Results tagged ‘ series preview ’
In his last 25 games, 2014 All-Star Freddie Freeman has hit .370/.434/.570. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty)
At the season’s outset, it appeared offense would be the Braves’ strength, as their lineup was littered with power bats, but they had numerous question marks in the rotation. As usual in baseball, it’s a good idea to expect the unexpected. The Braves pull into Wrigley Field tied with the Nationals for first place in the NL East chiefly on the backs of that suspect rotation, much of which was thrown together late in the offseason after the team lost two big arms to Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. But with some key players struggling, the offense has taken a step back from 2013, when it ranked fourth in the NL in runs per game. One veteran has already been displaced from his starting position.
(3.6 RA/G, 4th IN NL)
The Braves lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery before the season even began, but that hasn’t stopped the staff from being one of the best in the game. Aaron Harang has probably pitched above his head early in the year, but his performance has still been a revelation. Ervin Santana was another late-spring addition, and while he’s been inconsistent, he is still a reliable innings eater. The Cubs will see three young pitchers in this series in lefties Alex Wood and Mike Minor, as well as 2014 All-Star righty Julio Teheran. Friday’s starter, Wood, has shuttled between the bullpen and the rotation this year, but is back in a much more comfortable starting role, where he can use his full assortment of pitches and funky delivery to keep hitters off balance. The usually reliable lefty Minor has struggled since the end of last season and comes into Saturday’s start with a 2-5 record and 4.54 ERA. However, the biggest development this season has been Julio Teheran’s emergence as the staff’s ace. The 22-year-old currently sports an 8-6 record with a 2.57 ERA. The bullpen looks a bit different from previous years, but it’s still strong, with outstanding closer and NL saves leader Craig Kimbrel anchoring the back end.
(3.7 RS/G, 14TH IN NL)
Dan Uggla has never been a batting average guy, but that was always offset by his tremendous power. However, after the second baseman slugged just .362 in 2013 and suffered a continued power outage in 2014, the Braves finally called up youngster Tommy La Stella to take over the keystone in late May. La Stella doesn’t have the power Uggla displayed in his prime, but he has a great approach and can flat out hit. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it isn’t just Uggla struggling at the plate. Chris Johnson has failed to repeat his BABIP-fueled 2013 line of .321/.358/.457; the Upton brothers continue to strike out at an alarming rate; and former top prospect Jason Heyward hasn’t shown the power many expected of him when he first came up. The Braves are also without slugging catcher Evan Gattis for the foreseeable future. This offense was designed to be heavy on power bats, but it’s struggling to hit home runs and hasn’t yet figured out how to play small ball. So far this year, the Braves attack relies heavily on All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman. When he’s hot, the offense will score some runs. If you can hold him down, it struggles.
Bartolo Colon has brought some veteran leadership to a young Mets rotation. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Mets pulled into June just a few games off the pace in a relatively weak NL East. While their impressive start was a surprise to many, the front office did add a pair of seasoned veterans in Bartolo Colon and Curtis Granderson to try and jump-start the team’s window of contention. Pair that with face of the franchise David Wright and some talented young pitchers in Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Zach Wheeler and Matt Harvey (out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery), and New York has an interesting core to work with going forward. While it appears the Mets have performed better than their numbers might suggest, there are some signs their early-season success could be maintained if a few veterans start performing up to their career norms.
(8TH IN NL, 4.0 RA/G)
The Mets’ starting pitching, which pairs youth with ageless veteran Colon, has been a strength. Colon walks very few batters, and his strikeout rate is actually up this season, but he’s giving up more home runs than usual. If he can get that number back to normal levels, the 42-year-old could be part of a very strong rotation that includes solid young arms in Gee, Niese and Wheeler. Gee has recently been on the DL with a strained right lat, but former Red Sox bust Daisuke Matsuzaka has actually been solid in the rotation. If someone falters, stud prospect Noah Syndergaard is waiting in the wings. The bullpen, on the other hand, is a big question mark. Last year’s closer Bobby Parnell lasted only one inning in 2014 before tearing his UCL. The Mets are hoping a mix of veterans and untried youth can get them through the later innings of close games, with Jenrry Mejia serving as the team’s closer of late.
