Since the Super Bowl occurs Sunday, one thing is certain: it is FINALLY time to start thinking about NL Central previews for the 2013 season. I began my roster and depth chart search in earnest yesterday, in order to frame my expectations for the division (I figure I must have a good narrative to spin about the division while I write best-case scenario analysis for each club). With the picture of the Brewers’ offseason — typically one viewed as “staying put” or “standing pat” — in my mind, I was surprised to learn that the bulk of the NL Central clubs are returning the bulk of their 2012 rosters, especially when it comes to their starting rotations.
We might find some clear exceptions to the idea that NL Central clubs are staying put with their rotations, but they are exceptions. Even in these cases, a sizable portion of new NL Central starting pitchers are organizational arms. Most notably, the Reds plan to convert Aroldis Chapman into a starter. Their biggest move outside the division was a trade that places former Indians favorite Shin-Soo Choo in centerfield; otherwise, it’s organizational depth and MLB regulars around the diamond (with top prospect Todd Frazier finally earning his chance).
Continuing with the division’s pitching staffs, we might send the “Most Important Changes Award” 90 miles south to our beloved rivals. The rebuilding Cubs arguably took the next step toward forming a competitive club, swapping-out replacement extraordinaire Chris Volstad for a pair of buy-low/high-upside Scotts: Scott Feldman and Scott Baker. Alongside those new faces, Edwin Jackson finally received some well-deserved stability, earning a four-year deal with the Cubs after anchoring the low-rotation for the Washington Nationals in 2012 (somebody should build a statue for him in Cooperstown, in honor of his service for deadline deals and off-season trades alike).
If the Cardinals don’t return free-agent Kyle Lohse, their rotation will probably get younger, as Shelby Miller is knocking on the MLB door. The same can obviously be said for our beloved Milwaukee Nine, and Pittsburgh; their MLB.com depth chart includes Jeff Locke, as well as perennial improvement-candidates James McDonald and Jeff Karstens.
Would it be harsh to suggest that every NL Central rotation features a gang of question marks?
Let’s start with the Cincinnati Reds, who probably boast the division’s hardest thrower (and, potential rotation changer). I can’t be the only one that (a) questions Chapman’s ability to switch from extraordinary short reliever to MLB starter, and (b) is happier that the Brewers’ right-handed heavy batting order can see Chapman several times in a game, rather than once in the ninth (while trailing). Granted, this is selling Chapman short, and everyone from C.J. Wilson to Adam Wainwright proves that Chapman can have success moving from relief roles to starting roles.
With the Reds, I’m much more interested in whether Bronson Arroyo can maintain his exceptional shift from 2011 to 2012; certainly one might not agree that Arroyo’s true ability was only as good as his 2011 replacement-level season, but one might also question his ability to maintain a 2012 campaign in which he was one of the NL’s most valuable starters. The same goes for Homer Bailey‘s shift; has the ace-in-waiting arrived? What of Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos? Are they poised to improve and build one of the NL’s best one-two punches?
If you think the Brewers’ rotation has question marks, think about the Reds’ 2012 performances. In 2012, nearly every one of the Reds’ starters (except Mike Leake) had a runs prevented shift of at least 15 runs, and two of them shifted their performance while adding notable innings from their 2011-to-2012 workloads. Basically, their entire rotation shifted at least one full rotation spot (at four of five spots) in value; can they maintain that level of success?
The Cubs’ rotation features question marks that are similar to those of the Brewers’ rotation. The Cubs have some pitchers returning with injury question marks, and some of their starters will have significant workload shifts in 2013 (just as some Brewers starters are switching roles in the organization). Meanwhile, Jeff Samardzija looks to repeat his successful season in the rotation (here’s another reliever-to-starter success story), and Matt Garza has another chance to prove that he’s the most valuable arm to come to the NL Central after establishing his career in the Junior Circuit.
In St. Louis, the Cardinals are on the cusp of featuring a younger rotation, and Lance Lynn and Miller are the next two significant pieces to that shift. Both figure to play crucial roles in the organization’s bid for a 2013 division championship. Meanwhile, Jaime Garcia looks to win back everyone that was upset about his pitching injured, and he will also look to reach his true potential; he’s a pitcher with a FIP disjoint and unlucky streak almost as bad as Zack Greinke.
Meanwhile, the entire Pirates’ roster can be summarized in one question, I feel: is this the year their young core steps forward and competes? As a fan of the mid-00s Brewers, I can honestly say that I feel the pain of Pirates fans; Brewers fans know all-too-well what a late season collapse looks like, and one starts to wonder if (or when) rebuilding efforts will hit paydirt. In that regard, the Pirates’ rotation is lead by two notable veterans (A.J. Burnett and Sneaky Fastballer Wandy Rodriguez), and a gang of guys that must improve.
We all know the chorus of questions associated with the Brewers’ rotation by now:
(a) Can the main starters fill the number of innings required by 162 games?
(b) Can Yovani Gallardo continue his improvement and development as one of the NL’s most dependable young quality starters?
(c) Which Wily Peralta will show up? Does his end-of-the-season shift show a steady development of his command, or will he continue to struggle with the strike zone?
(d) Was Fastballer Mike Fiers burned out at the end of the 2012 season? Does that final month place doubt over his early season success?
(e) How will Marco Estrada fare as a regular starter?
(f) Can Mark Rogers and Tyler Thornburg work as starters?
(g) Can Chris Narveson return to a reliable low rotation role after his injury?
Yet, now these questions can be compared to the numerous questions associated with each NL Central rotation. Each team in the NL Central — with the arguable exception of the Cubs — is staying with their 2012 core rotation, is making some organizational promotions with young starters, and is relying on some notable role shifts. Now we can ask, do these question marks about the Brewers preclude them from contending against these other rotations?
Nearly a dozen of the NL Central’s top 30 starters for 2013 did not pitch 100 MLB innings in 2011. Another eight failed to reach 100 MLB innings in 2012; if you bump that threshold to 150 IP, 21 of those 30 depth options failed to pitch 150 IP in either 2011 or 2012. Another dozen showcased a runs prevented shift of at least 10 runs between 2011 to 2012 (in either direction). From the development of these pitchers’ performances, from their respective ages, from their shifts in MLB roles, or from their shifts in workload, one can legitimately argue that the 2013 NL Central is a division of teams in transition. Teams in transition to rotations with younger pitchers, teams in transition to rotations with flexible pitching roles, teams in transition to rotations with veterans nearing the close of their careers, and even teams in transition with some young pitchers that are becoming established pitchers taking the next step to MLB “ace” status.
With each of these developments and each status, one can find a set of questions about those pitchers. In that regard, the 2012-2013 Milwaukee Brewers’ offseason is more similar to the other NL Central teams than it is different.
2011-2012 NL Rotations with Runs Prevented
Depth charts from MLB.com. MLB Advanced Media, L.P. 2001-2013.
In cases of 2011 Burnett, 2011 Samardzija, 2012 Miller, and 2011-2012 Feldman, Chapman, and Baker, I produced new runs prevented calculations based on respective league runs average and three-year park factors (Baseball Reference, Sports Reference LLC, 2000-2013).