Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2014 MLB Preview: NL Central

Apart from the Cardinals, each of the NL Central teams has some serious flaws, but all of them except Chicago are hoping to compete for a wild card spot. The Cubs are content to take their lumps for one more year (although hopefully with some more positive developments from their best players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo) before attempting to be more competitive in 2015. The Reds will have some adjustments to make after upheaval at the top of their lineup. Pittsburgh aims for a repeat of last year's exciting playoff run, although they are a prime regression candidate. Milwaukee gets its best player back from a Biogenesis suspension and hopes to ride him and the other stars in its lineup back to October baseball. And the Cardinals continue to solidify their strong case as baseball's best top-to-bottom organization, making astute trades and filling gaps on the major league roster with hidden gems from their farm system.

Previous previews: AL West, NL West, AL Central

Glossary of stats: .275/.350/.475 = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, HR = home runs, SB = stolen bases, wOBA = weighted on-base average, WAR = wins above replacement, IP = innings pitched, K/BB = strikeouts/walks, ERA = earned run average, FIP = fielding independent pitching.*

*All 2014 statistical projections are courtesy of Fangraphs, along with my bet whether the player in question will exceed or fall short of that projection. When WAR is mentioned in a written paragraph, it typically refers to the Baseball-Reference version.

5) Chicago Cubs

Lineup
SS   Starlin Castro (age 24, .280/.319/.413, 13 HR, .320 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over
LF   Junior Lake (age 24, .252/.295/.380, 10 HR, .297 wOBA, 0.2 WAR) - over
1B   Anthony Rizzo (age 24, .255/.336/.464, 27 HR, .347 wOBA, 2.8 WAR) - over
RF   Nate Schierholtz (age 30, .260/.312/.453, 14 HR, .330 wOBA, 1.1 WAR) - under
CF   Justin Ruggiano (age 32, .244/.310/.427, 16 HR, .324 wOBA, 1.5 WAR) - under
3B   Luis Valbuena (age 28, .241/.325/.376, 11 HR, .311 wOBA, 1.7 WAR) - under
C     Welington Castillo (age 27, .248/.323/.393, 11 HR, .316 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
2B   Darwin Barney (age 28, .253/.299/.349, 6 HR, .286 wOBA, 1.4 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP Jeff Samardzija (age 29, 185 IP, 180/56 K/BB, 3.56 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 3.1 WAR) - over
RHP Edwin Jackson (age 30, 174 IP, 139/54 K/BB, 3.99 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 2.2 WAR) - under
LHP Travis Wood (age 27, 184 IP, 137/61 K/BB, 3.88 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.9 WAR) - over
RHP Jason Hammel (age 31, 158 IP, 123/54 K/BB, 4.01 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 1.5 WAR) - under
LHP Jake Arrieta (age 28, 146 IP, 131/61 K/BB, 4.64 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 0.3 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
OF Ryan Sweeney, C George Kottaras, IF Donnie Murphy, IF Mike Olt, OF Brett Jackson, RHP Carlos Villanueva, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP Jose Veras, LHP Pedro Strop, LHP James Russell, LHP Wesley Wright, RHP Arodys Vizcaino

Best Offseason Move - Not a lot to choose from here, as the Cubs have mostly spent the winter sorting through the scrap heap of replacement-level players and signing some of them to minor league deals. One that they did sign to a major league contract is pitcher James McDonald, formerly of Pittsburgh, who is coming off of an injury-plagued 2013 campaign. McDonald was a solid pitcher in 2012 (including a six-week stretch where he was much better than that), and if he's healthy, he can soak up some of the innings that are left over at the back end of this rotation, and maybe even improve on them. Clearly, if this is their "biggest" move of the winter, the Cubs are still playing a long game, even though they have more resources at their disposal than all but three or four other teams.

Worst Offseason Move - Some of the drek on this roster is due to be replaced soon by high-end talent in the Cubs' farm system, but only one of those prospects (Matt Szczur) is an outfielder who is somewhat likely to get called up in 2014 (although the team may move 2013 top pick Kris Bryant, last year's Golden Spikes Award winner, from third to the outfield). Look at that outfield again: Lake, Schierholtz, and Ruggiano. You're telling me that a team in the third-largest city with a national television contract couldn't have taken a flier on a Chris Young or a David Murphy, guys who have real major league track records? Unless Szczur or Bryant or Cuban phenom Jorge Soler wows in spring training (and perhaps Theo Epstein and his brain trust are counting on that), the Cubs don't really even have any interesting options behind their current projected starters.

