Posts Tagged ‘Houston Astros’

Trout_Pujols

The Oakland A’s have made a good life for themselves living in the shadows. For the second consecutive year, they were beat in the highlights all winter by their division mates, and for the second straight summer, they answered back by winning the AL West. The consummate team effort was once again put on by Bob Melvin’s club, who got an out of the blue MVP-calibur performance from Josh Donaldson, coupled by a few career peaks and a consistent effort from its pitching to pull away from its big dollar division rivals.

2013 Finish

1. Oakland Athletics (96-66)

2. Texas Rangers (91-72)

3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84)

4. Seattle Mariners (71-91)

5. Houston Astros (51-111)

But for how long can that stand? The Rangers were once again relentless in the acquisition game, spinning the biggest trade of the offseason by swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder, then handing a top shelf deal to Shin-Soo Choo to attempt to fix an offense that ran flat a year ago. For a change, the Angels didn’t issue a huge contract out, but the Mariners took their place, overhauling their everyday lineup around the shocking headline deal of the winter with Robinson Cano heading to the Pacific northwest. Even the Astros put the brakes to their two-year bottom out effort some, making a few moves to fill in a few of their many holes in a permanent manner.

But in Oakland, Billy Beane was far from stagnant, and produced the most progressive Oakland winter in some time, overhauling his bullpen to add yet another conglomerate weapon to his all-in club. In the end, what does it all mean? Will Oakland continue to be underrated, despite being the one of only two active teams to pull off their division title in consecutive years, or will one of the high rollers finally see some return on what has been some questionable investments thus far?

All-Division Team

1. Shin-Soo Choo—Rangers, Left Field

2. Mike Trout—Angels, Center Field

3. Robinson Cano—Mariners, Second Base

4. Prince Fielder—Rangers, First Base

5. Adrian Beltre—Rangers, Third Base

6. Raul Ibanez—Angels, Designated Hitter

7. Josh Reddick—Athletics, Right Field

8. Jason Castro—Astros, Catcher

9. Elvis Andrus—Rangers, Shortstop

 

Castro came of age in 2013, making his first All-Star appearance and finishing up the year with 18 home runs and a .276 average

Castro came of age in 2013, making his first All-Star appearance and finishing up the year with 18 home runs and a .276 average

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez—Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish—Rangers

Starting Pitcher: Hisashi Imakuma—Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Jered Weaver—Angels

Right Handed Reliever: Ryan Cook—Athletics

Lefty Handed Reliever: Sean Doolittle—Athletics

Closer: Fernando Rodney—Mariners

 

Lineup

1. Rangers

2. Angels

3. Athletics

4. Mariners

5. Astros

The addition of Fielder gives much needed power to a Texas lineup that was starved of it post-Josh Hamilton last season, while Choo joining Elvis Andrus atop the lineup will put plenty of ducks on the pond for Prince and Adrian Beltre to take advantage of. The Angels potential will always look great, with the names of Albert Pujols and Hamilton in tow, but whether they can approach their former MVP forms continues to be the ultimate question for the Halos. The Mariners mix is obviously much better, but even Robinson Cano himself has said he feels they need to add more to get it over the hump completely.

Fielder brings an elite level run producing presence to Arlington that was badly needed last year (100 RBI in six of the last seven years).

Fielder brings an elite level run producing presence to Arlington that was badly needed last year (100 RBI in six of the last seven years).

Heart of the Lineup

1. Rangers

2. Athletics

3. Mariners

4. Angels

5. Astros

The thing about the A’s middle of the order is that it is coming off a year where Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss all had down years by their standards. If they can find their 2012 levels, along with Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie continuing where they were a year ago, this could be the most frustrating mix in either league for opposing pitchers. Alex Rios stands to hit in one of the most enviable positions in the game—if Fielder and Beltre leave anybody on base for him that is.

Table Setters

1. Rangers

2. Angels

3. Athletics

4. Astros

5. Mariners

The Choo/Andrus duo would have combined for 62 stolen bases and 330 hits a year ago, and such production this year atop the Texas lineup would be huge considering the RBI machines behind them. Anaheim has the game’s best player in Mike Trout doing everything imaginable under the baseball sun out of either the leadoff or second spot in their lineup, and he instantly makes the Angels a threat at every game’s outset. The Astros combo of Dexter Fowler and Jose Altuve is a very interesting duo as well, capable of injecting some life early on for their starved attack as well.

Depth

1. Athletics

2. Angels

3. Mariners

4. Rangers

5. Astros

Everybody on the A’s plays a part in their success, with their bench being critical to the outcome with regularity. Derek Norris, Alberto Callapso and Michael Taylor will all get their share of starting opportunities, while the addition of Nick Punto makes them even more dangerous defensively late in games. Seattle has an exciting young player in Abraham Almonte on their bench, and while he will start in leftfield, the versatile Dustin Ackley is a one-man depth chart, able to contribute in center field, second and first base if needed.

Rotation

1. Athletics

2. Mariners

3. Angels

4. Rangers

5. Astros

There are a lot, and I mean a ton, of “ifs” for each rotation in this division. The A’s lost their top arm in Jarrod Parker for the year to Tommy John surgery, and A.J. Griffin is ailing entering the year as well. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir will have to stay healthy for Oakland to keep its edge as a starting unit. Injuries to Hisashi Imakuma, Derek Holland and Matt Holland have shifted the potential of Seattle and Texas respectively as well, and how well Jered Weaver holds together is vital to the Angels’ success as well.

 

Hernandez is the top half of one of the AL's most successful due from a year ago, finishing in the top 10 in strikeouts (216) and ERA (3.06).

Hernandez is the top half of one of the AL’s most successful due from a year ago, finishing in the top 10 in strikeouts (216) and ERA (3.06).

1-2 Punch

1. Mariners

2. Angels

3. Rangers

4. Athletics

5. Astros

Regardless of what happens, the Mariners have Felix Hernandez, so they have an edge. Felix and Iwakuma were the only set of teammates to finish in the top 10 of the AL Cy Young last year. Yu Darvish affirmed the fact that he is one of the dominant arms in the game a year ago, running up the biggest strikeout season in a decade. He will be tasked with a major responsibility in keeping the Rangers afloat, amid the injuries that have ravaged their staff already. In LA, if both Weaver and C.J. Wilson are both healthy, they give the Angels a pair of potential 17-20 game winners as well.

Bullpen

1. Athletics

2. Mariners

3. Angels

4. Rangers

5. Astros

It may be okay that the Oakland starting staff is dinged up, because they have a SWAT team worth of support in their pen. The additions of two-time AL save champ Jim Johnson (101 saves from since 2012), Luke Gregorson and Eric O’Flathery to a group with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook means that by mid-summer Oakland could be slamming doors by the 6th-7th inning. The addition of Fernando Rodney gives the Mariners a viable closer and absolute for the first time in two years, which is something that the Rangers are hoping Joakim Soria can become once again as well. If no, Alexi Ugando and Neftali Feliz offer solid fallback options.

