2012 NL Central Predicted Standings
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
2012 NL Central Actual Standings
1. Cincinnati Reds (97-65, +81)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (88-74, +117)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (83-79, +43)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (79-83, -23)
5. Chicago Cubs (61-101, -146)
6. Houston Astros (55-107, -211)
St. Louis Cardinals
Most everything we said in our season preview for the Cardinals was spot-on: the offense was just as potent sans Albert Pujols, the rotation was solid despite missing Carpenter, and the team spent all season in some form of contention. The only real slip-up was how much the bullpen struggled in the early going, but once Mike Matheny figured out that allowing his best pitchers to pitch more frequently was the key, things went down a lot smoother. The Reds ran away with the NL Central like they’d committed murder, but with a higher run differential and some strange luck, it stands to reason that the Cardinals were just as good as we predicted.
Yadier Molina had already developed enough with the bat to warrant being called one of the best overall catchers in the game, but another giant leap forward means he’s now one of the best overall players in the game. Molina led the team in WAR (6.5), topped the 20 homer mark, and even stole 12 bases. Allen Craig spent most of his time at first after a series of Lance Berkman injuries (John Grisham will be publishing A Series of Lance Berkman Injuries next fall for those interested), and he mashed out an .876 OPS in the role. One might do well to note that a) that number is higher than the one accumulated by the departed Pujols in 2012, and b) we love Allen Craig and have a steadfast determination to hug him. The middle infield was an ugly place to look, but if you slide your eyes over to the hot corner you’ll see an excellent season from David Freese (.839 OPS, 20 HR). All three outfielders got it done as well; Matt Holliday was his usual steady self, Jon Jay improved every facet of his game in center, and Carlos Beltran parlayed a fast start and finish into an .842 OPS and 32 tate tates. (Beltran led the team in tate tates.)
Largely without the help of veteran horse-wrangler Chris Carpenter (well, other than those late season starts made by sheer determination and goat’s blood), the Cardinal rotation was just fine. Adam Wainwright got hammered early on, but he regained himself post-surgery to put up the highest strikeout rate of his career (8.34/9) as a starter and lead the team’s starters in WAR (4.4). Jaime Garcia battled injury problems, while Jake Westbrook battled both injury problems and bad pitcher problems, but Lance Lynn stepped up in a huge way. The massive, hairy righty fanned 9.2/9 on his way to making an All-Star game and proving he can stick in the rotation if needed. As for the bullpen, it finally became an asset down the stretch as the excellent performances of Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs were combined with newcomer Edward Mujica and the Trevor Rosenthal/Shelby Miller heat team.
The Cardinals have so many homegrown pieces to go with their proven stars that the team should be just fine in years to come. They may not have won the division as we predicted, but they still managed to make their presence known in the postseason and even got one game away from another World Series berth. They should have no problem giving the rest of the central a lot to deal with again in 2013.
Even after losing Prince Fielder to the greener, more automotive pastures of Detroit, the Brewers looked like the could contend for this division. They never did because of a slow start, but a tremendous finish left them reasonably close to nabbing the second wild card spot from the Cardinals. The team looked so bad at one point that ace Zack Greinke was dealt to the Angels in a move that all but says, “hey, we’re waving our white flag.” Little did the organization know, this team that was nine games under .500 in late August would fight back to four games over by season’s end.
Offensive production remained a strong point for the Brewers, as Aramis Ramirez was worth every penny in the first year of his three-year pact with the team. Ramirez posted a .901 OPS and, at 6.5 WAR, actually had the most valuable season of his career at age 34. Ryan Braun is right in the thick of another MVP race thanks to improved defense and baserunning. Oh, and he hits every baseball he looks at, too. Braun was worth 7.9 WAR per FanGraphs, and he led the National League in wOBA, SLG, and homers. He’s a franchise players and steroids had nothing to do with his ascent. The Brewers even got nice performances out of catcher Jonathan Lucroy (when healthy he hit .320/.368/.513), Carlos Gomez (.463 SLG, 37/43 SB), and Norichika Aoki (.787 OPS) to craft a sneaky but solid lineup. Oh, and Corey Hart hit 30 homers and learned first base.
At the All-Star break, Zack Greinke was actually leading the NL in pitcher WAR. Despite his effectiveness, Greinke was shipped to Los Angeles to hang out with Albert Pujols and build model trains with Jered Weaver as the team found itself out of contention. Fortunately for Milwaukee, some out-of-the-blue performances kept their rotation afloat. Mike Fiers pitched 127 2/3 innings with gaudy numbers (9.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9), and Marco Estrada was actually even better (9.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 in 138 1/3 IP). The Brewers were surely thrilled to get that kind of return from guys they weren’t particularly counting on at the outset of the season. The one unit that all but deserted the team was the bullpen; no one could get the job done, and Milwaukee’s relievers were among the worst in virtually any pitching category you can think of. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, such a dependable tandem not so long ago, fell apart completely and left the back end of games up to the hand of God.
