2011 MLB Predictions: Projecting the Best NL Players at Each Position

Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIIFebruary 2, 2011

2011 MLB Predictions: Projecting the Best NL Players at Each Position

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Who are the best players in the league? It’s a debate that will persist for as long as there is professional baseball.

    But it’s one thing to argue it during the season—predicting who the best players will be is a horse of an entirely different color that eats oranges instead of apples.

    Last week, I picked and projected the best players in the American League for 2011. This week, I did the same for the National League—one for each position, plus five starting pitchers and three relievers—along with explanations for why I snubbed the closest competitors.

    In addition, I've included my best guesstimate, completely unscientific projections for how each player will fare in the coming season.

    Please do not hold me accountable for the accuracy of my predictions, especially for the pitchers (unless I'm right, in which case feel free to make me into some sort of demigod).

    Be sure to tell me who I got wrong!

First Base: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .329/.435/.606, 43 homers/131 RBI/116 runs/9 steals, 7.9 WAR

    Even after one of the worst seasons of his career, there’s no question that Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball. Of course, for most players, hitting .312 with 42 homers, 118 RBI and a 1.011 OPS would be considered a tremendous success, not a down year.

    With Pujols, though, any season in which he doesn’t take home an MVP trophy seems like a disappointment, and there’s no reason to think he can’t improve on his fantastic 2010 campaign this year.

    Snubbing the reigning NL MVP isn’t easy, but as great as Joey Votto was last season, it’s hard to see him beating out Pujols again. That’s not to say Votto isn’t for real—he’s only 27, and last season wasn’t a fluke—but Prince Albert will almost assuredly be No. 1.

Second Base: Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .297/.403/.501, 24/96/100/17, 7.0 WAR

    Utley was in the midst of a down year when a thumb injury cut his 2010 season short. Of course, in Utley’s case a “down year” means he led all second basemen in OBP (.387) while playing sterling defense (12.9 UZR/150) and posted 5.2 WAR in just 115 games.

    And given that he set a new career-low for strikeout rate (14.8 percent), while posting his second-best walk rate (12.3 percent) and his worst BABIP (.288) since 2004, there’s reason to believe his struggles were partly due to bad luck.

    Rickie Weeks, Dan Uggla, Kelly Johnson and Brandon Phillips all are legitimate candidates to be the Senior Circuit’s top keystoner, but there’s no question that Utley should come out on top.

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .294/.373/.516, 30/98/94/3, 6.8 WAR

    Shin-Soo Choo may be the most undervalued player in the game, but Ryan Zimmerman isn’t far behind him.

    After quietly emerging as one of the best third basemen in baseball in 2009, Zimmerman was even better in 2010, jacking 25 bombs with an OPS just under .900. He combined his potent bat with a phenomenal glove (17.8 UZR/150) to produce 7.2 WAR, making him the third-most valuable player in the league.

    Zimmerman might not have the name recognition of David Wright or Pablo Sandoval, but over the last two seasons, no third-sacker in the league has come close to what “Magnum Z.I.” has done for the Washington Nationals.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .302/.374/.548, 33/104/109/16, 7.2 WAR

    How amazing was Troy Tulowitzki last season? Yes, he missed 40 games with wrist and groin problems, but he still posted 6.4 WAR—or the equivalent of 8.5 wins over a full season.

    Not to mention that Tulo was the biggest reason why the Colorado Rockies were in contention for as long as they were—after Sept. 1, he hit 15 homers in 29 games with a .780 SLG (yes, that’s SLG, not OPS).

    Florida’s Hanley Ramirez makes this pick harder than it otherwise would have been, but with Han-Ram coming off a down year and Tulowitzki’s huge edge on defense, the choice is pretty clear.

Catcher: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .311/.380/.484, 22/87/72/1, 5.3 WAR

    I tried not to give into the hype here, but there’s no way around the fact that Gerard Dempsey Posey is the best backstop in the Senior Circuit.

