Year 2 of the Theo Epstein era on the North Side should feature a more competitive Cubs team
Back in December, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney introduced Jim Deshaies as the team’s new television analyst and said he would be “the guy who will call the next World Series team for the Cubs.” The last guy to call a World Series team for the Cubs was…well…no one. The Cubs’ first televised game was in 1946, and the team was last in the World Series in 1945. The Cubs haven’t been to a World Series in more than 65 years, haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, lost 101 games in 2012 and made offseason moves that were patchwork for another season of rebuilding. So fans might be forgiven for saying the usual “Wait ’til next year’’ before the season even begins. The second year of the Theo Epstein Era could be similar to the first, with promising players taking their lumps and marginally talented veterans filling up roster spots. Epstein promised the turnaround process would take time and asked fans to show patience. But the resolve of even the most patient Cubs fans was tested last year as the franchise lost 100 games for only the third time ever.
Last year the Cubs opened the season with Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm in the rotation. They ended the season with Justin Germano, Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Volstad, and Travis Wood. Samardzija threw the most innings (174.2) and was shut down in early September. He could become the ace of the staff. Garza, who was supposed to be traded last offseason and again during the season, suffered an elbow injury a few weeks before the trading deadline and is back to give the rotation some stability. The healthier he gets, the hotter the trade rumors will get. Shortly before Christmas, the Cubs agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal with Edwin Jackson and a two-year, $10 million pact with Carlos Villanueva. Jackson went 10–11 with a 4.03 ERA with the Nationals in 2012. Travis Wood and Scott Feldman seem to have locked up spots in the rotation. Villanueva will have a place at least until Garza returns. It will be interesting to see how Scott Baker, coming off Tommy John surgery last summer, will figure in as the season progresses. He won 38 games for Minnesota from 2008-10.
The Cubs nearly traded closer Carlos Marmol in the offseason. He can either be unhittable or wild. His 11.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is impressive, but his 7.3 walks-per-nine-innings ratio is alarming. Marmol was demoted for a few weeks last May. If that happens again, expect Kyuji Fujikawa, a Japanese import signed to a two-year deal in December, to slide into the closer’s role. Fujikawa posted dominant numbers in the last six seasons as the closer for Hanshin. He had 202 saves with a 1.36 ERA and a 0.855 WHIP. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Michael Bowden could become valuable setup men.
While many people in baseball believe shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney will occupy the Cubs’ middle infield for years to come, there are others who believe that minor leaguer Javier Baez is the team’s shortstop of the future because of his superior defense. Castro is erratic, but he and Barney, a 2012 Gold Glove winner, will team together for another year at least. Castro is a gifted offensive player who led the Cubs in hits for the second year in a row. Barney, the Cubs’ fourth-round pick in 2007, needs to improve his .254 average. He hit .303 in Wrigley Field but only .206 on the road.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Ian Stewart are on the opposite ends of the offensive spectrum. Rizzo is an up-and-coming player who many in the organization believe has All-Star potential. Epstein and his lieutenants drafted Rizzo when they were with the Red Sox. Current Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer dealt for Rizzo while he was an executive with San Diego. Then Hoyer joined the Cubs and acquired Rizzo once again. The left-handed hitter showed some power (15 home runs in 337 at-bats) and hit for average (.285) in a half season with the Cubs. Can he keep it up during a full season? This is the year to find out. Between stints on the DL, Stewart hit .201 in 179 at-bats in his first year with the club after hitting .156 in an injury-filled season with Colorado in 2011. Stewart signed a one-year deal in December to remain with the Cubs. But the injury bug has struck once again as Stewart is dealing with a strained quad. Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge will share the position until Stewart is proven healthy and productive.
Left fielder Alfonso Soriano had one of his best seasons as a Cub, hitting .262 with team highs in homers (32), RBIs (108), doubles (33) and total bases (280). He has two more years remaining on his contract, and current management would love to move him and dump his large salary. But as long as there are no takers, Soriano will return and should provide a solid bat, improved defense and veteran leadership. Steady David DeJesus will likely man center field again after moving over to right when rookie Brett Jackson was promoted. Jackson struggled in the big leagues, and it’s doubtful he’ll open the season as a starting outfielder. DeJesus led off and had a team-high 61 walks. His seven stolen bases were third on the team. The Opening Day right fielder could be left-handed hitting newcomer Nate Schierholtz, who has a career average of .270 in six seasons with San Francisco and Philadelphia. He, like Soriano, has a cannon for an arm, and the two should make baserunners think twice about taking that extra base.
With just 63 games under his belt, Welington Castillo will be given the nod as the Cubs’ starting catcher. Last year, in his first significant action in the majors, Castillo hit .265 in 170 at-bats with 51 strikeouts. He is regarded as an outstanding defensive player. If he can just hit a little, he will be a more-than-adequate replacement for Geovany Soto, who was traded last season.
Outfielder Dave Sappelt showed some hitting and speed in a brief stint with the Cubs and could make a case to stick around. Backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a left-handed hitter, has hit .309 in 548 games in the minors but just .202 in his first 71 big-league games and could share backup duties behind the plate with Dioner Navarro. Clevenger can play first and maybe even some third if his bat comes to life. Valbuena filled in when Stewart was hurt last year. He didn’t impress with the bat but was a good fielder. Scott Hairston and Brent Lillibridge bring experience and versatility to the bench.
Epstein cleaned house in his first year with the Cubs. With all of the changes comes an adjustment period — which will require patience from the long-suffering fans. Epstein didn’t get it done with the Red Sox overnight, but he eventually delivered two World Series crowns to the city. His plan is to stock the minor league system with valuable assets. It figures to pay off in the long run, but the struggles in the short term will continue.
