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NL Central Preview: Milwaukee vs St Louis

I-70 continues its look at the NL Central with a stop in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has been a darling of the off-season, if for no other reason than acquiring Zack Greinke from the KC Royals. For years, Milwaukee has had a highly potent offense, questionable defense, and substandard starting pitching. In 2008, when they won the NL Wild Card, it was only after they fortified their rotation with CC Sabathia. Looking ahead to 2011, getting Greinke immediately vaults the Brewers from fringe contender to bona-fide challenger for the NL Central title.

So much for the build-up; let’s see how they stack up against the Cardinals.

First Base – Prince Fielder vs Albert Pujols. Now that Adrian Gonzalez is in Boston, Fielder is the second-best offensive first baseman in the National League ( Joey Votto needs to sustain his 2010 excellence for a couple of years). Fielder has been on an every-other year cycle, posting OPS+ of 157 and 166 in 2007 and 2009, but 137 and 130 in 2008 and 2010. If the trend continues, he’s due for a monster season. Fielder has never been known for his glove, and is considered a below average defensive first baseman.

How good is Albert Pujols? An 166 OPS+ would be his third-lowest career season. Fielder has one Silver Slugger; Albert has six, including the last 3 in a row. He has 2 Gold Gloves, and has been ranked #1 or 2 in Dewan Plus/Minus 4 of the last 5 years. Advantage: Cardinals.

Second – Skip Schumaker vs Rickie Weeks. Weeks was the second overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft, but has never quite lived up to that expectation. Until last season, when he had his finest offensive year (OPS 125+, career high 29 HR). He is the Brewer leadoff hitter, he can steal (although only 11 in 15 tries last season), and he led the league in getting hit by a pitch (25) in 2010. He does strike out a ton (184 in 751 PA). Defensively he regressed from his 2008 campaign, again by Dewan Plus/Minus, and was ranked 32 by that metric.

Schumaker, in contrast, had his worst offensive season since becoming a regular in 2008. He’s always been just average offensively (102 OPS+ in 2008 and 2009), but his OBP dropped 40 points last year and he finished with an 83 OPS+. As has been well documented here and elsewhere, he has had a tough time learning and playing second. His Dewan ranking for 2010 was just ahead of Weeks (31). Advantage: Brewers.

Third – Casey McGehee vs David Freese. McGehee finished fifth in the 2009 Rookie of the Year voting, and followed that strong season with a breakout season in 2010. His 116 OPS+ was fifth best on the club, and he led the team in RBI. He is, however, another all bat/no glove guy on this roster; in 2 seasons, he has ranked 29th and 34th among third baseman using the Dewan runs saved metric.

David Freese remains an intriguing player who has lots of potential but cannot seem to stay on the field. He has yet to play more than 70 games in a season, although in those 70 games last year he put up a 109 OPS+. He only has 600 major league innings at third. Last year Dewan ranked him 21st. The Cardinals hope this is the season he is the full-time third baseman from March to October. Based on their prior performance McGehee is the better player going into 2011. Advantage: Brewers.

Shortstop – Yuniesky Betancourt vs Ryan Theriot. Neither of these players was a member of these teams in 2010. Betancourt played the whole season with KC and came over in the Greinke trade. Yuniesky has one of the game’s most unique games, but that has not prevented him from being one of the worst everyday hitters in the majors throughout his career. Case in point: last season’s 88 OPS+ is the second-highest of his career. He is a defensive liability at short. The last 3 seasons he has posted -14, -20, and -15 runs saved (Dewan again).

Brewer pitchers better be good, because their infield defense is not.

Ryan Theriot started the 2010 season with the Cubs and ended it in Los Angeles. His career OPS+ is almost exactly the same as Betancourts (82 to 84), although last year it was a meager 70. This is because he has no power at all. However, proving that OPS+ is not the be-all and end-all, Theriot has value as a hitter, with a .348 career OBP, easily besting Betancourt’s .296. From 2007-2009 he saved 4, 5, and 5 runs respectively as an everyday shortstop, and although that dropped below 0 in 2010 it’s a better indicator of his true talent level. Advantage: Cardinals.

