NL Central Preview: Closer

The lock on the door. The guy who shows up to inform you that the game is over. The closer.

In the game of baseball, there is probably no position more ridiculed than that of a closer. Many teams have tried to do without, using a “bullpen by committee.” For some reason, that never works.

Teams are just inexplicably better when they have a shut down pitcher at the back end of their pitching staff who can take the ball at the beginning of the ninth inning and can shut the other team out. Or if he blows the game wide open, forget about it the very next night when he has to do the same thing.

It’s a position where I have heavily criticized the Cardinals and Ryan Franklin over the past few seasons. I don’t really see Franklin as the shut down guy and when things begin to unravel, it seems that more often than not, so does he. However, he has managed to not only hold onto the position, but perform well. At 38, he may be in his final year with the Cardinals, but he’s done a good job.

There is a very talented crop of closers in the NL Central who have all put up great numbers. The pitchers have definitely been the hardest to rank.

6. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati (3.84 ERA, 6-5, 40 SV in 75 appearances)
Cordero might not completely belong at the bottom of this list, but his performance last year left plenty to be desired. Despite leading the NL Central with his 40 saves, Cordero’s numbers ballooned from his 2009 campaign, let alone his 2007 campaign with the Brewers where he earned his contract. He will once again perform well and be an excellent fantasy closer, but if he continues to decline, there is no reason why he can’t be the worst closer in the NL Central. He also gets hit by his 5 losses, to me the big key of a closer is to not lose a game, even if you blow the save. That’s like a worse case scenario. The closer’s first job is to keep the lead, and if he can’t do that to keep the tie. When you lose, it’s devastating.

5. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh (3.62, 4-1, 6 SV in 72 appearances)
Hanrahan was given the closer’s job in Pittsburgh earlier in Spring Training because of his previous closing experience. Still, he hasn’t had much in the major leagues. Part of it is because of his ability to make major league hitters miss the ball. His K/9 in 2010 was an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. That is some impressive power that should help Hanrahan as long as he can keep the walk totals down. That’s something he’s done well since his arrival in Pittsburgh.

4. Brandon Lyon, Houston (3.12, 6-6, 20 SV in 79 appearances)
Lyon gets knocked down the list thanks to his 6 losses as well. Also, it’s his inability to keep the closer’s job. Lyon is a very good middle reliever who has had his opportunity to close out ball games regularly. In Houston, he should get the opportunity to be the go-to guy in the 9th inning in the event that they have a lead. Last season was one of his best seasons that he kept the closer’s role through most of it. Can he improve on that? His numbers won’t be stellar thanks to the rest of his team, but Houston is closer to ready than a lot of people think and Lyon is still young enough to potentially hold this role into the future.

3. Ryan Franklin, St. Louis (3.46, 6-2, 27 SV in 59 appearances)
As I said early, I’ve heavily criticized Franklin and he keeps going out there and doing well. While his ERA jumped from 1.92 in 2009 to 3.46 last season, it was unrealistic to expect Franklin to continue to perform at a level that would be considered his best MLB season to date. His 1.1 WHIP as a reliever in St. Louis definitely helps him, considering his low strikeout rates. The Cardinals will need him to be on his game, along with the rest of that bullpen, because they can’t afford to give up many leads late in games this year.

2. Carlos Marmol, Chicago (2.55, 2-3, 38 SV in 75 appearances)
Maybe the most electric pitcher, Marmol has had moments where his command has to be questioned and he’s been removed from the closer’s role. By many metrics he was the best closer in the NL Central, and I’ll agree that I nearly placed him there. The inconsistency is what really played the biggest role in the move from #1 to #2. Plus, Axford is pretty good.

1. John Axford, Milwaukee (2.48, 8-2, 24 SV in 50 appearances)
It’s definitely a career boost when you get to study a legendary closer like Trevor Hoffman for a couple months before replacing him. Axford was that guy. He was a reliever in Milwaukee and the closer of the future when he replaced a struggling Hoffman as the team’s everyday closer. And Hoffman was okay with the move, to boot, which says a lot about Axford. His ERA was the best of the NL Central closers and being in front of that Milwaukee pitching staff should just help hand him leads all season long.

