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Who's Mr. Indispensable in the NL Central? 

@LangoschMLB
May 16, 2019

Identifying the best or most valuable player on a club typically requires little effort beyond thumbing through a stat sheet. Tangible production, in that case, trumps all. But what about the most indispensable? That’s where the conversation can turn a bit more complex and the definition becomes more debatable. It

Identifying the best or most valuable player on a club typically requires little effort beyond thumbing through a stat sheet. Tangible production, in that case, trumps all.

But what about the most indispensable? That’s where the conversation can turn a bit more complex and the definition becomes more debatable. It could be that a team doesn’t have a capable backup for a particular position, or that the player impacts too many facets of the game to be easily replaced. Or, perhaps, it’s simply a production-based evaluation.

With those varying characterizations in mind, let’s take a look at who could be deemed the most indispensable player on each of the five National League Central teams:

Brewers: RP Josh Hader
Christian Yelich is the NL’s reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner, but Hader is one of a kind, the league’s best left-handed reliever, and arguably its most valuable reliever, period, in an era that values relief pitching more than ever.

Hader entered Wednesday with an MLB-best 16.45 strikeouts per nine innings over the past two seasons, and the Brewers have found that he’s at his best when they use him for multiple-inning stints to lock down victories, then give him multiple days off in between. It’s on those in-between days that it’s clear how indispensable Hader is to the Brewers’ formula, especially with 2017 All-Star Corey Knebel lost for the season to Tommy John surgery and 2018 All-Star Jeremy Jeffress still gaining shoulder strength following a spring setback.

Cardinals: SS Paul DeJong
Catcher Yadier Molina is always a safe (and correct) choice for this exercise given his value behind and at the plate. But let’s go in a different direction. DeJong has emerged as an anchor in the lineup’s No. 3 hole and up the middle on the infield, the combination of which has made him arguably a top five performer in the NL through the first month and a half of the season. DeJong has also been remarkably durable, having appeared in 75 consecutive games for the Cardinals.

The Cards don’t have exceptional depth behind DeJong, either. Yairo Munoz or Jedd Gyorko could fill in on a short-term basis, but neither is a strong everyday option at the position. Nor do the Cardinals have much positional help in the upper rungs of the Minor Leagues that would be ready to step in.

Cubs: 3B/OF Kris Bryant
It’s not often that the club’s most decorated hitter is also its most versatile. But that’s part of Bryant’s added value. Case in point: With Anthony Rizzo sidelined earlier this week by back issues, it was Bryant who slid over to start at first base. It was the fourth different position he’s played this year, adding to a list that had already included left field, right field and third base. That versatility affords manager Joe Maddon the ability to maximize his lineup based on matchups or availability.

And then there’s the obvious, which is that Bryant complements that defensive flexibility with elite production. He entered Wednesday with a career-best 23-game on-base streak, during which he has 15 extra-base hits, 20 RBIs and 22 runs scored. His hot streak coincides with the one the Cubs rode back to the top of the division.

Pirates: 1B Josh Bell
Pittsburgh’s players and coaches often say that the Pirates go as center fielder Starling Marte goes -- and it’s hard to imagine their bullpen without All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez -- but there’s no doubt that Bell is making the lineup go from the cleanup spot. Bell has been one of the best overall hitters in the Majors, entering Wednesday’s action with a 1.093 OPS that ranks behind only Cody Bellinger and Yelich. Bell has also significantly improved defensively at first base.

The 26-year-old slugger has already matched his 2018 home run total, and he’s on pace to eclipse his previous season’s RBI total before the All-Star break. It’s also worth mentioning that the only other players to log time at first base this season -- Francisco Cervelli and Colin Moran -- start at other positions, meaning that the Pirates would be doing all sorts of shuffling if they had to replace Bell.

Reds: 2B Scooter Gennett
Cincinnati doesn’t have to wonder how indispensable Gennett is. They’ve witnessed it this season. The second baseman has been sidelined all year with a right groin strain, and the Reds have had to piece together coverage in his absence. Jose Peraza got the first crack. His production was underwhelming. Derek Dietrich has been better, but he’s hardly the offensive threat Gennett had become. Without Gennett, the Reds have an offense that ranks among the NL’s worst in key categories like runs scored, average, on-base percentage and OPS.

Perhaps it would have looked different with Gennett, who was coming off a 2018 season in which he had a 4.2 WAR and slashed .310/.357/.490 with 23 home runs and 92 RBIs. Adding to his value is the fact that he can fit well atop a lineup or in the middle of one.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.