Commentary

Life in the new NL Central

Prince, Pujols and La Russa are gone, and Brewers could lose Braun for first 50 games

Updated: February 1, 2012, 11:22 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't exactly true that every time Prince Fielder moves, the entire earth wobbles. But it's 100 percent true that when Fielder signed his monstrous nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers last week, the entire sport of baseball felt the reverberations.

We'll be feeling those aftershocks for a long, long time, too. So let's take a look at just some of the ripple effects of The Prince Deal:

Something's Brewing

Life in Milwaukee will go on after Prince. But it'll be a lot less, well, Prince-ly.

If the Brewers were just subtracting Prince and plugging in Aramis Ramirez across the infield to replace his thunder, it would be one thing. But they're also looking at potentially losing Ryan Braun for 50 games. And if Braun can't get his suspension overturned, the Brewers may not recover -- not this year, anyway.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe already Prince-less Brewers could lose Ryan Braun to suspension for the first 50 games of the season.

"Without Braun, they have no real impact player in their lineup, except for Aramis," one NL executive said. "So their pitching is going to have to keep them afloat."

Now any rotation that starts with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum has a shot to keep its team in a lot of games. And this is still an incredibly confident group. But we've done the math, and it isn't real uplifting.

According to FanGraphs, Fielder was a 5.5-win player last year. Braun was worth 7.1 wins. So if you subtract Prince for a full season and Braun for 50 games, that's a seven-win canyon this team would have to climb out of before it played a game.

If we go by WAR alone, Ramirez is only about a 2.5-win upgrade over Casey McGehee and Jerry Hairston Jr. at third. Alex Gonzalez is about a half-win upgrade over Yuniesky Betancourt at short. So that's three wins they get back at those positions.

But over at first, Mat Gamel projects as a 1.0-WAR kind of guy -- a gigantic step down from Fielder. And if the Brewers are looking to Ramirez to be their centerpiece offensive figure while Braun is gone, they should keep in mind that April and May have always been the two worst months of his career.

So if Braun's suspension is upheld, this team is really going to have to scramble, or play over its head, to survive those 50 games. Nearly half those games (24-of-50) are against teams that had a winning record last season, by the way.

"I know they got Aramis," another NL exec said. "But those first 50 games might just take them out of it."

Central Recasting

Quick now. Name the four most dominant figures in the National League Central last year.

OK, pencils down. If you nominated Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, you just aced this quiz.

All right, what do those four guys have in common now that we've charged into 2012? You got it. Albert, Prince and La Russa are all gone. And Braun could very well join that missing persons list for the first 50 games.

So has any division in baseball changed its face more than the NL Central? Not by our computations.

"It's changed the whole landscape," one NL Central exec said. "Without Pujols, Prince and maybe Braun, this division is more up for grabs than it's ever been."

Well, we might not go that far. The only thing the Astros may be grabbing for this season is the emergency brake. The Cubs are just starting a long-term urban-renewal project. We've already recapped the Brewers' issues. And while the Pirates are finally beginning to stabilize, they still have a few flights of stairs to climb to reach this penthouse.

But let's not lose sight of the big plot line here. This is suddenly a division with an identity crisis. Wherever it's heading in 2012 and beyond, it can't possibly resemble where it came from during the Albert-and-Tony era in St. Louis and the five seasons in which Braun and Fielder were inflicting middle-of-the-order terror in Milwaukee.

"It's a different division," another NL Central executive said. "You figure two of the five best sluggers in the league are now out -- and one of the other three might get suspended for 50 games."

Meanwhile, the departure of La Russa -- not to mention his longtime genius of a pitching coach, Dave Duncan -- doesn't just reshape the Cardinals' world. It alters the face of the entire division.

For the last decade and a half, the manager of the Cardinals was the place where all conversations about the NL Central began. La Russa's presence was that powerful. His teams were put together with an eye toward the kind of roster he loved to manage. And there wasn't a day that went by all season in which everyone in the division wasn't profoundly aware of who was managing the Cardinals -- and what he was up to.

Now, without him or Duncan to put his stamp on the season to come -- and a replacement (Mike Matheny) who has never managed a game -- everything has changed. Over and over this winter, for instance, people have pointed to the Reds' aggressive moves (Mat Latos, Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall) and shared the same theory:

Their GM, Walt Jocketty, and their owner, Bob Castellini, didn't miss what was happening in St. Louis and Milwaukee. So they "saw an opportunity," one of those observers said, "to go for it."

Maybe they'd have done that anyway, with Joey Votto's free-agent clock ticking. But let's just say that it sure doesn't LOOK like a coincidence.

A League of Their Own

The National League may have won three of the last four World Series. But the developments of this winter tell a different story of the shifting of the baseball earth.

There were two $200 million contracts handed out this offseason -- to Pujols and Fielder. Both of them had spent their whole careers in the National League. They now figure to spend the rest of their careers in the American League.

