The NL Central has talent at shortstop in 2014. Can they all live up to their potential?
It's not totally outside of the realm of possibility for the NL Central to have three of the top five shortstops in the National League next year. With Troy Tulowitzki's health always a question and Hanley Ramirez jumping ship to the AL, there's room at the top for guys like Jhonny Peralta, Starlin Castro and Jean Segura to jump in.
Veterans like Jimmy Rollins and Ian Desmond and defensive specialists like Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford could have something to say about that, but the point is there is some real talent at the position in the division this year. Whether they all live up to it is another question.
Brewers: Jean Segura
Jean Segura had a rough year in 2014, and that's putting it mildly. Both on the field and off, he had his share of trials and tribulations. But Segura has remained focused and looks like he'll come back strong in 2015. If Spring Training is any indicator, he could be in for big things: In 48 spring at-bats, he's hit .326/.354/.413 with a pair of stolen bases.
Segura just turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he spent a total of seven games in Triple-A over his career. The talent that saw him post 3.5 fWAR in 2013 can't be discounted, but at his young age, skipping a level of development and going through what he did last year the ups and downs are to be expected. Carlos Gomez saw 44 Triple-A games and rushing him through the minors is part of the reason he took so long to become the player he is.
I firmly believe that 2014 was an aberration and that Segura is going to come much closer to his 2013 levels. He picked it up towards the end of last season, hitting .319/.364/389 in September/October -- seemingly the only player on the team to hit in those months. He also plays strong defense which helps pul some value even if he's not hitting. Segura is a good player whose going to come back strong. It might take a few hot and cold streaks to get there, though. For what it's worth, he's hit .313/.340/.396 in 50 spring plate appearances.
Cardinals: Jhonny Peralta
Peralta is the oldest of the five expected starting shortstops in the division, coming in at 32 years old. He spent the first seven and a half years of his career with the Indians before a move to Detroit in mid-2010. The 2014 season was his first with St. Louis after he signed a four year, $53 million deal to join the Cardinals.
Though his overall OPS dipped from 2013, he eclipsed twenty homers for the first time since 2011 and had the best fWAR if his career thanks in large part to an 18.8 UZR. Peralta is under-the-radar very good on defense, which gives him some good extra value. He may be the eldest among division shortstops, but he's not old enough to have lost a step there.
Peralta had a down year in 2012 with the Tigers but otherwise has been one of the better hitting shortstops in baseball. He's not a one of the best, but he's firmly in that next level.
Reds: Zack Cozart
Outside of an 11-game cup of coffee in 2011, Cozart has yet to top a .290 OBP or a .400 SLG. On his career, he has a .646 OPS. Safe to say, Cozart is not an offensive shortstop. He does have some pop, consistently hitting double-digit home runs, but that does little to raise his hitting value. However, Cozart has had an UZR of 13.9, 13.1 and and 18.7 in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Cozart doesn't get a lot of attention because offense is much sexier. But Cozart was fourth among MLB shortstops in UZR last season, fifth in 2013, and sixth in 2012. He won't hit, but at shortstop that can be OK. Cozart won't be a star, but he'll stay valuable.
Cubs: Starlin Castro
Castro has already played five full seasons with the Cubs, which can make it hard to remember that he's just turned 25 years old a few days ago. I talked above about Jean Segura being rushed a bit through developmental but Castro was just as quick. Signed out of the Dominican as a teenager, Castro became a top prospect and hit .304/.343/.422 in his first two major league seasons, leading many to proclaim him as the next star at the position.
The next two years tempered that enthusiasm as he hit a combined .264/.303/.388 while playing in all but one game. He did come back strong in 2014, though, posting a career-high .777 OPS and matching a career-high with 14 homers. He used to be a 20+ stolen base threat, but has failed to reach double-digits each of the last two seasons.
Castro's focus has been called into question and the Cubs have basically every middle infield prospect available, which has led some to raise the possibility of Castro being traded. That won't happen yet, though, and with his age and experience, he could be in for even bigger things.
Pirates: Jordy Mercer
Mercer came up as an older prospect, playing in 42 games as a 25 year old, then taking a bigger role as a utility player in 2013 at 26. Last year, Mercer became the full-time Pirates shortstop after the team had struggled through 2013 with guys like Ronny Cedeno and Clint Barmes playing the position.
For his part, Mercer is tolerable. He's been an inconsistent defensive player in the past but has improved over time. His defensive stats tend to hover around average while his bat is fine. He had a very nice year at the plate in 2013, but took a big step backward in 2014. The projections seem to think he'll post numbers closer to last season, which isn't great.
Having Mercer at short is good enough for the Pirates right now. He's adequate both defensively and offensively. He won't be a multi-time All Star, but not everyone on a team can be.
