All posts by Jon Doble

NL Central Preview: Shortstop

On to shortstops! Or backwards, rather.

As of now, gone are the likes of Brendan Ryan and Orlando Cabrera. With Ryan gone, the question of who is the best defensive short stop in the NL Central is back open and the answer may really surprised you. So will the other name at the top.

Since I’m rolling backwards at this point, I won’t waste any time and jump right into my look at the NL Central short stops.

6. Tommy Manzella, Houston (.225, 1 HR, 21 RBI in 83 games)
Manzella is Houston’s short stop of the future, but after that year who can blame Houston for looking elsewhere? Their management has said that they’d be looking at alternatives at shortstop as it was centered out as one position that definitely needed to improve over last year’s. However, to this point nobody has been signed or traded for leaving Manzella and the guy he shared time with last season, Angel Sanchez, to split time.

5. Starlin Castro, Chicago (.300, 3 HR, 41 RBI in 125 games)
Perhaps I’m underrating Castro a bit, but the fact that he was the worst defensive shortstop in the NL Central last season drops him below the next guy. Castro is an impressive young talent who should improve in his second year in the big leagues. And at just 20 years old, he has quite a ways to go.

4. Paul Janish, Cincinnati (.260, 5 HR, 25 RBI in 82 games)
Janish served in a more utility type role last season for the Reds, but played most of his games at short stop. Cincinnati also acquired veteran Edgar Renteria in the offseason too, but if they are smart the Reds will start Janish. Janish will likely hit better than Renteria while he was the best fielding shortstop in the NL Central last season. With that combination, I think he has to be their starter and it should be a solid season as far as shortstops stack up.

3. Ryan Theriot, St. Louis (.270, 2 HR, 29 RBI in 150 games for Chicago and Los Angeles)
Ryan Theriot might actually be the second best defensive shortstop in the division. That honestly shocked me. Granted his 2010 numbers include just 29 games at shortstop as he played mostly second base, which is by far a better defensive position for him. However, he is still around the top when you use his major league career stats. Combined with the hope that he will bounce back a bit on offense when he gets put back to the position he’s more comfortable in, he should exceed last season’s performances.

2. Ronny Cedeno, Pittsburgh (.256, 8 HR, 38 RBI in 139 games)
Cedeno signed a one year deal to remain in Pittsburgh, which was an interesting move considering the big market on middle infielders this season. However, who could have seen that coming. His offense stacks him up second best as it is head and shoulders above the performance of his divisional peers.

1. Yuniesky Betancourt, Milwaukee (.259, 16 HR, 78 RBI in 151 games for Kansas City)
He was the “other guy” in the Zach Grienke trade, but he had a good enough season to qualify him as the best short stop in the NL Central. Betancourt had a career year last year, so the question will be if he can repeat this performance or if he’ll slide back towards the .273, 9 HR career average. And that sub-.300 OBP scares me too. Even at that point, he’s still the best shortstop in the NL Central.

Now with 6 of 8 offensive positions complete, here is the projected standings:

Milwaukee — 29 pts
St. Louis — 25 pts
Cincinnati — 23 pts
Chicago — 20 pts
Pittsburgh — 19 pts
Houston — 10 pts

The look at Center Field should find it’s way up this weekend as we move on with the series.

NL Central Preview: Left Field

On to the outfield! We’ll start in left field since in position scoring numbers that one comes before the other outfield positions.

After looking at all the potentials, this might actually be the first one that writes itself. There’s a pretty clear order to NL Central Left Fielders, especially since Matt Holliday looks to return there in 2011 despite some rumors that he would switch outfield corners.

Well, I won’t waste any time getting into it. After all, corner outfields are all about pure hitting, defense really doesn’t play into it much.

6. Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh (.299, 4 HR, 35 RBI in 102 games)
For the 22 year old Tabata, he may not be the best option in left field but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much of a battle for the position. He’s young and seems to be able to hit for average which is definitely to his benefit. He was also, by far, the best defensive outfielder of the bunch with a .995 fielding% and the only one to have a range over 2 with his range factor of 2.26. The Pirates did sign Matt Diaz, but everything I can find indicates that Diaz will battle for position in right field, not left. That means Tabata is their player and yet another young player with potential for the Pirates. I really think they could be a sleeper if they click.

5. Johnny Gomes, Cincinnati (.266, 18 HR, 86 RBI in 148 games)
After hitting 20 homers in just 98 games in 2009, there was definitely hope that Gomes would provide more power in 2010. Gomes played 50 games more and hit two less homers as he enters a contact year. He is far from a core player on Cincinnati, so he has plenty of opportunity to pitch in without the pressure to perform being on him. But he’s still clearly only the fifth best left fielder in the division.

4. Carlos Lee, Houston (.246, 24 HR, 89 RBI in 157 games)
The Astros tried to shed themselves of their big name, high salary players in 2010 and they achieved 2/3rds of that by trading Lance Berkman to the Yankees and Roy Oswalt to the Phillies. Meanwhile, the player affectionately referred to as “El Caballo” stayed. At 34 and making $19 million, it’s pretty clear why he would be tough to move. He’s also the worst defensive outfielder in the division with his .969 fielding percentage and 1.55 range factor. After Berkman’s departure, he did play some first base, but by all accounts, first base will be given to young Brett Wallace to get his chance. Needless to say, Lee may start the season in Houston, but trade rumors will circulate around him all year as he has two years left on his deal.

3. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago (.258, 24 HR, 79 RBI in 147 games)
Alfonso is far from the player he was when he signed his big 8 year, $136 million deal with the Cubs that still has four seasons remaining on it. He went from posting a 40/40 season in 2006 to stealing just 14 bases over the last two seasons. He also only hit 44 home runs combined those two years. Clearly Soriano is still trending on the decline, but last season was a brief bump. With the Cubs in disarray, things don’t seem to be getting any better for them.

2. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee (.304, 25 HR, 103 RBI in 157 games)
Braun might be considered a man without a position and a horrible defensive outfielder, but that may not be the whole story. His .990 fielding percentage was tops among NL Central left fielders and his 1.93 range factor was second. He came up as a third baseman and was horrible defensively. Since moving to the outfield, he has done a pretty good job. Sure he may blow a few routine plays now and then, but so will anyone who is making the move to a new position and learning on the job. He and Matt Holliday were the only close battle in my mind, and they were exceptionally similar last year.

1. Matt Holliday, St. Louis (.312, 28 HR, 103 RBI in 158 games)
I’ll say this. I expected a .289, 19 HR, 89 RBI year out of Matt Holliday. His non-Coors Field numbers through his career told a very different story than the Matt Holliday we got this year, so he far exceeded my expectations though he did gain a reputation for not being very clutch this year as he seemingly struggled with men on base leading me to say that he is a much better #2 or 3 hitter in front of Pujols than #4 hitter behind Pujols. After all, how do you protect Albert Pujols? Let him protect you, right? Holliday put together a solid season and earned his $17 million. Certainly we would have liked playoffs, but you can’t win them all right?

So let’s tally up the points again, shall we? With 5 of the 8 positions down, the current NL Central projections stand as:

Milwaukee — 23 pts
St. Louis — 21 pts
Cincinnati — 20 pts
Chicago — 18 pts
Pittsburgh — 14 pts
Houston — 9 pts

Writer’s Note: I did realize after finishing this run down that I skipped short stop! Maybe my Ryan Theriot thoughts will surprise some of you after reading most of my other things about short stops and defense in St. Louis. Then again, maybe not. Anyway, that will be the next one that I move on to.

Tyler Greene’s stock rising?

Tony LaRussa talked to the media today at the Cardinals Winter Warmup and indicated that the team has no true backup outfielder to Colby Rasmus and that he might look to an infielder to fill that role. Skip Schumaker would be the obvious choice, right? He’s right handed. A good hitter. Excellent outfield defender…

No, it’s Tyler Greene.

