Spring training preview: National League Central
Over the next few days, SI.com will break down what to watch for in each team's camp as part of our 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 2014. 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: Can Michael Wacha stay healthy?
A first-round draft pick in 2012, Wacha debuted in the majors less than a year later, took over a rotation spot in September 2013, came within one out of a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season, then pitched brilliantly in a postseason run that lasted until Game 6 of the World Series, when the 21-year-old righty finally reminded us he was human. He got off to a strong start in '14, carrying a 2.17 ERA through his first 15 starts, but a scapular stress fracture sidelined him for two and a half months. He lasted five innings in just one of his four starts upon returning, and after being hidden in the bullpen for three weeks, was placed in the ridiculous position of pitching in a sudden-death elimination situation in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, where he served up Travis Ishikawa's pennant-clinching homer.
As of mid-January, Wacha said he felt strong and was in the clear as far as MRI, X-ray and CT scans were concerned. That's good news, but the only other pitcher to deal with a similar injury, Brandon McCarthy, has battled scapular stress fractures and stress reactions on a nearly annual basis throughout his career. All of which is to say that the Cardinals are going to have to watch their prized 23-year-old righty closely, and since he's never thrown more than 149 2/3 innings in any of his three professional seasons — and just 109 last year — they can't count on him for a full 200-inning workload. Even so, he probably has the highest upside of any pitcher on the staff save for ace Adam Wainwright, so the situation certainly bears monitoring.
The Big Battle: Fifth starter
Wacha isn't the only young, high-upside pitcher who's likely to start the year in the Cardinals' rotation. Another pair of 23-year-olds, righty Carlos Martinez and lefty Marco Gonzales, are battling for the fifth spot behind Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Wacha. Martinez, a key reliever during the team’s 2013 postseason run, made seven starts last year but averaged less than five innings per turn and walked 4.5 per nine; he was more effective in a setup role, but didn't fully find his footing there until late in the year. Likewise, '13 first-round pick Gonzales was rocked for a 4.55 ERA with a 15/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five starts and walked 5.5 per nine in his 34 2/3 major league innings overall.
Both pitchers have the talent to become mid-rotation starters or better, but they need to improve their command and particularly their changeups. If there's an early tell, it's that Yadier Molina requested that Martinez, who lost out to Joe Kelly in last spring's rotation derby, be given the locker next to him in spring training, suggesting that the veteran backstop has much wisdom to impart regarding the mental side of pitching. But with just 89 1/3 innings thrown last year, Martinez may not be up to a full workload in 2015, so the likelihood is that both pitchers see time in the five spot, with Jaime Garcia, returning from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, also an option.
The Big Prospect: Stephen Piscotty, OF
Even with the tragic death of Oscar Taveras last October, the Cardinals have a glut of young outfielders, with Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, newly-acquired Jason Heyward and Randal Grichuk all in the picture. Add to this Piscotty, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick out of Stanford who cracked prospect lists last spring and hit .288/.355/.406 at Triple A Memphis.
The 6'3", 210-pound Piscotty has shown good command of the strike zone, good pitch recognition skills and a whole-field approach, though his power has yet to manifest itself fully outside of batting practice. He's strong defensively, with the arm for rightfield, and considered a potential future All-Star; Baseball Prospectus ranked him its No. 32 prospect, while ESPN (62) and MLB.com (90) see just a bit less in him. Breaking through for a major league job could prove a challenge unless Heyward decides to test free agency after this season, but Piscotty will have a chance to make an impression this spring, and should debut sometime this year.
The Big Question: Can Pedro Alvarez break the Pirates' long spell of mediocrity at first base?
Beyond pondering the question of whether there's life after Russell Martin, the Pirates have spent the winter wondering whether Alvarez can shake off a frustrating season in which he not only hit just .231/.312/.405 — a loss of 65 points of slugging percentage from the previous two seasons — but also endured a throwing problem that cost him the third base job and a stress reaction in his foot that limited him to one plate appearance after Aug. 26. Alvarez isn't likely to hit for a high average, but if he can provide his typical power and competent defense, he could be the first adequate performer the team has had at the position since Adam LaRoche was traded in mid-2009. Over the last five seasons, Pirates first basemen have hit a combined .239/.309/.392 for the majors' second-lowest OPS at the position. Last year's since-departed tandem of Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez combined to hit all of .227/.319/.361.
