By Jon Edwards
The NL Central is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in Major League Baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals remain on the throne until somebody can push them off, and that might happen this year. The Pirates gained experience, while the Cubs gained talent, both internally and externally. The Reds are looking to compete at the top again after finally getting a healthy squad back together. And any team with Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy is going to compete, so you can never count out the Brew Crew. This week, I’m highlighting one person on each team that may not be well known, but should have a chance to help their squad take home the division crown.
(All stats from http://www.baseball-reference.com)
Chicago Cubs – 1B/3B Mike OltEmbed from Getty Images
Olt has had a whirlwind of a career so far, but he’s still only 26 years old. He has extreme amounts of raw power, but his struggles in the field force him into a limited number of at-bats. The good news is Olt hit 12 HR’s last year, the bad is that he hit way below the Mendoza line with a .160 average. Pitchers can hit .160. But I think Olt finds himself in a nice situation. He can play a poor first or third base when needed, and he could see some extended time if his bat is hot until Kris Bryant gets the call-up. He’s a nice power bat to have as a pinch hitter late in the game, and he can DH during interleague games. If Olt can find a way to hit 20-25 homers, the Cubs have to find some time for the once heralded top-50 prospect.
Cincinnati Reds – SS Eugenio SuarezEmbed from Getty Images
I think the Reds are at a point where it’s safe to say the Zack Cozart experiment failed tremendously. He’s a good fielder but is absolutely useless at the plate, evidenced by his .568 OPS last season. Unless he regains his hitting prowess from his first two seasons, which still wasn’t great albeit passable, the Reds should be finding time for Suarez, acquired in an offseason deal that sent Alfredo Simon to Detroit. Suarez struggled offensively in Detroit last year, but was only 22 years old. Take a look at his time in the minors last year and you see he tore the cover off the ball, to the tune of a .510 slugging percentage across AA and AAA. He’s not as refined as Cozart defensively, but if he can provide the upgrade with the bat, the Reds have to make the switch.
Milwaukee Brewers – SS Luis SardinasEmbed from Getty Images
In an eerily similar situation to Suarez, Sardinas was acquired in a trade this offseason when Milwaukee sent Yovani Gallaro to Texas for Sardinas, Corey Knebel and Marcos Diplan, which gave some depth to a dreadful Brewers farm system. Also similar to Suarez, Sardinas is super young, 21, and will be fighting for time in the middle infield behind projected starters Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett. Sardinas, a regarded top-100 prospect, is certainly glove first with a light bat but makes good contact and has done a decent job getting on base, where he can use his speed to disrupt pitchers. There isn’t a position for him right now, but Sardinas should be next in line if Segura’s struggles continue.
Pittsburgh Pirates – OF Andrew LamboEmbed from Getty Images
Lambo has nothing left to prove in the minors, and the Pirates confirmed that by shipping out outfielder Travis Snider to Baltimore this offseason. Lambo should slide right in to take over the 4th OF position, but on a team that features Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, that doesn’t leave much playing time. The only problem with having such an aggressive outfield is it may lead to injuries, which is when Lambo could factor in. He can also play first base in a pinch, and like Olt, should see time as a power hitting pinch-hitter and DH for interleague games. Lambo will have to show off some of his power he demonstrated in the minors, where he has OPS’d over .900 each of the past three seasons, if he wants to see consistent at-bats.
St. Louis Cardinals – RHP Carlos MartinezEmbed from Getty Images
Martinez spent last year in the Cards bullpen, but with the trade of Shelby Miller and uncertain health of Michael Wacha, he’s ready to be unleashed back into his starting role. Martinez has nasty stuff, he just has to prove he can hold up for a full season. His career-high in innings pitched is only 104 so the Cardinals might have to put a cap on how many he throws this year. A top-50 prospect before he graduated to the majors, Martinez has the minors resume to back up the hype coming into the year. He had a 2.61 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and averaged more than a strikeout an inning during his ride through the farm system, all while playing at levels he was young for. If everything can click for C-Mart, he will be a force at the top of the Cardinals rotation.