Some people like end-of-decade lists. Some people hate them, or argue that ACTUALLY the decade began in 2011 because there was no Year Zero (you know, before written history–this is why we frequently declare things like that the 1970 Baltimore Orioles were the best baseball team of the 1960s and that Goodfellas was the greatest film of the 1980s). I like them, so you get them.
For today, I’m going to focus on the National League Central. I think we tend as fans to underestimate how impactful being in the same division as your favorite team is in determining how much you are familiar with certain players. And it’s not just the teams closest to you in the standings–teams in the division cellar are still producing players you see more often than the rest of the league. I’ve watched more Pittsburgh Pirates games this decade than I have Boston Red Sox games by a lot.
Here is a team of the best players of the decade in the NL Central based strictly on performance in the National League Central in the 2010s, as defined as “years that begin with ‘201’ and then have another digit at the end of it, you nerds”. While I’ve occasionally taken to constructing full rosters, I’m going to make essentially a 14-player roster–one position player per position, three starting pitchers, and three relievers. But I’ll throw you some honorable mentions, too. Do I have a good reason for this? Nope! But here it is.
The two best catchers in baseball in the 2010s each only played on one team, though lifelong NL West participant Buster Posey is obviously disqualified. And thus the pick here is Yadier Molina, easily the most prolific catcher of the decade in the division and a seven-time Gold Glove winner during the decade. The St. Louis Cardinals backstop was twice an MVP candidate, and even in categories with which he isn’t particularly associated (he is the leader in home runs and stolen bases), he is clearly the standard-bearer of the position. Honorable mention: Jonathan Lucroy
In 2010, he was the National League MVP, and while he took a clear step back in 2019, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto was arguably the division’s best overall player in the 2010s. By Wins Above Replacement, Votto was the best first baseman in all of baseball throughout the decade, so it stands as no surprise that a guy who spent his entire decade with the same NL Central team would be the choice here. Over the decade, Votto hit 231 home runs and maintained a preposterous .428 on-base percentage thanks largely to a 17% walk rate. Honorable mention: Anthony Rizzo
Although it lacks a standard bearer quite to the level of Molina and Votto, second base did have a very popular, long-tenured star in Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. A three-time Gold Glove winner in the decade, Phillips combined strong defense with a solid bat and was an All-Star three times before leaving the division following the 2016 season. There isn’t a huge gap among each team’s top candidates, but Phillips has the advantages of term and a solid intangible case–he was beloved in Cincinnati and widely accepted as a vocal clubhouse leader, even as the quieter Joey Votto was the team’s most productive hitter. Honorable mention: Neil Walker
The greatest single season by a National League Central team in the 2010s came from the 2016 Chicago Cubs, and the best player on that team was Kris Bryant, the third baseman whose ascent most clearly correlated with the rise of the Cubs. Despite not formally joining the NL Central until a suspiciously precise number of days into the 2015 season, Bryant hit 138 home runs and was on a rate basis as good of a hitter as the decade’s top overall offensive third baseman (Josh Donaldson). Bryant is in second place by WAR at the position in the division, but it’s by a small enough margin that I’m going to defer to the player with the higher highs and a higher proportion of time spent at the position. Honorable mention: Matt Carpenter
Arguably the weakest position for the all-NL Central team, the revolving door at the position for the division’s most consistent team hurts. The position is so weak that I am picking a credible candidate for the second base position–Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez. Although the hype surrounding his purported supernatural tagging ability is a bit grating, he is an above-average hitter with legitimate home run power and plus middle infield defense. His WAR metrics would likely be higher if he spent more time at shortstop, a position at which his stats are superior to his stats at second base. Honorable mention: Paul DeJong
As with first base, it’s hard to not pick the guy who spent the entire decade in the division and won an MVP award. And in this case, the pick comes in Milwaukee Brewers mainstay Ryan Braun. Unpopular as he may have been outside of Milwaukee, his production was undeniable–among all players at all positions, Braun ranked 18th in hits, 14th in home runs, and 8th in runs batted in, with his advanced offensive metrics reflecting a similar message to his traditional numbers. Through the first seven years of the decade, this was a competitive race, but by merely remaining in the last three, Braun pulled away. Honorable mention: Matt Holliday
The best Not Mike Trout center fielder in baseball over the last decade, Pittsburgh Pirates icon Andrew McCutchen was the biggest star and usually the best player on the best Pirates teams in a generation through 2017, when he was traded to the San Francisco Giants. He was a five-time All-Star in the black and yellow and McCutchen was National League MVP in 2013, when the Pirates made the postseason for the first time in twenty-one years. Honorable mention: Carlos Gomez
Despite only playing two seasons in the division, the two MVP-caliber campaigns from Christian Yelich are impossible to ignore. The Brewers mega-star exceeded the total decade fWAR total for all but four NL Central right fielders in either of his two seasons in Milwaukee, and while the battle for combined fWAR leader is close, Yelich has a slight edge by total and a major edge by peak. Honorable mention: Jay Bruce
By sheer volume, the top starting pitcher of the decade in the NL Central is pretty conclusively Adam Wainwright. A member of the St. Louis Cardinals from beginning to end, Wainwright had a few stages–Cy Young caliber, merely pretty good, and lackluster in nearly equal measure, but each of those stages happened in the NL Central, and that’s the most relevant tidbit here. Three Chicago Cubs pitchers are within striking distance of top three of the division as a whole, but I’m going to only include one–the one who had the highest highs, including an otherworldly second half of his Cy Young-winning 2015 campaign, Jake Arrieta. And while I try to avoid speaking his name like it’s Voldemort, it’s hard to not include Cincinnati Reds first-half-of-the-decade ace Johnny Cueto, a Cy Young finalist who had a lower ERA than Wainwright or Arrieta over the decade in the division, and while his lack of strikeout dominance kept Cueto from being regarded as a true superstar, the results are undeniable. Honorable mentions: Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester
Relief pitchers are fickle creatures, so any reliever who spends a significant chunk of the decade in the division is going to be near the top of the all-decade list. Unfortunately, and I take no joy in reporting this, but the objectively correct answer for the team’s closer is Aroldis Chapman, the dominant fireballing closer for the Cincinnati Reds for the first six years of the decade who later cameoed as the Cubs closer who gave up a game-tying home run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series to Rajai Davis, a video I have attached at the bottom of this post for some sense of moral equilibrium. The next reliever up is Trevor Rosenthal, an oft-dominant St. Louis Cardinals closer who was a high-leverage Cardinals reliever for half a decade. Third, I will choose Mark Melancon, who like Chapman was a reliever for two NL Central teams (the pre-AL Houston Astros and, more notably, the Pittsburgh Pirates) but unlike Chapman was never suspended for firing a gun at the mother of his child. And now, to list the near-makes who continue the grossness that I was at least able to minimize. Honorable mentions: Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Felipe Vazquez
As a Cardinals fan, it is my obligation to point out his shortcomings, and yes, his NL Central work was tailor-made to look better on the surface than it actually was, as the mid-2010s Chicago Cubs were widely expected to take off. But Joe Maddon was there to shepherd the team to success and I can’t take that away from him. Honorable mention: Clint Hurdle
And now, your moment of zen.