Comparing the Top of the NL Central, Player by Player

It seems pretty certain that the Milwaukee Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds are the cream of the crop in the NL Central going into 2011.  There have already been plenty of projections done on the three teams with most of them verifying what most people could already tell you: It's going to be a tight race.  I decided to take a look at how the Brewers compared to the other two, position-by-position, and looked at all three teams together at the end.

CINCINNATI vs. MILWAUKEE

Catcher: Ramon Hernandez/Ryan Hanigan versus Jonathan Lucroy

Last year, Hernandez had a .297/.364/.428 slash line which would be good for any player and even more so for a catcher.  He only played in 97 games last year and hasn't been in over 100 games since 2008.  If the Reds continue with what they have been doing the last couple of seasons, Hernandez and Hanigan will be splitting time at catcher.  Hanigan is no slouch with the bat, either, hitting .300/.405/.429 last season with a career .379 career OBP.  Lucroy is the Brewers catcher for the foreseeable future, though he struggled  hitting in his first year in the majors as he posted a .253/.300/.329 line.  That should improve, but man those Reds catchers are awfully good.

1B: Joey Votto versus Prince Fielder

Votto is coming off a season in which he gained more fWAR than Fielder ever has in a single season.  Fielder on the other hand is due for one of his every-other-year powerhouse type seasons, and is in a contract year.  This was close, but I think Votto is slightly better.

2B: Brandon Phillips versus Rickie Weeks

I remember a few years ago when Phillips was hyped as a potential number one fantasy draft pick due to his tremendous 2007 season.  His hitting has dropped off since then--he is now a fairly average hitter with good pop in his bat.  Phillips is also a defensive stalwart, something that will never be said of Weeks.  However, Weeks showed us last season what he is capable of doing at the plate, and his fresh new contract reflects that.  In a healthy season, I think it's fair to take Weeks over Phillips.

SS: Paul Janish versus Yuniesky Betancourt

Paul Janish is a mediocre hitter and a good fielder so he wins by default.

3B: Scott Rolen versus Casey McGehee

Despite being 61 years old, Rolen hit .285/.358/.497 with 20 HR and played the great defense for which he is renowned (sidenote: did you know that's how you spell renowned?  I always thought it was reknowned).  I was actually surprised that he had been hitting as well as he had the last few years, I thought 2010 was a huge renaissance for him.  He still won't repeat last seasons offensive performance, though.  Casey McGehee (.285/.337/.464 in 2010) might very well be able to give Rolen a run for his money hitting, but there's no chance of him competing defensively. 

LF: Jonny Gomes versus Ryan Braun

Gomes is an average hitter (.330 wOBA career, .327 wOBA 2010) and is evidently terrible defensively with a -19.1 UZR last year and -19 UZR overall in left field.  Ryan Braun, though he is a poor fielder himself, is one of the premier hitters in the game. 

CF: Drew Stubbs versus Carlos Gomez

Drew Stubbs is an above average hitter, with a .345 2010 wOBA and career .342 wOBA coupled with his 2010 slash line of .255/.329/.444.  That puts him miles ahead of Gomez offensively, however Stubbs had a 0 UZR in CF last year and has a 5.4 UZR in his career at the position.  Gomez, of course, is probably one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.  I still think I need to give the slight edge to Stubbs.

RF: Jay Bruce versus Corey Hart

Both of these players figured out something last year.  Bruce raised his batting average and, consequently, his on base percentage drastically and posted a slash line of .281/.353/.493 whereas Hart saw a big jump in his slugging percentage .107 pointshigh from the previous season with a slightly higher OBP and posted a line of .283/.340/.525.  Bruce hit 25 HR, Hart hit 31.  However, Jay Bruce is a great defensive player in right field, whereas Hart is below average. 

1SP: Johnny Cueto versus Zack Greinke

Johnny Cueto was a great pitcher for the Reds last year.  He's only 25 years old and he led the Reds pitching staff to the playoffs with a 3.64 ERA and 3.97 FIP.  He doesn't strike out a ton of batters, but doesn't walk many either, nor does he give up a lot of home runs.  That being said, Zack Greinke is Zack Greinke.  Suck it.

2SP: Edinson Volquez versus Yovani Gallardo

Volquez was great in 2008 in his first season with the Reds after being acquired from the Rangers.  He had a 3.21 ERA and a 3.60 FIP with high strikout and walk rates.  Then, in 2009 he injured himself and required Tommy John Surgery.  And in 2010 he was suspended 50 games for performance enhancing drugs.  So, Volquez has only started 21 games in the last two years.  He still put up a 4.00 FIP in twelve starts in 2010.  Yovani Gallardo, though, is a pitcher that a lot of teams would love to have as their ace.  He established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game with a 3.84 ERA and a 3.02 FIP and 200 strikeouts in 185 innings.

