It's not totally outside of the realm of possibility for the NL Central to have three of the top five shortstops in the National League next year. With Troy Tulowitzki's health always a question and Hanley Ramirez jumping ship to the AL, there's room at the top for guys like Jhonny Peralta, Starlin Castro and Jean Segura to jump in.
Veterans like Jimmy Rollins and Ian Desmond and defensive specialists like Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford could have something to say about that, but the point is there is some real talent at the position in the division this year. Whether they all live up to it is another question.
Brewers: Jean Segura
Jean Segura had a rough year in 2014, and that's putting it mildly. Both on the field and off, he had his share of trials and tribulations. But Segura has remained focused and looks like he'll come back strong in 2015. If Spring Training is any indicator, he could be in for big things: In 48 spring at-bats, he's hit .326/.354/.413 with a pair of stolen bases.
Segura just turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he spent a total of seven games in Triple-A over his career. The talent that saw him post 3.5 fWAR in 2013 can't be discounted, but at his young age, skipping a level of development and going through what he did last year the ups and downs are to be expected. Carlos Gomez saw 44 Triple-A games and rushing him through the minors is part of the reason he took so long to become the player he is.
I firmly believe that 2014 was an aberration and that Segura is going to come much closer to his 2013 levels. He picked it up towards the end of last season, hitting .319/.364/389 in September/October -- seemingly the only player on the team to hit in those months. He also plays strong defense which helps pul some value even if he's not hitting. Segura is a good player whose going to come back strong. It might take a few hot and cold streaks to get there, though. For what it's worth, he's hit .313/.340/.396 in 50 spring plate appearances.
Cardinals: Jhonny Peralta
Peralta is the oldest of the five expected starting shortstops in the division, coming in at 32 years old. He spent the first seven and a half years of his career with the Indians before a move to Detroit in mid-2010. The 2014 season was his first with St. Louis after he signed a four year, $53 million deal to join the Cardinals.
Though his overall OPS dipped from 2013, he eclipsed twenty homers for the first time since 2011 and had the best fWAR if his career thanks in large part to an 18.8 UZR. Peralta is under-the-radar very good on defense, which gives him some good extra value. He may be the eldest among division shortstops, but he's not old enough to have lost a step there.
Peralta had a down year in 2012 with the Tigers but otherwise has been one of the better hitting shortstops in baseball. He's not a one of the best, but he's firmly in that next level.
Reds: Zack Cozart
Outside of an 11-game cup of coffee in 2011, Cozart has yet to top a .290 OBP or a .400 SLG. On his career, he has a .646 OPS. Safe to say, Cozart is not an offensive shortstop. He does have some pop, consistently hitting double-digit home runs, but that does little to raise his hitting value. However, Cozart has had an UZR of 13.9, 13.1 and and 18.7 in 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Cozart doesn't get a lot of attention because offense is much sexier. But Cozart was fourth among MLB shortstops in UZR last season, fifth in 2013, and sixth in 2012. He won't hit, but at shortstop that can be OK. Cozart won't be a star, but he'll stay valuable.
Cubs: Starlin Castro
Castro has already played five full seasons with the Cubs, which can make it hard to remember that he's just turned 25 years old a few days ago. I talked above about Jean Segura being rushed a bit through developmental but Castro was just as quick. Signed out of the Dominican as a teenager, Castro became a top prospect and hit .304/.343/.422 in his first two major league seasons, leading many to proclaim him as the next star at the position.
The next two years tempered that enthusiasm as he hit a combined .264/.303/.388 while playing in all but one game. He did come back strong in 2014, though, posting a career-high .777 OPS and matching a career-high with 14 homers. He used to be a 20+ stolen base threat, but has failed to reach double-digits each of the last two seasons.
Castro's focus has been called into question and the Cubs have basically every middle infield prospect available, which has led some to raise the possibility of Castro being traded. That won't happen yet, though, and with his age and experience, he could be in for even bigger things.
Pirates: Jordy Mercer
Mercer came up as an older prospect, playing in 42 games as a 25 year old, then taking a bigger role as a utility player in 2013 at 26. Last year, Mercer became the full-time Pirates shortstop after the team had struggled through 2013 with guys like Ronny Cedeno and Clint Barmes playing the position.
For his part, Mercer is tolerable. He's been an inconsistent defensive player in the past but has improved over time. His defensive stats tend to hover around average while his bat is fine. He had a very nice year at the plate in 2013, but took a big step backward in 2014. The projections seem to think he'll post numbers closer to last season, which isn't great.
Having Mercer at short is good enough for the Pirates right now. He's adequate both defensively and offensively. He won't be a multi-time All Star, but not everyone on a team can be.
Ranking the NL Central Shortstops
1. Jhonny Peralta
2. Starlin Castro
3. Jean Segura
4. Zack Cozart
5. Jordy Mercer
Peralta might well be both the best defensive and the best offensive player on this list, making him a pretty sure-fire number one. Segura and Castro both have the talent and upside that they could surpass him, but I wouldn't expect that from either of them in 2015 yet.
Castro is likely to have a much more talented surrounding cast than he's used to, which may help him take the next step forward and could provide additional motivation. Meanwhile, Segura is another few months removed from the tragedy of 2015 and has looked highly focused this spring. I debated flip-flopping the two, but Castro is the safe bet as far as performance goes. Well Segura has looked good in spring, it's still Spring Training and he did have a poor 2014 overall.
Cozart's defense is among the best in baseball at shortstop which makes him more valuable than the shaky Mercer. While Mercer's bat is better, if the projections are right I would rather have Cozart's defense than Mercer's bat. Shortstop is a defense-first position, after all.