Pirates Broadcaster Joe Block Ranks the Best of the Central by David Laurila September 9, 2020 Joe Block knows the Central. Not only do the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he serves as a play-by-play announcer for, compete in the National League Central, their inter-league schedule this year is solely comprised of the American League Central. As a result, Block has been getting regular looks at two of the game’s most evenly-matched divisions. Neither had a clear-cut favorite coming into the season, and by and large there haven’t been many surprises. How would Block rank the teams and players he’s seen this season? That was the crux of a conversation I had with the TV (and sometimes radio) voice of the Pirates prior to Sunday’s game. ——— David Laurila: Which is the best team you’ve seen this year? Joe Block: “I think it’s a tossup between the three AL Central teams we’ve seen: the White Sox, the Twins, and Cleveland. Cleveland wasn’t hitting when we saw them, although when you look at that lineup they should hit. I don’t know that I can put them lower than anyone else because of their elite pitching. It seems like their bullpen is complete. Their rotation is obviously very good, even with the trade of Mike Clevinger, which happened since we saw them. I’m of the belief that pitching wins in the postseason. You can argue whether it’s relief pitching, or starting pitching like we saw with Washington last year, but I think they have what it takes to go deep in the postseason. “Minnesota is coming off a great year. They’ve added to their rotation, and they also have a good bullpen, especially the back end. Romo–Rogers is a really nice one-two. They obviously hit, and they’re not a team that’s all-or-nothing. They have some good hitters, just plain ‘hitters’ as opposed to softball-style home run, swing-and-miss-type cats. So they’re very much a big part of the picture in the AL Central. If you look at their numbers, they haven’t hit to the degree they have in the past, but they’re dangerous. “Then there are the White Sox, who we’ve seen for two games. Lucas Giolito threw a no-hitter, and we also saw Dallas Keuchel. They’ve clearly added to their team. It’s always an en vogue selection when you have a bunch of young players coming up at the same time, and go out and get a few key free agents, and in this case it’s warranted. The only possible flaw is that they’ve got a very right-handed lineup, but other than that they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. They’ve got a lot of good young players who — I’m going to use a cliché here — don’t know how to lose. I kind of buy into that a little bit. They’re new, they’re exciting, they’re good — and the veterans they got make sense for that team. They’re very balanced. “I think all three of those teams could make a deep playoff run, but if I had to rank them right now, I’d probably put them the way that they stand as of [Sunday] morning: the White Sox, Cleveland, and Minnesota, in that order.” Laurila: What about the teams in your division? Block: “I think we’re a step back from that. To me, the teams in the NL Central have flaws. I mean, all teams have flaws, but like I said about the White Sox, they’re too right-handed in their lineup. Big deal, right? Righties face righties all the time. OK? So we’re splitting hairs. “The Cubs are probably a half tick better than the others. They have more good players, although their end-of-game situation is a huge hole for them right now. Jeremy Jeffress has stabilized it a bit, but remember that Craig Counsell wouldn’t pitch him in key roles down the stretch last year. So while he’s looked better, I worry about teams that don’t have that solid back end. “Yu Darvish has been sensational, obviously. Kyle Hendricks is still very good, even though his numbers are middling. Jon Lester can be very good. So they’ve got enough in their starting rotation to get them through for a while, but it’s not like they have an overpowering offense that they’re going to win a lot of games one-sided. Their hitters are kind of streaky, all-or-nothing types. That said, [Jason] Heyward is improved — he’s become a hitter now, and not just a swinger — but does [Kris] Bryant get healthy? He’s a huge part of their lineup. [Anthony] Rizzo hasn’t really hit yet. [Javier] Báez hasn’t hit yet, although he doesn’t look any different to me, so I think he’s going to improve in these last 20-something games. So they’re the best of this division, like I said, by a half tick over the Cardinals. But I don’t foresee them making a lot of hay in the postseason. Watch them win the World Series, just because I said that.” Laurila: The Cardinals would be the second-best team in the NL Central? Block: “Yes, and that’s because of their pitching. Having worked in this division now for almost a decade, you see them continue to find pitching. They’re unearthing guys who pitched in A-ball last year, and they’re good. ‘Here’s a guy, and here’s another guy.’ So even with all the problems they had with the postponements, the guys they brought up kept them above water. That’s a testament to their farm system. They always have depth, year after year. “They may still win the division. The lineup is okay. [Yadier] Molina and [Matt] Carpenter are getting older; they’re not done, but they’re not elite hitters. [Paul] Goldschmidt… I always fear him. [Kolten] Wong has become a better hitter, [Paul] DeJong has become a better hitter. But for the most part, they’re not going to be a big hitting team. They’re going to win games on their pitching. [Jack] Flaherty can be extraordinary. But again, they could win the division. That said, whether it’s the Cubs or the Cardinals, there are enough holes that once you get beyond the Division Series it’s going to be hard to make it all the way to the World Series. Of course, I’m predicting this on September 6, in the midst of a pandemic.” Laurila: The rest of the division? Block: “The other three teams all have major issues. The Reds, who we’re playing this weekend, should probably be better. A lot of people feel they should be better. Even so, one hunch I had back in February was… I’m generally turned off by the collection