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Tall Contributions From Short

The last three weeks we took a look around the outfield. Beginning this week we start working our way around the infield. Starting with perhaps the most important position within. Where defense, especially where the National League is concerned, carries as much weight as offense. Shortstop.

For the Cardinals the infield figures to look drastically different than opening day in 2011.  Lance Berkman takes over at first base, Rafael Furcal returns to shortstop, and it appears Tyler Greene, yes that Tyler Greene will get a shot as the starting second baseman. This could be the year that David Freese establishes himself as one of the best third basemen in the sport after his breakout October.

I digress. Rafael Furcal gives the Cardinals their best opening day starter at short since Edgar Renteria. Now before all the David Eckstein supporters get all hot and bothered understand, as scrappy and terrific as he was, Furcal offers a better defensive presence and hits leadoff. The hope for St. Louis is they get more of the Furcal they saw in St. Louis after the trade than the one in LA or masquerading as the Cardinal shortstop during the playoffs.

In a division with a legitimate All-Star, Starlin Castro, holding court up on the north side of Chicago and plenty of rookies and new comers 2012 should prove an interesting year in the NL Central. Here is the breakdown.

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro logged an impressive 2011. With 21 steals and a .307 average, the 21-year-old has developed a terrific profile for a leadoff hitter and if he can expand on his power next season he could join the top tier of shortstop options. Castro had five hitting streaks of at least 10 games, and he finished the season with a streak of reaching base safely in 40 consecutive games. He finished with 57 multi-hit games, tied for the NL lead with three others, and led the league in at-bats. What Castro does need to improve upon is his defense — he led all Major League shortstops with 29 errors.

Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart had Tommy John reconstructive surgery only 11 games into the 2011 season.  Since the surgery was on his non-throwing elbow, Cozart has already resumed baseball activities and is thought of as a top candidate to ultimately capture the shortstop position full time. During those 11 games for Cincinnati — including nine starts — following a July 7 promotion from Triple-A Louisville, Cozart batted .307 with two home runs and three RBIs. His career in the Majors began with a seven-game hitting streak.  Shortstop has been one of the most unstable positions for the Reds over the past several years, and that’s something they very much want to correct.

New to the NL Central is Jed Lowrie.  Lowrie, a switch-hitter who has been injured often in his four-year Major League career, will become the Astros’ starter at shortstop. In his time with Boston The 27-year-old was never able to accumulate more than 300 at-bats in a season.  Lowrie doesn’t possess great range at shortstop, but his strength is his ability to hit left-handed pitching. He’s a career .326 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage against left-handers, but against right-handers is just a .214 hitter with a .293 on-base percentage. One thing Lowrie will bring is playoff experience, having helped the Red Sox reach the postseason in 2008 and ’09.

The Brewers signed Alex Gonzalez, filling the most glaring hole on their roster before at the Winter Meetings. Gonzalez has played at least 110 games in eight of the past nine seasons — he sat out 2008 because of a family issue — and is considered a plus defensive player. He was with the Braves in ’11, hitting .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs. Offensively, he is similar to his predecessor, Yuniesky Betancourt. Gonzalez (.270 on-base percentage) and Betancourt (.271) had the lowest on-base percentage of qualifying National League hitters.

The Pirates have filled their hole at shortstop, replacing Ronny Cedeno with Clint Barmes. Barmes played a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop last season for the Astros who elected not to bring him back in 2012. Barmes led all regular NL shortstops in 2011 with a 7.9 ultimate zone rating, a sabermetric statistic that calculates how many more runs a player saves on defense than an average replacement.  Barmes missed the first couple of weeks of the season after breaking his hand in Spring Training and wound up hitting .244 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs.

The 34-year-old Rafael Furcal came to the Cards from the Dodgers in a Trade Deadline deal and hit .255 with a .316 on-base percentage in 50 regular-season games with St. Louis. Furcal had a rough time at the plate in the playoffs, hitting below .200 in both the NLCS and World Series. What keeps him in the game is his defense. Even at 34 his range and arm are among the best in baseball.  Furcal turned a National League shortstop-high 36 double plays and was ranked second in both total chances (238) and assists (155).

Looking back on 2011 and based on past performance, career trends  and my mood today here is how I see them stacking up in 2012.

  1. Starlin Castro
  2. Alex Gonzalez
  3. Rafael Furcal
  4. Zack Cozart
  5. Jed Lowrie
  6. Clint Barmes

In a division with a legitimate All-Star, Starlin Castro , holding court up on the north side of Chicago and plenty of rookies and new comers 2012 should prove an interesting year in the NL Central.

Follow Derek on twitter at @SportsbyWeeze

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