Posts Tagged ‘NL Central’

Yadier-Molina

Yet again the National League Central was home to one of the most diverse pennant races in the game a year ago. The Pittsburgh Pirates came out the gate with their best (and longest) runs in nearly 20 years, as they sat in first place at the All-Star Break, in front of the Cincinnati Reds and defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Yet, that grasp on the division didn’t last in the second half, a part of the year where the Milwaukee Brewers put together an assault on pushing into the postseason picture. But in the end, the Reds made the regular season their own down the stretch, winning the Central by nine games, the largest division title margin in either league. Yet, in the end, it was the St. Louis Cardinals who pushed their season the furthest from the Wild Card spot again, finishing one game away from a second consecutive World Series.

2012 Finish

1.                   Reds (97-65)
2.                   Cardinals (88-74)**
3.                   Brewers (83-79)
4.                   Pirates (79-83)
5.                   Cubs (61-101)
6.                   Astros (55-107)

This season, it’s a new division in where in the fact it’s a smaller division. Gone are the Houston Astros, who joined the Chicago Cubs as one of two 100 loss teams in the Central. That subtraction will make the fight for the division rougher in and of itself. The Reds are bringing in perhaps their most complete team of any season. The Cardinals loom constant in the division, as the most clutch team in baseball in the last two pennant chases. The Brewers and Pirates are both just outside the hump of the Cards/Reds, but both have shown plenty of fight and have made the changes needed to cut the division down. Meanwhile, the Cubs rebuilding continues, and they could be in position to spring a rise as well. So who’s the best in the revamped middle of the NL?

All Division Team

Catcher: Yadier Molina-Cardinals

First Base: Joey Votto-Reds

Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Reds

Third Base: Aramis Ramirez-Brewers

Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun-Brewers

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen-Pirates

Right Field: Jay Bruce-Reds

McCutchen took a huge step forward in 2012: his 194 hits led the NL and he gathered his first Gold Glove.

McCutchen took a huge step forward in 2012: his 194 hits led the NL and he gathered his first Gold Glove.

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright-Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Johnny Cuerto-Reds

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Mat Latos-Reds

Righty Relief: Mitchell Boggs-Cardinals

Lefty Relief: Sean Marshall-Reds

Closer: Aroldis Chapman-Reds

Top 10

  1. Ryan Braun, Brewers
  2. Joey Votto, Reds
  3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
  4. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
  5. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
  6. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
  7. Brandon Phillips, Reds
  8. Jay Bruce, Reds
  9. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  10. Starlin Castro, Cubs

Lineup

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

The Cardinals led the NL in hits a year ago, and finished in the top 5 in average, runs scored and total bases. With Jon Jay atop the lineup for a full season, those numbers could each increase. Meanwhile, sparked by Braun and a resurgent Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers seven of the eight everyday players reached double digits in home runs.

Cincinnati's All-Star tandem of Bruce and Votto combined for 79 doubles and 48 homers in 2012

Cincinnati’s All-Star tandem of Bruce and Votto combined for 79 doubles and 48 homers in 2012

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Reds (Votto/Ludwick/Bruce)
  2. Cardinals (Holliday/Craig/Freese)
  3. Brewers (Braun/Ramirez/Hart)
  4. Cubs (Rizzo/Soriano/Castro)
  5. Pirates (McCutchen/Jones/Alvarez)

The re-emergence of Ludwick (26 home runs, 80 RBI) gave the middle of the Reds line up some much needed right handed power. Votto had another now-standard type of season for him (.337 average, 40 doubles), despite missing over 50 games. Alfonso Soriano had a career-high 108 RBI and topped 30 homers for the first time in 5 years.

Table Setters

  1. Reds (Choo/Phillips)
  2. Cardinals (Jay/Beltran)
  3. Pirates (Marte/Walker)
  4. Brewers (Aoki/Weeks)
  5. Cubs (DeJesus/Schierholtz)

There’s a diverse group of lineup lead offs in Cincy. Choo and Phillips are both 20 homer/20 steal candidates, while Carlos Beltran is an early indicator of the big bats up and down the Cardinals lineup (32 homers, 97 RBI). Norichika Aoki had made a big debut, stealing 30 bags and adding 50 extra base hits as well.