The offseason moves were underwhelming. It’s pretty clear there will not be a quick fix. But there is hope that the Cubs will be an improved team in 2013. The starting pitching should be better, and the lineup has some potential if Rizzo develops into a consistent producer and Soriano continues to deliver. There have been times in the not-so-distant past — 1998, 2003 and 2007 — when the Cubs have stunned the baseball world by making the playoffs the season after winning fewer than 70 games. There aren’t, however, many signs pointing in that direction for 2013.
Lineup CF David DeJesus (L)
Will become a more effective leadoff man if he can improve against lefties (.149 last year). SS Starlin Castro (R)
Proven hitter for average — .297 in three full seasons — but is probably a better fit for a No.2 hitter than No.3. 1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Hit .338 with runners in scoring position in his first run with the Cubs last year. LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
Slugged .499, hit 32 homers and drove in 108 runs in ’12. Will continue to be shopped. RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Was known as “Nate the Great” with Giants. Ready to rebound after a toe injury hampered him last August. 3B Ian Stewart (L)
Hoping back-to-back nightmare seasons at the plate — and in the health department — are behind him. But a strained quad has sent him to the DL. C Welington Castillo (R)
Solid defensive tools for a player who could be around awhile if his offense develops. 2B Darwin Barney (R)
Already has a Gold Glove under his belt. Has the tools to be a solid No. 2 hitter eventually.
Bench IF Luis Valbuena (L)
He’s an ideal candidate as a late-inning replacement; good glove but light bat (.219 in 2012), but will fill in at third until Stewart gets healthy. C-1B Steve Clevenger (L)
Will be challenged by Dioner Navarro for the backup backstop position in spring training. C Dioner Navarro (S)
Has just 369 at-bats over last three seasons total. OF Dave Sappelt (R)
Could grab the final spot on the roster if prospect Brett Jackson is shipped back to Class AAA. OF Scott Hairston (R)
Utility player will get lots of at-bats, especially against left-handed pitching. UT Brent Lillibridge (R)
If he shows he can offer anything offensively, the valuable defender can keep a job.
Rotation RH Jeff Samardzija
Impressed in his first extended time as a big-league starter and led the club with 180 strikeouts. RH Matt Garza
Could be dealt if he bounces back from elbow injury; has a 15–17 record in two seasons with the Cubs. Strained lat will keep him out for at least the first few weeks. RH Edwin Jackson
Has been on eight teams since 2003 but picked up the long-term contract he’s been seeking with the Cubs. RH Scott Feldman
Had a 5.00-plus ERA in 2010 and 2012 for Texas and is now looking for success in the National League. LH Travis Wood
Second on the team with 14 quality starts last year, but will have to fight to win the final rotation spot.
Bullpen RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Will enter the season as the Cubs closer, but don’t be surprised if the team shops him aggressively. RH Kyuji Fujikawa
Will open the season as a setup man, but has the tools to close. Put up dominant numbers in Japan. RH Shawn Camp
Had six losses but led the squad with 18 holds last year; tied for the NL lead with 80 appearances. RH Carlos Villanueva
Has valuable experience as both a starter and reliever; a strong spring could vault him into the rotation. Should fill in for Garza in the rotation. LH James Russell
Seven wins and a 3.25 ERA in 2012 gives him an edge as the top left-handed setup man in 2013. RH Michael Bowden
Had a 2.95 ERA with the Cubs in 30 appearances after a long stint with Class AAA Iowa. RH Hector Rondon
Rule 5 pick should spend the summer eating lots of innings in Chicago.
The Reds are on the short list of contenders to win the World Series
The Reds dove head-first into the 2012 season determined to make a run at more than just the NL Central division when they traded away Edinson Volquez and two prospects to acquire starting pitcher Mat Latos. That run might have fallen short in a five-game loss to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the divisional series, but it showed the organization that it isn’t far away. As was the case last offseason, general manager Walt Jocketty didn’t hesitate to make another significant trade. He acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from Cleveland in a three-team exchange that sent center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians and minor league shortstop Didi Gregorious to Arizona. Jocketty strengthened a club deficiency by parting ways with talented players who weren’t going to fit into Cincinnati’s future plans. The Reds struggled with their 1-2 hitters last year, but Choo’s presence in the leadoff spot followed by Brandon Phillips should solidify the batting order and provide plenty of opportunities for Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce to drive in runs, especially at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
This is a maturing group that could be as good as any rotation in the majors for the next few years. Only Bronson Arroyo (36) will be older than 27 during the season. Johnny Cueto was a Cy Young candidate last season, and Latos went 9–2 with a 2.43 ERA over his final 19 starts. Homer Bailey set career highs for wins (13), starts (33), quality starts (21), innings (208) and strikeouts (168). No NL starter has more wins, starts or innings pitched since 2006 than Arroyo. With the experiement to move closer Aroldis Chapman into the rotation now ended, Mike Leake is back in. Leake, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, started 30 games last season and threw 179.0 innings.
Chapman proved to be one of the best closers in the game last season with 38 saves and 122 strikeouts in just 71.2 innings. Aside from a second lefthander to go along with Sean Marshall, the bullpen has plenty of pieces. Jonathan Broxton, who has 111 career saves, is the primary setup man. Marshall, signed through 2015, started last season as the closer but was moved into a setup role as Chapman emerged and excelled in that role. Jose Arredondo had 66 appearances for a bullpen group that led the majors in ERA (2.65) and saves (56) and led the NL in opponents’ batting average (.219). Arredondo seemed to tire down the stretch and wasn’t as effective late in the year. J.J. Hoover, acquired in a trade with Atlanta last April, has closer-type potential and could provide valuable innings that Nick Masset was slated to handle last year before a spring training injury sidelined him. Masset had shoulder surgery in September, and his availability for the start of this season is unknown. The Reds aren’t going to wait around for him. Sam LeCure, once seen as a potential No. 5 starter, has found his niche as a long reliever who can be counted on in tight situations. He allowed just two hits over his final 10 appearances last season as he set a career-high with 48 games. Manny Parra, a member of Milwaukee’s starting rotation for three seasons, has found a home in the bullpen.
