Reviewing the National League Central Race After Two Weeks

The first two weeks of a baseball season can overflow with surprises, which doesn't make them decisive or very informative. The naked eye sees crazy images and wonders if baseball might be changi

Apr 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The first two weeks of a baseball season can overflow with surprises, which doesn't make them decisive or very informative. The naked eye sees crazy images and wonders if baseball might be changing. But the more discerning eye looks a little deeper, often spotting the obvious that lies beneath the bizarre.

Take for example the National League Central Division, where the St. Louis Cardinals jumped out to first place with nine wins in their first 12 games. As the Cardinals are clearly in decline, judging from the last three full seasons, they might be off to a surprising start.

Then one notes that the Cardinals played nine of those games against the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants, three clubs with last-place potential. The Cards won seven of those outings.

Suddenly the Cardinals aren't such a surprise. They've merely shown, as widely predicted, that they're not as poor as the league's worst clubs.

By way of review and preview, then, take a look at the NL Central clubs in light of the Reds and their chances for contention, starting at the top of the standings through April 14 and working toward the bottom.

St. Louis Cardinals: We're about to describe the stunning effectiveness of a starting rotation composed of Todd Wellemeyer, Kyle Lohse, Braden Looper, Brad Thompson and Adam Wainwright. Through April 11, St. Louis starters notched a 2.35 ERA, second in the major leagues only to San Diego (1.49). The bullpen ERA of 3.38 was solid by this year's early standards, and closer Jason Isringhausen allowed no runs in his first six appearances.

Working against the NL dregs, St. Louis pitchers walked only 24 hitters and struck out 99, the third best ratio in the big leagues. And Cardinals hitters exhibited good plate discipline, taking 46 walks and striking out only 52 times.

Thus far, at least, we can say the Cards are playing the game right. We'll know if they can play the game well once they start lining up against contenders. By then, maybe, they'll return Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder to their starting rotation, and Matt Clement is a possibility down the road.

Milwaukee Brewers: They're doing what they're supposed to do, sweeping three against San Francisco and holding up their end (5-4) against the Reds, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. Their hitting wasn't anything special — just .254 with a .732 OPS. But no club hits better with runners in scoring position. The Brewers led all of baseball by hitting .333 (34 for 102) under those circumstances.

So the Brewers have maximized their hits, even with the likes of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks and Corey Hart hardly hitting at all. But Jason Kendall is making a difference, batting .405 through April 13 and throwing out three of seven base stealers. Bill Hall didn't hit often (.220), but he did hit powerfully (five homers). Gabe Kapler, who managed in Class A ball last year, is batting .423 with four homers in his first two weeks for Milwaukee.

Ben Sheets (3-0, 1.17 ERA) will hold up the front of the pitching rotation as long as he's healthy. Milwaukee pitching isn't great, but it's good enough. The Brewers have called up their top prospect, Yovani Gallerdo, to help the rotation. Eric Gagne isn't blowing them away as the new Milwaukee closer, but he notched three saves and a win despite his 7.20 ERA in his first five appearances.

Chicago Cubs: Lou Piniella is turning the Cubs into quite a dynamic operation. The Cubs stole 11 bases in their first 10 games, their fastest trip to double figures since 1991. But it's every bit as easy to run on the Cubs and their rookie catcher, Geovany Soto, who threw out only two of 10 base stealers.

On the up side, Soto batted .286 with two homers. Another newcomer, right fielder Kosuke Fukodome, hit four-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Derek Lee hit four homers in the first two weeks, followed by Aramis Ramirez with three.

The Chicago bullpen is off to a good start. Between them, middle men Carlos Marmol, Jon Lieber, Michael Weurtz and Sean Marshall allowed only two earned runs in their first 25 innings. Kerry Wood bombed in his debut as a closer but since then has notched three saves. Again, though, look at the schedule. The Cubs were 5-1 against Houston and Pittsburgh but 2-4 against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh Pirates: One keeps thinking the Pirates might make progress, then watches them play. Between a lack of depth in the batting order, almost no bullpen and the worst defense in baseball, they just can't stack up over the long haul.

Starting pitchers like Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny might not match the Boston Red Sox, but they don't stink. Batters like Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez and Adam LaRoche would fit in with many better ball clubs. But none of these guys makes as much difference as throwing errors and weak middle relief.

The Pirates won four games by one run the first two weeks to even out at 6-6. They aren't really that good, which makes it disappointing that they took down the Reds.

Cincinnati Reds: Through April 12, the Reds still were the only club to beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, winning two of three in the opening series. The Reds also beat Milwaukee two of three and split four games with Philadelphia. So the Reds held fast against playoff contenders.

Then the Reds went to Pittsburgh to play the perennially last-place Pirates. Suddenly, the Reds couldn't score and lost three straight. If the Reds can't handle Pittsburgh, Washington, Houston and San Francisco, it won't matter how they do with Arizona, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

Taking a slightly longer view, the Reds are promising from a pitching standpoint. They led the National League with 84 strikeouts and walked only 27 batters, tied with the Cubs for second fewest in the NL. On the flip side, the Reds gave up 17 homers, most in the NL. You can't say they don't throw strikes.

Get a load of that Reds bullpen. In seven games through April 12, Reds relievers tossed a 2.14 ERA and opponents touched them for only a .193 batting average. Kent Mercker (2.45 ERA) and Jeremy Affeldt (2.25) were solid setting up from the left side, while Mike Lincoln, Jared Burton and David Weathers were doing it from the right. In the end, Coco Cordero put up two saves without giving up a run in his first four outings as the new closer.

Houston Astros: Surprisingly, the Astros have seven quality starts and Roy Oswalt is the worst guy in their rotation. Because of another surprise — Houston's weak hitting — the Astros didn't turn a quality start into a win until April 12.

Center fielder Michael Bourn is electric once he reaches base, but that isn't often enough, and the projected two-hole hitter, Kaz Matsui, is still out. Hunter Pence isn't hitting against anyone and flopped as the No. 2 hitter. Pence, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada, three powerful right-handed bats, have hardly touched left-handed pitchers.

Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]