Bench

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

Pittsburgh is taking to the strength in numbers approach. With Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez all rotation in and out of the starting linup, there’s always going to be at least two impact bats in reserves. Add in John McDonald, and that’s a deep offering. The Cardinals depth is lead by the presence of a couple of Matt’s (Adams and Carpenter) that will offer various impacts for both resting and alternating lineup approaches.

Rotation

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

The Reds had a coming of age in their rotation a year ago. Four of their five starters reached double digits in wins to go along with ERA’s under 4.00; a result strong enough for the team to resist putting Aroldis Chapman in the rotation. The Cubs have boosted their rotation with Edwin Jackson, but the health of Matt Garza and return of Scott Baker are key to if this team can actually surprise the rest of the pack in the Central, which they have the potential to do.

Wainwright won 14 games and struck out 184 in nearly 200 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery.

Wainwright won 14 games and struck out 184 in nearly 200 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery.

1-2 Punch

  1. Reds (Cuerto/Latos)
  2. Cardinals (Wainwright/Lynn)
  3. Brewers (Gallardo/Lohse)
  4. Pirates (Burnett/Rodriguez)
  5. Cubs (Garza/Samardzija)

Johnny Cueto won 19 games with a 2.78 ERA last season, and continued his accent up the ranks of most underappreciated hurlers in baseball. Lance Lynn won 18 games in an up and down first season as a starter, and Adam Wainwright had a gradual yet impressive, 14-win return, from Tommy John surgery as well. A return completely from him gives the division a legitimate Cy Young front runner candidate.

Bullpen

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

The back end of the Reds bullpen is a nightmare. Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton are among the best left-right setup combos in baseball, and Chapman waits in the wings as arguably the best power pitcher in baseball (a record 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings). The Cardinals bullpen took a hit when Jason Motte was shutdown indefinitely with an elbow injury. He tied for the NL lead in saves with 42 a year ago.

Defense

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

There’s a trio of Gold Glove worthy centerfielders in the Central, with McCutchen, Jon Jay and Carlos Gomez. But there’s only one award to go out, and The Cutch took it home a year ago. Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto are among the elite defensive infielders in the game, while Yadier Molina (five consecutive GG’s) is among the greatest defensive catchers ever.

While the power in Milwaukee gets the headlines, the trio of Braun, Gomez and Aoki combined for 97 steals as well.

While the power in Milwaukee gets the headlines, the trio of Braun, Gomez and Aoki combined for 97 steals as well.

Speed

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

With the exception of Milwaukee, it is not a very fast division. The Brewers outfield of Braun, Gomez and Aoki each topped 30 steals, with a total of 97. Pittsburgh has an aggressive, quick team with Sterling Marte, Josh Harrison and McCutchen topping five triples.

Manager

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

Baker has pulled the Reds to two consecutive division championships, while the Cardinals as a team have reached the previous two National League Championship Series, which Matheny did as a rookie manager last year. Hurdle has the Pirates on the verge of snapping their record losing season streak, and received a two-year contract extension to do so.

Finances

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

The Cubs are in the midst of an intentional rebuilding run, but if they wanted to go all in immediately to fight into the picture, the funds are there. Team president Theo Epstein is just biding his time by building within, before inevitably releasing the okay to make the type of additions that no other team in the Central has the resources to match. The Cardinals shored up their final questionable contract situation for the foreseeable future by reaching a $97.5 million extension in March.

Impact Additions

  1. Shin-Soo Choo (Reds from Indians)
  2. Kyle Lohse (Brewers from Cardinals)
  3. Edwin Jackson (Cubs from Nationals)
  4. Randy Choate (Cardinals from Dodgers)
  5. Kyuji Fujikawa (Cubs via Japan)

Acquiring Choo, who is pending free agency, was a win-now move for the Reds who are looking to find a way to carry their regular season runs into October. After what felt like the longest, coldest winter ever, Kyle Lohse found a 3 year home in Milwaukee, in a move that could tilt the balance in the Central some.

