The Top 10 Best Players in the NL Central for the 2024 Season

The NL Central is a bit light on superstar talent, but full of quality two-way players who will impact the game on both sides of the ball.

Nolan Arenado
ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 25: Nolan Arenado #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals congratulates Paul Goldschmidt #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals after Goldschmidt hit his second home run of the game against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning at Busch Stadium on August 25, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

With “list season” coming to an end, we had to get one more out: the top 10 position players in the NL Central. A division with a few notable veterans, but plenty of room for debate. Bona fide year in and year out All-Stars are either aging or lacking, and young talent is on the way.

Before we get started, I wanted to define a bucket of players that did not make the list but very well could by mid-season. The “young, ultra-talented, but need to prove more” bucket of Elly De LA Cruz, Oneil Cruz, and Jordan Walker.

While they aren’t on the 2024 list, I’m sure they will have their spot for many years in the near future.

Honorable Mention: TJ Friedl

2023 Stats: .279/.352/.467, 116 wRC+, 4.4 fWAR

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I know some will laugh at this pick. Friedl doesn’t hit the ball hard and his range of outcomes probably saw the high end last season. His 18 home runs were mostly due to hitting in Great American Ball Park but guess what? He’s back there again.

A plus defender in center who stole 27 bags and provided enough pop to keep pitchers honest? Sign me up. He won’t chase out of the zone leading to strikeouts which would really snowball into a bad formula with his weak contact. Let’s give some love to a throwback, 4.4 fWAR, undrafted player.

1O. Ke’Bryan Hayes

2023 Stats: .271/.309/.453, 101 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR

We are at the point of the offseason where we all talk ourselves into Hayes converting his 92 mph average exit velocity into 25 home runs. Well, he did hit 15 in 124 games last season.

Perhaps the injuries are behind him and the 2023 change in launch angle (5 degrees to 13) is truly a step in the right direction.

Even if the power doesn’t reach what so many think it could, the defense at third is elite. One of, if not the best, defender at the hot corner. I’ll take the bet that he can improve, even by around 5%, at the plate and reach a 4 fWAR player.

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9. Lars Nootbaar

2023 Stats: .261/.367/.418, 118 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR

The World Baseball Classic darling who everyone also seemed to love in fantasy, and I can see why. What’s not to like? A patient hitter with a great eye for the zone who walked 14% of the time, and struck out less than 20%. Enough power and speed to provide a little bit of everything for the Cardinals.

A full, healthy, 162 could really see Nootbar reach the next level. Another pick that feels safe, the floor for Nootbar is high.

8. Ian Happ

2023 Stats: .248/.360/.431, 118 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR

Over the past two years, Ian Happ ranks sixth among qualified corner outfielders in walk rate, 10th in on-base percentage, and 11th in OPS. He also ranks 11th in fWAR.

At 29 years old, the Cubs outfielder is still in his prime. He should be good for 20-plus home runs, double-digit stolen bases, and another three-win season.

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7. Matt McLain

2023 Stats: .290/.357/.507, 128 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR

You’ll find a lot of difference in opinion and projections on Matt McLain. After a fantastic rookie season, it’s looking like he will move from more of a shortstop to a second baseman. I still think the defense will be a plus, but how the bat plays is up for debate.

His xBA of .255 was much lower than his .290 batting average and the xSLG was significantly lower as well. His 28.5% strikeout rate is concerning as well but keep in mind this was a rookie. To me, I saw a player with plus speed, power that played up, and a plus defender. A 20/20 season with above-average defense lands you on the list.

6. Nico Hoerner

2023 Stats: .283/.346/.383, 102 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR

Nico Hoerner does not bring a power bat but is still one of the most solid ballplayers on the field. He hits for a high average, brings speed, and is elite in the field. Last season his 43 stolen bases and 98th percentile OAA helped him put together his second-straight 4+ fWAR season.

A bit of an old-school profile, Hoerner feels like a safe bet and at 26 years old is far from a drop-off in speed or defense.

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5. Christian Yelich

2023 Stats: .278/.370/.447, 122 wRC+, 4.1 fWAR

Seeing Yelich have a bit of a bounce back last year was refreshing. He walked at a high clip (12.3%), hit 19 home runs, and stole 28 bases. The power likely won’t breach 30 home runs again, but he’s making hard contact and spraying the ball to all fields.

I fully acknowledge a return to a lesser level is possible, but I’m going to buy what we said last year. Prior to this point on the list, there were a lot of unknowns, unprovens, and risky profiles so I wanted to lean into the veteran at five.

4. Nolan Arenado

2023 Stats: .266/.315/.459, 107 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

You might think this ranking is unfair. Look over the past four seasons from Arenado and you’ll find a bad covid season (I don’t read too much into that) and a good 2021, an MVP-level 2022, and a good 2023. His defense is still great but starting to trend slightly in the opposite direction.

Arenado has really leaned into pulling the ball and dips in his batted ball data lead to some concerns. Yes, like I mentioned with Goldschmidt, the Cardinals were a mess. That didn’t help, I’m sure. I’ll take the over 2.6 fWAR he posted last year, but under the fWAR Dansby Swanson will post.

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3. Dansby Swanson

2023 Stats: .244, .328/.416, 104 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR

The best defensive shortstop in the game? I think so. Swanson came over to Chicago, and like many players in year one of their deal, was not the very best version of themselves. Even with a lower average and fewer stolen bases than his final year in Atlanta, Swanson posted a 4.9 fWAR season and hit 22 home runs.

The floor for Swanson is high and I expect a better offensive season in 2024. He is in his prime and the expected stats pointed to a better season than what meets the eye. I’ll roll the dice and put him above Arenado.

2. William Contreras

2023 Stats: .289/.367/.457, 124 wRC+, 5.4 fWAR

I’m sure this will cause some anger, but why? In 2022 Contreras popped 20 home runs and posted a 139 wRC+ in 97 games. In ’23, his first in a full-time role, he kept the BB% the same (10%) while improving his strikeout rate by 7% while still posting a .824 OPS, as a catcher.

The biggest strides he made were behind the plate. He made massive improvements across the board and graded out as a great defensive catcher which led to a 5.4 fWAR, at 25 years old. He’s already shown he’s well above average, and I think there’s even more room to grow.

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1. Paul Goldschmidt

2023 Stats: .268/.363/.447, 122 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR

Although Goldschmidt did not repeat his 2022 MVP numbers, he still posted a respectable 122 wRC+ on a Cardinals team that struggled to piece any success together. The power is still there, the advanced metrics still check out, and at 36 years old, I still think a big season is left for the slugger.

Keep in mind, Goldschmidt finished top-20 in MVP voting eight-straight seasons prior to 2023, five of which were top-10 finishes. Simply put, he’s too good of a hitter to drop off a cliff.