We've made our way through only two divisions so far, and already I think we're seeing some Dream Team rosters that should be able to stack up pretty well against the vaunted American League East. The NL West Dream Team boasts a ridiculous starting rotation that could probably go eight or nine deep with top-tier pitchers, while the NL East Dream Team has Jose Reyes, Ryan Zimmerman and Chase Utley in the lineup, plus Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson and Cliff Lee heading the rotation.
People keep acting like the AL East is that kid on the playground that chooses five straight kids from the local travel team while all the house league kids have to play on the other team. Sure, teams like the Yankees and Red Sox often have first dibs on elite players as they enter free agency, but I think that this is a good reminder that the best players usually don't hit free agency- the best way to acquire elite talent is to develop it yourself. Let's get to the NL Central, though, and see if Reds, Cards and co. can build a monster.
(Note: While we're not totally ignoring specific outfield positions, players can be shifted to outfield positions that they're reasonably capable of playing even if it's not their primary position in the real-world. In other words, we can conceivably shift Darwin Barney to shortstop, because he spent years at the position before sliding to second base this year. But we can't shift Aramis Ramirez over to shortstop, because, well, nobody wants to even imagine what that might look like.)
No. 1: Starlin Castro, Shortstop, Chicago
Not a whole ton of competition here for Castro, who's been establishing himself as one of the game's brightest young stars over the past couple months. Currently fifth in the NL with a .320 batting average, he doesn't provide much power or patience yet, but he's only 21 and he's already one of the better shortstops in the game thanks to unreal hand-eye coordination, a quick bat and solid defensive skills. As he improves his approach and fills out to hit for more power, he could develop into one of the top players in the game.
No. 2: Rickie Weeks, Second Base, Milwaukee
Another place without any serious competition, as Weeks has been one of the best players in the NL over the past two years. Durability was one of the big things that held Weeks back early in his career, but he's stayed healthy over the past few years, allowing him to show off his patient approach and well above-average power for a middle infielder. There are only two NL second baseman that currently have more than 1.9 WAR on the year- Weeks is already at 3.3 in 74 games.
No. 3: Joey Votto, First Base, Cincinnati
Here was by far the toughest choice I'll probably have to make in the entire series. Not only do you have Votto here, but you also have Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and even Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman, who spent the previous few years as a first baseman. You're talking about some of the very best hitters in the game here. And even though ZiPS projects Votto to be the worst of the Fielder-Pujols-Votto triumvirate going forward, I think he's the best long-term bet. He's much younger than Pujols, far more athletic than Fielder, and his overall hitting ability is comparable to the two. You could take Fielder, or you could take Pujols, and I'd totally get it. But I think that Votto brings the best all-around package right now.
No. 4: Ryan Braun, Left Field, Milwaukee
As you'll see over the next few spots, the outfields of the NL Central are absolutely stacked. We'll start with Braun, who probably isn't the best all-around outfielder in the division, but fits the best in this clean-up spot. From 2007-2010, Braun was one of the best hitters in the NL, with plus hit and plus power tools. But there were two knocks on his record coming into this season: (1) he only walked ~8% of the time, which is fine but not great, and (2) his power numbers were dropping every year, from .310 to .268 to .231 and finally just .197 in 2010. But he's put all of those concerns to rest so far this season, walking over 12% of the time while knocking out 16 doubles and 15 homers thus far. Braun will always be limited by the fact that he takes poor routes in the outfield, but he's an elite hitter and a good base-runner (16-for-20 on steals this year, +2.9 UBR), which more than makes up for the below-average defense.
No. 5: Matt Holliday, Right Field, St. Louis
Holliday has a nice storyline that people don't always talk about. When Holliday was leaving Colorado, many of the questions surrounded his large home-road splits and whether he'd be able to maintain his success upon leaving Denver. But what they failed to notice is the apparent "Coors Effect" that applies to hitters, where they tailor their approaches to fit Coors, leading to exceedingly worse performance on the road. They also failed to notice that Holliday was minimizing this effect every year, as he always thrived at home but slowly made improvements every year on the road. So what happened once he left Colorado? He got even better. The 31-year-old is still among the very best players in the game, and his seven-year contract is looking like one of the few megacontracts where the investment actually gets returned.
No. 6: Andrew McCutchen, Center Field, Pittsburgh
People, remember this guy's name. Andrew McCutchen. He's going to be really, really good for a while. Think Jim Edmonds Lite: plus power, a whole ton of walks, a solid batting average (solid BA+tons of walks=elite OBP), and top-notch defense in center field. He has the highest WAR among NL outfielders so far this season, and according to that same metric, only Jose Reyes has been a more valuable all-around player. So, yeah, maybe he already has arrived. Pirates fans, you have a legitimate star.