In less than a year, the powerful Rizzo has become one of the biggest rebuilding pieces on the North Side.

In less than a year, the powerful Rizzo has become one of the biggest rebuilding pieces on the North Side.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
  2. Todd Frazier, Reds
  3. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
  4. Michael Fiers, Brewers
  5. Jeff Sarmardija, Cubs

Rizzo has raw power to spare, and as soon as he touched Chicago a year ago, he became the guy they built their lineup around. He hit 15 homers in his Cub debut, and shows the type of profile to become an All-Star as soon as this year. Frazier stepped when Votto went down last year and hit 19 homers as third and first baseman, as well as some outfield.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Oscar Tavares (Cardinals, Outfielder – AAA)
  2. Shelby Miller (Cardinals, Pitcher –MLB)
  3. Starling Marte (Pirates, Outfielder—MLB)
  4. Billy Hamilton (Reds, Center Field—AAA)
  5. Garret Cole (Pirates, Pitcher—AAA)

The Cardinals top two prospects are ready to burst into the MLB scene, but only one has a clear path. Tavares hit like he belonged in the spring, but Miller will get his day in the sun first, as he made the club as fifth starter. Hamilton has stolen 258 bases the last two years in the Reds system, and as soon as he finds a position, he’ll be among the elite speedsters in the MLB too.

2013 PREDICTIONS

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

While 2012’s Central was the scene of the biggest gap between the best and worst in baseball, which is a thing of the past. There are four legitimate contenders for the postseason bunched together, and if everything plays out as it forecasts, it will be the toughest division to get out of in baseball. While it has produced three of the last six Wild Card winners, winning this division will never have been more important, because the chance to rack up wins, without a title, is going to be difficult.

One thing is certain, is that every team can hit in the division, so the margins of who can keep their red flags flying the lowest is of the utmost importance. The two-time runners up in St. Louis have the talent to win the division, but have the challenge of staying healthy in front of them, as well as a lot of “ifs” regarding their pitching staff. The Brewers can hit, and worked on their pitching some, but the staff as whole is still a cut below St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Winning it one way will be tough. As for the Cubs, they are quietly improving, but it’s going to be closer to two years off before they have everything in place to factor back into the race.

That leaves the Reds in a similar position. They have the bats, pitching and ballpark to shape the division in their favor. The decision to leave Chapman in the bullpen gives them the most dominant unit of any team in the division via their pitching staff. They can play defense behind them, and get the runs to support their effort consistently. If Joey Votto’s knee is healthy, Shin-Soo Choo can be steady enough in the field at his new position in center and health continues to be their ally (only two non-rotation starts in all of 2012), they will hold off the pack, and take their third consecutive Central title. But what happens from there…is still uncertain.

For more on the season to come, and everything Opening to closing Day related, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

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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.

Fully published at St. Louis Sports 360, March 12th.

 

All throughout the St. Louis  camp right now are splattering of guys that have numbers on their backs that look like a better fit with the St. Louis Rams than their  playing city mates. These jersey tags in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s would stick out like Cubs hat at Busch Stadium in October usually, but make no mistake about it, these aren’t second rate guys. In many cases, these are the gatecrashers are the ones that are looked at to be the future around the field, and the forecast in St. Louis hasn’t looked as bright as it does now in many years.

After many years of being one of the most depleted  in the game, due to a mixture of high profile trades, bad drafts and simply potential not becoming reality, the Cardinals minor league ranks are stacked right now. ’s Keith Law ranked as the 4th best minor league group in the game, and in addition placed five young  in his Top 100 prospects for 2012. However, many of those players are still years away from being ready to make a run at The Show. , Tyrell Jenkins, Kolten Wong, Trevor Rosenthal and Oscar Tavares are among the best the minor leagues have to offer, but are years away in their development still. The real sign of the depth of the system is that there are just as many talents that are pushing the ranks of the 25 man St. Louis group now, that aren’t as ballyhooed prospects.

