Spring training preview: National League Central
This week, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Joe Lemire will break down what to watch in each team’s camp as part of SI.com’s spring training preview by looking at the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2013. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Big Question: Do all the pieces in the defensive puzzle fit together?
The Cardinals deserve unequivocal praise for their astute maneuvers this offseason. The result of those moves is that St. Louis, despite having made just one major addition to its starting lineup, will experience turnover at five positions due to the departure of one veteran free agent, the emergence of two young players and the resulting position changes of two incumbents.
The team's projected infield alignment is completely different from last year's, with Matt Carpenter moving to third base to replace David Freese, free agent Jhonny Peralta taking over for Pete Kozma at shortstop, rookie Kolten Wong taking over for Carpenter at second base and Matt Adams inheriting first base from Allen Craig, who will, in turn, move to rightfield to replace the departed Carlos Beltran. It all makes a lot of sense on paper, but, when Carpenter, Wong, Adams and Craig take the field at their new positions against the Marlins on Feb. 28, it will be the first time that they've all done so as part of the same lineup, and that doesn't even include the newcomer Peralta.
The Big Battle: The rotation
St. Louis has so much young pitching talent that Adam Wainwright is the only pitcher entering camp with a guaranteed spot in the team's rotation. It would be shocking if Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha don't also wind up in the rotation, but even if they do, that leaves just two spots for Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez.
Lynn has won 33 games for the Cardinals over the last two seasons. Kelly has a 3.08 career ERA (121 ERA+) and was part of the team's postseason rotation last year as it won the National League pennant. Martinez is 22 and has made just one major league start (it didn't go well), but he proved he could retire major league hitters and rise to a challenge when he emerged as St. Louis' set-up ace in the postseason, beguiling hitters with upper-90s heat and unhittable sliders. Garcia, the oldest of the bunch but also the only lefty, is returning from May 2013 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, but reported to camp earlier this week expecting to pitch without limitations.
The Big Prospect: Oscar Taveras, centerfielder
Taveras, the number-three prospect in the game heading into this season according to Baseball Prospectus, was expected to make his major league debut some time last season. However, he hurt his ankle on a hard slide into second base in May, an injury which effectively ended his season before the end of June (he appeared in one game in July and had season-ending surgery in August). He'll thus be worth watching this spring not only for his elite bat (he has hit .320/.377/.518 in parts of five minor league seasons but won't turn 22 until mid-June) but also because of concerns over the status of his ankle. If Taveras is healthy, he could complicate the Cardinals' outfield picture before the All-Star break, potentially displacing the projected platoon of John Jay and Peter Bourjos in center.
The Big Question: Is that all there is?
Pittsburgh's biggest addition this offseason was Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who has posted a 5.09 ERA and 1.53 WHIP over the last three seasons. Meanwhile, the team remains in obvious need of upgrades in rightfield and at first base, having shed Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones (who was non-tendered) over the winter, and its rotation was weakened on Wednesday by the loss of stalwart A.J. Burnett to the cross-state Phillies. Coming off what seemed like a franchise-changing season, are the Pirates really going to enter the regular season with the team they're bringing to camp?
It seems unlikely. Pittsburgh has expressed interest in signing first baseman Kendrys Morales, despite the draft pick attached to his price, and a March trade to upgrade any of its three problem areas (first base, rightfield, rotation) would not be surprising at this point. If so, it would echo the team's August acquisitions of Byrd and Morneau after being inactive at the non-waiver trading deadline. The Bucs got the only 'F' in our winter report card series, but there are still six weeks left before the regular season starts for them to make a move to improve their chances of returning to the postseason.
The Big Battle: Rightfield
Even in the absence of an upgrade, the Pirates still have plenty of options in their quest to get at least league-average production at the position. Among them are 2013 holdovers Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, rookies Andrew Lambo and Jaff Decker, non-roster invitee Chris Dickerson and top prospect Gregory Polanco. The average NL rightfielder posted a .266/.329/.431 line last season, not an impossibly high standard, but one that Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system doesn't project any of the above players to reach in the coming year.
Polanco, who hit .263/.354/.407 at Double A last year, could use some more development time in Triple A, where he has played all of two games. Decker has serious on-base skills and a bit of pop, but has just 31 major league plate appearances under his belt and was a player the Padres designated for assignment in November before trading him to Pittsburgh. Dickerson is a solid lefty platoon option who brings some speed, defense and on-base ability, but there are already three lefthanded-hitting outfielders on the 40-man roster in Decker, Lambo and Snider. The latter is a former Blue Jays prospect who has been such a colossal disappointment that I thought the Pirates might non-tender him in December rather than pay him the $1.2 million they eventually settled on. A former Dodgers prospect, Lambo hit .282/.347/.574 with 32 homers and 99 RBIs in a season split between Double and Triple A last year. Tabata is a career .274/.339/.385 hitter who, partially due to his fragility, has never qualified for a batting title.