Phillips did everything but win the Gold Glove last season, while Zack Cozart became the first rookie to start at short for the Reds on Opening Day since 1971. His development made Gregorious expendable. Cozart showed good power with 33 doubles and 15 home runs, but his .246 average was a detriment at the leadoff spot. He’ll hit down in the order this season. Phillips was the team’s MVP. He’s versatile enough to hit in any spot in the order — an ability similar to what Barry Larkin showed in his playing days for the Reds — but should settle into the No. 2 hole behind Choo and in front of Votto. Phillips and the Reds agreed on a six-year extension last season in part because he’s grown from a highlight-reel defensive player into an all-around threat.
Votto missed 48 games with a knee injury and didn’t have the same pop in his bat when he returned in September, but he was still respected enough that he managed a .474 on-base percentage, 94 walks and 18 intentional walks. He hit .337 with 44 doubles but just 14 home runs and 56 RBIs. Better production at the top of the lineup and a return to full health should make Votto an MVP candidate. Todd Frazier takes over the everyday duties at third for Scott Rolen after being a fill-in at multiple positions last season when he was third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. There will be more pressure on Frazier to produce this season now that he has a starting role. Last season, he was the guy everyone wanted to see more of in the lineup. Those people will get their wish this season.
Bruce is a two-time All-Star and will be just 26 this season. He improved on his consistency, going through fewer lulls at the plate, and increased his home run total (34) for the fifth straight season. He finished with 99 RBIs. Choo will be playing center field on an everyday basis for the first time in his career, but the smaller dimensions of Great American Ball Park should make that an easier transition than it might sound. Ludwick found his groove in the second half of last season and carried it right through the postseason, earning a two-year deal. He finished with 26 homers and 80 RBIs, including hitting .421 with runners in scoring position over his final 57 chances. He has legitimate power to be the cleanup hitter and provide protection for Votto in the lineup. If this threesome has any major weakness, it would be defensively, especially in center.
Devin Mesoraco might be the catcher of the future, but Ryan Hanigan is still the catcher of the present. He’s got great rapport with the pitching staff (3.05 ERA with him behind the plate), throws extremely well and handles the bat admirably. He hit .274 mostly batting in the No. 8 hole. Mesoraco got plenty of experience last season but didn’t see much action down the stretch. He hit only .212 with five home runs and 14 RBIs.
The Reds will be more versatile off the bench this season. Chris Heisey can play all three outfield spots and gives some speed and power. Xavier Paul found a niche as a left-handed bat, something missing for much of last season. Infielder Jack Hannahan was signed as a free agent from Cleveland and provides another left-handed bat and can play first and third. Infielder Jason Donald was also part of the Choo deal and will give the Reds depth in the middle of the defense.
Owner Bob Castellini has set winning as a priority, and the entire organization follows his lead. Jocketty identified the team’s needs and addressed them by re-signing Ludwick, trading for Choo and signing Hannahan. Manager Dusty Baker signed an extension through 2014 late last season. He’s criticized for a constant shuffling of the lineup, but his formula keeps players fresh, and players respond well to his style.
The Reds are on the short list of contenders to win the World Series. The starting pitching is coming into its own, especially if Bailey continues the maturity and development he showed last season. This is a strong defensive team, even with the loss of Stubbs, and the lineup has the potential to be as good as any in the majors.
Lineup CF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
Career .289 hitter will provide decent pop in center field; had 43 doubles and 16 HRs with Cleveland last season. 2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Had 52 multi-hit games to lead club while batting leadoff (28 games), third (43 games) and fourth (73 games). 1B Joey Votto (L)
Led Reds in OBP for third straight season, joining Joe Morgan as only player to accomplish the feat. LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit .313 with 21 doubles, 18 home runs, 53 RBIs in his last 80 games, securing his spot in the everyday lineup. RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera as only players with at least 34 homers, 35 doubles and 99 RBIs. 3B Todd Frazier (R)
Won Players Choice Award as the NL’s outstanding Rookie after ranking in the top 10 among rookies in BA, HR, RBIs. SS Zack Cozart (R)
Became one of four shortstops in franchise history to have 30 doubles and 15 home runs in a season. C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Caught 11 of the 12 shutouts by the pitchers and six of nine complete games by starters.
Bench C Devin Mesoraco (R)
Optioned to Class AAA in August before returning in September, making just two appearances the rest of the way. OF Chris Heisey (R)
Started 80 games and received the team’s Heart & Hustle Award for his passionate play. OF Xavier Paul (L)
Found his niche as a pinch-hitter after July call-up, hitting .314 in 55 games for Reds. IF Jack Hannahan (L)
Experienced at all four infield spots, primarily at third base and first base, but has had lingering back issues. IF Jason Donald (R)
Has yet to have a full season in the big leagues but has versatility to play third base, second base and shortstop.
Rotation RH Johnny Cueto
Cy Young candidate also helped himself at plate with 17 sacrifices, tying Philadelphia’s Juan Pierre for NL lead. RH Mat Latos
Has already made 105 starts before his 25th birthday,
including 30-plus each of last three seasons. RH Bronson Arroyo
Has thrown 200 or more innings seven of last eight
seasons. The one season he didn’t, he had 199 innings. RH Homer Bailey
Finally finding consistency to match first-round talent. Won four starts in a row last July for first time in career. RH Mike Leake
Was odd man out with Chapman in rotation but has earned his way back in the rotation with Chapman closing.
Bullpen LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Got a long look as a starter, but with a week or so to go before the season, was moved back into the closer’s role. RH Jonathan Broxton
Saved all four chances he got when Chapman was out with shoulder soreness in September. RH Jose Arredondo
Had a career-high 66 appearances last season with 62 strikeouts, also a career best. RH J.J. Hoover
Allowed 17 hits in 30.2 innings over two stints with Reds,
including 0.71 ERA in final 11 appearances. LH Sean Marshall
Didn’t allow an earned run in his final 15 appearances of the season or any runs in final 13 games. RH Sam LeCure
Set a career high with 48 appearances, including throwing at least 2.0 innings 12 times. LH Manny Parra
A former starter with the Brewers, he held lefties to a .229 average in 62 games in relief last season.