In other words, the very best is yet to come; but the good that’s close now, is pretty close to great. The trick is that this current  is returning the majority of its roster. There is also a surplus of backups that could push their way into the everyday mix. So which of the minor league hopefuls in camp which ones have the best chance to crack into ’s mix now despite all of this? Here’s a look at the Cardinal farmhands that have the best shot at reaching, and impacting, the Bigs this season…

 

Carpenter represents a Major League ready bat that just needs a home for his glove to come with him.

: Last year’s spring sensation is back in camp looking for another chance to make the roster, and he’s doing it via a by any means necessary approach….

 

For the rest of this article, including a full listing of the top Cardinal farmhands that could make their way to and impact St. Louis this summer, follow this link to St. Louis Sports 360http://stlouissports360.com/cardinals-spring-12-12-part-5-deck/

 

And for everything else from my sports breakfast to fourth meal, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Usually, I run the links for my pieces over at StLouisSports360 here, but on the occasion of writing a joint I’ve been waiting to do since last Spring Training, I’m going to let the whole thing go here as well. Enjoy.

 

This time last year,  was the exact opposite of what he is now: healthy, optimistic and certain of where he’ll be spending his summer. Just over a week ago last year was when the St. Louis’ ace (part 1 or 2 depending on what day it is) injured himself in a bullpen session and was officially out for the season. And while the team reached the pinnacle of the game last year, it still was never the same without him. Now, he’s schedule to make his debut in the Grapefruit  on Friday with a 30-pitch start that will mark the official end of a long road back to the mound.

However, in a similar fashion to last year, Wainwright’s return is the most talked about topic around the team, albeit in a much different fashion than it has been since last March. While the “if’s” have been quelled, curiosity and hope are taking over, and until both player and fans get comfortable and beginning seeing what they became accustomed to getting since 2009, the questions will remain.

So, I’ll go ahead and toss it out there: What can we expect from Adam Wainwright in 2011?

This is the question that has both excited and forced Cardinals’ fans and management alike into some nervous curiosity. Simply because to get back an average performance from his is to automatically inject one of the top pitchers in all of  back into your lineup. Waino’s average performance over his past two seasons has been 20 wins, a 2.53 ERA and 212 strikeouts over 34 starts. His norm has landed him in the top three of the last two  votes he’s been eligible for, so the expectation is high for his return.

Just a year after being a full-time onlooker, Wainwright returns as both rotation anchor and perhaps the franchise's most leaned upon star.

However, it is also measured, because the road back from such an injury is never simple and because he represents so much more to the club now than he even did before his injury. His return represents a boost in the confidence of a team that has lost many of the men that built up the confidence and identity of the team. His return is not only the biggest piece in keeping the team’s momentum on the field going, but is also the biggest addition to a team that lost much more than any team should be able to at once while still sustaining itself.

Most of the impact additions this winter in free agency all happened for American League clubs. With the exception of the Miami Marlins big bank roll through free agency and the Washington Nationals moves to push themselves up the standings out East, no other teams have made many power moves to get better. What’s more is that none of the Cardinals’ playoff qualifying contemporaries from a year ago made anywhere close to as substantial of an addition to their club. So while he was always here, he stands to be the biggest bump to any team’s roster in the NL.

But what will it all mean? What kind of season could be in store for him, and more importantly, what sort of rehab road in-season could be in store? To figure that out, the best example is once again his rotation mate in . Both pitchers have a very similar repertoire and skill set. Neither is prefaced on being overpowering; rather it’s about location and keeping opponents off-balance. When Carpenter was sidelined in 2007 and 2008 from Tommy John surgery, he returned with the same cautious optimism. However, when he got back on the mound he delivered the same stuff he had left with, in addition to a few new offerings that made up for anything he may have lost due to the time off. After all of those struggles and in the light of similar hopes & finger crossed optimism, Carp turned in a 17-4 season, along with a league-leading 2.24 ERA in his 2009 comeback season.

Having Carpenter along for every step of the road back will be both a great motivator and example for Wainwright.

