Tagged: Reds

Lake Half-Asses One, Costs Cubs The Winning Runs

That seems remarkably hard on Junior Lake.  It was meant to be.  Because sometimes, the truth is really, really harsh.

Today was a growing pain for the kid, who had three hits and drove in the lone run for the offensively challenged Cubs.  And while

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

maybe he didn’t deserve the benching that Starlin Castro got yesterday from Dale Sveum, he does deserve a meeting with both Sveum, and outfield instructor Dave McKay.

From where I sit, after watching the replay over and over (because I could not watch the play live), Junior Lake simply got complacent and dropped the ball.  He got to the spot in plenty of time.  He did not appear to be fighting the sun.  I could be wrong.  I really hope I am.  It just didn’t look that way.  And it led to the Cardinals’ second and third runs.

If my suspicion is correct, it shows that Lake is guilty of an effort mistake, which in my estimation is worse than any other kind, to include the one that Starlin Castro gets tagged with, the mental mistake.  Yesterday is a prime comparison.  Starlin went all out, made a tough play, and spaced on the runners, allowing a run to score.  Junior Lake, today, didn’t have to go all out, got to the routine fly ball, and let it fall harmlessly to the Wrigley turf because he didn’t use two hands when he looked to have ample opportunity to do so.  That is an effort mistake, from a player who has limited experience in the outfield.  There is no excuse for that.  Effort should be the last thing you’d have to worry about from Junior Lake right now as an outfielder.  To have the play he had today should raise the maturity concerns that have been raised about Starlin Castro.

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Photo: PHIL VELASQUEZ

Effort mistakes are inexcusable.  Junior Lake’s today is the first that I can recall from him in his time with the major league club.  David DeJesus had a similar one on June 13th, dropping a routine fly, allowing a run to score against the Reds, albeit in a game the Cubs eventually won in extras (where it was Starlin who got tagged for dogging it admiring his near walk-off in the ninth).  The Cubs are not good enough to not play hard all the time.  When they don’t, especially against the Cardinals or like two months ago against the Reds, they won’t win.  Young players like Junior Lake, who are in auditions with the team have no excuse for not busting it 100% of the time.  Veterans like DeJesus, who’s had his share of mental and effort blunders this season are also in auditions.  What makes it worse for a player like DeJesus is that players like Lake are watching him and what he does on and off the field every single day.

Maybe the veteran leadership is what the Cubs are missing.  Say what you want about Alfonso Soriano and, going back further, Marlon Byrd, effort was not an issue from those veteran players.  That might be where they’re missed the most.

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Cubs Struggles Not All That Surprising

On July 29th, the Cubs returned home for the first time since the All-Star Break, seven games under .500, and without Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, who’d both been dealt on the west coast road trip.  Things looked good.  They’d won the trip against the Rockies, DBacks, and Giants, in spite of moving Garza and Soriano.  But some warning signs were there…

First, they weren’t scoring all that much in San Francisco.  They scored six runs in the series.  It’s not like they were lighting the world on fire.  They were just less futile than the Giants that particular weekend.  And the Giants hadn’t been playing all that well, anyway.  The Cubs were playing an equal, in spite of what that banner from last October might have said.  The Giants simply aren’t all that good this season.

Coming home, they got a series with the lowly Brewers.  Who are in the division.  Which, this season, automatically means inexplicably losing at least two of the games.  Lo and behold, they drop three of the four, all of which were in typical 2013 Cubs fashion.  Pedro Strop gave up the only five runs he’s allowed as a Cub in the first game.  They dropped both games of a doubleheader, blowing leads on a James Russell home run allowed in the first game and a Kevin Gregg blown save in the second, with a third strike call that wasn’t and a soft line out to short that wasn’t helping them blow the lead in the ninth inning.

After the Brewers, they got the Dodgers for four.  As of today, the Dodgers have won 40 out of their last 48.  In case you weren’t sure, an .833 winning percentage is freakin good.  They’ve been killing everybody lately.  It would have been a surprise if the Cubs won more than once in the series, and it doesn’t come as any surprise that they didn’t win at all.  The Dodgers are a buzz saw right now, and the Cubs were a thin sheet of plywood at that point.  Sure, they could have scored some runs in the last two, but it’s not earth shattering news that they didn’t…they haven’t been scoring all that much all season long.