I honestly can’t wait for that lineup. An outfielder playing second base and an infielder playing center field. I would laugh, but I really don’t find that very funny.

The 27 year old Greene has had cups of coffee at the major league level over the past two seasons. In 92 career major league games, Greene is hitting .221 with 4 HR. In those 92 games, Greene has played 52 of them at short stop, 45 more among the other infield positions, and 1 in center field.

That is, by the way, Greene’s only outfield appearance in his professional career. He has made 539 minor league appearances, all but 10 of which are at short stop. At short stop, he’s also a worse defender than Ryan Theriot, who is a below average short stop himself.

Greene is a career .264 hitter in the minor leagues and that number is inflated by his last two seasons in Memphis, where he’s been a very solid 4-A player.

At 27, Greene is far from a prospect anymore, yet he hardly has any time in the major leagues. He’s also shown no ability to reliably hit pitching at the major league level. So we’ve got a career .221 hitter who is a subpar defensive player at every infield position set to be our primary infield utility player. This screams a problem at so many levels.

Fans will tell you, and so will management, depth was the primary issue that this team failed last year. We had a great starting lineup, but a combination of injury combined with major slumps by our middle infielders left us exposed with no viable backups. As spring training is set to open in less than a month, that same issue is glaring us right in the face again.

Nobody that we’ve signed for the bench inspires confidence in me with their ability to take over the position for two weeks and perform. The outfield looks decent with Jon Jay and Allen Craig. The infield is a disaster as we have no decent replacement for any of the four infield positions or at catcher. If Pujols, Schumaker, Theriot, Freese, or Molina go down for any major length of time, this team is screwed.

Meanwhile, Tony LaRussa tells us that Skip Schumaker is a quality second baseman. If by quality, he actually means the worst second baseman in major league baseball but the guy can hit for average, then he’s right. Moving Schumaker to center and Rasmus to a corner outfield spot would have made far more sense this year. Ryan at shortstop and Theriot at second (where he is excellent defensively). You save more runs on defense with that alignment.

With the current lineup and projected roster? The offense will need to perform or this season will be ugly. We’ll be watching Schumaker and Theriot butcher balls up the middle and Tyler Greene butchering plays in the outfield where he has virtually zero experience. I have more centerfield experience than Tyler Greene. I wonder if I could hit .220? Hmm. Anyone have John Mozeliak’s phone number?

Cards add pair of pitchers

The St. Louis Cardinals made a depth move today, adding veteran pitchers Miguel Batista and Ian Snell on minor league contracts.

Batista, 39, spent last season as a reliever for the Washington Nationals where he posted a 3.70 ERA in 57 relief appearances and 1 start. That start was a spot start taking the place of Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg. Batista has served time in the majors as both a reliever and a starter for several different teams. The Cardinals will be his 10th major league club.

Snell, 29, has struggled at the major league level for the most part. He did post 14 wins in 2006 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation. Snell went 0-5 with a 6.41 ERA in 8 starts and 4 relief appearances.

Both pitchers are reported to have clauses to get out of their contracts if they do not make the major league roster out of spring training.

Personally, I think Batista stands a better chance of making the team. He has experienced success both in the bullpen and as a starting pitcher. Plus he was successful just one year ago. I like that move. However, he is competing for a right handed spot in an already crowded field of talented right handed relievers. Batista’s advantage would be his starting ability.

I don’t quite understand the Snell signing, but my guess is that he would be more likely to decline a release and accept an assignment to Memphis if it came to that. There’s already talk that he’s the next Dave Duncan project.

However, both are minor league contracts so they are low risk and high reward if these guys pan out. The question would be, what do the Cardinals do if Snell does enough to earn a rotation spot and Kyle Lohse doesn’t? Do they sit Lohse’s nearly $12 million salary?

