Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Medium-Term Look at the NL Central

Why the medium-term? Because in the short-term, we know the Pirates will probably suck. Again. But there is a glimmer of optimism on the horizon.

First, the Pirates are building a nice young core of players at the ML-level. The Core Four of Alvarez, McCutchen, Tabata, and Walker will hopefully continue to progress towards great things this year. James McDonald is a very interesting potential starter in the rotation; I'm still reserving some judgement on him until he puts a full season in Pittsburgh. Evan Meek is a closer-in-waiting, perhaps as soon as this year if Hanrahan is traded at the deadline.

But the Pirates need more than that, of course. In 2011, not a lot of impact pieces will be seeing significant time (barring an injury opening up a spot). Rudy Owens and Brian Morris should get a taste of the majors, but both are potential #3 starters at best.

2012 is when the next Talent Train should arrive at the station at PNC Park. Both Owens and Morris could be established in the rotation by then, Tony Sanchez may be your opening day starter at catcher, Andrew Lambo and Starling Marte may be manning RF, Chase d'Arnaud could be your starting SS, and Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson could be in the pitching mix as well.

2013 is the earliest potential year we could see phenom Jameson Taillon. Plus, if the Pirates select Anthony Rendon in this year's draft at spot 1-1, he could be your starting 3B by June 2013. Slow down now, my heart is all aflutter at this potential influx of talent.

But it won't matter much unless we compare the Pirates to their opponents in the NL Central.

Cincinnati -- The 2010 NL Central champs recently placed 4 players in the Baseball America Top 100 prospects. The Pirates had the 2nd most in the NL Central with 3 prospects. The Reds have a good young team with some cost-controlled or pre-arb years still. Their window of contention should be open until 2014 when a lot of their key players will start to get expensive or become free agent eligible. Their farm should be able to supply enough cost-controlled talent for the next few years.

St. Louis -- Talk about a team in flux. All-World player Pujols appears set to test free agency after 2011. Adam Wainwright, their current ace, is out for the year after getting TJ Surgery. Ace Emeritus Chris Carpenter's contract is up at the end of the year. Young star Colby Rasmus feuds with the manager and the veterans. It will be interesting to see what plays out with Pujols, as the Cards at this point may have less than a 50-50 shot of signing him. The Cards only had 2 prospects in BA's Top 100, although one of them is Shelby Miller who could be a potential #1 starter. This team could be in a reload mode after 2011.

Milwaukee -- The Brew Crew had the dubious distinction of being the only ML team to not have a single prospect in the BA Top 100. The Brewers used the scorched earth policy on their farm this offseason in an attempt to load the ML team up for one last run with Prince Fielder. Three key prospects were traded as part of the Greinke trade. Brett Lawrie was traded for Shaun Marcum to further bolster the rotation. The Brewers were left with just some scraps on the farm, but they could glean a middle of the rotation pitcher or two out of that mess. Milwaukee has control of Greinke and Marcum through 2012, so even if Fielder leaves they could try again next year. But if both of these guys leave via free agency after 2012....yikes.

Chicago -- Ahh...the Cubs. A great example of how spending $130M doesn't guarantee success. This mish-mashed group of veterans has some bad contracts coming off the books after this year, with the remainder (except for the Soriano albatross) leaving after 2012. The Cubs put 2 guys in the BA Top 100 and would have had more, but traded a few promising guys to get Matt Garza from the Rays. The Cubs have some good cost-controlled pieces coming up from the farm, but this team will probably start to reload thru free agency after 2011.

Houston -- Before this year, I would always project the Pirates to finish ahead of the Astros and then every year the Astros would surprise me (and a lot of other people) and exceed expectations. This year I projected them to have 77 wins and the Pirates 73 wins, so I'm not sure if I'm reverse jinxing them or if I actually believe it. The Astros have finally decided to start rebuilding by trading Oswalt and Berkman last year. The Carlos Lee contract will weigh this team down thru 2012, but they don't have any other superbad contracts besides him. The farm put 2 guys on the BA Top 100. They have some interesting cost-controlled talent, but not enough to take them as a serious contender any time before 2015. They should be the least of the Pirates' worries.

So the short answer is that I think the Pirates can realistically contend for the NL Central (typed with a straight face) in 2013. Get your playoff tickets now! Maybe you can hire one of those Wisconsin protesters that are camping outside the State House in 15 degree weather to be your surrogate for waiting in line.

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