Ranking the NL Central Shortstops
1. Jhonny Peralta
2. Starlin Castro
3. Jean Segura
4. Zack Cozart
5. Jordy Mercer
Peralta might well be both the best defensive and the best offensive player on this list, making him a pretty sure-fire number one. Segura and Castro both have the talent and upside that they could surpass him, but I wouldn't expect that from either of them in 2015 yet.
Castro is likely to have a much more talented surrounding cast than he's used to, which may help him take the next step forward and could provide additional motivation. Meanwhile, Segura is another few months removed from the tragedy of 2015 and has looked highly focused this spring. I debated flip-flopping the two, but Castro is the safe bet as far as performance goes. Well Segura has looked good in spring, it's still Spring Training and he did have a poor 2014 overall.
Cozart's defense is among the best in baseball at shortstop which makes him more valuable than the shaky Mercer. While Mercer's bat is better, if the projections are right I would rather have Cozart's defense than Mercer's bat. Shortstop is a defense-first position, after all.
Nelson has had his share of issues this spring after the Brewers put a big show of faith in him when they traded away Yovani Gallardo.
Jimmy Nelson has not been good this spring. At all.
In 13 innings in major league camp, Nelson has given up 17 hits while allowing 12 runs, nine of which were earned. That's enough for a 6.23 ERA. There is some good news, however, as he has struck out nine batters and walked just one. This morning, Nelson pitched in a Triple-A game to get some more work and, well...
Pitching line for #Brewers No. 5 starter Jimmy Nelson in AAA game this morning: 4.1 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, 6 K. 86 pitches.— Tom (@Haudricourt) March 30, 2015
The Brewers have shown a lot of faith in Nelson thus far, including trading away long-time starter Yovani Gallardo in part to open up a spot in the rotation for the 25-year-old former top prospect. They've also been quick to support him this spring despite his lackluster performance. Of course, that support came before today's efforts in the minor league game.
Nelson isn't going anywhere, though -- there's next to no chance he starts the season anywhere but in the Brewers' starting rotation. Even with him struggling right now, the Brewers have no other options. Such was the criticism many had with the team trading Gallardo: The starting depth is not there in the case of Nelson (or Mike Fiers) failing or in the case of injury. With Taylor Jungmann as the sixth starter and Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek lining up behind him, there's no assurance in a decent, veteran arm behind Nelson.
Even in a tryout last year, Nelson had poor numbers. He made 12 starts and two relief appearances for Milwaukee with a 4.93 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Again, though, his K:BB numbers were not bad with a 7.4 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. Nelson also has a tendency to struggle when first advancing a level, then pitching very well in the following year.
Nelson's total workload this spring, including Monday's minor league contest, is also the equivalent of, what, three starts? A little over 18 innings is basically nothing, and spring training is hard to draw big, overarching conclusions from. Guys struggle in spring training all the time -- established, star players will hit for a sub-.500 OPS or give up a ton of runs.
At the same time, though, it's hard not to look at Nelson's stats thus far and see that, despite decent K/BB numbers, he's been getting hit hard. If the Brewers had a guy behind him that could be somewhat relied on to pitch quality innings if Nelson doesn't work out, then it would be less worrisome. Because there would be a back-up plan in place. Instead, the Brewers are flying by the seat of their pants in a season where they need nearly everything to go right.
Still, it's important to note that Nelson -- who can pitch in the mid-90s on his fastball -- has had control be his biggest issue over his career. Until Monday, he had walked just one batter this spring and did a nice job last year keeping walks to a minimum. It's possible Nelson has been too focused on that and has left some meatballs around the plate, resulting in a high number of hits. If he can continue working on control while not over-focusing on it, it could help him have better outings.
Probably Nelson will be just fine. I don't think anyone expects him to suddenly turn in an ace, but he's positioned as a fifth starter. He's not supposed to replicate Gallardo's stats. Fifth starter production tends to not be that great. It's hard to imagine Nelson being worse than that, though ideally he would be much better -- better teams naturally have better fifth starter production typically. Nelson has been a top-50 prospect in the majors, though, so there's something there to hinge your hopes on. Prospects bust all the time, but the talent is there for him to succeed.
Nelson has struggled this spring. But the Brewers have put a lot of faith in him, and they wouldn't have done that if they didn't believe he would rise up to meet their standards. Despite his struggles this spring, we'll have to hope the Brewers were right in this case.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke sat down with MLB.com last week to discuss where his team stands heading into his fifth season at the helm.
Today's lessons include some moves in the bullpen race, position experimentation, and more.
This Weekend's Results
Highlights from the weekend:
- Scooter Gennett and Jonathan Lucroy both homered in Friday's game against the Reds
- Matt Garza pitched 5 2/3 innings against the Reds on Friday, striking out six and allowing five earned runs.
