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

NL Central Preview: Catchers

The first in my series of previews of the National League Central Division. The system, I will use to determine the best team in the division will be to rank the starters at each offensive position, including top-5 starters and the closer. The best will receive 6 points, and down to just 1 point given out to the worst starting player at that position in the division. At the end I will total the points up to see who is the best team (and whether this system is actually a viable preview method). So let’s go find out!

I will look at the catching position to start the series. The catching position is difficult to equate because it isn’t all offensive ability, though that plays a large part. A players defense will also be taken into account and might give a player an advantage over another. I used a three-year average to get a grasp on players who may have had a career year versus a slump year.

After looking at rosters, the current starting catchers in the NL Central are expected to be the following: Geovany Soto in Chicago, Ramon Hernandez in Cincinnati, Humberto Quintero in Houston, Jonathan Lucroy in Milwaukee, Ryan Doumit in Pittsburgh, and Yadier Molina in St. Louis.

Taking a look at wins above replacement, it’s very quick to notice that Geovany Soto and Ryan Doumit possess the best bat of the catchers in the NL Central with Soto posting a 2.5 and Doumit posting a 2.2 with their bats.

Meanwhile, Yadier Molina is by far the best defensive catcher in the NL Central with his 1.1 defensive WAR while Humberto Quintero in Houston is the only other starting catcher with a positive defensive WAR with a 0.5.

Ranking simply by WAR is a little unfair to players who didn’t quite play as often as others. Quintero and Lucroy have the fewest games played with Quintero playing just enough to be considered the primary while Lucroy was a rookie last year. So that is taken into effect when deciding between two close players.

Following a look at a balance between offense and defense, I’m ranking the NL Central catchers in the following order:

  1. Yadier Molina, STL (6 pts, 2.5 WAR)
  2. Geovany Soto, CHI (5 pts, 2.4 WAR)
  3. Ryan Doumit, PIT (4 pts, 1.5 WAR)
  4. Ramon Hernandez, CIN (3 pts, 1.0 WAR)
  5. Jonathan Lucroy, MIL (2 pts, -0.2 WAR)
  6. Humberto Quintero, HOU (1 pt, 0.2 WAR)
Yadier Molina was the gold standard on defense and the only player who posted positive WAR both on offense and defense. He’s hit .286 and averaged 6 HR a season for St. Louis and posted a 94 OPS+ in his 133 games per season.Geovany Soto was the best hitter in the NL Central at the catcher position with his 2.5 offensive WAR. He hit .264 and averaged 17 HR a season for the Cubs and posted a 111 OPS+ in his 116 games per season.

Ryan Doumit was the second best hitter, but his defense dropped him below Soto and I considered moving him behind Hernandez as well simply for the defense, but his offense was really nice. He hit .277 and averaged 13 HR a season for Pittsburgh and posted a 107 OPS+ in his 105 games a season. However, Doumit’s numbers are bouyed by his .313 he posted in 2008. He has two consecutive seasons hitting in the .250s, despite that his power has remained.

Ramon Hernandez was a solid all around catcher. Had some bat and didn’t give up much on defense. He hit .269 and averaged 9 HR a season for Cincinnati and posted a 95 OPS+ in his 104 games a season.

Jonathan Lucroy was a rookie last season for Milwaukee and got the most playing time at catcher. His season was rather successful too. He hit .253 with 4 HR last year for Milwaukee along with a 71 OPS+ in his 75 games. With the lack of playing time, yet being close to Quintero for everything else, with a full season, I would give the edge to Lucroy between the two.

Finally, Humberto Quintero split a lot of time at catcher in Houston. He hit .232 with an average of 3 HR a season for Houston along with a 61 OPS+  in his 69 games per season. Last season was his first as the primary catcher in Houston.

So the totals thus far:

  1. St. Louis — 6 pts — 2.5 WAR
  2. Chicago — 5 pts — 2.4 WAR
  3. Pittsburgh — 4 pts — 1.5 WAR
  4. Cincinnati — 3 pts — 1.0 WAR
  5. Milwaukee — 2 pts — -0.2 WAR
  6. Houston — 1 pt — 0.2 WAR
I’ll likely take the week off for Christmas and resume next Monday with the NL Central first basemen, which is quite the power position with guys like Albert Pujols, reigning MVP Joey Votto, and Prince Fielder. Should be a fun one.

