Want storylines? Look no further than the corner-infield spots in the National League Central.
The Brewers are moving a former top prospect to first. The Cardinals added Nolan Arenado to an already top-tier pairing with Paul Goldschmidt. There may not be a more entertaining on/off-field duo than the Cubs’ “Bryzzo.” The Pirates boast one of the game’s most exciting youngsters in Ke'Bryan Hayes at the hot corner. Eugenio Suárez can drop 30-plus homers for the Reds when he feels like it, and Joey Votto is a quote machine bound for Cooperstown.
You want storylines? We got storylines.
In this week's edition of around the horn, here's a look at the NL Central’s corner-infield situations, team by team.
The known: First base now belongs to Keston Hiura, new mitt in hand as of last week and ready to make the move after the Brewers signed Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman Kolten Wong. First base is entirely unfamiliar to Hiura, who spent recent years working hard to improve his throwing accuracy from second base but ranked last in the Majors at that position during the shortened 2020 season in defensive runs saved. At first base, he’ll have great range but not much height; Hiura is listed in the media guide at 6-foot-0, and he admitted he needs his spikes to get there. What the Brewers are most confident about is that he’ll hit; Hiura slugged .570 in 314 at-bats in 2019 before struggling through the shortened ’20 season. For a left-handed complement, the Brewers have slugger Daniel Vogelbach, who is best served as a designated hitter but held his own in limited duty at first base last year.
The unknown: Third base is wide open. For internal candidates, the Brewers have Luis Urías coming off a disappointing debut season in Milwaukee and Daniel Robertson, a former Top 100 Prospect who signed as a free agent. Either player could handle the position defensively, but the Brewers are coming off one of their worst offensive seasons in franchise history, and the opening at third base looked to provide an opportunity to upgrade. Should president of baseball operations David Stearns look at adding options before Opening Day, free agency offers some choices. Do the Brewers have anything left in the budget for Justin Turner? Would they bring back Jedd Gyorko after a productive 2020 in a Brewers uniform? Or do they have someone else in mind? -- Adam McCalvy
The known: Essentially everything, thanks to last week. It’ll be Goldschmidt at first and Arenado at third, making up one of, if not the best, corner-infield pairs in the Majors. Arenado, who could bat cleanup, now provides a bat to protect Goldschmidt in the No. 3 hole, a place at which the Cardinals struggled mightily in 2020. Both provide Gold Glove defense (Platinum, in the case of Arenado), and while Arenado’s bat struggled in '20, he’s confident that part of his game will return now that he's fully healthy ahead of ‘21. The question becomes: How high can this pair take St. Louis?
The unknown: What now happens to Matt Carpenter? With the NL designated hitter not agreed upon in the health and safety protocols released on Tuesday, Carpenter would have no natural home in the now-crowded infield. With Goldschmidt at first, Tommy Edman at second, Paul DeJong at short and Arenado at third, Carpenter may be relegated to a platoon or bench role. He can play any infield position save for short, so if Edman struggles with the everyday job, that may be a fitting platoonship (Edman is a switch-hitter with better numbers from the right-hand side; Carpenter, a left-handed hitter, was an All-Star second baseman in 2013). Though the Cards have some open outfield competition, Carpenter, 35, hasn’t played there since 2014. -- Zachary Silver
The known: Chicago’s corners feature a pair of familiar names: Anthony Rizzo at first and Kris Bryant at third. Rizzo was one of the first pieces of a rebuild that really gained momentum when Bryant arrived via the 2013 MLB Draft. They helped the Cubs erase 108 years of World Series drought with the 2016 title and have been fixtures in the team’s core.
In 2019, the last full season, Bryant turned in an impressive .282/.382/.521 slash line to go with 31 homers and 108 runs scored. Rizzo is a near lock for around 30 homers and 100 RBIs (he averaged 29 and 96, respectively, across the 2013-19 campaigns), while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. They have the track record and hardware to remain one of baseball’s top corner-infield duos.
The unknown: If only it were as simple as everything noted above. In fact, Bryant and Rizzo also represent the complicated nature of this point in the Cubs’ timeline. Both are currently on target to hit free agency next winter, and each are coming off subpar offensive showings in 2020. Expect trade chatter to persist into the season, depending on how any extension talks go this spring and how the Cubs fare as a team in the first two-plus months.
Bryant, who has had trade rumors hovering over him for the past few winters, including this one, hit .206/.293/.351 in 34 games last year while battling myriad injury setbacks. Rizzo hit .222 in 58 games, but he had a .755 OPS that was boosted by a .342 on-base percentage. If the Cubs want to contend in 2021, they will need strong bounce-back showings from both Bryant and Rizzo. Or, if Chicago wants to instead focus on the future, well, the Trade Deadline could be interesting. -- Jordan Bastian
The known: Hayes will be the lock at third base, barring injury, after he burst onto the scene in his first taste of the big leagues last season. He’ll have a second chance to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award from the hot corner, where he played outstanding defense to go with 14 extra-base hits in 24 games last season. Colin Moran is the best bet to take over at first base for Josh Bell, who was traded to the Nationals for pitching prospects Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe on Christmas Eve.
The unknown: Hayes and Moran seem certain to man the corner-infield spots. What isn’t certain is whether the DH position will return in the NL, and Moran made most of his starts as designated hitter in 2020. However, the door is still open for change. If the position is accepted, that would open the gate for prospect Will Craig to get a longer look at first base while Moran bats DH. -- Jake Crouse
The known: Cincinnati has had corner-infield stability for several years with Votto at first base and Suárez at third base. But both veteran players will very much want to return to the form of previous seasons. Votto has had three straight subpar seasons since finishing a close second in NL MVP voting in 2017. The 37-year-old endured his first benching last season -- for three games -- but came back better for it. Votto made an adjustment to stand taller in the batter’s box and became less selective, hitting eight of his 11 home runs in his final 28 games. Suárez crushed a career-best 49 homers in 2019 with a 132 OPS+ but struggled over much of the shortened season while batting .202 with 15 homers and a 102 OPS+. A right shoulder injury required surgery last January that put him behind, but Suárez is expected to be fully healthy in 2021.
The unknown: The depth at both corner spots still needs to be explored, but it will likely be comprised of utility players. If something were to happen to Suárez, second baseman Mike Moustakas could potentially shift to his former position. Kyle Farmer, Alex Blandino and Dee Strange-Gordon are already in the mix for shortstop but will possibly play around the infield. Outfielder Scott Heineman has experience at first base, as does recently added non-roster invite Nicky Delmonico. But if there’s an injury at either position, there’s not a ready-made player to pick up the slack, production-wise, on a regular basis. -- Mark Sheldon