The NL Central fields one of the best divisions in all of baseball, as evidenced by three teams making the postseason a year ago. The St. Louis Cardinals have owned the NLCS for the past three years, winning it all in 2011, making it to game 7 of the 2012 NLCS and appearing in the World Series last season. The Cincinnati Reds are hoping to make its fourth postseason appearance in the last five years and with some of its players on this list, that can definitely happen. The Pittsburgh Pirates are back and it doesn’t hurt when the reigning NL MVP plays for them. The Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs both had struggles a year ago, but one would be hard pressed to think those teams didn’t have its share of talent either.
Who then makes the list of top players by position in the NL Central? Check out this segment of our MLB preview content:
C: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals: There are some on this list to file under the “no-brainer” category. This is one of them. In addition to garnering a reputation as a defensive wizard behind the plate, Molina has demonstrated he can also beat a team with his bat. Seeing as he finished 4th in NL MVP voting two years ago and 3rd last season, it very well could only be a matter of time before he gets the honor that Andrew McCutchen won a year ago and it very well could be this season. The only question fans ought to be asking themselves is if they’d rather have Molina or Buster Posey behind the plate for their favorite team.
1B: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds: Ditto Molina on the no-brainer. The 2010 NL MVP probably won’t end up with something like 500 home runs in his career. It doesn’t mean there aren’t others ways of him beating someone. He’s a very good hitter, having batted than .300 in each of the past five seasons. Votto is excellent at hitting doubles as well. In three of the last four seasons, he has finished top 6 in MVP voting. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is his ability to take walks. For the past three seasons, he has led the NL in walks each year and in last season’s case, led all of MLB with 135. He’s led either the NL or the entire game in on-base percentage since 2010. Just like with Molina, calling Votto the best at his position in his division is not enough. He has an argument for the best in the league.
2B: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds: Phillips has done some breaking out as a player. He was the first ever Reds second baseman to have a 30-30 season, which is impressive considering the kind of career Hall of Famer Joe Morgan put together. Phillips reached the 100 RBI plateau for the first time in his career last season. He’s a Gold Glove player who has consistently made an impact at the Major League level in his career. If the Reds get back to the playoffs in 2014, Phillips is sure to play a big part in that.
SS: Jean Segura, Milwaukee Brewers: A couple of seasons ago, Starlin Castro would’ve been a good selection to put on here. From 2010-2012, he was solid. Last season was undoubtedly the worst year of his career up to this point, and now he has to earn it back. On top of that, according to Cubs beat writer Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago, Castro’s return to the lineup has been indefinitely delayed as he has fluid in his leg from a March 2 hamstring injury. For Segura, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim may wish they could take him back. Six NL Central players were top 10 in MVP voting in 2013 and one should not be surprised to see the young shortstop’s name on there for years to come, especially if the Brewers can one day contend again like they did in 2011. He is terrific at the plate and someone to keep an eye on when it comes to stealing bases, as evidenced by 44 of them a season ago. Segura can only get better.
3B: Matt Carpenter: Carpenter gets the edge here over Aramis Ramirez. He scored 126 runs and hit 55 doubles in 2013 to lead all of baseball. He also tied Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers with an MLB leading 199 hits. Carpenter didn’t make his debut until he was 25 and is entering his age 28 season now, but he is here to stay, no question. Ramirez has been very underrated and had a nice first season in Milwaukee in 2012. However, Carpenter can be one of the best players in the game for years to come.
Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinals: In case one asks, yes, Ryan Braun is being left off the outfield list intentionally due to all the controversy that has surrounded him the past couple of seasons. On performance and numbers alone, Braun appears headed for Cooperstown, but given how unforgiving the Baseball Writers Association of America has been to players connected to performance enhancing drugs, it’s unlikely he’ll get in anytime soon. For many years, Holliday has been an MVP-type player himself and one of many in this Redbirds lineup capable of doing heavy damage. As for his case for the Hall of Fame, it’s debatable, but if he never gets in, like with Ramirez of the Brew Crew, he definitely would be in the Hall of Very Good. He’s been with St. Louis since the middle of 2009, and this team has qualified for the postseason every year he has been there with the exception of 2010. Based on what he has done, he’s been a reason why.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates: NL MVP in 2013. 3rd place finish in 2012. Absolutely no disrespect intended for Carlos Gomez, but McCutchen is the real deal. He’s so lethal at the plate and can really turn on the juices, too. He may not have Billy Hamilton type speed, but the 27-year-old can hit his share of triples and swipe bags himself. Though he doesn’t take walks like Votto does, he has pretty good plate discipline also. The man has had two consecutive seasons of a .400 on-base percentage and he’s not too shabby on defense either. Gomez is good, but McCutchen seems poised to own this honor as the NL Central’s best centerfielder for years to come.