    He’s unlikely to duplicate the prodigious power he displayed last season in 2011 and a 6.8-percent walk rate isn’t going to cut it in the majors. That said, his contact skills are phenomenal, he’s shown plate discipline and pop in the minors and he’s only 23 years old. That’s a dangerous combination.

    Brian McCann could give Posey a run for his money and Geovany Soto will be a force to be reckoned with if he ever gets a full-time job (fun fact: Soto’s OPS last year was better than Posey’s, .890 to .869), but my money’s on the kid from San Francisco.

Outfield: Matt Holliday, Cardinals

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .319/.397/.530, 28/116/98/13, 6.8 WAR

    Matt Holliday more than earned his $17 million salary in 2011, hitting .312/.390/.532 with 28 homers, 103 RBI, 8.2 UZR and 6.9 WAR.

    You might not expect a 31-year-old to be able to improve on those impressive numbers, but there’s a good chance Holliday could outdo himself in 2011—he posted a career-best 15.6-percent strikeout rate last year, but his improved approach was disguised by his career-worst .331 BABIP.

    If the luck bounces back, he could be better than ever.

Outfield: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .288/.403/.487, 23/84/91/12, 5.5 WAR

    Jason Heyward earned comparisons to Hank Aaron before his first MLB game, and he didn’t disappoint in his much-talked-about rookie season.

    At the age of 20, Heyward walked in almost 15 percent of his plate appearances. His power wasn’t otherworldly (.179 ISO) and his strikeout rate was a tad disappointing (20.5 percent, compared to 13.7 percent in the minors), but he still flashed five-tool talent en route to posting 5.0 WAR.

    The power will come and the whiffs should come down as he gets used to MLB pitching. But Heyward is already a star, even if he’s still a work in progress.

Outfield: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: .309/.362/.574, 30/109/102/23, 5.4 WAR

    Meanwhile, Carlos Gonzalez earned an $80-million extension and a place in the MVP discussion after hitting .336 with 34 homers, 117 RBI, 111 runs, 26 steals and an eye-popping .598 SLG in his age-25 2010 season.

    His poor walk rate (6.3 percent and dropping) and .384 BABIP are red flags when considering his 2011 production, but he could take a big step back and still be one of the best outfielders in the game.

    Whittling down the list of outfielders meant making some tough calls. Jay Bruce had a fantastic 2010 season, but he still hasn’t reached his offensive potential. Jayson Werth’s giant contract has many people thinking he’s overrated, but even if he is, he’s still a great player. Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Angel Pagan all came out of nowhere to have tremendous success last year. Colby Ramsus, Justin Upton and Andrew McCutchen have yet to achieve their potential as superstars. And Andre Ethier and Ryan Braun could be among the game’s top players if they learned to play defense.

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay, Phllies

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 19-7, 2.69 ERA, 247 innings pitched, 211 strikeouts/33 walks allowed/21 homers allowed, 6.7 WAR

    Expectations were lofty for Roy Halladay last year after he left the treacherous AL East for the gentler National League, but he cleared the bar with room to spare. In 2010, Doc won 21 games with a 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 7.3 K/BB ratio in 250.2 innings.

    Throw in a perfect game, a no-hitter in the playoffs and a unanimous NL Cy Young award, and it's hard to make a case for anyone else to be the best starter in the game.

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 16-7, 2.84 ERA, 217.1 IP, 191/27/18, 6.5 WAR

    If anyone can challenge Halladay for the top spot, it’s his new teammate, Cliff Lee. The rightful 2010 AL Cy Young winner nearly set a new MLB record with his 10.3 K/BB ratio and posted the best FIP (2.58) in the league while helping the Texas Rangers to their first-ever World Series berth.

    Lee shocked the baseball world this winter by signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the move to the weaker league will boost his numbers even further.