Defense

1. Athletics

2. Rangers

3. Astros

4. Angels

5. Mariners

The A’s make a habit of doing the small things well, and defense is chief among those. Reddick is on the short list for best defensive outfielder in the game, and Cespedes and Coco Crisp join him in an outfield with miles worth of range. Donaldson, Moss and John Jaso join as plus defenders also. The Astros can man the field well, especially Matt Dominguez, who should enter the Gold Glove picture this year at third base.

Melvin has won 190 games and has received an AL Manager of the Year nod over the past two years, leading Oakland to two division titles in the process.

Melvin has won 190 games and has received an AL Manager of the Year nod over the past two years, leading Oakland to two division titles in the process.

Manager

1. Athletics

2. Angels

3. Rangers

4. Mariners

5. Astros

Bob Melvin deserves a ton of the due for pulling together a group that simply plays better together than any other team in the American League. He empowers his young guys to play on the same level as the veterans that he makes play beyond their full potential (i.e. Jed Lowrie and Donaldson). In Anaheim, Mike Scioscia is the longest tenured manager in the game, and for good reason. Like Ron Washington in Texas, he will deservingly get a chance to pull his club back into the race they are expected to be in.

Finances

1. Angels

2. Rangers

3. Mariners

4. Astros

5. Athletics

The Angels and Rangers have proven they will spend to get the job done, although the results have not returned with the same impact as the names that have signed the deals with them. The Mariners are hoping to not go down the same path with their spending spree that netted Cano, Rodney and Corey Hart. The Astros have funds to spend, but are being cautious in how they go about doing so in their current rebuild process.

Impact Additions

1. Robinson Cano (Mariners via free agency)

2. Prince Fielder (Rangers via trade)

3. Shin Soo-Choo (Rangers via free agency)

4. Jim Johnson (Athletics via trade)

5. David Freese (Angels via trade)

The West was the home of the most aggressive roster overhauls of the year. The Mariners added a new franchise cornerstone in the five-time All-Star Cano, and brought in Hart and Logan Morrison to add some protection as well. The A’s made pitching their priority, while the Rangers went the other route, adding offensive punch. The Angels made perhaps the most intriguing moves, adding high potential young arms in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, as well as picking up a cast-off David Freese to add depth to their top heavy offense.

Leap Forward

1. Sonny Gray—Athletics

2. Jarred Cosart—Astros

3. Tyler Skaggs—Angels

4. Robby Grossman—Astros

5. Mike Zunino—Mariners

Gray did not make his first start until August, but was impressive enough to get the nod for two matchups against Justin Verlander in the ALDS games where he surrendered only three runs in two starts. He’ll be asked to once again carry a heavy load for the suddenly uncertain Oakland rotation. Jarred Cosart was one of the best pitchers in baseball for Houston once he was promoted late last year, with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts, and stands to continue to affirm his spot atop their rotation.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Taijuan Walker—Mariners

2. George Springer—Astros

3. Johnathan Singleton—Astros

4. James Paxton—Mariners

5. Addison Russell—Athletics

The Astros have a bundle of ready to peak talent in their system, and more to come behind this first wave. Springer and Singleton should both be not just everyday contributors, but have established their foothold as the cornerstones of the future of the Houston franchise (until Carlos Correa shows up). Walker has the best arm of any rookie in the AL, and stands to be a major part of the immediate Seattle push for relevancy this year.

PREDICTIONS

1. Oakland Athletics

2. Los Angeles Angels

3. Texas Rangers

4. Seattle Mariners

5. Houston Astros

The underdogs have been over for so long, it is hard to believe they could still be seen as anything less than one of baseball’s best, yet somehow they still are. But let’s straighten this all out: the A’s have the experience, chemistry and are in an understated win now mode as well. With Johnson, Gregerson and Lowrie all pending free agency and a host of other A’s on the verge of arbitration raises, regardless of if this year ends either short of the postseason or with a World Series victory, this is the only year for this assortment of A’s. They will continue to be a young and mostly low cost/high reward group past this year, but this is their best chance to seal the deal. And all things considered, they should be in the mix. They have a very deep pitching staff and a similar lineup, full of two-way players that are fueled on proving their worth amid the game’s most hostile home environment.

But the rest of the division should have something to say as well, but the issue is can they overcome their own fairly pronounced shortcomings to do so. The Rangers have seen the potency of their pitching staff drop off regularly each year, and it may finally be too much to overcome this year. The Angels are the paper champs of baseball annually around this time of year, but have regularly yielded too little in both the health and raw, non-Trout related results category. Injuries are a major factor for both, although Texas enters the year especially crippled in regards to its supporting cast.

The Mariners made a lot of noise, but still are a few pieces short. With a well-stocked system with plenty of ready to contribute players, they are the team most likely to continue to find ways to add to their mix throughout the year—if they can stay competitive long enough. The Astros are burgeoning with some actual tangible potential finally, but they are still a clear cut below the rest of the West still.

With all things considered, the only thing that likely sidetracks the A’s is if they cannot either stay healthy long enough together or their depleted rotation cannot step up and fill the losses they have already sustained. They are the most complete team in the division, and a third championship should be theirs for the taking.

 

For more in real-time on the soon to arrive MLB season, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to The Sports Fan Journal and I70 Baseball.

 

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In the second entry of this series, the spotlight turns to Carlos Beltran, who has had quite the diverse career. In his 16-year career, he’s had five stops along the road, starting with the Kansas City Royals, before a brief (yet impactful…more on this later) stop in Houston. Then he had the longest stop of his career with the New York Mets, before another brief stop in San Francisco, before arriving at his current home with the St. Louis Cardinals. All along, his career has been defined by the rare run of constant potential: the chance to be a big time player, then the opportunity to showcase it, due to a mixture of struggling clubs and injury woes. However, when all things are considered, he’s put together a solid resume of work and has been one of the better outfielders of the past decade. But is that enough for him to be considered on a historic level? Let’s see where Beltran stands on the big picture.

The Numbers (pre-2013)

–          16 years (age 36): .282 avg, 334 home runs, 1243 RBI, 2064 hits, 416 doubles, 74 triples, 306 stolen bases, .360 on-base percentage, .496 slugging percentage

1. The Case For: When he was one of the most consistent hitters in baseball for the better part of his first ten seasons. He played his first full season at age 22, and also had his first 100 RBI season. He followed that with eight of the next ten seasons, averaging 98 RBI per season. Across that same time span, he hit better than 25 home runs six different times, with a career-high of 41 in 2006. It is arguable what was his greatest skill during that time span as well, his power or his speed. From 2001-04, he averaged 37 stolen bases a season, and his 38 homer/42 stolen base 2004 season made him a strong member of the 30-30 club. He is also one of the most accomplished switch hitters of all-time, hitting the sixth most homers ever for a split duty guy. He’s also the only switch hitter in MLB history to hit 300 homers and steal 300 bases.

