NL Central Preview

A wide open field in baseball’s toughest division

By: Jesse

Midwest Sports Pulse’s penultimate division preview will take a look at the toughest division in baseball, though the argument can be made that our last division – the NL East (forthcoming) – could also hold that crown. However, I am deciding to give that title to the National League Central, and in no way, shape, or form is that because of any bias (it’s not like I’m a huge Cubs fan or anything).

To give you, my valued reader, some background on my approach, I like to do my own research before diving into a piece like this. I try and read other season preview/prediction pieces by big J journalists, look at record projections from multiple sources, and of course, focus on what each team has added and subtracted in the offseason.

The NL Central (by far) has the widest variety of predictions and projections. I am so excited for this season, but I’m also a little bit nervous (again, not that I’m a huge Cubs fan).

The Milwaukee Brewers are the reigning NL Central champions, having taken the division in a one-game tiebreaker against the Chicago Cubs in Game 163 last season. But every team has so many questions and so many “what-ifs” that this division is literally wide open.

Let’s get to it.

St. Louis Cardinals

Projected record: 94-68

Does adding Paul Goldschmidt make the Cardinals the favorites in the NL Central? You bet it does.

The St. Louis Cardinals have not been to the playoffs since 2015.

That’s kind of a shocking sentence to read, isn’t it?

The Cardinals, along with the Red Sox, have arguably been among the most consistent teams in baseball since 2000, that position bolstered by their 2006 and 2011 World Series titles.

But the National League Central, specifically the Cubs and Brewers, have lapped the Cardinals in the last few years, and St. Louis is not content to sit idly by and hang out in 3rd place in the division.

So what did they do? Well, for starters, they brought in Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best hitters in baseball. The 31-year-old first baseman, who had spent his entire career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, has been an All-Star in every season since 2013; he also has three Gold Glove Awards, three Silver Slugger Awards, and has finished in the top 3 in MVP voting three times as well.

And he’s relatively cheap. Goldschmidt is due $14.5 million this season, which is obviously a lot of money, but a player of his caliber could easily be making $25-30 million or more. Goldschmidt has either hit .300 or hit at least 24 home runs in each season since 2013. He’ll hit free agency after this season, and will no doubt command a large contract in 2020, whether he stays with St. Louis or goes elsewhere.

But that wasn’t the only piece St. Louis brought in.

The Cardinals signed lefty reliever Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal this offseason. While Miller wasn’t quite as good in 2018, it’s hard to argue that there’s been a reliever who has been better since 2016. Miller will strengthen a bullpen that was…not great in 2018. Not terrible, but not great.

Of course, the Cardinals still have Matt Carpenter, who was the favorite for National League MVP at different points throughout the season. They have Marcell Ozuna, who is coming off shoulder surgery in the offseason and hopes to be more forceful than he was in 2018 (though he still finished with a .280 batting average, 23 home runs, and 88 RBI).

The Cardinals also have a plethora of starting pitching options. Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Michael Mikolas, and Michael Wacha give them a solid top four. Beyond that, there are a number of other names that could fill out the rotation, including Alex Reyes, John Gant, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright. Any of those names could be swapped in and out of the rotation if necessary, and the others can be added to the bullpen or even dangled at the trade deadline to fill other needs.

One player to keep an eye on this year will be Dexter Fowler. I have a soft spot for Dex, admittedly, but 2018 was absolutely brutal. A huge part of the 2016 Cubs World Series Champion team, Fowler hit an abysmal .180 last season in just 90 games, and the fans in St. Louis noticed. The fan in me wants St. Louis to underperform my projection here, but I also want to see Fowler figure it out again. Dexter and his wife, Darya, are good and charitable people and always seemed to be doing something in Chicago to contribute to the community, and I know they’re doing the same in St. Louis.

In 2019, I think the Cardinals will be in the running for not just the division, but also home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.

Chicago Cubs

Projected record: 91-71

Can “Bryzzo” lead the Cubs back to the playoffs in 2019?

The 2018 Chicago Cubs were one of the most topsy-turvy teams in baseball, falling apart in September and bowing out in the National League Wild Card game after losing the NL Central Division tiebreaker game to the Brewers.

Can the Cubs continue to compete in 2019, or is the window closing? Depends on who you ask.

I’ve seen some predictions that have the Cubs winning the NL Central in 2019, and others that have them projected to finish last in the division and not get to a .500 record. The latter, to me, is absurd, but baseball is a funny game.

