A big outfield piece changed teams in the NL Central this offseason, making his way to St. Louis. Let’s see how it affects the Cardinals’ spot in this NL Central outfield positional ranking.
In this day and age, more and more teams are putting two, maybe even three “center-fielders” into the every day starting line-up. This means the Major League outfield, as a whole, is getting more and more athletic. That is not to say, however, that offense is lacking from these positions. The NL Central has at least a couple of teams who provide great examples of athletic outfields, who still pose threats offensively. Let’s take a look at how they line up.
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
Pure Athletes: Marte and Polanco
There’s no denying it. The Pirates have the most athletic outfield in the NL Central division, if not in all of the major leagues. With center-field talent such as Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco manning corner outfield positions, Pittsburgh already holds an outfield superior to most MLB teams. These athletic freaks of nature are always threats to make defensive plays that seem to defy the laws of physics, while also posing as threats at the dish, Marte batting .311 in 2016, and Polanco slugging 22 home runs in just over 500 at-bats. As well, the corner duo combined for over 60 stolen bags, further proving their speed and athleticism, and using to terrorize pitchers on the offensive end.
Harrison and Bell
When combined with more athletic stars such as Josh Harrison and youngster Josh Bell, both of whom have been known to fill in in the outfield every once in a while, this outfield is just truly stacked with ability and energy. So ya, Pittsburgh indeed does have a superior, uber-athletic outfield, not only the best in the NL Central, but perhaps tops in all of baseball.
What’s that? I forgot someone? Oh, right, Andrew McCutchen plays for them as well! The former NL Most Valuable Player had what would be considered a very down year for him in 2016, in which he still slugged 24 homers and drove in 80 runs. “Cutch,” as he is known around the league, is almost always in the running for MVP, Silver Slugger, and Gold Glove awards in the National League. The man is a superstar, and over the past couple of years, has now been joined by premier talent to join him in the Pittsburgh outfield, making this squad tops in the NL Central.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
Well, if you had asked me before December 9, 2016, who had the second best outfield in the NL Central, probably would’ve given you a different answer. But now, with the signing of Dexter Fowler, coming from the rival Cubs to our Cardinals, things have certainly changed a bit. The Redbird’s outfield now looks like this: Grichuk in left, Fowler in center, and Piscotty in right, with Tommy Pham playing the fourth outfielder role.
Grichuk, Piscotty, and Pham
While not nearly as explosive or electric as the Pittsburgh outfield, the Cardinals’ squad certainly will get the job done. We know the potential of up and comers Grichuk and Piscotty to possibly be 30 home run, 100 RBI guys at some point in the future. And neither are slouches on defense by any means. In fact, some would consider Randal Grichuk in the upper echelon of defensive outfielders in the National League. Tommy Pham provided a career year off of the bench for the Red Birds in 2016, slugging 9 homers in just 160 at bats. Despite being 28 years old, and playing his whole career thus far as a bench presence, Pham has shown he can play an important role for the Cards.
The big fish, however, is Dexter Fowler. Brought in this past offseason to perhaps alleviate some outfield woes in St Louis, Fowler is that center field presence the Cardinals have been looking for. A spectacular defender, Fowler as well is an adept leadoff man, getting on base almost 40% of the time in 2016, and swiping 13 bags in just over 450 at bats. At 30 years old, Fowler will provide a veteran presence to the young Cardinal outfield as to how to play the position. Not only is he a great player, but I look for him to be a great leader of the young guys on the corners, elevating their play as well, and making this Cardinal outfield 2nd best in the division.
3. Chicago Cubs
Again, if you had asked me a month ago, the World Series champions Chicago Cubs (still weird to say) would’ve been one spot up on our list. But in a deal that took a year to make, the Cardinals have overtaken the Cubs for second spot, pushing the North-Siders down to third. Let me clarify my last statement.
I’ve addressed Fowler going to the Cardinals in this past offseason in free agency. But, as I’m sure most readers remember, it was last offseason in which the Cubs got the gem (or so they thought) from the Cardinals in the form of Jason Heyward. Well, what a brutal disaster he turned out to be for the Cubbies. Batting just .230 in 530 at bats in the regular season, and a pathetic .104 in the 2016 postseason, Heyward was a true disappointment. His defense stayed solid, but no where near the caliber were used to seeing from him. The Cubs are hoping for a big bounce back in 2017, but having seen clips of his “new” swing, I can tell you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
However, there are still two other spots in the Chicago outfield, and three players to occupy them. It is by all means possible that by June next year, Heyward may not be playing at all, and the outfield will be filled with these next three names, and overly respectable bunch. Let’s start with the World Series hero, Ben Zobrist. I’ll tell you what, this guy wins. He seems to just always be in the thick of things when October comes around. Getting up there in age, and perhaps down there in productivity and athleticism, it will be interesting to see how he fairs in the upcoming season. But I can tell you one thing. There aren’t many teams who wouldn’t want this guy.