However, his two very strong assets that set him apart from a glut of other dually capable players is ability in the field and his high pressure ability. At his best, he was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. He won three Gold Gloves from 2006-08 when his game was at its best, and twice won the Fielding Bible’s honors for best center fielder in baseball as well. He has a strong and accurate arm as well, and has eight seasons of at least 10 outfield assists.

In postseason play, he is one of the greatest hitters of all-time. He has a .363 batting average in 37 career playoff games, along with 14 home runs, including a record eight in one postseason in a 2004 October with the Astros that only consisted of 12 games. His five consecutive postseason games with a homer that season are also a record.

2. The Case Against: While Beltran’s production has been impressive; he did lose some significant years to injury in his mid-prime seasons. Over a three-year stretch from 2009-2011, he played in a total of 287 games, and only played in over half a season once. During this time he battled multiple knee injuries, which robbed him of much of his speed. From 2009-2012, he averaged only eight stolen bases a season, and had to move to right field due to both loss of range and preservation. He’s never been a particularly prolific hitter from an average sense either, only hitting over .290 three times in his career. Also, despite a long and steady career, he’s been an All-Star in less than half his seasons, and has never finished in the Top 3 in any Most Valuable Player vote.

3. Similiar Players (through age 35)

Andre Dawson (.283 avg, 346 home runs, 1231 RBI, 2201 hits, 396 doubles, 300 steals)

Dave Winfield (.285 avg, 332 home runs, 1331 RBI, 2241 hits, 375 doubles, 200 steals)

Bernie Williams (.301 avg, 263 home runs, 1132 RBI, 2097 hits, 401 doubles, 144 steals)

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Diversity is Beltran’s ally, but being able to see the peak of his abilities completely could be his undoing when it comes time for the vote.

4. Cooperstown Likelihood (what’s it going to take): Beltran finds himself in a tough position regarding how he profiles for the Hall of Fame. As a centerfielder, he finds himself in an extremely difficult group to compare against in terms of all-time numbers. There have been 18 primary players at the position that have been inducted thus far, not counting the inevitable election of Ken Griffey, Jr before Beltran’s eligibility clock starts.

Once again, the potential of Beltran comes in the spotlight again. He both is, and isn’t, an elite performer at his position. Beltran’s career WAR (64.9) tells a story that shows him on the fringe of being in the top 10 players to ever play the position. His five-tooled impact during his prime and late career renaissance as a power hitter has helped him to get in range of some very solid marks. With another 20 home runs in 2013, he’ll pass none other than Joe DiMaggio’s career mark of 361, as well as move him into the top 10 all-time at centerfield. That’s an impressive, but it’s really the only strong claim to fame he’ll make.

The potential of Carlos Beltran will ultimately be his undoing. He lost the years that would have put him firmly in range to make a run at the Hall, especially in light of the productive turn he’s taken with the Cardinals in the last two years. His three-year average coming into the 2009 season, where injuries first took a substantial toll on him (at age 32, his late prime) was a .278/34/113 effort, with 22 steals and 37 doubles added on as well. An addition two years of those changes everything about what his potential is. He’d be in range to top 400 home runs and 2,500 hits, in addition to the 300 steals he’s already accumulated.

An output of that caliber would have put Beltran on par with Dawson, who was considered to be more of a fringe HOF. Who knows what could have happened in withat time. Perhaps Beltran would have filled out his entire potential, and became the best player in the National League for at least one full season (although he had terrible timing for a coming of age with the dominance of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols happening simultaneously as his best years). Beltran has as unique niche established, but it’s all based on the ‘almost’ instead of the ‘done’. He’s a postseason hero, without a Championship. He is a power hitter, who’s never led in any major category. A Rookie of the Year, that never took the next major award step. Instead of having the case that Dawson had, being an MVP, he’s more in the haze range of Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds, and as of now, that’s proven to be very great, but not immortal.

So, when it’s all said and done, and the question is asked about Carlos Beltran’s place in history: is he in, out or in-between, the numbers are solid, but the time lost will hurt, and he will remain OUT.

For more on Beltran’s road to prove me wrong (although he’ll never ever know I wrote this in all likelihood), follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics

The American League West was the scene of a hijacking last year. Despite the Los Angeles Angels making the coup of all coups in landing Albert Pujols and the Texas Rangers once again returning as the powerhouse of the division, intact mostly from the year before, it was another Billy Beane crafted Oakland A’s team that prevailed in the end. After an August/September surge that saw them rise constantly through the standings, on the season’s final day the A’s took the division from the Rangers in game number 162. All in all, it was an incredibly balanced division; the last place Mariners would have finished third in American League Central. It was home to one of the greatest debut years in baseball history from Mike Trout, and hosted the top three finishers for Rookie of the Year, as well as a historic start for a particular (now former) Texas Rangers slugger.

2012 Finish

  1. A’s (94-68)
  2. Rangers (93-69)
  3. Angels (89-73)
  4. Mariners (75-87)

Moving forward a year later, and the scene has continued to shift. The Angels made the surprise splash of the offseason again, signing Josh Hamilton away from the aforementioned Rangers and pairing him with Pujols and Trout in a real-life Fantasy League lineup. The Athletics continued to add strartegic pieces to their core, to prove that last season was anything but a fluke. The Mariners were silently aggressive all winter, by adding a couple of much needed sluggers, while making Felix Hernandez the highest paid pitcher in baseball, all in an effort to continue to pull up their bootstraps from the bottom. Also, the Houston Astros swapped over leagues to join the American League, evening out the long four-team division. In the midst of all of this, where does this leave the Rangers? They have stayed steady in the league’s elite despite some critical losses over the last few years, but have they finally lost enough to lose their edge? Time to find out.

All Division Team

Catcher: AJ Pierzynski-Rangers

First Base: Albert Pujols-Angels

Second Base: Ian Kinsler-Rangers

Third Base: Adrian Beltre-Rangers

Shortstop: Elvis Andrus-Rangers

Left Field: Mike Trout-Angels

Center Field: Coco Crisp-A’s

Right Field: Josh Hamilton-Angels

Designated Hitter: Mark Trumbo-Angels

Felix Hernandez

Hernandez finished in the top 5 for the AL Cy Young for the third time in four years in 2012, with 3 years to go until he’s even 30.

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez-Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Jered Weaver-Angels

Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish-Rangers

Starting Pitcher: Brett Anderson-A’s

Righty Relief: Ryan Cook-A’s

Lefty Relief: Sean Burnett-Angels

Closer: Joe Nathan-Rangers

Top 10

  1. Mike Trout, Angels
  2. Albert Pujols, Angels
  3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
  4. Josh Hamilton, Angels
  5. Jered Weaver, Angels
  6. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
  7. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
  8. Ian Kinsler, Rangers
  9. Nelson Cruz, Rangers
  10. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s

Lineup

  1. Angels
  2. Rangers
  3. A’s
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

The top of the Angels lineup gets the headlines, but a core including Trumbo, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar doesn’t give many breaks either. The strength of the A’s is in numbers: Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Cespedes all topped 20 homers a year ago. The Rangers are hoping Pierzynski can have a similar follow up to his 27-home run breakout effort a year ago with the White Sox.