The road is a little more kind to the Cubs.  Splitting six games with the Phillies and Cardinals is a good result.  In spite of their record, the Phillies still have some talent on their roster, and the Cardinals have been toward the top of the standings in all of baseball since Opening Day.  Winning half of your road games is a good thing, so no complaints there.

Getting the Reds, and Mat Latos when you get back home isn’t the house warming gift a struggling offense wants or needs.  And Latos was nasty on Monday night.  So they got shut out again by another good pitcher.  They got to Homer Bailey a little bit, which was nice to see, but Bronson Arroyo, who’s pretty solid, and loves to stick it to the Cubs for whatever reason, shut them down again.

I give you that nice summary of the painful last two and a half weeks to tell you this…all of those (with the exception of the Brewers) are pretty decent teams.  The Cubs just aren’t.  Not after trading away another 40% of the rotation and the clean-up hitter.

Let’s go back to spring, with a refresher of what Theo said…

“What I want to avoid is the middle ground.  It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?

We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We’ll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable.’

And presto…the team who didn’t have a chance for the playoffs this season made their cold assessment, looked to the future, moved some parts that could keep it respectable, and it’s gotten ugly against some better than average competition.  And we’re bitching about not scoring any runs?  WE WERE TOLD THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN SIX MONTHS AGO!  If you thought the Cubs had a chance to win the division or compete for a playoff spot, you were one of three things: on the team and have to believe you’re not going to suck just to keep your own sanity, a big time optimist, or delusional.  I had the Cubs, as they arrived at camp, hanging around .500.  (I also had the Pirates finishing dead last in the division, so take it for what you will)  I made that prediction early because nobody for sure can never tell who’s going to stay or go, or get hurt.  And, the team that broke camp, actually played well enough to be near .500 every month except for April (10-16) and thus far in August.

The moral of the story here is simple…It is ridiculous to be on board with the rebuild and bemoan that the team isn’t all that good during the middle of it.  It’s even more ridiculous to be critical of how ugly it is when we were told explicitly by the guy who was going to decide on who to move and when to move them that it was probably going to happen.  None of this is a surprise.  If it is, you haven’t been paying attention.

I now return you to waiting for Javier Baez to hit another home run in AA.

Moving the Needle – The Bash Fest That is Starlin Castro

It is undeniable that Starlin Castro is the player who gets the most attention on the Cubs’ roster.  There is good reason for that.  A $60M contract extension will do that, especially when you’re 22.  594 career hits at time in his life when a lot of kids are just finishing college will also do the trick.  The man is a lightning rod for fans to pin their hopes for a future championship on.

He is also a man for fans to beat down.  And he gets beat down because of the media attention that is placed on him.  More specifically, the intense scrutiny that comes with every mistake he makes.  We can all still hear Bobby Valentine talking about how his head wasn’t in it on that play on Sunday Night Baseball two years ago…admit it.  CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney says it best when he says that Starlin “moves the needle.”  As in, he draws eyes to the screen, to the paper, and clicks to the websites.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like the coverage a lot of the beat writers and the talking heads provide of the Cubs.  I think they do a pretty solid job of keeping a pretty uninteresting team entertaining through a tough rebuilding process.  That’s their job, and they do it well.  Things like this, however don’t help a young player with the weight of 105 years on his shoulders…

On his ninth inning drive to left field, it is true Starlin admired his work.  He did not run out of the box as hard as he could have.  And I hope it was discussed on the plane to New York tonight between Castro and Dale Sveum.  It can’t be with a veteran leader because Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus both made stupid base running mistakes today, too, and they should also have a conversation with their manager, and it should be less cordial than the one with the 23 year old.  To be fair to Starlin, he CRUSHED the ball.  The wind made it a double.  That ball was going to be a walk-off home run in the ninth inning, the double it turned out to be, or an out.  No amount of busting it was going to change that.  It sure did put some heat on a kid who is hopefully breaking out of a slump after a good day today, though.  Yes, he did have two errors (one of which was a really tough play, and the throw drew Rizzo off the bag when it was going to be close anyway), but his bat came to life a little.  He looked like the Starlin we saw in 2010 and 2011.

