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.

NL Central Preview: First Base

Finally continuing my NL Central Preview as I look at first basemen. My life was way busy over the past two weeks but now back at home with the snow falling outside I’m left with nothing to do but write, so that is what I shall do.

The NL Central is packed with good first baseman. The field is led by one of the best players of all time in Albert Pujols and right behind him is Joey Votto. But you can’t forget Prince Fielder up in Milwaukee either.

I think I’ll start backwards and work my way up…

6. Brett Wallace, Houston (.222, 2 HR, 13 RBI in 51 games)
A former Cardinal farm hand, Brett Wallace has moved quite a bit the last few years and has been dealt in trades or peripheral trades for players such as Matt Holliday, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. Not a bad resume builder at all. However, with the lack of experience and his struggles last season, it was hard for me to really predict him any higher than he is. I’d expect a better performance in 2011, but I wouldn’t expect much more than .250 with 15 HR from him. First base is pretty much his to play in Houston and they believe in him there. That will be a big help for a developing player.
5. Garrett Jones, Pittsburgh (.247, 21 HR, 86 RBI in 158 games)
Jones followed up his great rookie season with a much worse sophomore season. In 82 games in 2009 he hit 21 HR and needed almost double that number of games to hit 21 again. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Jones, but based on his performance this is a very fair position on this list for him.

4. Carlos Pena, Chicago (.196, 28 HR, 84 RBI in 144 games for Tampa)
Pena had quite the down season last year as he hit under .200 as Tampa’s first baseman. At his best, Pena is a guy who can hit 40 HR and he signed in Chicago in an effort to rebuild that reputation as one of the league’s big hitters. To have a guy who could potentially hit 40 HR as the fourth best first baseman in the division shows the depth of talent at the position in the NL Central.

3. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee (.261, 32 HR, 83 RBI in 161 games)
In what is probably Prince’s final season in Milwaukee, the team has certainly gone all-in. They’ve acquired Zach Grienke and Shaun Marcum as they attempt to bring their team into competition with the Reds and the Cardinals. With a renovated Milwaukee team and being in a contract year, I expect Fielder to put up a career year in 2011 and lead the league in homers for Milwaukee. The team will be close enough come the trade deadline where they will have to heavily weigh a decision to keep him or trade him, but I think they’ll keep him in the hopes of finding post-season success.

2. Albert Pujols, St. Louis (.312, 42 HR, 118 RBI in 159 games)
This is a Cardinals blog, right? Then how can I have Albert Pujols at #2? Albert might be among the best players in major league history, but that doesn’t automatically qualify him for the top spot when his performance on the field is surpassed. Over the last couple seasons, Pujols’ walk rate has dropped and his strikeout rate has increased. Everything we heard was that he would make a bigger mark if he had protection. Perhaps he is trying harder with Holliday behind him? That’s possible, but his value has declined over the past couple seasons and I think Votto is the better player right now.

1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati (.324, 37 HR, 113 RBI in 150 games)
The 2010 NL MVP is my pick as the best first baseman in the NL Central going into the season. While Pujols is in decline, Votto is still moving towards his prime. While he may not improve much over his numbers that he put up in 2010, and actually I expect him to regress in his power numbers to the lower 30s, he is as critical to Cincinnati’s success as Albert Pujols is to St. Louis’.

Combined with the previous prediction for the catchers, the order stands as follows:

  1. St. Louis — 11 pts
  2. Cincinnati — 9 pts
  3. Chicago — 8 pts
  4. Milwaukee — 6 pts
  5. Pittsburgh — 6 pts
  6. Houston — 2 pts