The Cubs had a quiet offseason. The two big additions were…Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach? Descalso hit .238 last year and is a career .240 hitter, which doesn’t quite replace the numbers Daniel Murphy brought for the second half of the season in 2018. Brach is a better addition. The 6’6″ righty out of the bullpen had another solid campaign in 2018. He struggled in the beginning of the season in Baltimore, posting a 1-2 record with a 4.85 ERA in 42 games. However, he was dealt to Atlanta at the deadline and lowered that ERA to 1.52 in 27 games. Brach could potentially be a nice addition to the Cubs bullpen, an area that has been the source of thousands of headaches over the past…20 years in Chicago.

Yu Darvish was a disappointment, to say the least. After signing a 6-year, $126 million deal prior to 2018, he pitched in only eight games, going 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA before succumbing to injuries the rest of the year. Darvish says he feels healthy and is ready for a fresh start in 2019, but large contracts have historically made Cubs fans nervous, and it remains to be seen whether or not this is a good signing or a bad one.

Speaking of large contracts, Jon Lester will get the nod on Opening Day. His contract is one that paid off handsomely for both the Cubs and Lester. Lester has started 32 games in each of the past four seasons for the Cubs, and has 61 wins in those games. Along with Darvish and Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels round out the rotation, giving the Cubs a solid (but aging) core.

On offense, Javier Baez was the undisputed star in 2018, finishing second in the MVP vote behind Christian Yelich (more on him shortly). Baez hit .290 with 34 home runs and 111 RBI in last season, showing the Cubs precisely why they used the 9th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft on him. El Mago was also a must-watch on the defensive side of the ball.

Elsewhere, Jason Heyward improved, hitting .270 in 2018. Anthony Rizzo had another stellar season at the plate, batting .283 and smacking 25 home runs while also driving in 101 runs. Those numbers went along with a Gold Glove Award at first base, Rizzo’s second such award. Kyle Schwarber hit 26 home runs in 137 games, but was mostly an all-or-nothing hitter, as his average was a measly .238. Willson Contreras regressed from 2016 and 2017, and he’ll obviously look to bounce back in 2019.

The last three players to watch include one of the faces of the franchise, his replacement for much of 2018, and one whose offseason has consisted of a lot of negative press.

Kris Bryant missed 60 games in 2018, and the Cubs still managed to win 95 games. When Bryant is healthy, he’s obviously one of the premiere hitters in baseball. He won Rookie of the Year in 2015 and followed it up with an MVP Award in 2016, along with – oh yeah – a World Series championship.

But the big question for Bryant is whether or not he can stay healthy in 2019. Luckily for the Cubs, David Bote was an absolute gem at third base in Bryant’s absence. Bote was terrific on defense, committing just five errors in 75 games. He also hit one of the most memorable home runs at Wrigley Field in recent memory, a walk-off grand slam against the Washington Nationals when the Cubs were trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the 9th and in desperate need of some motivation. His batting average was below par at .239, but he was still a key part of the Cubs making the playoffs.

The last player to watch this season is Addison Russell. Russell was accused of domestic violence by his now ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, in a long and detailed post about the abuse. Major League Baseball placed Russell on administrative leave on September 19th of last season and later suspended him for the first 40 games of the upcoming season.

In the interest of full disclosure, Addison Russell was one of my favorite players on the Cubs until September of last year. He’s a wizard on defense, and while his stats at the plate haven’t been great, he’s provided some key at-bats and hits when the Cubs have needed them the most, including during the 2016 World Series run.

But now? I think Addison Russell is a scumbag. On one hand, I don’t necessarily disagree with giving someone another chance, but I’m sad to see that it’s with the Cubs. I wish they would have cut the cord and let someone else take him on, if they chose to. Baez can more than fill in at shortstop, and Descalso can play second until Nico Hoerner is ready to be an every day player. The Stanford product is coming up as a shortstop, but depending on where Baez wants to play (or where Joe Maddon wants him to play), Hoerner could play either middle infield spot. And if Descalso doesn’t work out, Ian Happ (.233, 15 home runs, 44 RBI) can play second base, as well as Ben Zobrist.

If the Cubs stay healthy, they’ll compete for the division crown again. If injuries plague them like they did in 2018, it’ll be tough to compete in a division where every team has gotten stronger while the Cubs hunkered down with the pieces they have. My biggest worry, apart from injuries, is that the negative attention from Russell will form a divide in this team that they won’t recover from. Not that the divide will be between players who defend Russell and those who don’t, but more so that the tension and distractions in the locker room will be too much to overcome, and that the Cubs will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Milwaukee Brewers

Projected record: 88-74

Can Christian Yelich have another MVP season? | Photo by: Ian D’Andrea

The Milwaukee Brewers are one of the most interesting teams in baseball. The defending NL Central champions added a good bat this offseason and return the reigning NL MVP in Christian Yelich.

But did they do enough?