Key Player - It's easy to forget that Castro turns just 24 years old at the end of March, because he will be starting his fifth (!!!) full season as the Cubs' shortstop. Unfortunately, however, he regressed in a major way last year, hitting a paltry .245/.284/.347 while striking out 129 times. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a problem for a 23-year-old playing the most important position on the field, but Castro has $48 million coming to him over the next six years with a $16 million team option for 2020. A trip to Iowa for more seasoning ain't an option here. The Cubs are counting on him to produce stat lines a lot closer to 2011's .307/.341/.432 or even 2012's .283/.323/.430. That version of Castro is at least a three-or-four-win player, and it's what Chicago needs to help move this franchise forward.

Most Exciting Player - Another ugly category for the Cubbies. I'm tempted to say Soler, even though he spent the part of 2013 when he wasn't dealing with a broken leg down at high-A Daytona. Castro is probably the answer here when he's playing to his ability, but for now I'm going to say Samardzija, who has a big presence on the mound (6'5", 225), a haircut from the Randy Johnson collection, and a good fastball-slider-splitter combo that racks up lots of strikeouts (at least one per inning since he became a starter in 2012). Plus, you might get to hear the announcers talk about how he actually had a better arm than his quarterback at Notre Dame, Brady Quinn.

Possible Breakout Star - We're going to go with Rizzo here, although it's a year behind schedule. The big first baseman came over from the Padres as part of a rare challenge trade involving prospects, and in 87 game in 2012 hit .285/.342/.463 with fifteen bombs. Last year, however, he apparently caught the same itis as Castro, struggling to a .233/.323/.419 line, which looks a lot better coming from your catcher than your first baseman who's entering year two of a seven-year deal worth $41 million (plus two team options). A full season of that 2012 slash line at age 24 would look pretty nice.

Potential Achilles Heel - The strike zone. You'll notice above that the highest projected OBP is Rizzo's .336, which would have ranked 69th in the majors among qualified hitters last season. Translation; there are a lot of hackers in this lineup. On the other side of the ball, none of their pitchers can exactly hit their spots like Cliff Lee or Clayton Kershaw, as even Samardzija, the best of the bunch, walks three guys per nine innings. At least they don't have Carlos Marmol's wildness to deal with anymore.

Hidden Strength - That farm system may start paying dividends as early as this summer. No fewer than six Cub prospects cracked the top seventy-five of Keith Law's annual winter rankings of the one hundred best prospects in baseball, four of them in the top thirty. Shortstop Javier Baez is the best of those, and he should be ready to debut this summer, whether it's at second (replacing Barney) or at short (giving Castro a break/kick in the ass). Bryant looks like he could be a rapid riser, and Soler was looking a mid-season promotion to AA before breaking his leg. And even Olt, currently slated for a bench role, could bounce back from the blurry vision that wrecked the middle of his 2013 and take over at the hot corner. This year may turn out to be a wash, but pay attention in July and August if the Cubs start promoting their high-end guys to take over for the below-average talent currently on the roster.