If Alvarez isn't up to the task, the team does have other options, including 33-year-old Corey Hart, who missed all of 2013 due to microfracture surgery on his right knee and then hit .203/.271/.319 with six homers in 255 PA for Seattle last year, and Andrew Lambo, a 26-year-old former top prospect who spent most of the last two years mashing at Triple A. Neither have better odds than Alvarez at providing competence here, though.
The Big Battle: Shortstop
Over the winter, the team made a four-year, $16 million dollar commitment — $5 million of which was a posting fee — to 28-year-old South Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang, who hit an absurd .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers in the Korea Baseball Organization last year as a shortstop. General manager Neal Huntington ruled out the possibility of Kang starting the year in the minors and suggested he could take over the multi-position role vacated by Josh Harrison, who settled at third base when Alvarez played himself off the position.
While expecting all of that power to translate is folly, it's not out of the question that if given the chance as a regular, Kang could outproduce Jordy Mercer, who hit .255/.305/.387 for a 95 OPS+ and was nine runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to a respectable 2.8 WAR. If the Pirates think Kang is up to the task, they could consider trading Mercer for a return that could fill another area of need.
The Big Prospect: Tyler Glasnow, SP
A fifth-round 2011 pick out of a California high school, the 21-year-old Glasnow rates as the team's top prospect, ranking among the top 21 on the lists of ESPN, MLB.com and BP. Standing a towering 6'7", the righty gets a good downward plane on a fastball that sits 93-95 and has a plus curveball, though his changeup remains a work in progress and his delivery can get out of sync with those long levers. He's coming off a stellar season at High A Bradenton, where he posted a 1.74 ERA with 11.4 whiffs per nine in 124 1/3 innings. He'll be in big league camp for the first time and will start the year at Double A Altoona of the Eastern League; it's not out of the question that he could be up later this season if things come together.
The Big Question: Can Ryan Braun reclaim his spot among the game's elite sluggers?
Since winning the NL MVP award in 2011 and then leading the league with 41 homers in '12, it's been a bumpy ride for Braun, to say the least. Between a nerve injury in his right thumb, an oblique strain and a 65-game PED suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis clinic, he's hit just 28 homers in 196 games over the last two seasons. Worse, he set across-the-board career lows with a .266/.324/.453 line in 135 games last year, including a dismal .226/.295/.374 showing in the second half, which played a large role in the team losing its hold on a postseason berth.
In early October, Braun underwent a cryotherapy procedure that froze the bothersome nerve in his thumb, and recently told Fox Sports Wisconsin that, after pain had prevented him from gripping the bat properly for most of last season, the situation had improved considerably. A 30-homer season with at least 5.0 WAR — down from the 6.7 he averaged in 2009-12, but up from last year's 1.0 — would go a long way toward helping the team contend again, though the rotation and bullpen have their own question marks.
The Big Battle: Shortstop
The Brewers' roster looks mostly set at this point, and while the soon-to-be-25-year-old Jean Segura doesn't appear to be in immediate danger of losing his job, what's happening at shortstop bears watching. The key piece of the mid-2012 trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels, Segura broke out to hit .294/.329/.423 with 12 homers and 44 stolen bases in '13, earning All-Star honors in the process. His '14 season was a nightmare, as he not only slipped to .246/.289/.326 with five homers and 20 steals but also endured the sudden death of his nine-month old son back in the Dominican Republic in early July.
In January, the Brewers acquired 21-year-old Luis Sardinas from the Rangers in the trade that sent Yovani Gallardo to Texas. Rushed to the majors by a slew of injuries, Sardinas hit a thin .261/.303/.313 in 125 PA for the Rangers, but he's just a year removed from hitting a combined .301/.356/.366 with 38 steals at High A and Double A, a performance that placed him on some of the major prospect lists. Most likely, the switch-hitting Sardinas will serve as a utilityman, playing second in place of Scooter Gennett against at least some lefties (Gennett owns a .128/.150/.141 line in 83 PA against them) and spotting for Segura and fragile Aramis Ramirez at third.
