Archive for April, 2012

Baseball lost another of its all-time greats yesterday, when catcher Ivan Rodriguez decided to pack it in. “Pudge” was often seen as the premier defensive catcher of his era, when he was at his best, he was easily all least that. I’m going a step further He was the greatest defensive catcher of all-time, and even still, he was only AT LEAST just that.

While the Gold Glove has somehow become arguably the worst way to judge defensive prowess (considering how it seems like it takes 20 home runs to qualify for one these days), Pudge was one of those guys who REALLY earned it with, you know, actual defense still. Or even more, he earned it with straight out intimidation. Folk’s just plain out we’re not running on him. In my time watching the game over the last 20 years, there have been a few catchers that just have the type of arm where guys stick close to the base like youth league softball. Charles Johnson, Benito Santiago and Yadier Molina jump out the pack, but none was what Rodriguez was. He cut down 45% of potential base thefts in his career; that’s crazy. He called a solid game behind the plate for a variety of great hurlers in era, starting with Nolan Ryan and later on catching Justin Verlander’s first no-hitter.

While Pudge will always be known as a force behind the plate, I’m going a step further and paying him his full due: he was the greatest All-Around catcher to ever play the game. I say this in a talent-turned-into results perspective, for I still hold that Yogi Berra sits at the pinnacle of the Catcher’s Mount Olympus (his 10-titles & three MVPs assure him of that). But when looking at the most talented and tooled player to ever don the “tools of ignorance”, he’s peerless. Now I’m well aware of the traditional baseball rhetoric that has reserved this honor for Johnny Bench, and Johnny Bench alone, but really, where didn’t Pudge surpass him? Look at bit deeper and see the big picture for what it is.

There's been no combination behind the plate like Rodriguez had in his prime, and even then, it was taken a bit for granted.

It’s at the plate that his due should truly be reevaluated, and where his rightful due as the greatest all-around catcher ever is sealed. At a spot where offense is often sacrificed in the name of leadership, strategy and defense, Pudge shined. He’s the all-time hits leader at the position, with 2,844. His 572 doubles are tops at the spot and 21st overall all-time. He hit over .300 for eight consecutive years and 10 times total, finishing with a career mark of .296. That’s beyond outstanding for a catcher, and places him with top hitters of the strongest offensive era in the game’s history. And what’s more is he did this while grinding behind the plate at a record pace has well. He never moved positions, and the gruel of squatting down for nine innings at yet another record pace didn’t affect his record offensive output, or his legendary defense. He played over 130 games nine times, and a total of 2,427 overall; 200 more than next best total.

What more can I say? His 1999 MVP season was amazing; 35 homers, 113 RBI, .332 batting average with 199 hits against only 64 strikeouts in 144 games caught. That’s amazing while sustaining the torture that a full-season of catching can be. After he hit the scene as a 19 year old in 1991, he followed up with a Rookie of the Year award in 1992 at 20, as well as made his first of his eventual 14 All-Star appearances. He also took home the first of his 13 (earned) Gold Gloves that year, a record total at the catcher spot and ties him for the fourth most at any position. Overall, he played in two World Series, and won one in his lone year as a Florida Marlin.

Yet there is still a lack of buzz around the departure of this giant from the game. Perhaps because he didn’t speak the sharpest English or didn’t play much of his career in the league’s brightest media posts, his finish is a bit more subdued. But one of the greatest players of the last 20 years has decided to walk away, and it’s just a matter of time before his number 7 is the fourth number the Texas Rangers retire, and there’s only four years and 364 days left before he is rightfully placed in Cooperstown as the greatest catcher of many eras. And if you missed out or underappreciated that, then you really missed a beauty of a game put on, from the trenches of it.

 

For more on today’s underappreciated legends in the works, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

The most beautiful day in all of each baseball season is Jackie Robinson Day. For one day only, the number 42 become eligible again to be used in current Major League Baseball games, and not only for one or two guys…but for everybody. This past Sunday was 2012’s installment of the rounding reminder of Robinson’s life on the field, and the still very current impact it holds. The body count of players that were dressed as Jack would appear in their respective team garb was extensive. From White to Dominican to Jewish players all suited up bearing the 42 issue. However, like many other games that happen on the daily, there were very few players that could do a spot on imitation of Robinson. And this is due to the still dwindling number of African-Americans that are at the Major League level.

This number has gone from decreasing gradually, to outright plummeting as of late. The current 2012 level of the game is the lowest it’s been since Robinson was nearly still an active player. Of the 750 active MLB members, a 50 year low of only 8% currently. This is the continuation of a dramatic shift in the game towards basically everything except of Black players. While the consistent majority is still White American ballplayers, Hispanic-born players have flown past African-Americans in comprising the dominant minority presence in the game. Overall, foreign-born players makeup 28% of all rosters currently.

While Robinson's memory is kept quite vital, however can his impact actively keep the same relevance in today's game?

Major League Baseball has long attempted to support and implement programs that spark a renewal in baseball, yet the results aren’t happening. The popularity of the NFL is tremendous; the league had unwavering success in a season that nearly didn’t even happen. The basketball is America’s answer to soccer, as it is the easiest game for both suburban and urban youths to play. Its interest carries over to the NBA, which despite having a rougher, lockout-ridden, beginning to its year, is still riding a high in popularity and viewership.

All while this is occurring around baseball, a game that hit a peak of 27% of its population being African-American in the mid-70’s, is struggling to find any real answers or fixes to its steadily growing irrelevance within the nation’s second largest minority. Discussions on the topic closely resemble the conversations you will hear in political circles about methods to turn around the financial recession around the country; plenty of propositions, hope and spoken initiative, yet little actual outcome from any of it.

