NL Central Roundup: Keeping it Positive

After two months, it is too early to get too far down about your team.

At its root, baseball is a game of optimism. Spring training means a rebirth of the sport as every player reports to camp in the best shape of their life. Opening Day is akin to Christmas in that you get to unwrap the presents under the tree to see what you have.

The regular season? It is 162 games of repetitive motion, hopefully it just isn’t banging your head on the desk. Some teams even experience joy, but that appears to be a rare disorder for most in MLB. The postseason again brings the positive side of life as every team that qualifies can see itself raising the World Series trophy and having a confetti-filled parade.

Today marks the beginning of June and were are a ways away from the dog days of August. There is still optimism for most teams on some level — whether it be legit playoff hopes or having the ability to recover from a poor start — s0 with that in mind, we are going to spend time accentuating the positive in this edition of Central Intelligence.

 

NL Central Standings

 

Brewers

 

Of course there is optimism when a team has been in first place for more than a month. But Milwaukee hasn’t exactly been playing its best ball, yet posted the best record in franchise history after 50 games (32-18). Still, there are a few positives that have put the Brewers in this position during a road-heavy first two months.

Left-hander Aaron Ashby has stepped up and shown he is more than a No. 6 starter. After beginning the season in a hybrid starter-reliever role, injuries to Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff have given Ashby a permanent spot in the rotation. In his last two starts, Ashby has gone 11⅔ innings, walking five and striking out 17, including a 12-strikeout performance on Memorial Day against the Chicago Cubs.

Outfielder Tyrone Taylor has also made the most of extended playing time. With Hunter Renfroe out, Taylor has been starting in right field and producing at a high level. The 2012 second-round draft pick is hitting .333 with five homers and 18 RBIs in his last 13 games, including seeing time as the cleanup hitter. Infielder Luis Urías has filled in nicely at shortstop with Willy Adames out and has reached base in 25 of 26 games he has played in since being activated off the injured list. He has smashed five homers and driven in 11.

Injuries: Adames, on a rehab assignment due to a high ankle sprain, had a setback with a sore quadriceps. A few days of rest were prescribed before resuming playing. Renfroe (right hamstring strain) is hoping to return to the lineup Friday when he is eligible to be activated. Peralta (right posterior shoulder strain) is expected to be out until August. Woodruff (high right ankle sprain) might only miss the minimum amount of time after being injured on May 27. Right-hander Luis Perdomo (right elbow effusion) will need time for the swelling to go down before a timetable can be established. Righty Jandel Gustave (right hamstring) is expected to be out until July. Right-handers Jake Cousins and Justin Topa, both out with right elbow injuries, are not expected back until July at the earliest, with Cousins potentially being longer term.

 

Cardinals

 

Nothing like a little new blood to inject some life into a team (sorry, no slap jokes here). With the arrival of infielder Nolan Gorman and left-hander Matthew Liberatore, two of the top prospects in the St. Louis system, the Cardinals have gone 7-4, including Tuesday’s walk-off win over the San Diego Padres. Gorman has already had a four-hit game, while Liberatore has had two nice starts.

It also doesn’t hurt that Paul Goldschmidt is currently one of the hottest hitters in baseball. The slugging first baseman extended his hitting streak to 22 games Tuesday with his club-record 23rd extra-base hit of May. He is slashing .352/.422/.626 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs. Third baseman Nolan Arenado has also been a big run producer, slashing .270/.342/.500 with nine homers and 32 RBIs.

The Cardinals are in the midst of a stretch of 21 games in 20 days, including three doubleheaders, and a number of tough foes (Toronto, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Tampa Bay). Big wins, such as Tuesday’s Albert Pujols walk-off, also provide a needed emotional lift during a long season.

Injuries: Right-hander Jack Flaherty (right shoulder inflammation) threw another bullpen Tuesday and could be close to heading out on a rehab assignment for at least three starts. Outfielder Tyler O’Neill (right shoulder impingement) had his rehab assignment delayed after reporting pain after throwing. Left-hander Steven Matz (left shoulder impingement) is next scheduled to throw June 2, then again June 5, with that outing either a bullpen or a short start depending on need. Outfielder Dylan Carlson (left hamstring strain) could be back this weekend against the Cubs. Righty Jordan Hicks (strained right forearm flexor) is expected back mid-June and likely will be in a bullpen role after he struggled starting. Righty Alex Reyes (right shoulder soreness) is likely done for the season and possibly his career after being told surgery was likely necessary.

 

Cubs

 

The good news is that Chicago has the ninth-best run differential in the National League. Not good enough for a contender, but for a team nine games below .500, being outscored by just seven runs is pretty remarkable. Of course, posting a 5-13 record in one-run games certainly detracts from the bottom line.

But we are trying to keep it positive, which is hard to do right now with what the Cubs are going through. They are 12-12 on the road, which means the friendly confines of Wrigley Field has produced just an 8 -17 mark. Yet the Cubs are outscoring teams at home 116-108. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom (11 HRs, 26 RBIs), first baseman Frank Schwindel (six HRs, 24 RBIs), outfielder Ian Happ (five homers, 26 RBIs) and right fielder Seiya Suzuki (four HRs, 21 RBIs) have led the way offensively.

Injuries and poor performance have resulted in the Cubs’ current record — and that situation might be getting worse. Suzuki just went on the IL with a sprained finger and left-hander Drew Smyly exited the second game of the Memorial Day doubleheader with right oblique soreness. The various injuries mean playing time for infielder Christopher Morel, outfielder Nelson Velazquez and right-handers Mark Leiter Jr., Matt Swarmer and Anderson Espinoza.