Look for a wrap up post later this week to discuss the findings and issue final predictions with some of the more recent injury developments in the NL Central. It has hardly been an easy Spring Training for NL Central pitching.

The current points though:

Milwaukee — 65 pts
St. Louis — 58 pts
Cincinnati — 52 pts
Chicago — 52 pts
Houston — 35 pts
Pittsburgh — 32 pts

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NL Central Preview: Starting Pitcher #5

After a brief hiatus (thank you midterms), I’m back at the blog. Spring Training has begun and the pressure is on to get this preview done, but I think it has been pretty representative. So as we near an end, with just this one and the closer remaining, I think this little experiment has been quite the success.

Starting pitcher #5. For the Cardinals, this has changed with the recent injury to Adam Wainwright. However, I’m going to continue as I had them ranked originally and end up subtracting points for Wainwright’s injury. That doesn’t help the Cardinals who are already losing pace to the front running Milwaukee.

6. Kevin Correia, Pittsburgh (5.40, 10-10 in 26 starts)
Correia is expected to show up in a very weak Pirates rotation. There are some bright spots, but for the most part there is no clear pitching roles in their rotation. Just a whole bunch of average pitching. Correia has put up a handful of good seasons in the major leagues already in his career, but can he bring that to the Pirates?

5. Kyle Lohse, St. Louis (6.55, 4-8 in 18 starts)
The oft-injured Lohse is once again in a role where he will be heavily depended on by the Cardinals team. It was Lohse that, in 2008, pitched his way into his current four year contract in the absence of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. He will be asked to repeat that performance as the Cardinals have said good bye to their current ace Adam Wainwright. Ultimately, the season will hinge on Lohse and the new fifth starter’s performance.

4. Nelson Figueroa, Houston (3.22, 5-3 in 10 starts)
He is far from a prospect, but for Houston, Nelson Figueroa can be a stop gap until some younger talent gets ready to show up. It’s a tough spot for the Astros who have a solid 1-2-3 punch in their rotation, but very little behind it both in the 4-5 spots in the rotation and in the lineup. Figueroa came over from Philadelphia in the Roy Oswalt trade and continued to put up numbers that made 2010 his best career year in the majors. Look for him to get his shot to repeat that effort in 2011. 

3. Chris Narveson, Milwaukee (4.99, 12-9 in 28 starts)
The former Cardinals’ farm hand was brought back by the Brewers rather than bringing back their former ace Chris Capuano who was coming off of injury. After a successful 2009, pitching mostly out of the bullpen, Narveson regressed while given the opportunity to start regularly. If he improves a bit he will make a solid #5 at the tail end of the Milwaukee rotation behind the excellent front four.

2. Travis Wood, Cincinnati (3.51, 5-4 in 17 starts)
Travis Wood took a spot in the rotation mid-season and held on to it, pitching very well. In fact, in his third career game, Wood took a perfect game bid into the ninth inning against the Phillies. He would leave that game after 9 innings of 1-hit ball with the team losing 1-0 in extra innings. Cincinnati is in a great position though with their rotation. In addition to Wood, they have Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake sitting there looking for an opportunity in the rotation as well.

1. Randy Wells, Chicago (4.26, 8-14 in 32 starts)
Wells should be the Cubs’ fifth starter. His win-loss record left quite a bit to be desired, but his ERA is solid and a second season in the rotation should help him improve. Last season he was the first Cubs rookie pitcher to win 7 games since Kerry Wood did it in 1998. For the Cubs, they need to take a good look at their young talent and that means letting Wells have his shot at the 5th starter’s role.