4) Cincinnati Reds

Lineup
CF   Billy Hamilton (age 23, .253/.315/.323, 2 HR, 55 SB, .287 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) - over
2B   Brandon Phillips (age 33, .273/.320/.412, 17 HR, .319 wOBA, 3.2 WAR) - under
1B   Joey Votto (age 30, .313/.441/.536, 25 HR, .417 wOBA, 7.0 WAR) - over
RF   Jay Bruce (age 27, .265/.340/.517, 34 HR, .364 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - under
LF   Ryan Ludwick (age 35, .254/.319/.410, 17 HR, .319 wOBA, 0.4 WAR) - under
3B   Todd Frazier (age 28, .255/.328/.447, 22 HR, .338 wOBA, 3.9 WAR) - over
C     Devin Mesoraco (age 28, .256/.318/.399, 14 HR, .312 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over
SS   Zack Cozart (age 28, .254/.291/.398, 14 HR, .301 wOBA, 2.6 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP Mat Latos (age 26, 217 IP, 202/59 K/BB, 3.16 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 4.2 WAR) - over
RHP Homer Bailey (age 28, 213 IP, 199/53 K/BB, 3.45 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 3.7 WAR) - over
RHP Johnny Cueto (age 28, 169 IP, 139/47 K/BB, 3.13 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
LHP Tony Cingrani  (age 24, 155 IP, 168/59 K/BB, 3.50 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 2.0 WAR) - under
RHP Mike Leake (age 26, 182 IP, 115/45 K/BB, 3.92 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.3 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
IF/OF Skip Schumaker, IF Jack Hannahan, OF Chris Heisey, C Brayan Pena, IF/OF Neftali Soto, LHP Aroldis Chapman, RHP Jonathon Broxton, LHP Sean Marshall, LHP Manny Parra, RHP Pedro Beato, RHP Sam LeCure, RHP Alfredo Simon

Best Offseason Move - As the Reds' top pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey was under the microscope for a while, and finally put together his first full season in 2012, slicing nearly a full run off of his ERA, and then followed that campaign up with an even better 2013 (especially in his strikeout rate) going into his final season of arbitration. Cincinnati wisely locked up the 27-year-old Bailey to an extension that will pay him $105 million over the next six years, with a $25 million mutual option for 2020. That contract verges on steep for the Reds, but is definitely a lot less than a 28-year-old workhorse starter with a track record of success in a bandbox ballpark would have gotten in free agency a year from now. Bailey is capable of greatness (two career no-hitters) and at the very worst is an excellent third starter. The downside to this deal is that now the Reds will need to scrounge up enough funds for the severely underpaid Latos (making $7.25 million in HIS last year of arbitration), who is two years younger than Bailey, and an even better pitcher.

Worst Offseason Move - After giving the Reds an on-base machine at the top of the lineup last season, Shin-Soo Choo departed in free agency, eventually signing a seven-year, $130 million deal with Texas. While the Reds have a far better defensive center fielder to replace Choo with (he was a decent corner man stretched too far), they have in no way replaced his .423 on-base percentage, which was second in the National League last year (behind Votto). Apart from Votto, this is a lineup that makes a lot of outs, with Bruce being the only other guy who's even above average in that regard. Given that their home park is one of the most offense-friendly in the league, the Reds may be giving themselves a handicap by simply not getting enough people on base to score as many runs as their opponents.

Key Player - Votto is one of the two or three best hitters in the sport, and his presence alone will make up for some of the weaknesses found throughout the rest of the lineup as described above. The four-time All-Star and former MVP (2010) has led the NL in on-base percentage each of the past four seasons, and that number hasn't dipped below .414 since his 2008 rookie season. He doesn't hit a ton of home runs (usually around 25 or so), but he does collect lots of doubles, and flashes excellent leather at first base as well. Barring injury, he is at minimum a six-win player, which could keep the Reds in the thick of the wild card hunt even if the rest of the lineup struggles.

Most Exciting Player - Cincy has both the fastest player and the fastest pitcher in the sport, not to mention Votto's consistent brilliance or Bruce's prodigious power. Chapman, the team's closer, is not nicknamed the Cuban Missile for nothing. He regularly clocks in at triple digits (as high as 105 mph), is blessed with a wipeout slider, and if that weren't enough, he's left-handed. Last year Chapman whiffed 112 batters in 63 2/3 innings for an absurd ratio of 15.8 per nine innings. Hamilton, meanwhile, changes the entire game as soon as he gets on base, because there isn't a catcher in baseball who can throw him out at second if he gets a half-decent jump (no, not even a Molina), and precious few who can nail him at third. Two years ago Hamilton stole a jaw-dropping 155 bases across two minor league levels, a professional baseball record, and in his September call-up last year swiped thirteen in just fourteen attempts. The Reds hope that he can hit enough to turn every walk and single into a near-automatic double (while also covering center field like a tarp) before his body (6'0", 160) fills out a little more and helps him hit more reliably. For now, however, he's one of the most intriguing players in the league, and might be able to bring the stolen base back in vogue all by himself.