Adrian-Beltre

Beltre has averaged 34 home runs and 33 doubles a season, with a .310 average against only 68 strikeouts on average as well.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Angels (Pujols/Hamilton/Trumbo)
  2. Rangers (Beltre/Cruz/Berkman)
  3. A’s (Cespedes/Moss/Reddick)
  4. Mariners (Seager/Morse/Morales)
  5. Astros (Pena/Carter/Castro)

Putting Josh Hamilton behind Pujols permanently is terrifying. It puts a total of four MVP seasons, and 73 2012 homers in the middle of the order. Add on Trumbo to the backend, and that power number surges past 100. Beltre has been a juggernaut in his two Texas seasons, smacking 36 homers in route to a top 5 MVP finish a year ago. The Mariners addition of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales finally puts a pair of formidable bats in their lineup again.

Table Setters

  1. Rangers (Kinsler/Andrus)
  2. Angels (Trout/Aybar)
  3. Astros (Altuve/Wallace)
  4. A’s (Crisp/Lowrie)
  5. Mariners (Ackley/Gutierrez)

Trout is the most versatile offensive player in the game, and his impact out the leadoff spot is just the same as it would be hitting in the middle of the lineup. He hit 27 doubles and 8 triples in addition to leading the AL with 53 steals. Jose Altuve is the lone bright spot in the downtrodden Astros lineup, who topped 160 hits and 30 steals in his second season.

Bench

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Mariners
  4. Rangers
  5. Astros

Depth is the A’s greatest weapon, and the fact they can rotate in two former All-Stars in Chris Young and Daric Barton is just a small sign of how deep they truly are. Tag in Jemile Weeks, Seth Smith and Derek Norris, and the Oakland roster is one full of starter-caliber players.

J-Parker

Parker was one of three rookie hurlers to post either at least 13 wins or win percentage over .600% in Oakland a year ago.

Rotation

  1. A’s
  2. Rangers
  3. Angels
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

It was pitching that launched Oakland along its improbable run up the standings last season. Behind group effort of Dan Straily, AJ Griffin, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker and the return of Brett Anderson, they formed one of the best young rotations in baseball. The Angels added Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton in an attempt to balance out their thin staff from a year ago, and replace Zack Greinke.

1-2 Punch

  1. Angels (Weaver/Wilson)
  2. Rangers (Darvish/Holland)
  3. A’s (Anderson/Parker)
  4. Mariners (Hernandez/Iwakuma)
  5. Astros (Norris/Harrell)

King Felix has been holding up what seems like the Mariners entire universe for years now. He posted his fourth consecutive 200 strikeout year in 2012. Jered Weaver posted his first no-hitter and 20 win season last season, while CJ Wilson struggled down the stretch but still is among the best southpaws in baseball. Darvish came in second in the AL Rookie of the Year vote a year ago, and along with Holland stands to be one the young arms with a chance to make the biggest leap forward this season.

Bullpen

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Rangers
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

The backend of the A’s pitching staff is what completes them as the best collection of arms in either league, overall. Both Cook and Grant Balfour took on closing duties last year, and were just as effective in the setup role with Sean Doolittle as well. If Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria return to their previous form for the Angels and Rangers, respectively, it could change the entire direction of both teams’ seasons.

Defense

  1. Mariners
  2. Angels
  3. Rangers
  4. A’s
  5. Astros

Between Brendan Ryan, Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley, the M’s can go get it in the field. They had the best team fielding percentage in the AL a year ago, and are a huge reason why they have been able to stay somewhat afloat despite having an anemic offense. In Trout and Peter Bourjos, the Angels easily could have two Gold Glove outfielders for a long time. The Andrus/Kinsler middle infield combo in Texas is the best in the AL, and Beltre is the best defensive infielder in baseball.

St. Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros

Altuve is a diverse threat for the Astros, who led the team in nine different categories a year ago in his second season, and also made his All-Star debut.

Speed

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Mariners
  4. Rangers
  5. Astros

Between Crisp, Cespedes, Weeks and Young, the A’s can kill it around the bases. From both steals to the extra base, they are very capable of getting the extra base that is needed to survive in their spacious home ballpark. Not too far behind are Angels, who could very well see Trout and Aybar alone top 80 steals this season.

Manager

  1. Mike Scioscia, Angels
  2. Bob Melvin, A’s
  3. Ron Washington, Rangers
  4. Eric Wedge, Mariners
  5. Bo Porter, Astros

Bob Melvin did a masterful job of pulling the most out of the talent of his club a year ago. The AL Manager of the Year won the West, and finished a game away from the ALCS. Mike Scioscia is the longest tenured manager in the MLB, and for good reason.

Finances

  1. Angels
  2. Rangers
  3. Mariners
  4. Astros
  5. A’s

The Rangers have the money to improve their roster at any time, yet they are strategic about how they do so. Despite missing out on both Greinke and Hamilton this offseason, the money they haven’t spent yet may be their most valuable commodity throughout the season. The Mariners made a big statement ($175M to Felix), while the Astros made a big commitment to starting over (dropping team payroll to under $20 million…$5M less than Felix will pull down himself).

Josh Hamilton

The Angels made waves by handing Hamilton $123 million; both boost their lineup, and sink their long-time in-division rivals hopes some.

Impact Additions

  1. Josh Hamilton (Angels from Rangers)
  2. Ryan Madson (Angels from Phillies)
  3. Kendrys Morales (Mariners from Angels)
  4. Michael Morse (Mariners from Nationals)
  5. Lance Berkman (Rangers from Cardinals)

The Angels struck a devastating blow in snatching Hamilton away from their division rivals in Texas. There may be just as much value in paying him $125 million over the next five years to keep him away from Texas as there is to having him in their lineup. The Rangers are hoping for Berkman to have a similar renaissance this season as he did two years in St. Louis to help replace Hamilton and Michael Young’s departed impact.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Brett Anderson, A’s
  2. Jarrod Parker, A’s
  3. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s
  4. AJ Griffin, A’s
  5. Yu Darvish, Rangers

Notice a trend? The A’s honestly had the season that would be more likely this year, last summer, so what could come this year is truly special. Cespedes’ roof is still far away from him, while Parker and Griffin have the stuff to be top notch pitchers for years to come. Anderson is skilled the level of being an instant Cy Young contender if he can stay on the hill and off the DL.

