prince.jpg

As I stated last week, I could really care less about spring training. It becomes especially difficult to pay attention to baseball games that don’t count when there’s college basketball games that do count being played for all the marbles. March is for the Butlers, George Masons, Bucknells, Kent States, Vermonts and Virginia Commonwealths. March is for whomever is playing Duke. I could care less who is playing the St. Louis Cardinals.

But for the sake of writing a baseball column amidst the excitement of a college basketball tournament, I’ll attempt to honor college basketball tradition and pick a preseason “all conference” team for the N.L. Central. Like any great preseason team, my picks are based on wild hunches and threads of evidence, and will largely turn out to be wrong come September.

CATCHER: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
If you’re looking for a catcher who can swing a stick, then the N.L. Central is going to disappoint. In terms of defensive backstops, however, the division can hold its own. The best of ’em is Molina, who throws out about half of the few baserunners dumb enough to attempt to steal on him. Given that Molina is just 25 years old, there’s a decent chance he’ll continue to improve enough at the plate to make him the division’s best-hitting catcher, too. The wildcard at catcher is the Cubs’ Geovany Soto, a promising hitter who smacked 26 home runs in Triple-A last season and impressed in a September call-up.

FIRST BASE: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
If the Central is weak behind the plate, it’s rich at first base. The popular pick is Albert Pujols, of course, but my money is on him undergoing elbow surgery before the year is through. Under those circumstances, the best first bagger in the league is likely to be Young Tubby (pictured above). While it’s certainly plausible to expect a rebound season from either Lance Berkman or Derrek Lee, I’m going with youth over the elders. Last season, Fielder finished second in the N.L. in OPS, third in runs created and first in long balls. Plus, he notched a huge hike in his walk rate. Bernie Brewer is going to wear out the seat of his pants on that slide this year.

SECOND BASE: Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers
The competition at second is between Weeks and the Reds’ Brandon Phillips, who joined the 30-30 club last season. One would think that playing in Great American Ball Park boosted Phillips’ power stroke, but the 26 year-old actually had a slightly higher OPS on the road. He’s a legit hitter. But Weeks impresses me even more. After the midseason milemarker, Weeks posted a .422 on-base percentage, cranked 11 home runs and stole 16 bases. My money is on Weeks to have a healthy season and continue his maturation at the plate.

SHORTSTOP: Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh Pirates
Everyone is anxious to watch Miguel Tejada flop, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him slug 30 home runs thanks to the short left-field wall in Minute Maid. But the Central is full of slugging shortstops, including J.J. Hardy and Alex Gonzalez. So I’m going out on a limb and expecting a career year from Jack Wilson, who technically already enjoyed his career year in 2004 when he collected 201 hits. However, last year Wilson posted a career-best on-base percentage of .350 while slugging .440 in an injury-marred campaign. I look for him to match those numbers this season, plus continue to play near-Gold Glove caliber defense. To me, he’s the closest thing to an all-around package among Central shortstops.

THIRD BASE: Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs
Last season Ryan Braun was an offensive stud, but I do expect he’ll regress this season. I’m not ready to anoint him the second coming of Pujols at the plate; and his defense was so atrocious at third base last season that the Brewers are moving him to left field. (By most accounts, that’s not going too well.) Ramirez is my choice, as he’s been a steady performer all four years in Chicago. Defensively, the once-challenged third-sacker is even improving in his old age. The dark-horse candidate is Troy Glaus, who free of Toronto’s turf may still have a few healthy, slugging seasons left in him. It wouldn’t shock me if he leads all N.L. Central third basemen in home runs.

OUTFIELD: Corey Hart, Milwaukee Brewers; Hunter Pence, Houston Astros; Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs
Let’s start with who I excluded: Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Carlos Lee. All three certainly had solid if not spectacular 2007 seasons. It’s hard to argue that any of them are showing signs of decline at the plate. Still, I’m feeling a youth movement this season. Soriano gets to be the wise old sage in this group. At 32, I expect to see him begin to decline this season, but not at an alarming rate. He can man left field for the preseason team and fire bullets to second base. In center, we’ll go with Pence, an above-average fielder with plus power. And in right, the nod goes to Hart, who made great strides in his sophomore season and absolutely destroys left-handed pitching. He’s a streaky power hitter who, like Soriano, did most of his damage while batting leadoff. I’m leaving Braun off the outfield list, too, because I truly believe his defense may be so poor — even in left field — that it will negate a significant amount of the goodwill created by his bat.

Next week I’ll examine the hurlers in the N.L. Central and pick my preseason staff.