Let's face it.
In the National League this year, all eyes will be focused on one team, in one division.
That's the National League East and the Philadelphia Phillies.
With a rotation that rivals any put together in the long and triumphant history of Major League Baseball, it is much deserved. However, is the NL East the most talented division? That's a topic for discussion.
While lacking the name recognition as the NL East, the National League Central is a division loaded with talent at every single position. Who are the All-Stars? Who are the best of the best? What are they projected to do in 2011?
Days ago, the clear-cut starting pitcher for the NL Central Preseason All-Stars would have been Adam Wainwright. Unfortunately, Wainwright injured his elbow on Tuesday and will be lost for the season. In a division that has several quality pitchers, it’s the newcomer who stood out the most.
Zack Greinke arrived with the Milwaukee Brewers following a solid six seasons with the Kansas City Royals. While Greinke averaged 10 wins a season, he was playing with a team that lacked any solid offensive weapon to put runs on the board. That won’t be the case in a lineup that boasts Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.
Will Greinke be able to put aside his anxiety issues that he suffered with the Kansas City Royals? Getting better run support and winning more than 10 games will surely help.
Honorable Mention: Chris Carpenter—St. Louis Cardinals, Bronson Arroyo—Cincinnati Reds
(2011 Projection: 17 Wins, 190 Ks, 3.35 ERA)
Soto had a nice year with the Chicago Cubs in 2010, in which he was able to produce a .890 OPS, which was higher than his 2008 OPS of .363—the year Soto won the National League Rookie of the Year.
Soto was limited to just 322 at-bats in 2010 due to a shoulder injury and the incurring surgery that ended his season early; however, Soto appears to be ready for spring training and will look to contribute right away in 2011.
Soto is a smart offensive player with a high walk rate (16.0 percent in 2010) and has a good eye for the ball, where he ranks as the second-lowest player in swings outside the strike zone.
(2011 Projection: .270 AVG, 21 HR, 70 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Yodier Molina—St. Louis Cardinals
First base may be the most crowded position in the National League Central with no clear-cut favorite. However, when push comes to shove, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice for a preseason All-Star than Albert Pujols.
What can be written about Pujols that hasn’t already been written? He’s largely considered by many to be the best player in the league. The Fat One has average 41 home runs, 123 RBI and 119 runs scored in his 10 years playing for the Cardinals with a .331 batting average. He is the only player in baseball history with 30 home runs and 100 RBI during his first 10 seasons in the majors.
Pujols, entering the final year in his current contract with the Cardinals, will be looking to put up historic numbers as he also tries to reach historic number of dollars in his bank account.
(2011 Projection: .330 AVG, 45 HR, 126 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Joey Votto—Cincinnati Reds
Brandon Phillips gets the nod over Rickie Weeks of the Milwaukee Brewers for the starting second baseman on the National League Central preseason All-Star team.
The Cincinnati Red isn’t your prototypical second baseman; in fact, he’s only the second baseman to have at least 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases in each of his last five seasons. In 2010, Phillips hit for .275 and belted 18 home runs, although it doesn’t hurt that he plays half of his games in the hitter friendly confines of Great American Ballpark.
Phillips however is a very awkward player to have in the No. 2 spot of a lineup. With rumors of Scott Rolen being limited to 115-120 games this season, Phillips should see some time in the middle third of the lineup where he will surely be able to put up some impressive power numbers.
(2011 Projection: .333 AVG, 22 HR, 77 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Rickie Weeks—Milwaukee Brewers
Third base is an interesting position in the NL Central. One may be tempted to give the position to veteran Scott Rolen or possibly to Alexei Ramirez with the Cubs. However, there may be a star on the horizon in (Pittsburgh Park) with Pedro Alvarez.
Alvarez posted .256 average with 16 home runs and 64 RB in 347 at-bats during the 2010 season. At just 24 years of age, Alvarez has his best years ahead of him.
(2011 Projection .250 AVG, 29 HR, 93 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Alexei Ramirez—Chicago Cubs
Last year was a bad year to be a Cubs fan—a very bad year. However there was one star shining bright. That would be shortstop Starlin Castro.