Almora Jr. and Schwarber
To finish off the Cubs are two young guys with completely opposite games. The first is Albert Almora Jr., a speedy center-fielder who got the first action of his career in 2016, appearing in just 47 games. Projected to be the Cubs’ starting center-fielder, Almora can certainly run the ball down, but wont give you the power that one Kyle Schwarber has. Do I really need to say much about this guy. Yes, defense is an issue, which is why I think he’ll one day end up in the American league. But come on. The dude can absolutely mash. And he does it in the playoffs, too. Yes, its a small sample size, but in three playoff series, Schwarber has a career 1.178 OPS. That other-worldly. He is a presence that no other NL Central outfield possesses, and is part of the reason why, despite some other weaknesses, the Cubs still come in at number 3 on our list.
And, oh, let us not forget the Kris Bryant can play some left field as well. Just sayin’.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
These last two were tough, because honestly, there’s not much established talent in either system. But there’s one player that stood above the rest at the bottom of the NL Central, pushing his team out of the cellar and into the fourth position of our list.
Yep, you guessed it. Ryan Braun. As much as you may hate him for how he lied to the press with a straight face about taking steroids and stealing Matt Kemp’s MVP, or for how he just seems not to care if he wins or loses, as long as he gets his, the man can play. Putting up another spectacular year in 2016, Braun now has a career batting average of over .300 in 10 years in the league, and will surpass career marks of 300 home runs and 1,000 RBI in 2017. An above average defender, Braun as well can steal a base or two, racking up 16 stolen bases in 2016, with a career 180.
Braxton and Santana
Braun is surrounded by two young players in the outfield: Keon Broxton, and Domingo Santana. Broxton, coming off of his first full year in the majors at age 26, looks as if he may have a future as a swift center-fielder/lead-off guy, but it is two early to tell, and he could easily fall in the toilet. Santana is the same deal. At age 24, he’s played two full years in the bigs, and although having the body of a big time slugger, he has only amassed 19 homers in 420 career at bats. That is by no means a poor statistic, but at 6’ 5” 220, this guy should be hitting balls over fences left in right, especially if he is to continue his career average of .240. Maybe he’ll figure something out and become a 30 home run guy, but it is too early to tell.
Lastly, the Brewers do have career fourth/fifth outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis. I, as I think a lot of others would, describe him as “a nice guy to have.” He can fill in, but will never do anything spectacular for you, and entering his age 30 season, his time to do so is running out.
So, besides Braun, the Milwaukee outfield is kind of filled with average guys who you could get something out of, if all goes right, but for the most part, you’re not expecting all that much from, at least entering the 2017 season.
5. Cincinnati Reds
Lastly, we have the Reds. Despite having the fastest player in the MLB manning center field, Cincinnati still comes in at last on our list.
Yes, Billy Hamilton can track down almost any ball in the outfield, and will cross the 200 career mark in stolen bases in just his 4th full season in 2017. But he still hasn’t proven he’s quite figured it out offensively, despite better signs in 2016, and the surrounding pieces in the Red’s outfield are nothing to be overly impressed with.
Schebler and Peraza
Scott Schebler, a somewhat late comer to the big league stage, is a lanky, under-athletic right fielder who has had very little MLB experience. Likewise, the Reds’ fourth outfielder, Jose Peraza, has had just over 260 career major league at bats, and is a shortstop by trade, not necessarily accustomed to the ways of the outfield.
The brightest spot, in my opinion, in the Reds outfield, is left-fielder Adam Duvall. In 550 at-bats in 2016, Duvall slugged 33 homers and drove in 103 runs. However, he is another guy with hardly any major league experience, having accumulated just 690 career big league at bats since his debut in June of 2014. So, despite a promising start, Duvall may it a wall in his development, as so many have before him. As well, he’s not a great defender, with just a .975 fielding percentage in his career in the outfield.
So, overall, the Reds have a lot of question marks in their outfield, guys with little big league experience and not much to go off of, and much to be desired as pure outfielders. The one guy they have been able to rely on is Billy Hamilton, but even he has to find a way to make some adjustments, as right now he is sitting at under a career .300 OBP, and for a guy who should be getting on a stealing bags, well, that’s not where you wanna be.