J-Profar

Profar is the future in Texas, but finding room for the 20 year old now is proving to be a difficult task due to the All-Star presences on board.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Jurickson Profar (Shortstop, Rangers-AAA)
  2. Mike Zunino (Catcher, Mariners-AAA)
  3. Taijuan Walker (Pitcher, Mariners-AA)
  4. Danny Hultzen (Pitcher, Mariners-AAA)
  5. Mike Olt-Rangers (Third Baseman, Rangers-AAA)

Profar is a Jeter-like talent that can impact the game in every way possible. His instincts are off the charts to be any age, but at only 20 years old, it’s a truly remarkable thing to see already. He’s good enough to force a trade of Elvis Andrus to make room for him this season. The group of Mariners prospects is impressive, but they are content with developing their young arms, and only Zunino could have a real impact on 2012’s MLB team.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. ANGELS
  2. A’S
  3. RANGERS
  4. MARINERS
  5. ASTROS

The West went through plenty of stages last season, and this one could prove to be no different. The Oakland A’s got as hot as they had since their hallowed 20-game win streak 10 years ago. But they did it with a solid core, and most importantly, good pitching. The will still be a potent player in the race this year, as will the Rangers. Texas has lost a lot, but keeps as balanced of a team as possible. In the same way that the St. Louis Cardinals stepped up their production after losing their franchise player, Texas has the same potential to do so with their mixture of veteran and maturing prospects. Both teams will be at the very top of the division, with most likely no more than five games separating them from the top by September.

Outside of the three elite teams, Seattle has made improvements to their club, and will be more equipped to support their very solid pitching staff, but does not have quite enough firepower to last out the entire year. However, a strong push through to make some noise is possible. As for the Astros, a third straight year at the top of the Draft in June 2014 is basically assured.

But all business will carry through Anaheim, a team that learned from its past sins. While they made another big splash signing in Hamilton, the attention to detail to the rest of their roster didn’t escape GM Jerry Dipoto this winter. They were among the worst at finishing games via the bullpen last year, and were plagued by a shallow starting staff as well. The additions of Madson, Sean Burnett, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas aren’t headline grabbers, but they are substantial upgrades to the foundation of the club. In the end, that’s the difference that sells it; in the West it’s all about the details. It’s what won it for the A’s last year, and now the Angels have taken that strength and added it to a rarely matched top-talent collection. This is their year.

 

 

For more on the run up to Spring Training and the rest of the upcoming year in real time, 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.

MLB POWER POLL (Division Leaders in bold): July 18

1. Philadelphia Phillies

2. Boston Red Sox

3. New York Yankees

4. Texas Rangers

5. Atlanta Braves

6. San Francisco Giants

7. Milwaukee Brewers

8. Detroit Tigers (tie)

9. St. Louis Cardinals

10. Cleveland Indians (tie)

11. Tampa Bay Rays

12. Arizona Diamondbacks

13. Pittsburgh Pirates

14. Los Angeles Angels

15. New York Mets

16. Cincinnati Reds

17. Toronto Blue Jays

18. Washington Nationals

19. Chicago White Sox

20. Florida Marlins

21. Colorado Rockies

22. Minnesota Twins

23. Los Angeles Dodgers

24. Seattle Mariners

25. Oakland Athletics

26. San Diego Padres

27. Kansas City Royals

28. Baltimore Orioles

29. Chicago Cubs

30. Houston Astros

THREE UP

Wilson (10-2) has the Rangers riding the second longest winning streak in franchise history.

  1. Rangers on the Run: After sweeping the Mariners this weekend, the Rangers have won their last 11 games, the longest winning streak of the season in the Majors. In the course of this weekend’s win extension, All-Star CJ Wilson remained undefeated in his last 10 starts. The defending AL Champs are back at full strength, and could be the team to watch in the second half if that holds true.
  2. Boston defends the throne…no matter how long it takes: It took 16 innings to pull out, but the Red Sox knocked off the Rays at home to win their first series of the second half. Rays starter Jeff Niemann gave up two hits over eight innings, but was bettered by Josh Beckett’s eight inning, one hit effort over…which still wasn’t enough. The stare down continued into the 5 more scoreless innings by each bullpen until Dustin Pedroia knocked in the game’s only run in the top of the 16th inning for the win. And they get rewarded now with Carl Crawford returning from the disabled list today. Once again, the AL East is greatest show in the game.
  3. Brewers Strike First: The Brewers kicked into the trade season first, landing Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets for a couple of minor leaguers. Initially it was debated whether he would be allowed to close out games due to being owed an extra year and a ton of money if he ended out 55 games. Well the Mets are scraping their pennies together and the Brewers are pulling out all stops to win in what is probably the best chance they’ll have for a long time. Not only did they land the single season saves leader to be a part-time closer, but even got him to waive the clause in his contract that bumped his pay up with an extra year, for a one-time pay out right now. The Brewers aren’t playing games.

THREE DOWN

  1. Opposites Attract: While the Rangers seem to have forgotten how to lose, the Mariner’s have definitely become the Yang to their Yin. After hanging around the top of the West and capitalizing on the blandness of the division for much of the first half, they have now dropped nine straight games and have fallen 11.5 behind the leaders. Well…it was fun while it lasted M’s.
  2. All Hands off Deck: For much of the first half, Ryan Braun was swinging the best bat in the game and trading off on rights to MVP honors with teammate Prince Fielder. Shortly afterwards a thigh injury pulled him off the field in the middle of a 22 game hitting streak, missed the All-Star Game while resting the leg and was removed from Saturday’s game because of it as well. The Brewers are in great shape, but they will not win without Braun ready to go every night.
  3. Twin Killings: The Minnesota Twins are making a push. After having a first half with injuries to both of their former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, as well as former All-Stars Delmon Young, Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano, they are still in play in the AL Central, a division that is completely in play. However, now they have lost their most dependable starter in Scott Baker to a elbow injury while they are still struggling to pull Denard Span and Jason Kubel back as well…these guys can’t win for losing. Somebody call the Red Cross.

Baker becomes yet another crucial Twin to hit the bricks...at the worst possible time.

HIT AND RUNS for Monday, July 18, 2011:

Biggest Lead: Texas Rangers, 4 games in the AL West

Smallest Lead: Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, tied in the AL Central

Leading Hitter: Jose Reyes, Mets (.354)

Top 3 Sluggers: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (31), Lance Berkman – Cardinals, Mark Teixeira – Yankees, Curtis Granderson – Yankees (25)

Most Wins: CC Sabathia, Yankees (14)

Biggest Debut: Mike Trout, Angels (July 8th)

Best/Worst Record: Phillies (59-35, .628%), Astros (31-64, .326%)

Wild Cards if it Ended Today: Braves (56-39) & Yankees (55-37)

In a year characterized by the unexpected in the National League, the Central was home to the biggest and most enduring example. It was a division where if you had predicted its final act to play out as it did last March, your conversation would have resembled more of an SNL skit than a legit sports conversation. However, what went down on the field was no laughing matter anywhere outside of the Cincinnati area, as the Reds resurrected themselves to a form they hadn’t seen since the mid-90’s, and knocked off all the usual suspects in the division title race in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago. They were led by a perfect storm of veteran resurgence, quick impact rookies and coming of age from the incumbents, most notably first baseman Joey Votto’s MVP season.