Wainwright will benefit from having Carpenter with him daily to talk through both the mental and physical trials faced with returning from such a setback. Never one to truly overpower batters, Wainwright will also be further expanding his use of a change-up he added to his pitch selection in the second half of 2010, which will allow his fastball, which always sat in the 90 to 93 mph range, to work its way back in a much easier way. And then there’s always the fact that he commands the best curveball in baseball, and for all accounts that have seen him working this spring, that’s something that did not get lost in translation on the way back. His curve is the type of bonus weapon that few pitchers have to count on when trying to make such a comeback.

So what’s actually going to happen? He’s starting the season as the team’s #3 starter behind Carpenter &…..one that also is slated to start the home opener vs. the Cubs as well. Something else says that a quick return to vintage Waino, and short spell in the middle of the rotation, are also in store.

 

In the next “12 in 12″ over at StLouisSports360 (in full), a look at the kids in the hall that are headed towards St. Louis. Who are the top prospects headed into the season, and which have the best shot at landing a great gig under the arch. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Sorry for the delay in the Power Poll this week, the NBA Finals took a bit of time to wrap up yesterday. However, around that whole mix and mayhem on the court, Baseball had a great week and a good launch into it’s solo spotlight part of the year.

The week started off with yet another statement series atop the A.L. East, and ownership atop it (and CSP’s Power Poll) changed again. The meteoric rise of power of baseball’s hottest team over the last month took them to the top of the N.L. Central and the first coaching change of the season was made to right the path of a one of the main contenders for the Wild Card in the A.L. coming into the season.

Ortiz's continued hot bat help to sink the Yanks and raise the Sox to the top of the East once again.

The times are already a-changin around the league, and also in the Poll again. Here’s how Volume 11 is breaking out…

1. Red Sox (5): With their third sweep of the Yankees under their belt (which ran their record for 2011 against their rivals to 8-1), followed by taking three from Toronto, the Sox rise to the top of the poll for the first time since the debut edition.

2. Phillies (2): Despite playing with their full expected lineup for under two weeks this season, the Phils have not lost a game where they scored at least 5 runs all season. There will be a lot more of those games coming now.

3. Yankees (1): The Yankees started the week by continuing their troubles against the Red Sox, getting swept at home. They finished the week with Joba Chamberlain and Bartolo Colon joining the growing number of their already limited pitching staff on the DL. On a brighter note, Derek Jeter will most likely get his 3,000th hit this week.

4. Brewers (8): The Brewers runaway train ride through the National League met the league’s winningest club, in the Cardinals, over the weekend…and took three games from them in route to taking over control of Central for the first time in two years.

5. Cardinals (3): The Cardinals ran into a brick wall located in Milwaukee over the weekend, and are now (0-6) on during weekend road series against second place N.L. Central clubs, having twice lost control of the division this year in this fashion.

6. Braves (13): They finally found an opening to make a move in the East by sweeping the slumping Marlins and moving into second place. Johnny Venters’ shutdown act (0.44 ERA) has finally been moved to the ninth inning, assuring that many more Braves games may only eight innings from here out.

The Braves have placed Venters at the end of games now, and have went on a run since the move.

7. Giants (7): The Giants traded wins and loses with the Reds and Nationals all week, but retained control of the West despite only managing to bring in over two runs once in the last seven games.

8. Rangers (4): The A.L. Central was not as kind to Texas as they were the week before, with Twins and Tigers combining to snatch 5 games combined, yet they held on to control of the West by a game and a half.

9. Indians (6): They have dropped nine of their last eleven contests and have watched the biggest lead in all of baseball dwindle to a tie in the A.L. Central. Josh Tomlin, Fausto Carmona and Mitch Talbot have all lost both of their last two starts in the process. They’ll look to take momentum from a shutout win in New York into Detroit to defend their place atop the Central.

10. Tigers (12): Austin Jackson is tearing the cover off the ball right now (.370 in June) and Magglio Ordonez is returning this week to put the Tigers at full strength for the first time nearly all year…and right as they have pulled to a tie atop the A.L. Central…and they host the Indians this week with the division up for the taking.

11. Rays (10): They remained a powerhouse on the road this past week, adding 5 wins to their A.L. leading 21 road wins on the season in L.A. and Baltimore.