No. 7: Scott Rolen, Third Base, Cincinnati
And... here's the first disappointing spot in the lineup. Rolen isn't a bad player, but he comes off as the 2004 Ford Focus in a lineup full of brand-new BMWs. You know, he's useful, but you see all of the shiny BMWs and you can't help but think that things could be oh so much better. The 36-year-old has quietly been a very good all-around third baseman for the Reds over the past two-plus years, and even though his offensive numbers are down this year, they're likely to go up some, and he's still an above-average defender at third. Another 5 WAR season isn't likely, but he's probably got another above-average year or two in him.
No. 8: Yadier Molina, Catcher, St. Louis
Yadier Molina's development into more than an all-glove backstop has been pretty impressive. For his first couple years with the Cardinals, he was a miserable hitter that stayed on the field because he was so good at everything else, from game-calling to receiving to throwing guys out. But over the past few years, he's improved offensively to the extent that he's actually one of the best catchers in the game now. Still a plus defender behind the plate, the 28-year-old has batted .288/.348/.380 since the beginning of the 2008 season- over that period, only Brian McCann has been more valuable among NL catchers.
No. 9: Zack Greinke, Starting Pitcher, Milwaukee
So far this season, Greinke has a higher slugging percentage than Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee, Brewers shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez, all of whom have more than 200 plate appearances on the season.
Catcher: Ramon Hernandez, Cincinnati
Edges out Chicago's Geovany Soto, although the Cubs backstop is probably the better player when his bat is on, like it was in 2008 and 2010. Hernandez has had some not-so-good offensive years as well, but he's thrived with the Reds over the past two years, and at this point he's a very solid regular catcher.
Infielder: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee
Defense and versatility aren't going to the strong suits on this bench, as you can see. Things would be different if the NL Central boasted some better infield talent, but most of it seems to be concentrated in slugging first baseman-types like Fielder, Votto, etc. Sure, we could've gone with Brandon Phillips or Aramis Ramirez, but does anyone actually believe that those players are better than Fielder and/or Pujols?
Infielder: Albert Pujols, St. Louis
He's Albert Pujols. I'm making a Dream Team. He has to be on there somewhere.
Outfielder: Michael Bourn, Houston
Filling out the outfield bench proved to be ridiculously hard, because there's so much talent here. Ultimately, I've opted with Bourn and Stubbs, but there are a bunch of different guys that you could take here and I wouldn't have many qualms. Bourn doesn't get as much pub as his teammate Hunter Pence because he's not a great hitter, but he's one of the best base-runners in the game and few center fielders can match him defensively. Since taking a full-time role in 2008, Bourn has stolen 186 bases, 38 more than second-place Juan Pierre, and only Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez has a higher UZR/150.
Outfielder: Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati
Stubbs bursted onto the scene by smacking 22 homers and stealing 30 bases for the division-winning Reds last season, but his unique power-speed combination isn't the only thing to like about Stubbs. When I think of Stubbs, I often think of Mike Cameron: a plus defensive center fielder that walks, hits homers and steals bases, but always sees his value dragged by low batting averages that are the result of contact issues. Stubbs can be a very good player like Cameron was, but he'll struggle to become a star if he's striking out in one-third of his at-bats.
No. 1: Zack Greinke, Milwaukee
No. 2: Jaime Garcia, St. Louis
No. 3: Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee
No. 4: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis
No. 5: Matt Garza, Chicago
We've been talking about the starting rotations as a whole thus far, so let's just continue with that format. As you can see, the NL Central doesn't have the same kind of impact pitching that we've seen so far in the NL East and the NL West. Sure, these are five exceptional starting pitchers, but the NL Central's best pitcher, Greinke, is probably the No. 4 or No. 5 pitcher in the NL East or West. The names we've left off, like Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Zambrano, Bud Norris and Charlie Morton, are good pitchers, but in the NL West we left off names like Chad Billingsley and Mat Latos.
Middle: Mark Melancon, Houston
Middle: Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh
Closer: Carlos Marmol, Chicago
Yesterday, there was a lot of talk about the relief pitchers I selected. I think that makes a lot of sense, because this probably the portion of the Dream Team where there's the most room for discussion. When we're talking about 2011 stats, at this point we're only talking about 30-40 innings, and often relievers are among the most volatile assets in the game. But here are the seven I've chosen, and I'm assuming that Reds fans don't love this list. Marmol and Marshall have quietly emerged as arguably the premier one-two bullpen punch in the game- if the Cubs can get to the eighth inning with a lead, they're in very, very good hands. Too bad that rarely happens, huh? Then I littered the 'pen with a variety of different arms. Hanrahan and Axford often simply overpower their opponents with fastballs in the high-90's. Sanchez can do the thing, but he often depends on a hammer curve to finish guys off. Melancon and Salas don't use the same kind of heat, they both sit closer to 92 than 98, but they keep hitters guessing by mixing in both breaking balls and change-ups.