Possible Breakout Star - Cingrani rather quietly put together a very promising rookie season as a part-time starter at the back of the Reds' rotation, striking out 120 batters in less than 105 innings across 18 starts, with an impressive 2.92 ERA to boot. He needs to cut down drastically on his walks (43 last year), but he's just 24 years old, with the opportunity to give the Reds' rotation a significant boost as its only southpaw. What will be interesting to monitor is whether he develops a second reliable pitch (let alone a third) now that most hitters have seen him a couple times. He threw his fastball over 80% of the time last year, a rate that is typically associated with relief pitchers. But so far it works, and if it does so over a full season, the Reds' staff will be plenty deep.

Potential Achilles Heel - As mentioned earlier, whether anyone on this team apart from Votto gets on base at an acceptable clip remains a mystery. The Reds are also counting on a full season from Ludwick, who has played in more than 139 games exactly once, back in 2008. Any extended absence from him means lots of at-bats for replacement-level talent like Schumaker and Roger Bernadina, although hopefully new manager Bryan Price won't hit those guys second (or Cozart, for that matter), a la the departed Dusty Baker.

Hidden Strength - The Great American Ballpark depresses the staff's numbers somewhat, but this is a deep, talented (and young) pitching staff. When healthy, all five starters are at least league-average, and three of them (Latos, Bailey, and Cueto) have All-Star ability. The bullpen is strong and balanced throughout, with strong setup men (Broxton and Marshall) in front of the fire-breathing Chapman. If the hitting slips, the pitching can keep the Reds in the wild card chase.

3) Pittsburgh Pirates

Lineup
LF   Starling Marte (age 25, .283/.335/.445, 15 HR, 43 SB, .340 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - over
2B   Neil Walker (age 28, .273/.350/.433, 16 HR, .342 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
CF   Andrew McCutchen (age 27, .308/.394/.510, 25 HR, 26 SB, .390 wOBA, 7.6 WAR) - over
3B   Pedro Alvarez (age 27, .240/.311/.468, 34 HR, .336 wOBA, 3.4 WAR) - over
1B   Gaby Sanchez (age 30, .254/.345/.372, 9 HR, .320 wOBA, 1.0 WAR) - under
C     Russell Martin (age 31, .233/.328/.385, 16 HR, .319 wOBA, 3.9 WAR) - under
RF   Jose Tabata (age 27, .284/.344/.397, 6 HR, .329 wOBA, 1.4 WAR) - over
SS   Jordy Mercer (age 27, .279/.338/.425, 11 HR, .335 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP Gerrit Cole (age 23, 198 IP, 193/55 K/BB, 3.15 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 3.9 WAR) - over
LHP Francisco Liriano (age 30, 179 IP, 185/74 K/BB, 3.49 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - under
RHP Charlie Morton (age 30, 161 IP, 120/46 K/BB, 3.68 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
RHP Wandy Rodriguez (age 35, 111 IP, 77/27 K/BB, 3.92 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 0.7 WAR) - over
LHP Jeff Locke (age 26, 118 IP, 94/50 K/BB, 4.08 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 0.5 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
IF Clint Barmes, OF Travis Snider, IF Brent Morel, C Tony Sanchez, OF Jaff Decker, RHP Jason Grilli, RHP Edinson Volquez, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Vin Mazzaro, LHP Tony Watson, RHP Jeanmar Gomez, LHP Justin Wilson

Best Offseason Move - The temptation, particularly after ending a twenty-year playoff drought, is typically strong in organizations to try for an encore with the same cast and crew. But businesses have to make tough decisions sometimes, particularly those that operate on a comparative shoestring budget. After giving him the opportunity for a late-career renaissance thanks to the team's aggressive infield shifting and generally excellent defense, the Pirates opted not to pay $16 million for another year of the A.J. Burnett experience. Such a move would have made the 37-year-old Burnett the highest-paid player on this year's team, and the contract would have increased Pittsburgh's low-budget payroll by over twenty percent. Instead, the Pirates are going to hope that the cavalry arrives from the minor leagues in the form of top prospects Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham, and that their stocked farm system can replenish the major league roster both now and later on down the road.