There were four other free agents who cost their teams at least $77.5 million this winter: Yu Darvish, CC Sabathia, Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson. Only one of them (Reyes) wound up in the National League.

Get the picture?

There's a metamorphosis of power in baseball taking place before our eyes. And to keep track of it, you just need to follow the dollar signs -- not to mention the first basemen.

Over the last four years, five All-Star first basemen have signed deals worth at least $150 million: Fielder, Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera. All five landed in the AL.

Expand that picture, and nine active position players -- at any position -- have signed contracts worth $150 million. The only one who got those mega-millions from an NL team was Matt Kemp. If you'd like, you can add Troy Tulowitzki, but in reality he signed two separate extensions totaling $157.75 million.

So it's clear what we're seeing. The American League is becoming the league of the super-teams. That club isn't just confined to the Yankees and Red Sox anymore.

The Angels and Rangers have monster TV deals on the way, and exploding nine-figure payrolls. The Tigers have an owner (Mike Ilitch) willing to reach into his personal piggy bank and drive his team into that territory.

So that's five AL teams that are loaded -- with talent and dollars. Meanwhile, the only NL team in that payroll bracket is the Phillies, at least until the Dodgers, Cubs and Mets get ready to rev up their engines again.

"What we're starting to see," one AL executive said, "is a shift toward market size and away from attendance. And it's the largest markets that are better able to capitalize on the TV dollars that are out there. In a world where the only TV programming that people are still watching live is sports, that's where the money is now -- in television rights."

Eventually, of course, this may well even out. Eventually the Cubs, Mets, Dodgers and Nationals could have payrolls in this same range. But we can't tell you when "eventually" will roll around. Until then, there's one thing you don't need to be Fielder's accountant to understand:

These days, you sure wouldn't want to be an American League pitcher for a living.

Ready to Rumble

• Is there anybody outside of the 313 area code who thinks Miguel Cabrera can play third base? If there is, we can't locate him. Here's a sampling of not-especially-upbeat opinion:

From an NL exec: "Why are they even going through the charade that he's going to play third base? My theory is they want him to lose weight and this is one way to motivate him to do it. And then, after four days of watching balls go by him, they'll say, 'Let's DH him.' If he's really going to play third base, any value they get from signing Prince goes right out the window because of the defense they'll lose in the infield."

From another NL exec: "They might say they'll play him there every day, but I don't see how you can. It's fine when the big guy [Justin Verlander] pitches, because nobody hits the ball, anyway. And maybe you could do it when [Max] Scherzer pitches. But that's about it. You put him over there, and the whole league will be bunting on him. He can't make that slow-roller play because of that girth around his middle."

From an NL scout: "I'm not buying into it at all. I think Jim [Leyland] is saying exactly what he has to say. I saw this guy play third base as a kid. I even saw him play shortstop in the minor leagues. And his body control as a youngster was pretty good. But the build he's got now creates long actions. Everything takes a long time, and that's not good at that position. So I don't think it's going to happen. In fact, I'll be shocked."

From another NL scout: "They might try it, but that's not going to last long. When's the last time he had to make an acrobatic throw going in the hole or on a ball down the line? It's been a long time. He might have arm strength, but it takes more than arm strength to make those plays. I also want to see Prince catch those throws from third base. That's the other part of this. They're putting a guy over there at first who isn't going to help him much."

• Since Cabrera arrived in Detroit in 2008, he has piled up 74 intentional walks. Not only is that the most in the American League in that time, but only one other player (Ichiro Suzuki, with 53) is even within 30 of him.

Those four years happen to be an exact match for the time Prince has spent hitting behind Braun in the cleanup hole in Milwaukee. And how many times was Braun intentionally walked in that same span? Exactly 11 -- with just six of those 11 coming in the last three years combined.

So here's an interesting question: As great as Braun is, is Cabrera such a superior hitter, even compared to the reigning NL MVP, that teams will still work around him to get to Prince?

"If I had to set the over/under, I'd set it at 15," one advance scout said. "They'll still walk him. If they're facing a left-hander, they'll be walking Cabrera because he's better than Braun. You can pitch to Braun. I don't know where to pitch to Cabrera."

• One AL executive's assessment of the Tigers' chances of trading Victor Martinez next winter: "They'll have to eat a lot of money. After the guy misses a full year, nobody can take that contract on." For the record, Martinez is guaranteed $25 million in 2013-14. Insurance is expected to cover about half of the $13 million he has coming this year.

• The Phillies are so worried about avoiding the prestigious Luxury Tax Club that they traded their most reliable bench player, Wilson Valdez, last week to save a half-million bucks. But one baseball official who has crunched their numbers says that if they're just getting the memo that they may have to pay that tax, "it's a little late."

Preliminary estimates place the Phillies' likely Opening Day payroll, for luxury-tax purposes, at approximately $180 million. The tax threshold for this year is at $178 million. So what's the only way they can avoid paying their taxes? By trading somebody who makes at least $2 million, of course. An exec of one NL club told Rumblings the Phillies have sent signals they could dangle pitcher Joe Blanton this spring if he proves he's healthy and they like their other rotation options.

