NL Central showdown: Position rankings

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
8:05
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Chris Carpenter, Yovani Gallardo & Johnny CuetoGetty ImagesChris Carpenter, Yovani Gallardo and Johnny Cueto have their eyes on an NL Central crown.

No more making fun of the NL Central, not after the St. Louis Cardinals shocked the baseball world with their wild-card run and postseason dramatics.

But that was 2011. The Cardinals will have to repeat without their best player and their legendary manager. So let's get down to business and see how the Cardinals and their division rivals rate position by position. Rankings are based on my own subjective predictions for 2012 performance, including offense, defensive ability, durability and risk. Argue, discuss and debate below in the comments section. (And don't forget to follow me on Twitter @dschoenfield.)

(Here are the other divisions we've done: NL East, NL West, AL East, AL Central. Next week, we finish up with the AL West.)

Catcher
1. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
2. Devin Mesoraco/Ryan Hanigan, Reds
3. Geovany Soto, Cubs
4. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
5. Rod Barajas, Pirates
6. Humberto Quintero/Jason Castro, Astros

It's hard to believe Molina is still only 29, but he was just 21 when he reached the majors. By adding some doubles and home runs to his game, he had his best all-around season in 2011 and now ranks as one of baseball's top catchers. Soto has alternated good years with the bat with bad ones; it's time for a good one, I suppose, but I'm going to give the edge to the Reds' combo. Mesoraco is a rookie who hit .289/.371/.484 at Triple-A. Hanigan is one of the best backup catchers around and has a career .390 on-base percentage against left-handers; so of course Dusty Baker gave him only 48 plate appearances against lefties in 2011. Lucroy played well in his first full season and ranked as one of the best in the game at framing pitches, according to one study. Castro, Houston's first-round pick in 2008, missed all of 2011 with knee surgery and will miss the start of spring training after foot surgery. His bat is a question mark even if he's healthy.

First base
1. Joey Votto, Reds
2. Lance Berkman, Cardinals
3. Carlos Lee, Astros
4. Garrett Jones, Pirates
5. Bryan LaHair, Cubs
6. Mat Gamel, Brewers

Well, Astros fans, you've finally reached it: The final season of Lee's six-year, $100 million contract. The memories will soon seem nostalgic. Did you know Lee has more RBIs in his career than Hank Greenberg, Pie Traynor, Zack Wheat, Bobby Doerr, Gary Carter, Chuck Klein, Bill Dickey, Joe Kelley, Heinie Manush, George Sisler, Earl Averill, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Alomar, Joe Morgan, Kirby Puckett, Bill Terry, Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson or Ryne Sandberg, just to name a few? Anyway, this group lines up pretty cleanly, although I wouldn't be surprised to see LaHair put up good numbers after slugging .664 at Triple-A Iowa.

Second base
1. Brandon Phillips, Reds
2. Rickie Weeks, Brewers
3. Neil Walker, Pirates
4. Jose Altuve, Astros
5. Darwin Barney, Cubs
6. Skip Schumaker/Daniel Descalso, Cardinals

Phillips over Weeks thanks to durability, consistency and defense. Weeks over Walker thanks to the better stick. Walker over Altuve because Altuve drew five walks in 57 major league games. Altuve over Barney because he did hit .389 with 42 extra-base hits in 87 games in the minors. Barney over Schumaker and Descalso because that's not even a platoon, given that both hit left-handed.

Third base
1. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers
2. David Freese, Cardinals
3. Scott Rolen, Reds
4. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
5. Ian Stewart, Cubs
6. Jimmy Paredes, Astros

Each of these guys has issues. As Dave Cameron wrote on ESPN Insider, the Brewers might be better off moving Ramirez and his lack of range to first base Insider and playing rookie Taylor Green at third. As Freese showed in the playoffs, he can hit if he remains healthy but will remain a big liability in the field. Rolen had a miserable season while fighting a bad shoulder, but we have to rank him higher than Alvarez, although I suppose it's possible Alvarez will finally learn to hit those pitches that wiggle. Stewart forgot how to hit with the Rockies last year; a cheap risk for the Cubs to see whether he'll bounce back. Paredes will battle Chris Johnson for playing time, which isn't exactly Ali versus Frazier.

