A little more than a month into the season and teams are starting to make moves with struggling personnel and getting players back from spring training injuries. No team in the National League Central has yet to establish itself, well, except for the Cincinnati Reds, who have pretty much locked up last place and are staring at the No. 1 pick in the draft.
With that being second, here is the second installment of Central Intelligence, a spin around the NL Central:
Milwaukee continues to sit atop the division, but in no way have they put things together. The Brewers dropped two of three over the weekend to the world champion Atlanta Braves, with the offense still looking to get in sync. The first-half schedule was expected to be challenging for the Crew as it is road-heavy with three three-city trips.
As expected, the pitching has been the rock of the team, with left-hander Eric Lauer elevating himself into the conversation with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta. Josh Hader continues to dominate, going a perfect 12-for-12 in saves without allowing a run. He struck out the 500th batter of his career Tuesday in 293⅔ innings.
Reason for optimism: When the Brewers acquired Rowdy Tellez from the Toronto Blue Jays last summer, not much was expected. After all, Tellez had put up a .209/.272/.338 slash line with four homers and eight RBIs in 50 games. But the first baseman went on to slash .272/.333/.481 with seven homers and 28 RBIs in 56 games with the Brewers. He was named NL Player of the Week on Monday and is slashing .245/.300/.539 with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 30 games.
Stay hot, Rowdy!
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) May 9, 2022
Reason for panic: In order to get the offense clicking, the Brewers need more out of leadoff hitter Kolten Wong. The second baseman is hitting just .232 with one homer and 10 RBIs. Since Opening Day, the left-handed hitter has been moved down in the lineup against lefty pitchers. When Wong is going, he can electrify an offense.
Injuries: Reliever Jake Cousins has chosen not to have surgery on his right elbow and will rehab for the next six to eight weeks. There is a possibility Cousins will need Tommy John surgery. Reliever Justin Topa (flexor tendon surgery) faced live hitters in Arizona in a big step in his recovery. He is not expected back until the second half of the season.
St. Louis has been very average thus far, hovering just a few games above .500. Complicating matters has been the struggles of shortstop Paul DeJong, whom the Cardinals demoted Tuesday to Triple-A to work on his offense. In 24 games, DeJong slashed just .130/.209/.208 with one homer and seven RBIs. Now, DeJong isn’t known for his offense, although he can hit the long ball, with 30 in 2019.
DeJong hit .197 last season and lost the starting job to Edmundo Sosa, who is expected back this week following a rehab assignment after having COVID. Rookie Brendan Donovan started the first game without DeJong, making him the first player since 1900 to start the first four games of his career at four infield positions. Tommy Edman is also expected to get time at shortstop.
Reason for optimism: After a terrific first season in St. Louis, Miles Mikolas regressed slightly in 2019 and 2021. Of course, repeating an 18-4 and 2.83 ERA from 2018 is never easy. But Mikolas has seemingly found his groove in 2022. Through six starts, Mikolas has a 1.53 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP, and a .214 opponents batting average. With Adam Wainwright likely done after this season, Mikolas is a candidate to be the next ace.
Miles Mikolas' ERA in 2022: 1⃣.5⃣3⃣ pic.twitter.com/5lquJemTRE
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) May 6, 2022
Reason for panic: The Cardinals are middle of the road when it comes to hitting. Their .238 batting average ranks 10th in MLB and their 124 runs are 14th. Combined with DeJong, the likes of Harrison Bader (.242/.318/.379), Tyler O’Neill (.198/.267/.317), and Dylan Carlson (.223/.274/.330) have pulled down the offense. That is an outfield’s worth of production.
Injuries: Right-hander Jack Flaherty (inflamed shoulder) began throwing off a mound last week and will need bullpen sessions before a rehab assignment. Reliever Alex Reyes (labrum) has just begun a throwing program and will soon throw off a mound. Right-hander Drew VerHagen (hip) is on a rehab assignment and could be back soon.
With a minus-15 run differential through 29 games, Chicago has shown a few flashes yet also that there is lots of work to be done in retooling this roster. But for the most part, this is the roster the Cubs have to work with for the rest of the season. Unlike last season, there aren’t many tradeable pieces that will bring back high value. Instead, the front office will be working from the margins.
Winning a few more games at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are just 4-11, would also help the cause, as would improving in one-run games (2-7). The schedule softens up a bit in the next couple of weeks, so this would be the time to start playing better.
Reason for optimism: Willson Contreras, the fiery catcher and emotional center of the team, is off to a good start offensively. He is slashing .292/.400/.483 with three homers and nine RBIs. How long Contreras will be a Cub is another question. It was widely expected that he would be on the move to a contender when the Cubs signed Yan Gomes this spring.
Willson is fired up! pic.twitter.com/6waItJvQwD
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) May 8, 2022
Reason for panic: The rotation is a mess. Left-hander Wade Miley, a key offseason acquisition, made his season debut Tuesday to mixed results. He lasted only three innings, which meant the bullpen had to pick up the slack. That is on top of Wednesday being a scheduled bullpen game. The shuttle to Iowa might be busy. The Cubs are 25th in team ERA at 4.23, but that number jumps to 5.00 for just the starters. Marcus Stroman (5.13 ERA) and Justin Steele (5.32 ERA) have yet to get going. Stroman went on the IL without an injury designation, which could mean COVID.
