Change-UpMarch 13, 2009
NL Central Preview
By Patrick Sullivan

With the AL and NL East behind us, we now turn our attention to the NL Central. Here's a reminder of how we are breaking this down.

Here’s the deal. For hitters we take PECOTA and the four projection systems on Fangraphs. Fangraphs, by the way, is awesome. They are doing terrific, differentiated, value-add work and if you are a regular reader of Baseball Prospectus and/or The Hardball Times, you should add Fangraphs to your favorites as well. Anyway, we average all five of these projection systems to give you a sense for how the number crunchers see the players performing this season.

For pitchers, in the interest of keeping things simple and consistent, we go with the three projection systems readily available on the Fangraphs player pages. No PECOTA because the data presentation was not as compatible with the numbers we wanted to display.

We went with depth charts from Some of the players penciled in below will not be starting, and some might not break camp. But we figured this was a pretty good way to go. As we draw closer to Opening Day with the other divisions, we will look to implement as accurate of an indication as possible with regard to who figures to start at each position.

We are changing three things this time.

1) Fangraphs has added Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, so we replace PECOTA with ZiPS. We are now simply averaging all available projections on the Fangraphs player pages.

2) We couldn't nail down a member of the mainstream media for this edition, so today you have staffers Rich Lederer, Jeremy Greenhouse and myself.

3) I took out W-L projections for starting pitchers because I do not think they are all that useful.

Without further ado...


                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Soto, G.        .285  .361  .486
Kendall, J.     .259  .333  .330
Quintero, H.    .249  .291  .356
Molina, Y.      .271  .327  .375
Hernandez, R.   .261  .324  .419
Doumit, R.      .288  .345  .471

Jeremy: Ryan Doumit and Geovany Soto can both mash, but Doumit has problems staying on the field. Soto could be the one to put up the first 30 homerun season from a catcher in five years.

Rich: You got it, Jeremy. Soto is the class of this division but Doumit made lots of noise last year and is no longer flying under the radar.

Sully: Looks like Houston needs Pudge.

First Base

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Lee, D.         .290  .369  .477
Fielder, P.     .281  .375  .539
Berkman, L.     .292  .398  .528
Pujols, A.      .330  .430  .612
Votto, J.       .289  .363  .496
LaRoche, Ad.    .269  .341  .482

Rich: The NL Central is rich in first basemen, including the best in the biz. If you can avoid drooling, just click on this link and enjoy.

Jeremy: Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, and last year Lance Berkman was right up there with him. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joey Votto overtake Berkman this year. Votto was the second best rookie in the NL behind Soto, and is now entering a peak age 25-26 season. He was also one of three Reds to finish in the top five along with Jay Bruce, and, of course, Edinson Volquez.

Sully: I don't know, Jeremy. I still would have to take Berkman. There really isn't a bad player in the bunch here, though.

Second Base

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Miles, A.       .285  .329  .367
Weeks, R.       .251  .359  .420
Matsui, K.      .272  .328  .397
Schumaker, S.   .290  .344  .397
Phillips, B.    .267  .317  .439
Sanchez, F.     .289  .329  .405

Jeremy: Yikes. Brandon Phillips is the only above average second baseman in this group. He’s a superb fielder and may be in line for some positive regression after a rather unlucky average on balls in play. Rickie Weeks is an enigma. He has as much potential as anyone, but he has confounded the scouts, and his stats are just as confusing. Last year among batters who qualified for the batting title, his .345 average on groundballs was best and .527 average on line drives in the league. I don’t know what to make of him.

Rich: I would reluctantly go with Phillips here. While he may not "believe that on-base percentage stuff," the free swinger is still better than the competition (although not nearly as much as his counting stats would suggest).

Sully: If Mike Fontenot gets more time than Aaron Miles and comes close to replicating his 2008, then the balance of power at second in the NL Central could look a little different.

Third Base

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Ramirez, A.     .288  .359  .515
Hall, B.        .248  .316  .435
Blum, G.        .242  .299  .377
Barden, B.      .255  .314  .378
Encarnacion, E. .274  .351  .470
LaRoche, An     .241  .331  .384

Jeremy: I really hope Andy LaRoche pans out for the sake of Neal Huntington. Aramis Ramirez is another solid Cubbie. They have a bunch of All-Stars but no superstars.

