Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton will bring defensive power to the field. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty)
On the heels of yet another teardown, the Marlins host the Cubs for a four-game set beginning Thursday night. Both teams are desperately looking to get on a roll and have a good opportunity to do this series.
In constructing their roster on the absolute slimmest of budgets, the Marlins have had to piece together a lineup of pre-arbitration youngsters and aging veterans on year-to-year contracts. The former includes catcher Rob Brantly (23) and second baseman Donovan Solano (25). Center fielder Justin Ruggiano, who broke out in 2012, falls into the pre-arb category as well, despite having just turned 31. On the other end are left fielder Juan Pierre (35), third baseman Placido Polanco (37) and first baseman Greg Dobbs (34). The entire collection ranks last in the NL in every slash stat (.221/.279/.296).
There is a definite superstar on this team, in hulking—and athletic—right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. His power and arm tools are at the top of the scale, and he’s convinced many doubters who feared he would strike out far too much to succeed in the big leagues. Since he debuted as a 20-year-old in 2010, he has hit for a .268 AVG/.349 OBP/.541 SLG and set career bests in each category (along with his 37 homers) despite the move to cavernous Marlins Park. He’s hitting .200 with no homers yet this season, but he’s still contributed by making several great plays with his glove and arm.
The Cubs will miss 20-year-old phenom Jose Fernandez, who was a surprise Opening Day call-up considering he hadn’t played above A ball yet. Thursday’s starter, Kevin Slowey, heavily relies on having pinpoint command over his four- and two-seam fastballs, but he can get hit hard and spent last season in Triple-A. Wade LeBlanc and Alex Sanabia are extreme fly-ball pitchers who will benefit from playing in the Marlins’ large yard. Meanwhile, you may find yourself craning your neck when watching the back end of the bullpen. Closer Steve Cishek winds it from the side but can still touch the mid-90s with his fastball. Meanwhile, 6-foot-11 setup man Jon Rauch forces batters to look upward. He throws from over top, and gives up a giant share of fly balls and homers with his low-90s fastball.
Thursday, April 25—RHP Edwin Jackson (0-3, 4.84) vs. RHP Kevin Slowey (0-2, 1.90)
Friday, April 26—RHP Scott Feldman (0-3, 4.50) vs. LHP Wade LeBlanc (0-3, 6.27)
Saturday, April 27—LHP Travis Wood (1-1, 2.08) vs. RHP Alex Sanabia (2-2, 5.09)
Sunday, April 28—RHP Carlos Villanueva (1-0, 1.53) vs. RHP Ricky Nolasco (1-2, 3.81)
[PITCHER TO WATCH]
The Marlins’ Sunday starter has undergone a fascinating evolution over the last three years. Nolasco has gone from a fly-ball pitcher who struck out nearly a batter an inning to one who induces a good amount of grounders and K’s only about six per nine. The change can be attributed to a heavy move away from his four-seam fastball. In its place have come a good low-90s sinker and a splitter. The latter is only used against lefties, while he’ll lean on his slider versus righties. A big, slow curve rounds out the repertoire. He has very good control over it all, but the infield defense—which sorely misses the injured Hechavarria—will have to support him.
The Cubs will keep an eye on slugger Joey Votto. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The division front-runners didn’t rest on their laurels after a 2012 NL Central championship, addressing a perennial weakness at the leadoff spot. They’re the favorites again and currently sit in first place.
GM Walt Jocketty acquired left-handed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade that saw the Reds send Drew Stubbs to the Indians and prospect Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks. Replacing Stubbs with Choo exchanged defense for offense, and the contrast has been sharp so far. While Choo has made a hash of center field—where he hadn’t played extensively since Single-A ball—he’s hit .382 AVG/.523 OBP/.632 SLG, outpacing perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto in all three categories. Even as those numbers come back to Earth, Choo will provide an above-average walk rate, speed and some power, making him the top-of-the-order weapon the Reds needed.