The points with one final position left to preview:

Milwaukee — 59 pts
St. Louis — 54 pts
Cincinnati — 51 pts
Chicago — 47 pts
Houston — 32 pts
Pittsburgh — 30 pts

Milwaukee looks to be stretching their lead in the division, leaving second-place up to a battle between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

Spring Training Week #1 Notebook

The Cardinals’ first week of Spring Training games went much better than the previous week. Despite opening up with a 3-8 loss against the Marlins, the Cardinals finished up their first eight days of playing games at 6 wins, 3 losses.

Some quick hits on my thoughts about some things from the first week of games.

Farm hands getting lots of ABs early in Spring Training. Jon Jay, Mark Hamilton, and Allen Craig lead the team in at bats through the first week of Spring Training. Colby Rasmus joins that trio as the only players to score more than 20 at bats. And each of those four are hitting well over .300 which, even though its the first week of Spring Training, makes me feel good that these guys are already well adjusted as they begin warming up for the season.

It’s been interesting watching Hamilton get a few chances to play in the outfield. He is one of 5 Cardinals to have gone deep so far, and the only one with multiple home runs. Could he become a dark horse candidate as a backup outfielder?

Tyler Greene is getting every opportunity to play himself into or out of a roster spot. He hasn’t hit as well as the four guys in front of him with more ABs, but he hasn’t been an embarrassment. For the record, I would be okay with being proven wrong on Greene. Anytime he’d like to prove me wrong, please do.

Matt Carpenter is also getting a chance to play a lot of ball early in Spring Training as David Freese only made his debut today. Carpenter took advantage of it as he is 6-for-16 (.375). He also has 5 RBI, which ties him for second on the team so far.

I’m enjoying the fact that LaRussa is giving the young guys a seemingly legitmate shot this year and the young guys are giving him something to think about. That’s always better than either of the alternatives.

Battle for the fifth starter. Kyle McClellan still appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for the fifth starter role. He strengthened that after a strong appearance in his spring debut, going 3 innings with 2 hits and 3 strikeouts.

Lance Lynn was the early choice as #2 on the list after his strong debut, but his second appearance was much less impressive. Brandon Dickson was also good in his debut while PJ Walters did not help himself.

Those three guys are likely fighting over McClellan’s bullpen role at this point, anyway.

The K-happy Albert Pujols? The good news is that after posting his highest strikeout total since his rookie year, Albert Pujols met 2011 by striking out 3 times in his first 3 at bats. Wait, maybe that wasn’t the good news. Better news is that he hasn’t struck out in the 10 ABs since.

Daniel Descalso blogging. Daniel Descalso has a MLBlog up with a couple posts up. Hopefully the Cardinals’ infielder will continue to blog about his season as it goes. Check it out here.

Some other UCB notes. Check out the February Round Table with all the posts linked at the UCB homepage. Unfortunately I was too busy to participate this month, but there are definitely some good posts there.

“Natural Positions.” I once again read an article describing a player’s “natural position” as short stop while defensive statistics show that they are much better at another position. What makes a position a natural position? And shouldn’t someone’s natural position be whatever position they are best at?

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Three more weeks until Spring Training games are over and we begin anticipating the season opener against San Diego.

Without Wainwright, do Cards have a chance?

By now everyone has read the news. Adam Wainwright has been sent back to St. Louis to have his throwing elbow examined after experiencing some discomfort during a throwing session earlier this week.

According to an article about it at stltoday.com by Derrick Gould, Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak considers it a significant injury and apparently the words “Tommy John” were mentioned. If that were the case, Wainwright is done for the year and we’ll be lucky for him to start the 2012 season on the roster.

But what does that mean for the Cardinals, after all, you don’t lose a 20 game winner and expect to still be competitive do you? Do you?

When I first heard the news I just buried my head in my hands. So much hope for this season just washed away in one fell swoop. The loss of Nick Punto could be absorbed, not so much the team’s ace. My mind flashed back to 2007 and 2008 when we spent both of those seasons without Chris Carpenter.

At the time, Carpenter was our ace. We won 78 games and finished 3rd in 2007 and then won 86 games in 2008 while finishing 4th in the division.

