NL Central Report: Can Anything Slow Down St. Louis?

The St. Louis Cardinals’ offseason personnel turnover has been well-documented, from Albert Pujols to Tony LaRussa. Now let’s add to that, a trip to the disabled list for Chris Carpenter, a terrible start for Adam Wainwright, who’s got a 9.88 ERA in his first three starts and a sub-.200 batting average from Matt Holliday entering Monday’s games. What does that all add up to? In St. Louis it adds up to…well, first place in the National League Central with an 11-5 record.

Wainwright may be struggling to get re-established after missing last season with elbow surgery, but in the meantime Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn are pitching like Cy Young Award candidates, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte have the last two innings in good shape and a deep offensive lineup has more than enough weapons to wait for Holliday to get up to speed. The Cardinals have won six of nine against the Brewers & Reds, the two teams presumed to be their chief contenders for NL supremacy and will host Milwaukee this weekend.

Elsewhere in the NL Central…

Milwaukee (7-9): If you look at the offense individually you won’t be overwhelmed—Rickie Weeks and Aramis Ramirez are slow out of the gate, and Corey Hart is the only hitter who’s really hot. But collectively, the Brewers are sixth in the National League in runs scored thanks to consistently driving the ball in the gaps. Ryan Braun, with a mediocre OBP, but a solid .473 slugging percentage is emblematic of this lineup right now. Pitching’s been a big problem early—last in the National League in ERA and last in the OBP and slugging allowed. With numbers you like this, you can spread blame around, but let’s focus our ire on Zack Greinke. After a brilliant opening start against St. Louis, Greinke’s ERA has still jumped to 5.09.

Cincinnati (7-9):  The ratio of 16-1 is the number that has to alarm Dusty Baker and Reds’ fans. That’s the number of walks vs. the number of home runs for Joey Votto. Give the first baseman his due for his plate discipline and .444 OBP, but he needs more support to ensure getting the kind of pitches he can take deep. Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips are off to poor starts, but on the positive rookie shortstop Zack Cozart has a .353 OBP. The rotation is top-heavy, with Johnny Cueto looking like Cy Young material, Bronson Arroyo with a 2.91 ERA and Aroldis Chapman dominating at the bullpen. The bottom of the rotation and the depth in the bullpen has to be more consistent.

Pittsburgh (6-9): Erik Bedard has a 2.63 ERA in four starts. He’s 0-4. Does that tell you enough about the state of the Pirates’ offense, the worst in the National League by any measure? Andrew McCutchen has an OBP over.400 and everyone else is terrible. This is the problem for manager Clint Hurdle and he’s getting the pitching to compete, with Kevin Correia sharp in two starts, James McDonald looking like he can build on a promising 2011 and A.J. Burnett returning from his broken eye bone to toss seven shutout innings against the Cardinals on Saturday. But the lineup needs more than one player resembling a major leaguer.

Houston (6-10): No one expects the Astros to be good, but this still a heartening start, as the team is doing a nice job scoring runs and even pitching pretty well. Wandy Rodriguez has a 1.42 ERA and young Lucas Farrell looks good. If Bud Norris and J.A. Happ can get settled in, Houston will have something in the rotation. Two young hitters are leading the charge offensively. Second baseman Jose Altuve is hitting .321, while left fielder J.D. Martinez has done it all—hit .309, drawn 11 walks and popped three home runs. And as I type this I’m watching the Astros-Brewers game on Monday night, and newly acquired shortstop Jed Lowrie just unloaded into the right field stands at Miller Park. The game is the first of six against the Brewers and Reds on the road that will test this young team.

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Chi Cubs (4-12): As demonstrated by the record, the Cubs are doing nothing well as a team, but Starlin Castro at short and Bryan LaHair at first, the two prize pieces of young talent in the everyday lineup, are off to a strong starts and David DeJesus is providing a solid veteran presence in rightfield. Ryan Dempster is pitching brilliantly, while Matt Garza is at least acceptable. But the rest of the staff, starter or reliever, is awful, and Geovany Soto and Alfonso Soriano are doing nothing. I’ve come to expect this from Soriano, but in my Fantasy draft I used a high pick on Soto and drew hoots and catcalls from some Cubbie fans I was drafting with, so his .136 batting average is completely unacceptable.