The team can hit. But will the pitching be stingy enough to keep the team in the race?
It will all come down to pitching. Heard that one before, Brewers fans? Offensively, Milwaukee has a versatile and explosive lineup built to contend right now. The Brewers led the National League in runs, home runs and stolen bases a year ago, and every regular returns in 2013. So while Bernie Brewer should be plenty busy again this year, the hope is that the bullpen phone won’t ring so much. The team took a major step in improving the rotation while hopefully lessening the load on the bullpen with the signing of Kyle Lohse late in spring training. He and Yovani Gallardo are the only proven winners in the starting rotation, and the bullpen, though largely remade, was arguably the worst in the majors last year.
In Gallardo and Lohse, the Brewers boast two aces at the top of the rotation. Gallardo is a workhorse who almost always keeps his team in the game and can be counted on to be among the league leaders in strikeouts. He has started three consecutive Opening Days, and there’s zero doubt that he’ll again anchor Milwaukee’s rotation. Just how soon Lohse will be ready this season is a question, given that he signed on March 26, just six days prior to the Brewers’ first game. A victim of a shrinking free agent market, the 34-year-old inked a three-year deal for $33 million. Lohse has been a double-digit winner just five times in his 12-year career, but was 30-11 with a 3.11 ERA in just under 400 innings for the Cardinals over the past two seasons. He will offer a huge boost to the rotation. However, the contract may not look so good in 2015. The big question is, who will follow them? Veterans Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson, both of whom have pitched well in starting roles in the past, are the third and fourth starters. Both missed time with injury last year (Estrada missed a month with a quad strain; Narveson was out nearly the whole year with a torn rotator cuff) and both have experience pitching out of the bullpen, so manager Ron Roenicke may opt to put one or both of them there to solidify a shaky relief corps. Mike Fiers was surprisingly effective over his first 16 starts (8–6, 2.85), but seemed to tire as he faltered down the stretch (1–4, 7.09 in last six starts). Mark Rogers, a former No. 1 draft pick who saw his ascent slowed by injuries, finally got his chance and pitched well, striking out 41 in 39 innings. Big Wily Peralta, the organization’s top pitching prospect, threw well in his first big-league stint late last year (2–1, 2.48). He’ll get a shot at some point this season.
There’s nowhere to go but up. Brewer firemen had a bad habit of starting more infernos than they extinguished for a significant stretch of 2012, dooming any chance Milwaukee would return to the postseason for a second consecutive year. The good news is that flame-throwing closer John Axford seemed to fix his problems late in the year (converting 17 of his final 18 save opportunities), and just about all the other arsonists are gone. After toiling in the minor leagues for 10 years, Jim Henderson finally made it to The Show in 2012 and pitched well enough that he’ll be the set-up man for Axford. Brandon Kintzler, another late-season addition, will also get plenty of late-inning work. Lefties in the bullpen have been a rarity in recent years, but the Brewers picked up two from the Washington Nationals in the offseason, Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez. So, the Brewers return the closer who led the majors in blown saves and everybody else is either new or relatively unproven. A recipe for success?
Milwaukee’s middle infield promises to be one of the most dynamic in the National League. At second, Rickie Weeks worked hard to dig himself out of a major early-season hole (raising his average from .190 to .230 by hitting .282 over his final 65 games), and his powerful bat is a rarity at the position. As always, the question is whether he can stay away from injury. The Brewers have struggled to find a reliable shortstop for several years, but the Crew believes they’ve found one in 23-year old Jean Segura, the key pickup in the Zack Greinke trade. Though he’s a free-swinger, Segura has the tools at the plate and in the field to be a fixture in the Milwaukee infield for years to come.
At third, Aramis Ramirez was just what the Brewers hoped for in his first year in Milwaukee, putting up his usual impressive numbers at the plate (hitting .300 and collecting 100 RBIs for the seventh time and notching his 10th career 25-homer campaign) and leading all NL third basemen in fielding percentage. At first, Corey Hart settled into his new position nicely and didn’t let the transition affect his offensive performance. However, knee surgery in January will delay his season up to a month. Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who has 1,536 games at short and none anywhere else on the diamond, will don the first baseman’s mitt to start the season. His season ended last year after just 24 games due a torn ACL.
If you’re a fan of the No. 8, you’d better enjoy watching Ryan Braun wear it because odds are it will never be donned by anyone else ever again in Milwaukee. Braun seems assured of going down as one of the Brewers’ all-time greats, and he’s still only 29 years old. One of the game’s most prolific sluggers, Braun followed up on his MVP season by posting numbers that were just as gaudy, leading the NL in homers, total bases, runs and OPS. In center, Carlos Gomez has finally established himself as a legitimate everyday player. He’s always been a plus defender, and last year he became much more consistent at the plate, putting up career bests in just about every category and ranking as one of only five players in the majors with at least 15 homers and 30 stolen bases. There was no more pleasant surprise in Milwaukee last year than Norichika Aoki. Arriving from Japan with little fanfare, Aoki’s emergence allowed Hart to move to first base. As a catalyst at the top of the lineup, Aoki has a nice blend of speed and occasional power.
Roenicke has a nice problem behind the plate with two more-than-capable backstops. Starter Jonathan Lucroy ranks among the top hitting catchers in the game today; his .320 average last year was the best among Milwaukee catchers in team history. When he missed a long stretch due to a hand injury last year, Martin Maldonado stepped in and showed he belonged in the bigs. Defensively, he’s better than Lucroy, and he more than holds his own at the plate. Expect him to see more action than the typical backup.