3SP: Bronson Arroyo versus Shaun Marcum

Arroyo is a decent pitcher who has had bad cornrows, plays bad music, and reminds me of Vaughn from Community.  In 2009-2010 he posted ERAs of 3.84 and 3.88 and FIPs of  4.78 and 4.61.  He doesn't strike out many hitters, but keeps his walk rate down, too.  Shaun Marcum played in the AL East last year, pitching against teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays.  Despite that, he had a 3.64 ERA and a 3.74 FIP, striking out more and walking less hitters than Arroyo did in an inferior league.  I love the Brewers new rotation so very much.

4SP: Homer Bailey versus Randy Wolf

Randy Wolf was the better pitcher last year if you look at ERA, winning 4.17 to 4.46.  But Bailey was significantly better in 2010 if you look at any of the advanced pitching metrics like FIP (Bailey: 3.74, Wolf: 4.85), xFIP (Bailey 3.91, Wolf: 4.90) or tRA (Bailey: 4.24, Wolf: 4.96).  Wolf was better than Bailey in nearly every conceivable way in 2009, and I would wager on Wolf improving on last years numbers in 2011.  However, I think the odds of Bailey continuing his improvement are also very good.  They might end up being fairly close next year, but if I had to choose, I would take Bailey.

5SP: Travis Wood versus Chris Narveson

Travis Wood is 24 years old and reached the majors for the first time last season.  And he was impressive, too.  In seventeen starts, Wood had a 3.51 ERA and a 3.42 FIP.  He struck out a fair amount of hitters (7.54 K/9) and didn't walk very many (2.28 K/9).  He also didn't give up many homeruns with just a 0.79 HR/9.  All three of those peripheral stats line up pretty well with his minor league numbers, where he was also very good, so it doesn't seem out of line that he should be able to continue his success.  Narveson has been a very solid number five pitcher for the Brewers, with a 4.22 FIP in each of the last two seasons (and wildly varying ERAs: 3.83 in 2009 and 4.99 in 2010). Narveson has similar peripherals to Wood, walking slightly more and giving up slightly more homeruns.  I love the Narv-dog, but I have got to give the edge to Wood. 

Bench: Reds versus Brewers

Chris Dickerson is, in my opinion, a more than capable fourth outfielder who can both hit and field above average.  The Deity and Luis Cruz should at least hold down the infield defensively very well.  Unfortunately, it looks like Mark Kotsay will also be a part of the bench and the first hitter off the bench in most situations.  For the Reds, Fred Lewis isn't as good as Dickerson.  Chris Heisey will almost certainly be better than Kotsay, though he is young and might come down after a decent first season last year.  Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cairo can hit better than Counsell and Cruz, but won't field nearly as well.  I like Dickerson and Counsell much better than Lewis and Renteria, but Cruz and Kotsay are probably worse than Heisey and Cairo.  I'll give a slight, edge to the Brewers.

Bullpen: Reds versus Brewers

John Axford, statistically, was way better than Francisco Cordero last year.  He was around 1.5 runs better in both FIP and ERA.  Cordero tends to make games exciting by allowing runners to get on base before finishing the game whereas Axford still has plenty of doubters who want to see another season before proclaiming him the real deal.  In a small sample size of fifteen games, Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ MPH fastball had a 2.03 ERA and a 1.35 FIP.  Chapman is incredibly talented and the Reds are looking to keep him as a dominant set-up man for the time being.  Takashi Saito is the Brewers new setup man.  He doesn't have the physical tools of Chapman, but he has put up outstanding numbers all five years that he has been in the majors.  The past three years, Nick Masset has pitched very well for the Reds.  LaTroy Hawkins struggled in his first year as a Brewer posting an 8+ ERA and having injury problems all year.  Logan Ondrusek had a nice first year in the majors, but Zach Braddock had a great first year in the majors.  Aroldis Chapman might end up being the best player out of either bullpen next year, but I like Milwaukee's overall.

Follow the jump for Brewers vs. Cardinals and Brewers vs. Cardinals vs. Reds

ST. LOUIS VS MILWAUKEE

Catcher: Yadier Molina versus Jonathan Lucroy

Molina is generally regarded as one of, if not the, best defensive catchers in the MLB today.  His hitting is fairly mediocre--he started off his career hitting very poorly but worked his way up to a .293/.366/.383 slash line in 2009, becoming a slightly above average hitter.  He dropped off some last year, hitting .262/.329/.342.  You can expect Molina to hit for average a little bit, get on base a little bit and not get too many extra base hits.  That coupled with his defense makes him very likely to be more valuable than Lucroy next year.