I like David Kaplan, so don’t mistake this as an attack on him.  That’s not the intent.  He is a passionate fan who calls ’em like he sees ’em.  It’s good stuff.  But his Twitter following is roughly 100 times what mine is, and his soap box is television.  To an extent, and this is just my opinion, you either have to call all of them or none of them.  Alfonso Soriano made a total bonehead play in the 8th, getting thrown out at second on the most routine of base hits right in front of him.  After the walk and base hit immediately following his mistake, who knows what happens, but Schierholtz scored the tying run when he could have been the go ahead run after Soriano scores in front of him.  Castro’s play in the ninth could have been avoided if Soriano, a 37 year old veteran ball player didn’t make the king of base running blunders.

In the 13th, David DeJesus jogged on down to first base on a routine ground ball and stopped short of the bag.  None of this is a big deal, except that the Gold Glover, Brandon Phillips bobbled it and he could have made it a close play at first, or even gotten into first had he hustled.  As John Arguello pointed out at the time, though…

This is not to say we shouldn’t be upset or even criticize Starlin Castro.  The point is actually much more simple that that.  We shouldn’t unfairly criticize Castro.  His defense is still a topic of hot conversation, even though he is on pace for the fewest errors in a season of his career, even after his two today  (Nine errors in 64 games, which is a pace of roughly 23 for the season…Javier Baez has 26 at last glance at Daytona.  So no, he’s not better at short right now, meatballs).  My point is that we shouldn’t hammer the kid when he does something inconsequential like today.  And we absolutely should hammer all of the players when they don’t hustle, make stupid mistakes, or drop routine fly balls that they can get two hands on and catch, which would save a run (Looking at you again, DeJesus).

Then again, maybe I’m just saying all of this for hits on the blog.

Divisional Failure Skewing an Otherwise Decent Season

There have been times where this season’s Cubs have looked respectable.  There have been times, especially against the White Sox, where this team looked downright good.  None of those times have come against the division.  In a season where there was some optimism from the team about being a sleeper to compete, and the fans expected a step forward, the early results against the division have been anything but promising.

Against all teams not in the NL Central, the Cubs have been interesting.  Their 18-17 record against non-divisional opponents reeks of respectability.  The offense and pitching come together and play solid baseball.  The 7-21 mark against the division is where the disconnect lies.  They have only won one series in the division, the first series of the year at Pittsburgh.  They have not won a single series against the division at home.  And the only team they don’t have a losing record against in the division is St. Louis, who they’ve split two games with.  The Cubs haven’t won a home game against the Reds all season, and today stretched that mark to 12 straight losses, which is the most an opponent has won at Wrigley consecutively since the 1956-57 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Why the terrible performances against the division?  The bullpen is a culprit, because they have blown some leads against division teams in the same ways they’ve blown some against non-division teams.  The biggest contributor to the problems has been the offense, though.  The Cubs cannot find any way at all to push runs across the plate against the division.  Only three times have they managed five or more runs in a single game, where their record is 2-1.  The Cubs have been shutout four times this season, all coming against the division.  They have scored two of fewer runs against the division 12 times, with a record of  1-11, including the four shutout losses.

One of the most common ailments that gets talked about with the Cubs is the inability to beat left handed starters.  The Cubs have had 22 such games this season.  They are, again, respectable against lefties outside of the division, with a solid 7-7 mark for this team.  The 2-6 mark against the division is where the struggles have been concentrated.  And it is not a situation where they’re losing to pitchers they’ve never seen.  The Cubs have seen a lot of Wandy Rodriguez over the years with the Astros, and now the Pirates.  Francisco Liriano has looked like Sandy Koufax in his starts against the Cubs this year…and he’s a guy with a career ERA of over four.

To me, the answer is simple.  There is no organizational urgency to perform against the division.  When you see four teams 19 times each, those games matter more because those games comprise just about half of the schedule.  At the current rate, the Cubs are staring a 19-57 divisional record in the face.  A .250 winning percentage against the division is pathetic by any standard.  While the pace of this season is not quite at 100 losses, it’s damn close, and the division is the reason why. 

Many fans unfairly criticize the manager, Dale Sveum.  If there is one place where he deserves some criticism, it is in this case.  Yes, it is up to the players to perform, but the manager must prepare the team, and this team is obviously in way over their heads against division foes.  And it isn’t like Dale isn’t familiar with the other teams in the division.  He was with the Brewers before coming to Chicago.  And coaches Jamie Quirk, Chris Bosio, and Dave McKay have all been in the division, too.  There is familiarity with the opponents.  So even though the team may have a lot of young and new pieces without that experience against the common opponents, the coaches should all have full books on each and every one of the four division rivals.

