This probably seems like a ridiculous exercise. Who wants to read a writer reviewing their own analysis? Yet, as I prepare to produce my best-case scenario previews for the 2013 NL Central, I wonder how my 2012 analysis, projections, and thoughts related to the actual season. As one commenter succinctly noted not so long ago, I certainly am writing a lot of optimistic words about the 2013 Brewers; I think it’s justifiable to be optimistic in February, but I also don’t want to wear rose-colored glasses. Furthermore, by looking back once again, we can prepare our expectations for the 2013 season. What happened last year that no one expected? What happened last year that was out of the ordinary? How does that influence 2013?
Writing about the 2012 Reds’ best-case scenario on February 23, 2012, I thought that the Reds had a two-tiered approach to success in 2012. First and foremost, they had the roster to compete in the NL Central; this was an easy thing to say. Secondly, they had an opportunity to make some decisions about the long-term role of their prospects on their big league club. In that regard, the Reds made that decision before they even competed in 2012; the Reds locked up stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips to long-term deals, solidifying the fate of some of their infield prospects (not surprisingly, Billy Hamilton is reportedly learning centerfield, and Todd Frazier will take over third base).
The Reds’ 2012 roster building accomplished two distinct goals. First, they ensured that two of their most productive veterans remained a part of their core for several years, giving them the upper-hand over their divisional competition for years to come. Secondly, they placed their approach with their prospects into focus, which allowed them to make a strong short-term deal for 2013 (specifically, acquiring Shin-Soo Choo for their outfield. The Reds have one of the most-balanced roster cores in the next handful of seasons, and they will be able to place their youngsters into a star-studded core, allowing those youngsters to gain their sea legs while the club competes.
I focused my 2012 Reds preview on the batting profiles of their veterans. Oddly enough, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness alike, the Reds’ gang of veterans did not lead the club to the type of offense-first, everything-else-later mentality we’ve come to know and love from Cincinnati. Rather, the Reds’ aggressive off-season pitching moves paid handsomely. Mat Latos‘s strike out slide continued, but his walks remained stable and he didn’t allow too many HR (considering his home park). Latos thrived in front of the Reds’ efficient defense, and turned his strong K/BB performance into one of the best NL Central pitching performances. I picked Johnny Cueto as a “wild card” for the Reds, given his injury-shortened 2011 and strong improvements during that shortened campaign. Cueto ascended even-higher, as he posted his best strike out rate in four years, and the best walk rate of his career, along with a continuation of his improved home run rate. Finally, despite injuries, the Reds’ bullpen excelled, providing the Reds with a pitching attack that lasted throughout the game.
One of the most difficult parts about looking at the 2013 Reds is the temptation to fall into an “everything went right” mantra. What makes the Reds so tough for 2013 is that everything didn’t go right in 2012; their offense wasn’t as strong as expected, some of their veterans weren’t as good as expected, which made their pitching performances that much more important. Now, the Reds’ pitching situation is secure, which allowed the club to enhance their offense with a few key parts. If their pitching wasn’t strong in 2011, their compensations in 2012 won the division. Now, the Reds’ goal is to ride their offensive improvements to the next level.
St. Louis Cardinals
One of my main concerns about the 2012 Cardinals was that their inability to sign Albert Pujols would give more roster flexibility to a club that knows how to use roster flexibility. Wouldn’t you know it, but thanks to an injured Lance Berkman, Allen Craig received his chance to shine at first base. Jon Jay, Skip Schumaker, and David Freese excelled in their roles. Since the National League run environment increased between 2011 and 2012, the fact that the 2012 Cardinals scored more runs than the league-best 2011 Cardinals is not necessarily a useful stat, yet despite losing Pujols and Berkman, the Cardinals’ offense was second only to the Power/Speed Brewers bats.
Oddly enough, the return of Adam Wainwright was not the boost the Cardinals’ rotation needed. Wainwright brought up the back-end of the Cardinals’ rotation with Jake Westbrook and injury-plagued Jaime Garcia. In 2012, the Cardinals also proved to have a surprisingly flexible pitching staff, as their crew of young starters filled in for the injured Chris Carpenter and made up for the ineffective veterans.