There is no shortage of commentary on “What would Jackie think of this?” in response to the falling relevance of the National Pastime and the participants within his culture. And his reaction very may have been contrary to what he would see in an average MLB game today. However, what is indisputable is that the quality of African-American players is still high and frequent in the most elite levels of the game. In 2011, there were eight All-Stars that took to the field in the Mid-Summer’s Classic (although this was down from the 13 in 2010’s game), and four of them continued on to finish in the top 10 in each league’s MVP voting.

The individual performances were spectacular as well, headlined by the flat out ridiculous year of Los Angeles Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp. He became only the second player to hit at least .320 with 35 home runs, 35 stolen bases and 125 RBI, and the first to do it since 1920. He also was the first player since Hank Aaron in 1963 to finish in the top two in home runs and steals in the same season. Overall, he hit 39 homers & 126 RBI, leading the National League in both marks. He went on to finish in the top three of nine other categories.

Kemp wears the modern version of Robinson's jersey, and also sits in a very vital spotlight for Black ballplayers as well.

Kemp was not alone in making a major impact. Prince Fielder bashed 38 homers and was the most feared hitter in the NL, with a league-leading 32 intentional walks. At only 23 years old, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton led his club to last-to-first ascension in the NL West, and nearly notched an MVP Award for himself. Overall, three of the top four MVP finalists in the National League were African-American.

In the American League, the Yankees lead the way in African-American impact. Curtis Granderson became the first player to ever hit 40 home runs and 10 triples, while stealing 25 bases in one season. CC Sabathia was second in the AL with 19 wins and notched his 2,000th career strikeout. Last but not least, one of the most decorated African-American stars ever joined one of the game’s most exclusive clubs, when Derek Jeter homered for his 3,000th career hit in July.

So, while the game is suffering for participation amongst the culture, as you can clearly see, those that are showing up are showing out, like always. And the historic impact of Blacks on the game stretched off the field in this newly began season’s start early on. Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and will be enshrined this summer. And in an even more impactful moment, basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson became a majority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, making him the first African-American owner in MLB history.

That gives him ownership of the same team that Robinson gave the first, solo shove to by manning the number 42 jersey for the first time back on April 15, 1947. So even when progress is slow in one area, it’s managed to take off flying once again in another. That’s something that I’m sure Jackie would approve of with no reservation.

Of the 30 Major League Teams, 26 currently feature African-Americans on their roster. Here is the breakdown of how the culture’s presence is dispersed around the game (current of posting morning):

Arizona D’Backs (2): Justin Upton, Chris Young

Atlanta Braves (2): Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward

Baltimore Orioles (2): Adam Jones, Darren O’Day

Boston Red Sox (2): Carl Crawford, Darnell McDonald

Chicago Cubs (1): Marlon Byrd

Byrd holds the dubious tag of being the only African-American ballplayer on either of the city of Chicago's two MLB clubs.

Cincinnati Reds (2): Brandon Phillips, Willie Harris

Cleveland Indians (2): Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore, Tony Sipp

Colorado Rockies (2): Dexter Fowler, Eric Young Jr.

Detroit Tigers (3): Austin Jackson, Price Fielder, Delmon Young

Houston Astros (1): Justin Maxwell

Kansas City Royals (1): Lorenzo Cain, Jason Bourgeois

Los Angeles Angels (5): Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick, Vernon Wells, LaTroy Hawkins, Jerome Williams

Los Angeles Dodgers (5): Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon, Tony Gwynn Jr, James Loney, Jerry Hairston, Jr.

Milwaukee Brewers (2): Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks

Minnesota Twins (1): Denard Span

New York Mets (1): Scott Hairston

New York Yankees (3): Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson

The Yankees supplied two of the eight African-American All-Stars in 2011, with Granderson starting in center field.

Oakland Athletics (3): Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks, Tyson Ross

Philadelphia Phillies (4): Juan Pierre, Jimmy Rollins, Lee Mayberry, Ryan Howard

Pittsburgh Pirates (2): Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald

San Diego Padres (3): Kyle Blanks, Orlando Hudson, Cameron Maybin

San Francisco Giants (1): Emmanuel Burriss

Seattle Mariners (1): Chone Figgins

Tampa Bay Rays (3): BJ Upton, David Price, Desmond Jennings

Toronto Blue Jays (2): Rajai Davis, Darren Oliver, Eric Thames

Washington Nationals (1): Edwin Jackson

This figure brings the total to 62 active African-American MLBers. The St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins do not have an African-American on their roster currently. In addition to this figure, there are two Black managers, as well as two General Managers and an African-American owner. As a note, three of the teams that do not have an active Black player on their roster, are lead by African-Americans in one capacity or another.

Managers: Dusty Baker (Reds), Ron Washington (Rangers)

General Managers: Kenny Williams (White Sox), Melvin Hill (Marlins)

Owners: Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Dodgers)

Top 100 Prospects [According to Baseball America]: Taijuan Walker (#20, Mariners), Jonathan Singleton (#34, Astros), Gary Brown (#38, Giants), Anthony Gose (#39, Blue Jays), Billy Hamilton (#48, Reds), Josh Bell (#60, Pirates), Andrelton Simmons (#92, Braves), Tyrell Jenkins (#94, Cardinals)

This is where we stand today and a bit of tomorrow as well. It is still an amazing game that is far from a lost cause from a cultural relevance standpoint. However, questions and actions will need to have answers before the significance of Robinson’s breakthrough becomes more currently ceremonial than actually visual.

So what are “we” going to do?

For 2011’s “Black Diamonds” post click here, for 2010 click here.

For more on the daily exploits of the African-American culture on the game, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

In something that’s becoming a bit of a trend for the club, off the bench comes an impact player that’s upstaging the bigger name Birds around him. While it’s been over a year since  tore St. Louis Cardinals’ Spring Training in half and took his Major League expectations to a new level, but finally a year later, he’s getting a real chance to extend his impact in the big leagues.