The bench has rarely been a strong point in Milwaukee, and this year is no exception. With regulars firmly established at every position, there will be little opportunity — barring injury — for significant at-bats for anyone on the pine. Logan Schafer is a nice fourth outfielder, bringing superior defense and great speed. Taylor Green is a capable left-handed pinch-hitting option, and Maldonado will spell Lucroy behind the plate.
Brewer fans have every reason to be confident in the franchise’s leadership. Even though he’s cut payroll back this year, owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend money and make bold trades to give the team a chance to win. GM Doug Melvin has assembled a group that has won consistently, a fact that should not be taken for granted in Brew Town. The franchise has posted four winning seasons the last six years; this after zero plus-.500 campaigns the previous 14 seasons. Roenicke made a great first impression, leading the Crew to the NLCS in 2011, but last year may have been a more impressive performance, guiding the club through an early offensive slump and a midseason bullpen meltdown to eventually get the team back in playoff contention.
Brewer fans are a little confused about how to approach this season, and with good reason. Is it a rebuilding year? With a group of unproven starting pitchers and a re-tooled bullpen, it looks that way. Is the Crew a contender? With a proven offensive attack, it’s hard to count them out. Here’s the most positive way to look at it: Expectations will be lower than they were a year ago. The team can hit. Axford may have solved his problems, and the rest of the bullpen is new. A bunch of talented young pitchers are looking to make their mark. It’s more fun to be the hunter than the hunted. Sound good, Crew fans? If not, there’s always the Sausage Race.
Lineup RF Norichika Aoki (L)
Versatile offensive threat who ranked among NL’s most potent rookie bats in 2012. 2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Veteran overcame horrendous early-season slump by
hitting .282 over final 65 games. LF Ryan Braun (R)
Perennial All-Star is only player in the majors with 100 runs and RBIs in each of last four seasons. 3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
Steady presence at hot corner batted .327 over final 111 games, raising average from .218 to .300. C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Arguably best offensive catcher in team history; .320 average was tops ever among Brewer catchers. CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Solid defender coming off career-best year at plate — notched career highs in homers (19) and steals (37). 1B Alex Gonzalez (R)
The veteran shortstop who lost most of last season to a knee injury, will be the stopgap at first until Corey Hart is healthy. SS Jean Segura (R)
Highly touted prospect was key acquisition in Zach Greinke trade; hit .329 in final 22 games.
Bench 1B Corey Hart (R)
Moved to new position and still excelled at plate, ranking among NL leaders in HRs and extra-base hits. Knee surgery in January has delayed his season. INF Taylor Green (L)
Became first Brewer since Prince Fielder (2005) to collect first two career homers as pinch-hitter. A strained hip has landed him on the DL, but he shouldn’t miss too much time. C Martin Maldonado (R)
Outstanding defensive catcher gets results — team was 10 games over .500 in his 58 starts. OF Logan Schafer (L)
Speedy centerfielder is ideal fourth outfielder with good defensive skills. INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Second-round pick in 2005 made his first appearance in the majors last year, hitting .188 in 69 at-bats.
Rotation RH Yovani Gallardo
Ace produced second-most quality starts in NL (25); has four straight seasons with 200-plus strikeouts RH Kyle Lohse
The Cardinals’ ace in 2012 pitches to contact. He had a 1.090 WHIP last season, but just 143 whiffs in 211 innings. RH Marco Estrada
Bounced back from injury to go 5–2 with 2.03 ERA in final eight starts of season. LH Chris Narveson
Opened season in rotation but suffered year-ending rotator cuff injury after just two starts. RH Mike Fiers
Ranked third among NL rookies in wins (nine), strikeouts (135), ERA (3.74) and IP (127.2).
Bullpen RH John Axford (Closer)
His 81 saves over last two seasons are third-most in MLB; had career-high 93 K’s in ’12. RH Jim Henderson
Made big-league debut after 10 seasons in minors; pitched well enough to earn set-up role in ’13. RH Brandon Kintzler
Worked way back from injury to add stability to Brewer pen; retired 12 of 14 first-batters faced. RH Mark Rogers
Lost his spot in the rotation after team signed Lohse; struck out 41 in 39 IP a year ago. Begins the season on the DL, but not too serious. LH Mike Gonzalez
Veteran lefty held left-handed batters to .179 average last year; has 56 career saves and could be closer in a pinch. LH Tom Gorzelanny
Steady veteran lefty is equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters; can also spot start. RH Alfredo Figaro
Non-roster player has earned the final spot in the pen. RH Burke Badenhop
Could be the odd man out when Rogers returns.
Can the lineup and rotation stay healthy enough for the Cardinals to contend?
After another unlikely October comeback, the Cardinals won three quick games against San Francisco and found themselves one victory away from a second consecutive National League pennant and the World Series. It was where they planned to be. It was not how they planned to get there. The Cardinals took several detours before their seventh National League Championship Series since 2000, navigating around a spring training injury to ace Chris Carpenter and the loss of Albert Pujols (to free agency) and Tony La Russa (to retirement). Rookie manager Mike Matheny inherited the 2011 World Series champs and drove them to contention despite a maddening offense. The Cardinals scored the second-most runs in the NL, but did so in gulps. In 44 of their 162 games they scored two or fewer runs and went 5–39 in those games. A third consecutive second-place finish in the NL Central meant the Cardinals needed the grace of Bud Selig’s second Wild Card to reach the postseason. Once there, the offense helped oust Atlanta in the Wild Card Game and proved timely for the Cardinals’ record rally from a 6–0 deficit to Washington in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Then, true to the trend, the lineup wilted. The Cards scored one run in the final three games of the NLCS, and the Giants claimed the pennant. Denied a fourth trip to the World Series in nine years, the Cardinals confronted their contrast: To match the team that was one win shy of the World Series, they first had to address what also made them the team that finished nine games behind Cincinnati.
