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2019 Preview: National League Central

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For the past couple of years the NL Central has been one of the most entertaining divisions in the game, with the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals all being good and competitive. This year the Reds, thanks to a major offseason overhaul, are trying to put themselves in that group as well. Based on what we’ve seen across the league of late I feel like there’s some law against four teams competing in the same division — Rob Manfred is probably going to send them all a sternly-worded memo — but I’m happy to see it.

 

Brewers

The Brewers bring back the same basic team that terrified everyone late last season and, with a couple of breaks, could’ve won the pennant. Oh, and then they went out and added Yasmai Grandal who, despite most people only watching him scuffle in the postseason the past couple of years, has been really, really good in the hundred and a half games or so they play before the postseason. Mike Moustakas is here for the whole season now and will, apparently, be a second baseman, which is fun. If it’s not fun, top prospect Keston Hiura is in the wings. Other than that, the offense is the same. It’s a fantastic group, as we all saw in September and October.

The bullpen is still dominant — hell, it’s downright terrifying — but there are open questions about the rotation. They lost Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez who were somehow really great for them down the stretch. Jhoulys Chacin is back and is, by default, the ace. Brandon Woodruff, who was as impressive as all get-out in the postseason, would look awfully good as a starter and will get that chance this year. Freddy Peralt, and Corbin Burnes are another couple of young arms on which Craig Counsell will count. The most interesting question for the team this year will be how many innings they, as opposed to Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson, and Chase Anderson, get. It’ll be a work in progress, but all well-built teams deal with the transition from older to younger arms as hey progress through their window of contention.

 

Cubs

A disappointing end to 2018 and some cool preseason projections from the SABR set have the Cubs playing the “no one believes in us” card. That’s kind of eye-rolly coming from one of the most highly-paid and talent-laden teams in the game. A team which won 95 games last year, it should be added. But even if it’s laughable to consider the Cubs underdogs in a cosmic sense, it’s not super unreasonable for someone to consider them underdogs on paper. I mean, the Brewers are still the Brewers, the Cardinals and the Reds got better and their offseason consisted of adding . . . Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach? Yikes.

Let’s not pretend there isn’t still a ton of talent here, however. Kris Bryant will likely play more than 102 games this year. Yu Darvish should be healthy and can’t possibly be as bad as he was when he did pitch in 2018. They’ll actually have Brandon Morrow for a full year. They’ll, obviously, have Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. There are some depth issues — you don’t win for 4-5 years in a row without the younger talent maturing into veteran talent or disappearing altogether, and the front office has signaled that they do not intend to add any payroll to patch holes, but it’s a fantastic roster as it is.

The biggest question for the Cubs this year, apart from health anyway, may be in the dugout. Joe Maddon did not get his contract extended beyond 2019 and he lost his hitting coach. Seems like, if the Cubs falter, he’s gonna take the fall for it. Weird times for one of the game’s better teams.

 

Cardinals

A messy 2018 season in which their manager got the axe midway through ended up looking fairly decent by the time it was all done. No, Cardinals fans did not have their high expectations met — they missed the postseason for the third straight year — but 88 wins and being in the Wild Card conversation until the end is pretty sweet as far as “disaster” seasons go. In the end they satisfied themselves that they had a steadier hand on the tiller in Mike Shildt at least. Then they went out and traded for one of the biggest bats in the game in Paul Goldschmidt and all of a sudden it was game-on for 2019. Beats a tear-down rebuild, doesn’t it?

The rotation has some injury concerns as far as Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha go, and Adam Wainwright may or may not have anything left in the tank. The top of things looks good, though, as 2018 revelation Miles Mikolas has a shiny new long-term deal and Jack Flaherty seems poised to break out even bigger than he did last year. There are many, many young arms behind those guys so, like Counsell in Milwaukee, Shildt is going to spend a lot of the year juggling what could, effectively, be a nine-man rotation. New addition Andrew Miller, looking to bounce back from an injury-marred 2018, will help bolster the pen as fireballer Jordan Hicks moves into the closer role.

On offense, Marcel Ozuna was disappointing and is due for a bounce back. Dexter Fowler was execrable and HAS to be better, right? Matt Carpenter started slow and ended slow but was MVP-caliber for the bulk of the season. You don’t worry about him. Figure on two improvements and some consistency from those three, plus Goldschmidt and an underrated supporting cast that still managed to help the Cards to the fifth-best offense in the NL last year, and the lineup could be pretty damn scary, actually.

