Season Preview: NL Central
By Patrick Gunn
Yankees Baseball is racing towards us as the winter snow melts into April rosebuds. With that said, the Yankees have some competition to get back to the World Series. I will dig into the Bombers’ competition around the league over the next few weeks, going through every division ending with the AL East. I’m basing my predictions for the season on the team’s PECOTA projected records, statistics from last season, and overall talent.
The National League Central is a tricky division, mainly because it is mostly composed of mediocre teams. PECOTA projects that the NL Central will be the only division without a 90-win team and the top-four teams in the division are all within 10.3 wins (if I’m being exact). FanGraphs is even less optimistic, with only the Brewers projected to finish .500 on the season. At least one team has to make the playoffs from this division, and there is some talent on each of these rosters. So, let’s look at where PECOTA has these teams stacked up:
1. Milwaukee Brewers – 88.4-73.6
2. Chicago Cubs – 85.4-76.6
3. Cincinnati Reds – 78.8-83.2 (31-29)
4. St. Louis Cardinals – 78.1-83.9
5. Pittsburgh Pirates – 60.9-101.1
FIRST PLACE – ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 30-28
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Jack Flaherty Becoming an Ace
The budding ace of St. Louis hit a speed bump in 2020 with a 4.11 FIP and a 4.91 ERA. Yet, Flaherty still struck out 28.8% of batters he faced while walking fewer than 10% of his adversaries. His higher home run to flyball ratio and low left-on-base percentage should tick in his direction. Look for the 25-year-old stud to breakout and keep the Cardinals afloat all season.
Biggest Question: Does Legacy Help the Cards again?
This team has a lot of veterans. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright both resigned, and other vets like Andrew Miller, Carlos Martínez, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter, and Paul Goldschmidt will still be key players. Oh, and Nolan Arenado is now the cornerstone at third base. He should rebound, but St. Louis is asking a lot of aging players who are either on the decline or have already declined. They might need to do a lot, as their young outfield still has to prove it can hit consistently at the major league level.
Pat’s Prediction: 85-77
I won’t be as harsh as FanGraphs; at least one team in this division will finish above .500. Playing the Pirates will help that mark. The Cardinals are a meh team with a lot of questions relying on a mostly aging core and an unproven outfield that may not hit for much (Harrison Bader is the only player to post an OPS+ of over 100 while playing at least 100 games). With that said, Flaherty is an ace in the making, Arenado and Goldschmidt are phenomenal anchors to any lineup, and this team flat out knows how to win enough games to make the playoffs. I’ll lean on experience here for my NL Central division winner.
SECOND PLACE – MILWAUKEE BREWERS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 29-31
Most Exciting Part of this Team: Pitching and Defense
Every solid team needs these two factors, and the Brewers have some solid flamethrowers and run savers all over the field. Brandon Woodruff (96.5 mph), Devin Williams (96.5), Corbin Burnes (96.0), and, of course, Josh Hader (94.6) can all reach triple digits with their fastball. And they rake up swings and misses. On defense, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolton Wong are here to help rob opposing teams. Lorenzo Cain is also back after opting out of last season. That outfield of Bradley Jr, Cain, and Christian Yelich is dynamite on defense, and Wong up the middle with Luis Urías and Orlando Arcia should produce many beautiful double plays.
Biggest Question: Can this team score?
The Brewers were one of the worst offensive teams in the league last season. Yelich (.781 OPS) dropped off his usual amazing production, but key contributors like Keston Hiura (88 OPS+) and Avisaíl García (79 OPS+) also slumped all season. Yelich should improve, but Hiura, García plus Bradley Jr., Wong, and Travis Shaw make up a questionable lineup.
Pat’s Prediction: 82-80
The Brewers are a relatively thin team overall, with question marks all over the field. They should be able to finish above .500 if they dominate the Pirates, play well within its division, and stay healthy. The Brew Crew cannot afford to lose key players like Yelich, Hader, Burnes, or Woodruff for extended periods of time. Yelich should improve and Cain’s return provides be a massive boost to this team. I think they have enough talent to squeeze over .500.
THIRD PLACE – CHICAGO CUBS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 34-26
Most Exciting Part of This Team: They’re keeping the band together (for now)!