Adam Wainwright returned from the elbow surgery that stole his 2011 season, but Carpenter had recurring nerve issues in his right shoulder and eventually surrendered to surgery. Second-year righty Lance Lynn won 18 games as his sub. Kyle Lohse’s 2.86 ERA anchored the rotation’s 3.62 ERA, fourth-lowest in the majors. Jaime Garcia struggled because of a shoulder injury that did not require surgery but will be closely monitored during the spring. The absences tested the Cardinals’ pitching depth, and they passed with surging prospects. Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and Shelby Miller — all 24 or younger — proved themselves capable of joining the rotation. Wainwright became stronger as the season progressed and appears to be back in Cy Young form. Carpenter, on the other hand, appears to be at the end of his career due to continued nerve problems. Lynn has nailed down a spot in the rotation, as has Garcia as long as his shoulder holds up. It’s now Miller’s time to join the group as the fifth starter.
After weeks of letting leads slip in the unsteady seventh inning, the Cardinals’ grip improved with the addition of Edward Mujica. Acquired at the trade deadline, the splitfinger-firing righty gave Matheny an effective, three-step approach: Mujica in the seventh, NL holds leader Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and closer Jason Motte (42 saves) in the ninth. That trio was the backbone of a bullpen that had an average age of 26 in the postseason and, led by Rosenthal’s 100-mph heat, overpowered with fastballs often surpassing 97 mph. But it was still lacking a lefty. The Cardinals signed veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate, who has held left-handed batters to a .173 average since 2010, and expect him to further simplify the relief recipe.
Rafael Furcal’s season ended with a torn ligament in his right elbow in August. Rehab created optimism, but his elbow didn’t hold up in spring training and he’s lost for the season. Rookie Pete Kozma’s unexpected punch from shortstop in September fueled the postseason run. He’ll get the call from the start of the season this year. It remains to be seen how he can produce over the long haul. Matheny will have an interesting decision at second. He has incumbent Daniel Descalso, a solid defender, and Matt Carpenter, a third baseman by trade. Carpenter batted .294 with an .828 OPS last season. Contrast that with Descalso’s .227/.627. Both will get some time there as Matheny must choose between offense and defense, at least until Carpenter gains some experience.
Allen Craig’s move to everyday play at first base happened a year earlier than expected, but his production was exactly as imagined. Despite missing a month recovering from knee surgery, Craig delivered 92 RBIs and a .522 slugging percentage. Since 2011, Craig’s .889 OPS ranks 17th among hitters with at least 700 plate appearances, and he’s the only one in the top 24 who hasn’t been an All-Star. That should change. Craig and third baseman Dave Freese were two of the five Cardinals who hit at least 20 home runs, a first for the club. Freese set career highs in homers and RBIs because of one big change: health. The hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 October run played more than 100 games in the majors for the first time in 2012. Now healthy again is an issue as a balky back has landed Freese on the DL to begin the season. Optimistically, he’ll miss no more than a week or so.
With Pujols away and Lance Berkman reduced to 32 games due to knee injuries, Carlos Beltran became a worthy and necessary complement to Matt Holliday. Beltran’s 32 home runs and 97 RBIs were his highest totals since 2007. Holliday’s .903 OPS since 2010, his first year with the Cardinals, ranks fifth in the NL, and he and Beltran are the only current teammates to rank in the top nine in OPS during that span. Often hitting back-to-back, they were bookends in the field around Jon Jay, who became a deft center fielder and then a capable leadoff hitter when Furcal faltered. With three stalwarts, prospect Oscar Taveras offers intrigue in the outfield. The heir to Beltran in right, Taveras, 20, could see playing time in center if he sticks out of spring training, which isn’t likely.
Yadier Molina’s record-setting season ended with a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP, the highest for a Cardinals catcher since Tim McCarver was second in 1967. On his way to a fifth consecutive Gold Glove Award, Molina became the first Cardinals’ catcher in more than three decades to hit 22 home runs and drive in 76 runs. With a .315 average, he led the team in batting for the second consecutive season, all while nurturing a pitching staff to a 3.60 ERA with him behind the plate. Molina started 133 games, leaving few for Tony Cruz, an adept backup despite the limited activity that will likely continue. Molina enters the first season of a five-year, $75-million extension signed in March 2012 insisting that “what I did was good, but I know I can do more.”
The Cardinals moved quickly this winter to add the player they believed their bench missed late in games last summer. Ty Wigginton signed to provide right-handed power potential and a veteran presence — “a piece, by definition, that you (cannot) get from your system,” GM John Mozeliak explains. Greenhorns and a rotating cast of minor leaguers will still be asked to provide bench options — like rookie slugger Matt Adams, a true left-handed threat — but Wigginton’s addition concedes that an unproven and improvised bench left Matheny shorthanded last season.
A rookie manager, Matheny showed he could work around injuries, integrate youth, and massage a lineup to avoid overtaxing players. Over the winter, the club tinkered with the roster to better fit his managing style. Mozeliak’s increased imprint on the organization includes the expanded use of analytics and a business model that rewards in-house players and avoids bidding wars. In five seasons as GM, Mozeliak has routinely made midseason moves to solve weaknesses, like the bullpen in 2011 and 2012. The trades have recently been subtle, yet substantive. Now with a cache of young pitching talent, he has the means and awaits the motivation to make a splash.
The Cardinals had a quiet winter, content to use a thin free-agent market for fine-tuning. With several aging contributors, health remains their biggest risk, but less so as the club has a stronger, self-sufficient farm system ready to keep them consistently competitive. There are many routes to their stated goal of annually reaching the playoffs. And the Cardinals, twice a champ as the Wild Card, know October’s abiding rule: A team just has to get in it to win it.