Worst Offseason Move - Ay Dios mio, do the Pirates need a first baseman, as Sanchez cannot carry the stick for that position, and it's not as if he makes up for it with his glove. Snider enters this spring probably down to his last chance to stick at the major league level (at least in Pittsburgh), and the team may be hoping that Tabata and the newly-acquired Decker (from San Diego) hit well enough that one of them could potentially learn first base on the job in order to keep their bats in the lineup. Decker has a .402 on-base percentage in over 500 minor league games, so even if the power doesn't show up right away, he at least could give the lineup something positive in that role. But in a lineup that really only has a couple of sure things, not having a legitimate major league first baseman seems like a pretty risky gamble.

Key Player - One of those sure things, however, happens to be the best all-around player in the National League. McCutchen, last year's NL Most Valuable Player, is a dynamite 27-year-old who can do it all. He has a career .296/.380/.489 slash line, plays stellar defense in center, and adds value on the bases as well. The three-time All-Star is also signed to one of the most team-friendly deals in the game, a six-year, $51.5 million pact that runs for four more years with a team option for $14.75 million in 2018. Now that every team is raking in an additional $26 million from MLB's new national television contract, that amount looks like an absolute steal for such a balanced player in his prime. Cutch can (and has done so) carry the Pirate offense for weeks at a time, and barring injury will be a solid bet for a third consecutive top-five MVP finish.

Most Exciting Player - Are you ready for a Marte Partay? The Bucs' 28-year-old left fielder tallied 48 extra-base hits and 41 stolen bases a year ago, in addition to providing excellent defense next to McCutchen. Cole blazes away with 100-mph gas (as a starter, no less) and will have a chance to prove that he can be the ace of this rotation.

Possible Breakout Star - Cole debuted last June and showcased the ability and potential that made him the top overall pick in the draft out of UCLA in 2011. He's built like Roger Clemens (6'4", 235) and throws about as hard, and if he continues to refine his arsenal (fastball, cutter, slider, plus the occasional changeup), he could very well develop into a true ace. Cole was impressive in his two playoff outings, and if Kingham and Taillon join him soon in the majors, the Pirates may have one of the best young rotations in the league.

Potential Achilles Heel - There is a severe drop-off in production after the top three of this lineup. Alvarez tied for the NL lead in homers with 36, but he's also a strikeout machine with limited on-base skills, and everybody behind him is kind of blah. If the Tabata/Decker duo in right field fails to impress, the Pirates may turn to top prospect Gregory Polanco, who hit .263/.354/.407 in AA Altoona last year before getting a brief call-up to AAA Indianapolis. Runs may be at a premium again, despite the brilliance of McCutchen and the help he gets from Marte, Walker, and Alvarez.

Hidden Strength - Since the player payroll is among the lowest in the majors at just over $70 million this year, the Pittsburgh front office has gotten creative in finding ways to maximize the output on the field. Last season they employed aggressive infield shifts that boosted their defensive numbers and greatly helped a pitching staff whose members all had warts of some kind. They also rolled box cars on Liriano's ability to neutralize lefties, as he held them to a preposterously low .131/.175/.146 line with just two extra-base-hits (both doubles). The front office has also invested heavily in a farm system that was once devoid of talent, resulting in a deep system that has already provided the major league roster with some star power and should continue to do so for some years to come.

2) Milwaukee Brewers

Lineup
SS   Jean Segura (age 24, .285/.328/.410, 12 HR, .323 wOBA, 3.6 WAR) - over
CF   Carlos Gomez (age 28, .268/.323/.451, 22 HR, .337 wOBA, 5.1 WAR) - over
RF   Ryan Braun (age 30, .303/.377/.521, 29 HR, .385 wOBA, 5.3 WAR) - over
3B   Aramis Ramirez (age 36, .288/.358/.470, 21 HR, .361 wOBA, 3.7 WAR) - under
C     Jonathan Lucroy (age 28, .288/.344/.456, 17 HR, .348 wOBA, 4.6 WAR) - over
LF   Khris Davis (age 26, .268/.345/.470, 25 HR, .355 wOBA, 2.6 WAR) - over
1B   Mark Reynolds (age 30, .221/.311/.416, 17 HR, .321 wOBA, 0.3 WAR) - under
2B   Scooter Gennett (age 24, .291/.328/.409, 11 HR, .323 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Matt Garza (age 30, 184 IP, 166/51 K/BB, 3.69 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 2.2 WAR) - over
RHP Yovani Gallardo (age 28, 193 IP, 182/67 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - over
RHP Kyle Lohse (age 35, 204 IP, 137/41 K/BB, 3.50 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
RHP Marco Estrada (age 30, 178 IP, 168/42 K/BB, 3.69 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 2.9 WAR) - under
RHP Wily Peralta (age 25, 187 IP, 147/73 K/BB, 4.08 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 1.5 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
IF Rickie Weeks, IF Juan Francisco, OF Logan Schafer, C Martin Maldonado, OF Caleb Gindl, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, RHP Brandon Kintzler, RHP Alfredo Figaro, RHP Jim Henderson, RHP Mike Fiers, LHP Zach Duke