2010 Final Standings

1. Cincinnati Reds (91-71)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
4. Houston Astros (76-86)
5. Chicago Cubs (75-87)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105)

Behind Votto's huge season, the Reds sprung the surprise division title of the year. Is it the first of many?

The Reds consistency and season long hunger were responsible for them rising above 3rd place for the first time since 1999, but also disappointing efforts from the rest of the division played a role in this picture as well. Each team in the division has taken steps to change their approach from last season to narrow the gap on the Reds’ five game margin of victory. The Cardinals put a premium on adding more offense to a mix that depended almost entirely on Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday a year ago. The Brewers completely rebuilt their pitching staff, which often made sure no lead was too safe last summer. On the bottom half of the division, the Cubs made few moves, but the ones they did were big impact ones. The Astros and Pirates got in on the act slightly, adding in vets to bring some hope of consistency and turnaround to their clubs. But in the end, is it enough? Did everything just work out right for the Reds for the moment, or is the beginning of a long term new pecking order in the Central?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Yadier Molina-St. Louis Cardinals

First Base: Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals

Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Cincinnati Reds

Third Base: Scott Rolen-Cincinnati Reds

Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Chicago Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun-Milwaukee Brewers

Center Field: Colby Rasmus-St. Louis Cardinals

Right Field: Corey Hart-Milwaukee Brewers

Braun's .304/25 HR/103 RBI season was a down year by his standards, but he is still is the class of NL Left fielders.

Starting Pitcher: Chris Carpenter-St. Louis Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke-Milwaukee Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Carlos Zambrano-Chicago Cubs

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Milwaukee Brewers

Bullpen Righty: Evan Meek-Pittsburgh Pirates

Bullpen Lefty: Sean Marshall-Chicago Cubs

Closer: Carlos Marmol-Chicago Cubs

BEST PLAYERS

1. Albert Pujols-Cardinals
2. Joey Votto-Reds
3. Ryan Braun-Brewers
4. Matt Holliday-Cardinals
5. Chris Carpenter-Cardinals
6. Prince Fielder-Brewers
7. Zack Greinke-Brewers
8. Brandon Phillips-Reds
9. Yovani Gallardo-Brewers
10. Carlos Zambrano-Cubs

Pujols led the NL in home runs and RBI a year ago, proving once again in baseball, there's Albert & then everyone else.

If there’s any sport that doesn’t need a “Who’s the best player” debate, its baseball. Albert Pujols makes sure that discussion starts at #2. His future may be in question, but what he will do this summer is definitely not. In history, Votto’s 2010 MVP will look even more impressive due to the fact he took it home in the face of one of Pujols’ best campaigns. Picking who’s better between Braun and Holliday is so close it almost depends on what either of them did in their last at-bat. Carpenter is a force on his own, and he finished in the top 3 in the Cy Young race again, but is the top pitcher once more in the Central due to teammate Adam Wainwright’s season ending elbow surgery.

LINEUP

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

For years the Brewers have been able to club the ball all over the place, but last season they finally got production from everyone at once, with Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart both joining the party with 30 home run seasons, in addition to Braun and Fielder’s usual great years and Casey McGehee having a great year as well. The Reds get production from literally everywhere, and have seven regulars capable of having 20 homer seasons. The Cardinals’ lineup potential lies very much on the shoulders of Rasmus’ consistency in front of Pujols/Holliday.

ROTATION

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

No team turned a weakness into strength more aggressively than the Brewers did with their pitching. Yovani Gallardo was on an island much of the time in years past, but with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum now joining him to become the division’s foremost rotation. The Reds run out someone who can win every day, and have a too many arms for slots, but not the top tier guys that are in Milwaukee. The Cubs boosted their staff in the same way, by adding Matt Garza, while the Cardinals lost their grasp on best rotation when Wainwright hit the surgeon’s table.

Zambrano heads a deep Cub pitching staff...when his temper lets him display his talents freely.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Brewers (Greinke & Gallardo)
2. Cubs (Zambrano & Dempster)
3. Cardinals (Carpenter & Garcia)
4. Reds (Arroyo & Volquez)
5. Astros (Myers & Rodriguez)
6. Pirates (McDonald & Correia)

As before, the Brewers jump in matchup difficulty is clear. Matter of fact, it would have challenged even the Cardinals healthy 1-2 combo for supremacy. Having strong top of the rotation is strength for nearly the entire division, with even the Myers/Rodriguez fifth place combo combining for a 25-20 record a year ago, that was often marked by a lack of run support. A full season of a healthy Edison Volquez for the Reds could be yet another plus for the Reds.

BULLPEN

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

The Reds throw a lot at opponents in the pen, and have the biggest non-closer (for now) matchup concern in perhaps all of baseball in Aroldis Chapman and his 103 miles per hour fastball. He’s complimented by the division’s best closer in Francisco Cordero and a group of solid situational guys. The Cubs boast a ton of solid arms, and the return of Kerry Wood, in addition to Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol gives them three hard throwing late inning arms. In Pittsburgh, in the event they have a late lead, their Evan Meek/Joel Hanrahan combo combined for 170 strikeouts in 2010, most of any reliever combo.

3-4-5 HITTERS

  1. 1. Cardinals (Pujols/Holliday/Berkman)
  2. 2. Brewers (Braun/Fielder/McGehee)
  3. 3. Reds (Votto/Rolen/Bruce)
  4. 4. Cubs (Byrd/Ramirez/Pena)
  5. 5. Pirates (McCutchen/Alvarez/Overbay)
  6. 6. Astros (Pence/Lee/Johnson)

Holliday brought another Silver Slugger award to St. Louis during his first full season under the Arch.

Pujols and Holliday is the best 3-4 combo in baseball on their own, and could nearly support this claim on their own. However, if Berkman can give the Cardinals even 75% of what he has done in the past; this could become the most dangerous heart of any lineup in the NL. The Cubs may have scored the biggest boost to any Central lineup in Carlos Pena, who still managed to hit 28 home runs last year, despite a .196 average ( which was a down year, not a fall off).

TABLESETTERS

1. Brewers (Weeks & Hart)
2. Reds (Stubbs & Phillips)
3. Cardinals (Schumaker & Rasmus)
4. Houston (Bourn & Hall)
5. Pirates (Tabaka & Walker)
6. Cubs (Fukodome & Castro)

The Brewers have a ridiculous amount of pop & speed at the top of their order, but the Reds have a guy that had a quietly major season last year in Drew Stubbs, who totaled 22 home runs, 77 RBI and 30 steals. While his .255 average will have to improve, especially in front of Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, he could be poised for a major breakout this summer. The Cubs are reluctant to lead off with Starlin Castro yet, but Fukodome is the worst leadoff hitter in the NL, so they would be smart to pull the swap.

BENCH

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

They had no need to make a lot of aggressive moves this summer to their core, so instead they built up their bench with Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis, who add even more depth to their attack. The Cubs have a lot of potential power on their bench in Tyler Colvin, who’s 22 homers led all rookies a year ago. One of the Pirates rare strengths is their reserve bats, which feature Matt Diaz and Ryan Doumit.