Now, Wainwright is our ace. What can we honestly expect to do without him in 2011?

Well, let’s look at who’s behind him.

Chris Carpenter, 36, is now the staff ace again with Wainwright on the shelf. There are many fans who are unsure how much faith they can place in him after he struggled down the stretch last season. However, he was still 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA, and half of those losses came in September when the entire team was packing it in. Before September, he was 14-5 in 29 starts with a 2.92 ERA. Still ace-type pitching performance. The sheer number of innings he threw, which he hadn’t even come close to since his injury plagued years of 2007 and 2008 can be attributed to some of that fall off at the end of the season.

Jake Westbrook, 33, was signed to a 2 year, $17.5 million deal over the winter. This was after he pitched fantastically over his final 12 starts of the season with St. Louis. He posted a 3.48 ERA and a 4-4 record.

Jaime Garcia, 24, had a spectacular rookie season last year when he went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. The question mark is that he only threw 163 1/3 innings over 28 starts last year as he was inefficient with his pitch count.

Kyle Lohse, 32, has spent the better part of the last two seasons injured and attempting to return to the rotation. His final numbers last season were 4-8 with a 6.55 ERA through 18 starts. There might be some hope, his best start of the season was his final start of the season against Colorado. It was also Lohse who was staff ace of the 2008 Cardinals rotation while Wainwright and Carpenter both spent time on the DL.

We know what we’re going to get out of Carpenter. A solid 17 or 18 wins with an ERA in the low 3s. I’m pretty sure we can pencil him in for that.

What this season is going to come down to is the following questions:

Will Jaime Garcia take a step up or regress? If Garcia steps up and improves on his 2010 campaign and becomes the pitcher we’re hoping he is, then he can step into that 17 or 18 game winner role as a co-ace with Carpenter. To do this he will have to become more efficient with his pitch count and go deeper into games. However, it’s just as likely that the league finally catches up with him and he struggles in his second season.

Will Westbrook continue pitching like he did last fall? During his time with the Cardinals, Westbrook pitched some of the best baseball of his career. If he can return to the 15 game winner form he was during his heyday with the Indians from 2004-2006, we will be in good shape.

What will Lohse give us? Kyle Lohse is motivated to prove that the last two seasons are not who he is and he is the pitcher the Cardinals saw in 2008 that won 15 games and that earned the $12 million salary he will command each of the next two seasons. If he can return to that form, even closely and give us double-digit wins we’ll be in better shape than we would have been earlier.

Who is our fifth starter? The team says they are looking strictly at internal options right now. That would include Kyle McClellan who seems to be at the top of the list, however, so too would P.J. Walters and Adam Ottavino who all spent time with the big league club last year while the team searched for a fifth starter. However, Memphis starters Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson could each get their opportunity. So could Ian Snell. But don’t expect to see Shelby Miller on the list any time soon.

Is the season done for the Cardinals? Not yet, it’s why we play the games.

Are we in worse shape than we were when we woke up this morning? Definitely. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the value of Adam Wainwright, who is one of the top pitchers in the league and as I write this I just realized he was my #1 draft pick in fantasy baseball.

But also, we don’t know anything for sure on Wainwright yet. It’s all speculation at this point. Hopefully it’s not bad and after a couple weeks off he will be good to go. Given the information we have though, that’s unlikely.

If we expect that 95 wins will win the NL Central in 2011, with an average of 23 wins from the bullpen (which is the average over the last four seasons), we need 72 wins out of the starting rotation.

Give Carpenter 17, that leaves us 55. Give Garcia and Westbrook each 15, that leaves us 25 for Lohse and the potential fifth starter to win. It’s a tall task, but not competely out of the realm of possibility.

Mostly, it depends just what the other teams in the NL Central that will make it more or less likely for the Cardinals to win the division. The lower the necessary win total to win the NL Central, the more likely the Cardinals are to win the division.

