Previous: Ranking the NL Central First Basemen
Second base is not a position filled with stars in the major leagues. Robinson Cano is perhaps the only MVP-type player left at the position as guys like Ian Kinsler and Chase Utley have gotten older and other players have become solid if unspectacular options.
In the NL Central, that's no different. There's an aging former-star, a few young players and arguably the best second baseman in the National League. How do they rank in relation to each other? First, a look at each player:
Brewers: Scooter Gennett
The Brewers once had a group of prospects that were among the top of the system. Once the Prince Fielders and Ryan Brauns and Rickie Weeks of the minors graduated, however, Milwaukee had a farm system that consistently rated as one of the worst in the majors. Despite that, though, they still turned out some strong, quality major league talent. Gennett was a part of that generation.
Gennett never put up big numbers as a prospect (career minor league line .297/.337/.409) but he was consistent and, after a call-up to the majors, continued to put up almost identical numbers for the Brewers. He's probably never going to develop into an all star type player, but he can be a solid, cheap bottom-of-the-order hitter. In today's second base climate, that's really not so bad.
However, Gennett does have a couple of issues. The most talked-about is his inability to hit left handed pitching. He was terrible against lefties in the minors and that's continued into the majors. However, the Brewers want him to be an every-day player so it seems they'll give him an opportunity to face same-handed pitching this year with Rickie Weeks gone and no longer taking that side of a platoon role. That could hurt his overall numbers and push him closer to the Steamer projection than the ZiPS projection.
Cardinals: Kolten Wong
Wong is kind of the opposite of Gennett. Wong came up through the minors as a highly-praised prospect, topping out at #58 nationwide by Baseball America before the 2014 season. He had some pop, but was mostly a speed/on-base player with 20+ bags swiped and a career minor league .367 OBP.
However, since a 13-game cup of coffee in 2013 gave him his first taste in the majors, he has failed to prove he can hit at a big-league level. He wasn't completely intolerable last year with a .680 OPS as a 23-year-old, but he'll need to show solid improvement at the plate if he hopes for a prosperous major league career. The good thing for Wong is he is a great defensive player, which at least provides value while he adjusts to MLB pitching.
Wong will likely still be a very good major league hitter, but he's not going to jump to that level in just a year. The Cardinals can afford to stick with him as the rest of the offense can pick him up, and Wong's defense/speed combo makes him valuable even when not hitting as well, as evidenced by almost 2.0 fWAR despite the mediocre batting line.
Pirates: Neil Walker
Since coming fifth in rookie of the year voting in 2010, the now-29 year old Walker has been among the best offensive second basemen in the game year over year, but has never really received much acclaim. He has yet to make an All Star team but won a Silver Slugger award for the first time in 2014 when he topped 20 homers for the first time in his career and posted an 809 OPS.
Walker's defense has been a hot discussion topic with some claiming it has been a big negative while others claim he has been a fairly solid defender. UZR generally has him as a below average defensive second baseman, as do most other defensive rankings. As long as he can adequately handle second base, his bat will give him value, though.
Walker was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Pennsylvania. Despite that, the Pirates have yet to look into a long-term extension for him with other, cheaper middle infield options and Walker still two years from free agency.
Reds: Brandon Phillips
The elder statesman of NL Central second baseman, Phillips was once one of the best in the game. In 2007, he hit 30 home runs with a .288/.331/.485 line while also stealing 32 bases. For three straight seasons, he posted 20/20 seasons in home runs and stolen bases. In 2014, he posted a .678 OPS, his worst number since he was a rookie in 2003. He hit just eight home runs. He stole just two bases.
Simply put: Brandon Phillips has more than lost a step. He's no longer one of the top second basemen in the game, though he is being paid as such over the next three seasons as the Reds owe him another $39 million. Phillips probably won't be as bad in 2015 as he was in 2014, but that doesn't mean he'll be great.
On the plus side, Phillips' defense has been strong as ever. He's a four-time Gold Glover and has derived a ton of value from his glove. That's made him a very valuable player over his career and there's no reason to see that completely fall apart this upcoming season.
Cubs: Javier Baez
The Cubs have about eighty super-prospects, all of which are going to hit 125 home runs per season over their careers. Baez is one of those, though he might be the most boom-or-bust of any of them. Baez was Baseball America's #5 prospect nationwide before 2014 and, in 104 Triple-A games, he hit .260/.323/.510 with 23 homers. In 2013, he hit 37 home runs between two levels of play. Baez has a ton of natural power, to be sure. The question is will he be a Pedro Alvarez/Mark Trumbo type where that's almost all his value, or can he become an all-around hitter?
Baez flashed his power in a major league call-up last year, jacking nine home runs in just 213 at-bats. However, he did so well hitting .169/.227/.324 while striking out 95 times. That's a 41.5% strikeout rate. No qualified Major League player since 1900 has ever had a strikeout rate above 40% -- the highest was Chris Carter's 36.2% in 2013.
Defensively, Baez hasn't been great. However, he is transitioning from shortstop to second base, which could help minimize errors. The Cubs have other players who could play second base if Baez fails, but it looks like they'll start the season with him as the starting second baseman.
Ranking the NL Central Second Baseman
1. Neil Walker
2. Brandon Phillips
3. Scooter Gennett
4. Kolten Wong
5. Javier Baez
The bottom three here are all youngsters while the top two are the veterans. The interesting thing is that it seems like the only player in the division who could top Walker as the best second baseman in the division next year could be Baez, who I have ranked last. The talent is obvious on Baez's end, but I don't have much faith that his hitting approach will allow him to live up to his potential. Home runs will come in droves, but that only provides so much value. If he puts it all together, he's going to be a terrifying hitter. If he doesn't, he'll be Mark Reynolds.
It was hard to rank the middle three. Phillips and Wong have the defense and are trending in opposite directions offensively, but will meet around the same place. Gennett isn't a star defensive player, but has consistency at the plate (at least against right-handed pitchers). In the end, I think Phillips has one more good year in him, Wong needs one more year to continue adjusting to major league pitching, and Gennett continues his solid play.