Carpenter has taken his Major League opportunity by the throat thus far this season.

That long awaited impact made it’s dynamic debut, as he seemingly single-handedly drummed the  out of  on Sunday, with a 5 RBI performance that featured both a two-run triple and his first big league homer. Overall, he plated four hits in a dynamic fashion while filling in for a fifth game for first baseman , and keyed a 10-3 Cardinal win that sealed a third straight series win to open the year. While he has seized every bit of his recent opportunity, hitting .500 along with some strong glove work as well at his third position in the young season, his clear way into the lineup is coming to a close. Berkman isslated to return to the lineup after sitting out to nurse a calf injury, which begs the question: what to do with Carpenter now?

 

For more on the Cardinals’ newest impact bat from within, as well as some other words around the organization, check out the rest of this piece over in my column at St. Louis Sports 360: http://stlouissports360.com/carp-town-mark/

 

And for more on the league moment to moment, and my never ending struggle to make it from Breakfast to Lunch to Dinner, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

While the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins launched Opening Day of technically yesterday, the masses take to the field today and tomorrow. In honor of that, here is my complete MLB preview for the year brought on home. Here is how I see everybody crossing over and interweaving until there’s only one team left again. Hopefully, I will do much, much better than I did last year in this effort, but really, it can’t get much worse (sorry, I’m not forgiving myself for that).

At any rate, we’re doing the preview buffet spread here this year. Indulge in some MVP and Cy Young Picks, along with a few other predictions and possibilities as well. In addition, if you missed any of the Division-by-Division in-depth previews, which will explain much of this info, here are the links for each:

National League West, Central, East

American League West, Central, East

As for now, get on into it. Happy Opening Day, part deux….

Most likely to be much better than projected….

  1. Washington Nationals: With Stephen Strasburg returning to anchor a strong rotation, along with a solid lineup entrenched in a wide open division, the Nats could jump up make a run for a Wild Card Spot.
  2. Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays have been the “Best team in the wrong division” for the last three years. Eventually they’ll overcome in the fashion the Rays did before them in the AL East.
  3. Kansas City Royals: Like last year’s Arizona Diamondbacks proved, young teams with complete lineups can make a push, especially in a light division. The Royals are in an identical situation.

Playoff participant a year ago most likely to miss in ’12…

  1. Milwaukee Brewers: Losing Prince Fielder is huge, and this team could struggle to recapture the run scoring, high octane act that separated them from a tight pack in the Central a year ago.
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks: Momentum, mixed with a crucial injury to their prime competition’s lineup at the perfect time, propelled them into the playoffs last year. The road will not be as efficient this year.
  3. Tampa Bay Rays: I think the Rays are a complete team with the most to offer of any club in the game across the board. But coming out of the East is a war, and a brief slump could easily take them down, the same type they benefitted from a year ago.

If you haven’t seen this guy, you gotta….

  1. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: Only Griffey and A-Rod have hit more pre-23rd birthday homers than the Marlins newly named cleanup terror.
  2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: He has every tool that Justin Upton and Matt Kemp have…only they are buried in the abyss of Pittsburgh.
  3. Yu Darvish, Rangers: He’s unlike any other Japanese import before him. He throws the expected selection of off speed pitches, but bases them off a very American mid-90’s fastball.

Will have a big injury bounce back…

  1. Buster Posey, Giants: The axis of the Giants attack, he will return to drive the least-productive offense in the NL out of the cellar and give their potent pitching some leads to work with again.
  2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: He looked back up to his former tricks in the spring: it took 10 innings for opponents to find a way to plate a run against him during his first in-game work in over a year.
  3. David Wright, Mets: The walls at Citi Field were moved in some, and Wright could be prone for a big season as a result in what could be an audition season for him for a move out of NY.

Worst New Injury

  1. Joakim Soria, Royals: The Royals have slowly been building up for a run, but their chances of starting it up early took a blow when Soria’s elbow collapsed this spring and he had a second Tommy John surgery.
  2. Michael Pineda, Yankees: The Yanks dealt their top prospect for the Mariners flame throwing young All-Star. However, when he showed for camp he could get out the low 90’s and was shutdown due to shoulder soreness.
  3. Ryan Madson, Reds: Another victim of Tommy John’s trap. His absence hurts a Reds pitching staff that looked to finally turn the corner.

Its gonna be a long summer….

  1. Houston Astros: Nothing’s gotten better for baseball’s worst team from last year and they are actually still moving out some of their better players as part of a franchise reboot.
  2. Baltimore Orioles: Tough spot for the O’s, entrenched in the AL East. But nobody wants to join their perpetual rebuilding effort, so a fire sale may start smoking soon.
  3. Chicago White Sox: This is every definition of baseball purgatory; stuck in the middle of the AL’s worst division in a wait-and-see approach based around several underachievers with huge contracts.

DBTH (Don’t Believe The Hype):

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers: Their big headline making purchase is a definitely a sign of better days to come, but that’s not going to affect them in the immediate, and another mediocre year is on deck until Magic’s money can start to save them.
  2. Miami Marlins: They made tons of waves by waving around a ton of cash this winter, but this is still a defensively subpar club and one that depends on its pitching heavily. That doesn’t mesh well.
  3. Boston Red Sox: Something about bringing in Bobby Valentine to restore order reminds me of expecting gas to put out a fire.

NATIONAL LEAGUE PICKS

NL MVP

  1. Joey Votto, Reds: He’ll have the world on his shoulders again, but the overall team should improve and his RBI numbers should as well. When combined with his Gold Glove defense and shot at a division crown, a second MVP is vision that could come clear.
  2. Justin Upton, D’Backs: He’s 24 and already leading a very talented cast in Phoenix. Jumps to a .300 average and 30 steals, along with steady power numbers slides him steadily up the best in the game discussions.
  3. Ryan Braun, Brewers:He’s all on his own leading the Brewers now, but another run at a batting title and repeat 30/30 season, along with most importantly keep the Brewers in the NL Central race should net him a shot at back-to-back MVP honors.