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 18-8, 2.97 ERA, 223 IP, 203/59/20, 6.4 WAR

    The Cardinals’ lineup might not have much thump besides Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, but Adam Wainwright doesn’t need much run support to win games.

    Over the last two years, only CC Sabathia has more wins (40) than Wainwright (39), and only Felix Hernandez (2.38) has a lower ERA (Wainwright’s is 2.53). That’s not all luck, either—his 2.99 FIP ranks sixth and his 3.25 xFIP is fourth.

    He’s still on the right side of 30, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to be among the best pitchers in the game.

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 15-8, 2.82 ERA, 195.2 IP, 189/50/18, 6.2 WAR

    Josh Johnson’s been a bona fide ace for years when he’s healthy, but the 27-year-old took his game to the next level in 2010, posting a 2.30 ERA and 2.41 FIP while setting career bests in strikeout rate (9.1 K/9), walk rate (2.4 BB/9) and home run rate (0.34, the best in baseball).

    He got a little lucky with the homers (4.2 percent HR/FB rate), but his numbers could take a step back and he’d still be an elite pitcher.

Starting Pitcher: Tommy Hanson, Braves

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    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 14-6, 3.09 ERA, 216 IP, 199/56/21, 5.6 WAR

    In 2009, at age 22, Tommy Hanson dominated opposing hitters to the tune of a 2.89 ERA in 21 big-league starts. He followed that up with a spectacular 2010 season in which he displayed improved control (2.5 BB/9) and posted a 3.33 ERA.

    Yes, his .286 BABIP and 5.8 percent HR/FB rate do seem a little fluky, but his 3.21 tERA suggests that he may truly be able to induce weak contact. And given that he’s only 24 and his MLB numbers pale in comparison to the mastery he showed in the minors, any luck-based regression could be outweighed by legitimate improvement.

    Narrowing this list down to five starters was excruciatingly difficult, but I have reasons for why I snubbed each near-miss player. I passed on Tim Lincecum because of his mechanical issues and his much-discussed loss of fastball velocity. Ubaldo Jimenez missed the cut because his impressive start last year was almost entirely due to luck, and I have similar qualms about Matt Cain. Roy Oswalt and Chris Carpenter are a little old for my taste, and guys like Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Cole Hamels, Yovani Gallardo and Clayton Kershaw just weren’t quite good enough.

Relief Pitcher: Brian Wilson, Giants

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 46 saves, 2.35 ERA, 69.2 IP, 82/25/4, 2.7 WAR

    Brian Wilson isn’t solely responsible for the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 World Series championship, but if three of the 48 save opportunities he converted had been lost, the Giants would have missed the playoffs.

    But it wasn’t just his gaudy save total that made Wilson’s year impressive—he also posted a 1.81 ERA and 11.2 K/9 rate. The man who MLB fined for “having too much awesome on my feet” should continue to be an elite closer in 2011.

Relief Pitcher: Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 42 saves, 2.48 ERA, 72.2 IP, 108/46/3, 2.6 WAR

    Forget that Carlos Marmol recorded 38 saves and a 2.55 ERA, or that his 2.01 FIP was the best in the game among pitchers with more than 60 innings pitched.

    The thing that made Marmol stand out last year was his 16.0 K/9 rate, which would be far and away the best single-season mark in baseball history if he had enough innings to qualify. And while his 2.95 xFIP suggests that he got lucky, his 2.12 tERA indicates that he may have the true talent to induce weak contact.

Relief Pitcher: Heath Bell, San Diego Padres

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Projected Stats: 43 saves, 2.67 ERA, 72 IP, 85/26/5, 2.4 WAR

    Most 33-year-old relievers are dismissed as past their primes, but Heath Bell had the best season of his career in 2010, posting a 1.93 ERA and striking out over 11 batters per nine innings while notching 47 saves.

    Amazingly, his average fastball velocity (94.0 mph) was the highest it's been since 2007. Maybe he really has found the fountain of youth.


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