Continuing along with our division previews, it’s time to look at the NL Central. This division is the NL East, but better; all five teams have made moves that teams in “win-now” mode would make. This will be an incredible division, and it will be awesome to watch it unfold. Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, who comes in first? Can the Reds and Pirates make a playoff push? Let’s discuss.
First Place: St.Louis Cardinals
Projected Record: 91-71
Matt Carpenter 3B
Dexter Fowler RF
Paul Goldschmidt 1B
Paul DeJong SS
Marcell Ozuna LF
Yadier Molina C
Harrison Bader CF
Kolten Wong 2B
After acquiring and extending Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals lineup has the star offensive player they had been lacking; their lineup should be much improved from last season. Plus, Goldschmidt has plenty of help, with Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong rounding out the top of the lineup. Plus, a healthy Marcell Ozuna with better luck should have a bounce-back season, while Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong are outstanding defenders. Dexter Fowler is coming off an abysmal season, but it may not be long before slugger Tyler O’Neil takes over the right field spot to fill out the lineup. This lineup has everything that you can ask for: power, on-base skills, fielding, and clutch hitting. It will likely be a major strength for the club as a result.
The Cardinals may not have a prototypical ace, but their rotation should still be solid. Though both are likely to regress, Mike Mikolas and Jack Flaherty should at the very least bring stability to the rotation, with a chance to do much more. Though Carlos Martinez (currently injured) and Michael Wacha come with serious durability issues, each is effective when healthy. Adam Wainwright should at least be average in the #5 spot, though St.Louis has an abundance of options if he struggles. This isn’t a dominant rotation by any means, but it’s one that shouldn’t cause any trouble for the Cardinals in 2019.
The Cardinals bullpen is the exact opposite of their rotation: high ceiling, low floor. Andrew Miller could be exactly what the Cardinals need as their closer, but he also struggled heavily with injuries last season. Jordan Hicks may have the nastiest pitching arsenal in baseball, but a 3.74 FIP from him wasn’t anything special. Dakota Hudson could also be an important part of the bullpen, but he doesn’t have much major league experience. John Brebbia and Dominic Leone should also be decent at the least, and anything St.Louis can get from Brett Cecil is a bonus. This bullpen could turn out to be incredible, but it also could turn out to be a major liability. Only time will tell.
If there’s something the Cardinals have almost too much of, it’s depth. Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neil, Jed Gyroko, and Yairo Munez make up a terrific bench, while St.Louis has about ten options for a rotation spot. Top prospect Alex Reyes could end up being a very useful asset in either the bullpen or rotation, assuming his rehab continues to go well. This depth will likely be the difference maker in winning St.Louis the division this season.
With tremendous offense, defense, and pitching, the Cardinals should be considered the front-runners to win the NL Central. Though they could use an elite ace or closer, this is a very well-rounded team with an incredible amount of depth, and are a definite World Series contender.
Second Place: Chicago Cubs
Projected Record: 90-72
Ben Zobrist 2B
Kris Bryant 3B
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Javier Baez SS
Kyle Schwarzer LF
Wilson Contreras C
Jason Heyward RF
Albert Almora Jr. CF
As usual, the Cubs lineup should be a major threat thanks to the lethal combination of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Neither are coming off of their best seasons, but both should get back on track in 2019. The same cannot be said for Javier Baez, who is bound to greatly regress for a number of reasons, including awful plate discipline and reliance on a lot of luck. Utility player Ben Zobrist is more than capable of being an everyday starter at least until Addison Russell returns from his suspension, and Kyle Schwarber brings power to the Cubs lineup. Jason Heyward is an elite defender, Wilson Contreras is one of the game’s best young catchers, and Albert Almora Jr. has the potential to be at least an average defender. Although this lineup is a little reliant on Bryant and Rizzo, it’s still above average offensively and defensively, and isn’t a concern at the moment.
The Cubs rotation symbolizes the team as a whole: solid, but not what they’re supposed to be. Jon Lester is starting to take a step back as he ages, and shouldn’t be trusted as the team’s best starter. Meanwhile, the move to pick up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option was puzzling; he’s nothing more than a league average starter. The same can be said about both Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, though I remain more optimistic about the former’s outlook than most. Yu Darvish is the true X-factor of the entire team; if he returns to his 2018 form (3.38 FIP), he can be the ace of the staff, but he’s coming off a season in which he had a 4.86 FIP in 40 innings due to injuries. If anyone in Chicago’s rotation can exceed expectations, then this unit can be decent. For now, it’s incredibly average.
Carl Edwards Jr.
Though many have criticized the Cubs bullpen this offseason, I’m actually a fan. Both Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop are good late-inning options, with the latter being able to fill in as the team’s closer as the former recovers. Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Kintzler, and Brad Brach are all average to slightly above average relievers, but they’re certainly reliable. The other two spots can go to a variety of players – there is a lot of depth in the bullpen – but Mike Montgomery as another left-handed reliever and Tyler Chatwood thanks to his big contact will likely be the final two relievers. Both should be impact contributors; both can be effective relievers and spot starters if needed. The Cubs could use a dominant closer, but so could a lot of teams. The bullpen isn’t an area where Chicago should be overly concerned about.
