But, Carpenter’s .309/.394/.455 stat line is the best combination at this position in the NL.  And, at the moment, he leads NL second basemen in wRC+ (142), while playing very well in the field.  But, there are several waiting in the wings, if his stats falter in the slightest: Brandon Phillips (CIN), Chase Utley (PHI), Nick Punto (LAD), and Jedd Gyorko (SD).

SS:  Jean Segura (MIL) –  this is a very tight race between Segura and Troy Tulowitzki.  Segura leads the way in wRC+ (168), batting avg. (.365), OBP (.400), and SB (14 – and Tulo doesn’t have a single stolen base).  He also has 8 HR, 22 RBI, and a .969 OPS.  Tulowitzki has the lead in HR (10), RBI (40) and OPS (.982), which combined with his .327 batting average and 155 wRC+ puts him just a hair behind Segura.

3B:  Eric Chavez (ARI) – that’s right – the 35-year-old veteran who hasn’t played a full season since 2005.  He’s having a ridiculously good year: .325, 7 HR, 25 RBI, .956 OPS, 153 wRC+.  Right behind him, though, is David Wright (NYM): .295, 7 HR, 30 RBI, .893 OPS, 153 wRC+.  Chris Johnson (ATL) is playing very well, and might close the gap over the next month, but for now it’s between Chavez & Wright.

OF:  Shin-Soo Choo (CIN – .296, 10 HR, 20 RBI, 5 SB, .982 OPS, 173 wRC+), Bryce Harper (WSH – .287, 12 HR, 23 RBI, 2 SB, .973 OPS, 166 wRC+), and Carlos Gomez (MIL – .326, 10 HR, 25 RBI, 10 SB, .966 OPS, 165 wRC+).  The top of the league is so bunched together at this position, that I decided to just sort them by wRC+, and go with the top three.  The list of other legit contenders at this point includes: Justin Upton (ATL), Michael Cuddyer (COL), Carlos Gonzalez (COL), and Ryan Braun (MIL).  Then, there’s a group just barely on the outside looking in, who could make a run over the next month: Carlos Beltran (STL), Carl Crawford (LAD), Lucas Duda (NYM), and Starling Marte (PIT).  An intriguing race for sure.

So, that’s my vote . . . for now.  Your thoughts??

2013 Preview: NL Central

Much like the AL Central, the NL Central is not as strong as the other divisions in its league.  However, I do think the NL Central could be a bit stronger than the AL Central this year, because there are at least 2 potential playoff contenders in the division, and there were 3 teams that finished above .500 last year.  It will be very interesting to see how this division fairs, now that the Astros aren’t around to beat up on.  Here’s what I see:

  1. Cincinnati Reds (96-66)reds_home_cincinnati_reds_wallpaper-1024x768
  2. St. Louis Cardinals (83-79)
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81-81)
  4. Chicago Cubs (78-84)
  5. Milwaukee Brewers (70-92)

Reds:  If you assumed you knew the Nationals had the best team ERA in 2012, who would you think was just 0.01 behind them in second place?  The Giants?  The Phillies?  The Braves?  Nope – it was the Reds.  Granted they pitch in the NL Central, which isn’t exactly overrun with offensive talent.  But, this is a very nice pitching staff, and the bullpen (which had an impressive 2.65 ERA) looks to be even better with Jonathan Broxton there for the whole year.  Shin-Soo Choo will be a very nice addition to the middle of an already powerful lineup, with Votto, Bruce and Phillips.  Ryan Ludwick’s resurgence last year was also a pleasant surprise, and if he can stay healthy, it will be quite the outfield in Cincy.  But, then there’s this guy in AAA – Billy Hamilton.  If you don’t know that name, get used to hearing it.  The guy broke Vince Coleman’s minor league steals record, stealing 155 bases last year!  He is developing the plate discipline, and learning better ways to get on base.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we saw him in Cincinnati before the All-Star break.  With a nice pitching staff, and an offense that can put up runs in chunks, this team looks poised to win again – especially against the pool of mediocrity that is the NL Central.

