Changes Coming For The NL Central?

A Lame Beggar
I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move; If he say true, he lies.
   -John Donne

One of the MLB’s most backward leagues, the National League Central, appears primed for a face lift. The weakest NL league is within reach of establishing itself as dominator and shaking its beggar reputation.

The Houston Astros, presently undergoing an ownership change, have become bedfellows with rumors about the Rays de facto general manager Andrew Friedman and the Rockets’ shrewd GM Daryl Morey.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have already undergone one faux-firing this season (last week, an internet rumor spread like whipped butter on the toast that is Twitter, proclaiming the Cubs had fired GM Jim Hendry) and the team is now fighting the odds to have a winning season. The rampant speculation with the Cubs has formed the central narrative that Hendry faces a win-or-be-gone season, and this year’s sub-.500 start has alerted the gravediggers.

What could a regime change in Houston and Chicago mean for the NL Central, a division burdened with excess teams and limited success? Possibly a lot.

From 2000 through 2010, the NL Central has averaged a .486 winning percentage, while the other two NL divisions are a few points above .500. Granted, they have an extra team in the division, which increases their odds of having a stinker season within the division, but having two large markets — Chicago and Houston are the 3rd and 4th largest cities in the US, respectively — flounder so consistently suggests the presence of underlying weaknesses within the division’s leadership.

Over the last decade, the Cubs have compiled a losing record (.496) and three playoff runs, while the Astros have managed a winning record (.510) on the strength of some early-decade 2nd place finishes, reaching the Great Crapshoot 3 times in 10 seasons.

Observers and top-hat-wearers may balk at my cries of concern for the NL Central: “How can a 30% playoff appearance rate be a badge of dishonor?” protest the high fa-lutin’ detractors. “The sport is all about booms and busts — cycles of strength followed by periods of rebuilding.”

Well, after we consider the relative wealth and prominence of these franchises, coupled with the more recent overhauls of such teams as the Red Sox and Rays, it seems more unreasonable the Astros and Cubs cannot find the leadership necessary for long-term, sustainable success. Step one to that progression will be the acquisition of premier talent — front office talent: the scouts, analysts, and negotiators sporting histories of success (within or without of baseball).

The Cubs
For Chicago’s yuppie team to succeed, they need to reinvent their 100-year-old model of winning a few and thinking about next year. The Cubs have a developed and effective scouting department, but tragically lack any legitimate statistical analyst wing to balance out the process. If they can establish a competitive front office, they could easily press themselves into the ivy league of competitors.

Recently, certain baseball gurus have opined that firing ol’ Jim Hendry would be a misstep. I really do not agree the franchise has been wildly successful under Hendry’s regime, but I do think the man has been an above-average evaluator of talent, a gentleman who has made many successful transactions as well as many preventable bad ones.

The Cubs would be probably fine without Hendry, but possibly even better if they could move him back to his forte, scouting, and bring in a compliment of analysts to augment his staff. Either way, the Cubs, who have the payroll potential of an untapped gold mine, will not find success — consistent, year-after-year success — with Hendry running the show like the Lone Ranger GMs of yester-decades.

The Astros
After the team made mincemeat of the late 1990s, the Astros have seen an unsuccessful GM turnover (saying goodbye to Gerry Hunsicker may be the worst thing to happen to the Astros in 20 years), a slew of losing and uninspiring seasons, and a future most describe has “bleak” or “Terminator 3-esque.”

It is hard to undersell their sudden descent into infamy. The Astros went from playing in the NLDS 4 out of 5 years to kicking sand at the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central’s children’s area. They went from Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell to Brett Myers and Bill Hall (figuratively speaking).

If the new ownership group does the unthinkable and wrangles away Andrew Friedman (which seems rather unlikely given Friedman’s more-than-amenable relation with the Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg) or even reacquires Hunsicker, the franchise may well be again just two seasons away from dominance. It is too early to tell if the new Astros’ ownership would be willing to open the coffers, but one can only imagine how much raw power a complete and “enlightened” leadership group could wield in the National League.

Not only would a powerhouse NL Central — one making more prudent moves and exploring market inefficiencies — change the landscape of the National League, it could ultimately realign the accepted norms of the sport as a whole. In the early 2000s, OBP and power were largely undervalued assets. Imagine if, instead of just the Red Sox, As, and Yankees taking advantage of this opportunity, there were instead 5 bidders for Kevin Youkilis in draft or Jason Giambi in the free agent market. Suddenly draft boards get re-written and contracts get bigger. What was once a three year window of inefficiency has tightened into one off-season.

It is impossible to say with certainty how the Astros or Cubs will approach their impending leadership changes, but we can say with certainty: Both franchises have the chance to make some major improvements and go quickly from beggars to barons.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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berselius
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Houston is bigger than Dallas-Fort Worth?

steex
Member
steex
5 years 4 months ago

Dallas-Fort Worth is a metro area, not a city. Houston is indeed the fourth largest city in country. DFW is the largest metro area in Texas despite Dallas being the third largest city in the state.

