NL Central Quarter Report Card

cubsChicago Cubs
Hitters: C-. OK, I can’t completely pan the Cubs offense, despite them having the third fewest runs in the NL. Bryan LaHair has been AWESOME at first base, hitting ten homers and OPSing 1.020 in his first extended stint in the major leagues. There is a little bit to be afraid about with him, notably the 30% strikeout rate and .405 BABIP. Starlin Castro is doing his thing at the top of the order, but absolutely doesn’t walk at all. The rest of the lineup….uh, yeah. Alfonso Soriano has a .291 OBP. Aside from LaHair, the next highest homer total on the team is four (Soriano and Ian Stewart). Only LaHair and bench players Joe Mather and Jeff Baker are walking over 10% of the time. This is not a pretty offense aside from LaHair and Castro.

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Pitching: B. The Cubs rotation has actually been pretty damn good. Jeff Samardzija’s transition to the rotation has been a complete success, as he is striking out a batter per inning, walking under three per nine, and has an ERA of 3.00 on the dot. Ryan Dempster has a 2.28 ERA and is striking out close to a batter per inning. Matt Garza has been worse than both Samardzija and Dempster, but has still been solid. Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm though…yeah. The bullpen has been largely ugly, Carlos Marmol lost his closer job after walking more than a batter per inning, and new closer Rafael Dolis has walked more hitters than he’s struck out this year. The Cubs have also used 18 pitchers this year, which seems wacky.

Intangibles: C. Coming into the year with a new regime in place, Cubs fans expected this to be a rough year. It hasn’t affected attendance, which is static from last year. New manager Dale Sveum has earned his share of criticism from fans due to his erratic managing style. Some moves the team made coming into the year have worked great, like starting Samardzija in the rotation and giving LaHair a shot at first base. But others, like not trading Marmol, bringing back Kerry Wood, and using Volstad and Maholm to fill out the rotation, have flopped.

Overall: C-. It’s odd that I’m giving the Cubs an average grade despite them having the worst record in the league, but I’m sure many expected them to have no bright spots whatsoever, as opposed to the couple that they have so far this year.

redsCincinnati Reds
Hitters: B. The Reds offense has really turned it on recently, led by Joey Votto, with a .998 OPS and seven homers. Shortstop Zach Cozart has been solid as well, OPSing .727 with five homers in his return from Tommy John surgery. Jay Bruce has an .823 OPS and ten homers, while leadoff hitter Drew Stubbs has six homers and nine stolen bases. They started off really slow, but have turned up the heat in recent weeks.

Pitching: B-. The highest fWAR for Reds pitchers belongs to….reliever Aroldis Chapman, at 1.5. Don’t get me wrong, that’s awesome, but a little disappointing that he’s in the bullpen, currently closing for the Reds. He hasn’t allowed a run in 24 1/3 innings, and has struck out 43 while walking seven. That’s just wrong. Aside from Chapman, Cincinnati’s pitching has been a disappointment. Johnny Cueto has a 1.97 ERA despite striking out under six batters per nine innings, while the other four members of the rotation have been doomed by allowing a lot of homers. Former closer Sean Marshall, acquired this offseason from the Cubs and given an extension, has an ERA two runs higher than his FIP thanks to a .444 BABIP. 

Intangibles: B. The Reds started off very slowly, but a 14-8 May has given them a half game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central. Dusty Baker’s managing has been questionable, especially his usage of Chapman and refusal to play rookie Devin Mesoraco more often. Considering that free agent prize Ryan Madson won’t throw an inning this year, things could be much worse.

Overall: B. I expected more out of the Reds, but they’ve done a good job at putting things together lately.

astrosHouston Astros
Hitters: B+. I didn’t expect much from the Astros this year, but they are performing really well thusfar. Shortstop Jed Lowrie, acquired from Boston this offseason at a dirt cheap price, has an .836 OPS and a team-leading seven homers. Diminuitive second baseman Jose Altuve is hitting .309 with an .820 OPS, three homers, and nine steals. Veteran Carlos Lee is producing well, with a .799 OPS. He’s overpaid, but he’s at least playing decently. Third baseman Chris Johnson has five homers and a .757 OPS despite walking only 3% of the time.

Pitching: B. Again…much better than I expected. Wandy Rodriguez has a 2.14 ERA in ten starts this year, while Bud Norris is striking out a batter per inning with a 3.14 ERA. That’s a pretty damn good punch at the top of the rotation. Closer Brett Myers, demoted from the rotation preseason, has been fine, but as usual…homer problems. Lucas Harrell doesn’t strike anyone out in the rotation, while JA Happ does, but is homer-prone. The bullpen has largely been middling, but Wilton Lopez has walked just one batter in 25 2/3 innings. Now that’s effective.

Intangibles: B. New GM Jeff Luhnow and staff are definitely taking the team in the right direction, and the Astros are somehow in third place in the NL Central with a +12 run differential. That’s pretty damn solid.