    If Braun can keep the Brewers in their stride from last year, despite their huge loss, he'll run away with MVP.

NL Cy Young

  1. Roy Halladay, Phillies: The Phillies are going to need pitching more than ever this year, and even an average, lax by his standards year from Doc is a default Cy Young for him. So imagine if he’s in crunch mode all year?
  2. Cole Hamels, Phillies A contract year will propel Hamels into his finest offering yet, and land him a Cy over his two former winners of the honor teammates in Halladay and Cliff Lee.
  3. Tim Lincecum, Giants: His numbers look a lot better when he gets the run support to turn his performances into wins. An improved Giants lineup should get him in the running again.

NL Rookie of the Year

  1. Zach Cosart, Reds: He showed the potential last year before quickly having his year ended due to injury. Now mixed into one of the league’s best lineups in Cincinnati, he’ll be able to produce without much spotlight solely on him.
  2. Yonder Alonso, Padres: He will be the day one cleanup hitter and first baseman for the Padres, and will have a surplus of chances to drive runs home.
  3. Devin Morasco, Reds: The Reds catcher could have a chance to make an offensive impact similar to Posey’s in Frisco two summers ago.

NATIONAL LEAGUE POSTSEASON

Wild Cards: Marlins (90-72) & Reds (88-74)

Divisional Round

Phillies (93-69) vs. Cardinals (91-71)

Giants (95-67) vs. Marlins

NLCS

Phillies vs. Giants ….

AMERICAN LEAGUE PICKS

AL MVP

  1. Albert Pujols, Angels: The best player in the game will make no delayed impact in his new league, and will be the catalyst for the Angels reclaiming of the AL West with a career year.
  2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: He’ll benefit hugely from protection Prince Fielder provides behind him, and will chase all three legs of the Triple Crown once again, winning at least one.
  3. Evan Longoria, Rays: Longoria is the driving force in the Rays all-around attack, and after a down year average wise, he’ll find his form again and set career marks across the board. And perhaps steal an MVP nod as well.

AL Cy Young

  1. Justin Verlander, Tigers: What he did last year was just so special that it’s foolish to think it was just a high water year. Another 24 wins is unlikely, but another pitcher’s Triple Crown is.
  2. David Price, Rays: He pitched in tough luck a lot last year, but a classic performance could be on hand if he brings his winning ways from ’10 along with his dominant style of ’11 together.
  3. CC Sabathia, Yankees:The game’s premier winner hasn’t won less than 19 games since reaching the Bronx, and he’ll continue to end up in 20 victories neighborhood again.

    Verlander was so good last year that it just seems like he went to another level that won't expire due to one winter getting in the way.

AL Rookie of the Year

  1. Jesus Montero, Mariners: He can kill the ball all around the park and has a legit shot at hitting both .290 and 25-30 homers. As a catcher, that’s a ROY year.
  2. Yu Darvish, Rangers: He’ll pitch in a lot of big games and will have a ton of expectations, but if he can stretch out his stamina and stay sharp, he’ll be an All-Star this year.
  3. Matt Moore, Rays: This can’t miss kid is the top pitching prospect in the game for a reason. He’ll be a huge matchup bonus for the Rays and could rack up huge strikeout numbers.

AL Postseason

Wild Cards: Texas Rangers (93-69) & New York Yankees (94-68)

Division Round

Detroit Tigers (99-63) vs. Texas Rangers

Los Angeles Angels (97-65) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)

ALCS

Detroit Tigers vs. Los Angeles Angels ….

2012 WORLD SERIES

Los Angeles Angels vs. San Francisco Giants: How rare is an all-west coast World Series, that pits two teams against each other that missed the postseason completely the year before? (No seriously, I’m asking because I’m not looking that up.) However long it has been, both of these clubs land here due to submarine-deep pitching staffs, as well as lineups that have received major jolts in the run producing department, via trades, signings and young talent that can boost solid, yet previously stagnant lineups.

Cain's got a record-setting deal to start the year, and a second ring in three years could be a part of the end of it.

In the end, pitching wins out, and I firmly believe that if you have a pitching staff that can shoulder the load and make leads stand up, you’ve got the game’s ultimate winning formula. Via that equation, you have the San Francisco Giants, and you have my prediction for World Championship ballclub in 2012.

Of course you just as easily, could have the Chicago White Sox go on a final month (or even day) blitzkrieg, and throw all of this out the window. WHO KNOWS? But my logic says this is logic, so that’s what it shall be.

For more baseball, and life, coverage in the moment it comes to my mind, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

The NL Central was baseball’s strangest division in 2010. In the first half, it was home to a crazy, four-way run at the top of the division, even including the long suffering Pittsburgh Pirates outdoing it’s champion by five games the year before in the Cincinnati Reds. In the second half, the Milwaukee Brewers pulled away and locked up the division rather easily…all while the St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of beginning the most indomitable run the game has ever seen. And that was just the beginning.

2011 Standings

  1. Milwaukee Brewers (96-66)
  2. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
  3. Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)
  5. Chicago Cubs (71-91)
  6. Houston Astros (56-106)

In the end, the Cardinals took out a Brewers team that had owned them for much of the season in the National League Championship Series, before capping their incredible run by winning the most thrilling World Series title in a generation. However, the highlights didn’t end there as in the winter, no division was more impacted by subtractions. Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa left St. Louis, Prince Fielder left Milwaukee, Carlos Zambrano left Chicago. Well, the last one wasn’t bad at all, but you get what I’m saying. In between it all, league MVP Ryan Braun battled and avoided a steroid suspension, Theo Epstein came to Chicago to start baseball’s longest rebuilding project and the Astros were sent to the American League after this year. To just call it a busy winter in the Heartland is the understatement of the year.