Milwaukee and Cincinnati are going to be the two closest competitors this season. Cincinnati won the division with 92 games last season, but can they do it again? Meanwhile, Milwaukee picked up two guys who were their respective teams’ #1 starters so you have to believe that they’ll be able to hit around 90 wins.

The fewer wins it will take to win the division, the more likely a Cardinals team winning the division title is.

Don’t give up hope, there’s still a chance. A small one, but a chance nonetheless.

NL Central Preview: Starting Pitcher #4

While Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, one pitcher I’ve talked about and one I haven’t yet, receive glowing reviews from the media and curse words from their teammates, I move on to Starting Pitcher #4

The Cardinals’ #4 is Jake Westbrook. A pitcher that the Cardinals had long been pursuing and ultimately received as part of the three-team trade that sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego. It was a much needed trade for the Cardinals as they needed to stabilize their starting rotation, but it didn’t have its desired effect as the Cardinals began their free fall shortly after.

Let’s get to it!

6. Bud Norris, Houston (4.92, 9-10 in 27 starts)
Or “Cy Norris” as he gets referred to by Cardinals fans and also spawned a brief “Bud Norris Facts” similar to those of Chuck because of his dominance over the Cardinals. While Bud has found success difficult to find against all teams, he is 5-1 in a 2.27 ERA in 6 starts against the Cardinals.  Norris’ mainstream stats declined from 2009 to 2010, but his ‘peripheral stats’ such as K/9, HR/9, WHIP all improved. That provides Houston some hope as we move into his third season in 2011.

5. Ross Ohlendorf, Pittsburgh (4.07, 1-11 in 21 starts)
Despite being 1-11, Ohlendorf’s ERA was pretty good, so who knows exactly what the story was.  His 2009 season was fairly solid as well, a slightly better ERA while going 11-10. Ohlendorf was fairly successful through his minor league career, but he’s going to have to put up some numbers if he wants to continue to stick around with a major league team.

4. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati (4.46, 4-3 in 19 starts)
When you read about Homer Bailey you think he needs to hurry up and figure things out because he has had four relatively mediocre seasons, far from what was expected from him when he was called up in 2007. Then you look at Bailey’s age and you realize he’s still just 24.  He spent most of 2009 bouncing between Cincinnati and Louisville before making the team in 2010. However, he spent a good deal of the season on the disabled list due to injury before coming back just after mid-season. It was probably overall his best season. The key will be for him to keep improving.

3. Carlos Silva, Chicago (4.22, 10-6 in 21 starts)
Glad I checked. I originally had Gorzelanny as the Cubs’ #4 starter, but come to find out that he was dealt a month ago to Washington. So up goes Carlos Silva to the #4 spot. Dealt for the problem child Milton Bradley it was an exchange for headaches for Seattle and Chicago. Bradley was becoming an issue and Silva had not done anything worthwhile in his two years in Seattle. Silva returned to post a decent season in 2010, but struggled most of the second half with shoulder issues. Is he over them or will they return will be a major factor for the Cubs in 2011.

2. Jake Westbrook, St. Louis (4.22, 10-11 in 33 starts between Cleveland and St. Louis)
The former Cleveland pitcher was in the middle of his comeback season with Cleveland after having Tommy John surgery when he was traded to the Cardinals mid-season. Despite the 4-4 record in 12 starts, Westbrook pitched much better, as his 3.48 ERA will attest. Can the same Westbrook return in 2011? That’s a good question, there’s really no reason that he can’t. Cardinal fans appreciated his statements he made when he signed his new contract with the Cardinals for probably less than he could have made if he’d stuck around in free agency longer. But he wanted to be a Cardinal, and as he said $17.5 million is still a lot of money where he’s from.

1. Randy Wolf, Milwaukee (4.17, 13-12 in 34 starts)
The lefty turned a successful 2009 into a three year deal in Milwaukee, where he was less successful in 2010. While the 34 year old Wolf has bounced around a bit, he has been exceptionally solid as a pitcher. Average, yes, but solid. That’s really what you want out of a #4 starter for Milwaukee, where he was probably listed much higher on the rotation list last year. Perhaps being the #4 will take some of the stress off of him with the additions of Marcum and Grienke and allow him to return to 2009 form. I know Milwaukee would love him to.

