Two weeks before Opening Day, the NL Central Division is gearing up for the upcoming season, so where do the other teams in the division stand?
As part of a new weekly feature this season, we will be taking a look at the other teams in the NL Central. Central Focus will be a brief, fast-paced look at what other teams are doing, recent trends, injuries, standouts, prospects, etc. If it’s something that impacts what the Pittsburgh Pirates will be facing now, or in years to come, odds are you can find it right here.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals may both be in the Grapefruit League, but the first time they face each other won’t be until April 3rd. This off-season, the Cardinals lost players in free agency and a key component to injury already. After the bad news surrounding the Jhonny Peralta injury, the Cards jumped at the chance to scoop up newly released free agent Ruben Tejada after the Mets dropped him from their crowded infield situation earlier this week. Tejada was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for the new slide rule; Tejada suffered a broken right fibula when Chase Utley slid into him attempting to break up a double play in the 2015 NLDS.
The Cardinals had moved past John Lackey, who ended up with the Cubs. They then set their eyes on acquiring David Price. He recently talked about how he was courted by the Red Birds. “I was talking about the Cardinals. I was talking about the Cubs. Honestly, I don’t think I was talking about the Red Sox,” Price said. As Derrick Goold and numerous other outlets have said since Price ultimately landed with the Red Sox, the Cardinals were in the bidding right until the end.
The Cards also made their first cuts including Anthony Garcia, who had an impressive yet statistically disappointing spring, and Jayson Aquino, who spent time in the Pirates farm system at Bradenton in 2015. He got optioned to the Memphis Redbirds despite having just 12 innings of Double-A experience, none coming in 2015.
The baseball world will be monitoring the Chicago Cubs very closely in 2016, while the Cubs will be monitoring their $155 million investment in Jon Lester. When Lester signed his six-year deal, an MRI showed he had a bone chip in his elbow. He calls it a “non-issue,” but if it shifts, Lester may be forced to have surgery to remove it.
As part of the cuts the Cubs have made this off-season, they sent down top pitching prospect Duane Underwood, who will likely start the season in Double-A and has Tyler Glasnow-type upside. Underwood didn’t appear in a Cactus League game, but he left a lasting impression with Joe Maddon. “When you get a guy that good that young you just don’t push it right now,” Maddon said of him.
Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario, the Cubs’ number ten and 20 prospects, respectively, were optioned to Triple-A and Double-A, respectively, as well. Contreras went 5 of 14 (.357) this spring, and with the Cubs weak situation behind the plate, he could easily see time at the big league level this season.
The big headline for the Brewers this week was the injury Rymer Liriano suffered yesterday. Acquired from the San Diego Padres on January 28th, Liriano was competing for a spot as the team’s fourth outfielder. The 24-year-old was hit on the left side of his face when a Matt West pitch went under the brim of his batting helmet. Liriano had to be carted off the field and hospitalized overnight. The only word early on was that the injury was severe.
One of the players the Brewers sent down, surprisingly, was Zach Davies. Davies was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in 2015, and he made his Brewers debut late last season. He is only 22-years-old, but he had an excellent spring, only allowing one unearned run in six innings with six strikeouts and no walks. Considering how weak the Brewers rotation looks on paper, Davies seemed like a good candidate for a trial by fire situation to break camp with the team. Instead, he will have to wait for an inevitable promotion at some point during the season.
Ryan Braun finally started playing in games this week as he continues to work his way back from back surgery and transition back to left field. Braun had a bulging disk that recently required surgery. He has collected three hits in his five at-bats so far this spring. He is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but there is still the possibility the delay could force him to miss a few games at the start of the season.
Don’t tell Cincinnati fans their baseball team is doomed to be in a fight to stay out of the NL Central cellar. Fans camped out Friday night for a chance to get tickets for Opening Day, many of which were simply standing room only.
It may seem odd that a team waits until just two weeks before the season starts to release tickets for sale to the public, but the Reds have made a trend of being late this off-season. They were late in committing to a rebuild, dumping all but the biggest salaries and the oldest players. They were late to have a public sale for Opening Day tickets. And they were late to cutting their major league camp roster down. Until Monday, the Reds had not made any cuts, but they optioned or reassigned 11 players that day.
At camp, the Reds had a pair of intriguing pitching prospects. One, Robert Stephenson, has already been sent down this week after he struggled with command and keeping the ball down in the zone. He doesn’t quite have the same upside as Glasnow, but it’s very close. Much like Glasnow, once Stephenson masters his command, he will be wearing a Reds uniform in 2016. Cody Reed has yet to make it to Triple-A after being acquired in the Johnny Cueto trade, but the left-handed pitcher could also see time in Cincinnati after an impressive spring, although he’s likely to get sent down after he makes his expected start on Tuesday.