The Cardinals turned rocky start into a historic finish last year, but much has changed since last October under the Arch.

So what does 2012 hold? Will the Cardinals’ new era carry the success over from the one that just end so high, and so suddenly? Can the division’s last two champions in Cincinnati and Milwaukee ground on the out of the blue champions from their division, or will one of the less heralded clubs make another unexpected run and finish it up this year? One thing for certain is it will be a neck to neck….to neck fight all the way through.

All-Division Team

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals

First Baseman: Joey Votto, Reds

Second Baseman: Brandon Phillips, Reds

Third Baseman: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers

Shortstop: Starlin Castro, Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun, Brewers

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Right Field: Jay Bruce, Reds

Greinke had a strong National League debut, including an 11-0 mark at home.

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Matt Garza, Cubs

Relief Righty: Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers

Relief Lefty: Bill Bray, Reds

Closer: John Axford, Brewers

Top 10 Players

  1. Ryan Braun, Brewers
  2. Joey Votto, Reds
  3. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
  4. Brandon Phillips, Reds
  5. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
  6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
  7. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  8. Zack Grienke, Brewers
  9. Lance Berkman, Cardinals
  10. Starlin Castro, Cubs

Castro will be the talent the Cubs rebuild around, as he became the youngest hits king in NL history last year at 21.

Lineup

  1. Reds
  2. Cardinals
  3. Brewers
  4. Pirates
  5. Cubs
  6. Astros

The Reds lineup features two of the best young batters in the game in Votto and Bruce, with the versatile Phillips capable of being both a prolific leadoff hitter and cleanup guy as well. The Cardinals bring back a new type of lineup, but still is the most versatile group in the division, with Carlos Beltran making the lineup more versatile, if not better, than it was a year ago.

Votto is now hands down the class of NL first baseman, and brings a .313 career average into '12.

Rotation

  1. Brewers
  2. Cardinals
  3. Reds
  4. Cubs
  5. Astros
  6. Pirates

The Brewers staff remained intact and has the potential to boast two Cy Young candidates in Greinke and Gallardo, along with strong backing in Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. The Cardinals staff as a whole could eclipse them if Chris Carpenter makes a quick return. Veterans AJ Burnett and Eric Bedard bring needed experience along with suspect injury records, to Pittsburgh.

1-2 Punch

  1. Brewers (Grienke & Gallardo)
  2. Cardinals (Wainwright & Garcia)
  3. Reds (Cuerto & Latos)
  4. Astros (Rodriguez & Norris)
  5. Cubs (Garza & Dempster)
  6. Pirates (Bedard & Karstens)

A full healthy Wainwright and Carpenter combo puts the Cardinals at the top of this list, but until that’s a reality, the Brewers’ duo reigns supreme. Bud Norris is an ace in waiting in Houston, whether Wandy Rodriguez is finally dealt or not. If Latos can regain his All-Star consistency of 2010, the Reds will finally have a front line starter to lean on.

Wainwright's return gives the Cardinals annual Cy Young contender, and the largest impact addition of any NL club.

Bullpen

  1. Cardinals
  2. Brewers
  3. Pirates
  4. Reds
  5. Cubs
  6. Astros

The Reds bullpen was primed to be one of the best in the division after gaining Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson this winter, but Madson is lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery and it throws their pen into disarray. The Brewers feature the division’s best 8-9 combo in K-Rod and Axford, who led the NL in saves a year ago with 46. The Cardinals bullpen came into its own down the stretch a year ago, and it is most prepared top to bottom to be strength this season.

Tablesetters

  1. Cardinals (Furcal & Beltran)
  2. Reds (Phillips & Cozart)
  3. Brewers (Weeks & Morgan)
  4. Pirates (Tabata & Presley)
  5. Cubs (DeJesus & Barney)
  6. Astros (Schafer & Lowrie)

There are no true burners in any of the leadoff positions in the Central, but they still will be highly productive in other ways. Weeks could lead the Majors in leadoff homers, while if Furcal & DeJesus have rebound seasons at the plate, could provide long needed sparks to the top of St. Louis & Chicago’s lineup. Jose Tabata is an underrated leadoff talent in Pittsburgh.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Reds (Votto/Rolen/Bruce)
  2. Cardinals (Holliday/Berkman/Freese)
  3. Brewers (Braun/Ramirez/Hart)
  4. Pirates (McCutchen/Walker/Jones)
  5. Cubs (Castro/LeHair/Soriano)
  6. Astros (Martinez/Lee/Bogusevic)

A good year from Scott Rolen was a big difference between last year’s 79 win club, and the 91 win one the year before. He’s the balance the team is built on. Same goes for Berkman in St. Louis, who held together a team that had a rollercoaster summer & fall. The Pirates lack a true power hitter, but have a lot of promise in their lineup. Castro led the NL in hits a year ago, and now will be counted to be the primary run creator for the rebuilding Cubs.

Braun won his first MVP last season, beat a PED suspension in the winter, and now returns to lead the Crew without Fielder for the first time.

Bench

  1. Reds
  2. Cardinals
  3. Brewers
  4. Pirates
  5. Cubs
  6. Astros

Ryan Ludwick, Miguel Cairo and hot prospect Devin Morasco lead a versatile Reds bench, which will bleed into the everyday lineup to diversify the Cincy attack. Allen Craig and Skip Schumaker are starters on a lot of clubs, and once healthy will be counted on heavily in St. Louis. Carlos Gomez is a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder that also puts plus speed on Milwaukee’s bench.