"Here's a prediction you can take to the bank," one NL executive said. "Michael Bourn will be the center fielder in Washington a year from now."

Red Sox
Jason Bartlett
Bartlett

• If the Red Sox decide this spring they don't like their shortstop options, one guy who's still out there is Jason Bartlett. The Padres have been listening on Bartlett all winter. But the Red Sox would have the same reservations that have kept other clubs from dealing for Bartlett: He'll make $5.5 million this year, and he has a $5.5 million option for next year that will vest if he plays even semi-regularly. As we've seen all winter, the Red Sox are pushing hard to get under the luxury-tax threshold by 2013 at the latest. So they've been telling teams that if they add an infielder, it's more likely to be somebody who works cheaper than Jason Bartlett.

Scott Kazmir still wants to pitch this year. But teams that have watched him throw this winter report they clocked his fastball at 84-85 mph. Once upon a time, this guy's average velocity was 94 mph.

Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman

• Not signing Fielder might turn out to be the best addition the Nationals never made. They can now turn their attention to wrapping up an extension with Ryan Zimmerman, which could happen any time now. And next winter, they can charge into the free-agent center fielder market full speed ahead, since Prince won't be forcing them to play Michael Morse in the outfield.

• The Marlins and Indians find themselves powerless these days to take any control over the fate of their two favorite players to be named later -- the artists formerly known as Leo Nunez and Fausto Carmona. The Dominican Republic will have to determine whether it's inclined to approve these two men for visas. Then, the State Department needs to assess their situations for homeland-security reasons.

And even if they make it past those hurdles, every indication is that both players will then be disciplined by the commissioner's office for falsifying their identities. So they're likely to have to serve some sort of suspension weeks or even months from now. In other words, don't expect to see either on a big league pitcher's mound any time soon.

Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez

• If Ubaldo Jimenez has a big bounce-back kind of season, remember this name: Nelson Perez. He's one of the Indians' strength coaches. And while you may have heard that he's been working with Jimenez in the Dominican this winter, what you probably haven't heard is the behind-the-scenes story of how that came about.

The Indians aren't one of those teams that sits back and hopes its players stay in shape over the winter. They try to be as proactive as possible. But Perez took proactivity to a whole new level, by actually volunteering to move his family from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic to work with Jimenez and several other players. Now, all reports are that Jimenez is in fabulous shape after an offseason of working on his core and lower half.

His season disintegrated last year, when he showed up for spring training with a hip injury then lost his delivery and never got it back. The Indians were determined not to repeat that saga this year. But Perez went above and beyond most folks' definition of the call of duty to make that happen.

• Bud Selig remains convinced that adding a wild-card team in each league this year is as inevitable as the seventh-inning stretch. But sources say there are "still major hurdles" in the way. And it isn't just the Players Association that's skeptical.

We've heard that owners, GMs, TV executives and folks in Selig's office have told the commish it's nearly impossible to cram tiebreaker games, a wild-card round, division series and league championship series into the three-week window between the end of the regular season and the start of the World Series. But Selig remains determined, no matter how much travel or TV-scheduling havoc this might wreak.

So MLB's scheduling committee and union officials are meeting again this week, with a March 1 deadline now only four weeks away. Chances are, they'll wind up yielding to the commissioner's wishes -- and then praying that the worst-case scenarios don't turn into real-life nightmares. But stay tuned.

The All-Unemployed Team

When it's the last week of January and you're still minus an employer to call your own, there's only one thing we can think of to make you feel better: We put you on our All-Unemployed Team. And here it is:

1B: Casey Kotchman; 2B: Aaron Miles; SS: Edgar Renteria; 3B: Miguel Tejada; C: Ivan Rodriguez

LF: Raul Ibanez; CF: Johnny Damon; RF: Magglio Ordonez; DH: Vladimir Guerrero

Rotation: Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Rich Harden, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny

Bullpen: (in alphabetical order, at the request of David Aardsma): David Aardsma, Juan Cruz, Chad Durbin, Mike Gonzalez, Jason Isringhausen, Arthur Rhodes

Bench: Hideki Matsui, Derrek Lee, Alex Cora, Jason Varitek

Future Newark Bears: Manny Ramirez, Livan Hernandez, Scott Kazmir

Tweets of the Week

• From the relentlessly amusing @PhilCokesBrain, the noted "metaphysical link to the inner workings" of the fictional brain of the Tigers' eminently left-handed reliever:



• As if it weren't enough that we get to enjoy tweets from a 19th-century pitcher who has been dead for 115 years, we now get to follow his equally deceased wife, @MrsHossRadbourn, who, despite misspelling her own name, seems to have new Blue Jays reliever Francisco Cordero well-scouted:



Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from those brilliant satiric minds at The Heckler:

Breaking News: Tigers fan who bought Inge jersey last week concerned he may have made a bad investment

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter .

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com