With the 2022 MLB season about to get cranking, here are Three Things You Need To Know about the Cardinals’ NL Central division rivals.

CHICAGO CUBS

1) The Cubs claimed Wade Miley on waivers after the Reds made him part of their offseason salary dump and the veteran lefthander was immediately plugged into Chicago’s starting rotation. But Miley (elbow) isn’t ready to go and it’s expected that he’ll miss the first six weeks of the regular season – and that’s a conservative estimate. This leaves the Cubs with a five-man rotation of Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly.

2) The Cubs are impressed by their new right fielder, Seiya Suzuki, who last month signed to a five-year, $85 million free-agent contract to make the move from Japan. (The Cubs also paid a $14.6 million posting fee to Hiroshima, Suzuki’s team in the NPB.) Suzuki, 27, was a five-time NBP All-Star. What will be his impact in 2022? ZiPS forecasts 24 homers, a .484 slugging percentage and .834 OPS for Suzuki this season. “Power to all fields,” Cubs manager Davis Ross said. “Bat-to-ball skills are real. Doesn’t chase outside the zone too much, and when he does get fooled he’s still able to foul off really tough pitches.”

3) With Suzuki in place, Jason Heyward has shifted from his traditional post in right field and will be the starting center fielder when the Cubs face a right-handed starting pitcher. Heyward, 32, had a brutal 2021 for the Cubs offensively, batting .214 with an anemic .347 slugging percentage and .627 OPS. Heyward will make $44 million over the next two seasons; that’s what remains on the eight-year, $184 million free–agent deal the Cubs gave the left-handed hitter before the 2016 season. In six seasons as a Cub, Heyward has a 87 OPS+ which is 13 percent below league average offensively.

4) At some point in 2022 the Cubs will call on top prospect Brennen Davis, a right-handed hitting center fielder who’s ranked as the No. 16 overall MLB prospect by Baseball America. Davis, 22, batted .260 with a .869 OPS over three levels of Chicago’s minor-league system in ‘21.

5) The Cubs took an aggressive approach to remodeling their bullpen for 2022, going into the marketplace to sign RH relievers Mychal Givens, David Robertson, Chris Martin and Jesse Chavez plus LH Daniel Norris. The team is excited to see what prospect Seth Roberts can do early in the season. Holdovers from 2021 include Keegan Thompson and closer Rowan Wick.

CINCINNATI REDS

1) Team owner Bob Castellini is getting blasted by fed-up Reds fans who remain irate over the payroll slashing that has cut deeply into the 2021 roster that won 83 games and contended for a wild-card spot. The offloading included starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Miley, left fielder Jesse Winker, left-side infielder Eugenio Suarez, outfielder-pitcher Michael Lorenzen and catcher Tucker Barnhart. And the Reds made no effort to reconnect with outfielder Nick Castellanos after he opted out of his contract. (He signed a five-year, $100 million deal with Philadelphia.) This Castellanos quote hit home in Cincinnati: “At the end of the day, baseball comes down to ownership. The owner either wants to invest and cares about winning or doesn’t.”

Are the Reds for sale? The team’s payroll cut – down an estimated 17% from last season – has increased the speculation. Observers note that Castellini has consolidated his produce companies and sold his Arizona resort business. Are the Reds next? “Absolutely zero chance,” said Phil Castellini, the Reds’ president and chief operating officer, in comments made to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The team is not being shopped. (Selling) is not being contemplated.”

2) Two highly-regarded pitching prospects are joining the Reds’ rotation: RH Hunter Greene, and LH Nick Lodolo. Greene is rated No. 34 overall on the Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list for 2022, with Lodo one spot lower at No. 35. Greene was the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 June draft, and Lobodo went 7th overall selection in 2019. Rotation Luis Castillo (IL, sore shoulder) is behind schedule but the Reds still hope for an April return. LH Mike Minor (shoulder) – who was acquired from Kansas City in a preposterously stupid trade by the Reds – will also open the season on the IL. Minor had a 5.08 ERA for the Royals over the last two seasons. At least Tyler Mahle is in place, and he’s among the most underrated starting pitchers in the majors. Last season Mahle threw 180 innings and went 13-6 with a 3.75 ERA.