First Baseman: Albert Pujols versus Prince Fielder

I don't think I need to say much about this.  Fielder is great, but Pujols is the best hitter in the game.

Second Baseman: Skip Schumaker versus Rickie Weeks

Schumaker had a terrible year last year, hitting .265/.328/.338, which is far below his 2008/2009 seasons when his OBPs were .358 and .359 and his slugging percentages were .406 and .393.  He also kept his batting average above .300 both seasons.  Schumaker shouldn't hit as poorly as he did last year but even if he matches the best offensive performance of his career, it's unlikely he'll be as good as Weeks in 2011.  In addition, Schumaker has been a full win worse defensively than Weeks the past two years.

Shortstop: Ryan Theriot versus Yuniesky Betancourt

Betancourt might actually be better than Theriot offensively next year.  In 2010, Theriot only managed a .270/.321/.312 slash line, good for a paltry .286 wOBA.  Betancourt was able to break .300 with his wOBA at least.  Of course, Theriots career hitting line is .284/.348/.356, and I would expect him to come back towards those numbers in 2011.  He also should play average defense at shortstop which is, of course, better than how Betancourt will likely play.  Yuni actually put up a better fWAR in 2010 between the two players (0.6 to 0) but I think Theriot should be slightly better than Betancourt next year.

Third Base: David Freese versus Casey McGehee

Mr. Freese has impressed in his 87 games in the majors, hitting .299/.360/.413 thus far in 304 at bats.  The Cardinals were pretty aggressive in promoting the 2006 9th rounder putting him in AAA in 2008 after he had only reached their advanced A club in 2007.  It paid off, too, as he hit .306/.361/.550 with 28 HR that year.  I would anticipate Freese being pretty good this year, particularly if his power numbers start approaching what he accomplished in the minors.  Eventually , Freese might be better than McGehee but I think Casey's likely superiority slugging in 2011 will make him the best third baseman.

Left Field: Matt Holliday versus Ryan Braun

This one hurt me to do.  Holliday and Braun are both great, great hitters.  Unfortunately, Holliday has been slightly better than Braun every year since Braun first made the majors.  Braun's highest career OBP thus far is .365.  Compare that to Holliday, who's OBP hasn't been lower than that since 2005, his second year in the league.  In Braun's four major league years, he's had a higher wOBA than Holliday once, in 2009.  It's absolutely possible that Braun might statistically end up being the better hitter of the two in 2011, but Holliday's defense could put him over the top.  With Braun being pretty awful defensively, Holliday likely will be over a win better in that category.  I think there are clear arguments for either player to be better than the other, but keep in mind that Braun's fWAR has never been higher than Hollidays.

Center Field: Colby Rasmus versus Carlos Gomez

Rasmus is a good defensive center fielder and hits very well.

Right Field: Lance Berkman versus Corey Hart

Lance Berkman, the hitter, should be just fine.  He won't have anywhere near the prodigious power that he had earlier in his career, but he'll still get on base at a fairly high rate and will be plenty valuable with the bat.  What I'm curious to see is just how he'll play the outfield with no knees.  He's going to end up being a terrible defensive player.  Corey Hart is no Torii Hunter himself, but at least he can run pretty well and get to a lot of balls.  At this point in their careers, Hart is the better hitter between the two, as well.  Advantage: Caveman.

(Sidenote: Before I get into the pitchers, I just want to say that it's pretty incredible just how closely I think the two teams mirror each other with their pitching--especially the tops of the two rotations.  I think any of the top four from either rotation could outperform their counterpart on the other team.)

SP1: Chris Carpenter versus Zack Greinke

This is tough.  They are both outstanding pitchers, truly.  If you want to look at ERA, Carpenter clearly was better last season (3.22 to 4.17), however Greinke was still better in FIP (3.34 to 3.69).  Greinke had a one of the all time great seasons in 2009 when he won the Cy Young with a 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 9.5 K/9 and a 2 BB/9 while gaining an incredible 9.5 fWAR.  Carpenter had a great Cy Young season of his own in 2005 with a 2.83 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 1.9 BB/9 and a 6.8 fWAR.  He had an even better season in 2009 with a 2.24 ERA and 2.78 FIP.  With Greinke, I think that him being on a true contender will keep him both focused and fired up.  I'm expecting a huge season from Greinke, though Carpenter might be just behind.

