DIVISIONAL OUTLOOK: NL Central—Pitchers ready to return

Pittsburgh Pirates

Jonathan Sanchez (LHP, PIT) pitched himself out of the Pirates rotation. Sanchez was suspended for six games for throwing at the Cardinals' Allen Craig, and he simply didn't pitch well, allowing 18 earned runs in his first 14 innings. On Tuesday, the Pirates designated him for assignment. He was replaced on Wednesday by Jeanmar Gomez (RHP, PIT). Gomez might get one more start, but he is then likely to return to the bullpen, with Francisco Liriano (LHP, PIT) on track to join the rotation on May 10.

LIriano has had trouble finding the plate for the past two seasons, with 5.0 Cmd helping fuel an ERA above 5.00. His PQS-DOM/DIS of 50%/32% last season speaks to his inconsistency. We are projecting a 4.25 ERA for this season, but he'll likely reach that mark only if he can reach our projected 3.8 Ctl level.

The Pirates could also welcome Charlie Morton (RHP, PIT)  back to their rotation soon. Morton had Tommy John surgery last season and is currently on a rehab assignment. He's on target to be activated May 14. In 2011 Morton posted a 3.83 ERA in 172 IP for the Pirates, but his skills were soft, with 5.8 Dom, 1.4 Cmd, and a 32 BPV.

Once Morton is ready, the Pirates will have to make a roster decision. The depth chart says that Jeff Locke (LHP, PIT) should move to the bullpen, but his current 2.83 ERA is tied with A. J. Burnett as the best among the starters. However, Locke's ERA is not supported by skills, with a 4.52 xERA and a BPV of 4. James McDonald (RHP, PIT) might also be a candidate for the bullpen. Over his last five starts, he has a 7.14 ERA and a 7.1 Ctl. If his struggles continue in the next two weeks, his rotation spot could be in trouble.


Chicago Cubs

Matt Garza (RHP, CHC) began his rehab at AA-Tennessee on Wednesday, pitching 2.2 innings. He's scheduled to make at least three more rehab starts to get stretched out and should be ready to join the Cubs rotation before the end of the month. Heading into Wednesday's action, Scott Feldman (RHP, CHC) looked like the most likely candidate to head to the pen. Feldman's 3.92 ERA looked solid, but a 5.21 xERA said that he had been very lucky. Feldman had walked as many as he had struck out and had a -13 BPV. But Feldman muddied the waters with a complete game against the Padres, fanning 12 with only one walk. The next two weeks will be critical in determining who remains in the rotation with Garza's return.

The importance of the bullpen to the Cubs is emphasized by their first 25 games being decided by four runs or less. The last team to have such a streak to open a season was the 1914 Detroit Tigers. Kevin Gregg (RHP, CHC) has stabilized the ninth inning for the time by converting his first four save opportunities, but it's worth remembering that last season Gregg had a 4.95 ERA and a 30 BPV, suggesting that a fall from grace could come at any time. The pen officially remains a closer by committee situation, and Kyuji Fujikawa (RHP, CHC) could be added to the mix soon. Fujikawa threw his first bullpen session on Monday and could begin rehab games at AAA-Iowa on Sunday.


Cincinnati Reds

Johnny Cueto (RHP, CIN) felt good after a 45-pitch bullpen session and thought he might be ready to pitch in a minor league game in preparation for his activation soon from the DL. He has been on the DL since April 13 with a lat strain. Tony Cingrani (LHP, CIN) has been spectacular as Cueto's replacement in the rotation, allowing only three earned runs in 18 IP, with 28 strikeouts and only four walks.  So it seems likely that Cingrani will continue to work as a starter, with the struggling Mike Leake (RHP, CIN) probably headed to the bullpen to work in long relief. Leake has had two PQS-DOM starts, but in his other three starts, he allowed 12 earned runs in 15 IP.

The Reds are also close to getting Ryan Hanigan (C, CIN) back. Hanigan took batting practice Tuesday for the first time since going on the DL April 20 with a strained left oblique. He should be ready for activation in early May. Prior to the injury, Hanigan had only three singles in his first 38 AB for the season. Still, he should return to a time share at catcher with Devin Mesoraco (C CIN). Mesoraco has 19 hits in 42 AB, but he's only three for 30 against right-handed pitchers, so he and Hanigan will return to a platoon situation.

The Reds shaky LF situation got even shakier as Chris Heisey (OF, CIN) was placed on the DL with a strained right hamstring. Heisey was off to a slow start, hitting only .173 with two homers in 73 AB. He'll be replaced in the regular lineup by Xavier Paul (OF, CIN). Paul flashed some speed in 2011, when he stole 16 bases in 243 AB with a 144 Spd, but in his other two years at the major league level his speed has been much closer to league average with Spd scores of 107 and 97. So far this season, Paul has 11 hits in 41 AB and no stolen bases. Even though he's hit one homer already, he has no power, with a 66 PX last season.

Heisey was replaced on the roster by Donald Lutz (OF, CIN), who was summoned from AA-Pensacola. Lutz was hitting only .211 in 76 AB, including 21 strikeouts. He has shown some power, however, with five homers and 14 RBI. Lutz will provide bench depth and an occasional pinch hitting appearance. He was selected because the outfielders at AAA-Louisville aren't playing particularly well, and the organization undoubtedly wanted them to play every day. In particular, top prospect Billy Hamilton (OF, CIN) has only 18 hits in 88 AB (.205 BA), but he has 15 stolen bases.


Milwaukee Brewers

John Axford's (RHP, MIL) mechanical adjustment has seemed to get him back on track. Axford said he was getting too upright on the mound, and pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell have made a subtle change that Axford says has him "more athletic and over my body." As a result, his velocity is back to previous levels, and he has a better arm slot for his breaking balls.

The results were immediate. After struggling his first four outings of the season before the adjustment, Axford went six consecutive outings without allowing an earned run. In 5.3 innings, he fanned six with no walks, and allowed only two hits. The scoreless streak was broken by an Andre Ethier homer on April 27, and then on April 30 he allowed four hits and three earned runs against the Pirates to take the loss.

As Axford's replacement at closer, Jim Henderson (RHP, MIL) has pitched extremely well, recording six saves with only one earned run allowed in 11 IP. He has an 11.7 Dom and a 150 BPV so far this season. There were rumors that Milwaukee was considering returning Axford to the role, but his latest implosion should give Henderson some job security.


St. Louis Cardinals

Struggling David Freese (3B, STL) could get multiple days off in an attempt to jar him out of his current slump, according to manager Mike Matheny. Freese is hitless in his past four games, going 0 for 15. For the season, he's eight for his first 49, with two doubles as his only extra-base hits. He's beating a lot of balls into the ground, with a 62% ground ball rate and only a 16% fly ball rate compared to 52%/26% last season. Matheny said that a similar tactic worked when Freese was slumping last season.

Matt Carpenter (2B/3B, STL) will slide to 3B, while Daniel Descalso (2B, STL) will see an uptick in playing time with Freese out. In the long term, Descalso represents no threat to Freese's playing time, as he only has eight hits in 52 AB, with three doubles as his only extra-base hits.

Matt Adams (1B, STL) will began a rehab assignment with AA Springfield on Friday and should be ready for activation from the DL on May 7. Adams has been out since April 23 with a strained right oblique. Prior to going on the DL, Adams was 13 for 24, with three homers and eight RBIs.

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