I can’t believe, in spite of everything I’ve seen, that the Cubs will finish 19-57 against the division.  It can’t be that bad.  Even though all of the pronounced losing streaks through have been at the hands of the division, including a current 1-5 home stand against the Pirates and Reds, there has to be some positive regression.  There are 48 divisional match-ups remaining.  The hope should be a clean split, which would be consistent with the way they’ve played everyone else.  Unfortunately, with the loss of the Astros to the AL West and the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates all playing well, that could be just a touch optimistic. 

And in no way should hoping for a 31-45 record for any 76 game block be what we have to hope for.

Dale Sveum’s Ever Changing Bullpen

A lot of pressure is put on a manager to effectively use his pitchers.  Knowing when to pull a starter, knowing which reliever to go to, knowing how long a reliever can go, knowing when to give a reliever a day off, knowing when a reliever has had too many days off and needs to get some work…all of it matters when it comes to managing a pitching staff.  For Dale Sveum, it’s amazing he knows who is sitting down there sometimes.  For comparison sake, here is the difference between the bullpen when the season started and today:

Cubs 2013 Opening Day Bullpen:

  • Carlos Marmol, Kyuji Fujikawa, James Russell, Shawn Camp, Hisanori Takahashi, Michael Bowden, Hector Rondon

Cubs Bullpen, May 29

  • Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, James Russell, Carlos Villanueva, Rafael Dolis, Hector Rondon, Alex Burnett

    Photo: Ronald Modra, Getty Images

    Photo: Ronald Modra, Getty Images

Every bullpen goes through changes through the course of the season.  That’s not news.  The amount of turnover in the Cubs’ pen, though, has been crazy.  Shawn Camp is on the disabled list, Michael Bowden is still in DFA limbo after last week when Matt Garza came off the disabled list, Hisanori Takahashi was outrighted to Iowa, and Kyuji Fujikawa needs Tommy John surgery.  Alex Burnett was claimed off of waivers and made his debut in a scoreless ninth today.  Kevin Gregg was signed as organizational depth, or so we thought.  He’s the freakin’ closer.  KEVIN GREGG IS CLOSING AND BEING SET UP BY CARLOS MARMOL!  It’s like 2009 all over again, and that’s not exactly what any of us wanted.  In the mean time, Dolis has been up and down, and Kameron Loe was in town, got smacked around for a few weeks, and was released.

Some of the turnover is because of injuries.  They happen disproportionately to pitchers, and we all knew a spot was going to be lost in the pen when Garza returned, but the ineffectiveness of the bullpen is another factor in the turnover.  Blaming Dale for the ineffectiveness is unfair, too.  He went to players who were reliable for him last season and they have failed him, time and time again.  Both Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp were supposed to be anchors at the back of the bullpen, and both have been removed from their roles.  Camp only because of an injury he concealed for the better part of a month, according to Sveum.  One of the more reliable relievers was Michael Bowden, who after being designated for assignment last Tuesday, must have action taken on him by Friday.  He either needs to be waived, released, or traded.  At this point, I can’t see why the Cubs wouldn’t try to sneak him through waivers and bring him right back.  It won’t be difficult to find a 40 man slot for him, with Kyuji Fujikawa sacrificing his to the 60 day disabled list.

The numbers are gruesome.  10/20 in save conversions.  Although, not all of those were in the 9th inning.  Actually, a number of those were blown in the seventh and eighth innings, which underscores the importance of the ‘set up guy.”  The Cubs have allowed 32% of inherited runners to score, which is just above the league average of 30%, according to baseball-reference.com.  None of this information is a secret.  It really only assigns numbers to what we’ve watched for the first two months of the season.

There is some hope, though.  Carlos Villanueva has been good this season, and being a veteran reliever has been a strength of his.  Kevin Gregg has been a stabilizing force since becoming the closer.  James Russell continues to be the best reliever the Cubs have had since Sean Marshall went to Cincy.  Carlos Marmol seems to be figuring it out and pitching much better when he doesn’t have the weight of closing the game on his shoulders.  Like last season, the pen seems to be getting stronger now that there is a defined, effective guy at the end.  Everything between the starter and closer then falls into place.  If the starters keep pitching like they have been, and the pen extends its brief resurgence, a run of really good baseball isn’t out of the question.

