There was a time, around 2009-10, where the NL Central had arguably the top three first baseman in baseball. The Brewers had Prince Fielder, the Cardinals had Albert Pujols and the Reds had Joey Votto.
By 2014, the landscape had changed. Fielder and Pujols were long gone from the NL Central; Votto was nowhere near as good as he once was and faces an uncertain future after a tough injury. The NLC did have the top first baseman by fWAR, but that was Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs. The rest of the division was steeped in mediocrity at the position.
In 2015, the outlook doesn't look a heck of a lot brighter. It seems like there's a clear-cut top first baseman in the division, but who's the best among the rest? We'll try to figure that out today, then rank the central division position-by-position over the next two weeks.
Brewers: Adam Lind
After two years of scrambling to find a warm body to play first base, the Brewers have their first truly legitimate first baseman since Corey Hart's knees exploded prior to 2012. Lind isn't going to bring the Brewers back to the same level of production as Prince Fielder, of course, but he doesn't need to in order for him to be successful on the Brewers. Guys like Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and, hopefully, Ryan Braun will be the leaders on the offense, but Lind should be among the best in the supporting cast.
The biggest issue with Lind, of course, is his inability to hit left handed pitching. He wasn't always terrible against same-handed pitchers: In his career-best 2009 season, he had a respectable .275/.318/.461 line against southpaws. More recently, in 2013 (before the Blue Jays started heavily platooning him), Lind hit .208/.240/.333 against lefties. The Brewers have said they want to give Lind an opportunity to show he doesn't need a platoon partner, but odds are the Brewers are smart enough to let Jonathan Lucroy rest his knees well playing first base against lefties.
There's also the matter of Lind having a faulty back. Lind has missed time in spring because of those issues, and it might be more surprising to see him play a full season than for him to land on the disabled list in 2015. That will hurt his value some, but there's hope it won't be as big of an issue. Lind won't be the best first baseman in the central, but he's going to be a big upgrade for the Brewers.
Cardinals: Matt Adams
Like Lind, Adams isn't likely to be an MVP candidate or anything (though he is a Cardinal, so there is a good chance he just randomly hits for a .950 OPS or something) but he will provide a solid bat in the lineup.
To make another Brewers comparison, Adams is the Cardinals version of Khris Davis, in a way. Adams was a bit more heralded coming through the farm system , but both hit for big numbers in the minors and were called up as slightly older prospects. Neither has been outstanding at getting on base at a high rate (Adams was better at that in 2014, but Davis should bounce back) and both had a .457 SLG% last year. Both Adams and Davis have also been criticized for their defense and both have been surprisingly competent.
Adams has hit 30+ home runs in the minors before and has flashed big power in the majors. The projections have his OBP continuing to decrease, but I think it should come closer to what he's done the last two years. Twenty home runs also seems doable. Like Lind, though, Adams has been bad against lefties. In 2014, he hit a putrid .190/.231/.298 against left handers, leading St. Louis to sign Mark Reynolds to help in a platoon role. We know what Reynolds is, having seen him as a Brewer in 2014.
Reds: Joey Votto
Joey Votto had a bad, injured year in 2014 and still managed to get on base at a .390 clip, that's how good of an eye he has at the plate. He played in just a third of the Reds' games because of a quadriceps injury, but is hoping to come back healthy in 2015. So far, he's been knocking off the rust in Spring Training, hitting .261/.400/.391 in 30 plate appearances thus far, but all indications are he's good to go for this upcoming season.
A healthy Votto could be a scary thing for the NL Central as, at his best, he is an MVP-caliber player. There isn't anyone in the league better at drawing walks, and he is absolutely capable of banging 25 or more homers. In addition, he's the best defensive first baseman in the division, giving him an advantage there.
Votto is 31, though, and coming off a big injury might not ever get back to how he once was. Even if he doesn't, though, he can basically be relied on for a .400 OBP and decent power. Votto coming close to what he was before 2014 probably makes him the most valuable first baseman in the division. But until he hits like we've seen him hit, it's hard to rank him at the top.
Pirates: Pedro Alvarez
A third baseman for most of his career, the Pirates began working Alvarez out at first base last season before a foot injury cut the experiment short. So far this spring, it seems he has impressed the team with how he has picked up the new position, however. Alvarez moving to first fills a position of need for the Pirates as, like the Brewers, they've struggled to find a long-term first baseman in recent years. It also opened third base for Josh Harrison to play full-time after a strong 2014 campaign.
At the plate, Alvarez does one thing especially well: Hit home runs. He led the league with 36 homers in 2013 and has a career 104 long-balls in 592 games. However, he strikes out a ton and does not get on base well at all. The power is top-notch, but the rest of his hitting approach keeps him from being a front-line position player. In fact, in his five seasons Alvarez has yet to top an 800 OPS.
Alvarez's power also fell off in 2014 as he failed to reach 20 home runs and saw his slugging percentage drop precipitously. A dreadful defensive year led to him being worth zero fWAR and 0.8 rWAR while playing 122 games. Now that he also needs to focus more on playing a new position, can his bat rebound? Even if it does, his poor on base skills keep him from being among the best players in the league.
Cubs: Anthony Rizzo
Of course, none of the above players (except perhaps Votto) figure to come close to matching Rizzo's production, barring an injury to the young Cubs star. The projections have him dropping back a bit in production but Rizzo is just 25 years old and figures to be more likely to improve than take a step back. He also figures to have a much stronger supporting cast in place this season, which could help him see better pitches.
The Cubs have gotten a lot of hype this offseason with the Jon Lester signing, a top farm system that is finally paying dividends and Kris Bryant being allowed to hit off a tee in spring training (he's not facing live pitching and putting up those numbers, right?). I'm not a believer in Chicago contending this year yet, but Rizzo is going to be looked at as a leader while many hope the Cubs do take an enormous leap forward.
Younger players can have big hot and cold streaks. Guys like Jorge Soler, Bryant, Javier Baez and others will have their struggles. Rizzo is going to be the guy who provides production on a more consistent basis. Replicating his 2014 seems well within the realm of possibility and, if he does, there's little chance Lind, Adams or Alvarez come close to touching him, especially with Rizzo able to hit both left and right handers equally well. Rizzo is a hell of a player and is looking at another big year in 2015.
Ranking the First Baseman
1. Anthony Rizzo
2. Joey Votto
3. Matt Adams
4. Adam Lind
5. Pedro Alvarez
In my opinion, the top two are fairly indisputable. Votto could easily come back and prove himself to be perhaps the best first baseman in the majors again, but we still need to see for sure how he'll bounce back from injury. Rizzo was the best first baseman in baseball last year and is just 25 years old. While the projections don't have him living up to his 2014 numbers, I think Rizzo absolutely could replicate last season again.
The bottom three really could go any direction. All three figure to be right around average for first baseman next year. I place Alvarez last as he's barely played the position and really took a step back at the plate in 2014. Will learning a new position disrupt his focus at the plate? Even when he hits 30+ home runs, his value is limited by a low on-base percentage.
Neither Lind nor Adams can hit left-handed pitching (neither can Alvarez, for the record) and neither is a respected defensive presence. But both have shown a good eye at the plate and either could hit around 20 home runs. I give Adams the slight advantage for two reasons: He's six years younger than Lind (25 vs 31) and Lind has had back issues which could cause a problem in 2015.
There is definitely a big gap between the top two and the bottom three first baseman in the NL Central but all five teams have reason for optimism and concern at the position. Every team has a solid option, but the division is a long way from the glory days of first base they had half a decade ago.