(6TH IN NL, 4.1 RS/G)
Through the season’s first two months, the Mets got almost nothing out of veteran leader Granderson, while Wright seems to have shaken off his slow start in the last few weeks. The duo’s original struggles at the plate made the Mets’ solid start on offense look all the more surprising. As a team, they’re 8th in the NL in OBP (which usually aligns very closely with runs scored) but last in slugging. So the question is, what will change going forward? Do the individual performances start to improve, or does the unsustainable run scoring catch up with them? It’s unlikely Granderson will struggle this much all season, so it’s possible the Mets will continue to score runs at their solid early-season rate.
Masahiro Tanaka has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. The Cubs will face the rookie for the second time Tuesday. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The Yankees failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in the last 19 seasons in 2013, leading the Bronx Bombers to do what they do best—spend money. The New Yorkers revamped their offense by doling out big-money, multiyear contracts to several players in the offseason and outbid the Cubs, among others, for the services of Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka. Despite injuries to an aging team (the average age is over 33) and holes in the pitching staff and infield, the Yanks find themselves in their familiar spot atop the always difficult AL East.
4.6 Runs Allowed Per Game, 7th in AL
Tanaka is not only the talk of the high-priced Yankees rotation, but of the entire league. The 25-year-old received a 7-year/$155 million deal from the club before he had thrown a pitch in the majors, and through the first quarter of the season, he looks to be worth every penny, sporting a 6-0 record with a 2.17 ERA and 10.2 K/9 over 58 innings. He is currently carrying a pitching staff littered with injuries. Veteran ace CC Sabathia isn’t expected back for at least another month with knee issues, Michael Pineda (who has already been suspended this season for sporting a foreign substance on his neck) went on the DL with shoulder soreness, and young right-hander Ivan Nova was lost to Tommy John surgery. Hiroki Kuroda remains a cog in the rotation, though his streak of years with a sub-4.00 ERA might be in jeopardy as he enters his age 39 season. David Robertson is doing his best Mariano Rivera impression in the back end of the bullpen, having racked up eight saves in 11.2 innings and fanning 11.6 batters per nine.
4.8 Runs Scored Per Game, 8th in AL
On paper, the offense looks to be the Yankees’ primary strength. The additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran were supposed to give the team a huge boost offensively. But the reality is the 27-time champs are getting the most production out of guys who are past their primes or are unproven commodities. The 26-year-old Yangervis Solarte has been a big help at third, replacing Alex Rodriguez, who is sitting out the season with a PED suspension. Solarte’s .313/.387/.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line and five homers have been a huge boost to an offense lacking pop. First baseman Mark Teixeira, who finally seems to be healthy, has provided some unexpected and much-needed power to the heart of the order, putting up nine homers and a .265/.370.549 line at age 34. Originally pegged as the team’s fourth outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki still knows how to hit. He is spelling Beltran, who is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation. Suzuki’s fine play has also allowed former Cub Alfonso Soriano to DH half the time. Brett Gardner continues to be a solid offensive threat, hitting .297 and stealing 10 bases. The offense could be even more potent if McCann was hitting to the back of his baseball card. His season average of .225 is 50 points lower than his career mark. The Cubs will also get a chance to say goodbye to Yanks captain Derek Jeter, who will play his fourth and fifth career games at the Friendly Confines this week. Though his production is down from his career norms, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer is still the heart and soul of the team.