Shortstop
1. Starlin Castro, Cubs
2. Rafael Furcal, Cardinals
3. Clint Barmes, Pirates
4. Zack Cozart, Reds
5. Jed Lowrie, Astros
6. Alex Gonzalez, Brewers

Even with his problems on defense, Castro is the clear No. 1 in this group. Furcal is a health risk after playing just 165 games over the past two seasons; he still received $14 million for two years from the Cardinals, which shows you their desperation to fill a position weak in two-way players right now. Barmes moves from the Astros to the Pirates and brings a solid glove, if not exactly Honus Wagner's bat. Cozart does a little of everything but nothing extraordinary. He carries a better defensive rep than Lowrie, who has an extensive injury history. At least Lowrie has potential with that bat, which is more than you can say for the vet Gonzalez, who at least brings a steady glove with his low OBP. He might make Brewers fans forget Yuniesky Betancourt, however.

Left field
1. Ryan Braun, Brewers
2. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
3. Alex Presley, Pirates
4. J.D. Martinez, Astros
5. Chris Heisey/Ryan Ludwick, Reds
6. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs

If Braun ends up serving his 50-game serving suspension, you can move Holliday up a spot ... or you can leave him second if you remember that he missed 38 games himself in 2011. Presley was never a top prospect, but he has blossomed into a solid line-drive hitter; a repeat of his .298/.339/.465 rookie line wouldn't surprise me. Martinez is another overachiever, a 20th-round pick in 2009 out of famed baseball factory Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who reached the majors two years later after hitting .341 in the minors. Heisey does some things well -- such as pop a few home runs -- but is probably exposed as an every-day player. He has hit right-handers much better in his career, so maybe Ludwick will play against lefties in an unusual right-right platoon. Soriano posted a .289 OBP. You can ignore that only in fantasy baseball.

Center field
1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
2. Drew Stubbs, Reds
3. Nyjer Morgan/Carlos Gomez, Brewers
4. Jon Jay, Cardinals
5. Marlon Byrd, Cubs
6. Jordan Schafer, Astros

McCutchen didn't take a big step forward in 2011, but he's still one of the better players in the National League. If he can consolidate the power and walks and hit closer to .300, he'll be one of the best players in the sport. Morgan and Gomez provided a nice platoon, especially on defense, where the Brewers ranked third in baseball with plus-20 defensive runs saved in center. Stubbs hit .343 when he put the ball in play; unfortunately, he struck out 205 times. I guess I'm still in his fan club (pun intended) because I just ranked him second. Byrd is prime trade bait with prospect Brett Jackson waiting in the wings.

Right field
1. Corey Hart, Brewers
2. Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
3. Jay Bruce, Reds
4. Jose Tabata, Pirates
5. David DeJesus, Cubs
6. Brian Bogusevic, Astros

Only five outfielders have hit more home runs than Hart the past two seasons. Bruce is not one of them, although he has matched Hart's total of 57. Bruce was Roberto Clemente in right field in 2010, according to the various defensive metrics, but was more Edgard Clemente in 2011. I'm guessing the 2010 season was an outlier. Tabata has eight home runs in 823 career PAs; he's still just 23, but the power needs to show up.

No. 1 starter
1. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
2. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
3. Mat Latos, Reds
4. Matt Garza, Cubs
5. Brett Myers, Astros
6. Jeff Karstens, Pirates

The first four are all class. Any of them could end up being the best pitcher in the division in 2012.

No. 2 starter
1. Zack Greinke, Brewers
2. Johnny Cueto, Reds
3. Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
4. Wandy Rodriguez, Astros
5. Ryan Dempster, Cubs
6. Charlie Morton, Pirates

Of course, that honor also could go to Greinke. Once he returned from his offseason tour with the Globetrotters, he started off "slow" thanks to a high average on balls in play, but in the second half he went 9-3 with a 2.59 ERA. Greinke led the majors in strikeout rate, but the one mark against him is that he pitched more than seven innings just twice in his 28 starts. Expect some regression from Cueto after a .249 BABIP and low home run rate. The only question for Garcia is how his arm will respond after jumping from 163 innings as a rookie to 220 in 2011. And this is where I can say something about the Pirates' rotation: It had a 4.21 ERA in 2011 (11th in the NL) but ranked last in innings and last in strikeouts and posted a 5.04 ERA in the second half. Just in case you were wondering why I have Morton ranked sixth.