Given all of that, Lambo might have the inside track to be, at the very least, the strong side of a platoon with Tabata.
The Big Prospect: Jameson Taillon, righthanded pitcher; Gregory Polanco, centerfielder
The 6-foot-6 Taillon projects as the team's ultimate number-two starter behind Gerrit Cole and could ascend to that role as early as the second half of the coming season. Polanco, meawhile, is a five-tool stud of a centerfielder who could combine with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates the best defensive outfield in baseball in 2015 and beyond.
Both are on a similar pace. Polanco turned 22 in September, Taillon in November. Polanco has played two games in Triple A, while Taillon has six starts at the level. Neither excelled in Double A last year and both would seem to need significant exposure in Triple A this year before a potential call-up is discussed, but it's not out of the question that both could have an impact in the majors in the second half of the 2014 season. If both aren't on the team in the first half of 2015 it will be a significant disappointment.
The Big Question: Is Johnny Cueto's shoulder sound?
That's a pretty big question, because the answer for more than a year has mostly been 'no.' The Reds' ace lasted just six pitches into his Game 1 start in the 2012 Division Series against the Giants before straining an oblique that knocked him out for the remainder of the series and, thus the season. Last season, he dominated on Opening Day (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K) but two starts later landed on the disabled list with a latissimus dorsi strain in his right shoulder. That established a pattern in which Cueto proved unable to make more than three consecutive starts without going on the DL with an aggravation of that lat strain. He made just 11 starts on the season: three in April, three in May, three in June and two in September, and he hit the disabled list in the three gaps in between, staying there for 80 days on the last go-around.
The impact of those injuries was lessened by the excellent pitching of rookie Tony Cingrani, who himself finished the year on the disabled list with back spasms. With Bronson Arroyo now a Diamondback, Cueto and Cingrani will have to fill two rotation spots, not one.
The Big Battle: Billy Hamilton vs. expectations
Barring injury, the Reds' lineup, rotation and back of the bullpen are all set coming into camp. Joey Votto (first base), Brandon Phillips (second base), Zack Cozart (shortstop) and Todd Frazier (third base) will start in the infield. Devin Mesoraco will be the primary catcher. Jay Bruce (rightfield), Billy Hamilton (center) and Ryan Ludwick (left) will start in the outfield. Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Cingrani will form the rotation, and setting up Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen will be Jonathan Broxton, Sam LeCure and J.J. Hoover from the right side and Sean Marshall and Manny Parra from the left.
There might be a little jockying room on the bench or for the final couple bullpen spots, but a far more compelling battle this spring will be Hamilton's contention with the expectations heaped upon him as Shin-Soo Choo's replacement in centerfield. We know Hamilton's speed will translate to the majors -- he stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, including a perfect 7-for-7 as a pinch-runner during a call-up last September -- but his strong battling line in 22 plate appearances told us nothing, nor did we learn much from his mere three starts in centerfield.
Inked in as Cincinnati's centerfielder this spring, Hamilton's bat and glove will get much more exposure in camp than they got in September, and the pressure to perform will be on from day one. Given the entertainment value of Hamilton's speed, the questions about his bat and the Reds' position as contenders, there may not be a more watched player in all of baseball this spring.
The Big Prospect: Robert Stephenson, righthanded pitcher
The 27th pick in the 2011 draft struck out 10.7 men per nine innings and posted a strong 3.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio across three levels in '13, his second professional season. The owner of a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and an excellent curveball, Stephenson ended last year in Double A and projects as a front-of-the-rotation starter. He has the potential to make his major league debut later this year and could force his way into Cincinnati's rotation as early as next year.
The Big Question: Can Ryan Braun put 2013 and Biogenesis behind him?
Other than Alex Rodriguez, no player involved in the Biogenesis scandal has seen his position in the game fall as far as Ryan Braun. In 2011, Braun was the National League's Most Valuable Player, despite Matt Kemp being a slightly more deserving candidate. In 2012, seemingly vindicated after a his failed drug test was overturned on appeal, he was the runner-up for the award.
At that point, Braun was still on the short list of the game's best players, a perennial 30/30 threat who had made five straight All-Star teams, won five straight Silver Sluggers and owned a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award. He was,in short, a likely future Hall of Famer.
Then, in 2013, Biogenesis and a nerve problem in his righthand combined to limit Braun to 61 games and nine home runs. He was effectively wiped him off the major league map by mid-June, after which he spent a month on the disabled list, then played in just four more games before accepting a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.
