Not much of a Division with two of the teams, the Cubs and Astros going through a rebuilding process. The Astros won’t even be in the Division next year so the teams on top are glad to be getting some games against the Astros to help them with their wild card possibilities. The Pirates find themselves perched on top of the Division late in the season, the same scenario they found themselves in last year before folding. They hope they have learned some lessons that will help them hang on this year. The team with the most talent in the Division, the Reds are tied with the Pirates. Both the Cardinals and Brewers try to battle without their big run producing first basemen, who both left for free agency.
Pittsburgh Pirates (4) 49-38
Heros: James McDonald has turned into an ace with his 9-3, 2.59. Every team needs a pitcher like that to stop a losing streak. Andrew McCutchen has always had superstar potential. This year he is breaking that out with his .366, 20, 63 numbers. If the Pirates keep winning and Andrew continues to hit he would have myworld’s MVP vote. Jason Grilli has come out of the pen for 22 holds and a 1.82 ERA. The opposition is hitting him for a .145 average with 55 whiffs in just 34 plus innings.
Busts:The Pirates were hoping to get more offense from their two free agent signings, Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes. Rod is hitting some critical homeruns (7) but is only hitting .219 while Barmes has only a .204 average, not unusual when you look at his 4/60 walk to whiff ratio. Evan Meek has been one of the top pitchers coming out of the bullpen the last couple years. This year he is at 7.59 in ten appearances.
Top Rookies: They are doing it with a relatively veteran team. Jared Hughes, with his 2.08 ERA in 34 appearances is the only first year player doing well for the Pirates this year. Turning 27 this year he wasn’t even considered a prospect coming into the season.
Hot on the Farm: The Pirates need to make room for Starling Marte (.286, 9, 52). His defense is superb, supposedly good enough to move McCutchen to left field. That is not going to happen. In 2005 Jeff Clement was the third player selected in the draft. Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitski and McCutchen were selected just after him. He is hitting .299, 13, 43 but no longer catches. Rudy Owens (7-4, 2.89) and Jeff Locke (7-5, 2.95) hope the Pirates need some help in the rotation. In AA Vic Black (1.22 ERA) is putting up some numbers in the bullpen that give the Pirates pause to take notice.
Season Expectations: They have more veteran savy this year, so they should make a battle of it all season. Pitching falls a bit short, leaving them just short of the playoffs. They should end their 19 year losing streak.
Cincinnati Reds (1) 49-38
Heros: Aroldis Chapman may not be a model citizen, but he has made the loss of Ryan Madson more palatable. A lot of striking out the side in the ninth inning to put up more than 16 strikeouts per nine innings. His 18 hits in 41 innings should result in a better ERA than 1.74, but he has had his rough patches to the season. Johnny Cueto (10-5, 2.39) has turned into their ace, phenomenal numbers when you consider the band box where they play their games. Jay Bruce (57) and not Joey Votto (48) is the team’s big RBI man.
Busts: Scott Rolen will cede playing time to Todd Frazier at third. You can’t be hitting .188 this late in the season and not expect to lose your starting spot. Matt Latos (4.10) is not really a bust, but the Reds traded some pretty good prospects to acquire him. He is not pitching like the ace they thought he would be. The four other pitchers in the rotation have more quality starts than Latos.
Top Rookies: Todd Frazier’s bat (.288, 10) has been good enough to take the third base job away from Scott Rolen. It is time to give him his opportunity. He is easily outperforming two more highly touted rookies in Zach Cozart and Devin Mesoraco.
Hot on the Farm: Billy Hamilton has been promoted to AA, but he and his 100 plus stolen bases are probably one year away. Didi Gregorius (.278) is a slick fielding shortstop who still needs to show he can hit. Tony Cingrani (5-1, 1.29) has put up unbelievable numbers in AA. He was also 5-1, 1.11 in ten starts at High A. Donnie Joseph was recently promoted to AAA after a 0.89 ERA and 13 saves in AA, striking out more than 13 hitters per nine innings. If they want to put Chapman in the rotation Joseph might be a good bullpen alternative.
Season Expectations: They have the top talent in this Division. The Division should be theirs for the taking. Need Mat Latos to become the ace of the staff.
St. Louis Cardinals (2) 46-42
Heros: Yadier Molina is a premier defensive catcher that is putting some offense in his game (.306, 14). The Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran (.291, 20) as a bat to replace the offensive productivity with the departure of Pujols. Beltran has not disappointed. Kyle Lohse (9-2, 2.80) continues to pitch like fine wine. He just gets better with age. His 13 quality starts lead the team.
Busts: Adam Wainwright (7-9, 4.62) may have overestimated his effectiveness after returning from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals are not getting a lot of offensive production from the second base combination of Daniel Descalso (.223) and Tyler Greene (.225). Both look more like utility players.
Top Rookies: Matt Carpenter (.291) did a good job at first base with Lance Berkman on the disabled list. Playing time may be difficult now that Berkman is back. Joe Kelly (2.70) has looked good in six starts. His 13/21 walk to whiff ratio in 33 innings fails to impress.