Cardinals:  You look at this lineup, and it’s hard to fathom how it ended up 3rd in the NL in OPS in 2012.  Can they really pull it all together again?  I say . . . kinda.  In part, because they play in the NL Central.  Don’t get me wrong – Beltran and Holliday are nice at the center of that lineup.  But, they’re also not getting any younger.  And, I’m not sure Allen Craig or Matt Carpenter aren’t due for some sophomore slump issues.  Injuries are also going to be an issue for this team, as Furcal and Chris Carpenter already look like they’re done for the season.  Carpenter is the bigger loss, in my opinion.  Wainwright has had glimpses of “ace”-type stuff, but he’s had more years where he looked like a .500 pitcher with an ERA hovering close to 4.00.  And, once you get past him, you’re looking at Westbrook, Lynn, Garcia and a rookie (albeit, a highly touted one) in Shelby Miller.  Nothing about this team screams “playoff contender,”  but they seem to find a way to surprise us on a regular basis.

Pirates:  It was tempting to put the Pirates ahead of St. Louis.  And, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if they finally broke the streak of losing seasons, and finished in 2nd this year.  The addition of Wandy Rodriguez was smart, because he will continue to play in a division he’s familiar with.  And, when Francisco Liriano comes off the DL, I expect he will fair better in the NL than he did in the AL.  They didn’t do anything to improve their offense (an offense that finished tied for 11th in the NL with a .699 OPS), so they will have to rely heavily on Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutcheon.  But, the bigger concern for me is the bullpen.  Hanrahan is gone to Boston, and they’ve moved Jason Grilli into the closer spot – a guy who only saved 2 of his 5 opportunities a year ago.  That gives me cause for concern, and combined with the lack of offensive moves, I can’t justify putting the Pirates any higher than .500.

Cubs:  There’s no doubt they’re rebuilding.  Every trade they’ve made since Epstein & Co. took over has been to rid themselves of the money-wasting contracts left over from the previous clueless GM, and rebuild the program from the ground up.  And, so far, it seems to be moving in the right direction.  Only one bad contract remains (Soriano – who happened to hit 25 HR last year), and the talent in the farm system is definitely improving.  As for the talent on the major league team . . . well, it’s definitely younger.  Starlin Castro is a star in the making, and Anthony Rizzo could become very Joey Votto-like.  And, Darwin Barney did win a Gold Glove at 2B, though his bat isn’t exactly electric.  But, the biggest reason for what I expect to be a significant uptick in their win total is the improved starting rotation.  Samardzija has improved every year; Garza (when he gets off the DL) will be a very nice #2; the addition of Edwin Jackson in the #3 spot will do nicely, and then Travis Wood, Carlos Villanueva and Scott Feldman can fight it out for the last 2 spots.  The bullpen is likely to blow several leads (or make deficits even more impossible to overcome), but Kyuji Fujikawa might be able to help with that.  It’s definitely an improved team, though still not a winning team.

Brewers:  Why the drop so far down after they finished above .500 just a year ago?  I’ll give you three reasons:  1) “Winning”:  In the NL, only the Reds had more wins last year against sub-.500 teams, and only the Astros had fewer wins against winning teams than the 2012 Brew Crew.  And, now that they don’t get to play the Astros for 12-15 games, the Brewers are likely to take a step back.  2) Injuries: Cory Hart won’t be back until mid-May at the earliest; Mat Gamel (the prospect they’ve been expecting to replace Prince) is out for the season, again; and, not long before I wrote this, Aramis Ramirez was put on the DL, and will be out until probably the end of April.  Ryan Braun is awfully good, but he can’t be expected to carry this offense alone.  3) Pitching: can you name 3 pitchers in Milwaukee?  Yovani Gallardo is pretty well known.  John Axford has become more notorious than anything else of late.  I wonder how many knew they signed Kyle Lohse.  But, all in all, this is not an impressive pitching staff.  They had the worst bullpen ERA in the NL a year ago, and were middle-of-the-pack with their starters.  They’ve brought in some new guys to help, but only Tom Gorzelanny had an ERA under 3.00 last year (2.88), and only Burke Badenhop (who??) had a WHIP below 1.30.  I see this team taking significant steps backwards.