The Brewers have some money to spend, they have some seriously talented players in place, and bullpens are usually not too tough to fix even internally. I think the Brewers are still in a spot where they can fight it out with the Cardinals and Reds going forward even if 2012 didn’t go exactly how the team had hoped.
So why exactly were the Reds able to just bury the competition and easily take home the central title? Well, their success was very much wrapped up in a pitching staff that hardly did anything wrong. Going into the season, it would have been easy to look at the potential and power of the Cincinnati lineup and assume the bats would wake up before the yawn-inducing pitching staff would get it together in a big way. That certainly wasn’t the case, as the Reds finished fourth in all of baseball in ERA and just 21st in runs scored.
Joey Votto had a stellar season when he wasn’t busy being broken. Votto showed less home run power than before, but he made up for it by slashing doubles and taking walks at a pace he had never accomplished before. He was supported by the continued emergence of Jay Bruce, a solid defender, baserunner, and power hitter. Bruce drew a few more walks than normal and currently sits as one of the best right fielders in the game. Beyond those two, Ryan Ludwick offered plenty of power (albeit without anything else) and Brandon Phillips handled himself well again at second base. Drew Stubbs continued to flounder horribly, while Todd Frazier slugged his way into the rookie of the year conversation even if his game isn’t all that well-rounded.
With the offense swimming in mere adequacy (if that), it fell to the pitching staff to get the Reds those miraculous 97 wins. Johnny Cueto earned Cy Young consideration thanks to keeping his ERA amazingly low. Cueto doesn’t miss many bats, but he limits his walks and keeps hitters guessing with his new Hideo Nomo-style delivery. And he picks a lot of runners of first base or something; apparently it’s a big deal. Mat Latos took plenty of shit from the media, but his season was still a solid one (8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9), and Bronson Arroyo managed to keep most of his pitchers in the yard and avoid neck problems in the process. The Reds benefited from one of the best bullpens in baseball, and left-hander Aroldis Chapman was a big reason why. Chapman struck out over 15 batters per nine innings, and he was able to harness his control in a meaningful way. Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo were also very good, while Jonathan Broxton came over to solidify things at the trade deadline.
We said before the season that any one of the Cardinals, Reds, or Brewers could win the division. The grand champion turned out to be the Reds, though a 2-0 lead to the Giants evaporated in the NLDS. It’s tempting to think the Giants had some sort of magic force on their side all year. The Reds will be in it again next season, but the farm system is a bit drained from the Latos acquisition. It looks like Dusty Baker is coming back, so pitchers beware!
The Pirates soared to new heights for most of the season before summoning their inner-Pirate and falling to four games under .500 by season’s end. Still, let’s give credit where credit is due: the Pirates have an interesting young nucleus, and they will work their way into legitimate and permanent contention when the time is right. There was no way this roster was going to complete 2012 over .500, not with a pitching staff built so heavily on marshmallows and dreams and whispers of children. Let is be known that the bottom three teams in this division were predicted entirely correctly by StanGraphs. Go us!
Andrew McCutchen made himself a true MVP candidate for much of the season. The center fielder hit .327/.400/.553 with 31 homers and 20 steals. Along the way he played very nice defense, had very nice dreadlocks, and acquitted himself well-enough in the home run derby at the All-Star break. McCutchen is a star, and the Pirates are lucky to have him. Pedro Alvarez still hasn’t lived up to the hype that once surrounded him as a draft pick and prospect, but at least the guy has plenty of power. Alvarez bapped 30 homers and slugged .467, and most of that production seemed to have happened against the Cardinals. Neil Walker was his usual solid self, while Clint Barmes worked diligently to make sure he couldn’t muster a .600 OPS in nearly 500 PA.
All high on postseason aspirations, the Pirates dealt some useful future pieces to Houston to obtain Wandy Rodriguez at the trade deadline. Rodriguez was fine in his 12 Pirate starts, but he wasn’t as good as some of his lesser-known teammates. A.J. Burnett, fresh off Yankee exile, struck out nearly three times as many as he walked in over 200 innings and logged a 3.51 ERA. James McDonald was crushed under the weight of his breakneck start, though he still finished the year worth nearly 2.0 WAR when expectations were pretty much nothing. Hell, even Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens managed acceptable surface stats despite being, well, bad. In the bullpen Joel Hanrahan brought the whiffs back, but he also started walking all sorts of people. Jason Grilli was especially excellent (90 K in 58 2/3 IP, 2.91 ERA), while Jared Hughes and Tony Watson also got the job done.