3) Shortstop Jose Barrero – the No. 33 overall MLB prospect at Baseball America – will be out for six weeks (at least) after having surgery to repair the hook of his hamate bone in his left hand. Barrero appeared in 45 games for the Reds over the past two seasons.

4) Tommy Pham is slotted as the starter in left field and will try to fill the void created by Winker’s trade to Seattle. The former Cardinal, 34, has a good chance to reignite his power in the absurdly pro-hitter environment at Great American Ball Park. Pham slugged only .370 over the past two seasons with the Padres and had a .226 batting average over that time.

5) There’s still some good talent in the Cincinnati lineup including Joey Votto, Jonathan India, Mike Moustakas, Tyler Stephenson. The Reds signed Colin Moran to DH against RH pitching, and the reworked outfield has Pham in left, Nick Senzel in center and Tyler Naquin in right (when facing RHP.) But there are several injury candidates in that group, and the Reds don’t have much depth.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

1) The starting rotation and bullpen are killer. But is there enough offense in the house? Last season the Brewers ranked 11th in the NL in slugging and OPS+. And Avasail Garcia, probably their best overall hitter in 2021, signed a free-agent deal with Miami. The Brewers made a smart pickup in acquiring corner outfielder Hunter Renfroe from Boston; in his last four full seasons he’s averaged 29 homers and slugged close to .500 He should be happy taking swings in the hitter’s yard in Milwaukee. The Crew also signed Andrew McCutchen to DH and provide outfield depth, and he’s made adjustments to be more effective against RHP. They’ll go with Rowdy Tellez at first base. Keep an eye on Lorenzo Cain, 36. The proud center fielder, who turns 36 next week, has a hard time staying on the field because of chronic injuries.

2) Christian Yelich can upgrade this offense by himself. But who are we talking about here? Yelich won the league MVP award in 2018 and finished second in the voting in 2019. Over the two seasons he averaged 40 homers, 104 RBIs, slugged .631 and put up a 1.046 OPS. But Yelich developed terrible problems with his back, and since the start of 2020 he’s batted .234 with a .392 slug and .752 OPS. In 2018-19 Yelich homered every 13.2 at-bats; over the last two seasons he delivered a home run every 28.5 at-bats. Yelich feels good physically, but can he turn the power back on?

3) If Keston Hiura can return to form, he’ll boost the Crew’s offense. After a superb rookie season offensively in 2019 Hiura sank into a severe rut, batting .192 with a .640 OPS and glaring 36% strikeout rate in 2020-21 combined. The Brewers are optimistic of a bounceback for two reasons. First, Hiura played 2021 with an elbow injury that was worse than believed, and he had cleanup surgery over the winter to get it fixed. Second, Hiura looked much better this spring after making an adjustment to reduce his strikeouts. Keston Hiura’s swing would help reduce his strikeouts. He eliminated the toe-tap mechanism in his swing and is encouraged by the early results. That said, Hiura will have to prove that he can get on top of elevated fastballs. That’s been the weak spot in his hitting zone.

4) The rotation looks formidable again: reigning NL Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser, and lefthander Eric Lauer. The top three starters obviously command almost all of the attention, but don’t ignore Hauser and Lauer. Last season Hauser had a 2.16 ERA over the final three months, and Lauer turned in a 3.19 ERA in 119 innings. Lauer’s fastball velocity jumped to 96, 97 mph this spring.

5) Legendary Brewers radio voice Bob Uecker, 88, will set up in the booth for his 52nd season. Uecker is a treasure. His presence becomes more special every season. And that’s especially true now, following a brutal offseason that challenged him at every turn. In order: Uecker had a replacement of his original right-knee replacement after the season. In January, doctors discovered two melanomas on Uecker’s back. But during a routine blood test before surgery, Uecker tested positive for Covid. (His wife had it too.) After clearing Covid, Uecker had the melanoma surgery. (He signed baseballs for about a dozen doctors and nurses in the operating room.) If all of that wasn’t enough … on March 11, Uecker’s oldest child, Leeann, died three years after being diagnosed with ALS.

Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell spoke for everyone who knows or loves Uecker when he said: “I’m happy for him that baseball is back,” Counsell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “For not just the people that work here, but the fans, baseball is the happy place we get to go. I know it’s always been that way for Ueck and he teaches us about that, is that how great it is to come to work every day. You feel that from Bob every day. Even with what’s happened to him, you still feel that from him. We’ve talked about gratitude a little bit this spring and I think his gratitude to be able to come to the park inspires us every day.”

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

1) According to Cots Contracts the Pirates will open the season with an estimated 40-man payroll of $57 million. By contrast the Cardinals have an estimated 40-man payroll of $170.8 million. The Mets will pay Max Scherzer $43.3 million this season – which is more than what Pirates owner Bob Nutting will pay his opening-day 28-man roster ($39 million.)

2) It won’t be easy for a National League third baseman to put an end to Nolan Arenado’s streak of nine consecutive Gold Glove awards. But if he can stay healthy and log enough innings to be eligible for a Gold Glove, Pittsburgh third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes has the defensive skill to pull it off. Despite playing only 766 innings last season, Hayes led all MLB third basemen with 16 defensive runs saved and was second in outs above average (13) and runs prevented (9). Hayes topped Arenado in all three categories even though Arenado played 546 more innings than the Cards’ third baseman.

3) The Pirates disappointed their dwindling fan base by optioning top prospect Oneil Cruz to Triple A Indianapolis. Cruz, rated 14th overall by Baseball America, is a towering (6-7) shortstop that slugged .536 in Double A last season. He batted .333 during spring training with the big club. “Has immense power that produces elite exit velocities at the plate projects to make him an impact player the Pirates can build with,” Baseball America wrote. Well, not so fast. Pirates management insisted Cruz needs more polish defensively and could use more experience at the Triple A level. “There’s some defensive development there that we believe is important and will put him in the best possible position to come up and be a regular player somewhere on the field,” GM Ben Cherington said. “We felt like a little bit more time was going to be helpful for him.” Right. And the Pirates will also preserve a year of club control by limiting his MLB service time this year.

4) Something to look forward to … maybe. The Pirates have the third-best farm system in the majors, ranking behind Seattle and Tampa Bay. “After executing consecutive drafts with clockwork precision, the Pirates boast an embarrassment of riches at the top and impressive depth stretching 40 players deep,” Baseball America wrote. “A balance of positional and pitching talent, close-to-the-majors players and high-upside youngsters herald a new era approaching in the Steel City.” But here’s why I said “maybe” to a brighter future. If these talented kids develop and become really good players at the MLB level, they’ll be traded away. Ownership won’t want to pay them the big money to stay.

5) You can’t judge Derek Shelton on his record. The steady Pirates manager gets good marks and is widely respected within the game. But he only has so much above-average talent to work with. Under Shelton the Pirates play hard and pay attention to details. But what else is Shelton supposed to do? This ain’t easy. This will be his third season on the job. Shelton’s first season (2020) was the chaotic pandemic season, and the Pirates had baseball’s worst record at 19-41. There wasn’t much time for teaching or sharpening fundamentals. Before his second season (2021) the Pirates traded All-Star first baseman Josh Bell and starting pitchers Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon. Early in ‘21, they lost rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes to a wrist injury that kept him on the IL for two-plus months. Later in the season the Pirates traded All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier and three relievers including Richard Rodriguez. There was a 2-15 start to August. Final record: 61-101.

“I’m really looking forward to the point where we start the season and get to the point where there’s more normalcy,” Shelton told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I don’t even know what normalcy is anymore, but I think getting back into the flow of how baseball has been over the past 140 years before the past two.”

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

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Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com

All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.