of the above-average players setup, which I feel like the Reds are. It didn’t feel like the right mix of guys that usually produces winning — not like I was talking about with the White Sox, a mix of the right free agents combined with young guys coming up seems to be that elixir for success. “To me, that lineup feels very much all-or-nothing. We saw them get off to a really hot start, then cool. Last night they won a game because Eugenio Suárez hit three home runs. Trevor Williams started for us and pitched well, but he gave up a few home runs. Suárez took big rips on two pitches that were off the plate and hit home runs on them. If he doesn’t, they lose the game. So that’s a turbulent offense to me. They’re going to be on, or off. “If they make the playoffs they could get hot and go on a roll. The Reds have the starting pitching which, if healthy, can be elite. Surprisingly, it’s been a little bit on and off. They got off to a great start with their starting pitching, and that’s cooled. The bullpen can be pretty good. Lucas Sims is intriguing. [Amir] Garrett has been solid. [Raisel] Iglesias can do enough for you. So I wouldn’t write off the Reds just yet, although I do worry about their offense. If they click, this team could go a long way. They could also finish 25-35.” Laurila: The other two teams in the division? Block: “The Pirates and Milwaukee are just too far away. Milwaukee has been trying to string it together, especially with the pitching. They have done it very smartly, stringing together guys to pitch three-and-a-third, four-and-a-third. They have some decent bullpen options and can give hitters these different looks; I think they do an excellent job at maximizing what they’ve got. They’ve been a team that is, in my opinion, short on talent, yet hasn’t looked it in the standings, or in the postseason. They could very well have gone far last year had they been able to beat the Nationals, but this year I think it’s catching up to them — especially offensively. For one, their free agents never really worked out. They just don’t look good at all right now. “[The Pirates] got off that 4-17 start, and are 8-9 since, which I think is probably about the kind of team we are. There are some young players who are good and going to be part of this team for a while, but they haven’t hit this year. [Josh] Bell and [Colin] Moran have combined to hit .143 with runners in scoring position, and those are the two leading RBI men from last season. It’s not all on their shoulders, certainly. Bryan Reynolds, who was excellent last year, has a ‘one’ in his batting average. Polanco has a ‘one’ in his batting average. They should be better; this team should hit better. “Erik González has been a nice surprise. Ke’Bryan Hayes — there has been a lot of hype locally about him. He has that ‘it’ factor. It wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes a megastar in time, but right now it’s a cautious optimism. He’s certainly a starting third baseman in the major leagues. He might even be, along with [Matt] Chapman and [Nolan] Arenado, one of the elite defensive third baseman. He’s a very smart player, a very fundamentally sound player. There’s some excitement with Ke’Bryan. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him — he just turned 23 — but over the next couple of years it wouldn’t surprise me to see him ascend into one of the best third baseman in baseball.” Laurila: Who is the most-disappointing team in the two Central Divisions? Block: “First, I didn’t even talk about the Tigers, who I think are overachieving a little bit. They’re probably playing to their potential, and you can start to see a little bit of hope with some of the young guys they have. We haven’t seen Kansas City, so I can’t really comment on them. “In terms of disappointments… I would say the Cleveland offense. I can’t really say a team. To me, it’s surprising that the Cleveland hasn’t hit better. They’re 24th in runs scored — runs per game — coming into today, and that shocks me. I mean, that team should be top 10, top 12, with those guys.” Laurila: A lot of people would say that the Reds are the most disappointing. Block: “Yes, but I didn’t like the Reds that much coming in. Again, I thought they were just a collection of… I mean, I liked their starting rotation, but I picked them for fourth in the division. I picked the Reds and Milwaukee to just below .500. This was back in February when we had a 162-game schedule. “I’ll kind of take your question and turn it around. Of the 10 teams in the Central, the only one doing much differently than I’d pencilled them in for would be the White Sox. They’ve lived up to the high expectations that some people had for them. A lot of people thought they would take a jump, and they have — maybe even more than that. The White Sox are even better than I thought they’d be. I thought they would contend, but they’re showing that they could be on the fringe of being an elite team. I don’t want to say they’ve overachieved — I think they’ve achieved — and they deserve the credit.” Laurila: From everything you’ve said, it sounds like you’d rank the Central teams: 1. White Sox, 2. Indians, 3. Twins, 4. Cubs, 5. Cardinals. Is that accurate? Block: “Yes, but on top it’s extremely close. It would be like 1a, 1b, and 1c. And that’s not a cop out. I feel like the White Sox have a little edge here, Cleveland has a little edge there, and Minnesota has a little edge somewhere else. After that, it would be Cubs four and Cardinals five.” Laurila: That brings us to the best players. Block: “Gosh. Wow. Shane Bieber and Yu Darvish are the first two that come to mind, because they’re almost unbeatable right now. And it’s fun, because they’re ‘pitchers.’ Even though they have good stuff, it’s not eye-popping stuff. With them it’s good stuff combined with great command.” [Several minutes of back and forth on various possibilities followed.] “OK, this list is pretty subjective, but I’ll go, 1. Shane Bieber, 2. Christian Yelich, 3. Javier Báez; I really like his defense, 4. Francisco Lindor, 5. Yu Darvish. That said, I’m debating my own list.” —– Texas Rangers broadcaster Dave Raymond ranked The Best of the West last week.