Carlos Gomez has been a key part of the Brewers’ success this season. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
No one expected much of the Brewers this season, but they got off to the fastest start in baseball and haven’t looked back. Coming into this series with the Cubs, Milwaukee has the second-best record in the National League (a half game behind the Giants), and they are five games up on St. Louis in what was supposed to be a very competitive NL Central. The Brewers stayed relatively quiet for most of the offseason, but made a splash late in January when they signed former Cubs pitcher Matt Garza to a four-year, $52 million deal. The addition of Garza, who adds some upside to a solid rotation, makes Milwaukee an intriguing team in an already deep NL Central. While there is certainly potential in both the staff and the offense, the Brewers have little depth. They’ll also need several players who had surprising seasons in 2013 to continue to progress this year if they hope to remain in contention all season long. Ryan Braun, returning from a 62-game PED suspension and a load of bad publicity, has continued to crush the ball.
PITCHING (3.6 Runs Allowed Per Game, 6th in NL)
Garza has remained healthy, but his ERA is nearing 5.00, and his production isn’t quite what the organization had in mind when they signed him to the big-money deal. The good news for the Brewers is that Kyle Lohse has continued to be solid as the club’s ace. He has a 4-1 record, a 2.75 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP through eight starts. While Yovani Gallardo may never live up to the promise he displayed early in his career, he gives Milwaukee a third known commodity. He’s throwing better than he has in a while, with a 3.07 ERA in nine starts. Marco Estrada looks to be coming into his own a little later in his career. The 30-year-old righty, who has posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA, has taken another step forward this year, posting a 3.28 ERA in eight starts. Veteran Francisco Rodriguez has been huge in the back end of ballgames, leading the league in saves while keeping base runners to a minimum.
HITTING (3.9 Runs Scored Per Game, 5th in NL)
The offense has a chance to continue it’s high-octane output, but the Brew Crew needs several players to build off breakout 2013 seasons. Carlos Gomez has continued his 2013 power surge, ranking toward the top of the NL in home runs while still possessing game-changing speed. Braun has picked up right where he left off, hitting .316 with six homers through the first quarter of the season. The only major stumble has come from shortstop Jean Segura, who’s hitting .248 on the year and has gotten caught stealing a league-best five times already. The unheralded Jonathan Lucroy has been a key to the offense, batting .304/.377/.437 (AVG/OBP/SLG), exceptional numbers from a backstop. Though Mark Reynolds doesn’t get on base a ton, his eight homers negate a lot of his statistical weaknesses.
(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The White Sox had a surprisingly solid 2012 campaign, but they faltered down the stretch and then lost a miserable 99 games last season. While a rebuild was clearly in order, GM Rick Hahn appears to have taken a different route from Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and company. The Cubs have stocked up on prospects of all levels—from Low-A to nearly ready for the bigs. Hahn, on the other hand, has focused primarily on more mature talent. Trading for Avisail Garcia (since lost for the season), Adam Eaton (who will miss the Cubs series with a strained hamstring) and Matt Davidson (who started the season in Triple-A), and spending big money on Cuban star Jose Abreu demonstrated that while the White Sox are going with a youth movement, they want to be sure those kids are contributing right from the start. Injuries are currently the issue for the South Siders, with seven projected players in the Opening Day roster on the disabled list for a variety of reasons.
(5.2 RA/G, 14th in AL)
Ignore Chris Sale’s 11-14 record in 2013—he was undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in baseball. The lefty established himself as a true ace and leads an intriguing group of starters, though he is currently serving a precautionary stint on the DL for left forearm issues. Behind Sale is Jose Quintana, who came out of nowhere to have a very solid 2012 campaign. While many believed that was the best Quintana had to offer, the crafty lefty took another step forward in 2013, giving the South Siders 200 innings and a 3.51 ERA. The questions begin after that, as rookie Scott Carroll, veteran John Danks and right-hander Andre Rienzo fill out the rotation. The bullpen once again features numerous power arms, but gone is closer Addison Reed. Matt Lindstrom has had the first crack at the job with Daniel Webb and Maikel Cleto serving as setup men.