Braun's suspension, and, one would hope, his PED use are now behind him, but he has many bridges to mend with his teammates, coaches and the fans. It remains to be seen if he'll have to do so with or without lingering effects from that nerve problem. The Brewers still owe him $127 million over the next seven seasons, so he's not going anywhere, and if he can return to even 90 percent of the player he was, time and his bat will ultimately heal those wounds. However, if Ryan Braun the 30-something rightfielder can't recapture the glory of the 20-something leftfielder, those will be a long, bitter seven years. They start now.
The Big Battle: First base
Much like the Pirates' rightfield situation, the Brewers have a battle at first base because of their failure to adequately fill the position over the winter. Having lost Corey Hart to the Mariners, the Brewers have thus far settled for inviting Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to camp to compete with incumbent Juan Francisco and minor league products Sean Halton, Hunter Morris and Jason Rogers.
Reynolds is the favorite heading into camp, but he has seen his power decline in each of the last two seasons, resulting in a miserable .220/.306/.393 line last year. His lack of a platoon split could actually work against him given the fact that a platoon might be the best solution here. To that end, Overbay (who occupied this position for Milwaukee in 2004 and '05 and is now 37), Francisco and Morris (who hit 24 home runs in the Triple A Pacific Coast League last year) are lefties, while Reynolds, Halton and Rogers (who hit 22 home runs in Double A last year) are righties. As with the Pirates, the potential for a late signing or trade is significant; Kendrys Morales would fit the former category and the Mets' Ike Davis the latter.
The Big Prospect: Mitch Haniger, outfielder
Haniger was taken with the compensation pick Milwaukee got in the 2012 draft after losing Prince Fielder to the Tigers (number 38 overall). He projects as a corner outfielder with some pop, but the 23-year-old college product has yet to make the jump to Double A and hit just 11 home runs in 543 at-bats in his full-season debut last year split between A ball and High A. Haniger's not a bad prospect, but he doesn't project as a star, and his inclusion here is a good indication of just how weak the Brewers' system is.
The Big Question: Can Rick Renteria make a difference with Starlin Castro?
Prior to 2013, the Cubs' issues with shortstop Starlin Castro were that he wasn't improving enough from year to year and that his mind tended to wander during games. Last year, however, Castro seemed to check out completely. His battling line collapsed to .245/.284/.347, his gains in the field the previous season evaporated and his mental lapses continued unabated.
It's impossible to know if Castro's already shaky concentration was further eroded by the ongoing lawsuit that froze the bulk of his salary in Dominican bank accounts, but it was clear that manager Dale Sveum was not getting through to an extremely talented young player to whom the organization had made a seven-year, $60 million commitment the previous August.
It thus doesn't seem like a coincidence that the team's new manager is a former middle infielder of Latin descent. Whether or not Rick Renteria can succeed with Castro where Svuem failed will have as much to do with Castro as Renteria, of course, but with slugging shortstop prospect Javier Baez in ascendance, the team appears to have an increased sense of urgency regarding Castro's elusive maturity.
The Big Battle: Third base
Incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena's days manning the hot corner for Chicago are numbered. Kris Bryant, the team's top pick in the 2013 draft, is a 200-ton locomotive bearing down on the position and three others -- former Rangers prospects Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva and Baez, who could move off shortstop to accommodate Castro -- are all ahead of him on the minor league ladder.
This spring, Olt will serve as Valbuena's primary competition for the job, which might be good news for the place-holding incumbent given that Olt struggled with blurred vision last year, resulting in his worst professional season. However, Olt told CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney that he feels as though those problems are "in the past now." If that's the case, and Olt goes back to being the beast who hit .288/.398/.579 with 28 home runs in Double A in 2012, third base could be his in short order, in which case things could get very interesting on the left side of the Cubs' infield in 2015.
The Big Prospect: Javier Baez, shortstop; Kris Bryant, third base
All Baez did in his age-20 season was hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs (including four in one game), 111 RBIs and 20 stolen bases (at an 83 percent success rate) in 130 games split between High A and Double A. He's a monster, the fourth-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus, and could reach the majors by the end of the coming season, forcing a decision about his position conflict with Castro. Bryant was drafted out of the University of San Diego with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and hit .336/.390/.688 over 146 at-bats in his professional debut, topping out at High A. He then led the hitting-friendly Arizona Fall League with six home runs and a .727 slugging percentage. Like Baez, the 6-foot-5 Bryant has monstrous power, but he has yet to make that all-important jump to Double A, something he's expected to do at the start of the regular season. If he makes that transition smoothly, a major league debut before the end of the year is a distinct possibility.