The points:

Milwaukee — 55 pts
St. Louis — 52 pts
Cincinnati — 46 pts
Chicago — 41 pts
Pittsburgh — 29 pts
Houston — 29 pts

NL Central Preview: Starting Pitcher #3

With just six days until the first Spring Training game is played, I need to get a move on. So let’s move this NL Central Preview thread along, as we begin to look at the third starting pitcher.

In 2010, the Cardinals were helped by the breakthrough season of Jaime Garcia who helped solidify a questionable rotation much of last season. Though many ignored him in Rookie of the Year talk, his numbers were good enough to garner him some consideration.

Let’s get a move on as I’m sure you don’t appreciate my ramblings near as much as I do.

6. Brian Burres, Pittsburgh (4.99 ERA, 4-5 in 13 starts)
After the top-2 starters in the Pirates rotation, it’s where it starts to get really iffy as they seem to have three spots in the rotation all up for grabs to whoever pitches best. Burres is just one of those options who made starts in 2010 for the club. He has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with Baltimore, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. His most successful season, was last season with Pittsburgh.

5. Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati (4.31 ERA, 4-3 in 12 starts)
Edinson Volquez spent most of 2010 on the disabled list, but was a nice midseason pick-me-up for the Reds who didn’t even need to trade for him, because they already had. Volquez even started Game 1 of the playoffs for Cincinnati as well, which shows the belief that manager Dusty Baker has in him. His first season in Cincinnati was dazzling as he won 17 games in 2008. Injury shortened his 2009 season, but nothing tells us that he shouldn’t be able to return to that 2008 form and shortly be considered the leader of that Reds bullpen once again.

4. Jaime Garcia, St. Louis (2.70 ERA, 13-8 in 28 starts)
Garcia was the Cardinals’ feel good story of 2010, and they didn’t have much to feel good about either. After being listed for quite awhile on the Cardinals’ top prospect list, he was injured and received Tommy John surgery. Garcia came back better than ever, pitching well for Memphis through the PCL playoffs and in the AAA Championship Game. He was dominant when he was on the mound for St. Louis too, but due to the injury was held to pitch counts and he occasionally had games where he was not very efficient with the pitches he was given. However, both improved as the season went on and he posted an excellent year.

3. Matt Garza, Chicago (3.91 ERA, 15-10 in 32 starts)
Another recent addition to the pitching rich NL Central, Matt Garza spent his 2010 season with Tampa Bay. His last three seasons have been solid pitching performances, though not masterful. But the Cubs won’t be looking for masterful from him. I think they’d be pleased with some solid performances. He was a really good addition to that Cubs lineup as they will be starting their first season under the new ownership.

2. J.A. Happ, Houston (3.40 ERA, 6-4 in 16 starts)
The Astros received J.A. Happ from Philadelphia in the Roy Oswalt trade, and I think that’s a very good move. Happ was one of the best rookie starters of 2009 and has the potential to turn into the type of ace that Roy Oswalt was for a team. Certainly he will be a good starting point for Houston as they look towards rebuilding that franchise from the ground up.

1. Zach Grienke, Milwaukee (4.17 ERA, 10-14 in 33 starts)
It was a tough call to put Grienke at the top considering his 2010 numbers, but I think that was the end result of just being on a team that was not going to be competitive on most nights out, no matter what he did on the mound. What other team has a #3 pitcher capable of winning a Cy Young, or who even has one on the mantle? That’s right, only Milwaukee. The Brewers paid a big price for Grinke as they retooled their rotation.

Almost forgot the points!

Milwaukee — 49 pts
St. Louis — 47 pts
Cincinnati — 43 pts
Chicago — 37 pts
Houston — 28 pts
Pittsburgh — 27 pts