The Unfriendly Confines

Now that the Chicago Cubs have finally won it all, are they still the cuddly Cubbies to baseball fans outside of the North Side? Probably not, but they remain heavy favorites to at least win another National league Central Division crown in 2017. Part of the reason for that is that the Cubs are a really good team. The other part is that their division rivals, with the exception of the St. Louis Cardinals, appear to have conceded the race, at least for this season.This was published just before I found out that Pittsburgh center fielder Starling Marte had been suspended for apparent use of a performance enhancing drug. Don’t do it, kids.

Willson Contreras will be 25 years old in May, Addison Russell is 23, Anthony Rizzo turns 28 in August, Kyle Schwarber is 24, Kris Bryant is 25, and Javier Baez is 24. In other words, this team may actually be getting better than the 103 game winners of ’16, so this division could be theirs for a while. Most of the pitching staff will soon be approaching their baseball expiration dates, but the organization has many resources and that now includes baseball smarts.

The Cubs lost center fielder Dexter Fowler to the rival Cardinals as a free agent and right fielder Jorge Soler in a trade with Kansas City but Albert Almora Jr. is a better defensive center fielder and he just turned 23. Plus, if he has troubles offensively they have Jason Heyward, the 26 year old who struggled offensively last season, who can move over from right field and candy armed Jon Jay, who regained his batting stroke last year in San Diego and has center field experience. The trade of Soler yielded Wade Davis, a superb reliever who has accomplished more so far than last year’s rent-a-closer, Aroldis Chapman. The rest of the bullpen looks sturdy with Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Grimm, and new acquisitions lefty Brian Duensing and veteran righty Koji Uehara.

Jon Lester was very tough last season despite his irritating inability to hold base runners, winning 19 and losing 5 with a 2.44 earned run average. The Cubs are the latest team to take a chance on another southpaw, Brett Anderson. Anderson is well traveled and has been injury prone, pitching in just 129 games in his nine seasons. He only pitched in four for the Dodgers last year but the Cubs would be happy if he could provide them with what he did for L.A. in 2015 when he was 10-9 in 31 starts with a 3.69 ERA. Jake Arrieta stopped being invincible last year, but he was still very good, winning 18 games with an ERA of 3.10 and 190 strikeouts. John Lackey is now 38 but he will no doubt continue to give them 5 or 6 innings every fifth day. Kyle Hendricks was possibly better than any of them last season and at age 27 he is back for more. With the exception of Arrieta, these guys don’t walk a lot of batters, and that is important in Wrigley Field. Rizzo and Russell provide power and excellent defense, Bryant keeps getting better at everything, and we haven’t even mentioned Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP who plays well just about everywhere. Contreras displaced a good catcher, Miguel Montero and Matt Szcur and Tommy LaStella give Joe Maddon lots of depth to play with. Baez has to be the eventual second baseman but the rich Cubs can take their time.

St. Louis has a bit of a mystery team, but they seem like the only possible challengers within the division. Whereas losing Dexter Fowler may not hurt the Cubs that much,gaining him should help the Cardinals a lot because of his ability to lead off and reach base as well as steal a few bags. Left fielder Randal Grichuk and right fielder Stephen Piscotty are a pair of rising stars. Manager Mike Matheny seems a bit indecisive about his infield and that fact may be having a detrimental effect both offensively and defensively. The move of Matt Carpenter to first base has meant less playing time for big Matt Adams, who not so long ago seemed poised to become a consistent power threat but last year was limited to 297 at bats yielding 34 extra base hits and 54 runs batted in at age 27. Carpenter has become more of a power source than a running threat now that he is in his thirties and he will never win a gold glove anywhere so it is a puzzle. Kolten Wong at second base is the best defensive infielder St. Louis has but being in and out of the lineup seems to have affected his glove work as well as his batting stroke. The left side of the infield, third baseman Jhonny Peralta and shortstop Aledmys Diaz also provide more offense than defense. Diaz in particular was strong last season with a .300 average, 17 home runs and 65 RBI in 111games. So what do we do with Jedd Gyorko, who played second rate defense all around the infield last year but crashed 30 home runs? I don’t like to play general manager, but I would shop around the Other League for perhaps pitching help or another strong defender like Wong.

Yadier Molina is a Hall of Fame catcher to be who has become a tough offensive player over the years but even he, the last of the Molinas, is showing bits of wear and tear at 35. He is still much, much better than most. Former Pirate Eric Fryer backs him up and, no offense, Eric, but the pitchers like Yadi.