DavidCEisen
Guest
DavidCEisen
5 years 4 months ago

Going by city population instead of metro region doesn’t really make sense. Anyway the Houston-Galveston-Barzoria metro region is the 6th largest, behind Philadephia-Trenton and Dallas-Fort Worth (at least in 2007)

donstage
Member
donstage
5 years 4 months ago

The NL Central is not a league, it’s a commonwealth.

Jack Nugent
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/3981/cubs-hiring-puts-more-heat-on-hendry

“Before leaving for the jungles of Africa, Tom Ricketts made his first move in the baseball operations department, hiring Ari Kaplan, 40, for the position of statistical analyst manager. Kaplan is a talented numbers cruncher who also has had an abundance of practical scouting experience. He’s worked with 21 major-league teams. The Chicago native blends the concept of physical scouting and statistical data into programs he’s developed for MLB teams for over the past 20 years.”

berselius
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

I don’t take the Kaplan signing as much of anything. The day the Cubs signed him Hendry pretty much blew him off.

“Youu just don’t draw people up on computers and plug them in and that means they can perform at Wrigley Field in a pennant race. You just keep putting all your information together. You rely heavily on your scouts.”

http://saxo.dailyherald.com/article/20100617/Sports/306179891/

He also showcased his work on his website (before being hired by the Cubs) with useless stats like “Hits better in the clutch – 0.338 with RISP (in 207 AB) vs 0.201 without.”

Jamie
Guest
Jamie
5 years 4 months ago

I haven’t heard much about Kaplan since the hiring, but I’m sure he ranks below scouts like Gary Hughes and Dave Littlefield in the hierarchy of people Jim Hendry listens to.

Ace
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

The dream scenario is Hendry taking a demotion to oversee scouting, the Cubs poaching an up-and-coming GM, and then hiring an actual baseball guy (as opposed to a business man) to be the President and/or Director of Baseball Operations.

Not sure that it’s even remotely possible that Hendry would accept that kind of move, though. I’m thinking it’s out the door for him.

Rice Cube
Guest
Rice Cube
5 years 4 months ago

Hey Brad, this is more Astros-related but I thought you might be interested:

http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/11033/what-went-wrong-with-the-astros

george s beilby
Guest
george s beilby
5 years 4 months ago

Astros to the AL West. makes too much sense!

MarkInDallas
Guest
MarkInDallas
5 years 4 months ago

The Astros would hate that. The Rangers have been trying to get out of the AL West for years.

Slugger27
Guest
Slugger27
5 years 4 months ago

except for the whole “1 team off in each league every day” thing

reillocity
Member
reillocity
5 years 4 months ago

but what about the whole “at least 1 interleague play series going on year-round” thing?

ofMontreal
Guest
ofMontreal
5 years 4 months ago

I’m all of my lobbying assets into ‘Fire Hendry, hire Cashman’.

That is a scenario to make most people happy.

ofMontreal
Guest
ofMontreal
5 years 4 months ago

Forgot the “putting” in there. But that’s the kind of emglish I prefer.

Rice Cube
Guest
Rice Cube
5 years 4 months ago

I think Cashman was bullied into signing Rafael Soriano to an overpay-contract by the Steinbrenners; it sounds like Ricketts won’t bug the GM too much although I wonder if they panicked and forced Hendry to trade the farm for Matt Garza.

JohnnyComeLately
Guest
JohnnyComeLately
5 years 4 months ago

They don’t have to force Hendry to trade a bunch of prospects for an MLB regular. It’s his bread and butter. See: Pierre, Juan.

Rice Cube
Guest
Rice Cube
5 years 4 months ago

Yeah, it’s probably just Hendry’s last gasp at saving his job, but Ricketts still had to sign off on it, right?

RB
Guest
RB
5 years 4 months ago

Look on the bright side, at least the NL central has the Cardinals

bill
Guest
bill
5 years 4 months ago

Look on the bright side, at least the NL central has the Reds…fixed that for you.

Dscott
Guest
Dscott
5 years 4 months ago

If we had any statistical breakdown of our team, we would still have Felix Pie over Reed Johnson, Marshall would be a starter, and Fukodome would hit 2nd.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
5 years 4 months ago

The NL Central has been down after dominating for quite a while. The cardinals were the best team in baseball from 04-06, and the Astros were very good in the late90s, early 2000s. The Cubs also had some really good teams (followed by awesomely awesome playoff heartbreak) in there.

But really, are we going to sit here and talk like the AL West, AL Central, NL Central, are really any better/worse than the other.

The Reds have basically replaced Houston as being the non-Cardinal really good team in the division.

