A couple things are a certainty year after year in the NL Central.
The Cards or Cubs will win the division.
Albert Pujols will compete for both the NL MVP and fantasy MVP
Bernie Brewer will be shown on Sportscenter sliding down the yellow slide in the leftfield bleachers at Miller Park about 100 times.
The Pirates will lose a lot of games.
However, there are some new things to look forward to this year in baseball’s largest division.
Big Mac is back.
Fat Albert finally has some full-time protection in the lineup.
The Reds made a huge splash with the signing of Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman.
In Pittsburgh, well, nothing has really changed.
As I did in my NL East Report , I will present the BIG Question surrounding each team’s upcoming season, my answer, and my analysis from a fantasy perspective.
Additionally, I will provide the answer to a Rapid Fire question for each team that will focus on players who will be of interest to those of you who play in deeper leagues.
Without further ado, I present to you Around The NL Central.
St. Louis Cardinals
The BIG Question: How will Matt Holliday perform in a full season in St. Louis?
Cardinals fans got a late holiday gift when Matt decided to resign with St. Louis on January 7th. While this gift doesn’t come with batteries, it does come with a seven-year $120 million contract.
That’s big bucks, but if Holliday supplies the protection in the lineup that Albert Pujols has craved for years, it will be money well spent.
In exactly 400 at bats as an Oakland Athletic in 2009, Holliday hit .286 with 52 runs, 11 HRs, and 54 RBI. While that is a solid stat line, it is far inferior to the stats Holliday accumulated in his previous three years playing at Coors Field. Granted the Oakland Coliseum is a pitcher’s park, but clearly Holliday was another in a long line of victims of the Coors effect.
Yet, when the A’s sent Holliday to St. Louis in July, it seemed like everyone assumed that Holliday would tremendously boost the Cardinals lineup and put up the type of numbers that he boasted in 2006-2008. But they ignored that he put up those numbers while playing half his games in the thin air of Colorado.
So what did Holliday do? He proved everyone right by posting downright ridiculous numbers once he arrived in St. Louis. It was like he’d never left Colorado! In just 270 ABs he scored 42 runs, hit 13 HRs, and collected 55 RBI, all while hitting a mind boggling .353.
Now primed for a full season in St. Louis, the sky appears to be the limit for Holliday. He certainly will see a ton of RBI opportunities with Pujols occupying the spot in front of him in the lineup.
I can’t say I think Holliday will keep up the pace he established in his 270 ABs with St. Louis, but I do think he will have a magnificent season that falls somewhere in between his monstrous 2007 season of .340, 120 runs, 36 HRs, and 137 RBI, and his “down” 2008 season of .321, 107 runs, 25 HRs, and 88 RBI.
In addition, Pujols very well could have a career year with Holliday protecting him for an entire season. That’s a scary thought. While Holliday will certainly reap the benefits of hitting in the heart of the Cardinals order, there is one negative to keep in mind. During his time in Oakland in 2009, the fleet footed Holliday swiped 12 bags. After his move to St. Louis, he stole a mere two. Don’t expect him to run in St. Louis as much as he did in the past.
Holliday finished a tremendous 2009 season in disappointing fashion when he became the goat of the Cardinals NLDS series loss to the Dodgers by going just 2-12 in the series and costing the Cards game two of series after dropping a key fly ball. Expect Holliday to come out with something to prove and to bounce back from the disappointment in a big way. I am calling for a season of .320, with 95 runs, 27 HRs, 115 RBI, and 10 SBs.
Rapid Fire: Who will Dave Duncan work his magic on this season?
Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Loshe, Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan, Todd Wellemeyer, Ryan Franklin, and Joel Pineiro. All of these players, and unmentioned others, share a secret. They all erected or resurrected their careers under the tutelage of Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan.
All of the players above, and many others, have enjoyed the best year or years of their careers under Duncan’s guidance. So who will Duncan pull out of his magic hat this season? Abracadabra, keep your eyes on Brad Penny and John Smoltz if he stays in St. Louis. Blake Hawksworth is a deep sleeper if there’s a rotation spot up for grabs.
The BIG Question: How will Brett Myers fare in Houston?
While I think the Astros were smart to bring in Myers to hold down the third spot in the rotation behind a healthy Roy Oswalt and last season’s breakout star Wandy Rodriguez, I don’t expect him to be anything more than a middle of the pack starter at best.
For one, Myers is coming off three consecutive mediocre seasons. Of the three seasons, only 2008 was spent both healthy and as a starter. His 2008 numbers, 10-13, with a 4.55 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP, and 163 Ks in 190.0 IP, certainly leave a lot to be desired.