The pitching staff is potentially strong but full of mysteries as well. Such as, is Adam Wainwright still the dude? His 2016 numbers were adequate for most hurlers, but far from his peak seasons as he was 13-9 with a 4.62 ERA and this season has not gone well for the tall righty so far. They need him to be good. Left hander Lance Lynn is back after missing all of ’16 recovering from the ubiquitous Tommy John surgery. Michael Wacha and Mike Leake both seem to alternate between pretty good and pretty awful. Carlos Martinez emerged as the strong number one type starter that he had been expected to be. The bullpen seems set with the arrival of 34 year old Seung Hwan Oh as the late man and another southpaw, Brett Cecil, was a good free agent signing from Toronto. Kevin Siegrist has mostly been good in relief while sometimes Trevor Rosenthal is and sometimes he ain’t.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a fun revival from 2013 to 2015, finishing second each time and getting a taste for the playoffs. Then came the regression of 2016 and it seemed to these eyes that the Buccos, as those near the Monongahela like to call them, were conceding that season in order to prepare for a possible post Cubs era in the future. It didn’t help that franchise player Andrew McCutchen played through thumb and knee injuries and fell off to a .254 batting average with modest power and stolen base numbers. However, at age 30 it would be ridiculous to assume that he is finished. In fact, it is wise to assume that the one undeniable asset that the Pirates have, their outfield crew, is only going to get better. McCutchen’s move to right field has more to do with the recognition that Starling Marte, only two years his junior, is firmly established as a gold glove type outfielder whose great speed and powerful arm make moving him to center an easy choice. Gregory Polanco is 25, covers ground with speed, and also throws well and will continue to hit better. No worries out there, but the Pirates have not been emphasizing defense in the infield. David Freese does okay with the bat but is a slow runner and has only slightly more range at third or first base than the statue of Honus Wagner that I used to see outside Forbes Field. Jordy Mercer has some pop in his bat but also lacks range at shortstop. Second baseman Josh Harrison is the exception at second and a very good all around player. If he walked more he’d be a great lead off hitter. They are hoping that switch hitter Josh Bell will hit for high average and big power at first base. If he doesn’t, the 24 year old big guy may end up the second coming of Pedro Alvarez. Catcher Francisco Cervelli is a serviceable defender who, like his predecessor Russell Martin, can occasionally steal a base and hits well.

Hope for the future in Pittsburgh rests mostly on the arms of a mostly young and inexperienced but talented core of pitchers. Gerrit Cole, brilliant at times, was limited to 21 starts last year and ,at age 26, retains a Sistine Chapel type of ceiling. Great things are also expected of Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow. If those great things start to happen this year, it could get interesting. Pitching coach Ray Searage has worked wonders over the years with retread hurlers like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. Now he has 30 year old former Yankee Ivan Nova, who has pitched much better since coming to the Pirates last year. He should steady that rotation. Mark Melancon is gone since there wasn’t much left to “save’, but Tony Watson heads what is still a good crew of relievers. Jung Ho Kang is on the restricted list, but would provide more power but similar defense as Freese at third if he joins the team.

It’s a full on youth movement in Milwaukee and it might get them somewhere if all goes well–like maybe leapfrogging the Pirates and Cardinals into second place. Ryan Braun is still there in left field most days and, at 33, he showed last year that he still has a lot left with 30 homers, 91 RBI and 16 stolen bases. For a free bratwurst, name three other Brewers. Okay, I’ll do it for you but hold the brat and pass the brew. How about Domingo Santana, a right fielder who hit .256 with 11 home runs in 77 games last season? He’s 24. So is their ace starting pitcher, Zach Davies, who was 11-7 in 28 starts in ’16. Shortstop Orlando Arcia is 22.Second baseman Jonathan Villar is an established major leaguer at 26 who stole 62 bases last year while hitting.285 with power. The big news so far is first baseman Eric Thames, who is back from Korea and hitting about one homer per game so far. Third baseman Travis Shaw showed power potential in Boston while filling in for William Howard Taft. If starting pitchers Matt Garza (an old man at 33) and Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81 ERA) can come back and help, the Brewers might have some fun this year.

Scott Feldman, who pitched for Toronto and Houston mostly in relief last year, is the Cincinnati ace starter so far in 2017. Billy Hamilton, who is so fast he answers his phone before it rings, is back in center field and getting on base more often. Yep, that’s still Joey Votto over there on first. Now, if you didn’t win the bratwurst, here’s your chance to win a free empty bottle of Pete Rose‘ hair dye: name three more Reds, not counting Warren Beatty. Okay, catcher Devin Mesoraco is correct, but he’s still not playing after missing most of 2016 but he is supposed to be back soon. If not, Tucker Barnhart is perfectly capable. Zack Cozart is a really good shortstop who missed about a month last year but looked good at the plate as well. Former Giant (he’s still big) Adam Duvall hits the long ball and plays a decent left field. Right fielder Scott Schebler drove in 40 runs in half a season last year and Arismendy Alcantara backs up everybody, it seems, and can run very fast. Eugenio Suarez will be 26 in July and has power potential at third base. If 24 year old southpaw starter Brandon Finnegan comes off the disabled list and pitches like he did last season he will keep them in a lot of games. Second baseman Jose Peraza is looking like an apt replacement for Brandon Phillips with speed and power. So no one should relax against the Reds. They also have Anthony DeSclafani, who pitched very well in 20 starts in ’16, due to come off the DL in June. I mean, if Jumbo Diaz can’t make the team, watch out.

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