The NL Central features three teams that could possibly win the World Series, a team loaded with young talent (the Reds), and a team that will be a tough out on any night in the Pirates. It was arguably the most competitive division in baseball last season, and it just got a whole lot tougher. Predicting these teams one through five is among the tougher tasks this offseason.
1. Chicago Cubs
Key Additions: Brad Brach, Daniel Descalso, Kendall Graveman
Key Losses: Daniel Murphy, Tommy La Stella, Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson
Bold picture. I know. The Cubs had a disappointing end to the 2018 season with an ugly Wild Card game performance against the Rockies. The season also ended with the Brewers winning the division by just one game. Chicago didn’t add much, but they also didn’t lose much. What I can’t wrap my head around is why this team has been projected to finish under .500? We’re talking about a lineup consisting of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Wilson Contreras, to name a few. It’s also a rotation that underperformed last season but has the tools to be great from top to bottom. Each and every piece of that rotation has finished in the Top 5 of a Cy Young vote in at least one season besides Jose Quintana. Maybe I’m completely missing something here, but I think the chip on their shoulders will propel the Cubs back to the top of the NL Central once again.
The Cubs win the division if…
Their bullpen can hold up. The biggest question mark on this team lies with its bullpen, and it cost the Cubs some games down the stretch. However, it also held up beautifully in a 1-0 Wild Card loss to the Rockies. I like the pieces this pen has, with guys like Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr, Steve Cischek, and Brandon Morrow closing. But it’s also a bullpen full of guys over the age of 30. If the bullpen holds, it could be another magical year for the Cubbies.
2. Milwaukee Brewers
Key Additions: Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel, Yasmani Grandal, Cory Spangenberg
Key Losses: Domingo Santana, Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley, Jonathan Schoop
The Brewers shocked many people by ending last season with 96 wins, the highest mark in the National League. They also did it with big free agency signings and trades the last offseason. This offseason, the Brew Crew pretty much stayed pat and lost more than they gained. However, they did get the bargain of the offseason by signing catcher Yasmani Grandal. This Brewers roster is still strong, but there is some expected regression with guys like Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich having huge seasons last year. They also found value in Jesus Aguilar, who finished with a triple slash of .274/.352/.539 to go along with 35 bombs and 108 RBIs. There’s no denying the talent this club has, it’s more questioning if this offense can be as dynamic as it was last season.
The Brewers win the division if…
Their starting pitching has another solid season. The biggest question mark to me is can the Brewers starting pitching method of quality over quantity hold for another NLCS run, or possibly further? Guys like Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Zach Davies are fine, but they also aren’t anything that jumps out at you. A big boost to the rotation could come from Jimmy Nelson, who missed the entire 2018 season. If Nelson can go back to ace form, the Brewers could be poised to make another postseason run.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
Key Additions: Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller
Key Losses: Matt Adams, Bud Norris, Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly
The Cardinals made the biggest free agent splashes within the division by trading for Paul Goldschmidt and signing Andrew Miller. Coming off of a solid 88-74 season, St. Louis is clearly looking for more this coming season after narrowly missing out on the NL Wild Card game. The corners of Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter will be huge on the offensive end and could determine how far this Cardinals team goes. Marcell Ozuna is also coming off a solid first season for the Cards.
Starting pitching has been good historically for the Cardinals but does yield some questions with the mix of young talent and old. Miles Mikolas had a stellar season last year, pitching to an 18-4 record and 2.83 ERA. However, it was also the first time in his MLB career where everything really came together. Carlos Martinez has dealt with shoulder issues already this offseason. Jack Flaherty looks like he could be the real deal, but will that happen this season? Alex Reyes is another arm that may crack the rotation, with Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha being the two veterans at the bottom as of now. Starting pitching could be the difference between playoffs or another year of missing for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals win the division if…
Their role players step it up. Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong provide great defense up the middle but have not provided much at all offensively. Behind the plate, veteran Yadier Molina has dealt with some issues both last season and during the offseason, and after trading Carson Kelly to the D-Backs, the Cardinals need Molina to once again be that guy defensively and offensively. But perhaps the biggest name that needs to step up is Dexter Fowler. In just 90 games last season, Fowler slashed .180/.278/.298. He has to be a lot better than that. The Cards’ coaching staff has shown confidence in Fowler so far in spring, but he’ll have to show up this season for St. Louis to return to greatness in the NL.
4. Cincinnati Reds
Key Additions: Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood
Key Losses: Matt Harvey, Homer Bailey, Billy Hamilton, Dilson Herrera
I am all aboard the Reds train. Just not quite yet. They went out and made some of the better offseason moves without giving up much of anything. Yasiel Puig is another fun piece to a lineup that is young and potentially dangerous, anchored by the always great Joey Votto. The rotation is not great, but it has the potential to be very solid. Sonny Gray should have a bounce-back year, and Alex Wood and Tanner Roark have both proven that they can get it done. The lineup has the potential to be dangerous, but also the chance the young talent scattered among it is not quite ready. I love the direction the Reds are headed in, I just think it will take a little more time. At least Great American Ballpark won’t be empty this season (we hope).
The Reds win the division if…
A few of the young guys step up in a big way. It starts with the rotation and Luis Castillo and fades to the lineup with Jessie Winker, and they will also need another strong season out of Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza. There is also the potential of prospect Nick Senzel to make his way on to the big league club. There are many fun pieces on this team, but I think it’s still a year or two away. Oh, and an MVP season from Yasiel Puig would also help.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
Key Additions: Lonnie Chisenhall, Jordan Lyles
Key Losses: Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison
The Pirates had a bit of an odd season in 2018. It began with the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, making it seem like the Buccos were going full rebuild. But then at the trade deadline, Pittsburgh dumped two of its better prospects in Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to Tampa in exchange for Chris Archer. After the deadline, the wheels started to come off a bit on the Pirates 2018 campaign. Given the rest of the NL Central, acquiring Lonnie Chisenhall and Jordan Lyles to a last place team doesn’t really help. Pittsburgh still does have some fun pieces, and they won’t be a fun out on any night, but I believe the Pirates are the clear 5th place team in a loaded NL Central.
The Pirates win the division if…
They get consistent offensive production. I’m a big fan of the starting rotation for the Pirates, but their lineup leaves a lot to be desired. They also don’t have those one or two guys that can bring it on every night like the rest of the division seem to have. It would take a massive collective offensive effort for Pittsburgh to even sniff first place in the NL Central this season.