NL Central: Ranking the Top Player at Each Position
The NL Central landscape has changed drastically in the past few months, due to the departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, coupled with a bevy of other offseason acquisitions and departures.
There's no question that certain players like Ryan Braun and Joey Votto are the best at their respective positions, but who's the best at the the other positions around the diamond?
The NL Central has a pretty good talent pool so let's begin with catcher and run up through closers.
Catcher: Yadier Molina
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I personally think Yadier Molina had a career year last year, one that he will not repeat but as of now he's the best catcher in the division. Molina last season posted a great year for a catcher: .304/.349/.465 14 HR, 65 RBI, 55 Runs. Molina is only a .274 lifetime hitter and his home run total last season was double his yearly average, so there's reason to believe he'll come back toward those numbers a little bit but he's still the best in the NL Central where catching isn't overly strong.
Molina's defense was like The Tale of Two Cities last year. He was great blocking the ball and making plays out in front of the plate, but he threw out just .292 percent of base runners. Molina will need to improve on this with in-division teams like the Cincinnati Reds who have great speed and love to send runners. Molina's experience and veteran leadership should help lead the Cardinals in a tight NL Central race this season.
Lurking: Devin Mesoraco
First Base: Joey Votto
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It's no secret that I'm a Reds fan, but Joey Votto is by far the best first baseman in the NL Central and probably the entire National League.
Last season, Votto's stats dipped a little bit but he still posted a great year at .309/.416/.531 29 HR, 103 RBI and 101 Runs. Votto's everything you could want in a professional baseball player—he produces great numbers, he's no trouble off the field and on the field, he handles himself with the poise and grace of a 10-year veteran.
Votto's also a hard worker and he proved this last season by earning his first Gold Glove. Votto's defense has improved nearly every season and there's no reason to believe his hard work won't carry over into improving his already impressive offensive game. Votto will be 28 years old this season and is in his physical prime. Look for him to help lead the Reds to a possible NL Central title in 2012.
Lurking: Lance Berkman
Second Base: Brandon Phillips
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Brandon Phillips is a firecracker.
He single-handedly re-ignited the flame of the Cardinals v. Reds rivalry. On top of that, Phillips posted one of his most complete seasons (.300/.353/.457 18 HR, 82 RBI and 94 Runs) all while taking on the responsibility of being the Reds leadoff batter following the failure of Drew Stubbs in that position.This year, Phillips is playing for a big contract and I expect another monster season out of him.
Phillips is also one of the top defensive second basemen in the game, a fact that's hard to dispute following his second straight Gold Glove in 2011. Joey Votto may be the Reds best player, but Brandon Phillips is the heart and soul of the Cincinnati Reds.
Lurking: Rickie Weeks
Third Base: Aramis Ramirez
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Aramis Ramirez has been the model for consistency when analyzing third basemen. Aside from an injury shortened 2009, Ramirez has played in 120+ games every season since 2001. He's a formidable hitter and the Brewers were wise to add the 33-year-old to their roster to offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Ramirez was stellar in his last season for the Cubs, going .306/.361/.510 with 26 HR, 93 RBI and 80 runs. Milwaukee is a bit more friendly towards batters than Wrigley and, baring injury, I expect his power totals to get a slight boost because of that.
The only knock against Ramirez is his fielding ability. I think most would agree with me when I say that this stems from Ramirez being lazy. However, the Brew Crew didn't go out and get Ramirez for his defensive ability, they got him to mash in the middle of the lineup, and that he will.
Lurking: David Freese
Shortstop: Starlin Castro
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Starlin Castro is only going to be 22 years old this season. Yes, you read that correctly, 22 years old. 2011 was his first full season as a major leaguer and he hit over .300 (.307/.341/.422 10 HR, 64 RBI and 91 Runs). Castro was the youngest player ever to lead the National League in hits and there's no reason to believe that he won't continue to improve. He has decent power for a young player and it should only get better as he continues to put on muscle. Castro even posted 22 steals last season showing decent speed as well.
If Starlin Castro needs to improve on one thing it's his defense. He had the lowest fielding percentage among major league shortstops at .961 while posting a league high 29 errors. I'm sure Castro will perform better than this in years to come and the sky is the limit for this talented young shortstop.
