Pirates' division foes lose some punch

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012

Pitchers around the National League Central breathed a sigh of relief in mid-December when Albert Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals and signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels. A few weeks later, Prince Fielder bolted from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Detroit Tigers.

Just like that, the two top sluggers in the division had not only changed teams, but both also found new homes in the American League.

"We broke out a bottle of bubbly," Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said, laughing.

The departures mean the Cardinals and Brewers, both of whom made the playoffs last year, must retool with lesser talent. And while they tortured every team in the division, Pujols and Fielder were especially prolific against the Pirates.

"With those guys leaving, I think we've got a shot at winning this division," right-hander Jeff Karstens said. "I think it's wide open."

Against the Pirates, Pujols batted .365 and clubbed 48 homers. The only team he went deep against more often is the Chicago Cubs, who play at hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.

So much success over such a long period against the Pirates puts Pujols in a class with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (.311 average, 78 homers in 348 games) and Willie Mays (.323, 76 homers in 343 games).

Over his 11-year career, Pujols has played in 171 games against the Pirates, enough for a full regular season. Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman chuckled when a St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer said Pujols' stats against Pittsburgh would be good enough to win a Triple Crown in any year.

"I keep hearing that Albert has great numbers against the Pirates," Berkman told the newspaper. "Well, he should because their pitching staff hasn't been that great. He's the best hitter in baseball, so if you don't have good pitching, he's going to absolutely destroy you."

Fielder's .280 batting average against the Pirates is more modest. However, 28 percent of Fielder's hits were home runs compared to 21 percent for Pujols. Plus, Fielder had a flair for getting the big hit at the right time -- late in the game, runners on base, two outs, score tied -- to ignite a rally or cap a big inning.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington knows the absence of the two big boppers may make the division race more competitive, but it won't get any easier.

"It would be very naive to say losing Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder doesn't have an impact. It does," Huntington said. "But it may not be as great as it feels like on the surface."

The Cardinals added free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran and still have Berkman and Matt Holliday to go with one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The Brewers picked up power-hitting third baseman Aramis Ramirez. They also have reigning league MVP Ryan Braun, who is appealing a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.

Sensing an opportunity, Cincinnati this winter traded prospects to bolster its pitching. The Reds traded for lefty reliever Sean Marshall and hard-throwing starter Mat Latos and signed closer Ryan Madson.

"Without Albert and Prince, it's going to be a little bit less challenging," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "But day in and day out it's still going to be tough."

Rather than pick up a single, big-impact player this winter, Huntington took what he called a "portfolio approach" and added a handful players such as Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard.

"We wanted to fill the holes that we had and add depth," Huntington said.

Will it be enough to win the division• Baseball Prospectus analyst Kevin Goldstein doesn't believe so. The Pirates' talent, he said, cannot match the Cardinals', Brewers' or Reds'.

"I don't think anyone can be too mad at the Pirates," Goldstein said. "While they are moving in the right direction, the progress has been slow and steady. I find it hard to see some combination of moves that would suddenly put them in the race this year."

The good news for the Pirates is Pujols and Fielder signed long-term deals with their new clubs. They won't return to haunt Pittsburgh in anything but an occasional interleague game. And that bodes well for the future.

five big questions

Pirates spring training begins a week from today when pitchers and catchers hold a noon workout in Bradenton, Fla. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 24, and the Grapefruit League opener is March 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla. Here are five questions Pirates fans have most often been asking Trib beat writer Rob Biertempfel in the run-up to spring training:

How does Pedro look• Reaction in the front office after Pedro Alvarez spurned management's request that he play winter ball ranged from disappointment to outright disgust. He spent a few weeks with a personal trainer in California and appears to be in great shape. But there's no way to recoup the at-bats and experience Alvarez lost while he was injured last season and out of uniform over the winter. Simply put, Alvarez is the key to the offense. He must show that he is physically and mentally prepared to handle the grind of a full season in the majors.

