DIVISIONAL OUTLOOK—NL Central: Cueto and Garza return from DL

Cincinnati Reds

Johnny Cueto (RHP, CIN) returned to the Cincinnati rotation May 20 with a five-inning PQS-4 performance. Though he issued four walks in his first three innings, Cueto rebounded to record seven of his last nine outs by strikeout, finishing with 8 K/4 BB. He now has 26 K/10 BB in 22.1 IP, spanning four starts.

Cueto informed Cincinnati media that his recurring back and oblique issues in the past year have prompted him to consider altering his delivery, which he changed in 2011 and has coincided with enhanced results. Cueto is continuing without any mechanical adjustments for now, but any similar future ailment could trigger such a change.

Despite speculation that he could be demoted upon Cueto's return, fellow starter Mike Leake (RHP, CIN) has settled into his most effective stretch of the season. Back-to-back PQS-4s have lifted Leake's PQS-DOM/DIS to a 44%/11% split, with his 76 BPV is consistent with previous levels. Leake has been plagued by mid-teens hr/f in his three previous seasons, so his 9% hr/f and 0.8 hr/9 through his first nine 2013 starts are promising, and would rank as career bests.  Leake's increased GB tendency, pushing his GB% from the high 40s to above 50% in 2013, could be a key to sustaining his early-season hr/f and hr/9 gains.

Prospect Tony Cingrani (LHP, CIN), Cueto's rotation replacement, returned to Triple-A. Cingrani displayed impressive dominance and command, with 11.2 Dom and 4.6 Cmd in 33 IP, spanning six starts. He also showed extreme susceptibility to the HR, with his lofty 20% hr/f resulting in a potentially debilitating 1.9 hr/9. Cingrani was heavily reliant on his fastball, and could benefit from further refinement of his secondary offerings.


Chicago Cubs

Matt Garza (RHP, CHC) made his first start of the season May 21 with five shutout, one-hit innings after being activated from the DL. Garza was sidelined by a back injury suffered in spring training. Garza's last MLB appearance was July, 2012, as his season was aborted by a right elbow strain. Though plagued by recent injuries, Garza is coming off back-to-back 100+-BPV seasons, so his skills are solid when healthy.

Carlos Villanueva (RHP, CHC) opened the season with five consecutive PQS-DOM starts, but his three outings since have been uninspiring. He allowed 14 ER in 17.1 IP, with 7 K/5 BB in his last three starts, with his most recent May 14 PQS-1 DISaster perhaps sealing his fate as the pitcher ousted to open a rotation spot for Garza. Villanueva has been relegated to a long-relief role, though he has yet to pitch since shifting to bullpen duty.

Perhaps intrigued by the success of April castoffs Kevin Gregg (RHP, CHC) and Cody Ransom (3B/SS, CHC), CHC claimed reliever Eduardo Sanchez (RHP, CHC) off waivers from STL May 21. Sanchez notched five saves and a 1.80 ERA as a 2011 rookie, though his 71 BPV and 3.52 xERA provide a truer gauge of his potential. His skills collapsed in 2012, as indicated by his -52 BPV, with both his Dom and Cmd plummeting. Sanchez is in Triple-A, but adds another intriguing arm to the potential future bullpen mix.


St. Louis Cardinals

Jaime Garcia (LHP, STL) will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery after being diagnosed with a partially torn left labrum. Garcia's absence leaves a gaping hole in the STL rotation, already without Jake Westbrook (RHP, STL), on the 15-day DL with right elbow inflammation. Westbrook has begun throwing, and is expected to return to the rotation in late May.

STL has bypassed its higher-ranked starting pitching prospects in favor of call-ups John Gast (RHP, STL) and Tyler Lyons (LHP, STL) as rotation replacements. Lyons is likely only a spot starter until Westbrook returns. Gast has hurled back-to-back PQS-4s in his two starts since replacing Westbrook, and could enjoy a longer shelf life. STL eventually could turn to one of its higher profile young arms, or seek rotation help in trade.

Chris Carpenter (RHP, STL), on the 60-day DL with a nerve condition in his throwing arm, has hurled only 17 IP since 2011, but has begun throwing in yet another comeback bid. While Carpenter remains a longshot, if he avoids setbacks he could provide a stretch-run boost, whether as a starter or in relief.


Milwaukee Brewers

MIL's rotation problems continued with news that off-season free agent addition Kyle Lohse (RHP, MIL) will miss at least one start with elbow irritation. Lohse has opened the season displaying skills virtually identical to those he showed in 2012. He has retained his pinpoint control and his 3.7 Cmd and 82 BPV are virtually identical to his 2012's 3.8 Cmd and 85 BPV. His skills mark him as roster-worthy in any format, provided he is healthy.

Mike Fiers (RHP, MIL) will take Lohse's May 25 turn, and with Wily Peralta (RHP, MIL) and Marco Estrada (RHP, MIL) carrying ERAs above 5.00, Fiers could earn an extended rotation shot with a strong outing. Fiers' impressive 2012 rookie performance, including 135 K, 3.74 ERA, 3.67 xERA and 114 BPV in 128 IP, could not avert a mid-April demotion to the minor leagues after a rough spring training and a PQS-1 DISaster in his opening 2013 start.

Peralta's rotation spot could be particularly vulnerable given his poor skills and stats to date. His 43 BPV and 4.41 xERA suggest additional seasoning could be required. His 6.45 ERA and average of barely five innings per start, with 52 IP in 10 starts, could open the door to his ouster.


Pittsburgh Pirates

Off-season free agent signee Francisco Liriano (LHP, PIT) opened the season on the DL as he built his arm strength, including a lengthy five-start minor-league rehab assignment across three minor-league levels. Liriano showed in his final three rehab starts in Triple-A, with 23 K/1 BB in 16 IP, that he was worth watching.  He has 25 K/6 BB in his 18 IP, spanning three starts, since joining the PIT rotation. While his more recent record is relatively inauspicious, it should not be forgotten that Liriano was one of the game's more dominant pitchers as recently as 2010, with 128 BPV and 9.4 Dom. Liriano appears worthy of speculation.

Jeff Karstens (RHP, PIT) has been on the DL since mid-March with shoulder discomfort. He is in midst of a minor league rehab assignment, with early June the targeted return date. Karstens posted career-best 93 BPV, propelled by surge in his strikeout rate, with his 6.6 Dom also a career high. Karstens could soon join Liriano in providing a boost to the PIT rotation.

Click here to subscribe

  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.