Top takeaways from first week in NL Central
Cubs hitters arrived at Miller Park on Thursday with 58 strikeouts through five games, a dubious National League record. Brewers manager Craig Counsell was asked what he made of it.
He paused, smiled and looked around at the gathered crowd of reporters.
"You guys are making too big of a deal out of it, in my opinion," Counsell said. "It's way too early. We're about three percent of the schedule in.
"I understand we have to address trends and things that are happening, but we do have to also understand the schedule, the way the game is played and the routine of the game. There are things we haven't done well, there are things the other teams haven't done well. There are things we've done really well. The most likely scenario is some of these patterns come back to what we expect. If they haven't after a month, then I think you start looking pretty deep into them."
Who wants to wait a month? Here's where things stood in the NL Central after a week of regular-season baseball:
What we know: They will win some games. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but it seems worth mentioning, considering the doom and gloom that descended on PNC Park after the team traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen over the offseason. Winning five of their first six games helped. Corey Dickerson was a good replacement for McCutchen, and there is hope for improved offensive production with full seasons out of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, each of whom logged fewer than 400 at-bats last year. The Pirates tied for second in the Majors during the first week by averaging six runs per game.
What we still don't know: If they hit, will they be able to hold leads? Only one Pirates starter -- Trevor Williams -- completed six innings in the team's first five games. Left-handed closer Felipe Rivero is a weapon at the end of games, but outside of Pittsburgh, how many fans can name another Bucs reliever. George Kontos is one of them, and he has been a solid reliever for the Pirates and Giants for years now, but manager Clint Hurdle has work to do to find the right combination of arms to get to the ninth inning.
The bottom line: It looks like the start of a rebuild for the Pirates, but they still have enough good hitters to compete on a game-to-game basis.
What we know:Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich have transformed the top of the lineup. After joining a team that set Major League Baseball's all-time strikeout record in each of the past two seasons, Cain and Yelich combined for one strikeout in the opening series in San Diego while going 15-for-28 at the plate. Yes, the Brewers have a crowd out there in the outfield, with Cain and Yelich joining Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana. But the value of that depth was on display when Yelich went down this week with a tight right oblique.
What we still don't know: Is the starting rotation good enough? After they got Cain and Yelich on the same January day, most expected GM David Stearns to spend dollars or prospects to acquire one more starting pitcher. Stearns bucked those expectations, believing Milwaukee's pitching was better than outsiders think, and that the financial flexibility will come in handy if the club chooses to make additions at midseason. Other than Chase Anderson's six scoreless innings on Opening Day, however, the first week was unkind to Brewers starters. Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin and Anderson combined to surrender 17 runs (13 earned) in 15 1/3 innings of the team's home opening series against the Cardinals.
The bottom line: If the starting pitching levels out, the Brewers have the offense and bullpen to be as competitive as advertised -- assuming closer Corey Knebel returns reasonably quickly from a left hamstring injury. A pair of ninth-inning comebacks during the first week added some confidence.
What we know: The only way the Cubs' offense can go is up, and it started to do so in Thursday's win in Milwaukee. Besides the strikeout problem, new hitting coach Chili Davis will try to help end the team's early-season funk with runners in scoring position. Chicago started the season 10-for-62 in those situations, a .161 average that bested only the Giants and Phillies among Major League clubs. But only the Rockies scored more runs than the Cubs over the past two seasons; Chicago's offense is going to be fine over the course of 162 games.
What we still don't know: How much will the Cubs miss Wade Davis? The right-hander, who signed with the Rockies over the winter, was nearly perfect last year during the regular season, going 32-for-32 in save chances before the Brewers got him in the final week of September at Miller Park. In their championship season in 2016, the Cubs had Albertin Chapman. Now, they have Brandon Morrow, who got a three-year deal coming off a solid setup season with the Dodgers. Morrow faced only one batter in the first week of the regular season and allowed a walk-off single in the 17th inning of a loss to the Marlins.
The bottom line: Slow start aside, the Cubs are the team to beat.
What we know: This lineup, bolstered by the offseason addition of Marcell Ozuna, is legit. The Cardinals led the division and were third in the NL in the opening week with a .780 OPS and a .459 slugging percentage, led by the recently-extended Paul DeJong's three homers and 1.364 OPS through six games. DeJong is manager Mike Matheny's seven-hole hitter, a sign of how deep this offense is.
What we still don't know: How good will the pitching staff be once everyone gets healthy? Longtime Cardinal Adam Wainwright saw his season debut pushed back a week by a hamstring injury. Veteran relievers Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil landed on the DL. New closer Greg Holland signed so late that he needed some time in the Minors to get into game shape. Eventually, if Carlos Martinez can pitch regularly like he did in Milwaukee on Wednesday in 8 1/3 shutout innings, and newcomer Miles Mikolas is as improved after three years in Japan as the Cardinals believe he is, this could be a very competitive pitching staff. They just need to get everyone together at the same time.
The bottom line: The Cardinals are always good, and it looks like they will be good again in 2018. They have finished in the top three of the NL Central for 10 straight seasons.
What we know: They're going to score. After being blanked by Max Scherzer on Opening Day, the Reds scored 12 runs in two games started by Stephen Strasburg and Giovany Gonzalez -- something of a moral victory, even though the Nationals swept the series. Scooter Gennett's 8-for-17 start to the season offered confidence that his 27-homer surprise in 2017 was no fluke, and perennial NL MVP Award candidate Joey Votto is going to be a lot better than his 3-for-15 slump through the Reds' first four games.
What we still don't know: Is this Reds rotation better than the dire predictions? They got three quality starts in the first four games from Homer Bailey, Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle -- a good sign with fellow starters Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan on the season-opening disabled list. The Reds finished in the top half of Major League Baseball in runs scored last season, and they returned most of that group of hitters, so if the starting pitchers are able to keep games close, they should be able to pick off some wins.
The bottom line: It won't get any tougher. Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez each placed in the top five of NL qualifiers last season in ERA. That's a challenging way to start a season for any club.