Hot on the Farm: The Cardinals may have to make room for Oscar Taveras (.327, 18, 66) in the outfield. A September promotion is likely. Kolten Wong (.306) is another player in AA raking with the bat. The Cardinals have a lack of production at second base. Trevor Rosenthal (8-6, 2.79) is putting up some good starts in AA.
Season Expectations: The loss of Tony LaRussa may have been greater than Albert Pujols. They will be having Lance Berkman back to make a run. They will fall short.
Milwaukee Brewers (3) 41-46
Heros: Norichika Aoki was not supposed to get a lot of playing time. With both Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan not hitting and Aoki hitting .296 he has taken over the centerfield job. His .810 OPS is 100 points greater than Gomez, his closest pursuer. No one else on this team is really overperforming.
Busts: Rickie Weeks is struggling (.199, . His 104 whiffs in 307 at bats is an alarming rate. His extra base hit numbers have dropped (.345 slugging) and despite his 6 for 6 success rate in stolen bases he doesn’t attempt a lot of steals. The platoon of Carlos Gomez (.232) and Nyjer Morgan (.228) have lost the centerfield job to Aoki. Morgan seems to have a difficult time in his second year with a team. Randy Wolf (2-6, 5.80) has been no mystery on the mound. John Axford (2-5, 4.71, 16 saves) has struggled in the closer role.
Top Rookies: Aoki has taken over the centerfield job. Michael Fiers has had only seven starts but his 2.31 ERA and 9.64 whiffs per nine innings is the best among starting pitchers for the Brewers. Pretty good strikeout numbers for a pitcher without a blazing fastball.
Hot on the Farm: Jeff Bianchi was recently called up by the Brewers. He was hitting .305 in AAA after ripping AA at a .351 clip. The Brewers hope he can provide some offense that has been missing at the shortstop position. Hunter Morris leads his AA team in RBIs (64) and is also hitting .305. His 29 doubles and 14 homeruns also lead the team. Tyler Thornburg (8-1, 3.00) is a top prospect that worked his way to the rotation. He gave up four homeruns in just five innings in his major league debut.
Season Expectations: In order to make the playoffs a team needs some players to overperform. The Brewers have a couple underperformers but no player doing better than expected. They will fall short of the playoffs.
Chicago Cubs (5) 35-52
Heros: Alfonso Soriano (.275, 16) has improved his numbers, Perhaps the Cubs can convince the team that he is worth giving away a prospect to get his bat into a pennant race. Ryan Dempster (5-3, 1.86) will be the player more likely to be traded based on team’s need for pitching.
Busts: Rafael Dolis has too good a stuff to be putting up 6.75 ERAs. Chris Volstad (0-7, 7.94) has not been the better pitcher in the straight up deal for Carlos Zambrano. Geovany Soto has hit new depths with his .189 average. Ian Stewart (.201) always seems to disappoint.
Top Rookies: Anthony Rizzo (.356, 4) is raking in his promotion to the majors, hitting his four dingers in only 56 at bats. Steve Clevenger (.261) has hit well enough that Soto has lost playing time to him. Clevenger is not much of an offensive player, especially from the power side but his defense is solid.
Hot on the Farm: Anthony Rizzo (.342, 23) put up the numbers the Cubs could no longer ignore. Now Josh Vitters (.302, 13) hopes he will be next. Once a highly touted prospect for being selected third in the 2007 draft, his prospect status has dimmed. Matt Wieters, Madison Bumgarner and Jason Heyward are three picks selected after Vitters that are making a major league impact. Frank Batiste (1.20 ERA) earned a promotion to AAA. The opposition is hitting only .170 against him. Nick Struck (10-8, 3.34) is also having a good year in the rotation. Both pitchers are right handed and less than 6′0″, a bad combination for scouts.
Season Expectations: The Cubs are on a rebuilding mode. They will fight with the Astros to see who will be the worst team in the NC Central. That will also identify the worst team in the National League.
Houston Astros (6) 33-54
Heros: Jed Lowrie (.253, 14) was a good pickup. Until Ian Desmond got hot for the Nationals no shortstop had more homeruns than Jed. He also leads his team in homeruns.
Busts: J.A. Happ (6-9, 5.14) was a top prospect for the Phillies, but he hasn’t shown the Astros that stuff once they acquired him. Jordan Lyles (2-5, 5.08) can no longer hang on his top prospect status. Now he needs to produce. Brain Bogusevic (.221) has had a disappointing year. He was counted on to be one of the Astros top performers.
Top Rookies: Lucas Harrell (7-6, 4.43) won a starting job in spring, but has only provided innings for the 2012 season.
Hot on the Farm: Fernando Martinez is staying healthy enough in AAA to get 251 at bats, putting together a .331 average with nine homeruns. His arthritic knees have robbed him of his speed. He is one of eight hitters on the Oklahoma team that is hitting over .300. Mike Hessman is only hitting .257, but he has crushed 27 homeruns. After trading Carlos Lee, if the Astros are looking for a bat for first base Hessman could be an answer. Brandon Barnes (.311, 7) covered a lot of ground in centerfield for the Astros during the spring. He is showing some offense in AA as well. Jose Martinez (.304, 12) did not play last year after being released by the Cardinals. He leads the team in RBIs.
Season Expectations: Another rebuilding team. See Cubs narrative.