Castro started off his rookie season with a bang against NL Central rival Cincinnati Reds. In his very first at bat, Castro belted a three-run home run. Not to seem like a one-hit wonder, he cleared the bases with a triple in his second at-bat and finished the game with six RBI.
While Castro’s power hasn’t quite arrived yet, he is a consistent hitter who eats left-handers alive (he hit .339 against lefties in 2010.)
(2011 Projection: .294 AVG, 6 HR, 66 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Ryan Theriot—St. Louis Cardinals
In 2010 Matt Holliday received a large contract to remain with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2010, Matt Holliday delivered. Proving he’s not simply a product of the Colorado air, Holliday belted 28 home runs, knocked in 103 runs and hit for a .312 average. It also doesn’t hurt that Holliday may have one of the best lineup positions in baseball, hitting behind Albert Pujols.
(2011 Projection: .304 AVG, 25 HR, 100 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Ryan Braun—Milwaukee Brewers
Two Pirates in the National League Central preseason All-Stars? Two Pirates in the NL Central preseason All-Stars.
Andrew McCutchen is considered by many to be a poor man’s Carl Crawford, and judging by what the Boston Red Sox spent to land Crawford, I’d say that’s a rich prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates. McCutchen is a solid defensive center fielder with great speed. He’s also proven to be quite an offensive weapon in a weak Pittsburgh lineup.
The 24-year-old has great strike-zone recognition, decent power and speed and is a solid contact hitter. 2011 could be a break-out year for McCutchen, which I’m sure Pirates fans desire to see.
(2011 Projection: .280 AVG, 14 HR, 60 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Drew Stubbs—Cincinnati Reds
If you’re a Houston Astros fan, it may seem like there’s not a lot to be excited about in 2011. Unfortunately, you’d be correct. However, if there were one thing that may be worth getting excited about, it would be right fielder Hunter Pence.
Pence is one of the most consistent hitters in the NL Central, hitting exactly 25 home runs in each of his three seasons in the majors. He’s also averaging 14 stolen bases and has hit exactly .282 over the past two seasons.
(2011 Projection: .282 AVG, 26 HR, 92 RBI)
Honorable Mention: Jay Bruce—Cincinnati Reds
Wilton Lopez—Houston Astros
Lopez throws a lot of strikes—he has a .67 walks-per-nine ratio—the best in the Majors.
Evan Meek—Pittsburgh Pirates
Meek may be the closer for the Pirates come opening day. He was one of the more dominating relief pitchers in 2010, with the exception being the month of August. Still, a 2.14 ERA, 70 K and 1.05 WHIP is productive.
Aroldis Chapman—Cincinnati Reds
The Cuban Missile spent the majority of the season in AAA Louisville, but did find his way to the majors late in the year. He has been known to throw 105.1 MPH and will likely take over for Arthur Rhodes as the setup man for Francisco Cordero. Still, 105.1 MPH is enough to get in ANY bullpen as far as I’m concerned.
Kyle McClellan—St. Louis Cardinals
McClellan may be called in to start some in 2011, following the injury to Adam Wainwright. He’s a ground ball pitcher who had 19 holds in 2010. He had 60 strike outs in 75 innings pitched.
Kerry Wood—Chicago Cubs
Wood will return home to Wrigley Field in 2011 after splitting the last two seasons between Cleveland and New York in the American League. While age is creeping upon the 33 year old, he’ll likely be a setup man for Carlos Marmol in 2011.
Takashi Saito – Milwaukee Brewers
Saito is a versatile reliever that can fill many roles with the Brewers in 2011. He has experience closing in the situation that John Axford struggles with. He had a 11.50 strike-out per nine ratio in 2010.
If the Cincinnati Reds are going to duplicate the success they had in 2010, Coco Cordero will have to be able to duplicate his success as well. Cordero struck out 59 batters in 75 appearances in 2010, while posting 40 saves.
The 35-year-old right-hander will likely feel some pressure for his position with the young Chapman looming ahead of him, but Cordero always seems to find a way to close it out, no matter how ugly it may look.
(2011 Projection: 1.39 ERA, 38 Saves)
Honorable Mention: Carlos Marmol—Chicago Cubs