Defense

  1. Reds
  2. Cardinals
  3. Pirates
  4. Astros
  5. Brewers
  6. Cubs

In a subpar defensive division, the Reds still standout as the best defensive team in the NL. Rolen is arguably the best to ever do it at third base, and still hasn’t lost many steps. Phillips & Votto are both Gold Glovers from a year ago, while Bruce both covers ground and has the best outfield arm in the NL. Furcal shored up the St. Louis infield defense tremendously, and Berkman moving to first and Beltran taking over right will improve the overall St. Louis guard. Molina may be the best defender at any position in the game.

Speed

  1. Pirates
  2. Astros
  3. Brewers
  4. Reds
  5. Cardinals
  6. Cubs

Another area the division is not great in; it actually gives the Pirates a source of clear strength. McCutchen has 20/20 capability, while Tabata, Presley and Barmes all are good base runners as well. Jordan Schafer could be solid threat out of the Houston leadoff position, and Drew Stubbs is a threat for 30 steals for the Reds.

McCutchen was handed a six-year extension to continue to blaze the Pittsburgh outfields for the foreseeable future.

Manager

  1. Dusty Baker, Reds
  2. Ron Roenicke, Brewers
  3. Clint Hurdle, Pirates
  4. Dale Sveum, Cubs
  5. Mike Matheny, Cardinals
  6. Brad Mills, Astros

With Tony LaRussa gone, Baker has the biggest gap in both experience and ability from his divisional contemporaries of any manager in the game. The ability to steal a few games and win them from the dugout is crucial, and Baker has that ability. No manager has had to shoulder a more immediate burden than Matheny will, how he reacts will be major on how the Cardinals push through the summer.

Finances

  1. Cubs
  2. Cardinals
  3. Reds
  4. Brewers
  5. Astros
  6. Pirates

The Cubs always have a good amount of resources on hand, and are constantly being freed of the glut of terrible contracts that have been an anchor for the last few years. New team president Theo Epstein and new GM Jed Hoyer won’t spend recklessly, but they are in position to make some big additions if needed. The Astros could look to make a few moves soon to prepare for their AL debut next year.

Impact Additions

  1. Mat Latos (Reds from Padres)
  2. Carlos Beltran (Cardinals from Giants)
  3. Aramis Ramirez (Brewers from Cubs)
  4. Sean Marshall (Reds from Cubs)
  5. David DeJesus (Cubs from A’s)

This category could just as easily be dedicated to everything that was lost from the division this winter, but life goes on. The Reds traded a world of talent to land Latos, so they are truly all in on his ability to stabilize a pitching staff that was among the league’s worse last year. Beltran was the Cards’ big signing in the wake of losing Pujols, just as Ramirez was for the Brewers after Prince Fielder booked. Both will have to play vital roles if both teams are to continue to compete at their level from a year ago.

Breakthrough Candidates

  1. Jason Motte, Cardinals
  2. Mat Gamel, Brewers
  3. Bryan LeHair, Cubs
  4. Bud Norris, Astros
  5. Tyler Greene, Cardinals

The Cardinals blew 24 saves a year ago, second worse in baseball, before Motte finally provided an answer late. If he can continue his shutdown ways into this year, he could be the breakout late innings man in the league. Bryan LeHair tore Triple A apart last year, and now will be counted on to keep it going at the top level.

Norris is a great up and coming talent in Houston, he's just not surrounded by much that lets it turn into many wins.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Zack Cozart (Shortstop, Reds)
  2. Devin Morasco (Catcher, Reds)
  3. Anthony Rizzo (First Baseman, Cubs)
  4. Brett Jackson (Center Field, Cubs)
  5. Shelby Miller (Pitcher, Cardinals)

Cozart made a big impact in short amount of time last year, hitting .324 in 11 games before Tommy John surgery ended his year. He’s got the talent to be a front runner for the Rookie of the Year this season. Rizzo has been traded twice in two years, but mostly because of the major talent he holds. If he gets a chance to make it to Chicago this year, it could be the chance he gets to show it.

2011 PREDICTION

  1. Cardinals
  2. Reds
  3. Brewers
  4. Pirates
  5. Cubs
  6. Astros

It’s as close a divide between the top three teams in the Central as any division in the game. There are guarantees from each squad; the Brewers will pitch well, the Reds will hit and the Cardinals will do a bit of both well to balance it out. However, there are more guarantees from the guys in St. Louis than the other two. The Cardinals will enter the season not at full strength, due to three key injuries tailing in from Spring Training. However, they will regain Carpenter, Schumaker and Craig into the season, as well as Wainwright out the gate, who finished in the top 3 of the Cy Young races in ’09 and ’10.

The Reds have just as much balance as the Cardinals do, as well as nearly as many elite players as well. They have a great deal of depth, and will have no problem scoring runs. But the rotation is far from proven and has talent, yet no definite stopper. Also, the bullpen has the unenviable task of figuring itself out midseason after losing it’s newly signed closer for the entire year. Roenicke also has his share of issues to sort out in the runs producing department outside of Braun, in addition to finding new depth for a bullpen that lost multiple key contributors.

The Pirates have the talent, and can put together a run, but their pitching is already banged up and there’s little time to waste getting back in the race. The Cubs are still in contract unloading mode, and have stated a desire to rebuild from within, which takes time and makes for rough years. The Astros are baseball’s youngest team and play like it. Another finish at the bottom of baseball could be the landing spot.

While some parts won’t return, the vast majority of the hottest team baseball history will in St. Louis, and they’ll only get better as the year goes. In the end, shared experience, assured stability, a momentum carry over and a few big additions will pull the Cardinals to the top of the Central for the first time since 2009 and in position to have a chance to repeat as champs.

