2013 NL Central: Underwhelming

It’s a brand new season and I couldn’t be more excited.

Disclaimer: My household is “mixed”. I was raised a Cubs’ fan (although I would describe myself as a baseball fan first and Cubs’ fan second) and my wife is a (born-again) Cardinals’ fan.  After seeing an ad in SI for new Directv subscribers getting MLB Extra Innings included for free this season, well… Goodbye, Comcast. (We’re also saving $70 a month in cable bills, which ain’t too shabby.)

That being said, I’m no longer beholden to just being able to watch games that are local to the Chicago market and with the offerings here, that’s quite a relief.

While I did watch the Cubs’ Opening Day win against the Pirates, the last 3 nights have afforded me the chance to watch Matt Moore and the Rays shut down the Tribe, a couple of Cardinals games against the Giants, Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers befuddle the Bucs, and a late one last night catching up on the Brewers’ 11-inning loss to the D-Backs.

One thing I was really thinking about after having watched some of these other teams is the presence of real “shut-down” guys like Moore and Kershaw. These are pitchers that you can pretty well depend on to put an end to a losing streak. Night in, night out, there’re a solid bet to give you 7 innings and 2 runs or fewer allowed.

Then I got to thinking about the NL Central and asked myself “Who are the guys here that are like that? Is there anybody?”

I had trouble coming up with anyone.

You read the sections in SI’s Baseball Preview Issue where “A Rival Scout” sizes up the team and you routinely see things about some guy that’s the #2 or 3 pitcher on some team’s staff “would be the ace on 10 teams in the league”.

I think that’s a disservice to the term “ace”.

More than anything, I think that it’s a statement on how shoddy the pitching staffs are on some teams around the league. It might be more accurate to say “This guy would be the Opening Day pitcher for 10 teams around the league”, but if he were on a competitive team he’d be a #2 or 3.

That being said, here’s some thoughts on NL Central teams after one week of play…

Cincinnati Reds (4-2, 1 Game Ahead, Offense: 2nd, Defense: 6th)

It’s early, but things are pretty much shaping up as expected so far in the division. The Reds and Cardinals were expected by most to be the contenders, the Brewers in the middle of the pack, and the Pirates and Cubs battling for last place.

The Reds are the one team I haven’t yet had a chance to check out this season, but I plan to tune in to every game of their series that starts up today against the Redbirds.

St. Louis Cardinals (3-3, 1 Game Back, Offense: 4th, Defense: 8th)

Not sure what to make of this team just yet. First off, I got tired of looking at the Cards’ every off-season and thinking “this looks like a .500 team – at BEST” and then watching them rattle off another division title, so I’m just picking them to win the division every year for the rest of my life, regardless of how they look.

I know they’ve got some real promising youngsters who are either on the team already (like some of their pitchers) or will be soon. I can only imagine Oscar Tavares is just a Carlos Beltran injury away from getting called up.

I’m sure when the dust settles, they’ll be right up there at the top again, but I’m very curious to see how they pair up against Cincy this week.

That 9-run inning against the Giants yesterday was certainly a positive thing, though.

If Pete Kozma bats .300 all year, then maybe there’s some sort of Faustian bargain going on here… Keep an eye on that.

Chicago Cubs (2-4, 2 Games Back, Offense: 14th, Defense: 7th)

The Cubs took 2 of 3 against the Pirates to start the season and then laid a turd while getting swept by the Braves, mercifully losing “closer” Carlos Marmol in the process.

Jeff Samardzija is probably the only reason I would tune in to watch this team right now, although if I were a scout, I’d certainly tune in to watch and see if Scott Feldman or Carlos Villanueva will carry any trade value.  Ditto for Matt Garza if/when he comes back.

Anthony Rizzo’s swing looks a little out of control right now, but when he connects he’s gonna’ clobber it.

Samardzija looked awful in the first inning of Opening Day – unable to get ahead in the count and working out of jams, but he escaped, turned it around and had a solid day for himself, which is encouraging.

One thing I thought went unappreciated on Opening Day was Starlin Castro’s defense at short. He had 3 or 4 plays where he had to range into the whole to get to the ball and he came up with nice, steady, smooth, controlled, (more adjectives) throws over to first to get the batter. No panic there.

Pittsburgh Pirates (1-5, 3 Games Back, Offense: 15th, Defense: 2nd)

If I were a Pirates’ fan, I think Pedro Alvarez would drive me nuts.

He looks more like a fullback than a ball player. I know he can drive the ball out of the park on any given swing, but he’s off to another fabulous 2-for-22 start and his splits against southpaws are just horrendous.

A lifetime triple-slash line of 206/277/348 against LHP versus 246/320/450 against RHP. The latter is nothing to write home about, but the former is enough for me think I’d leave this guy on the bench when a lefty is starting.

Come to think of it, my patience in using him against righties would also be wearing thin right about now.

On the plus side, through 2 starts A.J. Burnett has looked pretty awesome. 19 K in 11 IP and 2 losses to show for it thanks to match-ups against Smardzija and Kershaw.  Sell high, Pirates!

Milwaukee Brewers (1-5, 3 Games Back, Offense: 8th, Defense: 13th)

Yovani Gallardo fits my notes above about an “ace” versus a “#1”. He’s the latter.

I watched him against Arizona on Sunday and thought “This is their stud?”

He had a few moments where he was solid, but overall I’m just not seeing the kind of dominant, “puts guys away” stuff that I’d like to see from my #1 pitcher.

Maybe he turns it around…

Brewers’ broadcasters went on and on about Logan Schafer’s terrific outfield play, but every time I saw a fly ball hit his way in left field I saw a guy who took a bad approach to the ball.

He looked utterly spastic and reminded me a bit of what a newborn horse looks like trying to walk for the first time.

Granted he had a nice throw to the plate on a double play fly out, but… I’m not impressed.

He also looked pretty lost at the plate in the handful of ABs I got to catch.  Maybe it was just a bad night.

They get the chance to right the ship and end a 5-game losing streak with a series against the Cubs to start out the week here.

Their week ended by being forced to use Kyle Lohse as a pinch-hitter against Heath Bell and I’m sure the team is eager to erase that memory as soon as possible.

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