12. D’Backs (9): They have cooled off from the tear that moved them to the top of the West for a week, but took three of four from the Marlins over the weekend, which puts them in position to move back to the top of the division as they host San Francisco this week.

13. Reds (14): The offense keeps slugging, and now the pitchers are getting in on their half of the bargain as well. After getting bashed around for the duration of May, they didn’t allow more than 2 runs in any game last week and finished the team’s first shutout in over month as well.

14. Mariners (15): Don’t look now, but the Mariners are in position to go for the top of the West and only play 3 road games for the rest of the month, starting with the Angels club they passed this past week.

15. Marlins (11): Things probably can’t get worse than are right now in Miami. They’ve dropped 10 of 11 contests to fall seven games back of the Phillies and still have no date for the return of Josh Johnson or Hanley Ramirez.

16. White Sox (19): After starting 0-8, John Danks won twice last week and surrendering 2 runs across 15 innings in the process.

17. Blue Jays (17): In the ever changing A.L. East, despite finding themselves in the best condition of any East club, are still just a half game out of last place all of a sudden after dropping three to the Red Sox over the weekend.

18. Mets (21): Even though their rotation is far from in the condition it projected as, over the last 17 games they have the lowest ERA of any team in baseball.

19. Pirates (20): Despite a growing Disabled List (which 2010 All-Star Evan Meek joined this past week as well), the Bucs are staying in the middle of the mix, thanks to the continued improvement of Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen has put together another step forward season and is bringing the Bucs along with him.

20. Dodgers (18): Clayton Kershaw proved to be mortal briefly this past week, giving up as many runs (12) in his last two starts as he did in his previous seven combined.

21. Angels (16): The Angels offense is still stuck in it’s slump from last season (if that’s possible) and Vernon Wells’ return offers some hope for a turnaround, as they have fallen into the bottom three in the A.L. in runs scored.

22. Rockies (23): They had more success this past week than they have in a while, but despite scoring 30 runs over the weekend, they still split the series against the Dodgers and didn’t have a single game decided by more than four runs.

23. Nationals (26): Drew Storen’s first full season as a closer continues to be the highlight of the National’s season. He closed out three consecutive wins for the club over the weekend and is 15 for 16 overall in save situations this year.

24. Orioles (25): They showed some life during a a four game winning streak kicked off the week, before dropping an extra inning affair to the Rays on Saturday. They continue their all or nothing ways this season.

25. Royals (27): While their successes have continued to turn down, their prized prospects have continued to turn up. Most recently 2010 Minor League Player of the Year Mike Moustakas joined the mix in KC, and hit his first career homer in his second game up.

26. Padres (22): A sign of the difficulties in San Diego: Chase Headley’s homer on Thursday was the first out of the three slot in the lineup the entire season. The promotion of prized prospect Anthony Rizzo could help change things here by the end of the year.

27. Twins (29): Francisco Liriano returned from a brief stint on the DL, and the rest appears to have paid off. He has struck out 16 in 13.1 innings since in two starts: one being a 1-0 loss and the second being nearly his second no-hitter of the season in a win on Sunday.

28. A’s (24): Manager Bob Geren was fired after the club’s losing streak hit 9 games and Bob Melvin took his place for the remainder of the season…and has gone 1-4 since taking over.

29. Cubs (30): Teams are hitting .267 against the Cubs, 28th worse in baseball…which is a point higher than they are hitting as a club at .266 (third best in baseball). Pitching wins ballgames.

30. Astros (29): A rough week facing the Cardinals followed by the Braves was concluded by their best pitcher in Wandy Rodriguez landing on the DL. These are the breaks on this end of the poll.

Follow me on Twitter for more and more baseball coverage with the summer wiiiiiide open now at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360

A familiar face has found themselves back on top of baseball’s premier division, and atop the Power Poll’s 10th incarnation as well. This was aided by so-so weeks by nearly every other elite club in last week’s poll, and the great West Coast swing by the Yankees in route to passing up the Red Sox and holding back the Rays as well.

