- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Nobody seems to respect the NL Central much. Adam Wainwright’s injury won’t fix the belief that this is baseball’s weakest division. But your weakness is my parity. Your 2011 NL Central preseason All-Stars:
Catcher -- Geovany Soto, Cubs. After a sophomore slump, Soto rebounded with an excellent .280/.393/497 line. Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, Soto ranked third in OBP (behind only Joe Mauer and Carlos Ruiz) and second in slugging (behind Buster Posey).
Second base -- Rickie Weeks, Brewers. Remained completely healthy (160 games) for the first time and delivered the season everyone’s been waiting for. Doesn’t have the glove of Brandon Phillips, but gets on base more, and Phillips benefits from the cozy dimensions of Great American Ball Park.
Third base -- Pedro Alvarez, Pirates. I expect big offensive numbers in his first full season, but will his fielding remain so terrible as to cancel out much of his hitting value?
Shortstop – Starlin Castro, Cubs. Picking Castro over this motley crew is like picking Brooklyn Decker to win a beauty contest with Roseanne Barr and women Tiger Woods meets at Perkins. That said, Castro has a chance to become a huge star in this game. Enjoy him, Cubs fans.
Left field -- Ryan Braun, Brewers. Tough call between Braun and Matt Holliday. Braun’s defense, once a big strike against him, seemed to improve last season. His overall numbers weren’t as good as in 2009, but I think he’ll get back to 30-plus homers and once again top .300.
Center field -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates. I wrote an entry that suggested McCutchen will be the majors’ best all-around center fielder in 2011, so I'd better stick with that here. This position is the strongest in the division, as you can argue cases for Colby Rasmus, Drew Stubbs, Michael Bourn and Marlon Byrd.
Right field -- Jay Bruce, Reds. I’m not a huge Hunter Pence fan, so I’m giving the nod to Bruce, who had a big second half after being fully recovered from his broken wrist of 2009. Pence is a nice player and he’s only missed 14 games over the past three seasons -- an underrated asset of any player that is often ignored -- but he’s too much of a free-swinger for my taste.
Right-handed starter -- Zack Greinke, Brewers. As you can see in the poll to the right, there are several strong candidates, plus others not listed (Edinson Volquez, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster; we can only fit five options in a poll). Assuming Greinke only misses a couple of starts, his transition to the NL and proven 200-inning durability bodes well for some nice numbers.
Left-handed starter -- Wandy Rodriguez, Astros. Buyer beware, as Rodriguez has battled some shoulder tendinitis this spring, but MLB.com reports that Rodriguez felt good after throwing four strong innings against the Nationals on Tuesday. Jaime Garcia had a terrific rookie season, but he struggled a bit in the second half, and we’ll see how he responds to a tougher workload.
Closer -- Carlos Marmol, Cubs. One of the most unique, fascinating pitchers I’ve seen. He walks everybody, strikes out nearly everybody he doesn’t walk, doesn’t give up home runs (three in the past two seasons), and must be simultaneously infuriating and intoxicating for Cubs fans.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
Nobody seems to respect the NL Central much. Adam Wainwright’s injury won’t fix the belief that this is baseball’s weakest division. But your weakness is my parity.