As mentioned, there’s plenty of depth in the bullpen, while Montgomery and Chatwood can fill a spot in the rotation if an injury presents itself. The position player depth is also fine with David Bote and Daniel Descalso on the bench, with Ian Happ and possibly top prospect Nico Hoerner ready to make an impact if called upon.
The Cubs won 95 games without Bryant for a decent chunk of the season last year; they remain a likely playoff team with his return. However, there is reason to be concerned in the lineup and the rotation, and with close to zero financial or prospect capital, the Cubs will likely have to roll with the roster the way it’s currently constructed all season long.
Third Place: Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Record: 87-75
Lorenzo Cain CF
Christian Yelich RF
Jesus Aguilar 1B
Travis Shaw 3B
Yasmani Grandal C
Mike Moustakas 2B
Ryan Braun LF
Orlando Arcia SS
With the additions of NL MVP Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers lineup was incredibly better in 2018. Now, with the re-signing of slugger Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in baseball, the lineup once again looks improved. It doesn’t just stop with those four; Jesus Aguilar is an elite slugger at first base, Travis Shaw is a two-way threat at third, while Ryan Braun remains a positive influence for Milwaukee. Orlando Arcia is the wildcard here. The 24-year-old still has the top prospect pedigree to remain in the starting lineup, but he needs to prove he can hit at the major league level to continue to receive chances. With terrific outfield defense, power, and speed, the Brewers lineup has a terrific vibe headlining into the season. It’ll be a key part in another playoff push for the team this season.
Corbin Burnes/Freddy Peralta
Somehow, the Brewers failed to upgrade their rotation this offseason. That may turn out to cost them; it looks like a liability heading into the season. Jhoulys Chacin was fine in his first season with the team, but he’s nothing more than a #3 or #4 starter, and thus cannot be the team’s ace. Zach Davies is barely an MLB caliber starting pitcher, while Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta all have limited track records despite their upside. If Jimmy Nelson’s rehab goes well, Milwaukee’s rotation could get a major boost. With or without him, however, an addition needs to be made if the Brewers are going to make another deep playoff run.
The main reason the Brewers finished just one game short of reaching the World Series was their bullpen, which was unhittable during the late stages of the season. However, that may not be the case this season. Both Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel are dealing with concerning injuries, and both were bound to regress even if fully healthy. The same goes for Josh Hader, who’s high hard contact allowed, low BABIP combination also suggests he won’t be quite as dominant as he was in 2018. Alex Claudio is a terrific addition as Milwaukee’s second lefty reliever, but after that, Junior Guerra, Chase Anderson, Alex Wilson, and Matt Albers don’t provide much optimism. The Brewers have been recently linked towards free agent Craig Kimbrel. It makes a lot of sense; this bullpen is actually a little thin and comes with a lot of uncertainty. If the Brewers depend on their bullpen too much once again this season, the results may be different this time around.
Though the pitching staff is a weakness, there is some depth present if injuries become an even greater issue. The same can be said with the Brewers’ position player depth; Manny Pina, Hernan Perez, Eric Thames, Ben Gamel, and Tyler Salidino make up one of the league’s better benches. With top prospect Keston Huira (2B/LF) also on the rise and likely to be MLB-ready soon, the Brewers also have an insurance plan in case Moustakas’ second base experiment fails or Braun is no longer capable of being the everyday left fielder.
The Brewers still have a lot of talent in the lineup, and with a solid core in the bullpen. However, injuries already look to be an issue for the club, while the rotation is an immense red flag. A 9 game regression from their 96 win total in 2018 is fair, though the case can be made Milwaukee will be closer to a .500 team than a playoff contender.
Fourth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Record: 82-80
Adam Frazier 2B
Starling Marte CF
Francisco Cervelli C
Josh Bell 1B
Gregory Polanco RF
Jung-Ho Kang 3B
Corey Dickerson LF
Erik Gonzalez SS
After winning 83 games last season, the Pirates stood pat during free agency; they didn’t acquire any impact position players. That leaves their lineup to suffer, as it’s a decent lineup, but one that lacks power. Adam Frazier will slide into the second base role this season full-time after Pittsburgh let Josh Harrison leave in free agency. The 27-year-old should be an average starter, but not much else. The same goes for Corey Dickerson, Gregory Polanco, and Francisco Cervelli, who are all good-not-great options. Starling Marte is actually the longest tenured Pirate, yet it seems like he’s still a young player with all the ups and downs he brings. Josh Bell and Jung-Ho Kang are the keys towards success for the team. Bell has yet to tap into his monster power potential, while Kang could actually turn out to be the best hitter in this lineup. Shortstop is a major issue for the team; Erik Gonzalez cannot be counted on as the team’s starter at the position, so the Pirates have to hope one of their top prospects (Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman) breaks out this season. Though there aren’t a lot of holes with this lineup, it’s definitely not one that is going to blow anyone away; it’s very mediocre.