If Segura can't break a slide that in truth goes back to mid-2013 — he hit .241/.268/.315 after the break — the roles could be reversed. What's more, the team's top prospect is 20-year-old shortstop Orlando Arcia, who spent the 2014 season in High A but who was recently mentioned by farm director Reid Nichols as a potential contributor in '15, albeit as something of a longshot. Add it all up, and it's clear that the Brewers are accumulating options at the position if Segura can't rediscover his early-2013 mojo.
The Big Prospect: Taylor Jungmann, SP
After trading Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays for Adam Lind back in November, the Brewers sent Gallardo to the Rangers for three players in mid-January. The two deals mean that Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson — who combined to give the team 22 starts in 2014, with the former delivering a 2.09 ERA and the latter at 4.76 — are both penciled in behind Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Matt Garza, the last of whom hasn't made 30 starts or topped 165 innings since '11.
All of which makes it worth keeping an eye on Jungmann, a 25-year-old righty who was the team's first-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2011. Jungmann split last year between Double A Huntsville and Triple A Nashville, posting a 3.57 ERA with 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 153 2/3 innings. His stuff has fallen off since he was drafted, with Baseball Prospectus 2015 describing him as "working in the high-80s and low-90s with a fringy breaking ball and an inconsistent changeup," with his command also an issue (other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?). Of the major top prospect lists, only Baseball America placed Jungmann in the top 10 of this downtrodden system, but the reality is that he's near-ready and likely to see time in the majors in case of an injury to the starting five, as Nelson and Fiers did last year.
The Big Question: Can Joey Votto return to form?
Never mind the weapons-grade stupidity of those who criticize Votto for his patient approach at the plate, preferring that he attempt to drive in a few more runs while eating up a whole lot more outs. What the Reds need most is a typical season from the 31-year-old first baseman, who was limited to 62 games in 2014 due to quad strains in both legs and hit just .255/.390/.409 with six home runs, ending his run of four straight on-base titles.
Votto's performance was still good for a 127 OPS+, higher than any other Red besides Devin Mesoraco, and he was one of just three regulars above 100 (the fourth straight year that's been the case here), but it was 25 points below what he averaged over the previous four seasons in hitting a combined .318/.431/.548. Where he was worth an average of 6.4 WAR in those years, he came in at just 1.9 last year. Votto has now averaged just 112 games over the past three seasons, an ominous sign for a player who's owed another $213 million through 2023. If he can't stay healthy, it's a crippling blow to this team's chances, not only this year but also for the foreseeable future.
The Big Battle: Fourth and fifth starters
The winter trades of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon opened up two rotation spots behind Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. At the moment, there's no shortage of candidates to fill them, though 25-year-old lefty Tony Cingrani and 24-year-old righty Anthony DeSclafani are the favorites. Cingrani, who has whiffed 9.9 per nine in 173 career big league innings, was impressive during an 18-start run in 2013 but was limited to 11 starts and two relief appearances with a 4.55 ERA last year due to a variety of shoulder woes that shut down his rehab assignment before he could even return to competition. DeSclafani, who came from the Marlins in the Latos trade, posted a 3.78 ERA with 8.5 strikeouts per nine in 102 1/3 innings split between Double A and Triple A but was cuffed for a 6.27 ERA in 33 innings spread over five starts and eight relief appearances with the Marlins, though his 26/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio was encouraging.
Beyond that pair are 23-year-old lefty David Holmberg, who made five starts for the Reds and struggled at Triple A (4.66 ERA, 3.2 walks and 5.4 strikeouts per nine), 28-year-old righty Dylan Axelrod (owner of a career 5.16 ERA in 216 1/3 innings) and past-prime retreads Paul Maholm (32 and coming off a 4.84 ERA in 70 2/3 innings with the Dodgers before tearing his ACL) and Jason Marquis (36 and last seen in the majors posting a 4.05 ERA and 84 ERA+ in 20 starts with the 2013 Padres).
The most interesting of the alternatives — by a country mile — is soon-to-be-25-year-old Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias, whom the team signed to a seven-year, $25 million deal last June. His stateside action thus far has been limited to the instructional league and the Arizona Fall League, but he was dominant there in seven one-inning relief stints, allowing just one hit and whiffing seven. Iglesias's fastball was clocked as high as 97 in those short stints, and it's possible he could wind up in the bullpen to start the year, but with two quality breaking balls and an improving changeup, the team is still curious as to whether he can start, his small frame (5'11", 170 pounds) notwithstanding.
