Just weeks from the start of the season the NL Central is gearing up for what appears to be another very competitive season. Will it be the fifth year in a row that the division produces the league MVP? Let’s start with the position that the offseason had the biggest impact on…1st Base.
The National League Central has served as home to some of the best combinations of first base talent in major league baseball over the years with players like Mark Grace, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee just a few examples of the depth at the position.
It does not appear as though 2012 will be one of those years with Fielder and Pujols joining the American League and as aging stars, journeymen or unrealized potential man the position this year.
The high watermark for the division may have been the 2008 season. Prince Fielder and Joey Votto had arrived for Milwaukee and Cincinnati and Albert Pujols was the best player in baseball winning the MVP award at season’s end for the second time while playing 1st for St. Louis.
Meanwhile, Lance Berkman and Derrek Lee were beginning the backside of their careers in Houston and Chicago but both were still very productive.
Adam LaRoche was the one name on the list that maybe didn’t carry the same cachet as the others but he still produced in Pittsburgh with his fourth straight 20+ HR season.
Combined the six primary players at the position combined to average 151 starts and hit .300. They mashed 169 HR’s and drove in 583 runs. The group was intentionally walked 90 times while pounding out almost 1,000 hits. I think the Astros would take those numbers AS A TEAM this year don’t you?
Votto returns to the Reds again in 2012 having since won his own MVP trophy in 2010. Berkman will be back at first this season after spending last season in the outfield – but in St. Louis not Houston. After that, none of the players currently slated to start at 1st for their teams strike fear into opposing pitchers like that 2008 group.
Here is a look at the players that will try to keep up the NL Central tradition at first in 2012:
1. Joey Votto
The clear star at the position in the NL Central this season is Votto. The departures of Pujols and Fielder guaranteed that, not that he really needed them to leave to be in the conversation. The 2010 MVP has done nothing but produce since taking over full time in 2008 with 66 HR’s and 216 RBI the last two seasons. Fielder (70/203) and Pujols (69/217) were not that far ahead.
Votto will be a free agent in 2014 and is scheduled to make over $17 million next season. There is some question as to whether Votto will be extended or traded ahead of his trip to the open market.
The Reds watched the Brewers and Cardinals wave goodbye to their stalwarts at the position and receive nothing in return. They may not be willing to do so with Votto who almost certainly will command the same kind of money.
There will be time for that later but right now Votto enters 2012 as a legitimate MVP candidate and may be the best player in the division period.
2. Lance Berkman
After a lost 2010 that saw him end his 12 year career in Houston by joining the Yankees for the stretch run, Berkman came back with a vengeance in the first half of 2011. He belted 24 HR’s before the All Star Break and he complimented the Pujols/Holliday combination quite well.
While his power numbers dropped on tremendously in the second half of the season, Berkman was still a key piece in driving the Cardinals to their amazing 2011 World Series Championship.
Entering his 14th big league season the move back to first may actually help keep him fresher in the second half which will be much needed with the gaping hole left by Pujols. Other than 2010, he has never hit less than 20 HR’s in season and never less than 25 since 2005.
3. Carlos Lee
In July of 2006, The Brewers were reported to have offered Carlos Lee a contract extension in the neighborhood of $50 million to try and keep the popular El Caballo in town who was heading towards free agency.
When Lee and his agent turned down the offer and; according to GM Doug Melvin provided no counter offer, the Brewers made a trade with the Texas Rangers and used the pieces from that trade to remain competitive. That offseason the Astros showed Milwaukee what it would have taken by signing the slugger to a 7-Year, $100 Million contract.
Lee was a leftfielder then but moved to first when his already suspect defensive skills diminished even further and Lance Berkman was dealt to the Yankees.
He will be there again in 2012 at whopping $18.5 million dollar salary in the last year of the contract. The Astros have moved every other legitimate MLB player in recent years but haven’t found a taker for Lee.
Lee was productive in his early years with Houston but the last two have been awful for someone making that kind of money. His slugging percentage has been in the .700 range the past two seasons after five years of .830 or better.
Still, Lee sits third in this list because the other teams have big questions marks at the position.
4. Garrett Jones
Jones has some nice pop but his lifetime .254 average and high strikeout totals may be the reason that the 30 year-old has only 419 big league games under his belt. He strikes out once in every four at bats breaking 100 strikeouts in each of his two full season. In 2011, he had 104 k’s to his 103 hits.
The only real difference between Jones and the final two guys on the list is that Gamel and LaHair have 150 combined big league appearances.
5. Mat Gamel
The baby of the bunch is the 26 year-old Gamel. Long considered one of the Brewers top prospects this is the year for Gamel to either realize his potential or go try to find it somewhere besides Milwaukee. Not too much pressure for the guy taking over for Prince Fielder.
The Brewers have made other moves to make up for the loss of Prince but Gamel will be expected to produce better than he has in his limited opportunities.
He has torn up the minors at every level but has hit just .222 in 171 major league at bats. Drafted in 2005 to play 3rd Base his bat was never much of question but his defense was not ready. He spent almost all of his time at first last season as the Brewers groomed him to take over there for the big league club.
Votto was drafted in 2002 and didn’t sniff the majors until 2007 before becoming a star in 2008 so not all hope is lost for the Brewers and Gamel but if the team hopes to repeat as division champions they need a solid year and probably 150 games out of him.
Theoretically, he will be an improvement over the defense of Fielder but that isn’t saying much. He will also have the benefit of a much better left side of the infield than Fielder was taking tosses from.
There is no other real option in the Brewer’s system at the position should Gamel fail so don’t be surprised if the team looks into the possibility of adding Derrek Lee who is still a free agent and still shows up in top 300 ranking lists.
6. Bryan LaHair
The Cubs have fielded few first basemen in their time in the NL Central as before Derrek Lee the Cubs had Mark Grace manning the position when the wild card was first introduced. After Grace there were a couple of years waiting around for future hall of famer Hee Seop Choi with guys like Fred McGriff, Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer; Lee arrived and spent the next eight years saving throws and taking that sweet swing.
Lee and the Cubs parted ways in 2010. After he vetoed a trade deadline move to the Angels he ended up in Atlanta after clearing waivers and that cleared the way for the Cubs to sign free agent Carlos Pena to a one-year deal and purportedly see if they could land either Pujols or Fielder this past offseason. Lots has changed in the division and Chicago since that signing and that has left LaHair to man the position for the next great Cubs 1st Baseman.
LaHair like Gamel has been a minor league terror socking 38 HR’s last year for Iowa. At 29, he is not the future for the Cubs there but he was part of the trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston so new GM Theo Epstein is familiar with him.
He has actually put up better numbers than Gamel in a similar number of MLB at bats so he could be a nice surprise for Cub fans.