Unlike their lineup, the Pirates rotation is a paramount strength. The front of the rotation is screaming with upside with Jamison Taillon and Chris Archer, each of whom has Cy Young potential. Though each is bound to regress slightly in 2019, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams are a solid middle of the rotation starters, while Jordan Lyles is a passable #5 starter, at least until top prospect Mitch Keller is ready. Though there’s a chance the rotation crumbles in 2019, with Taillon and Archer leading the mix, it’ll likely keep Pittsburgh in the mix for the playoffs.
Even more than their rotation, the Pirates bullpen is stacked. Felip Vazquez may be the most underrated reliever in baseball, and should once again be a lock-down closer for Pittsburgh. Keone Kela, acquired mid-season, would be a closer for several teams, and will be a dominant bridge to Vazquez. Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick are terrific options as middle relievers, while Steven Brault and Nick Kingham both can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen for Pittsburgh. This bullpen definitely ranks amongst the league’s best.
Sticking with the bullpen, Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in that department, which is a major bonus for the club. Since Brault and Kingham can be plugged into the rotation if needed, while Keller should be ready by the second half, starting pitching depth also isn’t a concern. The current position player depth is minimal, but Tucker, Newman, and Ke’Bryan Hayes amongst a large group of prospects who could make their debut this season.
With a dominant pitching staff, the Pirates should be a solid team this season. However, their offense isn’t strong enough for them to compete in this highly competitive division; the chances the actually reach the playoffs are slim.
Fifth Place: Cincinatti Reds
Projected Record: 79-83
Jesse Winker LF
Joey Votto 1B
Eugenio Suarez 3B
Yasiel Puig RF
Scooter Gennett* 2B
Jose Peraza SS
Scott Schebler CF
Tucker Barnhart C
* currently injured
In an attempt to become more relevant this season, the Reds have made several moves to try to contend for a playoff spot this season. The lineup will be at the center of this push; it’s where most of the team’s talent comes from. Joey Votto, a future Hall of Famer, is still one of the league’s best hitters with the best on-base skills in the MLB. Eugenio Suarez’s breakout gives the team another elite hitter alongside Votto, while Jesse Winker also has tremendous plate discipline. Speaking of breakouts, Yasiel Puig will likely follow in Suarez’s path this season in a change of scenery and is a legitimate threat to hit for over 30 home runs and have an OPS around .900. After that, the rest is full of question marks. Scooter Gennett is expected to miss 8-12 weeks due to a groin injury, and was a clear regression candidate even before the injury. Meanwhile, Jose Peraza struggles to get on base, Scott Schebler is out of position in center field, and Tucker Barnhart is an offensive liability. Top prospect Nick Senzel will at some point make his debut to boost this lineup even further, but even without him, the Reds lineup should be improved from last year at the very least.
With three new additions, the Reds rotation should also be significantly better this season. Sonny Gray, acquired from the Yankees, is a clear bounce-back candidate based on his success outside of Yankee Stadium and should produce like a front-line starting pitcher this season. Luis Castillo’s deadly sinker-changeup combination gives him the upside of an ace, while new addition Alex Wood will also be an effective producer for the club. Tanner Roark’s home run issues will likely cause him to struggle at Great American Ball Park, but the Reds aren’t counting on him to be more than a back-end starter. Anthony DeSclafani showed flashes of excellence last season; he’ll be a steady presence in the rotation as well. In one offseason, the Reds rotation went from a liability to at least average. That’s a massive jump, and the results will reflect that.
e bullpen was an underrated unit for the Reds last season, and that remains the case heading into this season. Raisel Iglesias, though a 3.31 SIERA last season suggests he’s not quite a dominant closer, is still a terrific option at the back-end of the rotation. Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are both reliable veterans that will bring value to the club this season, as is new addition Zach Duke. Amir Garrett could emerge as Cincinnati’s version of Josh Hader with a full transition to the bullpen and could emerge as the team’s set up man by the end of the season. Though not special, Michael Lorenz and Wandy Peralta are passable relievers to round out the bullpen. Just like the rest of the club, this bullpen is mediocre but comes with serious upside.
As mentioned, the call-up of Senzel will be critical for the Reds lineup; he’s arguably the best pure hitter outside of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the minor leagues. Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle are alright options as spot starters, but there isn’t much pitching depth outside of them. Matt Kemp provides power off the bench, while Jose Iglesias is a slick fielder, but outside of those two, the position player depth is also thin.
Though they’ll be vastly improved from last season, the Reds are still a few steps behind from the other teams in this division. If their pitching exceeds expectations and their defense isn’t as much as an issue as it looks to possibly be, however, it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to remain in the playoff mix for a majority of the season.