 

 

2013 Positional Preview: The Rotation

The positional previews return after a bit of a delay, but some clarification as to how the starting rotation is going to stack up when the Cubs break camp and head north.

Photo: Jesse Rogers, ESPN

Photo: Jesse Rogers, ESPN

While this preview is going to be the rotation as a whole, when injuries are settled, the start of the season, with the injury to Matt Garza and the delayed return of Scott Baker, is going to show off whatever depth the front office was able to assemble this winter.  Between a challenging schedule and the rotation not being at full strength to start the season, there is some real likelihood that this is going to be the rotation until the end of July, and no longer…

1. Jeff Samardzija

This differs from the division preview only in the manner that Jeff is taking the ball on Opening Day.  As hard as he’s worked, he’s earned the opportunity to start in Garza’s absence.  This season figures to be a step forward for “Shark,” after posting some solid numbers in his first season in the rotation and improving as the season wore on.  The most impressive improvement came in the walks department, issuing 56 free passes in 174.2 innings last season after walking 50 in 88 innings in 2011.  Samardzija has all of the tools to be an ace caliber pitcher and this season is going to be the first step toward that.

2. Matt Garza

Look, I know he’s starting on the DL.  I also know he might be back for a couple of months, then packing his bags for good.  I also know he is going to be a vital starter for the team when he gets back.  He’ll either display that he is healthy and the team will trade him for pieces for the future, or he will show that he is worthy of the extension that has been talked about since he got to Chicago.  This is a big year for Garza professionally, and I would expect that he shows it.  I love the guy and think he would be worth a deal similar to the one Edwin Jackson signed…but that’s not up to me.

3. Edwin Jackson

Photo: WGN

Photo: WGN

The aforementioned Jackson signed a 4 yr/ $52M deal this winter, which finally gave him some stability.  He’s been with five teams over the last three seasons, but he’s seemingly always been around winning teams.  His numbers aren’t jaw dropping, but he eats innings, and doesn’t walk very many.  At the tail end of his deal, the Cubs expect to be a contender, and are hoping he’s in the back of the rotation.  They also hope that some piece of mind about where he’s going to be and some stability in coaching and messaging helps improve his numbers.  He was a top prospect coming through the minor leagues, but his career has never quite matched that potential.  He’s been around for a long time, but is still young enough that he may improve some, yet.  It seems, though, that with Jackson, what you see is what you’re going to get.

4. Scott Feldman

Feldman, like Scott Baker is on  a one year contract to prove that he can be an effective starter.  His numbers make you cringe a little bit, but the man was pitching in Texas, where ERAs go to die.  His career has been spent swinging back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, and again, here, with some certainty that he will be taking the ball every fifth day may help him pitch better.  He’s out to prove that he can be a major league starter, so I would expect him to come to work everyday because he’s going to be a free agent again next winter.

5. Travis Wood

Travis Wood is likely going to be the one sent to Iowa when Scott Baker returns.  The reality is, Wood is young and has minor league options remaining, so he’ll be the one to go.  That being said, Wood was solid at times last season for the Cubs, and showed some real growth in his first season after coming over from the Reds.  His future, either as a back end starting pitcher or a long reliever in the ‘pen, seems to be pretty bright at the moment.

**UPDATE**
As a reader was kind enough to point out, Travis Wood is out of options.  Thinking he had one more is a fine illustration of my ability to count.  That said, it doesn’t change that he is likely the odd man out of the rotation when Baker joins the club.  He will then probably join the cluster of pitchers in the bullpen. **

Other Contributors: Scott Baker, Carlos Villanueva

There is no doubt that Scott Baker will be in the rotation when he returns to the team in May.  The cautious approach to bringing him back from Tommy John surgery is being applied, and while Baker made it clear at the Cubs Convention that he feels good and is ready to go, the team is making sure he is 100% when he returns.  I can’t say I blame them.  That’s probably a wise move for a guy who is going to be trade bait at the deadline.  Carlos Villanueva is on a two year deal, and will be mostly used as a long man out of the bullpen, but he’s a very good spot starter.  He’s a guy who can be leaned on for a start without massacring the bullpen, which is an asset that nearly every team would love to have.