Catcher – Jonathan Lucroy vs Yadier Molina. Lucroy made his major league debut in 2010 and ultimately had almost 300 PA’s. He had good numbers in the minors (.875 OPS), and his defense seems average to slightly above average. He threw out 29% of would-be base stealers in 2010 while in Milwaukee. Overall, like David Freese he has a lot of potential, but most of it is as yet unrealized.

Molina’s 84 OPS+ last year ended three consecutive years of improvement with the bat. He hit the same number of HR (6) as in 2010 when he posted a 100 OPS+, but ended with 19 fewer singles, 3 fewer doubles, and no triple (although I don’t think we will see many more triples from the man). Defensively he remains the premier catcher in the NL. His 44% of runners thrown out last year was his best percentage since 2007; it’s interesting that teams attempted to steal 63 times against him, the most since 2006. Molina won his third consecutive Gold Glove last season. Advantage: Cardinals.

Left Field – Ryan Braun vs Matt Holliday. Braun is probably the Brewers best all-around everyday player; Holliday is the Cardinals second-best. Braun is the 2007 ROY and has finished in the MVP top 25 every year he’s been in the bigs. He’s won 3 straight Silver Slugger awards. His OPS+ was 133 last year, and his career average is 140. Braun’s real good. His defense is a bit erratic by the Dewan runs saved metric (8th in the rankings for 2008, 34th in 2009, 8th again last season), but we will give him the benefit of the doubt and call him an average to above average left fielder.

Matt Holliday posted a 149 OPS+ his first full season in St Louis, one point short of his best season ever (2007 with Colorado). He also won a Silver Slugger last year, his first since 2008 and fourth overall (disclosure – apparently MLB gives out the Slugger awards like they do Gold Gloves, which is why 2 left fielders can win in the same season). The last 3 seasons he’s also been one of the very best defensive left fielders in baseball, finishing 5th, 3rd, and 3rd in the Dewan rankings.

Holliday is a slightly better fielder and hitter, but Braun is younger. Advantage: Cardinals (barely).

Center – Carlos Gomez vs Colby Rasmus. Gomez only played 97 games during his first season in Milwaukee, his season ending after he was beaned by Cubs rookie Brian Schlitter on August 3 and suffered a concussion. He was having a career year at the plate, posting an OPS+ of 78, his career high. That said, his OBP resembles Betancourt’s, which is not a good thing given speed plays a major role in his game. Defensively he had his worst season in the majors in CF by the Dewan metric (23rd amongst center fielders).

Rasmus is supremely talented and still channeling that talent. He had a great year at the plate (OPS+ of 132), but defensively he graded out worse than Gomez (28th). Rasmus is a much better hitter with their defense being about even. Advantage: Cardinals.

Right – Corey Hart vs Lance Berkman. Hart had a career year in 2010, posting a 132 OPS+ and cranking out 31 HR. He was an All-Star for the second time and cracked the MVP t0p 25 for the first. Dewan’s rankings didn’t think much of his glove, rating him 32nd of all right fielders and -9 on the plus/minus scale.

Berkman is the mystery man on this year’s Cardinal team. In 2010 he posted an OPS+ of 114, his lowest since his 1999 rookie season. He is still recovering from knee surgery. If he can re-discover his bat, and recapture some of his former form in the outfield, he will be a find. Berkman has not played right since 2007. Only 2 years worth of data exist in the Dewan database, and he received a -2 score in 2006 and -5 in 2007 at the position.

Cardinal fans will hold their breath Berkman plays well in 2011, but who’s the better RF going into the season is pretty clear. Advantage: Brewers.

Starters

St Louis will probably start the season with Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jamie Garcia, and Kyle Lohse as their starting 5. Milwaukee will counter with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson.