When will Charlie pitch• A sore hip that bothered Charlie Morton for years finally was repaired when he had surgery in October. Last year, James McDonald was rushed back into action after suffering a minor injury in spring camp. Lesson learned, both Morton and the team are taking a cautious approach to his rehab. He was able to perform light workouts in minicamp in mid-January and is expected to be at least a week behind the other pitchers when they start throwing bullpen sessions in spring training. It's likely the right-hander will miss the start of the regular season.

Who will be this year's spring-training surprise• Last spring, Crotta was a longshot to make the team. But the righty put up a 1.35 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP in 11 outings to win a bullpen job. This year, will first baseman Matt Hague force his way onto the club• Could Jeff Clement re-ignite his career• Or will Rule 5 pickup Gustavo Nunez beat the odds and earn a spot as a backup infielder?

What role for Cole• Righty Gerrit Cole, the top overall pick in last year's draft, was invited to spring training. It will be the first time Cole, 21, will work out alongside major leaguers, but he likely won't throw a pitch in a Grapefruit League game. "Get a good look early because he won't be around long," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He is not coming to camp with a chance to make the club. He's not even on the radar." Instead, the Pirates want to speed up Cole's acclimation process and take away the awe factor for when he is ready to compete for a big league job in a couple of years.

Who's on first• Some fans spent the winter pining for Derrek Lee, but he is gone and has no interest in coming back. Other options, such as Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, went elsewhere. This week, 38-year-old Dmitri Young, who hasn't played in the majors since 2008, will get a tryout at Pirate City. That's a clear sign the Pirates don't want to rely on a platoon of Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee at first base. Jones owns a .838 OPS against right-handers, McGehee a .743 OPS against lefties. Will their combined production be enough• Can they handle the job defensively, meshing with young infielders Neil Walker and Alvarez and newcomer Clint Barmes?

a view from the outside

The Tribune-Review polled beat writers who regularly cover NL Central teams about the upcoming season:

How will the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder affect the NL Central race in 2012?

Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: With Pujols and Fielder gone, two of the biggest threats in the league are missing, so it's bound to have some effect on the NL Central. If the Brewers also lose (Ryan) Braun for 50 games (he is appealing a suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug), they will be missing both ends of perhaps the best 1-2 offensive punch in the league. That would dramatically change the look of their offense and probably force them to scramble for runs.

John Fay, Cincinnati Enquirer: I think the loss of Pujols and Fielder opens up the division, but I see the Cardinals as the favorite with the return of Adam Wainwright. A huge deal is how the Ryan Braun situation is resolved.

Zachary Levine, Houston Chronicle: If nothing else, the looming-turned-actual departures of Fielder and Pujols made NL Central teams evaluate where they stand in a weakened division. The Reds went all in, trading for Mat Latos and Sean Marshall and signing Ryan Madson. Given that the other three teams either did little (Pirates, Astros) or continued to tear down (Cubs), there is unlikely to be a major shakeup. The Brewers are down, but the Cardinals are still the class of the division, especially if Adam Wainwright returns in his typical form.

Carrie Muskat, Cubs.com: I know some of the Cubs pitchers slept a little better this offseason knowing they don't have to face Pujols/Fielder 16 games each. The division has lost its star power -- you didn't want to miss their at-bats.

Jen Langosch, Cardinals.com: I would expect much more parity in the NL Central. The Brewers, particularly if Braun is forced to sit out the first 50 games, are not nearly as formidable as they were in 2011. The Cardinals will get a boost with Adam Wainwright's return, but the age of several of their other players could become a factor. And, of course, there is no replacing Pujols. The Reds certainly appear improved after their offseason moves and could make a serious run at a division title if their starting pitching rebounds. The Pirates and Cubs each have some key pieces in place for eventual success, though 2012 is likely too soon for either club to be at or near the top of the division late into the summer.