- Ryan Braun continued his hot streak on Saturday with two hits and two RBI.
- Wily Peralta put up a "quality start" on Saturday, pitching six innings and allowing two runs.
- In his fight for a bullpen spot, Michael Blazek allowed three runs on four hits in 3 2/3 innings on Sunday.
Brewers News and Analysis
- Noah began a preview series of the NL Central over the weekend, ranking players at each position. He began with the preview of first basemen on Saturday and continued with second basemen on Sunday.
- In an effort to show you that the new security protocols won't be a hassle, the Brewers posted a video where Bob Uecker goes through one of the new security checkpoints.
- In a surprise move this weekend, the Brewers optioned pitcher Brandon Kintzler to Triple-A Colorado Springs. Kintzler had been assumed to have one of the bullpen spots locked down, but his demotion means that two spots are now available. The Brewers also released Chris Perez, bringing the bullpen race down to Michael Blazek, Tyler Thornburg, and Rob Wooten.
- In Aramis Ramirez's final season in baseball, one of the challenges will be to keep him healthy all season. Austin Laymance of MLB.com notes that Ron Roenicke and Ramirez are coming up with a plan to help keep Ramirez playing and healthy all season.
- The position experimentation is going farther now. Not only have the Brewers experimented with placing Gerardo Parra at first, but also have tried Luis Jimenez at catcher.
- Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel notes that while Ron Roenicke's option for 2016 has been picked up, talks for an extension for Doug Melvin are currently on hold.
- Who will win the final bench spot for the Brewers? Tom Haudricourt looks at the options the Brewers have and also asks how big of a decision this really is.
- Hank the Ballpark Pup made his first appearance of Spring Training this weekend, as he was in the area to help support the Arizona Humane Society.
- Over on Miller Park Prospects, Ryan Kaufman profiles Sky Sox manager Rick Sweet, who is in the unique position of being the new manager for a team two years in a row. Also, Marcus Young has five left field prospects to watch, and Brad Krause has another spring training photo gallery.
NL Central Update
This Weekend's Scores
- Cardinals (SS) 5, Mets 4
- Pirates 4, Twins 2
- Cardinals (SS) 1, Nationals 1
- Cubs 6, White Sox 3
- Tigers 4, Cardinals 3
- Pirates 8, Blue Jays (SS) 3
- Reds 9, Cubs (SS) 5
- Cubs (SS) 18, Rockies 4
- Mets 3, Cardinals 2
- Pirates 4, Braves 2
- Reds 8, Angels 6
- Cubs 7, Royals 0
- Phillies @ Pirates - 12:05 pm
- Nationals @ Cardinals - 12:05 pm
- Padres @ Reds - 3:05 pm
- Giants @ Cubs - 3:05 pm
- The Braves released left-handed pitcher James Russell.
- The Cubs released pitcher Felix Doubront.
- The Rangers acquired left-handed pitcher Sam Freeman from the Cardinals for a PTBNL and cash. They also released outfielder Ryan Ludwick.
- The White Sox claimed right-handed pitcher Kyle Drabek off waivers from the Blue Jays.
- Over the weekend, Big League Stew posted their official preview of the NL Central for 2015. There's not much variety in the picks, with all three writers predicting a fourth place finish for the Brewers.
- In today's edition of crazy new ballpark foods, Chris Cwik of Big League Stew reports that the Astros are introducing a Chicken and Waffle Cone for this season.
- Our vocabulary for properly writing up baseball stories has just shrunk a bit. In the updated AP Stylebook, several terms for home runs, as well as other sports terms, were classified as not appropriate for sports writing.
The Brewers have their last off day of Spring Training today. They return to action tomorrow against the Reds.
In a surprising move the Brewers have made 2 bullpen spots available. The candidates are discussed within.
Ed. Note: This was written before the Brewers released Chris Perez.
In a somewhat surprising move Sunday afternoon the Brewers optioned Brandon Kintzler to AAA Colorado Springs. After avoiding arbitration and agreeing to a $1.075 million contract it seemed as though the reliever's spot was guaranteed. Now the Brewers have 2 vacancies to fill and 4 candidates were identified by Tom Haudricout: Chris Perez, Michael Blazek, Rob Wooten, and Tyler Thornburg. Let's take a look at each of them
Pros: Blazek is relatively young having turned 26 just two weeks ago. He's had a mediocre minor league career but saw somewhat better results when the Brewers converted him to starting mid-season last year. He's had solid if somewhat erratic K% while in the minors and can hit the mid 90s with his fastball. Missing bats is something he seems to know how to do as evidenced by his mostly good BAA. He's performed well this spring if that's worth anything.