(5.1 RS/G, 3rd in AL)
Runs were at a premium on the South Side last season, but an infusion of youth has helped the White Sox reverse that trend. After a rough 2013, veteran Paul Konerko remains on the roster, but in a limited role. Abreu has been the centerpiece of the offense and one of the most talked about stories in baseball thus far. Previous questions about his bat speed have ceased as he continues to hit all kinds of pitching hard. Earlier today, he was named the Player of the Month for April. Eaton’s trip to the DL puts a slight wrench in the top-of-the-order plans, as he’d already proven pesky in the leadoff spot. He served as a lynch pin, getting on base at a high rate to set the table for sluggers Abreu and Adam Dunn—who’s probably having his finest season since coming over as a free agent in 2011. But the offense suffered its biggest blow in mid-April when they lost Garcia for the season to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 22-year-old sustained the injury trying to make a diving catch.
Adam Wainwright is the centerpiece of a strong Cardinals pitching staff. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Cardinals are perennial contenders—as evidenced by their remarkable 10 playoff appearances since the turn of the century—and this season should be no different. Time and again, St. Louis proves to be the ideal franchise, consistently churning out a lineup that features strong veteran leadership (e.g., Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright) paired with up-and-coming, high-end talent (e.g., Matt Adams, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha). Add in that the Cards’ farm system is consistently rated one of the best in the game, and you have the makings of a formidable franchise for the foreseeable future. As with the New York Yankees, who dominated the AL East at the end of the 1990s, you can go ahead and pencil in the Cardinals as one of the teams to beat in the NL Central pretty much every season.
(3.1 Runs Allowed/Game, 2nd in the NL)
For anyone wondering if Adam Wainwright would return to form following Tommy John surgery, his 2013 campaign silenced any doubters. The Cardinals ace finished second in Cy Young voting, logged a career-high 241.2 innings and displayed significant improvement in his already stellar command, posting a career-best 3.7 percent walk rate. And he’s backed that up this season, with a 5-1 record and a 1.20 ERA through the first month. Behind Wainwright is a young nucleus with a ton of potential, including Miller and Wacha, who didn’t become a fixture in the rotation until September. There’s no step down when you get to the bullpen, as it features a pair of young, hard-throwing righties in Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez; two strong lefties in Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist; and a ground ball artist in Seth Maness when the team is in need of a double play.
(3.6 Runs Scored/Game, 13th in NL)
The Cardinals were the best offense in the NL last season, largely because they led the league with a .332 on-base percentage and hit a remarkable .330 with runners in scoring position. Through the first month of the season, they’ve fallen back to earth a little. So far in 2014, they’ve posted a .314 OBP, and they find themselves toward the back of the NL in runs scored. Jhonny Peralta isn’t strong defensively at short, but he’s a major offensive upgrade over Pete Kozma, as his six April homers proved. While the seemingly ageless Carlos Beltran is gone, the ever-consistent Holliday and perennial MVP candidate Molina should help keep this lineup as potent as ever. The Cardinals were lacking in the home run department last year, but a full season of Adams’ power bat could balance out Beltran’s departure.
Paul Goldschmidt hopes to carry on from a successful 2013 for the Diamondbacks. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Diamondbacks made a series of dubious decisions heading into the 2013 season, moving Justin Upton and once-highly thought of prospect Trevor Bauer in separate deals for what most felt was less than max value. In theory, both moves should have made Arizona better in the immediate future, though the D-backs enter this week’s series as the worst team in the baseball, in part due to a league-worst -51 run differential. The team disappointed in 2013 as well, finishing right at .500 for the second year in a row, after delivering 94 wins and a playoff berth in 2011. The reshuffling continued this offseason, as GM Kevin Towers moved outfielder Adam Eaton and young pitcher Tyler Skaggs in a deal that netted power-hitting outfielder Mark Trumbo from the Angels. They also consummated a separate deal with the White Sox to nab closer Addison Reed.
(13th in NL, 3.7 R/G)
Trumbo jumped out to the early home run lead in 2014 and provides the Diamondbacks with another power bat (though an awful .298 career OBP) to team with Paul Goldschmidt. The team’s offense was already solid last season, and Trumbo should help them score even more runs—especially if catcher Miguel Montero bounces back from a 2013 in which he posted a .230/.318/.344 line after delivering back-to-back .800-plus OPS years. However, it’s Goldschmidt who makes the offense tick. After a pair of very solid seasons, the slugging first baseman took his game to another level last year, posting a gaudy .302/.401/.551 line with 36 doubles and 36 home runs, and finishing second in MVP voting. If he can continue to produce at an elite level, which he’s done so far this season (.313/.330/.518), it will be a steady boost to the Diamondbacks’ offense.