Lineup CF Jon Jay (L)
In his first year as the everyday center fielder, Jay seized the leadoff role with a .303 average when batting No. 1. RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Seven-time All-Star brought desired jolt to Pujols-free lineup, with 32 homers and 97 RBIs, his best totals since 2007. LF Matt Holliday (R)
Through nagging hip and back injuries, outfielder played 157 games and was an offensive fulcrum with team-high 102 RBIs. 1B Allen Craig (R)
In his first season as an everyday player, ranked seventh in the NL in both average (.307) and slugging (.522). C Yadier Molina (R)
After signing a 5-year, $75-million extension, Molina set career highs in home runs (22), RBIs (76), and batting average (.315). 3B David Freese (R)
Adding 2012 health to his 2011 heroics, Freese set highs for homers (20), RBIs (79) and games played (144). Injuries continue to plague Freese this spring as a bad back has landed him on the DL again. 2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Emerged as the starter at second in September, overcoming a difficult offensive season with sure-handed play at the pivot. SS Pete Kozma (R)
Thrust into starting job at short late last season, he responded with a .333 average and a .569 slugging percentage in 26 games.
Bench UT Matt Carpenter (L)
Called “offensive spark” for production in a reserve role, he’s being outfitted for more playing time and a new position. He replaces Freese at third (his natural position) to start the season, but it will be interesting to see if he hits enough to replace the better defender (Descalso) at second once Freese returns. UT Ty Wigginton (R)
Craving a seasoned presence for clubhouse and right-handed pop for the bench, Cards signed veteran who hit 22 HRs in 2010. 1B Matt Adams (L)
The slugger had 24 strikeouts and 21 hits in an audition last season. C Tony Cruz (R)
Proven to be a reliable backup for his handling pitchers and ability to also play corner positions. OF Shane Robinson (R)
Need for a right-handed-hitting center fielder off the bench creates an opportunity for solid-fielding Florida State alum. IF Ryan Jackson
Recalled when Freese went on the DL.
Rotation RH Adam Wainwright
Gaining strength with each start after elbow surgery, Wainwright went 5–1 with a 2.75 ERA in six August starts. LH Jaime Garcia
Inconsistency stemmed from a shoulder injury he insists he can overcome without surgery. Has 2013 to prove it. RH Lance Lynn
Burly righty filled Carpenter’s spot in the rotation with an 11–4 record and 3.41 ERA in first half before stamina faltered. RH Jake Westbrook
Sinkerballer’s 3.97 ERA was his lowest in a full season since 2004, and his overall sturdiness earned an extension for 2013. RH Shelby Miller
The top prospect finally joins the rotation full-time.
Bullpen RH Jason Motte (Closer)
In first season as surefire closer, Motte collected every save for the Cardinals, tying for league lead with 42. A sore elbow has shelved the former catcher and could delay his season. RH Mitchell Boggs
Fulfilling his promise to be an impact pitcher in 2012, power righty led NL and set club record with 34 holds. He’ll close in Motte’s absence. RH Edward Mujica
Acquired at the trade deadline, veteran righthander became the seventh-inning solution with 18 holds and a 1.03 ERA. RH Fernando Salas
Led team with 24 saves in 2011, but that workload may have contributed to erratic, ragged results in 2012. RH Trevor Rosenthal
Flamethrowing rookie was a postseason revelation as he struck out 15 of the 30 batters he faced in October. LH Marc Rzepczynski
Perhaps miscast as a specialist; Cards hope addition of second lefty allows “Scrabble” to reset and thrive in late innings. LH Randy Choate
The 37-year-old received a 3-year, $7.5-million commitment from the Cards because he’s the lefty neutralizer they lacked. RH Joe Kelly
Will take on the long relief role if Motte is out for an extended time.
Is the year the Pirates break their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons?
If the season ended in mid-September, the Pirates’ streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons would be over. Alas, the Major League campaign continues to run through September, and the Pirates have to find a way to keep playing well throughout the entire season. Their record after Aug. 1 the past two seasons is a combined 37–76, costing them a chance (twice) at making a run at a postseason berth. So how do the Pirates get over the hump in the final third of the season?
Righthander A.J. Burnett and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, both acquired in trades last season, are the top two starters. Burnett went 16–10 with a 3.51 ERA after coming over from the New York Yankees in the early days of spring training. Rodriguez was acquired from Houston in a late-July trade and was 5–4 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 games with the Pirates and 12–13 with a 3.76 ERA overall. Righthander James McDonald went 9–3 with a 2.37 ERA before the All-Star break but finished 12–8 with a 4.21 ERA and was yanked from the rotation in the season’s final weeks. One of pitching coach Ray Searage’s biggest challenges this spring will be to get McDonald back to his first-half form. Another priority for the affable Searage will be finding a way to turn Jeanmar Gomez, acquired from Cleveland in a January trade, into a reliable starter. The 25-year-old Gomez had a 14–16 record in three years with the Tribe, but he had his worst season in 2012, going 5–8 with a 5.96 ERA in 20 games, including 17 starts. He’ll probably start the season in the bullpen until he proves he has turned the corner. The Bucs will turn to one youngster and one journeyman to complete the rotation. Lefty Jeff Locke, just 25, will get a chance to start every fifth day. Jonathan Sanchez, with just one successful season — 2010 with the Giants — on his résumé, will begin the season in the fifth spot.
Setup man Jason Grilli will be elevated to closer following the offseason trade of two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston. Hanrahan converted 76-of-84 save opportunities during his two years as the Pirates’ closer. Meanwhile, Grilli has five saves in 10 big-league seasons. However, the Pirates are convinced the 36-year-old can pitch effectively in the ninth inning after he struck out 90 batters in 58.2 innings last season. They signed him to a two-year, $6.75 million deal in the offseason. Mark Melancon, who came over in the Hanrahan trade, will get a chance to pitch in a setup role despite struggling (6.20 ERA in 41 games) with the Red Sox last season. Jared Hughes will also pitch late in games after proving to be durable as a rookie in 2012. He worked in 66 games and recorded a 2.85 ERA. Tony Watson served as the lone left-handed reliever for most of last season and led the team with 68 appearances, posting a 3.38 ERA. Righthander Chris Leroux, out of minor league options, is likely to make the team as well. Gomez will pitch in long relief early, but he should eventually replace Sanchez in the rotation.