Injuries: Second baseman Nick Madrigal went on the 10-day IL Tuesday with lower back tightness. Outfielder Michael Hermosillo is expected back late this month after his left quadriceps strain. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons (right shoulder) is on a rehab assignment and will likely return in late May or early June. Right-hander Ethan Roberts is in Arizona to begin a rehab program as he recovers from right shoulder inflammation. Outfielder Clint Frazier will also head to Arizona soon following his appendectomy. Right-hander Alec Mills (lower back strain) is expected to start throwing off a mound soon before being ready for a rehab assignment. Infielder David Bote (left shoulder surgery), right-hander Adbert Alzolay (right elbow tightness), and left-hander Brad Wieck (left elbow strain) are all a ways off from returning.
While Pittsburgh will be the answer to a trivia question — Who did the lowly Cincinnati Reds beat in May for their first series win of the 2022 season? — the Pirates are treading water thus far. While they haven’t won more than two games in a row, they have been fairly competitive, which was definitely in question entering the season.
Six of their 29 games have been decided by one run (3-3), but then they have six losses by five or more runs. Changes are bound to be made with roles and playing time. Cole Tucker has ditched switch-hitting and just swinging lefty and Bryse Wilson seems to be suited to a piggyback role, not a starter.
Reason for optimism: It is always difficult to tell what a big contract will do to a young player. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes seems to be adjusting to his eight-year, $70 million deal just fine. Hayes is slashing .337/.429/.421, has been more patient at the plate (15 walks), and has scored 13 runs. While the early returns are paying off, how the Pirates build around him will be interesting to watch.
Young Hayes ties it! pic.twitter.com/WyxeD46cv1
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) May 7, 2022
Reason for panic: Pitching remains suspect, ranking 29th with a 4.91 team ERA and 5.46 by the starters. As an example, Wilson has a 9.00 ERA in four starts covering 14 innings, with nine walks and 10 strikeouts. In two relief appearances, he has not allowed a run in 7⅔ innings, walking one and striking out 10. The rotation is particularly concerning, with JT Brubaker (5.68 ERA), Mitch Keller (6.11 ERA), and Zach Thompson (7.45 ERA) struggling.
Injuries: Outfielder Jake Marisnick went on the 10-day IL after injuring a thumb while making a diving catch Monday. He will need surgery. Reliever Duane Underwood Jr. (right hamstring) made his second rehab appearance Tuesday and could be near a return. Left-hander Anthony Banda (non-COVID illness) is expected to rejoin the bullpen next week. Shortstop Kevin Newman (groin strain) is progressing toward a return late this month. Outfielder Greg Allen (hamstring, 60-day IL) is doing some baseball activities and is still on pace to come back in late May or early June, while reliever Nick Mears (elbow surgery, 60-day IL) could return next month.
Before winning two of three from the Pirates over the weekend, Cincinnati was 3-23. That record is hard to fathom. Within the first 26 games, the Reds had an 11-game losing streak and a nine-gamer. Nine of those losses have been by five or more runs.
So unless something extraordinary happens, the Reds are already looking toward 2023. There will be trades of veteran players and playing time given to youngsters in their stead. Probably the biggest question is whether star first baseman Joey Votto will want to leave. Whatever the Reds get for Votto won’t be great, which will add to the anguish of Reds fans.
Reason for optimism: After a rash of injuries, the Reds are finally getting some key players back. No. 1 pitcher Luis Castillo (right shoulder soreness) made his season debut Monday, lasting 4⅔ innings and 87 pitches. His return will certainly bolster a rotation that has an MLB-worst 8.20 ERA. The downside of that is Castillo is the Reds’ biggest trade chip and could get moved after a couple of starts to show his health. Third baseman-DH Mike Moustakas returned from the COVID-19 IL on Tuesday, just a one-day absence.
In case y'all forgot how pretty Luis Castillo's Changeup is… 🖼️ pic.twitter.com/5LXxeen7aB
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 9, 2022
Reason for panic: Plenty, beginning with more injuries. Second baseman Jonathan India returned to the IL after his hamstring injury flared up again. The other piece of the puzzle, perhaps the largest piece, is how the clubhouse and manager David Bell handle the losing. Nothing takes a team down quicker than multiple extended losing streaks.
Injuries: Left-hander Mike Minor (60-day IL, shoulder soreness) began a rehab assignment Tuesday, going three scoreless innings, and is slated to be back in June. Outfielder Jake Fraley still hasn’t had an accurate diagnosis for his injury, which is labeled as right knee inflammation. Shortstop Jose Barrero (wrist surgery) is playing defense only in extended spring training and is swinging the bat in a cage. The return of left-handers Justin Wilson (left elbow soreness) and Nick Lodolo (lower back strain) are up in the air, with Wilson a longer-term recovery.