Injuries: Left-hander Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) isn’t expected to miss much time after being injured in his May 22 start. Infielder Jonathan Villar sustained a mouth injury and needs significant dental work following a workout with an exercise band. Left-hander Sean Newcomb (left ankle sprain), acquired April 21 from the Atlanta Braves for Jesse Chavez, and right-hander Michael Rucker are on rehab assignments. Right-hander Alec Mills (lower back strain) might be a couple of rehab starts away from returning. Outfielder Jason Heyward (undisclosed issue) has been with the team and could be activated at any time if he is ready. Catcher Yan Gomes (left oblique strain) doesn’t have a timetable to return. Outfielder Michael Hermosillo (left quadriceps strain) could be back at any time. Infielder David Bote (left shoulder surgery) is on a rehab assignment and gearing up for a return.

 

Pirates

 

While stuff like this doesn’t please fans, Pittsburgh has shown a lot of fight this season. Take Monday’s games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example. The Pirates blew an early 4-0 lead, coughing up two in the bottom of the eighth inning to fall behind 5-4 only to go ahead in the top of the ninth against Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel. Combined with Saturday’s comeback against the San Diego Padres, the Pirates achieved a nice statistical accomplishment. (And add in Tuesday’s 5-3 win, the Bucs can sweep the Dodgers on Wednesday.)

While they are below .500, the Pirates are 7-6 in one-run games (of course, they are 4-10 in games decided by five or more runs). There are pieces to be part of the puzzle in Pittsburgh. Of course, there is third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, but then you need to look at shortstop-outfielder Tucupita Marcano, second baseman Diego Castillo, right fielder Jack Suwinski, right-hander Roansy Contreras and right-hander Miguel Yajure. Not saying all of those players will stick in those roles or remain with the Pirates, but they are the start of a young core. One player the Pirates hoped would be part of the future, outfielder Cole Tucker was designated for assignment after recently being demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.

The only question — and it is a big one as far as Pirates fans are concerned — is how will the front office, specifically general manager Ben Cherington, build around those players. With the bats at the major-league level or knocking on the door (including Oneill Cruz), the next step would seem to be fortifying the pitching staff.

Injuries: Outfielder Ben Gamel (hamstring) went on the 10-day IL after being injured Saturday. First baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo (lumbar muscle strain) is not expected to be out long after going on the IL retroactive to May 25, but likely beyond the 10-day minimum. Outfielder Jake Marisnick (thumb surgery) is progressing and could return in June. Right-hander Heath Hembree (right calf strain) and designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach (left hamstring strain) might also be back in June. Shortstop Kevin Newman (left groin strain, left hamstring) has yet to resume baseball activities. Left-hander Blake Cederlind (Tommy John surgery) is continuing the build strength and motion after a setback in his recovery. Righty Nick Mears (right elbow surgery) is on a rehab assignment.

 

Reds

 

OK, so this might take a little creative thinking. Remember where the Reds were after about the first month of the season? Cincinnati was 3-22 and looking like 50 wins might be a reach (the Reds lost 20 of 21 games at one point). Since then, the Reds have actually played above .500, going 14-9.

The resurgence has coincided with Luis Castillo’s return to the starting rotation. The ace right-hander has gone 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in five games, including striking out 10 and allowing one hit over six shutout inning of Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Boston Red Sox. Rookie Hunter Greene has had his ups and downs while flashing to the potential that made him the second overall draft choice out of high school in 2017. The fireballing righty is 2-6 with a 5.89 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 44⅓ innings. Greene famously pitched 7⅓ hitless innings and combined with Art Warren to not allow a hit in a 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 15. Tyler Mahle had 6⅔ no-hit innings against the San Francisco Giants. Both of those outings are part of a stretch of nine quality starts in 15 games entering Tuesday’s action.

Offensively, catcher Tyler Stephenson (.296/.354/.452, 4 HRs, 24 RBIs), shortstop Kyler Farmer (.255/.313/.414, 4 HRs, 25 RBIs), third baseman Brandon Drury (.233/.302/.466, 8 HRs, 26 RBIs) and right fielder Tyler Naquin (.255/.315/.460, 5 HRs, 22 RBIs) are the centerpieces. Naquin, though, left Tuesday’s game with a left quad strain. More on the severity should be known today.

Injuries: Left-hander Mike Minor (left shoulder soreness) is set to rejoin the rotation Friday against the Washington Nationals. Outfielder Jake Fraley (right knee inflammation) had his rehab assignment interrupted over the weekend due to a toe injury as he was nearing a return and will see a foot specialist. Second baseman Jonathan India (right hamstring) will have another MRI exam in a week and could go on a rehab assignment after. Lefty Nick Lodolo (lower back strain) is set for bullpen sessions. Shortstop Jose Barrero (left wrist surgery) began a rehab assignment May 20 and is expected to spend the full 20 days getting at-bats. Right-hander Lucas Sims (lower back spasms) is doing strengthening exercises and there is no timeline for his return. There are a slew of players on the 60-day IL: infielder-outfielder Max Schrock (left calf strain) is eligible to be activated June 6 and has been on a rehab assignment, lefty Justin Wilson (left elbow soreness) hasn’t made much progress, righty Connor Overton (stress reaction in lower back) was shut down May 23 and expected to be out six to eight weeks, infielder Donovan Solano (hamstring) has been running at about 70 to 80 percent, righty Justin Dunn (shoulder) could join the team around the All-Star break and righty Daniel Duarte (right elbow swelling) and his status is up in the air.

 

Note: Injury updates from MLB.com.

 

Photos by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire and Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter @DrummerWrites.

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