Overall: B+. There is still a lot of room to improve here, but the Astros are going in the right direction.

brewersMilwaukee Brewers
Hitters: B+. They really haven’t missed a beat without Prince Fielder…aside from the black hole at first base, that is. Ryan Braun is following up his MVP year with more MVP numbers: 12 homers, nine steals, and a 1.014 OPS. Yeah, that’s pretty good. Newly extended catcher Jonathan Lucroy has been a monster as well, homering five times and OPSing .990 for the year. His backup, George Kottaras, has three homers and a .974 OPS in only 58 plate appearances. Right fielder Corey Hart has homered five times while OPSing .850. Japanese import Norichika Aoki has gotten a lot of time on the bench, but his .819 OPS is forcing the Brewers to play him more often. The right side of the infield has been awful, with Rickie Weeks OPSing just .568 for the year, and new first baseman Mat Gamel OPSing just .641 before tearing his ACL to knock him out for the season.

Pitching: C. “It’s the Milwaukee Brewers ppitchiing staff, starring Zack Greinke! And featuring, a bunch of other guys”. Greinke has a 2.70 ERA, 9.37 strikeout rate, 1.91 walk rate, and has allowed just one homer this season. He’s really, really good. Shaun Marcum has struggled with an ERA near 4.00, and Yovani Gallardo has an ERA of 4.62 with a walk rate near 4.5. Randy Wolf has been awful. Closer John Axford is striking out over 15 per nine, but is also walking over five per nine, and has a .410 BABIP. No one else really jumps out at me, but you have to consider the Brewers pitching staff a failure outside of Greinke this year.

Intangibles: D. Injuries have decimated the Brewers. Chris Narveson, Alex Gonzalez, and Mat Gamel are all out for the year. Francisco Rodriguez has been awful after calling the Brewers arbitration bluff. Aramis Ramirez, the team’s answer for the departed Fielder, has struggled immensely. Nyjer Morgan, a major sparkplug for the team last year, has been terrible.

Overall: C-. Milwaukee’s overall performance just hasn’t been good. They’re in fifth place in the NL Central, and are eight games under .500. With Greinke htiting free agency after this season, next year could be even worse if they don’t bring him back.

piratesPittsburgh Pirates
Hitters: F. They are bad. They are really, really bad. Well, aside from Andrew McCutchen, a top ten player in baseball. But oh my god, they’re a disaster aside from him. The team has a .612 OPS for the year (worst in baseball), with a 5.9% walk rate (worst in baseball), and a 24.3% strikeout rate (worst in baseball). That’ll do it. They have one player with an OBP above .310, and that’s McCutchen. They’re doing better on the power spectrum, with TWO players having a SLG above .425 (McCutchen and Josh Harrison). Former top prospect Pedro Alvarez has seven homers, tied with McCutchen for the team lead, but his overall line is .203/.268/.422. Yeah. Disasters everywhere except for center field.

Pitching: B. You know what? Their rotation is pretty damn good. James McDonald, Erik Bedard, and AJ Burnett each has a FIP under 3.50 with Bedard and McDonald striking out a batter per inning each. Burnett’s overall ERA was skewed by a bad start, but he looks reborn in Pittsburgh. Relivers Jason Grilli, Brad Lincoln, and Juan Cruz have been really good. Sure, there are disappointments (Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, Joel Hanrahan), but the Pirates pitching staff is worlds better than last year’s awful crew.

Intangibles: C-. Clint Hurdle might me the worst manager in baseball. He has a fetish for running, even if the team doesn’t do it well: they’re only successful 54% of the time. The team also has a bunting fetish, which isn’t too great at the end of the day either. On the bright side, the farm system remains strong.

Overall: C-. It could be worse, no doubt. But with McCutchen locked up long-term, and McDonald’s maturation…that’s something, I guess.

cardinals1St Louis Cardinals
Hitters: A. No Albert Pujols, no problem. Six of St Louis’s offensive starters have been worth at least one win, and the combined efforts of the first base platoon have also cracked that mark. Carlos Beltran has been a monster, homering 14 times and OPSing 1.030 for the year. Catcher Yadier Molina, fresh off a massive extension, has an .877 OPS and six homers. Shortstop Rafael Furcal looks rejuvenated, stealing eight bases and OPSing .847 for the year. Matt Holliday and David Freese each also have ten homers this year. It’s just an insane offensive year for the Cardinals.

Pitching: B+. The Cardinals have only used five starters, and four of them have been worth a win. They all have a FIP under 4.00 as well. In fact, if Adam Wainwright wasn’t having issues with homers, they’d probably all be one win pitchers with ERAs under 3.50. The bullpen has been led by the trio of closer Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, and Fernando Salas, all of whom have struck out a batter per inning. The rest of the bullpen has struggled, though.

Intangibles: B+. Superstar first baseman Albert Pujols is gone…no problem. Legendary manager Tony La Russa retires…the team doesn’t miss a beat. Veteran first baseman Lance Berkman, who was so good last year, tears his meniscus…here’s three young sluggers who can fill in for him in spades. The Cardinals are pretty much taking every negative shot that they can, and shrugging it off.

Overall: A-. What a year for the Cardinals so far. They’re probably the best, most complete team in the National League, regardless of what’s happening in LA. I didn’t predict this at all coming into the year.

Joe Lucia

About Joe Lucia

Joe is the managing editor of The Outside Corner and an associate editor at Awful Announcing. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and is smack dab in the middle of some of the best (and worst) sports fans in the country.

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