Best Offseason Move - The Brewers ended last season with a rotation that had more question marks than answers, especially after a puzzling down year from Gallardo. So their move to swoop in and sign Garza, one of the best free agent starters on the market (and one who would not cost a compensatory draft pick), was particularly shrewd. Garza is a fly ball pitcher who now gets to pitch in front of Gomez (the premiere defensive outfielder in the game) and the well above-average Braun, which should help his numbers a lot. Although he will never be the true ace it looked like he might grow into as a Ray, Garza is a very good pitcher who should stabilize this rotation assuming he stays healthy.

Worst Offseason Move - Milwaukee plays in the smallest regional market in baseball (thanks to its relative proximity to Chicago and the Twin Cities), and simply can't afford to carry the same kind of salary albatrosses as, say, the Dodgers. Unfortunately for the Brewers, their third-highest-paid player this year (after Braun and Garza) will be a 31-year-old second baseman whose OPS has slipped for four consecutive years, culminating in last year's .209/.306/.357 catastrophe, and who is currently not projected to start the season in the everyday lineup. Weeks will be earning $11 million to cool his heels on the bench and pinch hit against lefties unless he rediscovers the form that made him an All-Star in 2011 (.269/.350/.468). That is almost twelve percent of Milwaukee's player payroll collecting dust, and it would have helped the franchise extremely if they could have found a taker for him, even if he only returned a pair of B-level prospects or something. I mean, the Yankees look like they will open the season with the decomposing Brian Roberts at second, a 36-year-old who hasn't played more than half a season since 2009. If Weeks doesn't reclaim his starting job this spring, look for the team to shop him and his contract aggressively (it expires at the end of the season, and he is in no danger of being tagged with draft pick compensation.

Key Player - Blah blah Biogenesis blah blah. Yes, the face of the franchise is back from his extralegal 65-game suspension, and could single-handedly cause turmoil in the NL Central standings. Even without steroids or HGH or whatever the hell he was getting from Biogenesis, Braun is one of the five or six best hitters in baseball, with a .312/.374/.564 CAREER line that has never dipped below "excellent" in his seven major league seasons. Not only can the Hebrew Hammer mash, but he plays a strong left field (he was a terrible third baseman as a rookie) and grades out as an excellent base runner, good for 25-30 steals in a full season and giving his team more than half a win of value there. What will be interesting to watch is the reaction he gets from other teams in the league, especially the Police of All That is Right in Baseball (the Diamondbacks). Braun famously ripped the guy who handled his sample when he got nailed for PEDs after his 2011 MVP season, then had to recant publicly when it turned out that yes, he was using after all. His lying has earned him lots of enemies throughout the league, particularly in Arizona, where they feel like his steroid-inflated 2011 NLDS (.500/.571/.889 in five games) cost the D'Backs a series win. Brewers management is standing behind him (given that he's owed $117 million through 2020, they're kind of stuck), but watch for some potential fireworks as he gets reacquainted with the league.