The Cardinals were a club that did not necessarily have a rebuilding strategy, or a silver-lining for a season in which they missed the playoffs. Almost as though they were on cue, the Cardinals won a wild card spot, won the wild card game, knocked out one of the strongest NL pitching staffs in the LDS, and took the eventual World Series Champions to seven games in the LCS. Now, the Cardinals’ roster flexibility translates into more set roles for 2013, and their flexibility continues in their pitching staff. The Cardinals are transitioning to a younger rotation, but if we learned anything from 2012, it’s that their organization can lose veterans that everyone seems to love and move on without missing a beat.
In terms of actual runs and runs batted in, Aramis Ramirez was only eight runs shy of Prince Fielder‘s strong 2011 campaign. While you’re smacking your head against the wall — “How is this moron measuring offensive value in runs and runs batted in!?” — I’ll calmly point out that there is a threshold to runs created within the context of an actual batting order. We can certainly note that a player such as Fielder, one who walks like crazy and hits a lot of home runs (while batting for strong average), will always be more likely to produce actual runs than other bats, and that’s certainly true. I think what a lot of us completely missed in previewing the 2012 Brewers was that there was always a concrete limit to the amount of runs that Fielder could produce; no matter how great Fielder could be, his actual production would in some ways be limited by the bats in ahead of and behind him. We all focused on the abstract Fielder, the intangible Fielder; yet, the actual Brewers came awfully close to replacing Fielder simply by adding one of the strongest NL third basemen of his generation.
Even if Ramirez did come close to matching Fielder’s actual run production from the middle of the 2012 Brewers’ order, there’s a sense that the Brewers never got their chance to legitimately test their “replacement theory.” I think a lot of us wanted to see if a team actually could improve by replacing an extremely strong bat (with a somewhat less impressive glove) with (a) stronger defense at other infield positions, (b) stronger offense at other positions, and (c) stronger defense at the position formerly occupied by the great bat. By May, replacement madness was on for the Brewers. We never got to see Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel make their bids for replacing Fielder with a more well-rounded club. Yet, their unfortunate injuries allowed the club to learn that Norichika Aoki could hit like crazy, and Corey Hart could play first. Arguably, without those unfortunate injuries, we would not be entering 2013 with the idea that the Brewers’ fielders are largely set — and, largely expected to be productive.
Unfortunately, the Brewers’ combination of injuries, untimely ineffectiveness, and some bullpen woes ensured that the team would never gel in 2012. Yet, the Brewers accomplished one specific organizational goal in 2012, a season that required them to test their surging pitching development. For all the shortcomings in 2012, the Brewers’ open roster spots allowed a group of faceless pitchers to prove themselves, and show that some quality arms resided in that deep sea of organizational pitching depth. While a lot of fans and analysts remain skeptical about the ability of the Brewers’ arms to lead the team throughout 2013, the 2012 season gave the Brewers’ organization a vote of confidence with their young arms. In that regard, 2012 served as a surprisingly developmental year, but one that also allowed the club to quickly reload and reassess their weaknesses.
In the second part of my 2012 preview, I wrote that I was not sure there was a silver-lining to the 2012 season if the Brewers failed to contend. In hindsight, that was wrong; I did not foresee that the Brewers actually needed MLB tests for their pitching prospects, and I did not foresee a scenario in which the Brewers could completely switch up their roster midseason. Doug Melvin quickly rebuilt the Brewers, and even if it’s half a season, he can lean on the club’s late surge as a sign that his organizational players can indeed play. Now it’s only a matter of getting the questions right for our 2013 previews of the organization; yet, Melvin consistently proves to be one step ahead of analysts.
Revisiting analysis, from March 1, 2012:
“A step ahead of the rebuilding Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates experienced one of their most difficult seasons in their climb to be competitive. Stocked with more of their prized youngsters in 2011, the Pirates hung in the National League Central race until the end of July. In fact the Pirates stayed within one-to-two games of the division lead for most of July, driving them to make deadline deals for Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee.