(15th in NL, 6.1 R/G)
The D-Backs are off to a terrible 5-16 start, and much of that can be traced back to the rotation. Last season, the Diamondbacks got a strong contribution from young starter Wade Miley (2-2, 4.35 ERA in 2014), but they’ll miss Patrick Corbin, who injured his elbow in Spring Training. Trevor Cahill (0-4, 7.48) missed all of July 2013 with a hip contusion, but was strong in his return, posting a 2.70 ERA in 50 innings. With Ian Kennedy and Skaggs gone, the team added Bronson Arroyo (1-1, 9.95) for veteran leadership and consistency. The 37-year-old doesn’t flash plus stuff, but has continued to deliver strong seasons, having logged at least 200 innings in eight of the last nine years. But he’s off to an abysmal start in 2014. The hope is Brandon McCarthy (0-3, 7.11) can stay healthy and allow Randall Delgado (0-1, 6.23) to work out of the bullpen. The D-backs added closer Reed to solidify the late innings, but they still need J.J. Putz to stay healthy.
Carlos Gomez has filled the void for an underachieving Brewers offense. (By Tom Lyons/Getty Images)
The Cubs’ September schedule is brutal, with 16 games against likely playoff-bound teams. But this upcoming four-game set against the Brewers features a team similarly struggling at the big league level. It also represents an opportunity for the Cubs to leap the Brewers for fourth place in the NL Central, with 2.5 games separating them prior to tonight’s game. Milwaukee’s lack of depth has been tested this year, with the team’s few breakout performances obscured by the suspension of 2011 MVP Ryan Braun to a violation of the league’s drug policy, the regression of pitcher Yovani Gallardo, and the inability for 24-year-old starter Wily Peralta to meet his potential. The late-spring signing of Kyle Lohse has looked good on its own but insufficient in context. That could be said about the entire squad: There are some solid pieces, but none that can carry the team.
HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (8th in NL)
With Prince Fielder long gone, Braun suspended, outfielder Corey Hart missing the season, and second baseman Rickie Weeks out the last two months, the Brewers’ offense is no longer a lineup with crooked-number potential. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has taken over as the team’s best position player, not only powering the offense with a mix of speed and pop but also stealing no fewer than five home runs this year from opposing hitters. The four-year, $28 million deal GM Doug Melvin inked Gomez to before the season may turn out to be an excellent play, as it buys out his next three years of free agency. Shortstop Jean Segura, just 23, looks like a piece to build around as well. He was plucked from the Angels in the Zack Greinke deal last summer. Segura also has outstanding speed, a good contact bat, and plays solid defense. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is one of the league’s best offensive catchers—not named Buster Posey or Yadier Molina—and outfielder Nori Aoki provides good on-base skills and more speed from the leadoff spot. On the other hand, 35-year-old third baseman Aramis Ramirez is on the decline and missed significant time this year. Milwaukee has some solid pieces, but aside from Gomez’s sudden offensive spike, there’s no real difference-maker in the lineup.