NL Central Preview: Third Base

Now on to the third baseman of the NL Central. There’s quite a variety of players at third base in the NL Central too. From the veterans Scott Rolen and Aramis Ramirez to the young guys in Casey McGehee, David Freese, Pedro Alvarez, and Chris Johnson there is talent both young and old.

The corner infield is usually a position that offense is relied upon and as long as you have a halfway decent glove, you’re considered capable. The top three were very easy to rank. The the rest, well that was a different story as the three of them only had partial seasons in order to judge their performance on.

6. Chris Johnson, Houston (.308, 11 HR, 52 RBI in 94 games)
No, not the football Chris Johnson. The baseball Chris Johnson plays third base for the Astros. The 26 year old righty got a chance to play every day in Houston near the end of the season and Johnson made the most of his rookie season. In his 94 games he slugged 11 HR and posted a .308 batting average. Fairly impressive and you would expect due a higher rankings, right? Well, his .908 fielding percentage of 2.02 range factor (the lowest among NL Central third baseman) scared me off a bit from ranking him higher. I’m a fan of examining both sides of the ball and if you slack in one area, the other side of the ball better be spectacular to make up for it. While he has potential, he’s definitely not due much more than this when you rank among current NL Central third basemen.

5. David Freese, St. Louis (.296, 4 HR, 46 RBI in 70 games)
“Mr. Freeze” as he was occasionally referred to on Cardinals forums last season, spent a good deal of it on the disabled list after hurting his ankle and then getting hurt again while on a rehab assignment. For the 27 year old Freese, the time is now to prove himself and the Cardinals organization seems to be letting him get an opportunity to do that. He is penciled in as the starter, and the team’s only insurance right now is Allen Craig who is far less than a defensive whiz at third base. He stacks up in the middle of the group of third basemen, but I like the next guy’s power, which pushed him over Freese in my rankings.

4. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh (.256, 16 HR, 64 RBI in 95 games)
Alvarez is another young player for the Pirates who showed some potential last season as he hit 16 HR in a little more than half a season. His .938 fielding percentage was the second lowest behind Houston’s Johnson, but his 2.86 range was only one-hundredth lower than that of Scott Rolen, the best defensive third baseman in the Central. I can definitely forgive a little drop in fielding percentage if you are getting to more balls per game than your rivals.

3. Scott Rolen, Cincinnati (.285, 20 HR, 83 RBI in 133 games)
Scott Rolen had maybe the best all around season of NL Central third basemen in 2010, so why did he drop to third? Well, it was his best season since his run in ’04-’06 where the Cardinals won everything in sight and went to win a World Series in 2006. But in 2010, Rolen had a resurgence and once again established himself as one of the game’s top third basemen. Though it is safe to assume that he is unlikely to repeat his 2010 offensive performance, but maybe I’m just being extra harsh on my favorite major league baseball player.

2. Aramis Ramirez, Chicago (.241, 25 HR, 83 RBI in 124 games)
On the flip side, Aramis Ramirez had one of the worst seasons of his career and was the only NL Central third baseman not to post an OPS+ above 100 (Ramirez posted a 92). While he is obviously on the decline from the prime of his career, Ramirez will still likely regress towards the mean in 2011, which means a slightly better performance for the Cubs.

1. Casey McGehee, Milwaukee (.285, 23 HR, 104 RBI in 157 games)
Durability and performance for McGehee in Milwaukee earned him the top spot of my NL Central third baseman rankings. The Cubs reject has found a home in Milwaukee where a pair of good seasons have earned him the starting job. His $428,000 salary might make him the best value at third base in the NL Central too.

And the standings after four positions ranked?

Cincinnati — 18 pts
Milwaukee — 18 pts
St. Louis — 15 pts
Chicago — 14 pts
Pittsburgh — 13 pts
Houston — 6 pts

NL Central Preview: Second Base

Moving on around the infield, it’s time to take a look at the NL Central’s second basemen.

It’s the first of the middle infield positions and one where offensive performance is rare. Usually teams prefer to have a better defensive player at second base rather than someone who is a pure offensive threat.