Most Exciting Player - Well, Braun is an obvious choice for a few reasons, but since I just spent 250 words discussing him, let's turn to Gomez, who broke out in a big way last year as his bat finally caught up to his peerless glove. A career .247/.294/.379 hitter entering last season, Gomez hit .284/.338/.506 with twenty-four home runs and forty stolen bases. He covers more ground in center field than Genghis Khan, stealing home runs and extra-base hits with abandon, and gunning down base runners with his strong arm. He also provoked the Deputy Police of All That is Right in Baseball (the Braves) after a home run celebration last year, which spent some time being discussed on Around the Horn, PTI, and First Take. Gallardo also gets a vote in this space because he's a pitcher who can hit his weight (.207/.234/.359 with twelve career homers) and then some.

Possible Breakout Star - One of these days people are going to realize that Lucroy is one of the best two-way catchers in baseball. Perhaps said people might even include his agent, as Lucroy will make just $9 million over the next three seasons combined for being the best non-Molina pitch framer in baseball, only with a bat comparable to most good third basemen. To be fair, he's only played two full seasons thanks to injuries (of the freak variety), but he's probably the third-best all-around catcher in the National League (after Yadier Molina and Buster Posey), and his bat and glove will go a long way towards potentially returning Milwaukee to the playoffs.

Potential Achilles Heel - The lineup is excellent, one of the best in the league, but the fact that they had to sign Reynolds to keep first base warm highlights an important factor; they have no depth behind the starters. Unless Weeks finds some magic beans, their bench is entirely forgettable, and the farm system has been stripped pretty bare thanks to trades, promotions, and a slew of recent whiffs at the top of the draft; Keith Law ranks their system dead last, with none of their prospects coming close to cracking the top 100. If key guys like Braun, Gomez, Segura, Garza, or Lucroy spend a lot of time on the shelf this year, the Brewers could plummet in the standings.

Hidden Strength - The up-the-middle defense of this team is very strong overall, and Braun and Ramirez on the left side don't exactly hurt the cause. This is an outfit that can make life a lot easier on its pitching staff by converting lots of balls into outs, which could very well result in a bounce-back season from Gallardo and quality work from guys like Lohse who don't rack up strikeouts and need good glovework behind them.

1) St. Louis Cardinals

Lineup
3B   Matt Carpenter (age 28, .299/.378/.440, 11 HR, .360 wOBA, 5.3 WAR) - over
2B   Kolten Wong (age 23, .268/.321/.375, 6 HR, .306 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
LF   Matt Holliday (age 34, .292/.377/.481, 22 HR, .374 wOBA, 4.0 WAR) - over
RF   Allen Craig (age 29, .305/.359/.473, 18 HR, .363 wOBA, 3.2 WAR) - under
C     Yadier Molina (age 31, .308/.358/.452, 14 HR, .353 wOBA, 5.3 WAR) - over
1B   Matt Adams (age 25, .277/.330/.470, 24 HR, .346 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
SS   Jhonny Peralta (age 32, .280/.329/.427, 14 HR, .330 wOBA, 3.6 WAR) - under
CF   Peter Bourjos (age 27, .271/.332/.370, 7 HR, 51 SB, .313 wOBA, 3.1 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Adam Wainwright (age 32, 222 IP, 206/43 K/BB, 3.03 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 5.0 WAR) - over
RHP Shelby Miller (age 23, 180 IP, 178/57 K/BB, 3.51 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 2.4 WAR) - over
RHP Michael Wacha (age 22, 171 IP, 164/48 K/BB, 3.33 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 2.7 WAR) - over
LHP Jaime Garcia (age 27, 132 IP, 106/34 K/BB, 3.66 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.6 WAR) - under
RHP Lance Lynn (age 27, 189 IP, 186/65 K/BB, 3.67 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.2 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
OF Jon Jay, IF Daniel Descalso, C Tony Cruz, OF Shane Robinson, IF Mark Ellis, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Jason Motte, RHP Carlos Martinez, LHP Randy Choate, LHP Kevin Siegrist, RHP Seth Maness, RHP Joe Kelly

Best Offseason Move - It took an extra full season to realize, but the Cardinals seem to finally understand that the Pete Kozma/Descalso combo does not measure up to a major league shortstop. Instead, the team went out and signed Peralta, who despite sitting out a 50-game suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis last year remains an adequate defensive option (though with limited range) who hits better than all but a select few at his position. Peralta has become a smarter hitter as he has aged, cutting down on his strikeouts and pushing his OBP north of .345 two of the last three years. Even if his age causes his numbers to dip from last year, he will be a two or three-win upgrade over the Kozma/Descalso mess.