Rich: This is the year when we find out if LaRoche is any good. He's 25 years old and has been basically handed the starting job despite an absolutely horrible two months in Pittsburgh (.152/.227/.232). Keep your eye on Neil Walker, a former catcher, if LaRoche fails to deliver the goods.

Sully: Ramirez is clearly the class of the NL Central third basemen. A healthy, productive Troy Glaus could change the dynamics at this position.


                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Theriot, R.     .284  .356  .361
Hardy, J.       .275  .335  .459
Tejada, M.      .291  .338  .441
Greene, K.      .249  .301  .426
Gonzalez, A.    .257  .311  .413
Wilson, J.      .272  .319  .376

Jeremy: J.J. Hardy is a really nice player—perhaps the best on the Brewers. I’m most interested in seeing how Khalil Greene does this year outside of Petco. Greene couldn’t do a thing right last year, but if he reverts back to 2007 form, he could be a really nice pickup for the Cards. Per Hit Tracker Online, Greene’s average standard distance on homeruns over the last three years been 382.9, 402.7, and 385.8 respectively. Was 2007 an anomaly?

Rich: Not a lot to pick from here but Greene could be the sleeper. He has spent virtually his entire career playing home games at Petco Park but will call Busch Stadium III home this year. His OPS has been 22 percent higher on the road (.802) than at home (.658). If healthy, Greene could hit 20-25 home runs and his team-dependent stats will benefit by being surrounded by a better lineup in St. Louis than San Diego.

Sully: Quietly, Ryan Theriot had an excellent 2008. If he's the worst player in the lineup, it's in all likelihood going to be on a good team.

Left Field

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Soriano, A.     .277  .333  .518
Braun, R.       .299  .352  .579
Lee, C.         .293  .350  .515
Rasmus, C.      .244  .325  .412
Hopper, N.      .288  .338  .355
Morgan, N.      .277  .330  .362

Jeremy: Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Braun are actually somewhat similar players. They started out as atrocious infielders but gained a great amount of value when they moved to left. They’re both power/speed threats. And out of all left-fielders, they ranked 2nd and 3rd in swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone, behind the hacktastic Delmon Young.

Rich: Kudos to the Brewers for moving Braun off the hot corner last year. He went from being the worst-fielding third baseman in the majors to a decent left fielder with the potential of becoming a plus defensive player due to his athleticism.

Sully: It's the "have's" and the "have not's" for left field in the NL Central. Half the division trots an excellent left fielder out there everyday and half the division will in all likelihood be giving back runs to their opposition in left.

Center Field

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Johnson, R.     .279  .343  .401
Cameron, M.     .243  .330  .442
Bourn, M.       .248  .314  .336
Ankiel, R.      .260  .322  .492
Taveras, W.     .271  .325  .332
McLouth, N.     .268  .345  .460

Jeremy: The Cardinals have some great upside in each of their outfielders. Colby Rasmus is a top-five prospect, Rick Ankiel has some of the best raw power and one of the best arms in the game, and Ryan Ludwick just demonstrated how awesome he can be if all the pieces fall into place. Of course, it’s doubtful all three of them pan out this year.

Rich: Little-known fact: Ankiel hit .270/.343/.537 with 20 HR in the first half last season. He then suffered an abdominal injury in late July and hit .169/.286/.308 over the next 28 games before being shut down for the remainder of the season in early September.

Sully: I am interested to see how Nate McLouth backs up his breakout 2008. If he can post a .200 (or greater) ISO for the third straight season, he will have another superstar campaign.

Right Field

                 AVG   OBP   SLG
Bradley, M.     .291  .392  .502
Hart, C.        .279  .329  .482
Pence, H.       .287  .339  .493
Ludwick, R.     .275  .347  .517
Bruce, J.       .280  .335  .507
Moss, B.        .263  .327  .434

Rich: Can Milton Bradley stay healthy for a full season? He hasn't played 100 games in the field since 2004. The guy can flat out hit (over .300/.400/.500 in each of the past two years) and, depending on playing time, will either will be an MVP candidate or a bust.