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds: This distinction may soon belong to Oscar Taveras. For now, Bruce gets the honors. He flirted with 100 RBIs in 2011 and 2012 before bringing in 109 last season. He’s finished 10th in NL MVP voting both in 2012 and 2013. Bruce is only going to get better as a hitter, since he already seems to have home runs down pat. On top of that, 2013 was definitely his best season defensively. With Bruce seemingly getting better himself and how high of a ceiling Taveras has, this has the making to be a fun debate a few seasons down the line.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: There’s no way to slice this other than since 2009, Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in the game, period. He finished 3rd in NL Cy Young voting in 2009, 2nd in 2010 and 2nd in 2013. He is an innings eater, 241.2 last season placed him first in MLB. He has a good postseason resume and was just fantastic against Pittsburgh in last year’s NLDS, with the exclamation mark coming with a complete game performance in the deciding fifth game. Just as the NL MVP could soon belong to Molina, the same could be said about Wainwright and the Cy Young.
Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs: He was the only Cub to make the All-Star team in 2013 and he earned it. Last season, he showed himself to be a tough-luck pitcher. If one looks past the 9-12 record, he had a breakout season with 200 innings and a very good 127 ERA+, complemented with a 1.145 WHIP. He pitched 44 more innings in 2013 than he did in 2012. Yet he allowed fewer homers and only issued 12 more walks. He’s not too terrible with the bat either.
Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates: What a way to resurrect a career. At one point, Liriano’s future looked so bright, one had to put shades on after his 2006 season. He would miss all of 2007 and had his struggles in 2008 and 2009 before an improved 2010. 2011 and ’12 were not so kind to him. Still, Neal Huntington picked him up and what a move it turned out to be. Liriano had his best season since 2006 and helped pitch the Pirates into the playoffs. He struck out 100 more batters than he walked a season ago, can go the distance and is a very good control pitcher.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: He only pitched in 60.2 innings last season, but was solid in the time he did have. In 2011 he turned in a really good performance and 2012 was his career year, finishing 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It wouldn’t be farfetched at all to suggest he can get somewhere in the top-5 again this season, should he stay healthy. When he is pitching, he’s a force to be reckoned with and has earned his spot on this list.
Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals: Yes, even though he doesn’t have a full season under his belt, Wacha is already this good. It’s not just Wainwright that Clayton Kershaw is going to have to fight off, but Wacha as well and maybe even Shelby Miller in the future, too. St. Louis is rich in pitching and seeing as how Wacha is only 22, he seems destined to be a stud for a very long time. Though he was really good in the regular season last year, it would be hard to name a better postseason pitcher than Wacha was last season, save for Game 6 of the World Series. The reigning NLCS MVP has all the makings of being a superstar and how he does in his first full season should be something to keep an eye on.
Setup: Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates: I was one of those people who said Mark Melancon deserved a shot at closer last year when Jason Grilli went down with an injury. I remember analysts on MLB Network saying the Pirates should’ve traded for someone established and kept Melancon in the 8th inning. Nonetheless, the Bucs stuck Melancon in that closer’s role once Grilli got hurt and seeing as he notched 16 saves last season, coupled with a fantastic strikeout to walk ratio and 1.95 ERA in the 9th inning, it looks like he turned out alright.
Closer: Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds: He’s got the saves, he’s got the ERA+, he’s got the WHIP. And now he has a broken face. Hopefully he returns sooner than later. Chapman brings a lot of heat and makes this list as the best closer in the NL Central and is in the upper echelon of the best closers in the game, period. He wasn’t quite as lights out last year as he was in 2012, but make no mistake, he doesn’t make life at the plate fun for opposing hitters at all. The Reds have a solid foundation of talent and Chapman is one of many reasons why this team has gotten a taste of postseason baseball in recent years.