Sunday, April 30, 2006

April around the NL Central

With the month of April in the books, the Cubs find themselves looking up at the usual suspects St. Louis and Houston, and a surprise team the Cincinnati Reds. Somehow the Reds are off to a quick start. At 17-8 the Redlegs are off to one of the better starts in all of baseball.

The early standings this season tell us that the NL Central has taken a jump up from where the division was at this time a year ago. Last year only two teams in the division were above .500. This year 5 teams find themselves above .500. Here's a look at the end of April standings from 2005.

2005 (as of 4/30/05)
STL 15-7 - .682
CUBS 12-11 3.5 .522
CIN 10-13 5.5 .435
MIL 10-13 5.5 .435
HOU 9-13 6.0 .409
PIT 8-14 7.0 .364

Here is where we stand at the end of NL Central play today:
2006 (as of 4/30/06)
CIN 17-8 - .680
STL 17-8 - .680
HOU 16-8 .5 .667
CUBS 13-10 3.0 .565
MIL 14-11 3.0 .560
PIT 7-19 10.5 .269

Here is a snapshot of the what the Cubs competitors in the NL Central did in the month of April:

Before Sunday's loss the Cincinnati Reds(17-8) had won 9 of 10. Before the loss Sunday they were actualy off to the best start in baseball. It seems to me the Reds have gotten off to decent starts a few times recently. I checked out and found that they played well early in both 2002 and 2004. The Reds were actually 30-21 at the end of May in 2004 under Dave Miley before the wheels came off in June and July. In 2002 they were 16-9 in April. So, every other year the Reds get off to a fast start and you know the rest of the story.

This Cincy team has started hot despite a pitching staff that ranks 13 in the NL in ERA(4.92) and 11th in WHIP(1.44). In April the Reds have gotten good starting pitching from Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Arroyo (4-0, 2.34) has been solid in 4 of his 5 starts. He's eating up innings (nearly 7 a start) and giving the Reds a go to pitcher a (0.92 WHIP) at the top of their rotation(for now). Harang (4-1, 4.35) got off to a horrible start to the season. The Cubs bombed him on Opening Day and the Bucs got him for 5 ER in 6.2 IP in his second start. In his last 4 starts he's pitched well 3-0 and a 2.60 ERA. The Reds rotation is expecting a boost when Eric Milton and Paul Wilson return from injuries.

As usual the Reds have relied on their offense. Offensively the Reds have scored the most runs in the NL (147). We all know about Dunn, Kearns, Griffey, Freel, Aurilia, and Lopez. Two surprises have led the Reds offense. Second sacker Brandon Phillips has started hot hitting .355 with 22 RBi. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion has been almost as surprising hitting .303 with 24 RBi and 17 runs.

New ballpark, same results. Just like clockwork, the hated St. Louis Cardinals(17-8) are off to another quick start. This season Albert Pujols looks to be unstoppable. On Saturday, Pujols set the MLB mark for homeruns in the month of April (14). Pujols OPS is a mind-boggling 1.420. In addition to Pujols, Hector Luna, John Rodriguez, David Eckstein and Scott Rolen are all hitting above .300. The Cardinals have to be happy with their good start. They still can expect a little more. Edmonds average is down around the Mendoza line, it's just a matter of time until he gets going.

The Cardinal rotation looks to be strong again this season. In April NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter(3-1, 1.80) ate up 40 innings in 6 starts. Mark Mulder(2-0, 3.53) ate up 35.2 in 5 starts. Jason Marquis (3-2, 5.04) has pithced 30.1 innings in 5 starts. Ponson(3-0, 3.13) looks like he could be a steal at the back end of the Redbird rotation.

What gives the Cubs and the rest of the NL Central hope is the Cardinal bullpen. Isringhausen has an ERA of 6.00. Veteran relief pitchers Braden Looper and Randy Flores are pitching above their career averages. Youngsters Brad Thompson and Adam Wainright are bound to wake up one of these days.

The Houston Astros(16-8) are not digging the hole for themselves that they did last season. The defending NL Champs are off to a good start without Roger Clemens. They have taken full advantage of 16 home games in the month going 12-4 at Minute Maid Park. Even with the retirement of Jeff Bagwell, the Houstons offense is off to a quick start. The Astros are 4th in the NL in runs scored and OPS. Morgan Ensberg, Chris Burke and Lance Berkman are carrying the offensive load all three finished the month with OPS's over 1.000.

Despite 16 games at hitter friendly Minute Maid Park and a slow start by Andy Pettite(1-4, 5.25) the Astros rank 4th in team ERA. Roy Oswalt(4-1, 2.76) continues to be one of the NL's best starting pitchers. The 28 year old Oswalt's career numbers are now 87-40 with a 3.05 ERA. Impressive to say the least. The Astros surprise starter in April was left hander Wandy Rodriguez (4-0, 2.53). Brad Lidge(0-1, 6.94) started the year 7 for 7 in saves. This past week he blew saves in back to back nights to the Dodgers. Some suggest there is a hangover to the 2005 playoffs. I won't go there yet, but he's an interesting closer to keep our eyes on as the year goes on.

The young Milwaukee Brewers(14-11) have their fans excited this season. Cub fans saw over the weekend why their fans are excited. The Breweres looked like the '27 Yankees on Saturday and Sunday vs. the Cubs.

The Brewers started out April 5-0. Yeah they cooled off and they might be a year or two from contending, but I expect Ned Yost and his young players will have a say in who represents the NL Central in the tournament this fall. Offensively the Brewers are third in the NL in runs scored and OPS. Carlos Lee, NL ROY candidate Prince Fielder, Geoff Jenkins, Bill Hall and J.J. Hardy are off to good starts. Fieldr started slow. Over the last three weeks he has showed why he had so much hoopla in the minor leagues.

Mike Maddux continues to get the Brewers pitching staff to overachieve. They rank 7th in the NL in ERA and 4th in WHIP. Derrick Turnbow is becoming a rock start in Milwaukee. The Brewer closer is 8 of 8 in save opportunities this April. The starting staff has been anchored again by left hander Chris Capuano(4-2, 2.36). Ace Ben Sheets didn't start the season with the team. He is coming back from injury. When he get's right, him and Capuano make a good 1-2 for the young Brew Crew.

There is nothing good to say about the Pittsburgh Pirates(7-19). The Buccos are testing new manager Jim Tracy's patience. When a team turns to Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz for offensive help you are probably in trouble. The Pirates rank 13th in team average, 14th in runs, 15th in OPS and last in walks.

Their pitching is much of the same. The Pirates team ERA and team WHIP rank last in the NL. The Pirate starting rotation of Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Odalis Perez and Victor Santos has 5 wins combined. Just so nobody feels left out, each starter has one win.

The good news for Tracy and the Bucs is it can't get much worse than April.

Note-All of the team and individual stats(except Capuano's) are through Saturdays games.

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