No. 3 starter
1. Shaun Marcum, Brewers
2. Bud Norris, Astros
3. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
4. Homer Bailey, Reds
5. Paul Maholm, Cubs
6. James McDonald, Pirates

Wainwright is a wild card as he comes back from Tommy John surgery; I don't think it's fair to him to assume he'll be as good as he was in 2009 and 2010. Ignore his 6-11 record; Norris had a solid campaign. OK, I'm going to admit this: I finally believe in Bailey. He had a 3.21 SO/BB ratio, a better ratio than pitchers such as Garza, Garcia, Latos, Matt Cain, C.J. Wilson and Tim Lincecum. Don't be surprised if he has a breakthrough season.

No. 4 starter
1. Randy Wolf, Brewers
2. Mike Leake, Reds
3. Kyle Lohse, Cardinals
4. Travis Wood, Cubs
5. Erik Bedard, Pirates
6. J.A. Happ, Astros

Debate.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Narveson, Brewers
2. Bronson Arroyo/Aroldis Chapman, Reds
3. Jake Westbrook, Cardinals
4. Jordan Lyles/Henry Sosa, Astros
5. Chris Volstad, Cubs
6. Kevin Correia, Pirates

You know ... the NL Central could come down to which team gets the most out of its fifth starter. And it's safe to say no team knows exactly what to expect from any of these guys. The most important wild card is Arroyo: A year after winning 17 games, his longtime infatuation with the home run turned into an obsession as he allowed 46 of them, tied for the third most ever in one season. The Reds are grooming Chapman as rotation competition, but considering he walked more than seven batters per nine innings in relief, it's a transition most scouts believe will end with Chapman back in the 'pen.

Closer
1. John Axford, Brewers
2. Ryan Madson, Reds
3. Joel Hanrahan, Pirates
4. Jason Motte, Cardinals
5. Carlos Marmol, Cubs
6. Brandon Lyon, Astros

We have three dominant closers, one with a World Series ring who is primed to join their ranks, stress-inducing Marmol and a guy coming off an 11.48 ERA. Guess which one ranks last? I give Axford the nod as No. 1 over Madson based on a heavier workload in 2011 and over Hanrahan based on a better strikeout rate. And, of course, the best 'stache in the game.

Bullpen
1. Reds -- Sean Marshall, Nick Masset, Bill Bray, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek
2. Cardinals -- Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Mitchell Boggs, Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez
3. Brewers -- Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Marco Estrada, Jose Veras, Zach Braddock
4. Pirates -- Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop, Evan Meek, Tony Watson, Jason Grilli
5. Cubs -- Jeff Samardzija, Kerry Wood, James Russell, Marcos Mateo, Scott Maine
6. Astros -- Wilton Lopez, Fernando Rodriguez, Aneury Rodriguez, Sergio Escalona, Juan Abreu

The Reds have a deep 'pen that includes three quality left-handers: Marshall and Bray plus Chapman, if you include him. LeCure is a guy who could factor into the rotation at some point, and Jose Arredondo also is hanging around. The Cardinals' bullpen came together during their playoff run, and that didn't even include Sanchez, who allowed just 14 hits in 30 innings before going down with a sore shoulder. The Brewers are strong from the right side but don't have a solid option from the left side unless Braddock finally develops.

Intangibles
1. Brewers
2. Reds
3. Pirates
4. Cardinals
5. Cubs
6. Astros

I liked all the strings Ron Roenicke pulled in 2011; I like the support the Brewers got from their fans -- Miller Park was consistently the loudest and most passionate fan base I heard all season. Yes, they have lost Prince Fielder and may have lost Braun for a third of the season, but that will help keep a chip on their shoulders. The Reds have the most depth in the division, but I don't completely trust Baker to use it in the optimal manner. The Pirates will play hard and still have youth on their side. The Cardinals will have to win without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. Manager Mike Matheny and veterans such as Beltran, Furcal and Berkman are big risks considering their ages and/or health histories. Cubs and Astros are in rebuilding mode, but both teams should be better than 2011.

Final tally
1. Brewers, 77 points
2. Reds, 73 points
3. Cardinals, 68 points
4. Pirates, 46 points
5. Cubs, 39 points
6. Astros, 33 points

Whoa! Didn't expect that, did you? As much as everyone seems to be building the NL Central as a two-team battle between the Cardinals and Reds, I see the Brewers remaining good enough to be in the thick of the race. They have the fewest questions marks in the rotation, and that makes them a decent bet in my book. I agree with other prognosticators who see this division split into two levels. But you never know ... it is, after all, still the NL Central, where anything can happen.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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