However, to that there are the rare exceptions, such as Atlanta’s Dan Uggla who is a second baseman by name only, his official position should read “Hitter.”

Let’s move onto the countdown, shall we?

6. Blake DeWitt, Chicago (.261, 5 HR, 52 RBI in 135 games between the Dodgers and the Cubs)
DeWitt is part of a very young Cubs middle infield, sharing it with Starlin Castro. He came over in a trade for Ryan Theriot and Ted Lilly at the trade deadline last season. It wasn’t too difficult to put him here though. His .265 batting average is the worst among my projected starters and his defensive numbers are about on par with that of St. Louis’ Skip Schumaker.

5. Skip Schumaker, St. Louis (.265, 5 HR, 42 RBI in 137 games)
“He can’t be any worse.” It’s a phrase uttered by many a Cardinals fan when they look at his 2010 defensive numbers. His .973 fielding percentage was among the lowest in the league for second basemen who had played as often as he had. However, I’m pretty sure I heard that same statement following his below average 2009 campaign as well. The disappointment to Cardinal fans rests on that batting average. Previously, Schumaker had posted two consecutive .300 seasons as the Cardinals in 2008 and 2009 only to slump with the bat this year. I felt that second base needed to be the Cardinals’ first position dealt with in the offseason, but the team decided that Schumaker was an acceptable player at second base and acquired replacements for the others. There’s no denying Schumaker’s hustle, but he’s an outfielder playing second base and after two years of it, he’s still an outfielder playing second base.

4. Jeff Keppinger, Houston (.288, 6 HR, 59 RBI in 137 games)
A natural second baseman, Keppinger first broke into the majors with Cincinnati playing 108 games at short stop in 2008. His second season in Houston was 2010 and he was given second base all to himself, and proved himself capable. His .288 batting average was second only to Neil Walker in the NL Central, while his .990 fielding percentage was second best as well. If he keeps the play up, he could definitely be a long-term second baseman in the major leagues.

3. Neil Walker, Pittsburgh (.296, 12 HR, 66 RBI in 110 games)
Walker had a very successful rookie campaign for Pittsburgh last season as he hit .296 in his 110 games for the Pirates. He also showed very good power for the position. Defensively, Walker is a solid player with his .985 fielding percentage and 4.59 range, though that is the lowest among NL Central second baseman. He might not have the range, but he usually catches what he gets to, which is really all you can ask from a player. If he’d had more games, he could have very easily moved up this list and he’s definitely a player to keep your eye on in the future. Not a bad building piece for Pittsburgh at all.

2. Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati (.275, 18 HR, 59 RBI in 155 games)
Yes, that Brandon Phillips. Cardinals fans will never forget Mr. Phillips for his actions that fateful night, and unfortunately neither will Mr. Larue. Phillips put together another solid season, even if it was potentially the worst offensive season of his career. He was the best defensive short stop in the NL Central with his .996 fielding percentage and 4.81 range factor and it was recognized as he won the Gold Glove. He also scored his first All Star appearance this season as well.

1. Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee (.269, 29 HR, 83 RBI in 160 games)
In his sixth year since sticking with the major league team, Rickie Weeks finally stayed healthy for an entire season and the results showed. He led the league in Plate Appearances and At Bats and set career highes in a lot of categories. Weeks was superb offensively and solid defensively. He is my pick as the best second baseman in the NL Central.

And now with three positions ranked, here are the projections:

  1. Cincinnati — 14 pts
  2. St. Louis — 13 pts
  3. Milwaukee — 12 pts
  4. Pittsburgh — 10 pts
  5. Chicago — 9 pts
  6. Houston — 5 pts
Writer’s note: Apparently Houston signed Bill Hall to play second base since Keppinger will miss the start of the season with an injury. The good news though, is that Hall’s .247 batting average and 18 HR leave him right where Keppinger was so no change is needed to the point totals. St. Louis should find out what it’d take to get Keppinger. Do they want Schumaker to play the outfield? I’d take all the salary in that deal too.