A look at the Cardinals minor league system

The debate has raged for awhile. Can the Cardinals build from within? Is Jeff Luhnow doing a good job? Overall opinion of the Cardinals minor league system has been down for some time. Part of that is because it was standard operating procedure for the Cardinals to usually trade valuable minor leaguers for veteran talent to fill out the major league roster.

While there is no way to quantitatively measure the production of our minor league system, one can look at who was produced, how long it took them to produce, and how old they were when they got to the major leagues.

So that’s what I did. For reference purposes, I began my look in 1995 with the first draft that was supervised by the new Cardinals’ GM Walt Jocketty. At that point I had two eras for my draft picks: Pre-Luhnow and Luhnow. (I can’t find any dates, I do know that Luhnow joined the Cardinals in 2003, but the earliest I can find of him being in charge of scouting and development was 2006 so this study might now be completely accurate in that regard.)

What I was looking at were players that have stuck in the major leagues. Played a regular part of a few years worth of major league teams or, in the case of some of the newer era study, have recently stuck and are expected to continue. What I used for the date they were “established” at the major league level was the first season that they were a regular contributor to a major league team.

Keep reading and let’s take a look.

There are the list of players that I determined were major league productions from the drafts of the last 15 seasons thus far. Pretty unimpressive when you consider that more than 40 players are drafted by each organization every season. That’s well over 600 players that were drafted and there are this few major league contributors is amazing. It goes to show you just how difficult it is to get to the major leagues in baseball (and why televising the MLB draft is a pointless idea). I wonder how productive other systems are in comparison, but I really have no desire to research them the same way.
Anyway, as you can see, the Pre-Luhnow era generated 13 major league players in 8 drafts. The players were an average of 22.8 years old when they reached the major leagues and took 3.4 years in the minor leagues to get there. On average, Pre-Luhnow drafts generated 1.6 major league players per draft.
What I did was then took those 3.4 years and subtracted them from 2010. Using that as a baseline, it’s unrealistic to expect any talent from the 2007 draft and beyond to have made the major league ballclub yet, though players like Daniel Descalso and Brett Wallace may begin their major league careers in the 2011 season.
In the Luhnow era, the draft has generated 8 major league players in 4 drafts. The players were an average of 23.9 years old when they reached the major leagues and took 4.1 years in the minor leagues to get there. On average, Luhnow era drafts generated 2 major league players per draft.
The extra year in age it is taking our minor leaguers to stick on the major league rosters concerns me. Granted there were no “can’t stop me” players like J.D. Drew, Albert Pujols, and Dan Haren. The Luhnow era numbers are also thrown off by players who were slowed by injury like Jaime Garcia or who changed positions like Jason Motte.
You can also see that the players we did end up keeping (rather than trading away) are slower to the major leagues in the Luhnow era than they were in the Pre-Luhnow era.
I also think that managerial philosophy has something to do with it, and Tony LaRussa certainly, I feel, has more pull and say in this under John Mozeliak than he did under Walt Jocketty. Tony prefers veteran ballclubs and the Berkman acquisition, blocking Jon Jay and Allen Craig front an every day position, is one that has his name written all over it. (So did Randy Winn and Jeff Suppan last year too)
We’ve been far more successful in the Luhnow era in producing pitchers, though they are mainly relievers except for Jaime Garcia. Meanwhile Pre-Luhnow we drafted a handful of solid major league position players. Unfortunately now we need those solid major league position players to be developed.
We seem to be producing more solid major league players, but fewer top level players. We might have a couple in Colby Rasmus and Jaime Garcia, but those would be the first two of the Luhnow era.
Considering that the Cardinals have only in the last three seasons really discussed changing from the mentality that “minor leaguers are used to trade for veteran talent” to a “build from within” philosophy, I don’t think you can quite declare it a failure just yet.
There is definitely talent down there that has potential. Guys like Shelby Miller and Zack Cox just to name a few. We brought in a handful of good players in this year’s draft alone. This was the first year that the Cardinals went and drafted straight talent, regardless of the cost involved in signing them. Previously, they were a little more careful with that.
Like it or not, it’s going to take a few more years to really be able to judge the failure or success of the Cardinals swap to a “build from within” philosophy, but I do know that the acquisition of Lance Berkman slows that down.
My complaint has always been that they sign veteran players who block the young talent they do retain, more so in recent years. We will probably have to wait one more year to find out if Jon Jay or Allen Craig are viable major leaguers. That is, unless we go sign another veteran to a one-year deal for 2012.