SP2: Adam Wainwright versus Yovani Gallardo

We know how great Gallardo was last season and, like I said earlier, a whole lot of teams would love to have Yo at the top of their rotation.  All those teams would just as gladly have Wainwright as well, after his last couple of seasons.  He had a 2.63 ERA and a 3.11 FIP in 2009, then was even better in 2010 with a 2.41 ERA and a 2.86 FIP.  He's also been durable, tossing over 230 innings both years.  I think these two could be nearly equivalent to one another in terms of value at the end of the year, but if I had to pick one to outperform the other, I would have to pick Wainwright.

SP3: Jaime Garcia versus Shaun Marcum

Garcia had a spectacular rookie season, with a shining 2.70 ERA and a 3.41 FIP.  His minor league numbers don't strike me as being all that great, but I can't argue with his 2010.  I expect him to have a similar FIP, though his ERA should drop back somewhere in the mid 3's.  I am also very excited for Marcum.  Like many have pointed out (and like I did above), him going from the AL East to the NL Central should do nothing but good for him.  And he was good last year, anyway, with a 3.64 ERA and 3.74 FIP.  I'll give Marcum the slight edge because I don't completely trust Garcia to have another big season.

SP4: Jake Westbrook versus Randy Wolf

Westbrook missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but came back and had a good year in 2010 with both a 4.22 ERA and FIP.  Wolf was slightly worse than that, with a 4.85 FIP, though he had a very good year in 2009 with a 3.23 ERA and a 3.96 FIP.  Wolf has had better peripheral stats over than Westbrook over his career, though they were both pretty equal last year.  I think Wolf is more of a sure thing.

SP5: Kyle Lohse versus Chris Narveson

This is probably the only starting pitcher that I would clearly take over the other.  Lohse hasn't been bad the past few seasons, but his 2009 4.55 FIP and 2010 4.42 FIP can't match Narveson's dual 4.22s.  Lohse really has been a very average pitcher his whole career, with his one big year coming in 2008 when he had a 3.89 FIP.

Bench: Cardinals versus Brewers

Jon Jay was had a good first year in the majors in 2010, hitting .300/.359/.422 in 323 plate appearances.  He wasn't the best fielder, but that's a really small sample size for UZR and I don't know what he was like fielding in the minors.  I think him and Dickerson might be fairly equivalent.  Allen Craig also played his first year in the majors last year, hitting for a .304 wOBA in 124 PAs.  Sadly, that should mean his production should be similar to Kotsay's this year.  Luis Cruz is probably a worse hitting Nick Punto.  Tyler Greene hit nearly the same as Craig Counsell last year.  These benches are weirdly similar, but I think Punto over Cruz gives the Red Birds an edge.

Bullpen: Cardinals versus Brewers

Nick Franklin had a charming 1.92 ERA in 2009, but I expect him to be more like he was in 2010--a mid 3's pitcher in both ERA and FIP.  He's not overpowering, but he usually gets the job done.  Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte both had ERAs that were significantly higher than their FIPs last year, and Trevor Miller had the same issue in 2009.  I would expect the same thing to happen to them as what happened to Miller last year: Regression.  The Cardinals bullpen isn't at all bad, but I think the Brewers' will be better.

Finally, a chart of all three teams and who I think is best at each position.  Bold is the top player and italics are second best.

Milwaukee St. Louis Cincinnati
C Jonathan Lucroy Yadier Molina Hernandez/Hanigan
1B Prince Fielder Albert Pujols Joey Votto
2B Rickie Weeks Skip Schumaker Brandon Phillips
SS Yuniesky Betancourt Ryan Theriot Paul Janish
3B Casey McGehee David Reese Scott Rolen
LF Ryan Braun Matt Holliday Jonny Gomes
CF Carlos Gomez Colby Rasmus Drew Stubbs
RF Corey Hart Lance Berkman Jay Bruce
1SP Zack Greinke Chris Carpenter Johnny Cueto
2SP Yovani Gallardo Adam Wainwright Edinson Volquez
3SP Shaun Marcum Jaime Garcia Bronson Arroyo
4SP Randy Wolf Jake Westbrook Homer Bailey
5SP Chris Narveson Kyle Lohse Travis Wood
Bench Brewers Cardinals Reds
Bullpen Brewers Cardinals Reds

 

Two really quick notes on Reds vs. Cardinals:

  • I know Votto deservedly beat Pujols for the NL MVP last year, but the smart money has to be on Pujols still being the better player, right?
  • Molina versus the duel Reds catchers was difficult, but Hanigan/Hernandez have put up great offensive numbers, enough to outweigh Molina's defensive advantage. 
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