Mark Sheldon, Reds.com: I don't think the departures will shake up the division race as much as people think, even less so for St. Louis. The Cardinals are fortunate to have great lineup and rotation depth. Lance Berkman is certainly no slouch, nor are Matt Holliday, David Freese and Yadier Molina. They can still keep opponents at bay with pitchers Chris Carpenter, a healthy Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia. The Brewers would suffer more without both Fielder and Braun. They replaced Fielder with Mat Gamel and signed Aramis Ramirez. The big X-factor is the Braun situation. I have yet to hear what the contingency without him is. Starting pitching will also be key for Milwaukee, and that club has it. That means the Cardinals and Brewers can still contend this season without their superstars.

Brian McTaggart, Astros.com: It will make the division a little more wide open, though the Brewers losing Fielder and perhaps Braun for a spell will hurt them much more than the Cards losing Pujols. St. Louis has the pitching to win the division and still has a pretty good lineup, even without Pujols. That being said, the NL Central, as a whole, is considerably weaker than it was a year ago.

Who is the new impact player in the division?

Haudricourt : It probably is Cincinnati's Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP. The question is, how long will he remain in Cincinnati• The general thinking is the monster contracts for Pujols and Fielder will make the price for Votto shoot sky-high, which won't make it easy for the Reds to keep him.

Fay: Joey Votto is now the biggest impact player, followed closely by Ryan Braun.

Levine: Right-hander Mat Latos. When they traded to get him, the Reds made a deal for the present. If he works out, it's a coup, even in a down year. If he doesn't, it's a costly mortgaging of the future.

Muskat: Votto.

Langosch: Votto.

Sheldon: The top impact player would have to be reigning MVP Ryan Braun, despite the allegations of PED use. He will be motivated to repeat his 2011 season to dissipate the cloud of suspicion. Votto would be 1a.

McTaggart: It remains Ryan Braun, last year's MVP. Of course, he'll have to be on the field to make an impact, but he's the best hitter in the division, with Joey Votto a close second.

Predicted order of finish

Haudricourt: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Fay: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Levine: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Muskat: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Langosch: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Sheldon: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

McTaggart: 1. Cardinals, 2. Reds, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros

Additional Information:

Against the division

Career homers vs. NL Central teams:

Pirates: Pujols 48, Fielder 27

Reds: Pujols 46, Fielder 22

Cubs: Pujols 53, Fielder 22

Astros: Pujols 42, Fielder 24

Cardinals: Fielder 19

Brewers: Pujols 42

Additional Information:

Albert Pujols

Games; at-bats; runs; hits; home runs; runs batted in; batting average; OPS

vs. Pirates: 171; 633; 142; 231; 48; 145; .365; 1.131

Career: 1,705; 6,312; 1,291; 2,073; 445; 1,329; .328; 1.037

Additional Information:

Prince Fielder

Games; at-bats; runs; hits; home runs; runs batted in; batting average; OPS

vs. Pirates: 98; 347; 53; 97; 27; 74; .280; .940

Career: 998; 3,527; 571; 996; 230; 656; .282; .929

Additional Information:

Sluggers through history

How other noteworthy hitters fared against the Pirates:

Player: Games; Avg.; HR; OPS

Hank Aaron: 348; .311; 78; .905

Jeff Bagwell: 190; .314; 35; .981

Ernie Banks: 323; .285; 57; .820

Johnny Bench: 166; .285; 30; .836

Barry Bonds: 98; .319; 22; 1.127

Jack Clark: 124; .307; 38; 1.049

Dave Kingman: 149; .216; 37; .761

Willie Mays: 343; .323; 76; .996

Willie McCovey: 251; .291; 56; .944

Mark McGwire: 45; .242; 13; 1.022

Pete Rose: 324; .292; 15; .759

Mike Schmidt: 264; .237; 62; .838

Gary Sheffield: 103; .301; 19; .902

Sammy Sosa: 157; .283; 38; .888

Darryl Strawberry: 131; .259; 36; .927

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