Another concern is that even at his best in 2005 he wasn’t really that good. His numbers in 2005, 13-8, 3.72 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 208 Ks in 215.1 IP, certainly are appealing, but far from the numbers you’d expect from a guy just about everyone thought would eventually develop into a stud.
Myers’s injury history is also a red flag. Myers first landed on the disabled list in May of 2007 with a strained right shoulder. After staying relatively healthy in 2008, he tore the labrum in his hip last season, which required surgery and limited him to just 18 appearances and 10 starts.
A final concern with Myers is his personal history. Myers’s personal issues, from domestic violence charges in 2006 to a public tirade in which he called a member of the media a “retard” in 2007, have been well documented and have called into question his character and attitude.
Furthermore, his work ethic and priorities have always been questionable. Myers has struggled to stay in shape physically as a result.
Rolling the dice on Myers is like playing with fire. Don’t expect not to be burned. All the questions about his performance, health, and personal history over the past several seasons do not make him someone to invest in on draft day, especially since Myers’s upside is limited at this point in his career.
Getting out of a hitter’s paradise in Citizen’s Bank Park and moving to the more spacious Minute Maid Park may help some, and Myers has always been a reliable source of strikeouts, but don’t go chasing his 2005 numbers.
Even if he stays healthy and out of trouble, I expect about 12 wins with a 4.40 ERA, a 1.37 WHIP, and a healthy 175 Ks in 195.0 IP. Nothing to write home about.
Rapid Fire: Will J.R. Towles emerge as a legit option at catcher in a deeper league?
Towles was a huge sleeper entering the 2008 season but was downright awful in his major league stints in both 2008 and 2009. What’s worse is that he only managed to hit .255 in AAA last season. Scary as it is, Humberto Quintero may be even worse at the plate, and thus Towles could enter the season as the starter.
Even though he is only 22, Jason Castro is the best catcher the Astros have, and he is likely to be handed the starting gig at some point this season. If you want to take a deep flier on someone, go with the top prospect Castro and leave Towles on the waiver wire.
The BIG Question: Can I feel confident with Casey McGehee as my third basemen?
I don’t think so. McGehee’s excellent 2009 season is one of the most out of nowhere performances in recent memory.
The 26-year-old put up an average of .301, with 58 runs, 16 HRs, and 66 RBI in only 355 ABs. Project that over the course of a full season, say 550 ABs, and you are looking at 90 runs, 25 HRs, and 102 RBI. I’d take that from the 3B position, especially from someone who won’t garner the kind of draft day attention other higher profile third base options will.
Plus he just turned 27 in October. Everyone knows that 27 is the magic number when is comes to hitters entering their prime and breaking out. Guess how old Andre Ethier and Jason Kubel were last year when they both busted out and posted their best season as big leaguers?
Despite what McGehee has going for him, don’t be fooled. For one, McGehee has never shown any indication that he should produce the type of numbers he did last year. In fact, his best season in the minors with Double-A West Tennessee in 2005 was inferior to his 2009 campaign in Milwaukee. That season, in which he batted .297, with 67 runs, eight HRs, and 72 RBI in 455 ABs, hardly points to a guy destined for big league success.
Furthermore, McGehee was never considered to be much of a prospect. There are tons of stories of guys who emerge out of obscurity to become strong, even spectacular, big league players. However, a good rule to follow when playing fantasy is to take chances on players that were once considered top prospects, instead of players who emerge from out of nowhere.
Also, while the 27-year-old rule does hold water, for every Ethier and Kubel there is a Kelly Johnson and J.J. Hardy. Guess how old Johnson and Hardy were last season? Casey McGehee is another J.J. Hardy, not a Jason Kubel.
By midseason the Brewers will realize that McGehee is not the long term answer at third base, and he will return to the role he is destined to thrive in: utility man. He can only hold off young slugger Mat Gamel so long. You’re better off taking a chance on someone else…maybe even on Gamel. In 350 ABs McGehee hits .265, scores 40 runs, hits eight HRs, and accumulates 45 RBI. Yawn.
Rapid Fire: Who is the next high impact Brewers prospect I need to know about?
With stud SS Alcides Escobar already having arrived, the two names to know, in addition to Mat Gamel, are Jonathan Lucroy and Brett Lawrie. The Brewers have a huge hole at catcher, and the 23-year-old Lucroy is slated as the catcher of the future. The only concern is that he has not yet had a huge minor league campaign.