The double-play combination of shortstop Clint Barmes and second baseman Neil Walker is not the flashiest in the big leagues, but they form a solid defensive duo. Barmes struggled at the plate last year in the first season of a two-year, $10.5-million free agent contract, hitting only .229 with eight home runs in 455 at-bats. Walker hit .280 with 14 homers but missed most of September with a herniated disc in his lower back.
Few big-league hitters have more raw power than third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but he is still refining his game. He hit 30 home runs in 2012, his first full season in the majors, but also had a .244 batting average and 180 strikeouts. First baseman Garrett Jones had the best season of his five-year career, hitting .274 and belting 27 homers. However, Jones is a career .198 hitter against left-handed pitchers and will be often spelled against southpaws by Gaby Sanchez.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen had his best season yet in 2012 as he won back-to-back National League Player of the Month awards in June and July, hitting a combined .405 with 14 home runs in 52 games. He capped the year by winning his first career NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He finished the season hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. A group of five players — Starling Marte, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata — began the spring competing for the other two starting spots. Marte hit .257 with five homers and 12 steals in 47 games as a rookie last season, while Presley, who began the year as the starting left fielder, batted .237 with 10 homers. Sands played in 70 games with the Dodgers the past two seasons and hit only .244 with four homers. Snider battled hamstring problems after being acquired from Toronto in a late-July trade last season and hit just .250 with one homer in 50 games. Tabata flopped in the first year of a six-year, $15-million contract, posting a .243 batting average with only three home runs. For now, the Pirates will go with Marte and Snider. But both are one slump away from demotion.
The Pirates made a rare free-agent splash by signing Russell Martin for two years and $17 million after he hit a career-high 21 home runs for the Yankees. He also hit a career-worst .211 but should be a big upgrade defensively from Rod Barajas.
Michael McKenry is a solid No. 2 catcher with pop who hit 12 home runs in 88 games last season. Sanchez hit just .241 with four homers in 50 games after coming over from the Marlins last year but is being counted on as the top right-handed hitter off the bench. Josh Harrison is below average defensively, but he is valuable because he can play almost anywhere on the infield and both corner outfield spots. John McDonald, acquired from Arizona late in spring training, is the backup at middle infield. He is a terrific defender. Tabata, one of the odd men out in the outfield competition, should stick as the fourth outfielder.
Hurdle has changed the culture of the clubhouse and instilled confidence and a winning attitude in a young club during his two years as manager. While he may not be a master strategist, and his bombastic nature can be wearing at times, he is a motivator. General manager Neal Huntington has hit some potholes along the way but has improved the talent throughout the organization during his five-year tenure. Huntington has whiffed on a number of free-agent signings, so it’s important that Martin — who received a big-money contract by the penny-pinching Pirates’ standards — plays well enough to warrant his deal in 2013.
The last two seasons have ended in disappointment for the Pirates. But there’s no denying that this franchise has made significant progress in recent years. The Pirates went 79–83 last season and were just three wins away from finally ending their streak of sub-.500 finishes. Making a run at the postseason might be a stretch — even in the era of the second wild card — but a winning record appears to be a realistic goal in Pittsburgh.
Lineup LF Starling Marte (R)
Has the power and speed to be a star, but needs to raise his .300 on-base percentage. 2B Neil Walker (S)
A solid all-around second baseman with some pop in his bat, though back problems are a concern. CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Already one of the game’s biggest stars at 26, and he still has room to improve his all-around game. 1B Garrett Jones (L)
Mashes right-handed pitching, but his troubles against lefties keep him from playing every day. 3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Plenty of pop in his bat, but he also has plenty of holes in his swing; struck out 180 times last season. C Russell Martin (R)
Figures to give his new team solid run production and a strong presence behind the plate. RF Travis Snider (L)
Has seemingly been a prospect forever, but this season might be now or never for him. SS Clint Barmes (R)
Solid glove work is the only thing still keeping him in the lineup; hit a career-low .229 last season.
Bench C Michael McKenry (R)
Solid backup has surprising pop in his bat for a little guy, and pitchers love throwing to him. 1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Late-season power surge in 2012 provides hope he can offer more run production in 2013. UT Josh Harrison (R)
A true hacker as he has drawn just 13 walks in 480 big- league plate appearances. OF Jose Tabata (R)
Still just 24, but the regression of his power and speed is alarming; has only 11 home runs in 1,072 at-bats. SS John McDonald (R)
The outstanding defender was picked up from Arizona late in spring training.
Rotation RH A.J. Burnett
Still has great stuff at 36 and was rejuvenated last season by getting traded from the Yankees to Pirates. LH Wandy Rodriguez
Southpaw’s outstanding command allows him to compete with an average arsenal. RH James McDonald
Has the stuff to be an ace but lacks both the confidence and mental toughness to be a top-of-rotation fixture. LH Jonathan Sanchez
Discounting his breakout (and fluky?) 2010, he’s 26-46 with a 1.52 WHIP and 5.09 ERA for his career. LH Jeff Locke
Only twice in 10 career starts has he completed six innings, never more than that. But in his last start in 2012, he allowed just two hits and one run over six innings to the Braves.
Bullpen RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
The journeyman is throwing harder than ever at 37 and was dominant last season as a set-up man. RH Mark Melancon
Pirates hoping a switch back to the National League will get him back on track after a horrible year with Boston. LH Tony Watson
Took a little bit off his fastball last year in his first full big-league season and gained better command. RH Jared Hughes
He has an outstanding sinker and could be dominant if he develops a stronger second pitch. RH Chris Leroux
Tall pitcher whose arm angle makes it difficult for hitters to pick up his pitches. LH Justin Wilson
Converted starter has hit 99 mph with his fastball out of the bullpen. LH Jeanmar Gomez
Gets a fresh start in the National League after a rough 2012 with the Indians.