Votto is, of course, the team’s engine and one of the game’s best players. In five full seasons, he’s never once had a batting average below .297, and he averages 40 doubles and 30 homers every 162 games. But just as valuable is his .419 career on-base percentage, tops among active players. He’s also on a contract that will keep him in Cincinnati through at least 2023. Cubs pitchers will have a hard time getting Votto to fish outside the zone, though he’s done his biggest damage on pitches down lately.
Outside of Choo and second baseman Brandon Phillips, the entire starting lineup is homegrown. Fantastic shortstop Zack Cozart, sophomore third baseman Todd Frazier and promising backstop Devin Mesoraco all were selected in the first two rounds of the 2007 draft. Meanwhile, corner outfielders Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey were drafted in 2006 and 2005, respectively.
The Cubs will face a trio of talented starting pitchers age 25 and younger. Right-hander Mike Leake has struggled with consistency since his promising 2010-11 campaigns, but he has excellent command and can befuddle hitters despite lacking a fastball that gets much out of the 80s. Southpaw Tony Cingrani takes the hill in the middle game after an impressive big league debut. In striking out eight Marlins over five innings, Cingrani showed a deceptive delivery and consistent three-quarters arm slot that played up his low-90s fastball and great change-up combination. He struck out an astounding 34 percent of batters faced in the minors without leveling off in the upper minors. Finally, “veteran” righty Mat Latos closes out the series with some more heat. His 3.48 ERA last year virtually matched his 2011 mark despite moving from spacious PETCO Park to an environment that is much more conducive to offense.
The last thing the Cubs want to do is see triple-digit lefty Aroldis Chapman in the ninth—where it seems he’ll stay after consideration for the rotation—but there’s some softness before that point. Former Cub Sean Marshall is out with shoulder tendinitis and may not be ready to come off the DL when he’s eligible Tuesday. Jonathan Broxton should bring late-inning firepower, but he’s struggled mightily so far. Overall, it’s a bullpen the Cubs will want to get to by the middle innings.
Monday, April 22—LHP Travis Wood (1-1, 1.83) vs. RHP Mike Leake (1-0, 4.26)
Tuesday, April 23—RHP Carlos Villanueva (1-0, 1.29) vs. LHP Tony Cingrani (1-0, 1.80)
Wednesday, April 24—RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-3, 3.38) vs. RHP Mat Latos (0-0, 2.73)
Shin-Soo Choo takes over in center field for the Reds. (Photo by John Grieshop/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The Reds entered 2013 with the expectation that the division was theirs for the taking yet again, thanks to a deep rotation, a lineup stacked with power hitters who take advantage of the homer-happy Great American Ballpark, and the addition of a top-shelf leadoff man in Shin-Soo Choo.
Things are still going according to plan as Cincinnati leads the NL Central, though there are a few question marks running through the organization. Staff ace Johnny Cueto went on the DL in mid-April after straining his lat, and there isn’t a true timetable for his return. And the verdict is still out as to whether Choo can handle center field, a position he hasn’t played regularly since A-ball.
An even bigger source of early-season drama was the spring argument over what to do with the Cuban Missile. Is Aroldis Chapman’s triple-digit velocity more valuable in the rotation, or should the Reds leave him in the bullpen as their closer, where he has already had success? After testing him in the front five this spring, the team moved him back into the closer role prior to the season. We’ll see how it all plays out.
Carlos Gomez has been solid in the Brewers lineup this season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty)
The Cubs will get another chance at right-hander Marco Estrada as they venture north to Milwaukee this weekend to take on the Brewers. The 29-year-old Estrada picked up the win and limited Cubs hitters to two runs on five hits in seven innings during the North Siders’ home opener earlier this month.