Cons: He's had 8 years in the minors and hasn't seemed to really figure it out yet. He has solid K%, but his BB% has been quite poor. He did show marked improvement last year (9.7 BB%) but it's hard to dismiss the previous 4 seasons of double digit walk rates. Part of that low walk rate could be due to his high (.264) BAA. It's hard to walk/strike-out people when you're giving up tons of hits.
Likelihood: Assuming Thornburg is healthy he's the better option in relief and in starting. I'd want to start Blazek out at AAA and see if the improvements he made last year are real. Let him be the 7th starter. In my opinion, Blazek's shot at the major league roster depends on how worried the Brewers are about Thornburg's elbow. So hopefully, mostly for Thornburg's sake, that means Blazek's chances are slim.
Pros: The advanced metrics seem to like Rob Wooten. In 27 innings in 2013 he produced a 3.19 FIP and with 34 innings in 2014 a 2.69 FIP. His BB% is really good. He induces a lot of ground balls which is a good thing and he doesn't give up a lot of home runs with is a great thing. He is capable of serving as a long reliever.
Cons: Unfortunately all of that hasn't exactly translated to real world effectiveness. In he produced a 3.90 ERA and last year a 4.72 ERA. He doesn't strike guys out a lot but his biggest issue has been allowing base hits. In 2014 he had a .255 BAA and last year a terrible .304. In part that could be due to his below average velocity. He sits 88-89 mph. He's a junk baller, but his stuff might just be too junky.
Likelihood: His chances probably hinge on how the Brewers treat Tyler Thornburg and Michael Blazek. They're the other two relievers capable of long relief. They're also the next 2 starters in line after Taylor Jungmann. At least one of them will have to be a starter in AAA. If the Brewers decide they want both of them starting there, then Wooten gets the nod as the long man in the pen.
Pros: Thornburg has 3 major league average or better pitches and can throw 93-94 mph late into games. That's enough to start games. He probably would be starting if the Brewers didn't have the top 5 that they do. Before he got hurt last year he was the most dominant reliever in what at the time was an unstoppable force.
Cons: He did get hurt though. It was a scary injury too. He partially tore is UCL and nearly required Tommy John surgery. Instead he receive PRP injections and opted the therapy route. All signs point to him being ready for the season, but PRP injections are no guarantee and his elbow could still be at risk.
Likelihood: It feels like too much of a backwards step to send Thornburg to AAA as a starter. He's got a much higher ceiling than any of the other 3 relievers in competition. If he does get sent down I have to wonder how much of a role concerns about his elbow contributed to the move. Personally I think it would be a mistake, but I think chances are 50/50 right now.
Pros: If closing experience is your thing you might be drawn to Chris Perez. He was Cleveland's closer for 4 years accumulating 123 saves during that time. Even though he's had some rough times recently he's still only 28 and throws in the mid-90's.
Cons: If actual performance/effectiveness is your thing you might run screaming from Chris Perez. In the last two years his ERA has been over 4.33 and 4.27 respectively. His FIP suggests he was worse with a 5.08 and 5.07 over the same time span. Even when he was racking up saves his FIP ranged from average to below average suggesting a fall was due.
Likelihood: Earlier in Spring Training I would have said the chances were slim or none. However there have been two developments. First of all there are now 2 bullpen spots open. Second, Jim Henderson Henderson's velocity has not returned. Instead of optioning him to AAA like they have with Kintzler, the Brewers have kept Henderon in major league camp while only allowing him to pitch in the minors. This keeps back-dating him on the Disabled List an option. Should they decide to put him on the 60-Day DL, it will open a spot on the currently full 40-Man roster which is necessary should the Brewers want to put him on the active roster.
I'm still not convinced it will happen but I think the chances of Chris Perez making the team have skyrocketed. We will find out soon too. The Brewers are required to put him on the 40-man roster by March 31st or give him a $100,000 retention bonus. If he's not on the roster by April 1st, he's not making the team.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
The Brewers narrowed the competition for the final spots in their bullpen on Sunday, as Brandon Kintzler was optioned to Triple-A and non-roster right-hander Chris Perez was released.
Brewers starter Michael Blazek, in competition for a long-relief role out of the bullpen, allowed three runs on four hits in a 7-0 loss to the A's on Sunday afternoon.
After spending Spring Training calling Brewers games on radio and MLB.com's webcasts, Jeff Levering is ready for his official Major League debut.
Aramis Ramirez plans to sit down with Brewers manager Ron Roenicke on Tuesday to discuss plans for keeping the veteran third baseman healthy and strong throughout the regular season.
The Brewers narrowed the competition for the final spots in their bullpen on Sunday, as right-hander Brandon Kintzler was optioned to Triple-A.