The Cardinal staff is pretty darn good, something that gets overlooked in all the Phillie and Giant hype. Wainwright was the 2010 Cy Young runner-up and finished 3rd in 2009. Carpenter was the runner-up in 2009 and won the award in 2005. Westbrook was tremendous the second half of last season, Garcia finished third in the ROY voting, and Kyle Lohse is – well – trying to rediscover his 2008 form.

Milwaukee’s no slouch either. Greinke won the 2009 AL Cy Young in KC and had a very solid, if not to the same level of spectacular, season in 2010. Gallardo was second in the NL in K/9 last season. Marcum had an ERA+ of 125 last season with Toronto, Wolf remains a crafty left-hander, and Narveson pitched well in stretches during his first major league season as a starter.

Looking at some of the numbers, the Cardinal 5 posted WAR of 6.1 (Wainwright), 3.7 (Carpenter), 3.2 (Garcia), 2.3 (Westbrook combined between Cleveland and St Louis), and 0.7 (Lohse). Milwaukee’s projected rotation posted WAR of 6.3 (Greinke), 4.6 (Gallardo), 3.5 (Marcum), 0.7 (Wolf), and 1.8 (Narveson) in 2010. That’s pretty close (16 combined WAR for STL, 16.9 for MIL), so that’s how we grade them. Advantage: Even.

Bullpen. Two things make evaluating a bullpen difficult. One is the amount of turnover most teams experience from year to year. The other is any change in management. Milwaukee is no exception when it comes to bullpen turnover. MLB.com lists 10 bullpen arms on their depth chart. No way all 10 men break camp with the big club. Of the names listed, four saw significant work with the club in 2010 (LaTroy Hawkins, Zach Braddock, Kameron Loe, and Manny Parra), and a fifth while with Los Angeles (Takashi Saito). How the bullpen will finally look at the end of spring training is still to be determined, but unless they pratfall Hawkins ($4.25M), Parra ($1.2M), Saito ($1.75M), and Loe ($0.65M) will be part of it. Possibly Sean Green ($0.875K) as well. Brewers relievers were 7th in the NL in WAR with everyone above less Saito and Green, so it does not make much sense to mess with a good thing.

John Axford is the closer. He saved 24 games in 27 opportunities after a one-plus year apprenticeship under Trevor Hoffman. Axford throws a heavy (95 MPH on average) fastball, slider, and curve. He should be better this season.

Turnover is no stranger to the Cardinal bullpen corps, but the same number of folks as Milwaukee has project to return for 2011. Kyle McClellan, Trever Miller, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, and closer Ryan Franklin will be the mainstays. Fernando Salas and PJ Walters look to have expanded roles (Salas made 27 appearances, Walters 7, in 2010). By WAR alone this group is not very good (0.3 in 2010 was the second worst in the NL, and 0.5 was the fourth worst in 2009 with 57% of 2011’s projected bullpen having been in those two). It should be noted that Cardinal relievers threw the fewest innings of any team in the NL in 2009, and the fourth fewest last season. They rely heavily on their starters to get deep into games, so they can get by with just an average bullpen.

Franklin converted 27 saves in 29 opportunities last year.

Ron Roenicke takes over as the Brewers manager. How he will choose to use his bullpen is not well known at this point and will not be until a couple of months into the season. We know Tony LaRussa has as a life mission to ensure he has favorable pitching match-ups at the back of ballgames, so he will use his bullpen frequently and in 99% of cases effectively. That has to be an advantage for St Louis.

If the Brewer bullpen is better LaRussa’s experience counterweighs it. Advantage: Even.

Summary. Milwaukee will challenge Cincinnati as the best offensive team in the NL. They have three offensive holes – shortstop, catcher, and center field. Defensively they will once again be below average. Their pitching will be solid and will probably determine how far they get this season. This sounds remarkably like the Cardinals in 2011. St Louis has 3 offensive holes – second base, shortstop, and third base. They were below average (by UZR/150) defensively last season and will probably be there again this year. Their pitching will be solid and will probably determine how far they get this season.

Considering how even these two teams are going in, if Milwaukee is considered a contender for the division title so too should be the Cardinals.

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