The three-pitch starter throws an 89 mph fastball 61 percent of the time and mixes in a change-up and a curveball. That repertoire has proved effective so far this season, at least in terms of strikeout totals—Estrada has fanned 21 batters in 18.0 innings. Last season marked his first year as a regular in the rotation, and he finished 5-7 in 23 starts, striking out 9.3 batters per nine.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the speedsters in the Brewers’ lineup have posed the biggest problems for opposing pitchers. Shortstop Jean Segura leads the team with a .367 average, while Carlos Gomez (.308/.321/.442) and Norichika Akoi (.289/.358/.437) have also proved to be tough outs early on. Gomez’s ascent has been especially surprising, considering he’s a career .248 hitter known more for his wheels and defensive ability. Then there’s 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun. Though his .275 average is well below his career mark of .313, he’s hit three homers and driven in 10 and remains one of the game’s top hitters.
That said, the Brewers’ offense still has Rickie Weeks in its order. The second baseman is hitting .193/.270/.298 and hardly resembles the player who made the All-Star team in 2011. And former Cub Aramis Ramirez is still on the 15-day DL with a knee sprain and should be back in the lineup in early May.
Of course, the offense isn’t the reason the Brew Crew are 6-8 and only a game up on the rebuilding Cubs. The pitching staff has given up 5.4 runs per game, the worst mark in the National League, and they have a staff ERA of 4.75, 14th in the NL. Much of that comes from poor starting pitching. Newcomer Kyle Lohse has been tough, but ace Yovanni Gallardo has a 5.24 ERA in four starts, while prospect Wily Peralta’s ERA is 6.19 over three starts. And Milwaukee already demoted starter Mike Fiers to Triple-A.
The good news for the Cubs is that they miss Lohse. The Brewers will send right-hander Hiram Burgos—making his ML debut—to the mound Saturday and Peralta on Sunday.
Friday, April 19—RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-2, 2.75) vs. RHP Marco Estrada (1-0, 4.50)
Saturday, April 20—RHP Edwin Jackson (0-2, 6.06) vs. RHP Hiram Burgos (0-0, –)
Sunday, April 21—RHP Scott Feldman (0-2, 6.00) vs. RHP Wily Peralta (0-1, 6.19)
The Cubs will face lefty Derek Holland Tuesday night. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
The following is from Vine Line‘s April Gameday Edition. Fans can purchase the full version of the official program and scorecard of the Chicago Cubs at various kiosks around Wrigley Field.
The previously high-flying Rangers come into 2013 trying to recover from the shock of blowing their AL West lead to the A’s in the season’s last week, and then losing the Wild Card play-in game to the upstart Orioles. That debacle triggered even more turbulence this offseason. Texas endured a winter of front office power struggles over former President Nolan Ryan’s role, saw star center fielder Josh Hamilton defect as a free agent—to the division rival Angels, no less—and traded away longtime fan favorite Michael Young to the Phillies.
The Rangers feel they’re strong enough to contend in 2013—and they still have one of the top prospects in the game in Jurickson Profar—but it’s easy to anticipate how a slow start could incite panic for a team that’s taken a tumble after winning back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and 2011.
3.7 Runs Scored/Game — 21st in MLB
With Hamilton gone, the Rangers lost a premium bat from the left side. To replace him, they had to settle for two aging veterans, Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski. But the 37-year-old Big Puma is coming off a season ruined by injury, while the 36-year-old Pierzynski is likely due to come down from a surprising 27-homer year with the White Sox. Cuban center fielder Leonys Martin joins second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus to give the Rangers a lot of offense at the up-the-middle skill positions. But it will be interesting to see how much offense they get at the corners from Berkman, David Murphy and Mitch Moreland. One player they won’t have to worry about is Adrian Beltre, a premium defender with an MVP-caliber bat at the hot corner.