It was a fun story for many that the Pirates were in contention, and even atop their division, for much of 2012. The team wasn’t ready, but they will be here in a couple of years. As we’ve said all season long, teams like this need to be patient and avoid splashing the free agent market or trading away young talent. The wins are on the way if you let them come naturally.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when the Cubs and Cardinals were deadlocked as division favorites and each match-up between the two teams was heated and intense. Turns out that’s simply not the case anymore, and Theo Epstein is busy revamping the ruined diaper he inherited. Epstein has already managed to lock up potential star shortstop Starlin Castro, bring in Anthony Rizzo, and do his best to obtain prospects for the veterans who simply had no business being a part of the next successful Cubs team. Epstein is clearly rebuilding, and I hope Chicago fans realize he’s already on the way to doing a fine job of it.
Anthony Rizzo looked a lot less overmatched than he did in his first trip through the major leagues. Rizzo posted an .805 OPS and hit 15 homers in 368 PA; to me that means he’s on the way up, and he could be a fine option at first base before long. Starlin Castro added power (.430 SLG, 14 HR), and he’s still excellent at simply making solid contact and hitting for average, but he’ll need to work hard to get on base in other ways atop the lineup. Kudos to Alfonso Soriano for making himself useful, as the long-time albatross had enough raw power (.499 SLG, 32 HR) to justify himself. Maybe Epstein can even get something out of him if he finds him a new home! The Cubs sadly tried to play guys like Darwin Barney (.653 OPS) and Tony Campana (fast, .607 OPS) for the wrong reasons, but hopefully once there’s more talent on the roster that kind of nonsense will stop.
Matt Garza pitched well before injuries took hold of him, Ryan Dempster was defying BABIP and FIP logic before being traded, and Paul Maholm was Paul Maholm before winding up in Atlanta. By season’s end, the Chicago rotation was left with a bunch of scavengers, but in rebuilding mode Epstein wouldn’t have it any other way. At least the Jeff Samardzija-as-starter project went well. Captain Repeating Consonant struck out more than a batter per inning and didn’t worry about his command as he had in the past. I could talk about the bullpen, but do you really want me to? That’s what I thought.
The Cubs have a long road ahead of them, but everything should eventually be okay in the capable hands of Theo Epstein. New prospects are filtering through the system, the right guys are being retained, and that pesky Soriano contract is nearly over. The days of kill-your-neighbor Cards-Cubs rivalries could be upon us sooner than any of us are even ready for.
The Astros are headed for the American League next season. What does that mean? Well, for the Astros it may mean even more losses in 2013. For the rest of the NL Central it probably means fewer wins. This is a terrible baseball team, but GM Jeff Luhnow, much like Theo Epstein up in Chicago, has a clear plan in place to rebuild largely from scratch. Terrible contracts and player management led to a complete disaster, and something has to be done to correct it. The Astros shockingly started the season 22-23 before going into a 33-84 free-fall, but the plan was never to contend. The plan is to build something that will last.
We were way off on J.D. Martinez, as he appears now to be a minor league sensation whose line drive tendencies simply don’t translate to the game’s highest level. Jed Lowrie slugged his way into the conversation as one of the best offensive shortstops in the league (16 HR, .438 SLG), but injuries dampened the overall result. Jose Altuve made us look good by ending up hitting for average and stealing bases (33/44), but he slowed down immensely during Houston’s unmitigated second half death rattle. Altuve could still be a valuable piece down the line. Among those that led the team in PA for their position, Chris Johnson (who was traded for a useful couple of prospects) led the Astros with a .757 OPS. Not even kidding.
Lucas Harrell made some waves by winning 11 games and posting a sub-4.00 ERA, but he’s not a guy worth projecting much more on. He’s already 27 and he was once a huge douchebag to Spencer during a trip to the Y. I really hope we elaborate on that more later. Bud Norris remains baffling despite his strikeout rates, while Wandy Rodriguez only stayed in town part of the season before ending up a Pirate. Let me clarify: Wandy wound up on the Pirates baseball team; he didn’t actually begin plundering and pillaging.
There is a lot of work to do for Jeff Luhnow, and he’ll have to do it in the tougher league, but we have faith. The former Cardinal director of scouting has a good eye for player development and a good track record when it comes to bringing in the right personnel. The Astros have a long road ahead of them, but they’re not likely to have many seasons as bad as the one we just witnessed.