DEFENSE

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

The Reds boast one of the best infield defenses in the game, and Phillips and Scott Rolen took home Gold Gloves for their performances last year, in addition to pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s GG as well. The Cardinals also feature two Gold Glovers in Pujols and Molina, and Rasmus can cover a ton of ground in the outfield as well. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have centerfielders with plus range in Marlon Byrd, Carlos Gomez and Gold Glover Michael Bourn, respectively.

SPEED

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

Bourn looks to lead the NL in steals for the 3rd consecutive season in '11.

Phillips, Stubbs and Jay Bruce all give the Reds lineup 20 steal potential. In Houston, Michael Bourn has led the NL in steals for the last two years, with 61 in ’09 and 52 last year. Jose Tabaka and Andrew McCutchen give the Pirates two real stolen base threats that can also stretch hits into the gap into extra bases.

MANAGER

1. Tony LaRussa (Cardinals)
2. Dusty Baker (Reds)
3. Clint Hurdle (Pirates)
4. Mike Quade (Cubs)
5. Brad Mills (Astros)
6. Ron Roenicke (Brewers)

Both LaRussa and Baker are master strategists who constantly get the most out of their entire roster on a nightly basis. Much of the battle between the Cardinals and Reds will come down to the game of managerial chess between the two. Veteran manager Clint Hurdle was the most important offseason move for the Pirates, as they continue to move more young talent into the mix. Ron Roenicke will be expected to produce immediate results in his first year as a manager in Beer Town.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. Aroldis Chapman (Pitcher, Reds)
2. *Jordan Lyles (Pitcher, Astros)
3. *Devin Mesoraco (Catcher, Reds)
4. Mark Rogers (Pitcher, Brewers)
5. Matt Carpenter (Third basemen, Cardinals)

Whether it is as a starter, setup man, closer or mixture of all these roles, Chapman will be one of the biggest impact players in the game in his first full season in Cincy. He was clocked as high as 105 miles per hour at times last year, so the sky (or his breaking ball) may truly be the limit for him. Lyles and Rogers will make some spot starts throughout the year, with Lyles having a clearer path towards a Major League rotation.

FINANCES

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

The Cubs have a lot of bad contracts on deck still (Soriano, Ramirez, Fukodome), but still have a lot of financial freedom to make a move if they find themselves in the mix in what will be a tight division. The Cardinals may be forced to look into the market for pitchers if they sense a repeat from last year, but may be hamstrung in how big of a contract they can take on with Pujols’ day at the bank looming in the winter. The Astros are being shopped by owner Drayton McLane, so they won’t be spending much.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Zack Greinke (Brewers from Royals)
2. Matt Garza (Cubs from Rays)
3. Kerry Wood (Cubs from Yankees)
4. Shawn Marcum (Brewers from Blue Jays)
5. Lance Berkman (Cardinals from Yankees)

Greinke could be the focus of a lot of attention all summer if he brings his '09 Cy Young form to the NL with him.

If Greinke follows the mold of other recent AL Cy Young winners that matriculated over to the NL (Sabathia, Lee, Halladay), then he could become a force in a major way once he returns from injury in May. Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter last season, and was among the best in the AL for years. Berkman gives the Cardinals a much needed presence in their lineup that they’ve lacked since moving Ryan Ludwick last summer.

PREDICTION

1. REDS
2. BREWERS
3. CARDINALS
4. CUBS
5. ASTROS
6. PIRATES

This will be the most competitive division in the National League all summer. The Reds will repeat at taking the crown, although it’s far from the beginning of an uncontested dynasty. Last year, they had a lot of things come together at the right time and it paid off. This year all of those same elements won’t produce on the same level, but the youngsters such as Votto, Bruce, Chapman, Stubbs Mike Leake and Travis Wood will continue their upswing with more experience, and the veterans will provide more of a supporting than featured role. However, it won’t be by another five game margin like 2010, as the Brewers and Cardinals will mount significant attacks all summer, and the Cubs will be improved as well. In the end, the Brewers lack of depth won’t let them overtake the champs, and the Cardinals without Wainwright will lose some tough games he would have been the difference in. Both clubs will stay within striking range of the Wild Card and could also make a legit push for the division title if the Reds succumb to injury or a prolonged.

There have been generations of great players in Major League Baseball. Since the league’s official inception around 1869 there have been many different eras and changes to the game. It is difficult to place each great player against each other, but here is the CHEAP SEATS take on the greatest players, by position, the game has ever produced. So far in this look at baseball’s immortals we have looked at Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Albert Pujols and other greats at the catcher and first base positions. Now we move into the middle infield. (All stats are current of June 1, 2010 & scoring rubric is below)

**Second Base**

Second base is one of the more athletic positions on the field, due to mobility needed to cover the space on the field. Traditionally, defense being the priority over offense. Also, this has led faster players play the position traditionally, as opposed to power hitters. However, some the best overall hitters in the game have played the position. Many great table setters (players who get on base frequently) and base runners are represented here. I wide variety of players are represented here, from one of the greatest bats in the history of the game, to some the best gloves ever and a civil rights legend who’s impact cannot be felt only in statistics alone.

Hornsby is one of the greatest hitters to ever play. His .358 career average is second all-time.

1. Rogers Hornsby: St. Louis Cardinals (1915-1937): 74.5 points

–          .358 Avg. 301 HR, 1584 RBI, .434 OBP, 2930 Hits, 1579 Runs, 135 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 1 World Series, 2 MVPs, 0 ROY, 7 Batting Titles, 2 Triple Crowns, 2 HR Titles, 0 All-Star Games (Presumptive 14 awarded)

Easily among the greatest hitters in the history of the game. Hornsby is the only player to hit 40 home runs and hit .400 in the same season. His 1924 average of .424 is has not been equaled since, one of five season where he surpassed .400. Also a fast player, he led the National in triples three times and had 30 inside-the-park home runs.

2. Eddie Collins: Philadelphia A’s (1906-1930): 64 points

–          .333 Avg. 47 HR, 1300 RBI, .424 OBP, 3315 Hits, 1821 Runs, 744 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 4 World Series, 1 MVP, 0 ROY, 0 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crowns, 0 HR Titles, 0 All-Star Games (Presumptive 15 awarded)

Over his 24 year career, he holds the record for most games at second base, with 2650. He was the first player to steal 80 bases in the post-1901 modern era of baseball. He stole six bases in one game, a Major League record, twice. An outstanding defender, he holds records for most assists (7,630) and chances (14,591) at second base.

3. Ron Carew: Minnesota Twins/California Angels (1967-1985): 62 points

–          .328 Avg. 92 HR, 1015 RBI, .393 OBP, 3053 Hits, 1424 Runs, 353 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 0 World Series, 1 MVP, 1 ROY, 7 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crowns, 0 HR Titles, 18 All-Star Games

One of the great pure hitters in the game’s history, he won the 1972 American League batting title without hitting one home run, the only player to ever do this. Led the Majors in batting average from 1973 to 1975, one of two players to ever do so for such a stretch. He stole home 17 times in his career.