3.0 Runs Allowed/Game — T-3rd in MLB
Wherever else the Rangers have problems, they still have an outstanding front three in their starting rotation. Second-year Japanese import Yu Darvish more than lived up to lofty first-year expectations, while Matt Harrison and Derek Holland give the Rangers a pair of quality lefties who are both just coming into their own. Harrison is currently on the DL with a lower back strain and should return soon. But what the team does after those three is open to question. Even after seeing relief ace Neftali Feliz blow out his elbow after a move to the rotation last year (likely costing him most of 2013), the Rangers are doing the same thing with Alexi Ogando. Like Feliz, Ogando is talented enough to merit the move, but the Rangers can’t afford to see him break down as well. Once injured veterans Colby Lewis and Joakim Soria join the staff later in the season, the team might have the kind of depth to contend.
Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre is a force offensively as well as with the glove. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Once the clear leaders of the AL West and back-to-back Junior Circuit champions, the Rangers now have plenty of company in their division. The Angels have loaded up through free agency two winters in a row, and the A’s shocked baseball by upsetting the Rangers for the division title last fall. But Texas will be able to dip into a perennially deep farm system thanks to one of the game’s premier scouting operations. They come to Chicago in an early season Interleague matchup due to the new 15-team alignment in each league.
Cubs batters will face a challenge getting the ball past the left side of the infield thanks to two of the game’s best glovemen: third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus. Both have great range, smooth hands and outstanding arms. Beltre, of course, adds in a .300-average, 30-homer stick that makes him an annual MVP candidate, while Andrus has improved offensively across the board in the last couple of seasons. Homegrown players stock the right side of the infield, with second baseman Ian Kinsler and first baseman Mitch Moreland. Regular DH (and former Astro and Cardinal) Lance Berkman could spot at first base or in the corner outfield this series.
With the departure of Josh Hamilton, there’s more pressure on left fielder David Murphy to double up on his breakout 2012 season, on right fielder Nelson Cruz to stave off further decline, and on center fielder Leonys Martin to grab hold of the position after being inked to a five-year deal out of Cuba.
The Cubs will see a few familiar faces behind the dish: former friend Geovany Soto and former foe A.J. Pierzynski. The latter joined the Rangers as a free agent after eight years on the South Side. Former Cub Jeff Baker also has a bench spot and may poke his head out against Travis Wood or other lefties.
The Cubs will miss right-hander Yu Darvish and the assortment of pitches that dazzled for 26 straight outs against the Astros two weeks ago. But they’ll still catch a homegrown trio with plenty of stuff: inconsistent left-hander Derek Holland, 2010 fifth-rounder Justin Grimm and reliever-turned-starter Alexi Ogando. Expect a lot of easy cheese on Thursday when Ogando takes on Jeff Samardzija. In the bullpen, the Rangers pair a couple of sophomore setup guys, Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers, with veteran closer Joe Nathan.
Friday, April 5—LHP Derek Holland (0-1, 2.40) vs. LHP Travis Wood (1-0, 1.46)
Saturday, April 6—RHP Justin Grimm (0-0, 4.50) vs. RHP Carlos Villanueva (0-0, 0.64)
Sunday, April 7—RHP Alexi Ogando (2-0, 1.08) vs. RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-2, 2.75)
Giants starter Madison Bumgarner will throw Saturday at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Got your Vine Line Game Day Edition scorecards ready? We’ve got a dandy pitching matchup at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon. Here’s a quick guide to today’s two starters:
Repertoire (Avg. MPH)*: 4-seam (92), Slider (88), Change-up (86), Curve (85)
2012 Stats: 208 IP, 22.5 K%, 5.1 UBB%, 3.37 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
Bumgarner’s repertoire is simple on its face—fastball, slider, curve and change—but it’s how he’s able to locate modify his pitches that makes him such a great left-hander. He adds and subtracts from his fastball and adds in some natural cutting action. The result is a continuum of velocities and movement, even though the vast majority of his pitches will fall in a slim high-80s to low-90s range.
