Ranking players at each position can be entertaining, but making an ultimate lineup for each division might just be better. If the five National League Central teams combined, this might be the unit they roll out: the All-NL Central Lineup.
Catcher: Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
Contreras had another strong season with the Cubs in 2021. He slashed .237/.340/.438 en route to a 108 OPS+. He set a career-high with 4.1 bWAR, the fourth full season in a row he cracked 3.0. Contreras also posted the best walk rate of his career, taking a free pass on 10.8 percent of plate appearances. He continued to be a solid fielder, posting 10 DRS for the second time in his career. Even as the Cubs disassembled the pieces of their 2016 title, Contreras remained.
Contreras got even better after the All-Star break, raising his slugging percentage by over 50 points. He had an OPS of .919 in the last month of the season.
First Base: Paul Goldschmidt, Saint Louis Cardinals
Goldschmidt continued to mash for the playoff-bound Cardinals. He had an OPS+ over 140 for the fourth time in five seasons, and he has not had one worse than 115 in 11 years. He had an explosive .514 slugging percentage after lacing 36 doubles, a pair of triples, and 31 home runs. Goldschmidt even stole 12 bases without being caught. While he posted the lowest walk rate of his career, it still fell above the MLB average.
Goldschmidt posted 6.1 bWAR, his best since 2017. It was the fourth time he posted at least 6.0. He also won a Gold Glove.
Second Base: Jonathan India, Cincinnati Reds
India’s debut season was quite special. He won the NL Rookie of the Year over stiff competition, and he seemed to improve as the year went on rather than hitting a rookie wall. After scuttling in April and May, India began hitting for more power and drawing more walks. In the second half of the year, India hit 15 home runs and slugged .507, 100 points higher than in the first half. He drew at least 12 walks in three of the final four months.
India led the NL with a staggering 23 hits by pitch. This might not be replicated, but his overall plate discipline should be.
Third Base: Nolan Arenado, Saint Louis Cardinals
Nine seasons. Nine Gold Gloves. Arenado returned to form at the plate, supplementing his elite defense with an OPS+ that was exactly the same as his days with the Colorado Rockies. Arenado hit 30-plus home runs for the sixth 162-game season in a row, tacking on 30-plus doubles as well. He is just one of 23 players in MLB history to have six seasons with 30 doubles and 30 home runs.
Arenado won the NL’s Platinum Glove for the fifth season in a row. He made his sixth All-Star team in seven seasons, and he finished eighth in total bases.
Shortstop: Willy Adames, Milwaukee Brewers
After struggling for 41 games with the Tampa Bay Rays, Adames was traded to the Brewers. With the Brewers, Adames embarked on a 99-game stretch that garnered lower-ballot MVP consideration. He slashed .285/.366/.521, posting a 135 OPS+. He finished 16th in MVP voting. Excluding pitchers, everyone who finished higher than Adames played at least 39 extra games in the NL. While the Brewers lost in the NLDS, Adames did his part with a .294 batting average across 17 at-bats.
Adames had four different months with five home runs and an OPS above .850. In July, he drew 15 walks and posted a .411 on-base percentage.
Left Field: Tyler O’Neill, Saint Louis Cardinals
O’Neill had a rough 2020 season at the plate. He posted just a 70 OPS+. Entering 2021, O’Neill had a career OPS+ of 91, and he was just projecting as a good fielder and streaky power hitter.
Everything clicked for O’Neill in 2021 as he began to hit more and more line drives. He improved his slugging percentage by 200 points, and his season OPS+ of 150 helped his career OPS+ jump by 31 points. O’Neill finished eighth in MVP voting after slugging 34 home runs.
O’Neill was red-hot in his final 56 games. He mashed 17 home runs and drew 20 walks. He slashed .318/.391/.641, and the Cardinals went 37-19.
Center Field: Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates
Like O’Neill, Reynolds had a subpar 2020 season. He bounced back to slash .302/.390/.522 for the Pirates in 2021. He accumulated 6.0 bWAR and posted career highs in all three true outcome stats. Reynolds had been a .183 ISO player through two seasons, but he had an ISO of .220 in 2021. He had 67 extra-base hits including an MLB-leading eight triples. Reynolds made his first All-Star team, and he finished 11th in MVP voting.
A switch-hitter, Reynolds had remarkably similar splits. Against righties, Reynolds had a .911 OPS with most of his slugging. Against lefties, Reynolds had a .915 OPS with a sparkling .403 on-base percentage.
Right Field: Dylan Carlson, Saint Louis Cardinals
After struggling in his MLB debut in 2020, Carlson had a well-rounded rookie season for the Cardinals in 2021. He finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He hit a healthy 18 home runs and 31 doubles en route to a 117 OPS+ season. Carlson cut his strikeout rate down and walked more, raising his on-base percentage by 91 points. Carlson had some batted-ball luck with a .332 BABIP, but he still has room to grow with his plate discipline.
Carlson has also been solid in the field for the Cardinals. In two seasons, he has +5 DRS.
Designated Hitter: Patrick Wisdom, Chicago Cubs
Picking the designated hitter for this division is a crapshoot, but the Cubs could put Wisdom in this role. He had a breakout rookie season with the Cubs, finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Wisdom struck out in an obscene 40.8 percent of plate appearances, but when he was not striking out, Wisdom was whacking the baseball. He had a stellar 7.5% home run rate. He hit 28 home runs in just 106 games. Wisdom also walks at a decent enough clip.
Playing designated hitter is not necessarily the best role for Wisdom as he is a good defensive third baseman, but the Cubs have a lot of infielders to move around.
Pitcher: Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
Burnes had a monster 2020 season, but he replicated his elite season in 2021 en route to the NL Cy Young. He led baseball in ERA, ERA+, FIP, home runs per nine, strikeouts per nine, and strikeouts per walk. His WHIP was a staggering 0.940. Burnes placed 15th in NL MVP voting, and he certainly would have placed higher if he had made more than 28 starts. He struck out 35.6% of batters faced, a slight downtick from 36.7% in 2020. Burnes also nearly cut his walk rate in half.
Burnes did not just lead MLB in FIP. He had the best FIP by a player to throw 167 innings since Pedro Martinez in 1999. Martinez and Burnes are the only pitchers with a FIP below 1.65 in more than 167 innings since 1910.
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