Brett Lawrie, who just turned 20, is the better prospect, but is still a couple of years away. He shows signs of developing into a rare speed/power threat and seems to have finally found the position in second base that best fits him. Lawrie is not someone to look at for this year, but is a great minor league pick in keeper leagues.
The BIG Question: Who would I rather own: Andrew McCutchen or Garrett Jones?
McCutchen is an elite talent with an unlimited upside. In fact, he is nearly a lock to develop into the next star the Pirates deal as soon as he starts asking about a new contract.
Jones is an 11 year minor league journeyman who got his first legit shot in the majors last year. Sure he always showed flashes of power in the minors, 31 HRs in 2004, but his career minor league batting average is a whopping .258.
There is your answer. McCutchen, 23, is not ready to reach his potential, but he is talented enough and groomed enough to have an excellent season. He boasts the always valuable speed/power combo and could join the 30/30 club in his prime.
While the power won’t come yet, the stolen bases certainly will. While I don’t see him being a .300 hitter yet either, he should get on base enough to set the table for his Pirates’ teammates. Furthermore, he should be able to score a lot of runs batting in the leadoff hole for a, dare I say it, decent offensive club.
McCutchen is still a few years away from realizing his full potential, but don’t afraid to expect very good things from him this year. In a keeper league, he needs to be near the top of your list. Look for the young speedster to hit .270, with 90 runs, 15 HRs, 60 RBI, and 35 SBs.
With Jones, temper your expectations. I don’t see him being a bust, but it is insane to think that he can come close to recreating last season’s success. Strangely, his 2009 stat line, .293, 45 runs, 21 HRs, and 44 RBI in 84 games and 314 ABs, is eerily similar to Kevin Maas’s 1990 campaign wit the Yankees: .252, 42 runs, 21 HRs, and 41 RBI in 79 games and 300 ABs. Jones is more Kevin Maas than Justin Morneau.
Another piece of discouraging news is that the 24 SBs that Jones collected in 2009 between Triple-A Indianapolis and his time with the Pirates was exactly double his previous career high. Considering Jones is not especially fleet of foot, it seems unlikely that he will repeat his performance in this category as well.
The 28-year-old Jones should hold down an everyday spot in right or at first base and bat in the middle of the order. He should hit about .260, with 55 runs, 18 HRs, 65 RBI, and eight SBs.
Rapid Fire: Is anyone in the Pirates rotation worth my time?
Probably not. The problem with the Pirates' rotation this season is that it’s as unpredictable as….the Pirates' rotation most seasons. The Pirates have an uncanny ability to develop pitching prospects that don’t pan out. The current Pirates rotation is riddled with former prospects that have missed out on reaching their potential.
If you want to take a flier on someone in the rotation, I’d put my money on Zach Duke or Ross Ohlendorf, but be aware that both have limited upside. If you’re looking for a prospect to keep an eye on, it’s Timothy Alderson, who does has excellent upside. Of course, it’s very likely that he’s just the next can’t miss prospect that the Pirates turn into a miss.
The BIG Question: Will Joey Votto take the next step into superstardom?
There seem to be a lot of questions surrounding the Reds. When will Edinson Volquez be back? Not until late June or July. How will the chips fall in what’s sure to be Jay Bruce’s make-it or break-it year? Somewhere in the middle. Is Johnny Cueto in for the infamous third-year starter breakout? Yes.
However, I chose to focus on Votto, because he is sure to be the highest impact player in the group. To answer the question, yes, Votto will take a big step towards stardom this year.
Votto, 26, is approaching his prime years, and while I don’t think he peaks in 2010, he will show everyone the great things to come in what will be an outstanding big league career.
One thing that impresses me about Votto is his approach at the plate. Unlike many young players as big and strong as Votto, he doesn’t step to the plate looking to hit a long ball, but instead just to get a hit, as his .322 AVG last year indicates.
Votto’s mature approach at the plate and good plate discipline, which created 70 BBs last season, will serve him well in the coming years as he lifts himself into the upper tier of major league sluggers.
Want some more good news on Votto? Before his permanent promotion to the majors in 2008, Votto stole 41 bases during his final two seasons in the minors! Now I don’t think Votto ever becomes a 20 SB guy in the bigs, but he may steal 10-15 bases as soon as this year if manager Dusty Baker gives him the green light.
One concern about Votto is that his power appears to have leveled off some. In fact, he has compiled between 22 and 26 HRs in all of his last four seasons. Don’t fear. As Votto matures the power will come.
In fact, my biggest fear is that Votto will chase his power potential instead of letting it come to him and change his aforementioned impressive approach at the plate. While doing so may result in more home runs in the short term, it would result in his strikeouts total ballooning, his average dipping, and overall worse stat line.