Worst Offseason Move - There aren't a lot of holes anywhere in this organization, but outfield defense has been sketchy of late, with Jay stretched too far in center and Craig in right. The Cardinals gave up very little to get Bourjos, but given their pitching depth could potentially have acquired a better (and healthier) option by including one of their superfluous back-end starters, such as Kelly or Lynn. Martinez will be a better pitcher in the long term than either of those guys, but due to lack of opportunities he's being wasted in the bullpen at present. A Lynn/Kelly-and-Freese trade might have upgraded the Cards at three spots (third, center, and the rotation) rather than just two. But when the "worst offseason move" is that you didn't trade from strength to further boost an area that you upgraded anyway, that's a good problem to have.

Key Player - Now that Pujols is a two-years-distant memory, the Cardinals' entire identity revolves around Molina, long the best defensive catcher in the game (barring perhaps his brother Jose), but who has in the past three years developed into an MVP-caliber hitter as well. Yadi is universally revered by his pitchers, both for his game-calling and pitch-framing abilities, and unless your name is Billy Hamilton you're probably not going to take any chances on his excellent arm. At the plate, he has mostly doubles power with the occasional home run, but overall (now that Joe Mauer is a full-time first baseman) probably sports the best offensive profile of any catcher not named Buster Posey. As long as he stays healthy enough to catch 135 or so games (which he did last year despite a knee issue), he will add about six wins to the Cardinals' ledger by himself.

Most Exciting Player - Pick a pitcher, any pitcher. Wainwright, the staff ace, is a 6'7" bearded menace with one of the best curveballs in the game. Miller and Wacha blaze away with the hard stuff, then are followed out of the pen by Martinez, Rosenthal, and Motte, all of whom can reach triple digits on the gun, and Kelly can get pretty close working out of the pen. Bourjos is a good enough center fielder that he pushed Mike Trout to left in Anaheim, and Molina vs. opposing base runners is always an entertaining matchup. Bottom line; this is a fun team from top to bottom.

Possible Breakout Star - Miller had his breakout in the first half last year, and Wacha utterly dominated in a September stint that saw him approach no-hitters in both his final start of the regular season and first start of the playoffs, so we'll pass on them here. Do not be surprised if Martinez wrests a rotation spot away from Lynn or Garcia and showcases his talent in a similar fashion. The Cardinals may be the only team in the majors that has four guys with number one caliber ability, and apart from Wainwright the oldest one of them is the 23-year-old Miller. But wait, there's more! Oscar Taveras is maybe the top hitting prospect in all of baseball, but he missed most of last year with a leg injury. It's entirely conceivable that the 21-year-old Taveras, who his .306/.341/.462 at AAA Memphis last year before hitting the shelf, takes the right field job sooner rather than later, pushing Craig back to first base and Adams to the bench. Keith Law has described him as "Vlad Guerrero but from the left side," and he has dominated minor league competition at a very young age. Stay tuned.

Potential Achilles Heel - It's hard to find one on a team that has a deep major league roster, a loaded farm system, and a strong organizational philosophy that permeates every level of the team. The one small flaw might be what happens to the outfield defense should the brittle Bourjos (who has played more than 101 games once in his career) miss extended time. Neither Jay, Robinson, nor Taveras should be counted on to hold down center on anything more than an emergency basis. But that's really the biggest problem that the Cardinals might have.

Hidden Strength - The relentless youth of this team should scare other teams not just now but for the next several years down the road. Ten guys slated for key roles on the Cardinals are 28 or younger, and five of them (Miller, Martinez, Wacha, Adams, and Wong) are 25 or less. That doesn't count Taveras or any one of the other prospects who might come through the never-ending pipeline. The major strength of this organization is how many quality major league players they develop from deep in the draft. Pujols was rather famously a thirteenth-round pick, meaning that every team passed on him at least a dozen times. Carpenter (13th), Adams (23rd), Rosenthal (21st), Garcia (22nd), Craig (8th) and Motte (19th) were also all late-round diamonds in the rough. Clearly the Cardinals are practiced at this, and it's one of the things that keeps them competitive year after year.

Coming tomorrow: the AL East.