PITCHING: 4.4 Runs Allowed/Game (12th in NL)
The Cubs will see two of the Brewers’ top prospects this series: Peralta tonight and Tyler Thornburg on Wednesday. The 25-year-old Peralta is a power pitcher, working his fastball into the 95-97 mph range and complementing it with a sharp, mid-80s slider. But his lack of command has gotten the better of him this year, costing him walks and home runs. He also produces surprisingly few strikeouts. Peralta is the polar opposite of Tuesday’s starter Marco Estrada, who sometimes pays for his utterly average three-pitch mix but also has a 40 percent higher strikeout rate (22.2 percent vs. 15.8 percent). Drafted in the third round in 2010, Thornburg might look small, but he has the ability to work downhill and rear back for a mid-90s fastball. His curve and change-up both show promise for the future, and he has done a good job in 16 big league appearances (five starts). Milwaukee will send out their ace, Lohse—the Cubs’ 29th-round pick in 1995—to close out the series on Thursday. Lohse found the market dry because of draft-pick compensation that was tied to him, but he finally signed a three-year deal with the Brewers in March that has been a relative bargain so far. Command is vital for Lohse, who has an average five-pitch mix, but it seems the gains he made in that area with the Cardinals have stuck. It’s paying off with a 3.46 ERA despite a well below-average strikeout rate. Jim Henderson, who features a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a hard slider, closes out a mediocre bullpen.
Russell Martin’s excellent work with the pitching staff has the Pirates postseason-bound. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
The streak is over! On Sept. 9, the Pirates notched win No. 82 and clinched their first winning season in 21 years. All due credit to General Manager Neal Huntington, who engineered a turnaround that began in October 2007 but did not fully bear fruit until this year. The most impressive aspect of this season has been the total dominance of the Bucs’ pitching staff, even accounting for PNC Park being a pitcher’s environment. All of the team’s starters aside from 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole have been acquired via free agency or trade. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the pre-Huntington era, in which the team tried and failed to assemble a homegrown rotation. In this four-game set, the Cubs will see all but ace A.J. Burnett—whom they have seen plenty this year. Now, the question is whether the Pirates will be able to take the NL Central crown. they presently sit one game back of the Cardinals (and two in front of the Reds) with 17 games to go. The Cubs will have the opportunity to say something about that.
HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (T-9th in NL)
The Pirates have built a solid-but-average offense around cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old has backed up last year’s breakout season, virtually matching it with a .326 AVG/.405 OBP/.519 SLG slash line that has him well into the MVP conversation. Perhaps one of the best signs of the franchise’s current health is that McCutchen will be part of the team through at least 2017 (with a team option for ’18). Left fielder Starling Marte has also broken out quickly. He is an aggressive, toolsy player at the plate and on the basepaths, and he’s the team’s second-best hitter at age 24. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez all have their flaws at the plate, but they provide enough sock to make up for their low contact rates. Alvarez in particular has shown himself to be an all-or-nothing offensive option, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate only bested (nominally) by his 32 home runs. Buying low on right fielder Travis Snider apparently wasn’t buying low enough. He hasn’t hit his weight—seriously, a .222 batting average at a listed 235 pounds—and his defense is considered somewhere between below average and average. He has been replaced by comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August. The other big offensive hole is at shortstop, where veteran Clint Barmes continues to provide some of the game’s best defense but has fallen into a split role with fringe guy Jordy Mercer. The fielding overall is quite solid, with a mix of good defenders and aggressive positioning that is the product of a partnership between the field staff and the front office.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
We haven’t yet mentioned catcher Russell Martin, the veteran backstop who has been credited everywhere he’s landed for his solid work with pitchers. Under his tutelage, the Pirates have been hardly recognizable on the mound. Saturday’s starter, Gerrit Cole, is the team’s most exciting pitcher, a 23-year-old out of UCLA whose four- and two-seam fastballs both sit in the 95-98 mph territory. He pairs those offerings with a couple of hard breaking balls and a good change-up. Many observers have been puzzled by Cole’s sudden erosion in strikeouts (from roughly 25 percent of batters faced to 19 percent), but it has come with a pound-the-zone approach that has him walking just 5.4 percent of batters and getting a lot of ground balls. Both acquired from the Braves in 2009 for Nate McLouth, left-hander Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton start tonight and tomorrow. Locke has a decent fastball-curve-change repertoire with reverse platoon splits, but his control issues mean he is probably the odd man out in the playoff rotation. Morton has a power sinker that has led to a career year across the board, though he has been the most hittable of the Pirates’ pitchers. Finally, lefty Francisco Liriano closes things out on Sunday. He has reclaimed his effectiveness, largely by resolving years of serious command issues. The bullpen deserves special attention for its quality and depth, an unbelievable turnaround from what was undoubtedly the team’s downfall in the second half of 2012. Mark Melancon stepped in beautifully for closer Jason Grilli after the latter suffered an injury midseason. The former will hold onto the role for now, but both are ninth-inning assets regardless. Justin Wilson, a power arm from the left side, is just one great option manager Clint Hurdle can use from the seventh inning on.