Jeremy: “Well, you can get a healthy guy to go out there and play 162 games, but he won’t do what I did in 120.” – Bradley

Sully: Nicely done, Jeremy.

Starting Pitching

                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Zambrano, C.    7.17   3.89   1.34   3.83 
Harden, R.     10.86   3.63   1.15   2.88 
Dempster, R.    7.30   3.60   1.31   3.93
Lilly. T.       7.86   3.10   1.28   4.06
Marshall, S.    6.56   3.37   1.37   4.36
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Gallardo, Y.    8.66   3.46   1.29   3.70
Bush, D.        6.13   2.20   1.27   4.27
Suppan, J.      5.00   3.27   1.52   4.98
Looper, B.      5.09   2.53   1.36   4.44
Parra, M.       7.71   3.86   1.46   4.30
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Oswalt, R.      6.93   2.16   1.25   3.66
Rodriguez, W.   7.54   3.32   1.39   4.35
Hampton, M.     4.84   3.45   1.50   4.90
Moehler, B.     5.20   2.54   1.45   4.88
Backe, B.       6.29   4.12   1.59   5.47
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Wainwright, A.  6.34   2.71   1.30   3.73  
Pineiro, J.     5.21   2.68   1.45   4.94
Carpenter, C.   6.91   2.41   1.23   3.60
Lohse, K.       5.71   2.58   1.37   4.34
Wellemeyer, T.  6.56   3.73   1.39   4.21
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Harang, A.      7.79   2.38   1.29   4.20
Volquez, E.     8.94   4.22   1.36   3.85
Arroyo, B.      6.88   2.89   1.37   4.43
Cueto, J.       8.24   3.17   1.34   4.50
Owings, M.      7.04   3.29   1.38   4.61 
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Maholm, P.      6.03   2.98   1.39   4.35
Duke, Z.        4.58   2.45   1.50   4.89
Snell, I.       7.63   3.83   1.50   4.71
Gorzelanny, T.  6.38   3.96   1.46   4.51 
Karstens, J.    5.64   2.81   1.40   4.62

Jeremy: The Cubs are on their way to leading the Majors in strikeouts for the ninth straight year, but the Reds might be able to match them K for K. Last year the Reds front four put up an 8.09 K/9 rate while the Cubs managed a 7.91 K/9 rate. Also, Carlos Zambrano and Micah Owings will have an interesting silver slugger race. The skill of hitting for pitchers is entirely undervalued.

Rich: While the Cubs rotation will get most of the attention, it says here that the Reds starting five will be every bit as good after adjusting for ballpark effects (unless Harden is healthy all year).

Sully: Just as compelling as the Cubs/Reds comparison is for best rotation in the division is the 'Stros/Bucs battle for the worst. Boy, do those two rotations look bad?


                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Marmol, C.     10.66   4.43   1.22   3.16
Samardzija, J.  6.37   4.24   1.49   4.57
Gregg, K.       8.06   3.95   1.33   3.81
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Hoffman, T.     7.76   2.49   1.21   3.71
Villanueva, C.  7.92   3.05   1.29   4.00
Riske, D.       7.28   4.19   1.43   4.21
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Valverde, J.   10.54   3.34   1.21   3.49 
Brocail, D.     6.77   3.13   1.34   4.00
Geary, G.       6.02   3.12   1.34   3.81 
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Motte, J.       8.89   3.37   1.29   3.70 
Franklin, R.    5.45   2.93   1.37   4.21
Perez, C.       9.40   5.17   1.42   3.99
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Crodero, F.     9.93   3.92   1.32   3.55
Weathers, D.    6.09   3.80   1.43   4.18
Bray, B.        9.23   3.72   1.39   4.02
                 K/9   BB/9   WHIP    ERA
Capps, M.       7.03   1.69   1.12   3.33
Grabow, J.      7.65   3.98   1.40   4.09
Yates, T.       8.00   4.66   1.51   4.50

Jeremy: Who’s going to close in St. Louis? Chris Perez and Jason Motte both have similar profiles and it’s always an experience to see how Tony La Russa manages his pen.