That’s it for the division-by-division previews this year in the CHEAP SEATS, but tomorrow I’m bringing it all together and take a look at all the in-between the lines predictions and finish up with some World Series picks just in time for the first game of the year. Til then, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

There was no more interesting division in baseball than the NL East this winter. It is essentially a rebuilt, redesigned, revamp of what it was just a few months back, familiar only in team locations in many regards. The Florida Marlins changed out everything about their club, both on field, off field and in the budgeting department. The Washington Nationals continued to drop big money, but also made smart, low price decisions as well. After a colossal collapse, that took them from a sure return to the postseason last year with a 8.5 game headed into September, they chose to had steady and give it another go. As for the Mets? Well, they let the National League’s batting champ walk to a division rival…and couldn’t do anything about it.

2011 Standings

  1. Philadelphia Phillies (102-60)
  2. Atlanta Braves (89-73)
  3. Washington Nationals (80-81)
  4. New York Mets (77-85)
  5. Florida Marlins (72-90)

While all of this was going around, one thing stayed the same: the Phillies looked down at it all. After winning their fifth consecutive division title, but being coming out on the wrong half of a classic Divisional Series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, they’ll look to pick up where they’ve left off for the last half decade. In order to do so, they’ll have to take on the revamped Miami Marlins, a newly deep Nationals team, the Braves with a major chip on their shoulder and a Mets club with absolutely nothing to lose….and does it without two of their top contributors in Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for an unknown amount of time?

Doc Halladay had his standard Cy Young caliber year before being narrowly outdone in a classic Playoff matchup.

All-Division Team

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves

First Base: Freddie Freeman, Braves

Second Base: Dan Uggla, Braves

Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Marlins

Left Field: Logan Morrison, Marlins

Center Field: Shane Victorino, Phillies

Right Field: Hunter Pence, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Marlins

Righty Reliever: Tyler Clippard, Nationals

Best Players: Jonny Venters, Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Top 10 Players

1. Roy Halladay, Phillies

2. Cliff Lee, Phillies

3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

4. Jose Reyes, Marlins

Reyes rediscovered his healthy legs last year, and landed his first batting title as a result.

5. David Wright, Mets

6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

7. Cole Hamels, Phillies

8. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

9. Brian McCann, Braves

10. Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Lineup

  1. Marlins
  2. Braves
  3. Phillies
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

Miami one of the most versatile lineups in the game, featuring multiple 50 steals candidates, 5 former All-Stars and two of the premier young talents in the game in the former Mike, now Giancarlo, Stanton. The Braves lineup had a down year as a whole last summer, but the potential to rebound is definitely there. The Phillies will have to go into survival mode being down both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to start the year.

Rotation

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Nationals
  4. Braves
  5. Mets

This the best collection of rotations of any division in baseball. Halladay, Lee and Hamels would be the number one guy on nearly any other team in the game, yet they combine in Philly to be by far the best collection of arms in one city. They finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in last year’s NL Cy Young vote. Mark Buehrle and Gio Gonzalez join Miami and Washington to provide All-Star boost to growing rotations for each franchise.

Strasberg's return will feature an unparalleled mixture of expectation, but he won't be alone in carrying the weight.

1-2 Punch

  1. Phillies (Halladay & Lee)
  2. Nationals (Strasberg & Zimmerman)
  3. Marlins (Johnson & Buehrle)
  4. Braves (Hudson & Hanson)
  5. Mets (Santana & Dickey)

Halladay and Cliff combined to go 36-14 last year, with 14 complete games and 7 shutouts; dominant. Strasburg and Zimmermann have both had Tommy John surgery over the last two years, but the results both showed upon returning were very positive. Their potential should come into reality this summer. Much of the extent of how well the Marlins, Braves and Mets seasons go lay on the healthy returns of Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Johan Santana.

Bullpen

  1. Braves
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

The backend of the Braves bullpen turns games into six inning affairs at best. Kimbrel had 46 saves and struck out 127 batters in 77 innings. Venters lowered his ERA from 1.95 to 1.84 and Eric O’Flaherty posted a 0.98 mark. In DC, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge and Tyler Clippard should be a very formidable group, and new closers Papelbon in Philly and Heath Bell in Miami bring solid new dynamics to their clubs.

Kimbrel set the rookie record for saves last year with 46, in addition to leading the Majors in relief strikeouts.

Tablesetters

  1. Marlins (Reyes & Bonafacio)
  2. Braves (Bourn & Prado)
  3. Phillies (Rollins & Polanco)
  4. Nationals (Desmond & Espinosa)
  5. Mets (Torres & Murphy)

Reyes led the league in hitting and triples last year, in addition to swiping 39 bases as a Met last year. Bonafacio stole 40 bags himself, and together they should be pure hell. Bourn has led the NL in steals the last two seasons. Him and Prado should make for one of the more potent hit and run combos in either league.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Marlins (Ramirez/Stanton/Morrison)
  2. Braves (McCann/Uggla/Freeman)
  3. Nationals (Zimmerman/Werth/LaRoche)
  4. Mets (Wright/Davis/Bay)
  5. Phillies (Victorino/Pence/Wigginton)

When Hanley is healthy, very few players can do more than he does. Behind him is Stanton, and only A-Rod and Ken Griffey, Jr have hit more homers before the age of 22 than him. If the Mets can keep Wright, Ike Davis and Jason Bay on the field together in the newly redesigned Citi Field, it push the Mets into a competitive season. The Nats hope that year two of Jayson Werth payout the promise his contract reads out at.

If Wright (102 games in '11) and the rest of the middle of the Mets attack can stay healthy, they'll shake up the East.

Bench

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Mets
  4. Nationals
  5. Braves

The Phillies bench will be pushed early due to filling in for its injured starters, but Jim Thome and Juan Pierre provide great options for an offense that will need contributions from everywhere. All in all, no team is particularly deep offensively in the East, and an injury to the wrong starter on any club could change the direction of the entire division.

