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N.L. Central Preview, Part 1

A look at the position players on the teams the Cardinals will play the most in 2017.

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Real games are now less than a week away! I’m excited, I hope you are too. So far, we’ve previewed the position players and pitchers on Wild Card contending teams. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the position players on N.L. Central teams. To start things off, here’s how the N.L. Central is projected to play out:

We’ll look at the 8 players each team projects to play most often in 2017. I calculated a WAR/600 plate appearances stat for each, and averaged them by team. Here are the results:

Well, you’re probably not surprised by the Cubs being on top, unfortunately. They’re a full win better than the Pirates and Cardinals, on a per player basis. If you’re surprised by the Reds, they’re average is held up in large part thanks to still having one of the very best hitters on the planet in Joey Votto. The Brewers are at the bottom, but still have some interesting players that could beat projections.

First up is the Cubs:

This cuts off the center-field position, as super-utility man Javier Baez projects for more plate appearances than Jon Jay or Albert Almora.

The Cubs position players didn’t dominate in 2016 at the plate, it was in the field and on the bases. The Cards held a 104 wRC+ to the Cubs’ 106. However, the Cubs were 16 runs above average on the bases to the Cardinals 20 runs below average. The difference was more than 100 runs on defense. The Cubs mostly return the same team. Their first basemen, catcher, and 36 year old second baseman are the only players that project below average on the bases. Kyle Schwarber joins Ben Zobrist and Wilson Contreras as the only below average defenders, relative to their position.

On to the Pirates:

Cervelli is of course the catcher, not also in center-field with Marte. My mistake -Ben

When I wrote up the Wild Card previews, I assumed Jung Ho Kang would be a big part of the team’s position flexibility. Since then, he was denied a visa to the United States after a drinking and driving incident in the off-season. What happens from here is a bit up in the air, but today’s analysis will assume Kang doesn’t contribute to the Pirates in 2017.

With Kang out of the way, the team still has a set of starting position players that match the Cardinals. They still project to have one of the best outfields in the game, even after McCutchen’s down year.

Next up is the Reds:

Here we have Joey Votto, and a bunch of below average players. Very few people can do what Billy Hamilton can do on the bases and in the field, but he also projects as their worst hitter. This doesn’t exactly look like the next competitive Reds team, but they’re at least not a barren wasteland on offense. We won’t be able to say the same thing about their pitching.

Lastly, here’s the Brewers:

Replace Votto with Ryan Braun, and you pretty much have the Brewers position players. However, the Brewers at least gave themselves upside. Keon Broxton has developed a cult like following from at least one national writer, and Villar had himself a three WAR season last year. Eric Thames projection may jump out to you but there are some good reasons for it.

No season goes as planned though, and because of that, we have to check out each team’s reserves as well. First, we’ll do the same thing we did for the top 8 players of each team, but for the players with the 9th-13th most projected playing time:

The Pirates did rate pretty close to Cardinals when we looked at them as a Wild Card contender, but moving Jordy Mercer into the starting 8 meant the Pirates’ depth took quite a hit. It’s very surprising to see that the Reds and Brewers apparently have a better bench than the Cubs. Let’s start by looking at the Reds:

I’m not going to lie, the Reds’ bench isn’t something I’m intimately aware of. They seem a bit heavy on outfielders. Perhaps they’re just collecting possible future trade chips, which is exactly what a rebuilding team should be doing. Desmond Jennings could fit that mold. Dilson Herrera was the main piece of the Jay Bruce trade.

Next up is the Brewers:

It’s been a long fall for former Cardinal terrorizer Scooter Gennett. Villar was at shortstop last year, but will be moved to second to make way for Orlando Arcia, the team’s consensus number one prospect. He could have moved to third instead, but that looks like it’ll be taken over by Travis Shaw, who came over in the Tyler Thornburg trade at the last deadline.

Here’s the Pirates bench, in the wake of Kang’s absence:

They still have some interesting players in Alen Hanson and Adam Frazier, but I’m sure the Pirates preferred to keep them one step farther away than they are now. Chris Stewart rates nicely as a backup catcher, with good framing numbers that aren’t shown here.

Finally, the Cubs:

Jon Jay looks like one part depth, one part veteran presence. I imagine it’ll be a bad thing for the Cubs if at some point he’s playing everyday. As we see though from the projected standings, they have a lot of margin for error. Javier Baez isn’t shown here because he’s projected for the 8th most plate appearances, but his positional flexibility should help make sure there isn’t much expected from the rest of the Cubs bench.

Finally, we’ll take the average WAR/600 of the top 8, and subtract the average WAR/600 of the 9th-13th players:

Of course, you could probably have guessed the Cubs would have the highest difference. That’s due to a best-in-class starting eight, and an underwhelming bench besides Baez, who isn’t actually considered part of the bench by this method. As I’ve talked about before, if there’s an opening for the Cardinals in the division, it probably involves the Cubs having to rely more heavily than expected on their bench.

That concludes Part 1 of our preview of the N.L. Central. On Thursday, we’ll look at what to expect from the pitchers of these teams. And just a few days after that, we’ll have actual baseball!