The biggest area of concern for the Brewers is their starting pitching. They really don’t have a traditional ace in the rotation. Jhoulys Chacin filled the #1 spot last season, but can he do it again? Chacin went 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA, throwing 192.2 innings in 35 starts and racking up 156 strikeouts. There’s no doubt that Chacin had an excellent season, but the big question is whether he can repeat or exceed his production from last year.

The Brewers only had three guys start more than 20 games (Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Junior Guerra) last season, and Anderson and Guerra were decent at best. Jimmy Nelson will be back at some point in 2019 after missing all of last season following surgery to repair a torn labrum. Milwaukee also has Zach Davies, who was terrific in 2017 but faltered in 2018, dealing with injuries and inconsistency. If the rotation can hold up, the Brewers have a shot to win 90+ games again and compete at the top.

The bullpen is an entirely different story. Milwaukee’s relief pitchers were phenomenal in 2018, led by All-Star Josh Hader. The 24-year-old went 6-1 in relief, posting a 2.43 ERA and striking out 143 batters in just 81 innings pitched. Hader, along with division rival Andrew Miller, are among the top relievers in baseball, and he was a standout for the Brewers last season.

Corey Knebel, like Davies, dealt with injuries and inconsistent play in 2018, but he can be a reliable closer for the Brewers. Jeremy Jeffress (8-1, 1.29 ERA) adds another great option, though his status for Opening Day is in doubt as he works through a shoulder issue.

The offensive attack for Milwaukee is a lot of the same from last year, with the exception of Yasmani Grandal, the newest addition from Los Angeles. Grandal, who signed a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers, can be counted on for 20 home runs this year, having reached that point in each of his last three seasons with the Dodgers.

Lorenzo Cain, who hit .308 last season, will still be at the top of the lineup for Milwaukee, and as a career .293 hitter, another season like last isn’t out of the question. He also provides solid defense in center field, having committed just six errors in 138 games in 2018.

Jesus Aguilar absolutely raked ML pitchers last year, mashing 35 home runs and driving in 108 runs in 149 games. He’ll be another player to watch this season to see if he can repeat those kinds of numbers in 2019.

Ryan Braun has been on a slight decline over the past two seasons, hitting just .254, though he did manage to hit 20 home runs. The former NL MVP has faded from being the centerpiece of the Milwaukee lineup, but if he can be efficient this season, he’ll still be able to provide a boost to the Brewers.

And of course, there’s always Christian Yelich. Yelich was outstanding in 2019, as his NL MVP Award can attest to. He hit .326 last season which led the National League. He also hit 36 home runs, drove in 110 runs, and posted an OPS of 1.000, which is pretty dang good. From April to August, Yelich was a contender for the MVP, but it seemed like Javy Baez was in the driver’s seat. Then, when the Brewers needed him to step up the most, Yelich hit .352 in September, adding 10 home runs and getting on base in half of his at-bats. His performance in September not only won him the MVP, but also won the Brewers the division.

Milwaukee’s offense and bullpen are good enough to repeat as champions of the Central, but the starting pitching is what concerns me the most. If the rotation outperforms itself, don’t be shocked if Milwaukee makes me look dumb and does end up winning the division again. But with as much emphasis as there is on good pitching in the Majors, the Brewers’ options are enough to scare me away from predicting them to win the NL Central in back-to-back years.

Cincinnati Reds

Projected record: 80-82

Did the Reds do enough this offseason to compete? Joey Votto hopes so | Photo by: Erik Drost

I’m not sure any team had as productive an offseason as the Cincinnati Reds did this year.

Of course, they didn’t sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but they’ve added numerous veteran pieces to immediately make themselves a better team.

The Reds traded for Sonny Gray, the former New York Yankee, and signed him to a three-year extension before doing so. Gray didn’t post his best numbers in 2018, but he’s the kind of arm that can keep you in a game and give you an opportunity to win.

The Reds also traded for Tanner Roark, sending minor league pitcher Tanner Rainey to Washington in the process. Roark, like Gray, struggled last season, but went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 2016, finishing 10th in the Cy Young voting. Cincinnati is hoping he can revert to those numbers and that a new environment will help him regain his consistency.

But the biggest trade for Cincinnati this offseason was a multi-player deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Reds sent Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs (#6 prospect in the Dodgers farm system now), and Josiah Gray (#10 in the Dodgers farm system) to Los Angeles in exchange for Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Kyle Farmer, and cash considerations to help with Kemp’s huge contract.

That’s quite a haul. Kemp hit .290 last season and added 21 home runs. He gives the Reds a veteran presence in the outfield, along with Puig. Yasiel Puig has been one of the…most interesting…players in Major League Baseball the past few seasons, but he brings consistency at the plate and one of the best outfield arms in all of baseball.

