Only one way to find out.....break it down the NL Central just like it's any other division
Yes Soto had a terrible season last year. Note the emphasis on a terrible season, not being a terrible player. Easily attributable to an obscenely low BABIP. Yadier Molina had another All-Star season last year and he can play defense but I find it hard to associate a Molina brother with being an offensive juggernaut. For the Brewers, having Zaun instead of Kendall allows them to jump from the bottom to the middle of the pack in this position but a sense of reality and perspective needs to be placed in that Zaun is a middle of the pack catcher...no better...no worse.
All I have to say about 1 to 5 is......wow. First Base is deep in this division. It's obvious that Pujols is the best at this position and in the league until proven otherwise....still in a love/hate mode with myself for drafting him onto Cheddarhead but c'mon it's Pujols. Prince Fielder is amongst the top candidates to dethrone King Albert as the best hitter in the league but wanting to be number 1 and being number 1 are two different things. There are talks of a contract extension in place so maybe this will motivate him to go from his status as an already great hitter to being in his own top echelon. Derrek Lee is a great hitter in his own regard but a notch below Albert and Prince. Votto and Berkman are fairly interchangeable. Votto is on the way up and could be in line for a breakout season. Berkman, while still a great hitter is getting up there in years and seems more vulnerable to injury and/or regressing numbers than Votto.
How production from this position actually shakes out is highly reliant on the ability of certain players (Rickie Weeks....cough...cough) to stay healthy. Phillips and Weeks are in the top tier for this division. Both Phillips and Weeks have the talent to put up 20-20 seasons. Phillips gets the nod because as of now, he's been the one to fulfill said talent.
Weeks is definitely a talented player and has been a breakout prospect for a long time but has been plagued by under-performance and health injuries. 2009 was beginning to look like his breakout year but then....BOOM....out for the season. Here's to Weeks fulfilling his potential in 2010.
The shortstop position in two words......Paper Thin. Yes, I realize Escobar is a work in progress especially in the Power and Walks department but a combination of his assets (good contact, blazing speed, strong defense) and going up against players that peaked last year and even then didn't peak that high (Theriot) a prototypically bland middle-infielder (Ryan) and three players that despite being on the wrong side of 25 don't have anything screaming about them that they will ever be stars (Cedeno, Manzella and Janish)..leads to a pretty weak crop of Shortstops.
Another fairly weak crop. Despite the injury concerns/issues surrounding Ramirez the reality remains that he is by far the most talented amongst this crop. McGehee is definitely a Major-League caliber starter but how good he ultimately will be is still debatable. On one hand, McGehee's breakout season was aided by a fairly lucky BABIP. On the other hand, he had his breakout season without being completely healthy. While Scott Rolen's ability to stay healthy is highly questioned, hes still a fairly productive hitter. That is more than we can say about Pedro Feliz has overcome hitting double figure home runs on a yearly basis to consistently hit 20 percent below league average.
This field busts out into 3 tiers. Braun/Holliday are in Tier One. If I were to reduce the face of the Brewers to one player, it would be Ryan Braun. All he's done since coming to the bigs is knock the cover out of baseballs. He's asserted himself as the vocal leader of this squad even saying things to the media that pretty much every fan was thinking (i.e. last year's pitching was terrible).
While Holliday is also amongst the elite hitters in the league, he does have the strike against him that he struggled a bit in his stint in Oakland (regardless of how much McAfee stadium is to blame). That and in full disclosure I am a bit biased towards Braun.
Carlos Lee is a distant third. He's become so reliable to hit .300 and go yard about 30 times a year that he's sort of fallen into the background. A great hitter, a solid producer its just that Braun and Holliday are better. Soriano obviously has lots of talent (its sort of hard to be a 40-40 player without it) but things have definitely gone south for him since becoming a Cub. Definitely a make or break year for him.
2- Marlon Byrd
McCutchen was good enough to actually make the Pirates decision to trade McLouth look justifiable. He should continue to improve and progress until the Pirates decide to trade him in the name of continuing their perpetual cycle of losing. Byrd had a nice year in Texas....not sure how the momentum of that and being away from Texas will affect his game this year. Rasmus had moments last year....he's better than the players below him....but haven't seen enough to rank him any higher.
Yes, Drew Stubbs had a nice run after getting called up but I would like to see him sustain that level of play for more than a couple months before signing off on him as a star. Bourn had his career year last year and I wouldn't be surprised to see him struggle at the plate this year....as I've mentioned here before....I am not very confident in the current ability level of Carlos Gomez and he is ranked accordingly.
2- Hunter Pence
One of the tougher rankings by position. Jay Bruce may have only hit .223 last year and struggled with injuries. However, he is on the cusp (i.e. a couple months away) from stardom.....he was ridiculously unlucky at the plate as evidenced by a .222 BABIP. In other words, he should have hit closer to .260.....even with this bad luck he still went deep 22 times in 345 at bats. Also, he'll be 23 next month indicating he'll only get better than where he is currently. Even if he doesn't actually improve and the only difference is he doesn't get hurt and he doesn't get horribly unlucky we could be looking at .260-.270 hitter with 35-40 homers.
Two through five are fairly close. There's something about Astros hitters with power that makes them hard to notice. I don't know whether its the hitter friendly park or if its because their team isn't very good but Hunter Pence has managed to go deep 25 times the last couple years without anyone really noticing.
Where to rank Hart, Jones and Ludwick is a bit more ambiguous. That could be because their bodies of work are so similar, they make each others Top 10 lists for similarity scores. Both are average to slightly above average hitters whose reputations are expanded by a career year aided by an inflated BABIP (Hart in 2007, Ludwick in 2008). Both players could potentially drive in 100+ Runs because of pitchers opting to pitch around star hitters in the lineup (Fielder/Braun and Pujols/Holliday). Corey Hart is younger and likely has more years ahead of him while Ludwick has done more with the opportunities given as he has the advantage in OPS+ (117 to 106).
Thus Ludwick is 3rd and Hart is 5th. Why does Hart fall to 5th? Because i'm not quite sure what to do with Garrett Jones. On one hand, his monster season last year would have projected to a 40 homer season. On the other hand, the fact that he was aided by a generous BABIP (.327) and he didn't get his first chance to play regularly until 28 raises a few red flags. I don't think hes going to be total bust (i.e. Michael Bourn) and he's still better than Fukudome but I don't see him hitting 40 out this year. Not sure exactly where he will fall in the context of Hart-Ludwick but I could see him moving to a new normal of slightly above average and thus I am splitting the difference and ranking him 4th.
And our standings after one half:
Some surprises some non-surprises. I am slightly surprised that the Brewers have a lead (albeit slight one). I'm not shocked that Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati occupy the top four positions. However, i'm surprised at the exact order of the four teams. To my absolute non-shock, the Pirates and Astros are not even to the top. In all fairness, the halves are broken down into hitting and pitching and one reason the Brewers are even close to the top (let alone at the top) is that the pitching staffs don't get ranked until the next post. Well whatever helps me sleep easier at night.