Lurking: Zack Cozart
Left Field: Ryan Braun
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None of us really truly know if Braun's failed drug test was an accident or whether he has been using PEDs. For that reason, it's not right for me to list any other player as the best left fielder in the NL Central. Braun is an absolute stud and as much as I dislike the Brewers, I love Ryan Braun as a player. Contested or not, Braun took home the 2011 MVP with a stellar season; .332/.397/.563 33 HR, 111 RBI, 109 RBI and 33 Stolen Bases. The only man with a season comparable in the National League was Matt Kemp who likely would've won MVP if the Dodgers had contended at all in the NL West.
Braun is also a superb fielder. He made all of one error in left field last season and produced eight outfield assists. Gerardo Parra earned the 2011 Gold Glove, but Braun certainly challenged for it. Providing his appeal does not go through, the Brewers will miss Braun's production and leadership immensely.
Lurking: Matt Holliday
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
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Andrew McCutchen is one of my favorite players in all of baseball. McCutchen plays hard and has that rare blend of power and speed that's so highly coveted by major league teams.
McCutchen's batting average dropped significantly last year, but there's reason to believe it will rebound as he never showed anything lower than a .265 batting average throughout the minors and his first two major league seasons. In 2011, McCutchen went .259/.364/.458 with 23 HR, 89 RBI, 87 Runs and 23 Stolen Bases. At just 25 years old, McCutchen will continue to get better over the next few seasons.
The only thing McCutchen could use work on is his fielding. He's very quick in the field and gets great reads on the ball, but his error totals have increased in each season following his rookie year. This is something McCutchen will need to work on moving forward, but his future in baseball looks great.
Lurking: Drew Stubbs
Right Field: Jay Bruce
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Jay Bruce is one of the brightest young talents in all of baseball.
He's only 24 years old right now and he's already belted 100 home runs. Jay was the third youngest Red to do so behind Johnny Bench and Frank Robinson who were both 23 years old. Last season Bruce went .256/.341/.474 with 32 HR, 97 RBI and 84 Runs. In the top of a lineup that features Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, he's bound to get plenty of opportunities to hit homers and drive in runs and 40+ may not be too much of a stretch in 2012.
I'm probably going to catch a good deal of flak for not giving this to the Cardinals Carlos Beltran, but my honest opinion is that Bruce is better. He's much younger and aside from the broken wrist he suffered in 2009, he's not known to be injury prone like Beltran. Bruce is also a fantastic fielder. Yes I know Beltran has 3 Gold Gloves, but Bruce will get his in time. He has a superb arm and covers a lot of ground, between he and Drew Stubbs not much gets down in right-center field.
Lurking: Carlos Beltran
Pitcher: Zack Greinke
This was a tough choice which I will probably catch hell for, but I had to go with Zack Greinke. He was dominant in 2011, 16-6, 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 201 Strikeouts. The basic statistics don't do him enough justice though: Greinke's K/9 rate was 10.54 and his K/BB ratio was 4.47. Those are elite levels in those statistics and Greinke is only 28 years old. I expect Greinke to improve over the next two years and that could be scary for other NL Central teams who have the misfortune of lining up against him.
Milwaukee's offensive production will decline a little bit with the departure of Prince Fielder and suspension of Ryan Braun but when you pitch like Greinke did last season you don't need much more than 2-4 runs a game. Greinke could win 20 games in the near future and it wouldn't surprise me one bit. Look for Zack to be equally as good as he was last season, if not better.
Lurking: Adam Wainwright
Closer: John Axford
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If I were dedicating this slide to an entire bullpen I'd have to side with the Cincinnati Reds. However, since I'm not, I'll give it to another 28-year-old Milwaukee Brewer, John Axford. Axford tied for second in all of baseball with 46 saves. On top of that, Axford posted a 1.95 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 86 strikeouts in just 73.2 innings pitched (K/9 of 11.05). Axford blew two saves all year (46/48), one of which came on opening day via a Ramon Hernandez walk-off home run. In the next 47 attempts he blew just one save, if that doesn't make him the best closer in the division, I don't know what does.
Lurking: Joel Hanrahan
So there you have it, the top player at every position in the National League Central. I've been wrong before, but I think these players will thrive this season and prove that they are not only the best of the NL Central but some of the best in all of baseball.
You may or may not like my list but hey, that's what the comment box is for right? Thanks for the read and let the debate begin.