Defense

  1. Phillies
  2. Mets
  3. Braves
  4. Nationals
  5. Marlins

Pence, Victorino and John Mayberry are a very strong outfield, while Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz anchor a good infield collection as well. Andres Torres will cover the expansive outfields in New York well, while Davis and Wright are plus fielders as well. Michael Bourn covers more outfield than player in the game, and the Braves will benefit from it in his first full year in the A. The Marlins will have to hope Hanley Ramirez takes to his new position at third base quickly, and Emilio Bonafacio and Logan Morrison take big strides in the outfield soon.

Speed

  1. Marlins
  2. Mets
  3. Phillies
  4. Nationals
  5. Braves

Reyes and Bonafacio are the burners, but Ramirez, Logan Morrison and Chris Coghlan can spark the bases as well. Wright is the rare third baseman that can steal 20 bases, and even after losing Reyes, the Mets should be a very good running team.

Manager

  1. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  2. Ozzie Guillen, Marlins
  3. Davey Johnson, Nationals
  4. Freddi Gonzalez, Braves
  5. Terry Collins, Mets

Charlie Manuel is trying to wrap up his sixth consecutive division title this year, and has pushed the Phillies to the best record in baseball the last two years, as well as a World Series title in 2008. For as colorful as he is, there’s probably no better scenario for Ozzie Guillen than leading an exciting, rebuilt Marlins team that can be pushed by his energy. The best is yet to come for him. Terry Collins is a good manager, and as much life as the Mets show, he’ll be able to maximize it.

Ozzie's aggressive style fits in perfectly with the approach the Marlins have put forth all winter, and should pay off well this summer.

Finances

  1. Marlins
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Braves
  5. Mets

The Marlins’ bottomless, Scrooge McDuck-style money pit was one of the stories of the offseason, and they have the resources to continue to make needed additions to the team throughout the year. The Nationals also have the funds, and prospects, to make additions needed to shift a potential pennant chase in their favor. The Phillies hands are tied by the uncertain number it will take to secure Cole Hamels past this year and Ryan Howard’s escalated, $25 million mark he’ll pull down this year.

Impact Additions

  1. Jose Reyes (Marlins from Mets)
  2. Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies from Red Sox)
  3. Heath Bell (Marlins from Padres)
  4. Mark Buehrle (Marlins from White Sox)
  5. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals from A’s)

Reyes was the first big signing of the offseason, and the Marlins #1 target in their aggressive rebuilding effort early on. Bell, Buehrle, and eventually, Carlos Zambrano followed suit soon after and reshaped the direction of a team that competed early last year before injuries and a lack of depth dropped them into the bottom of the division.

Breakthrough Candidates

  1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
  2. Lucas Duda, Mets
  3. Jason Heyward, Braves
  4. Brandon Beachy, Braves
  5. John Mayberry, Jr., Phillies

Before tearing his elbow up in 2009 and missing most of last year, StrasMania was at a fever pitch. This is the year to see what it can be about in full effect, despite an inning limit he’ll have to adhere too (most likely based on where the Nats are sitting in the pennant race). Jason Heyward had a brutal sophomore slump, but he’s still primed to become one of the game’s best hitters still. Lucas Duda is the type of low cost, high payout talent the cash and prospect deprived Mets have a desperate need to produce.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Bryce Harper (Outfielder, Nationals)
  2. Randall Delgado (Pitcher, Braves)
  3. Zach Wheeler (Pitcher, Mets)
  4. Julio Teheran (Pitcher, Braves)
  5. Tyler Pastornicky (Shortstop, Braves)

Harper's the next "Next Big Thing" in DC;whenever he arrives he'll widen the Strasburg spotlight to shine on him as well.

Harper is baseball’s “Next Big Thing”, and for good reason. The 18 year old has shown he can dominate minor league comp and play solid, if slightly inconsistent, ball with the big boys. That inconsistency will start him in Triple A, but it’s going to be hard to leave him there all summer, even if the Nationals are technically “in need” of him. The Braves really need for Delgado or Teheran to live up to their top prospect billing, so they can round out a pitching staff that needs improvement on its bottom half.

2011 PROJECTION

  1. Phillies
  2. Marlins
  3. Braves
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

The Phillies have run the East for the last half decade in part due to a brutal lineup that featured MVP winners in Rollins and Howard, and one of the game’s most productive overall players in Utley. More recently, it has been due to their dominant pitching staff taking the lead. This summer the weight of the world will be on that pitching staff and whatever the lineup can provide. The good news is if any team can live with this arrangement, it’s the Phillies; and as far as win and losses go, they probably won’t skip much of a beat. Halladay is the best pitcher in the game and Lee isn’t too far behind. Hamels is in a contract year, and will be auditioning for one of the biggest deals this upcoming winter. With yet another up and coming stud in Vance Worley joining them and a championship-level closer in Papelbon backing it all up, runs may be a luxury, but not a necessity, until Howard and Utley potentially return.

However, it won’t be a runaway by any means. The Marlins are bringing in a lot of new pieces, but are both undeniably experienced and developing major young talents at once. They easily have what it takes to throw the Phillies from their home atop the division, but their pitching staff will have to prove both healthy and consistent. Also their very shaky defense will have to step up as well. The same story goes for the Nationals; a well rounded on pitching staff on paper will have stay on the mound, and its stars have to produce and be healthy. The Braves are coming off of an epic collapse, and now have to face both a tougher division and a certain pitching staff/lineup at once. The Mets are still stuck in financial limbo and cannot add pieces to their team of much substance at all, let alone up to the level that their divisional mates can…and have.

However, for all that has changed, the end result will be the same. They won’t finish with the best record in the game for a third straight year and the margin of their championship finish will be the slimmest since 2008. But the Phillies will ride high in the East again. And you know what else happened last time they had to fight so hard for the regular season title?

A World Series one followed. Not predicting THAT yet, but foreshadowing is what is it is.

For more on where the MLB is headed this summer and in the moment, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.