Assuming he is patient and doesn’t chase after his potential before he is ready to meet it, Joey Votto is destined to be a major league superstar. Furthermore, I think this is the last year you’ll be able to pick him up as anything less than exactly that. Look for a nice boost in Votto’s numbers: .310 AVG, 100 runs, 30 HRs, 110 RBI, and eight SBs.
Rapid Fire: What do I need to know about Aroldis Chapman?
That his fastball has been clocked at 100 MPH. However, the Cuban is young, (he turns 22 before Opening Day), raw, and inexperienced at the professional level.
On the other hand, he is tremendously talented…and extremely rich after signing a six-year deal believed to be worth $30 million.
It’s a certainty that he is not yet ready to contribute at the major league level, and, unless the Reds are dead set on rushing him, he is destined to start the season in the minors. He may even stay on the farm all season. Chapman is a must grab prospect with sky high upside, but not someone you should count on contributing this season.
The BIG Question: Will Geovany Soto burn me again?
With all the injuries, great individual seasons, and terrible individual seasons the Cubs experienced last year, there are questions all over the Cubs’ roster. In fact, this article probably could have been written about any of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Ted Lilly, Randy Wells, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Zambrano or Carlos Marmol.
However, the biggest question surrounding the Cubs is about Geovany Soto. Soto broke into the big leagues in a major way in 2008 when he batted .285, with 66 runs, 23 HRs, and 86 RBI. His reward was a Rookie of the Year trophy and the title of baseball’s next great catcher.
He immediately was anointed a top tier fantasy catcher and was drafted and bid on as such going into the 2009 season. Then the bottom dropped out. He hit a pitiful .109 in April, never really got the bat going, and ended the season in a platoon with Koyie Hill. He finished the 2009 season with a .218 AVG, 27 runs, 11 HRs, and 47 RBI.
Now many may choose to write Soto’s 2009 season off as a sophomore slump and expect him to rebound in a big way in 2010. That is not a sophomore slump. That’s more like a sophomore freefall.
What’s worse is that Soto looked like a career minor leaguer until his ridiculous breakout campaign at Triple-A Iowa in 2007. That year he hitting a stunning .353, scored 75 runs, clubbed 26 HRs, and collected 109 RBI in 385 ABs. His previous year in Iowa he hit .271, with 34 runs, six HRs, and 38 RBI in 342 ABs.
Sure, perhaps that that makes Soto a late bloomer, but a breakout of those proportions is rare, especially when a player spends the previous six seasons putting up mediocre minor league numbers like Soto did.
However, there are some things to like about Soto. For one, only a ball player with legit talent could put up the numbers Soto did while earning the Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year distinction in 2007 or while earning the NL Rookie of the Years honors in 2008.
Furthermore, Soto just turned 27, strangely on the day I write this, and is a very good candidate for the infamous 27-year-old breakout.
I believe Soto’s potential lies somewhere between what he was able to do in his magnificent 2007 and 2008 seasons and his downright atrocious 2009 season. Furthermore, I think that at age 27 he levels off into that middle ground this season.
So, will Soto burn you again? As long as you don’t expect too much, he will not. In fact, he is a great guy to target if the other owners in your league are scared off by his disastrous 2009. I look for Soto to hit about .265 with 50 runs, 15 HRs, and 65 RBI. That’s not terrible production for a catcher.
Rapid Fire: Will Marlon Byrd produce in Chicago like he did last season in Texas?
I don’t think he comes close to matching his 2009 production. Last season Byrd doubled his previous best home run total of 10, and his 89 RBI were 19 more than his previous career high. That’s exciting when a player is 27, but not when they’re 32 like Byrd. Last season’s numbers are not an indication of what type of player Byrd really is.
The Cubs signing of Byrd was a mistake, especially since the Cubs have prospect Tyler Colvin, who I think could match Byrd’s production this season if given the opportunity.
In fact, I expect Colvin to cut into Byrd’s playing time this season and that he may take over the job outright at some point. While Colvin qualifies as an excellent sleeper to target, if it’s Byrd or Colvin patrolling centerfield for the Cubs, they’re just keeping the spot warm for elite prospect Brett Jackson. Expect Jackson to be the Cubs starting centerfielder at some point during the 2012 season.
That wraps up the NL Central. Look for my report on the NL West next. I will be happy to answer any questions you have about my article or fantasy sports in general if you leave a comment below.
Jon Schuman writes for Fantasy Sports ‘R’ Us, and you can find more articles like this at