For as long as they stayed in the divisional hunt in July, the Pirates fell out of contention even faster in August. The club’s struggling offense stopped producing runs in August and September, and their pitching staff suddenly lost their touch, suffering injuries and ineffectiveness. By August 9, the Pirates were more than 10 games off of the divisional pace after a stunning 10 day swing.”
Unfortunately, I could use most of this lead for my 2013 Pirates preview. Indeed, the Pirates remain a step (or two) ahead of the rebuilding Cubs. Indeed, the Pirates’ ability to compete early prompted them to make some midseason deals; Wandy Rodriguez was the big name this time. This time, the Pirates swung between 2.5 and 5.5 games back at the beginning of August; they didn’t fall 10 games back until the end of August. I gather that the Pirates’ inability to contend into September was not made any sweeter for Pirates fans thanks to their ability to remain competitive for one more month. There is this strange feeling that the Pirates are expected to compete now; this is their step where their young players leap into competitors and show the rewards of the rebuilding process.
On the other hand, the Pirates’ building efforts received votes of confidence in several areas in 2012. Andrew McCutchen turned his plate discipline and power profile into a superstar campaign. A.J. Burnett excelled in a run environment that is friendlier to pitchers. Even my “Break-Out Candidate” Pedro Alvarez produced a surge; I noted that Alvzarez is likely to deal in extremes with his batting approach, and boy did he ever: in 586 PA, Alvarez struck out 180 times, walked 57 times, and homered 30 times. Now, the question of the Pirates’ ability to compete rests as much with the Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers as it does with the Pittsburgh Nine: while the Pirates received votes of confidence in several areas of their 2012 club, the clubs they’re chasing also made some strides in revitalizing their rosters. The Pirates’ most difficult task will be to continue their building process while adapting their roster to compete.
Chicago Cubs (and Houston Astros)
When I wrote about the 2012 Astros’ roster, I noted that a difficulty in writing about rebuilding clubs is that the measurement of success is not usually seen on the field. In that regard, the Cubs excelled in 2012. Their BaseballAmerica profile captures the success of their 2012 rebuilding campaign, as their brand new front office landed a strong, young, controllable corner bat, traded veterans to land a strong prospect, used their financial resources to land a strong Cuban prospect, and aggressively drafted to organizational needs. While the Chicago media and fans did not take kindly to the reality of the rebuilding club that appeared at Wrigley Field, the organization used their vast financial and baseball resources to successfully revitalize their farm.
In the case of the Astros, it’s interesting to see how well some of their youngsters played upon being thrown into the MLB fire. Specifically, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, Brett Wallace, and Chris Johnson were average or better in their roles. “Elder Statesman” Jed Lowrie seized his opportunity, and he nearly doubled his MLB home run total in his injury-shortened campaign. We won’t have a chance to see if the Astros’ rebuilding efforts materialize in the NL Central, but it’s nice to see that some of their young gang of players worked well in their first MLB opportunities.
One of the most difficult aspects of previewing the 2013 NL Central is that there are so many familiar faces in place from the 2012 rosters. On the surface, it is difficult to determine the extent to which these clubs have changed. In the case of the Reds, they return their rotation, with their most major move being the conversion of Aroldis Chapman from reliever to starter. In the case of the Cardinals, they are once-again defined by the injury or loss of a veteran player, a loss that will give the organization to showcase their flexibility and growing young core of pitchers. The Pirates are relying on their core of prospects once more, and the bulk of their rotation is in place. Save for the injury to Corey Hart, the Brewers open the season with the same cast of characters that surged at the close of the season. Their question marks are in how far the unproven pitchers can work into the season; how can that surge be projected for 162 games? The Cubs obviously continue their rebuilding, this time with a decidedly-different outlook in terms of veteran contracts and risk/reward roster spots. Chicago is using every resource imaginable to rebuild, and their 2013 club could provide some surprises or produce some players that seize a larger role with the organization.
I ordered these reviews in the ranking of the 2012 standings. What I wonder, while reviewing these rosters, if this does not also suggest a likely outcome for the 2013 season. What surprises will this cast of similar characters produce in 2013?
2012 Pirates, Astros, and Reds previews available here: http://disciplesofuecker.com/author/zettel/page/12
2012 Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers (I and II) previews are available here: