On Monday, I widened my scope on baseball and listed some players to watch for the NL West. Today, I’m gonna run down the not-too-highly-regarded National League Central Division. Despite producing a World Series winner recently–the 2006 Cardinals–fans, especially those of the AL East tend to think of the NL Central as one of the weakest divisions in the game. Regardless, there’s still some good talent there.
Let’s start, as we did with the NL West, with the 2009 division winner, the Cardinals. The guy we need to watch here is rather obvious: Colby Rasmus. As a rookie in ’09, he put up “meh” numbers at the plate overall–a .311 wOBA–but his IsoP was a respectable .156. His fielding in center field was also impressive, as he posted a 13.4 UZR/150 in 124 games. In 2010, we should watch for Colby to continue his impressive fielding and also to improve on his hitting. He’s projected to wOBA anywhere from .329 (Marcel) to .343 (CHONE). Those numbers may not be “blow-you-away”, but paired with his fielding, they would make him about a three win player.
For the second place Cubs, there are two guys upon whom to keep an eye. The first is an old friend: Xavier Nady. After what was essentially a career year in ’08, Nady missed most of 2009 with an elbow injury and is now recovering from Tommy John Surgery. The list of position players coming back from a second TJS is rather small, so it will be very interesting to see how Xavier fares this year.
The second Cub to watch is Geovany Soto. After an impressive Rookie of the Year season in 2008, Soto disappointed in 2009. While the peripherals were pretty solid–.103 IsoD, .163 IsoP–his raw numbers were pretty bad: .218/.321/.381. Part of this could’ve been bad luck. His BABIP in 2008 was a robust .332, but was a meager .246 in 2009. Gevoany had a slight dip in Line Drive percentage and a slight uptick in Ground Ball percentage in 2009, and his Fly Ball percentage stayed essentially the same. While the rise in ground balls might suggest more hits (ground balls are more likely to sneak through the infield than fly balls are to drop in the outfield), it appears that they were gobbled up by infielders, which obviously led to more outs, as did the slight fall in line drives. If those numbers can rebound, it’s possible that the Cubs’ backstop will have another strong season.
Moving to Milwaukee, we move to the left side of the infield. With the trade of J.J. Hardy to the Twins, young Alcides Escobar will man shortstop for the Brew Crew. In 2009, he hit .304/.333/.381 in 38 games (134 PAs). Escobar is very fast and if he improves his patience at the plate a bit and plays well in the field, he’ll be a solid player for the Brewers in 2010.
Cincinnati’s Joey Votto turned some head last year after a second place ROY finish in ’08. He pounded the ball in ’09–.303/.414/.567–and after dealing with an anxiety issue, he seems poised to pick up in 2010 where he left off. He hit 25 home runs last year and playing in Cincy, he’s definitely got a chance to crack thirty in 2010. First base is already rich with talent–Pujols, Tex, Gonzalez, Cabrera, Youkilis–and Joey Votto is ready to climb into the ranks of a top first baseman in the Major Leagues.
The Astros don’t really have much going for them. There isn’t much exciting young talent patrolling Houston, so I’m going to go with the vet: Lance Berkman. I pick Fat Elvis for a simple reason: I don’t think we realize how good this dude has been in his career. His line sits at .299/.412/.555/.967/147+. In an 11 season career, he’s gone at least .300/.400/.500 seven times and has had an OBP of at least .420 four times. Last year was a “down” year for Berkman–.274/.399/.509 and his OPS+ was “only” 139. It will be interesting to see how Berkman recovers. This year, and the next ones, will be crucial in cementing his legacy. If there is a quick decline–unlikely–it may rob him of Hall of Fame inclusion. If he picks it back up–or just stays at his current pace–Berkman should be destined for Cooperstown.
Pittsburgh, baseball wise, doesn’t usually have much to look forward to. However, Andrew McCutchen could change that. He was very impressive in his rookie season–11.0% BB rate, .185 IsoP, .368 wOBA, 128 wRC+–and we should all be looking to see what he builds on in 2010. We’ve likely got a budding star on our hands and even if it’s out of a misplaced, and probably inappropriate, sense of pity, it’s nice to see the Pirates have a young star they’ve developed on the rise.