Corner-infield stars abound in NL Central

January 22nd, 2020

The corner-infield spots in the National League Central are home to household names: Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Bell and ... Ryan Braun, maybe. And, of course, two names as one: “Bryzzo.”

These players power their clubs’ lineups, and many of them serve as the face of their franchise. They won MVP Awards and earned All-Star nods throughout the last decade. But where do they stand in 2020? Is Votto the same offensive threat? Can Goldschmidt lead the Cardinals’ lineup out of the wilderness? Will Bell take a step forward? What role will Braun play for the Brewers? How much longer until the Cubs separate Bryzzo into, well, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo?

NL Central position-by-position: Middle infield | Catcher

Let’s take a look at how it all shakes out.

The best

They might have statues outside Wrigley Field one day. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant have developed into an iconic duo, one that helped the Cubs end their 108-year World Series drought with 2016's triumph over Cleveland. Fittingly, it was a Bryant-to-Rizzo throw that clinched the final out of that historic Fall Classic.

That was, of course, four years ago. Now, the North Siders are at a bit of a franchise crossroads.

Rizzo and Bryant are still very much part of the reason the Cubs can still contend for a spot on the October stage, but there are other factors at play as Chicago weighs its contention window. Both are on a path toward free agency following the 2021 season, barring any contract extensions. And Bryant's name continues to be at the center of trade rumors this offseason.

For the moment, Rizzo will be at first, coming off another Gold Glove Award-winning season that included career bests in average (.293) and on-base percentage (.405). Catcher Victor Caratini serves as his backup, with Bryant able to slide over to first, too. Last year, Cubs third basemen ranked second in the NL with 6.4 WAR (per FanGraphs), with Bryant powering most of that. David Bote, Ian Happ, Robel Garcia and Daniel Descalso would be next on the depth chart.

The rest (in alphabetical order)

The NL Central is stocked with powerhouse corner infielders, particularly at first base. Then there are the Brewers, who piece things together at both infield corners after parting with a slew of recent 30-home run hitters in the past seven months.

Gone are first basemen Jesús Aguilar (traded to Tampa Bay) and Eric Thames (option declined, signed with Nationals) and third basemen Mike Moustakas (signed with Reds in free agency) and Travis Shaw (non-tendered), replaced by a combination of free-agent switch-hitter Justin Smoak and longtime outfielder Ryan Braun at first base and free-agent acquisitions Eric Sogard and Jedd Gyorko at third.

The Brewers believe they are giving manager Craig Counsell enough good pieces to platoon his way through the season and find production from the likes of Smoak, who is going on three years removed from a 38-homer season in Toronto, and Sogard, who has quietly been an above-average hitter in two of the past three seasons, including in his first stint in Milwaukee.

The biggest question mark is how much time Braun sees in the infield; he made it clear he was open to giving it another go after the Brewers inked free agent Avisaíl García to play left field. Without a top first-base prospect in the system and with third baseman Lucas Erceg (No. 14 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Brewers top prospects) coming off a down year at Triple-A San Antonio, there isn’t a lot in reserve.

Despite trade rumors and speculation, all signs right now are pointing to Matt Carpenter starting at third base and Paul Goldschmidt at first base on Opening Day.

The Cardinals have put their confidence in Carpenter having a bounce-back year after a season of career lows at the plate as he hit .226/.334/.392. They’ve pointed to his track record, his new offseason strength program and the fact that, a year ago, he was coming off one of his best seasons and a top 10 finish in NL MVP Award voting.

Goldschmidt didn’t have the season he wanted, either, yet he still led the team in home runs (34) and RBIs (97). The three-time Gold Glove Award winner was a finalist again in 2019, and his stability at the position elevated the Cardinals’ infield defense to become the best in the Majors last season. Goldschmidt was third among first basemen last year with five outs above average, according to Statcast.