In the National League, the Phillies couldn’t win anything that didn’t involve Doc Halladay somehow, and the Giants slowed the Cardinals potential rise to the top of the charts as well. Overall, it was a very competitive week, that featured a return to form by the Rangers, who enter the top 5 for the first time in over a month and also the waking up of sleeping giant…or more appropriately, Cardinal over the weekend.

Pujols became the best closer in baseball this weekend, ending two games with over 800 feet worth of home runs.

 

That and more in the CHEAP.SEATS’ weekly rundown of all 30 in big league baseball.

1. Yankees (5): The Yanks return to the top of the list due to mix of rounding back into form at the plate from the heart of the order; Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are starting their annual mid-summer assaults now. But Bartolo Colon’s resurgence has given them a much needed extra boost on the hill which has alluded them all year.

Teixeira is beginning to heat up with the weather, like every year, and the Yanks are coming up with him.

2. Phillies (1): The Phils hit their first real rough stretch of the year, dropping four consecutive road shows against the Nationals and Pirates. They picked up the bookends of the week which (no surprise) Roy Halladay started.

3. Cardinals (3): With two-walk off homers under his belt this weekend to beat the rival Cubs, and five in the last week, Albert Pujols looks as if he’s starting to come back into his usual other worldly form. Right on time too with Matt Holliday joining the Disabled List for the next two weeks

4. Rangers (8): The revival in Texas is full “swing” ahead, however this time it’s not lead by their bats alone. C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Holland and Alexi Ugando gave up just one run over 32.2 innings last week while building a 5-game winning streak over the Rays and Indians.

5. Red Sox (4): They opened the week in bad shape dropping three to the White Sox, but Carl Crawford becoming an RBI machine over the last week (8 in the last six games, 3 game winners) sparked a turnaround that keeps them one game behind the Yanks.

6. Indians (2): Dropping all four games of a set in Texas, the Indians have finally hit their first snag of the year. With Shin Soo-Choo battling the after effects of a DUI arrest and Travis Hafner still weeks from returning from the D.L., they will have to be on the defensive in the protecting their steadily decreasing lead in the A.L. Central.

7. Giants (10): GM Brian Sabean’s comments concerning revenge over Buster Posey’s injury have gotten the most headlines, but the Giants themselves made some encouraging news as well. In the course of winning three of four in St. Louis they moved back into first place in the West and showed signs of life after Posey.

8. Brewers (12): They keep climbing up the rankings, thanks in no small part to Ryan Braun. Despite sitting most the game with a sore shoulder, he homered to win the game as a pinch hitter and subsequently pull the Brewers into control of the early Wild Card watch as well.

With 13 homers, .308 average and 42 RBI, Braun has become an MVP front-runner while propelling the Brewers back into several races in the N.L.

9. D’Backs (9): They cooled down last week, but still are a game out from retaking first place in the West. Most encouraging is that some of the bats that hadn’t thawed out all year are starting to come around, such as Kelly Johnson (.366 average, six home runs and 13 RBI over his last 10 games).

10. Rays (7): In a star-studded rotation, the youngster of the batch has stepped to the forefront. Jeremy Hellickson notched his staff leading seventh win in Seattle and stopped their four game losing skid in the process.

11. Marlins (6): Mike Stanton (13 home runs) and Gaby Sanchez (.321 average) have held this club together, but they have taken it as far as it can go without a productive Hanley Ramirez (.210 avg and 4 homers). Whether it is health or slump fighting, they have to get something from their perennial All-Star soon if they are to not repeat last weeks horrid performance (5 losses to) soon.

12. Tigers (16): The streaky Tigers turned it on again at the right time with the Indians taking a dip, and now are within striking range at taking control of the A.L. Central this week. The potential return of Magglio Ordonez from an ankle injury could be the final piece they need in arming up to overtake the Tribe.

13. Braves (11): Last week they couldn’t make up ground on Philly or Florida because neither would lose? Well this week they did, and the Braves lost right along with them and missed a prime opportunity to get into the mix in the East.

14. Reds (14): Jay Bruce is leading the N.L. in home runs with 17 and Joey Votto is it’s leading hitter at .338, but they’ll only go as far as their starters will allow them still and that’s a major question mark as they continue to play musical chairs with the rotation.