Kris Bryant is still here after an offseason of trade rumors. So are Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Javier Báez, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, and Kyle Hendricks. That’s still a solid core to work with. Plus, Jake Arrieta is back! He is far from an ace at this point in his career, but he can still throw decently as a back-end starter, right?
Biggest Question: Will Jed Hoyer Break up the Band?
I’m surprised that Bryant lasted the offseason in Chicago – especially after Hoyer sent Yu Darvish to San Diego and let Kyle Schwarber walk. This core has not produced the same kind of consistent greatness since the 2016 World Series title, and last season’s unimpressive finish did nothing to prove that David Ross as a manager will help that. The Cubs need to decide whether or not they want to compete for next year, who they want to lock up, and who lasts the full season playing in Chicago.
Pat’s Prediction: 80-82
I really think the Cubs have the talent to make the playoffs this year. The main weak area is the bullpen, which now features former Yankee Jonathan Holder, Brandon Workman, and sadly declining Craig Kimbrel. Hendricks is still a solid pitcher, and that lineup could go toe to toe with anyone. With that said, the Cubs are in an odd state. They traded Darvish yet kept nearly everyone else despite the fact that Bryant, Baez, and Rizzo are all free agents at the end of the year. This team still feels like a rudderless ship, and I just cannot pick them to finish higher than the Cardinals and Brewers with this roster.
FOURTH PLACE – CINCINNATI REDS
LAST SEASON’S RECORD: 31-29
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Luis Castillo + Sonny Gray
They led one of the best rotations in baseball last season back to the playoffs. Castillo, at age 28, should be primed for a fantastic season after striking out 30.5% of batters faced last season with a 3.71 K/BB ratio. Gray also posted a strikeout percentage above 30 (30.6% to be exact), and he has looked like a quality arm ever since leaving New York. These two should headline a stout rotation as long as they are together.
Biggest Question: Is there enough offense here?
The Reds did not score a run in two playoff games last season. That should say everything about this team’s issues on offense. Joey Votto (.800) and platoon king Jesse Winker (.932) were the only players with at least 100 at-bats to post an OPS above .800 last season. Nick Castellanos (.486 slugging), Mike Moustakas (.468 slugging), and Eugenio Suarez (.470 slugging) added some pop but not much else. This team finished 22nd last season with a 91 wRC+, and Cincinnati finished 25th with 87 wRC+ in 2019. That is to say that the Reds have not consistently hit well over a decent stretch of time and need to show that there’s more in the tank.
Pat’s Prediction: 78-84
Cincinnati barely made the playoffs last season with an elite rotation. The pitching depth is lesser with Trevor Bauer and Raisel Iglesias gone. Amir Garrett should be solid, and I liked adding Sean Doolittle as a buy-low candidate, but this pitching staff is merely okay. And the lineup is not nearly strong enough to make noise this season. The Reds can hang with the teams above them, but I’m not too confident in this team returning to the playoffs.
FIFTH PLACE – PITTSBURGH PIRATES
LAST SEASONS’ RECORD: 19-41
Most Exciting Part of This Team: Ke’Bryan Hayes looks pretty good
The Pirates’ third baseman lit it up last season, posting a 1.124 OPS and a 199 OPS+ last season in his first 24 games. His minor league slugging percentage (.399) suggests that the power shown last year may be a mirage. But he did post a 92.8 exit velocity and hit line drives nearly a third of his at-bats, so Hayes could tap into some extra pop next year.
Biggest Question: What does this team look like at the end of the year?
The Pirates shipped off veterans Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, and Joe Musgrove this offseason. Those deals left Pittsburgh with a ton of prospects and not a lot of proven MLB veterans. This team needs to focus on developing its prospects and acquiring as many young talents as possible during the season. That might mean trading away familiar faces in Gregory Polanco, Bryan Reynolds, and Colin Moran.
Pat’s Prediction: 59-103
Make no mistake, the Pirates will compete in 2021…for the first overall draft pick. Pittsburgh has little to no chance of making the playoffs even in a weak division. This looks like another ugly season for a franchise that has seen a lot of rough baseball over the last few decades.