The Cardinals expect to use Tommy Edman as a true utility player this season, giving him time around the infield and in the outfield. If an injury or lack of production sets a starter back, Edman would likely step in as the everyday player. The 24-year-old switch-hitter led the team in OPS (.850) and spent most of his time at third base last year while Carpenter worked through his offensive struggles, but he’s comfortable at second, shortstop and all three spots in the outfield, too. He joked at Winter Warm-Up this weekend that he’s even been thinking about getting a first-base glove, too.

Behind Goldschmidt will likely be Rangel Ravelo, who can play first base and the outfield. The Cardinals are hoping to see Ravelo -- who hit .205/.256/.410 in 29 games last season -- take over the pinch-hitting bench role that José Martínez held before he was traded to the Rays. In the Minors, the Cardinals have first baseman John Nogowski, who hit .295/.413/.476 in 117 games with Triple-A Memphis last season.

If you haven’t noticed, the division is loaded with perennial MVP candidates at first base: Rizzo, Goldschmidt and Votto. Well, guess who out-hit them all last season? Josh Bell.

The Pirates’ All-Star first baseman slashed .277/.367/.569 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs despite a second-half slump and an injury that cost him half of September. Halfway through the season, Bell -- the NL’s starting designated hitter at the Midsummer Classic -- looked like a legitimate MVP candidate himself with a .302/.376/.648 slash line, 27 homers and 84 RBIs in 88 games. He slumped through June and July and hit just .233 with a .780 OPS after the break, but he was still named Pittsburgh’s team MVP by the local Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters.

After avoiding arbitration with a $4.8 million deal, Bell will be seeking more consistency at the plate and, as ever, better defense at first base. There were moments, especially early in the season, when Bell looked as good as ever in the field. But according to Statcast, Bell totaled minus-5 outs above average last year. He puts in the work, so perhaps he’ll put it all together this year.

Defense is an issue across the infield, too -- at least for now. Third baseman Colin Moran totaled minus-7 outs above average last season, and he’s set to return as the starter at third until top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes is ready for the Majors, likely at some point this summer. Moran did some nice things at the plate, batting .277 with 80 RBIs in 503 plate appearances, but his on-base percentage dipped from .340 to .322 last year and his .751 OPS was slightly below the league average.

Erik González, a slick defender, could back up Moran at third. José Osuna is a backup option at either corner spot, and he is arguably the Bucs’ best defensive first baseman. Hayes, a Gold Glove Award candidate the moment he reaches the Majors, will take over at third at some point, even as questions persist about his power. Will Craig, their first-round pick in 2016, also could make his debut later this year.

Cincinnati has two mainstays at third base and first base in Eugenio Suárez and Joey Votto, respectively, and both have long-term contracts. Votto has four years and $107 million remaining on his contract, while Suárez has five more seasons left on his seven-year, $66 million deal. But while Suárez has trended upward each of the past two seasons, Votto’s numbers have headed in the opposite direction.

After he slugged 34 home runs with 104 RBIs in 2018, Suárez batted .271 with a .930 OPS, a career-high-smashing 49 homers and 103 RBIs last season over his 159 games. He finished second in the Majors in homers while ranking sixth in the NL for total bases, eighth with a .572 slugging percentage and 10th in RBIs. His 29 homers after the All-Star break led the Majors. Overall, he was worth 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, and while only 0.4 of that came on the defensive side, Suárez is capable of making spectacular plays and most of the routine ones. That is not reflected in the Statcast data, however, as he had one infield out above average compared to the 17 from leader Nolan Arenado.

Votto had a near-MVP winning season in 2017, when he hit .320 with a 1.032 OPS and 36 home runs, but batted .284/.417/.419 with 12 home runs and 67 RBIs in '18 and was even less productive in ’19, batting .261/.357/.411 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs. Now 36 years old, he will have to fight time more than ever and rebound from two poor years to help the Reds get back into contention.

Both Suárez and Votto rarely miss time, but there are options. For one, newly signed second baseman Mike Moustakas could move back to his natural position at third base if Suárez is sidelined for any significant period of time. Utility player Kyle Farmer can man every infield spot and Josh VanMeter has experience at both corner spots. The club signed veteran third baseman Matt Davidson to a Minor League contract for him to compete for a bench role.