15. Mariners (17): The march of the Mariners continues, and they continue to be one of the hottest teams in either league (haven’t lost a series since the second week of May), despite being one of its most lopsided (2nd in Quality Starts with 30, but last in batting average at .230).

Felix is in a familiar position from last season again, where every run squeaked out for him is a big deal.

16. Angels (13): Mark Trumbo (11 home runs) has supplied a solid power threat in a lineup that needs one, but they are still struggling to find consistency and have dropped below .500 despite having a rotation in the top 10 in the Majors in team ERA, quality starts and batting average against.

17. Blue Jays (16): The unlikely support from Corey Patterson (.292 average) and Adam Lind (.326 average) have made the Jays far more than just a one man highlight act via Jose Bautista. They are in the top 5 in all of baseball in batting average and runs scored.

18. Dodgers (21): Despite all of their team struggles, Matt Kemp continues to put in an MVP-caliber effort. His 48 RBI lead the N.L. and 16 homers come in at second best.

19. White Sox (26): The Sox are slowly pulling it together and could be a player in an A.L. Central that is beginning to balance itself out, but they’ll need was more from the their biggest offseason signing in Adam Dunn (.179 average, 5 homers) if they are going to crash the party for very long.

20. Pirates (20): Kevin Correia isn’t winning in the same style that his other contemporaries in the wins column are (3.40 ERA, 40 strikeouts in 76.2 innings), but he still is tied atop the N.L. in the stat along with Roy Halladay and Yovani Gallardo at eight. Could he hang around and make a play to be the first Pirate to lead the league for a full year since John Smiley in 1991?

21. Mets (23): Jose Reyes has been a one-man show for much of the year, but Angel Pagan has returned from the D.L. a different man than he was before it, hitting in all eight games since returning at a .394 clip, and giving an often flat Mets offense another spark at the top of it.

Pagan's hot return to the Met lineup is both welcomed and needed, as they (once again) have little healthy support.

22. Rockies (18): An interestingly mundane stat: since taking two of two from the Giants on May 16-17, they have dropped each series they have been a part of, but have only been swept once in the process.

23. Padres (27): Chase Headley is on a 15-game hitting streak currently and is the latest Padre to begin to wake up at the plate, and now they are on the verge of being able to pull out of last place in the West for the first time in a while.

24. A’s (19): The scheduling Gods did not smile upon Oakland last week, first sending them to visit the Yanks and then back home to meet the Red Sox. Their East Coast fling with two of baseball’s best netted them the current six-game losing streak they’re riding.

25. Orioles (22): In a bit of rare potentially long-term good news in Baltimore, Brian Matsuz will make his season debut this week and it couldn’t come at a better time: no Orioles starter has been able to net back-t0-back wins in the last month.

26. Nationals (28): Party crashers: something fired up the Nats as they took the fight to two division leading clubs last week in the Phillies and D’Backs, taking 2 of 3 from Philly, followed by splitting a four game set in Arizona after scoring 5-runs in the top of 11th inning on Sunday afternoon.

27. Royals (25): They single-handedly gave the Twins more victories last weekend than they were able to muster in nearly the entire month beforehand. That was the second of their recent string of bad news following  the demotion of their formerly All-Star caliber closer Joakim Soria after blowing his third save within a week.

28. Astros (29): They are on the verge of pulling themselves out of the bottom of the Central standings for the first time in a while, with it being a mixture of their brief brush with success (4-game win streak), albeit against the Cubs who could be replacing them in the division’s cellar.

29. Twins (30): They are currently riding their longest win streak of the season, and get Francisco Liriano back from the D.L. this week. Unfortunately their only consistent hitter on the year, Jason Kubel, had to replace him there.

30. Cubs (24): Not only are they in the midst of a week-long losing streak, but Carlos Zambrano is back to his usual tricks. After losing his start on Sunday in St. Louis he not only criticized closer Carlos Marmol, but the entire franchise as well. Clearly there is a lot wrong here, but not sure if that’s the right place (or person) to go pointing them out.

Follow me on Twitter for more on the world of batted balls, rants and info on the fly at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360