The Big Prospect: Jesse Winker, LF
A 2012 supplemental first-round pick out of a Florida high school, Winker tore up the High A California League (.317/.426/.580) in 53 games last year before being promoted to Double A, but played just 21 games there before his season ended due to a torn tendon in his right wrist, suffered in a car accident. He's a natural hitter with an advanced, selective approach, the ability to control the strike zone and to spray line drives all over the field, with potentially above-average power. ESPN's Keith Law, who ranked him 40th on his Top 100 Prospects list, described him as "probably an 18-22 homer guy with a .400 OBP in the major leagues," which should give those Votto critics a fit but which is exactly what the doctor ordered for this lineup. If Winker can bounce back from the wrist injury and adjust to upper-level pitching, he'll be on track to succeed Marlon Byrd whether or not the veteran sticks around for '16 via his vesting/team option.
The Big Question: How quickly can Javier Baez pull it together?
A top-five prospect coming into last year according to both BP and BA, Baez followed a familiar pattern of struggling mightily in his first exposure to a level and then making the necessary adjustments. He was eaten alive during this initial taste of Triple A, batting just .142/.229/.255 with a 38-percent strikeout rate through May 15, but he recovered well enough to hit .305/.358/.606 with 20 homers and a 27-percent strikeout rate for the remainder of his minor league stay before debuting in the majors on Aug. 5. While he homered nine times in 229 PA, he again scuffled, hitting just .169/.227/.324 with an astronomical 41-percent strikeout rate.
That wasn't unanticipated given his history, and the hope is that with a winter's worth of video to reference, the Cubs can help the 22-year-old slugger hone his overly aggressive approach. Though blessed with tremendous raw bat speed and power, Baez needs to learn to lay off the high fastballs and adjust to the way pitchers can exploit the holes in his swing.
The Big Battle: Third base
Luis Valbuena was traded to the Astros and Kris Bryant is on the way (more on him below), but the question of what the Cubs do at the hot corner to bridge the gap between the two is up in the air. Ideally, 26-year-old Mike Olt is the man, but the former top prospect has strung together two brutal seasons in a row. In a 2013 season marred by blurred vision related to a Winter League beaning, he hit a combined .201/.303/.381 at three minor league levels, then batted just .160/.248/.356 with 12 homers in 258 PA with the Cubs last year. That said, adjustments to his stance and swing late during a late-season stint at Triple A Iowa bore fruit: .302/.348/.585 with seven homers in 28 games.
Meanwhile, the team will also take a look at November acquisition Tommy La Stella, who took over second base duties for the Braves in late May last year and hit .251/.328/.317 in 360 PA. His offensive profile is limited, however, and he's never played third professionally.
The Big Prospect: Kris Bryant, 3B and Addison Russell, SS
ESPN, BP and MLB.com have thus far all placed both the 23-year-old Bryant and the 21-year-old Russell among their top five prospects, though no two outlets can agree on the order; Bryant ranks first on ESPN’s list, Russell is as high as second on that of BP. Any way you slice it, those are two blue chippers with bright futures ahead of them.
In a season split between Double A and Triple A, Bryant — the second pick of the 2013 draft — blasted 43 homers to go with a .325/.438/.661 line, helping him to win BA's Minor League Player of the Year award. As you might gather from that performance, he has elite raw power, a great batting eye and good plate coverage, though his swing does have some holes. He's got an outstanding arm and the athleticism to handle third, though down the road, he may wind up in rightfield. It's not out of the question that he could break north with the big club, though it's more likely the team waits until May or June so as to reap the extra year of club control.
As for Russell — the 11th pick of the 2012 draft by the Athletics, who traded him to Chicago in last July's Jeff Samardzija deal — he missed more than two months of the season due to a hamstring strain but came back to hit .295/.350/.508 with 13 homers in 68 games, all but five of which came with his first taste of Double A. He's a true shortstop with the arm and hands to be above-average at the position; offensively, he profiles as someone with the potential to hit for high average with a double-digit home run total. How the Cubs will fit Starlin Castro, Bryant, Baez and Russell into the same lineup remains to be seen, but that's not a problem they have to solve this spring. Russell, like Bryant, will likely start the year at Triple A, and while he could make his major league debut at some point, he's the less likely of the two to have much of an impact at that level this year.