2013 NL Central Preview

Ah, yes…we have reached the time of the year where bats start cracking and gloves start popping.  Spring Training is upon us.  While pitchers and catchers are on the cusp of having to report, there are a number of position players who have already descended on Arizona.  It would not have been surprising to see players wait until the last possible day before reporting after last season’s 61 wins.  Many will do that, anyway.  It is good to see that there are players in camp and working, already.  It is evidence of the players having some optimism for this season.

Optimism is admirable, considering the Cubs will not contend this season, either.  Don’t get me wrong, here…they’re going to be much better than they were last season.  I predicted last season’s version of the Cubs would finish with a record of 77-85.  My prediction appeared to have some validity until the trade deadline.  While it was anticipated the team would sell at the deadline, the degree to which they did, coupled with the losses of Matt Garza to injury and Jeff Samardzija to an innings limit pushed the Cubs to the wrong side of 100 losses for the first time since 1966.  This season, even if they do end up trading some players (Matt Garza the most likely), they have some depth to keep the losses from piling up as quickly and as plentifully as they did in 2012.

A great many prognosticators are saying the Cubs are a lock for last place this year with the Astros leaving for the American League.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!”  This season, it appears the Pirates walk the plank, right into the cellar…

Consider this the official prediction of the division in 2013, in both  final standing and record for each of the now five NL Central ball clubs.

1. Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

With the top of the division, it’s the status quo.  The Reds are still the most complete team in the division and have, arguably, the best bullpen in baseball.  I say that knowing full well that Dusty Baker plans on slowly sucking the life out of Aroldis Chapman’s arm.  For now, though, they are the best team, and with a healthy Joey Votto, there isn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t win the division this season.  A team without major holes is a team that seems destined to win a division.  That best explains the Reds, and the only thing I can see changing this is a rash of injuries.  Even that seems unlikely to cause the Reds to falter, as the team without Joey Votto for a sizable piece of 2012 still won the division by a wide margin.

Projected Line-Up
1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Ryan Hanigan, C

Projected Rotation:
1. Johnny Cueto
2. Mat Latos
3. Bronson Arroyo
4. Aroldis Chapman
5. Homer Bailey

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Sean Marshall
Closer: Jonathon Broxton

2. St. Louis Cardinals (89-73)

As sick as it makes me, the Cardinals are chalk for a winning season and competing for a Wild Card…especially since there are two of them, now.  Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter, there is a wealth of depth on this team and in this organization.  They seem to heal wounds better than any team in baseball.  That, in large part, comes from the best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.  Without any major changes to the way this team is constructed from last season and Adam Wainwright being a full season past Tommy John Surgery, there is no good reason why they would fail to meet their usual standards of being a complete pain in the neck.  Even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, and Chris Carpenter, they’re still pretty darn good.  Which blows.  Hard.

Projected Line-Up
1. John Jay, CF
2. Rafael Furcal, SS
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Matt Holliday, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Allen Craig, 1B
8. Daniel Descalso, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Adam Wainwright
2. Jaime Garcia
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Lance Lynn
5. Shelby Miller

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Marc Rzepczynski
Closer: Jason Motte

3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)

Unlike the top two teams, everyone else has some question marks, starting with our beloved Cubs.  The outfield looks to be a strength of the organization…but not at the big league level.  Nate Schierholtz was looking for a one year deal to be an everyday player for a reason.  He is very talented, but that hasn’t translated well at the major league level, yet.  David DeJesus is a good on base player and can grind out an at-bat, but is not a prototypical lead off hitter.  He actually projects nicely into the 7th spot in a contending line up.  Third base looks like it will be held by Ian Stewart, if he’s healthy and shows some of the pop he had in Colorado.  He had flashes of it last year, but his wrist just didn’t let it happen like it needed to.  If he doesn’t get the job done, the hot corner will be ice cold for the Cubs again this season.  Luis Valbuena is a nice player, but doesn’t have the punch a corner infielder should have, and Josh Vitters appears to need more minor league time.  There is some question as to whether Wellington Castillo can be the everyday catcher.  Dioner Navarro is a nice addition to help, but Wellington is the most talented and will need to play to his level.  While the offense has some question marks, the rotation has been solidified by the additions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and Edwin Jackson.  Even if the Cubs do end up trading Matt Garza or have injuries, it will not leave the devastation that trading Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm and losing Garza to injury did last season.  With seven legitimate options to start, not including Arodys Vizcaino,  the Cubs figure to be in much better shape in the rotation.  The bullpen looks better, too.  Shawn Camp was retained, James Russell is another year in, the team signed Kyuji Fujikawa, and Carlos Marmol seemed to figure it out in the second half last season.  If Marmol gets dealt, which is a real possibility, Fujikawa is an option to step into the closer’s role that was so uncertain for the first half of last season.  Villanueva gives the Cubs a flexible option in the bullpen and as a spot starter, if needed.  Long story short, a much improved pitching staff is going to be a catalyst to a much improved Cubs team in 2013.