The AL East is a really strong division, but other than that there’s not a lot of separation between the divisions.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas
5 years 4 months ago

I’d argue that the NL East is just as good. The Yankees and Sox are both overrated. Both are old and their pitching is suspect. 4 of the top 10 ERA teams (last I checked) were in the NL East. Yea it needs to be adjusted, but I really don’t think the AL East is all it’s cracked out to be. The AL East got worse and the NL East got better and will get even better next year when Strasburg and maybe harper comes back.

Other than that I agree with you. All divisions basically have good teams, mediocre teams, and bad teams. I don’t see the Central as THAT much worse, but I do think that most years, teams that win the Central wouldn’t win any other division. I don’t think the Reds are that good of a team. A “good” team, but I wouldn’t put them above the Marlins. I still think the Central sucks, I don’t see any changes.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
5 years 4 months ago

n the early 2000s, OBP and power were largely undervalued assets. Imagine if, instead of just the Red Sox, As, and Yankees taking advantage of this opportunity,

[1] Has power ever been undervalued?

[2] Have the NYY ever taken advantage of undervalued assets?

We can give the NYY credit for lots of things, but not this one.

I’m not even sure we can give the A’s credit on this one. OBP and power? The team that was outrighting Jack Cust?

One also has to wonder if BOS can still be given credit for this. BOS certainly still has tendencies or underlying principles, but they don’t seem too tied to that any longer.

I would also suggest that OBP and power are not even close to being undervalued commodities anymore (and probably have not for a few years).
Paying attention to college baseball with the new changes, legit power is going to be at a premium.

Really, I don;t think there’s that much OBP and Power to go around for all the teams. They’ll need to find a new market inefficiency. Given the OBP/Power, Pitching, and defense, are all valued commodities, I’m not sure where the next inefficiency would be … although I might look to high control, high GB% pitchers … because that seems to be the type that is making a resurgence, even in our emerging FIP-world.

RC
Guest
RC
5 years 4 months ago

“One also has to wonder if BOS can still be given credit for this. BOS certainly still has tendencies or underlying principles, but they don’t seem too tied to that any longer.”

How so?

I think the lowest Career OBP on the Red Sox is probably Ellsbury, and hes right around .350.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
5 years 4 months ago

Okay, so that means that BOS, one of the league’s best teams doesn’t have players with OBP’s in the low 3’s?

I wasn;t insinuating that BOS no longer likes players that gets on base, because that’s what good players do, and good players = good team.

I was saying that BOS is no longer tied to finding undervalued commodities.

Their last 3 signing of Lackey, Crawford, and Gonzalez were items I was thinking of. It was not an insult to BOS in the least.

Maybe I wasn’t clear. But, I would imagine that every good team has players with good seasonal and career OBP numbers. Kinda hard to be good without it.

RC
Guest
RC
5 years 4 months ago

“. I really do not agree the franchise has been wildly successful under Hendry’s regime, but I do think the man has been an above-average evaluator of talent, a gentleman who has made many successful transactions as well as many preventable bad ones.”

Its a team with a $150M payroll that since Hendry took over (2002) has won in excess of 90 games once, and failed to win 80 games 3 times. He’s been in charge 10 years now, its no longer about dealing with a lack of talent from the previous regime, etc.

He’s simply not very good at putting together a good baseball team.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
5 years 4 months ago

“Granted, they have an extra team in the division, which increases their odds of having a stinker season within the division.”

But also increases the odds of having a 100-game winner, also. Division size should have no net impact on the overall winning percentage of the teams therein.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas
5 years 4 months ago

for future references, NEVER use a city’s actual population, use the metro area. That’s much much more important, if you have a bigger city population, but a much lower metro population, you won’t draw as much money. By metro area though, both Dallas AND Houston are growing like crazy so the Astros should be better. They have the resoures and a fairly rich recent history. Kinda like the Rox to me, really good, bad, really good, surging, etc kinda up and down but they feel good more years than not.

Felonius_Monk
Guest
Felonius_Monk
5 years 4 months ago

“If the new ownership group does the unthinkable and wrangles away Andrew Friedman (which seems rather unlikely given Friedman’s more-than-amenable relation with the Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg) or even reacquires Hunsicker, the franchise may well be again just two seasons away from dominance.”

Really? With a bereft farm system, and a pretty bad on-field product with maybe only one or two young guys signed long-term who are likely to be above average, I can’t see the Astros being competitive in any way in the just 2 years. They’d need to drop, say, $150m in payroll in that year just to get up in the hunt.

Joe
Guest
Joe
5 years 4 months ago

Let’s go Bucs!

Oskar
Guest
Oskar
5 years 4 months ago

Seriously, after reading the title and opening, I expected some mention of the Pirates. I guess they’re just doomed to fail forever.

JC14
Guest
JC14
5 years 4 months ago

Hendry doesn’t build teams, he patches them…not exactly my personal preference for my GM’s MO.

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