NL Central Roundup: Early Studs and Duds


Welcome to the debut of Central Intelligence, where I will periodically give you the latest news and notes from around the National League Central Division.

Since we are just a couple of weeks into the 2022 season, trends are still sorting themselves out, with some highs too high and lows too low. Right now is not the time to panic, although managers are approaching the time to tinker with roles based on early-season results based on expectations.

So without further adieu, here is the first installment of Central Intelligence (team order will generally be based on the nickname):

 

 

Brewers

 

Results have been mixed for Milwaukee in the early going as it defends its division title. The offense hasn’t materialized after the team changed hitting coaches, while the pitching has been solid, but not on the elite level it was last season.

Christian Yelich’s grand slam Monday temporarily allowed the offense to breathe a sigh of relief. Before scoring 11 runs in the first two games vs. Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday, the Brewers scored 31 runs in 10 games. The power has been lacking, with only eight long balls.

Coming off a season in which it posted a 3.24 ERA (third in MLB), the pitching staff is 16th with a 3.60 ERA, including a 4.32 mark by the starters. Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff were shaky in their season debuts but looked better in their ensuing starts.

Biggest surprise: Trevor Gott didn’t pitch in the majors in 2021 and had a 10.03 ERA in 15 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2020. So the reliever was a bit of a wild card coming into spring training. All he has done is throw four scoreless outings, walking none and striking out six in 4⅔ innings.

Biggest disappointment: It wouldn’t be surprising to see manager Craig Counsell move Devin Williams out of his eighth-inning role, at least temporarily. In four outings before Tuesday, Williams has lasted only three innings, allowing five hits and four runs, while issuing six walks and striking out eight. Williams looked much better in Tuesday’s perfect eighth inning.

Injuries: Third baseman Luis Urías (quad) is poised to begin a rehab assignment this weekend. Reliever Justin Topa (elbow) is could be getting close to a rehab stint.

 

Cardinals

 

The great St. Louis farewell tour is off to a solid start. With catcher Yadier Molina and designated hitter Albert Pujols already announcing this would be their final season and pitcher Adam Wainwright’s retirement a possibility, there is pressure on the Cardinals to send the veterans out with another World Series title.

The offense is scoring more than five runs per game, thanks in good part to the long ball. The Cardinals have bashed 12 homers in nine games, four by third baseman Nolan Arenado.

Meanwhile, Cards pitchers have produced a 3.30 ERA, with the bullpen leading the way. With the rotation putting up a 4.50 ERA (19th in MLB), the relievers have been among the best in MLB with a 1.95 ERA that ranks third.

Biggest surprise: Second baseman Tommy Edman is off to a hot start, hitting .355. But what has been most surprising has been his early-season power. Edman has three homers already, after matching his career-high of 11 last season in a career-best 159 games. His continued production following the heart of the order makes this a lineup that is tough to deal with on a daily basis.

Biggest disappointment: The Dylan Carlson hype was big. The outfielder showed flashes of his potential last year, drilling 18 homers and driving in 65 with a slash line of .266/.343/.437. This season is off to a rocky start, with a slash line of .158/.209/.211. It is not time to panic with Carlson, but getting him going would be huge offensively.

Injuries: Pitcher Jack Flaherty (shoulder) is getting closer to throwing off a mound, which would be a precursor to a rehab stint. Closer Alex Reyes (shoulder soreness, frayed labrum) is on the 60-day IL.

 

Cubs

 

Following last summer’s fire sale, Chicago is in the awkward position of not being a true contender, but also not being in teardown status. The Cubs shed the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Báez because they knew they wouldn’t be able to afford the trio in free agency. Still, it has been a good start overall.

Offensively, there might not be a bigger surprise in the first two weeks of the season than Chicago’s lineup. The Cubs have an OPS of .786, third in MLB. Most of that is due to a newcomer I will talk about a little more in a moment. Despite the lofty OPS, the Cubs are tied for seventh with 53 runs scored.

With a team ERA of 4.22 (tied for 21st in MLB), the Cubs are respectable but will need starters to improve. The rotation has a 5.32 ERA. Kyle Hendricks won’t finish with a 6.08 ERA, so there will be a course correction. The bullpen has held steady.

Biggest surprise: No question here, it is Seiya Suzuki. The outfielder signed a five-year, $80 million contract, leaving Japan’s Hiroshima Toyo Carp for MLB. With the brief timeframe from signing to spring training to the regular season, it would have been easy for the 27-year-old to take a little time to adjust to his new surroundings. Instead, he has announced his presence with authority, slashing .414/.581/.897 with four homers and 11 RBIs. He also had a hit in his first nine career games before going 0-for-1 with three walks Tuesday. If he can keep up his power, he will be part of the next nucleus.

