Win Total Bets - NL Central
March 25, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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At this time last year we wondering if our favorite color analyst, Steve Blass, was ever again going to have a chance to describe a winning season, and if the Pittsburgh Pirates (83 1/2) were forever doomed to mediocrity after 21 straight sub-.500 campaigns. Now the experts seem to have a collective "let's see you do it again" attitude about the Bucs after their dramatic rise to 94-68 and a playoff berth in 2013. While we acknowledge the slight slips that seem to inevitably happen after breakthrough years, we don't think that GM Neal Huntington should be crucified for mostly standing pat in the offseason, and not over-reaching for upgrades. He remained patient mostly because he can wait for the Pirates' improving farm system to begin delivering ready-made MLB talent; sometime before the All-Star break, expect OF Gregory Polanco and SP Jameson Taillon to reinforce the roster after promotion from AAA Indianapolis. Last year's rookie sensation, Gerrit Cole, now figures as the ace of the staff after A.J. Burnett's departure to the Phillies in the offseason. The staff should remain solid; with a solid comeback year now under his belt, lefty Francisco Liriano will realize he doesn't need to strike out as many hitters with that solid defense behind him. Remember, the Bucs allowed the fewest runs in the bigs last season. And their ballpark, pitching, and defense give them a chance to defend that accomplishment in 2014, and make another playoff run if CF Andrew "Mr. Excitement" McCutchen approaches his contributions from his season. Look "over" at our all-time favorite, PNC Park, where ticket prices remain remarkably reasonable.
Apparently, there's a lot of "prove it" among the oddsmakers regarding the NL Central this season, which partly explains why the Cincinnati Reds (83 1/2) have been priced so much below last season's 90-72. Which admittedly felt a bit worse, as the Reds stumbled down the stretch last September and were then dispatched quickly in the wild card game by the Pirates, prompting the dismissal of skipper Dusty Baker. New manager Bryan Price, promoted from pitching coach, still has a staff that posted the fourth-best team ERA (3.38) in the bigs last season, and his organizational and communicative skills helped win him the assignment as Baker's successor. The transition has been smooth this spring in Goodyear with a roster mostly intact from a year ago, although the scary injury suffered by fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman caused hearts to skip a few beats in the desert. Still, the Reds might have the best collection of young starting pitchers in franchise history, with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, and last year's rookie find, Tony Cingrani, more than compensating for Bronson Arroyo's FA departure, and there is depth in the bullpen with Jonathon Broxton and J.J. Hoover to handle any closer duties until Chapman returns. As the inimitable Marty Brennaman likes to occasionally remind us on the Reds radio network, Cincy does have some inconsistency with its offense, which is why it could not take a chance on dealing grumbling 2B Brandon Phillips, still good for 90-100 RBIs, and we're still not sure if rookie CF Billy Hamilton, who stole an eye-popping 155 bases in the minors last season, can get on base enough at this level to use his demon speed. But there are enough pieces in place for the Reds to make a playoff run and for some nice summer evenings for their fans at Great American Ballpark, where a seat in the top deck offers an expansive view of the adjacent Ohio River and the many barges floating by. Along with a drink and a few cheese coneys from Skyline Chili, does life get any better? At this modest price, it's an "over" for "us" in Cincy.
It's still too early to tell if Theo Epstein's re-boot of the Chicago Cubs (69 1/2) organization is any closer to a breakthrough than the past few seasons, when the Cubbies didn't even give their fans a whiff of the playoff chase. Epstein has also changed managers, with Dale Sveum out after two woeful years and former Padres bench coach Rick Renteria, noted for his patience with young players, enlisted as a replacement. Renteria will need that patience, as the problem with the current crop of Cubs' youngsters is that we're not sure if they're good enough, especially the likes of once-touted sorts such as SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo, who appeared to regress last season. Reinforcements from Epstein's reloaded farm system might begin to start paying dividends later in the summer (watch for 3B Kris Bryant and SS Javier Baez), but we're not talking about projections for 2015 or 2016 seasons at the moment. In 2014, Chicago's offense has too many holes, and we can envision Epstein making his next moves in the rebuild of the franchise at the trade deadline, where he will be tempted to move sorts such as ex-Notre Dame WR, and what qualifies as the ace of this pitching staff, Jeff Samardzija, and perhaps well-traveled arms such as Edwin Jackson and James McDonald, to contenders for more reinforcements at the minor league level, with expected payoffs down the road...not this summer. Sorry Cubs fans, but we're looking "under" again at Wrigley Field
Under the gun is Milwaukee Brewers (79 1/2) manager Ron Roenicke, who barely survived a second straight disappointing season and might need a quick start to keep GM Doug Melvin from hitting the eject button prior to the All-Star break. Not that the Brewers' slip has been any more the fault of Roenicke than of Melvin, who has searched, without much success, to find a successor to the long-departed Prince Fielder's bat in the lineup, while 3B Aramis Ramirez has been breaking down physically in recent campaigns (Ramirez played only 92 games last season). Prospects were so desperate in the offseason of finding some power at the corner infield positions that Melvin is gambling that journeymen Lyle Overbay and strikeout machine Mark Reynolds might provide some relief. We'll see. Of course, getting RF Ryan Braun back from his suspension related to the Biogenesis scandal should prove a plus, but can he resemble the player who produced MVP-type numbers in his first six seasons? (Remember, Braun was struggling before last year's suspension.) On the plus side, pleasant surprise SS Jean Segura should be able to handle leadoff duties after Norichika Aoki's trade to the Royals, and the Brewers could have the makings of a decent staff, with FA addition Matt Garza joining last year's bargain signee, Kyle Lohse, along with Yovani Gallardo in a potentially better-than-average rotation. But bullpen issues have been acute in recent seasons, and we are hardly convinced the Brew Crew has enough offense to make a run at .500. It's an "under" for us at Miller Park.
As in the old Timex commercials, the St. Louis Cardinals (90 1/2) take a licking, but keep on ticking. Like clockwork, the Redbirds have consistently been able to reshuffle their deck on the fly, adjusting for injuries and departures by filling in mostly from within their ranks, a testament to one of the bigs' best overall operations, and a tribute to shrewd GM John Mozeliak. This season, Mozeliak has gone outside of the organization to add a few potentially-useful pieces, such as ex-Angel CF Peter Bourjos, who was good enough defensively to keep Mike Trout in left field. He'll cover a lot of ground in the expansive Busch Stadium outfield to compensate for some of the limitations of corner OFs Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. True, Mozeliak was a bit out of character when signing FA SS Jhonny Peralta, suspended 50 games last term for his part in the Biogenesis scandal, but it's part of a reconfigured infield that now features the versatile Matt Carpenter at 3B and touted rookie Kolten Wong (displaying no apparent emotional scars this spring in Jupiter after his baserunning blunder cost St. Looie a World Series game vs. the Bosox) now at 2B as the final piece of the reshuffle after the trade of David Freese, the price needed to pay the Angels for the defensive upgrade Bourjos hopefully provides in the outfield. But what we really like about the Redbirds is their pitching depth. To wit: Lance Lynn topped 200 IP for the first time in 2013, and his 33 wins over the past two years are tied with teammate Adam Wainwright for the most in the NL, but his spot in rotation isn't even guaranteed because of all of the live and mostly-young arms at manager Mike Matheny's disposal. And when closer Edwin Mujica imploded late last summer, into that role Matheny was able to seamlessly slot Trevor Rosenthal, who did not allow an earned run in ten postseason appearances. We don't see the Cards losing five games from last year's 95-67, NL pennant campaign; it's another "over" for us at Busch.
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