Righties will have to deal with being pounded inside with cutters and sliders, and protecting against curves and change-ups that will drop on the low-outside corner from different directions. Bumgarner delivers from a low three-quarters angle that makes both locations tough to deal with. Against lefties, he throws his fastball over half of the time, attacking the outside corner as well as using it up and over the plate. His slider will sweep hard away from a lefty, and his slow, mid-70s curve gets batters way out in front. Watch out for some backwards pitching: While hitters are likely to see a first-pitch fastball, they’ll deal with more sliders when Bumgarner falls behind in the count and more fastballs when he’s ahead.
Bumgarner’s signature is his command, and it’s no doubt the product of clean, repeatable mechanics. He turns toward second base at max leg kick before unwinding his hips and arms, keeping his head perfectly still and getting great extension toward the plate. It gives him “effective” velocity more than pure velocity and is a big reason he’s had an above-average strikeout rate in his two full seasons in the big leagues.
Repertoire (Avg. MPH)*: 4-seam (96), Sinker (95), Cutter (92), Splitter (86), Slider (85)
2012 Stats: 174 IP, 24.9 K%, 7.5 UBB%, 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP
One thing’s clear through two starts: Samardzija is determined to surpass his breakout 2012 campaign. His 22 strikeouts through 13.2 innings gives him a 41 percent strikeout rate, and he’s kept opponents to a .125 batting average. Is it possible for Samardzija to be a breakout candidate again? Some certainly believe so.
There’s been at least one specific improvement in the very early going: his use of a back-door slider against lefties. That’s a pitch that starts off the plate before sweeping over the outside corner. In fact, southpaws have struck out four times on the slider versus six on the splitter, whereas the ratio was one to five last season. He’s also used it nearly a quarter of the time against right-handed hitters with two strikes. It’s possible that he just has better “feel” of that pitch so far, but we’ll be watching the development of that pitch to see if it helps Shark unlock another gear this season.
Both of Samardzija’s fastballs sit in the mid- to high-90s, and his two-seamer is made even more impressive by his ability to run a few extra inches of movement while matching the velocity of his four-seamer. Overall, he likes to move pitches away from batters—using more two-seamers and splitters that fade away from lefties, while employing the cutter and slider against righties. And Samardzija’s splitter is his No. 1 weapon when he gets ahead in the count. He’s gotten more whiffs on the pitch each year in the big leagues, up to a 46 percent swing-and-miss rate last season.
*PITCHf/x numbers from Brooks Baseball.
The Giants and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey rolls into town Thursday. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The defending world champs roll into Wrigley Field having won a second World Series title in just three years. They’ll be gunning for a third with much the same roster they fielded last season. GM Brian Sabean re-signed veteran center fielder Angel Pagan to a four-year deal and rewarded 37-year-old infielder Marco Scutaro with a three-year contract for his stretch-drive and World Series heroics. But the Giants’ activity (or lack thereof) in the hot stove season underscores how this year’s team is different. In 2012, they lost Pablo Sandoval for one-third of the year to injury, and they traded for Scutaro and right fielder Hunter Pence in the second half. Having that trio join NL MVP Buster Posey for all of 2013 should provide an offensive boost. If they get the same consistency from the league’s best rotation and their deep bullpen, they’ll be hard to beat—and a good bet to repeat.
HITTING: 4.2 RS/G (9th in NL)
What the Giants’ lineup lacks in pure slugging it makes up for in versatility. Though they finished last in the league in home runs in 2012, they take a big hit playing their home games in AT&T Park, where they managed just 31 homers all year. But if they get full seasons from Pence and Sandoval, they’ll have plenty of pop in any park. Despite the absence of a big-name burner, the Giants were fourth in the league in steals and swiped bases at an above-average 75 percent clip. With Pagan up front and the Panda-Posey-Pence trio in the heart of the order, the Giants could have a remarkably efficient short-sequence offense. To extend that all the way through the order, they will need first baseman Brandon Belt to finally break through. Left field could be manned by a rotating cast, as manager Bruce Bochy likes to exploit matchups.