Biggest disappointment: While this is more of a small sample size, Marcus Stroman’s first two starts in a Cubs uniform have not been ideal. The right-hander, with a career 3.65 ERA, has allowed six runs in nine innings, walking four and striking out seven. His track record, including last year’s 3.02 ERA with the Mets in 33 starts, would suggest this is a blip.

Injuries: Pitcher Wade Miley (left elbow inflammation) threw another bullpen Tuesday, so a rehab assignment could be coming soon. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons (shoulder) is in a similar position after facing live pitching Tuesday. Pitcher Alec Mills (back) threw live batting practice. Pitchers Adbert Alzolay (shoulder tightness), Brad Wieck (elbow strain), and infielder David Bote (shoulder surgery) are on the 60-day IL. Reliever Codi Heuer is out for the season after recently having Tommy John surgery.

 

Pirates

 

With no expectations to contend entering the season, Pittsburgh is off to a solid start. The offense has been a big bright spot, with a team batting average of .251, ranking ninth in MLB. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, fresh off signing an eight-year, $70 million contract extension, is leading the way with a .333 average. Center fielder Bryan Reynolds has popped a couple of homers.

Pirates starting pitchers are struggling to the tune of a 6.90 ERA, 28th in MLB. But the bullpen has been good, with a 2.74 ERA, and has not yet been overworked.

Biggest surprise: Right-hander Wil Crowe struggled in his first extensive action in the majors, posting a 5.48 ERA in 26 appearances, 25 starts. In a relief role this year, Crowe is off to a hot start, with no runs allowed and 10 strikeouts in 9⅔ innings.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, it is early, but it feels like the clock is ticking on Cole Tucker. The speedy utilityman who has already played right field, shortstop, and second base this season is hitting just .176 after .211 in 2019, .220 in 2020, and .222 in 2021. Does he need a confidence boost with a trip to the minors?

Injuries: Outfielder Anthony Alford (sprained wrist) has been on a rehab assignment and should be activated this week. Left-hander Sam Howard (back) began a rehab assignment over the weekend. Right-handed reliever Duane Underwood Jr. (hamstring) has begun a throwing program and will likely need a rehab assignment. Right-handed starter Max Kranick (forearm) is just starting a rehab assignment. Right-hander Blake Cederlind is on the 60-day IL after having Tommy John surgery a year ago. Outfielder Greg Allen (hamstring) is on the 60-day IL.

 

Reds

 

With their early-season schedule featuring the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres, it was expected the Reds would be off to a slow start. The on-the-fly and haphazard way the Reds dismantled last year’s would-be contender has been very puzzling. What is the plan?

The offense is the worst in MLB with a .536 OPS and a team batting average of .178, which is 29th. That is particularly befuddling considering the veterans in the lineup (Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, and newcomer Tommy Pham). Not surprisingly, the pitching staff is also struggling, with a 5.85 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, both 29th in the majors. Dealing Sonny Gray during spring training certainly weakened that group.

Biggest surprise: While Votto’s emergence on social media would certainly qualify, the emergence of rookie pitcher Hunter Greene has been everything as advertised. The 6-foot-5 right-hander, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has gone at least five innings in each of his first two career starts. On Saturday, he started in Dodger Stadium against his hometown Dodgers and all he did was throw a record 39 pitches of at least 100 mph, six more than the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom did in a start last year. His peak velocity was 102 mph. The Reds certainly have the makings of an ace in Greene.

Biggest disappointment: This is reserved for ownership. The sudden teardown, surely hampered by the lockout, has not sat well with Reds fans who had expected the team to be a contender in 2021. Reds’ chief financial officer Phil Castellini, son of owner Bob Castellini, told a Cincinnati radio station last week, among other things, “What would you do with this team to have it more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exist?” Needless to say, fans have called on the family to sell the team.

 

Injuries: Catcher Tyler Stephenson entered concussion protocol as a result of a collision at home plate Tuesday with San Diego’s Luke Voit and will be out at least a week. Second baseman Jonathan India (hamstring) is expected to return next week. Mike Moustakas (biceps strain) isn’t expected to be out much longer than the end of the month. Starting pitchers Luis Castillo and Mike Minor had shoulder soreness in spring training. Castillo threw live batting practice Tuesday and will begin a rehab assignment Sunday. Minor, meanwhile, was shut down after a setback in a rehab assignment with no timetable for his return. Reliever Lucas Sims (elbow) is expected to return this weekend against the Cardinals. Shortstop prospect Jose Barrero (wrist surgery). Pitcher Justin Dunn (shoulder, 60-day IL) is expected to be out until midseason. Infielder Max Schrock (strained left calf, 60-day IL). Pitcher Tejay Antone (60-day IL) is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery and wouldn’t be ready until late this season.

Photos by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire and Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)





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