2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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The Brewers Had Better Win This Year

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I’d scarcely remembered hearing Brewers manager Ron Roenicke talk before last night’s NLCS game 2 between the Cardinals and Brewers.

Now I know why.

During his in-game interview on TBS, it became crystal clear why the Brewers on-field behaviors are so out-of-control that they’ve become despised throughout the league.

Apart from Brewers (and presumably Cubs) fans, everyone wants to see them lose to a Cardinals team that, prior to this series, wasn’t exactly a contender for Miss Congeniality.

Tony LaRussa clubs aren’t well-liked because they play old-school and on the edge—they’re not out there to make friends; they’re out there to beat you. The Brewers are reviled because they think they’re better than they are; they behave as if they’ve won 5 championships; and are so overt in their celebrations that their arrogance is palpable.

On the Brewers roster are three players who have championship rings: Francisco Rodriguez, Craig Counsell and Jerry Hairston Jr.

One self-interested pitcher—whose reputation isn’t sterling in any context—and two utility players.

I doubt their voices carry much weight—literally or figuratively—in that clubhouse.

The player with the weight, Prince Fielder, is running things and he’s a sullen, mercurial individual who has come through for his club, but is also the one who has to be viewed as the catalyst for the Brewers act.

Nyjer Morgan can be referenced as the “attitude” behind the Brewers, but it all stems from Fielder. If he told Morgan to tone it down, Morgan would tone it down.

Roenicke is so soft-spoken and understated that the only way to judge him is the way his team behaves. There are managers who don’t say much in the Gil Hodges tradition, but players know not to muck with them and are aware that the manager is in charge.

Roenicke is just sort of there in the Bob Brenly scope of a manager hired not to screw it up. And he hasn’t. Yet.

He had a resume of managing in the minors and was on a well-respected coaching staff for a strong-handed manager Mike Scioscia.

But Scioscia’s teams don’t disrespect their opponents and the game the way these Brewers do.

They can defend “The Beast” silliness in which they raise their arms when they do….whatever; say that it’s all in good fun. But it’s offensive; and what makes it worse is that these players have accomplished absolutely nothing to warrant it. There are teams that expect to win and behave appropriately when they do; and there are teams for whom circumstances have coalesced into a perfect storm so their results are better than the reality.

The Brewers loaded up on starting pitching with Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke joining Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf; they brought in an All Star closer in K-Rod to set-up for John Axford; their two main bashers Ryan Braun and Fielder have carried them beyond a terrible defense and top-heavy lineup.

Teams like this can win with a weak manager, but they’re not in it for the long haul because Fielder’s not coming back after this season and once the novelty wears off and they need discipline, Roenicke isn’t going to be able to provide it.

The potential championship is worth the compromises they’ve made. But they’d better get that championship this year because it’s the only chance this group is going to have.

All of baseball is watching.

And rooting against them.

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Arizona Diamondbacks vs Milwaukee Brewers

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Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Milwaukee Brewers (96-66; 1st place, NL Central)

Keys for the Diamondbacks: Get into the Brewers middle relief; keep the bases clear in front of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder; get depth from their starters; jump out to a lead early in game 1.

The Brewers strength is their starting rotation and their power. The Diamondbacks have been a more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts club; they don’t have an overt “strength” despite the statistically similar pitching staff in comparison to the Brewers.

The Brewers starting pitching is so deep and so good that the Diamondbacks have to get their pitch counts up and hope the Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke jumps the gun either by pinch hitting for his pitchers or pulls them in the middle innings. In the late innings, they’ll have Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to contend with.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are both MVP candidates this season; the Brewers offense is top-heavy and limited with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee occupying two spots in the lineup along with the pitcher; the Diamondbacks have to keep the runners off the bases to either mitigate how much damage Braun and Fielder can do or to pitch around them when necessary.

Ian Kennedy won 21 games and was masterful this season, but in his time with the Yankees he proved to be a pitcher who thought way too much about what he was doing; those types tend to take a pressure situation and use it to formulate ways in which they can make themselves “better” rather than doing what it was that got them to where they are in the first place. If Kennedy gets through the first 3 innings relatively unscathed, he’ll be fine—the Diamondbacks coaching staff has to get it through his over-analytical head that what he’s done all season long has worked and there’s no reason to change it because it’s the playoffs.

Daniel Hudson is still a young pitcher despite winning 16 games and providing over 200 innings in 2011; McGehee is 5 for 5 in his career against Hudson with a double and a homer; Fielder is 2 for 5 with a homer.

Joe Saunders is a control-based lefty who cannot be expected to hold down the Brewers lineup. Braun has 2 homers in 6 at bats vs Saunders. Gibson has to have a quick hook with Saunders.

The Brewers are loud and bullying. They have a lot to say, are overt in their mannerisms and take their cue from Nyjer Morgan and Fielder. They’re not particularly likable and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson isn’t the type to let his players take a lot of junk. If the Diamondbacks jump to an early lead, that will prevent the Brewers from starting with their nonsense.

Keys for the Brewers: Depth from their starters; get the game to K-Rod and Axford; get runners on base in front of Braun and Fielder; lay down the law early with the Diamondbacks young starters.

This is why the Brewers made those drastic maneuvers last winter in getting Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They have two of the best pitchers in baseball fronting their rotation with Greinke and Gallardo; a very good one in Marcum; and the veteran Randy Wolf. Greinke has never pitched in  the post-season; nor has Marcum. Gallardo pitched 7 solid innings against the Phillies in the 2008 NLDS.

With K-Rod and Axford for the eighth and ninth innings, the Brewers are well-suited to get as many innings as they can from their starters and hand it over to a shutdown bullpen with two quality closers.

Morgan is good at getting on base and wreaking havoc with his legs and his obnoxious personality. With the all-or-nothing spots in their lineup occupied by Yuniesky Betancourt and McGehee, the Brewers have to get production from Braun and Fielder.

The Brewers are frontrunners; if they fall behind the Diamondbacks early, their bullying will be prevented.

Miguel Montero has hammered Greinke, Wolf and Marcum in his career and has to be watched.

What will happen.

The Diamondbacks were not expected to be here and take their cue from their ultra-competitive manager. They have some pop, they don’t strike out as much as they before GM Kevin Towers cleared out some of the wind producers, but they still strike out a lot. They have solid starting pitching, but it’s inexperienced in these types of circumstances; their bullpen isn’t as flashy as the Brewers, but it’s still good.

There will be tension in this series and how that goes might determine the outcome. The Brewers are loud and arrogant. Gibson isn’t going to tolerate that kind of attitude and will tell his players not to let it go by without response. The Brewers will push the Diamondbacks early, the Diamondbacks will push back and tempers will flare.

If Kennedy can get to the middle innings without giving up a crooked number and the Diamondbacks take the first game, they’ll be in great position to win the series. Justin Upton is 3 for 9 in his career vs Gallardo and Lyle Overbay 2 for 3.

If the Diamondbacks are going to win this series, they’ll be better-served to win the first game.

The Brewers infield defense is terrible; it didn’t hurt them during the season, but it will in the playoffs.

Far too impressed with themselves, the Brewers think they’ve accomplished something without actually having accomplished much of anything apart from making angry clubs throughout baseball with their behaviors led by Morgan.

The Diamondbacks functioned under-the-radar all season long and they’ve proven themselves again and again to be a formidable opponent that plays the game the way their manager did—hard.

The Diamondbacks are going to quiet the Brewers quickly and drop them in 4 games.

PREDICTION: DIAMONDBACKS IN FOUR.

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