Alex Wood has been a key piece of the Dodgers last two World Series runs, going 9-7 in 2018 with a 3.68 ERA and 135 strikeouts. His 2017 was even better, as he finished 16-3 (!!) with a 2.72 ERA and 151 strikeouts. He’s also thrown 151 innings in each of the last two seasons and has shown his durability.

Not to be forgotten, Kyle Farmer brings another option at third base or the outfield. He’s been limited at the Major League level, appearing in just 59 games over the last two seasons, but he’s also hit minor league pitching very well, at or near .300 over the past two seasons. However, Eugenio Suarez hit 34 home runs in 2018 while playing third base for the Reds, so that position isn’t just open for Farmer to take.

The Reds lost Billy Hamilton, the speedy centerfielder, to Kansas City in the offseason, and while his bat was never one of the best in the lineup, his ability to steal bases might be something Cincinnati misses. Tucker Barnhart was solid behind the plate in 2018, and Scooter Gennett has had two excellent seasons in Cincinnati. You might remember him from hitting four home runs in a game in 2017, but he was an All-Star last year and hit .310 over the course of the season.

Joey Votto had statistically one of his worst seasons last year (excluding his injury-shortened campaign in 2014), and he still hit .284 and posted a .417 on-base percentage. Those are numbers that any manager would love to have, and if that’s Votto’s worst, sign me up for a “bounce back” year. He only hit 12 home runs, but the six-time All Star and 2010 MVP has one of the sweetest swings in baseball, and he should be another piece that makes this Reds team more competitive in 2018.

There are a few holes on this roster still, but the Reds are in a far better position than they were a year ago at this time. They should hover right around the .500 mark as far as their record goes, and they could be a real headache for any of their division rivals who are battling it out at the top. This isn’t a team I would want to see late in the season if my team has a chance to make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Projected record: 74-88

When will Gregory Polanco be ready? | Photo by: Keith Allison

The Pirates are another team that have a solid squad overall, but it just isn’t enough to compete for a division championship, especially in this crowded field.

Gregory Polanco (pictured) will be one to watch this upcoming season. He’s never really had a breakout year with the Pirates, and coming off of shoulder surgery last September, Polanco is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. But if all goes according to plan (a mid-April return), Polanco could be in line for that season that makes him a league-wide star. He hit .254 last season with 23 home runs and 81 RBI before being shut down in September. A healthy Polanco could see his batting average and power numbers go up in 2019, and 30+ homers isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The Pirates acquired right-handed pitcher Chris Archer at the trade deadline last season in a move that was confusing to some. Archer is a great add, don’t get me wrong, but the Pirates finished just three games over .500 last year and they didn’t (and still don’t) have the big pieces that many feel they need to win a division championship. Archer and Jameson Taillon will lead the rotation this season. Taillon was very good in 2018, going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA. They also have Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams in the starting rotation, which gives them one of the best top fours in baseball.

The Pirates also added Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera at the end of last season, which gives them some depth in the outfield with Chisenhall, while Cabrera is likely to start the season in the minor leagues. With Polanco likely out for Opening Day, Chisenhall may get the nod in right field.

Elsewhere on offense, Corey Dickerson hit .300 last season and played a solid left field. He’ll hold that spot throughout the season, barring injury. Starling Marte will be back in center field for the Pirates. The two-time Gold Glove winner brings speed and efficiency to the outfield, along with a pretty consistent bat at the top of the lineup.

Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz split time behind the plate for Pittsburgh last year, and it seems that may be the scenario again in 2019. After losing Josh Harrison this offseason to Detroit, another Josh will play a key role in the infield, this one being Josh Bell. Bell hit .261 in 2018 and drove in 62 runs.

Shortstop will be a position to watch in Pittsburgh this year. The starting job will probably go to Erik Gonzalez, who spent the last three years in Cleveland as a backup to Francisco Lindor. Gonzalez hit .265 in 81 games last year in Cleveland. If he doesn’t work out, Pittsburgh has several options in the minor leagues, including Oneil Cruz, Cole Tucker, and Kevin Newman. Newman is the most MLB-ready of the three, as he spent 31 games with the club in 2018, but the Pirates could try and make room for Tucker this season as well. He spent most of last year in Double-A, and a September call-up isn’t out of the question. Cruz, if he’s able to prove himself in the minor leagues, is still another year or two from making the roster.

I think the Pirates are a few pieces and a season or two away from fighting for the top spot in the NL Central, but that timing could end up benefitting them, as the windows for the Cubs and Brewers are likely to be closing in the next few years as well. In 2021 or 2022, the Pirates and Reds could be fighting for the division crown, but it certainly isn’t going to happen in 2019.

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