Joey Votto has been a big source of the Reds’ offense this season. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Four of the Cubs’ remaining six series put them squarely in the NL Central spoiler role, as they take on each of the division’s top three teams. All three are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but on the line is one berth directly into the NL Division Series round. Tonight’s opponent, the Reds, are 1.5 games back of the Cardinals and in a tie with the Pirates for home field advantage for the one-game playoff. Cincinnati’s season has been a tale of two sides of the ball, with the offense playing out as a stars-and-scrubs affair and the pitching having performed as one of the league’s best from No. 1 to 12. Over the last month, the Reds have been competitive in nearly every contest, with 19 wins in 30 games and just one loss by more than three runs.
HITTING: 4.3 Runs Scored/Game (2nd in NL)
After five months of play, it’s apparent that GM Walt Jocketty could not have done a better job of addressing his team’s most longstanding weaknesses: on-base percentage and the leadoff spot. He killed two birds with one stone by swapping Drew Stubbs for Shin-Soo Choo in center field. Whereas Stubbs brought outstanding defensive range and a huge hole in his swing and plate approach, Choo brings a plan to the dish that has overcome an adventurous year back in the middle of the diamond. Choo’s .291 AVG/.425 OBP/.471 SLG slash line is barely behind first baseman Joey Votto’s .303/.430/.494 performance so far. Both provide plenty of baserunners and power that help Cincinnati make the most of their entire lineup. Votto has a clear leg up against left-handed pitchers, however: Choo has hit .209/.347/.239 against southpaws this season, part of a dramatic downward trend over the last several years. Manager Dusty Baker hasn’t really elected to protect Choo against his platoon issues, however, so tonight’s starter Travis Wood, as well as bullpen lefties James Russell, Zac Rosscup, and Brooks Raley, will be expected to neutralize the top-of-the-order threat. Beyond Choo and Votto, only right fielder Jay Bruce has stood out (both for his production and his strikeouts). Second baseman Brandon Phillips is one of several players with an on-base plus slugging percentage right around .700, though some insightful lineup construction puts his pop in the cleanup spot, a great place to drive in Choo and Votto.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-3rd in NL)
The Reds have assembled one of the game’s most unsung staffs, tied with the Pirates for third in run prevention but probably even better than they look considering the hitter’s haven Cincinnati calls home. The three starting pitchers the Cubs will see this series—Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake—won’t instill fear in any batters, but the numbers suggest they should. Arroyo is having yet another well-above-average season, the fourth in five seasons for the 36-year-old. The right-hander’s fastball doesn’t really get out of the 80s anymore, but a combination of pitching backward, deception and pitchability have him looking as good as ever. As a testament to his athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery, one need look no further than his walk percentage since 2008: 7.8%, 7.0%, 6.7%, 5.3%, 4.2% and finally 3.7%. Cingrani, on the other hand, is far from established, having thrown just five big league innings before this year. The 24-year-old is a 6-foot-4 lefty, who was a 2011 third-round pick out of Rice. He’s thrown his fastball over 80 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball, but it plays up due to good low-to-mid 90s velocity and great extension on the mound. The series closes out against Mike Leake, the 2008 first-round pick who is having his best season in his four big league campaigns. He’s another Reds pitcher with very good command and the ability to sink or cut his fastball to avoid barrels. The Reds bullpen has been just as outstanding as the rotation, though the relievers provide more firepower. Closer Aroldis Chapman, once again in the triple digits from the left side, leads a group that leads the majors with a 25.6 percent strikeout rate.