2012 BATTING COMPARISON
.240 (15) AVG .269 (3)
.302 (16) OBP .327 (4)
.378 (14) SLG .397 (8)
3.78 (14) RS/G 4.43 (6)
PITCHING: 3.9 RA/G (5th in the NL)
When people talk about the Giants, it’s usually about their deep and stable rotation. But Tim Lincecum’s off year took some of the shine off their vaunted reputation. If the Freak recovers, he could give the Giants the toughest front four in baseball. Madison Bumgarner is coming into his own, and Ryan Vogelsong might be the reclamation project of the decade. The bullpen more than adapted to the absence of closer Brian Wilson, as Bochy effectively mixed a veteran quartet in righties Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla and lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Bochy is expected to be more conventional this year, leaning heavily on Romo to notch saves. If there’s a cause for concern, it’s the unit’s age—this was one of the oldest staffs in baseball last season, and they’re all one year older now.
2012 PITCHING COMPARISON
4.51 (14) ERA 3.68 (5)
.259 (11) AVG .248 (5)
1.39 (14) WHIP 1.27 (7)
4.69 (14) RA/G 4.01 (6)
HITTER TO WATCH — BUSTER POSEY
What constitutes an MVP—value, stats, leadership skills? Posey’s case might rest on two equally impressive feats. For starters, he’s the best-hitting catcher in the league. Last season, he was second among NL catchers in home runs and became the first backstop to win the NL batting title since Ernie Lombardi in 1942. More fundamentally, he’s been around for just three seasons, and in the two he managed to stay healthy, the Giants won the World Series. His tremendous strike-zone judgment and excellent plate coverage make him hard to beat. At 26, he’s entering his prime and on the short list for best player in the game.
PITCHER TO WATCH — MATT CAIN
As if the Giants’ 2012 season wasn’t magical enough, let’s not forget Matt Cain, the man who threw the 22nd perfect game in big league history last year. Cain also set career highs in wins, strikeouts and ERA, and has clearly claimed the role of staff ace in a deep rotation. But that isn’t all that’s perfect about Cain. He’s a true four-pitch starter with low-90s velocity, and he has never been on the DL. That’s right—he’s taken the ball every fifth day for seven years running. All that, and he just turned 28. That is what perfection looks like. With Cain manning the No. 1 spot, the Giants’ rotation should be strong again in 2013. It looks like Cain should get the start in Friday afternoon’s game.
—By Christina Kahrl
Marco Estrada will take the ball Monday for the Brewers. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Year after year, there’s little question the Brewers can slug—in their first season without Prince Fielder, Milwaukee ranked third with 4.8 runs per game. But the departures of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum have left some questions in the starting rotation, forcing GM Doug Melvin to cobble together pitching depth right until the end of Spring Training.
Just days before Opening Day, Melvin dipped into the organization’s spending money to sign veteran right-hander Kyle Lohse to a three-year deal (and thus forfeiting the team’s first-round pick in the upcoming draft). Coming off a great start against the Diamondbacks, Lohse is slated to take the mound Wednesday at Wrigley Field. He’s coming off an age-33 season in which he set career bests with a 2.86 ERA, 211 innings, a .234 batting average against, and a 4.4 percent walk rate. His 16.6 percent strikeout rate was also the second best of his career. It’s an open question of which categories Lohse will maintain or regress as he gets another year into his 30s.
The Cubs will also see right-handers Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. A 2010 waiver claim from the Nationals, Estrada had exceptional command of all three of his pitches last year: fastball, curve and change. It’s not often you see a pitcher with a 90-mph heater striking out a quarter of the hitters he faced—and walking just five percent of all hitters. Meanwhile, Peralta is regarded as one of the Brewers’ top prospects and made the roster after an impressive September call-up. The 23-year-old Dominican pitches with gas, sitting in the mid-90s and able to touch above that. His slider also is a sharp, hard breaker that will get plenty of K’s. But his command and pitching feel are still works in progress that the Cubs will do well to plan against on Tuesday.
With Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart both on the DL at least for the next few weeks, the offense will be headed by the homegrown core of 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy. Leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki overcame the doubters in his transition from Japan last year. He’s an all-around threat who will take a walk, steal bases efficiently, find the gaps and even take the ball out of the park from time to time. Lucroy is coming off a tremendous year (.320 AVG/.368 OBP/.513 SLG) from behind the dish, while Weeks hopes to bounce back from a career-worst season (.230/.328/.400). Either way, the Brewers should put up crooked numbers as ever in the NL Central.
Monday, April 8—RHP Marco Estrada vs. RHP Edwin Jackson
Tuesday, April 9—RHP Wily Peralta vs. LHP Travis Wood
Wednesday, April 10—RHP Kyle Lohse vs. RHP Scott Feldman
Former Cardinal pitcher Kyle Lohse joined Milwaukee in the offseason. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
The following is from Vine Line‘s April Gameday Edition. Fans can purchase the full version of the official program and scorecard of the Chicago Cubs at various kiosks around Wrigley Field.
For years, it seemed like the Cubs and Brewers were constantly sparring for NL Central supremacy. But those days are over for the time being, with the Cubs trying to rebound from a 101-loss season and the Brewers perhaps dealing with a rebuilding year after a third-place finish in 2012. The offense, which carried the team last year, should still be solid, but the pitching staff is a big question mark—though the late-spring signing of former Cardinal Kyle Lohse should help.
The Brew Crew were already planning on breaking in a few youngsters in their rotation, signaling they probably wouldn’t be running with the Reds and Cardinals atop the division. But between losing slugger Corey Hart for the first two months of the season and having to do without Mat Gamel for the entire season, they’re dangerously short on depth in the lineup and counting on a pitching staff in transition.
3.7 Runs Scored/Game — 8th in NL
The heart of Milwaukee’s Opening Day lineup looked tough, as would any that had sluggers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez batting third and fourth. But it appears the Cubs might catch a bit of a break. The Brewers likely won’t get a 100 percent version of Braun as neck stiffness has kept the 2011 NL MVP out of action since April 3 and the North Siders will entirely duck Ramirez, who was recently placed on the DL with a knee sprain.
The injuries and lack of a strong bench will certainly take the Brewers’ 2012 league-leading offense down a peg in the early going, but skipper Ron Roenicke is one of the most active offensive tacticians around. He loves to get runners moving, bunt and slip in the occasional late-inning squeeze play to pressure opposing defenses. With young shortstop Jean Segura settling in, Roenicke might have a quartet of 30-steal players. In the absence of Hart’s power bat, it will be interesting to see if Milwaukee green-lights the running game even more aggressively. One key will be whether center fielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jonathan Lucroy retain last year’s power gains as they hit their prime, age-27 seasons. If they don’t, things will likely get a whole lot worse for this lineup in 2013.
6.5 Runs Allowed/Game — 13th in NL
Yovani Gallardo is a familiar face at the front end of the rotation, and Lohse (who is slated to pitch against the Cubs Wednesday) should be solid after a few career years in St. Louis. But after that, there’s a whole lot of wish-casting. Can Chris Narveson come back from a torn rotator cuff? Will top prospects Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers break through? Has the NL caught up to Mike Fiers, who did well his first time around the league last year before fading late? With that many question marks, a career utility pitcher like Marco Estrada is sure to come in handy.
The bullpen has experienced some turnover as well. The Brew Crew brought in veteran lefties Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny to set up John Axford. The hirsute closer will have to prove he’s back from a season in which he almost lost his job due to a rash of titanic home runs. But when Axford is on, his swing-and-miss stuff rates among the league’s best. The Brewers need him to be that pitcher again if they hope to contend.