4. Nap Lajoie: Cleveland Indians (1896-1916): 59 points

–          .338 Avg. 83 HR, 1599 RBI, .424 OBP, 3242 Hits, 1504 Runs, 380 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 0 World Series, 0 MVP, 0 ROY, 4 Batting Titles, 1 Triple Crown, 1 HR Title, 0 All-Star Games (Presumptive 13 awarded)

One of baseball’s first true stars at the turn of the century, he was virtually unchallenged as a hitter until Ty Cobb debuted. Finished with a .426 batting average in 1901. Elected to the 2nd class of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

5. Roberto Alomar: Toronto Blue Jays/Cleveland Indians (1988-2004): 50 points

–          .300 Avg. 210 HR, 1134 RBI, .371 OBP, 2724 Hits, 1508 Runs, 474 SB

–          10 Gold Gloves, 2 World Series, 0 MVP, 0 ROY, 0 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crown, 0 HR Title, 12 All-Star Games

One of the greatest defenders in history, he has the most Gold Glove Awards ever awarded at the position. He made 12 consecutive All-Star games from 1990 to 2001.

In many regards, Alomar is the premier defensive second baseman to ever play.

6. Joe Morgan: Cincinnati Reds (1963-1984): 47 points

–          .271 Avg. 268 HR, 1133 RBI, .392 OBP, 2517 Hits, 1650 Runs, 689 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 2 World Series, 2 MVPs, 0 ROY, 0 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crown, 0 HR Title, 10 All-Star Games

Best known for his tenure as a member of the “Big Red Machine” of the mid 70’s. He was the first second baseman to win back-to-back MVP awards. He is one of the most balanced players in the history of the game, with 268 home runs, 449 doubles and 96 triples. He also stole his 689 bases at an outstanding 80% clip for his career.

7. Charlie Gehringer: Detroit Lions (1924-1942): 46.5 points

–          .320 Avg. 184 HR, 1427 RBI, .404 OBP, 2839 Hits, 1774 Runs, 181 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 1 World Series, 1 MVP, 0 ROY, 1 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crown, 0 HR Titles, 6 All-Star Games

Reached 200 hits seven times and won the 1937 batting title with a .371 average. Was one of the best defenders ever at the position and led American League second basemen in fielding percentage seven times.

8. Craig Biggio: Houston Astros (1988-2007): 44 points

–          .281 Avg. 291 HR, 1175 RBI, .363 OBP, 3063 Hits, 1844 Runs, 414 SB

–          4 Gold Gloves, 0 World Series, 0 MVP, 0 ROY, 0 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crown, 0 HR Titles, 7 All-Star Games

The only player to accumulate 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs in Major League history. A lifetime Astro, the 9th player to get 3,000 hits with one team. His 668 doubles are the most for a right handed batter ever and fifth best total ever.

9. Ryne Sandberg: Chicago Cubs (1981-1997): 42.5 points

–          .285 Avg. 282 HR, 1061 RBI, .344 OBP, 2386 Hits, 1318 Runs, 344 SB

–          9 Gold Gloves, 0 World Series, 1 MVP, 0 ROY, 0 Batting Titles, 0 Triple Crown, 1 HR Title, 10 All-Star Games

His .989 fielding percentage is the best of all-time at second base and he won 9 consecutive Gold Gloves. One of three players to have both a 40 home run and 50 stolen base season in their career.

10. Jackie Robinson: Brooklyn Dodgers (1947-1956): 35.5 points

–          .311 Avg. 137 HR, 734 RBI, .409 OBP, 1518 Hits, 947 Runs, 197 SB

–          0 Gold Gloves, 1 World Series, 1 MVP, 1 ROY, 1 Batting Title, 0 Triple Crown, 0 HR Title, 6 All-Star Games

Broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, as the first black player in modern Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest base runners in the history of the game, stealing home 19 times. Played in World Series in his 10 year career and was the first Rookie of the Year Award winner and first black MVP in 1949.

While noted for his cultural contributions, Robinson dominated in the 40's and 50's with his aggressive style of play.

Close runners-up: Red Schoendienst, Frankie Frisch, Bill Mazeroski, Lou Whittaker

Batters Study Rubric

Batting Average– .350 & above (10 pts), .349 to .330 (9 pts), .329 to .320 (8pts), .319 to .310 (7 pts), .309 to .300 (6 pts), .299 to 290 (5 pts), .289 to .280 (4pts), .279 to 270 (3 pts), .269 & below (2 pts)

Home Runs– 600 & above (10 pts), 599 to 550 (9 pts), 549 to 500 (8 pts), 499 to 450 (7 pts), 449 to 400 (6 pts), 399 to 350 (5 pts), 349 to 300 (4 pts), 299 to 250 (3 pts), 249 & below (2 pts)

Runs Batted In– 1900 & above (10 pts), 1899 to 1800 (9 pts), 1799 to 1700 (8 pts), 1699 to 1600 (7 pts), 1599 to 1500 (6 pts), 1499 to 1350 (5 pts), 1349 to 1200 (4 pts), 1199 to 1050 (3 pts), 1040 & below (2 pts)

On Base Percentage– .470 & above (10 pts), .469 to .450 (9 pts), .449 to .430 (8 pts), .429 to .410 (7 pts), .409 to .390 (6 pts), .389 to .370 (5 pts), .369 to .340 (4 pts), .339 to .320 (3 pts), .319 & below (2 pts)

Hits– 4000 & above (10 pts), 3999 to 3600 (9 pts), 3599 to 3300 (8 pts), 3299 to 3000 (7 pts), 2999 to 2700 (6 pts), 2699 to 2400 (5 pts), 2399 to 2100 (4 pts), 2099 to 2070 (3 pts), 2069 & below (2 pts)

Runs– 2100 & above (10 pts), 2099 to 2000 (9 pts), 1999 to 1900 (8 pts), 1899 to 1800 (7 pts), 1799 to 1700 (6 pts), 1699 to 1600 (5 pts), 1599 to 1500 (4 pts), 1499 to 1400 (3 pts), 1399 & below (2 pts)

Stolen Bases– 1,000 & above (10 pts), 999 to 850 (9 pts), 849 to 700 (8 pts), 699 to 550 (7 pts), 549 to 450 (6 pts), 449 to 300 (5 pts), 299 to 150 (4 pts), 149 to 50 (3 pts), 49 & below (2 pts)

Accolades

Gold Glove Awards: .5 point

World Series Championships: .5 points

Most Valuable Player Awards: 2 points

Rookie of the Year Awards: 1 point

Batting Titles: 1 point

Triple Crowns: 3 points

Home Run Champion: 1 point

*All-Star Appearances: 1 point

*Presumptive All-Star points are given to a player whose careers either proceeded or largely was played before the All-Star Game began in 1933. Formulated as 60% x the total number of years played.