Projected Line-Up
1. David DeJesus, CF
2. Starlin Castro, SS
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Ian Stewart, 3B
6. Wellington Castillo, C
7. Nate Schierholtz, RF
8. Darwin Barney, 2B

Projected Rotation:
1. Matt Garza
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Edwin Jackson
4. Travis Wood
5. Scott Feldman

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Kyuji Fujikawa
Closer: Carlos Marmol

4. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)

Looking at the Brewers, they will score runs.  A lot of runs.  I did not include Corey Hart in the projected line-up because he is going to be sidelined for the beginning of the season.  When he comes back, and likely occupies first base, it is going to be full steam ahead at Miller Park.  If they can get some stability out of their starting pitching, if their bullpen improves to be average (or settles for better than worst in the NL), if Corey Hart comes back healthy sooner rather than later, if Aramis Ramirez doesn’t go on a six week slump out of the starting block, and if Ryan Braun emerges clear of PED links again, this team has the potential to have a record just the opposite of what I predicted, and could peak into the playoff window.  There is a lot of if with this team, though.  Generally, some of the ifs work out, but not all of them.  The pitching is suspect.  Mike Fiers was outstanding last season, but with a year to adjust to a guy most teams had never seen and with a season’s worth of tape on him, hitters may be able to get a better read on his less than overwhelming stuff.  I love the kid as a 4th or 5th starter…not as a 2.  The bullpen could be better, but they added nothing to instill confidence in it to anyone but the homeriest of homers up here in Wisconsin.  Too many questions, too many uncertainties, no way to give them the benefit of all of the doubts at their chances of being competitive.

Projected Line-Up
1. Norichika Aoki, RF
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Matt Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Carlos Gomez, CF
8. Jean Segura, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. Yovani Gallardo
2. Mike Fiers
3. Chris Narveson
4. Marco Estrada
5. Tom Gorzelanny

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mike Gonzalez
Closer: John Axford

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

I’ll admit, my projected line-up here seems amiss.  I look at the parts they have, and they don’t seem to fit together that well.  I like a number of their offensive players individually, and I think they will score some runs, led by Andrew McCutchen, who is an absolute stud of the highest order.  Like the Brewers, I have major concerns about their pitching staff.  A.J. Burnett is getting older.  Wandy Rodriguez is a good pitcher, but he doesn’t match up well with other number two pitchers in good rotations.  He’s a good middle of the rotation guy.  James McDonald faded down the stretch last season, and will need to figure it out again.  The bullpen, once a strength, loses much of its force by losing its strongest asset in Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  That move alone makes the bullpen average, at best.  With Jason Grilli becoming the closer, it appears to have sent the bullpen just over its head.  Everybody in it is elevated one spot, which to me, seems to be one spot too big for each player.  If Hanrahan were still a Pirate, I could make a good case for the team’s bullpen being the strength of the team.  Without him, it just doesn’t look the same, which is to say it does not look right.  Like the Brewers, too many ifs and concerns to see them being anything more than a team winning in the mid 70s.  For Pirates fans after the last couple of seasons, that may not be desirable, but they’re still much better than the Pirates of the last 20 years have been on average.

Projected Line-Up
1. Neil Walker, 2B
2. Starling Marte, LF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Travis Snider, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Projected Rotation:
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Locke
5. Jeff Karstens

Key Relievers:
Set-Up: Mark Melancon
Closer: Jason Grilli