Rich: There are some live arms in this division, headed by Carlos Marmol, who has struck out 210 batters while allowing only 81 hits in 156.2 IP over the past two seasons. No, that is not a misprint or a typo. The 26-year-old righthander steps into the closer role for the Cubs with the departure of Kerry Wood. Veteran Kevin Gregg is waiting in the wings if it turns out Marmol is more comfortable pitching the eighth rather than the ninth inning.

Sully: Look at that projected walk rate for Perez! Motte has got to start the year as the Closer in St. Louis.


Rich: Did anybody outside Cincinnati notice that Chris Dickerson hit .304/.413/.608 last year? He hit home runs, walked, and stole bases. Oh... and he turns 27 in April.

Sully: With Kosuke Fukudome and Miles/Fontenot, I like the Cubs depth.

Who are the awards candidates from the NL Central?


ROY: Edinson Volquez (Actually, Rasmus.)

CYA: Rich Harden, with requisite disclaimers

MVP: Albert Pujols

Rich: Good one on the Rookie of the Year, Jeremy.

MVP: Let's get real now.

CYA: Harden, but only if he can throw 200 innings for the first time in his career. The only other pitcher I could see winning this award would be Volquez.

ROY: It won't be an Astro. How's that?

Any surprises this year?

Jeremy: I think the Reds and Astros will switch places in the standings.

Rich: The Reds play .500 ball for the first time since Bill Clinton's presidency.

Sully: I am with you guys on the Reds. All they need is a little bounce back from Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo along with anticipated developmental strides from their youngsters.


Cubs: 95-67
Brewers: 86-76
Reds: 83-79
Cardinals: 81-81
Astros: 73-89
Pirates: 66-96

Rich: Chicago wins it in a run, run, runaway. Call it ten games. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs have the easiest-rated schedule in the majors. Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati will battle it out for second place. The winner may have an outside shot at a wild card berth although I would be surprised if any of these three teams wins more games than either the Mets or Phillies. Houston barely escapes the cellar, dropping at least a dozen games in the standings year over year. Pittsburgh finishes last for what will be the last time in the next five years.

Sully: I am with you, Rich. I think the Cubs will win their division by a greater margin than any other division winner in 2009.


Thanks, guys! AL Central next Friday...


Nice work gentlemen. Here's my thoughts on the Cards:

Albert - always gives the Cards a chance. Interesting to see the hitter Pujols most closely resembles is no longer Joe D. Of course I'd take Jimmie Foxx as a good likeness any day.

2cd: Well, Skip can hit right handed pitching very well, at a pace that would put him at the class of the division. Lefties, not so much, on the other end of the spectrum. Defense? Well he tries hard. Hopefully it will be solid enough until the Cards can get a D replacement into the game.

SS: Methinks Green will have a very solid year.

3rd: Joe Mather will actually anchor it until Glaus returns. Mather, decent, not great glove. Doesn't get cheated on his swings as he'll hit the ball hard & with power. Will also K a bunch and his walk rate won't blow anyone away. Glaus, when healthy is a solid offensive guy, and check his defense #'s from last year, he should have won a Gold Glove last year.

OF: High risk high reward sums them up, all four main contenders: Rasmus, Ankiel, Ludwick, even Chris Duncan. I really wish Ankiel would have made the switch about 3 years earlier than he did. As it is, the potential is down right scary. Ludwick: don't expect him to put up #'s like last season, but if healthy, I think he'll be a solid player. Dunc? Absolute wild card, no one really knows. Rasmus? The tools are their, but will they come together, or be kind of like Richie Weeks?

Pitching: If Carp is healthy, the rotation is much better and may surprise. Pen: Remember the name Josh Kinney. Lots of potential in the pen, but lots of youth and Tony doesn't always play nice with the youngsters.

Record wise, the Cards could win anywhere from 70 (if all goes bad)to 90(if all goes good) games. I'd pencil them in right where you guys did, battling for 2cd and a .500 record.

I've noticed Chris Dickerson, but almost forgot about him though. I'm very curious to see how much of an impact he'll have on the Reds offense. Cincy will definitely make a run for 2nd place and I wouldn't be surprised if they take it. I don't like the Brew Crew's low OBP.

I believe the Astros will fill the bottom slot in the division this year though. The Pirates are going to be a little surprising at surprising, will only depend on their pitching.

I was just checking out Duncan earlier today, and up until he got injured in the summer of 2007, here's what he had done, in more or less a season's worth of plate appearances, from his callup in 2006 up til his injury:

540ab, .294/.373/.581, 104r/98rbi, 26/3/42 2b/3b/hr, 68bb 145k

Now, his defense is subpar, and he's been bad vs. lefties, but if the titanium screw in his neck works out---and he's been mashing this spring as he's fully healthy for the 1st time since 2007---then Rasmus will probably be starting the season in AAA, especially if Skip's transition to 2b falls flat, as it appears it will.

Then you've got 30+ home run power at all three OF positions...

That remark by Jeremy got me thinking. If you've got good hitting pitchers like Zambrano and Owings why not bat them leadoff when they're not pitching? If they get on, send in a runner. They'd get 120 extra PA a year and could win a couple of games. Where's the downside? Their asses ought to out there running anyway.

Forgot to include a comment on the bench. I was going to discuss Dickerson too. His BABIP has oddly risen each level since 2006--check this link. ( .331, .366, .376, .377, .410 in the Majors.) And his .417 average on grounders was tops for players with 100 PAs. (10 for 24.)

Walter, I've wondered the same thing myself.

Re pitchers leading off when not pitching, a team would be limited to this strategy in away games only. For home games, pitchers would need to play in the field for the top half of the inning. Therefore, the maximum benefit would be about half as advertised or approximately 65 games/65 "additional" plate appearances. I put additional in quotes because these same good-hitting pitchers *could* be utilized as pinch hitters.

Burning a pinch runner in the first inning reduces a manager's option later in the game so that is a decided negative. In addition, how much more productive would pitchers like Zambrano and Owings be vs. the position player they would be replacing? Owings, maybe, based on his career OBP (.355) and OPS (.772). Not really as special when viewed in that context. Zambrano, however, just isn't all that great (.246/.633). In fact, he has only had one season (2008) in which his OBP was higher than .300 or his OPS reached .800.

I would prefer using them as pinch hitters in the right matchup or if my bench was depleted (or as a relief pitcher on a couple days rest in an unusually long, extra-innings contest) but not in the lead-off spot to open games.


Walter and I overstate the case a bit, but there are times when it would make sense to have a pinch-hitter start the game.

First, a team would need several decent hitters, so that the impact of losing one early on would not hinder the team's ability in actual late-inning pinch-hit situations.

Second, the first-inning pinch hitter would have to be competent enough to run the bases for himself.

Third, the starting pitcher would have to be an extremely poor hitter.

The first-inning pinch hitter would theoretically be taking an at-bat away from the starting pitcher, who would then immediately sub in to pitch the first inning.

There are very few circumstances, to my knowledge, where pitchers should bat over twice in a game, and moving them down a spot or two in the order would take away their at-bats and give them to a better hitter. Then, when the pitchers spot comes up a third time, a pinch-hitter will be in an effective position batting in front of the run producers in the lineup. The difference between average hitters and average pitchers per is probably something like .2 runs per plate appearance, which is generally valuable enough to be worth sacrificing an extra inning or two from that pitcher on the mound.

If you have enough bats to burn, I think you should take advantage of them early in the game so as not to waste them. That's how I see it.

I could see Owings and Zambrano getting 20-40 ABs a year as pinch-hitters. Remember Brooks Kieschnick? The Brewers used him as a middle reliever and PH.

Here is last year's...

Always underestimating the Cardinals. With a healthy Carpenter the Cardinals have the best pitcher in the division. Correct me if I am wrong but I do believe he is the only pitcher in the division to win a Cy Young.

Right, it's only 65 sure at bats on the road for the pitcher leading off.

That leaves 65 games he could be used as a pinch hitter at home.

He doesn't have to lead off. The idea is to get him up there in the first inning in road games.

You don't burn a pinch runner if he gets on. You send in the position player that he's hitting for to run.

Don't tell me both Cub middle infielders hit better than Zambrano. I don't care what his OBP is. I know you've worked it all out on paper but try explaining that to the pitchers who have to face them.