Playoffs or bust for the Cards.

 

Reds

The Reds certainly had the most fun offseason. They acquired Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a combo salary-dump talent infusion. Puig, removed from the drama that surrounded him in Los Angeles — some created by him, some thrust upon him — AND in a walk year AND in a hitter-friendly ballpark should be a ton of fun. They also added [deep breath] Derek Dietrich, Jose Iglesias, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Zach Duke, Kyle Farmer, Odrisamer Despaigne, Matt Bowman, and Anthony Bass. Most of that doesn’t move the needle much, but there is some upside to be found. And really, when you’re a 67-win team in a tough division, adding one big guy in Puig and a lot of smaller guys all over the place can make a big difference.

Pitching is still gonna be a problem. The Reds finished 24th in baseball in ERA last year, with the rotation coming in at 25th. Adding Gray, Wood and Roark could help that quite a bit if they hit upside projections. All three of them were more toward their downside last season, however, and are not sure things by any stretch of the imagination. Ultimately, the difference between the Reds being dangerous as opposed to merely being interesting depends on how much luck they get in the pitching department.

The lineup is gonna be nice, though. Adding Puig to an offense that featured Joey Votto — who had a down year that was still pretty great — and Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett should create a lot of problems for opposing pitchers. Dietrich and Iglesias give new manager David Bell a lot of versatility, depth and improved defense. Jesse Winkler is a super nice table-setter. Top prospect Nick Senzel may very well be a big part of the team this year.

I think that, in the end, the pitching and the tough competition in the division will be too much to overcome, but the Reds should be way better this year than last and, even if they aren’t in the playoff conversation deep into the season, they should provide a lot of entertainment. And heck, they could surprise.

 

Pirates 

The Buccos are rolling into 2019 with a roughly $70 million payroll — only the Rays will pay less for their roster — and a lot of wishes and hopes.

Two of the biggest hopes are that both Gegrory Polanco and Chris Archer will be healthy. That seems a tall order for Polanco at least, given that he’s coming off of shoulder surgery. Archer, last year’s big midseason pickup, seems good to go this spring and he, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams make for a not-bad rotation. Keone Kela, Javier Vazquez, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez are not as good as the Brewers’ relievers, but they are a pretty solid unit. Pitching is what helped the Pirates finish a game above .500 last year. It’ll carry them this year too.

It’ll have to, because the offense is not gonna be good. The 2018 lineup finished 19th in the majors in runs scored and 25th in home runs and all they did to improve it was add Lonnie Chisenhall. There’s little depth here and not a ton of major league-ready talent in the minors. runs are going to be at a premium. But hey, the owners sure saved some money, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Between the bad offense, the tough as hell division and a pitching staff that, while a strength on paper, is not so much of a strength that it can be expected to overcome the subpar bats, it’s hard to pencil the Pirates anyplace but last last place.

 

Upshot: A vicious three-way battle for the top that, really, could go to either the Brewers, the Cubs or the Cards, with the two teams not making it falling into a vicious battle for the Wild Card. The Reds will be fun. The Pirates won’t. The end.

Cardinals beat Brewers, both clinch postseason berths

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. LOUIS — Harrison Bader tripled and homered to help the St. Louis Cardinals clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season with a 5-2 win over Milwaukee, and the Brewers also earned a playoff spot Sunday via help on the West Coast moments later.

St. Louis (30-28) will be the fifth seed in the NL and open a three-game wild-card series at San Diego on Wednesday. By winning, the Cardinals avoided having to travel to Detroit for two makeup games Monday. St. Louis finished the regular season with 23 games in 18 days as it made up a slew of postponements caused by a coronavirus outbreak in the clubhouse.

“You had to throw some of the expectations out the window not knowing what to expect after taking those couple weeks off and all those doubleheaders and so many new guys,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “It was very different, very fulfilling to make the playoffs.”

The Brewers (29-31) locked up the eighth seed and a third consecutive postseason berth after the Padres beat San Francisco 5-4 in a game that ended about 15 minutes after St. Louis’ victory. The Giants finished with an identical record as the Brewers but lost out on a tiebreaker due to an inferior intradivision record.

“It’s fitting for 2020 and everything we went through,” Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich said. “It felt just as good as past years. This year’s a unique one. There’s so many challenges we had to go through on a daily basis behind the scenes, things you don’t deal with in a normal year.”

Milwaukee will face the top-seeded Dodgers in Los Angeles in a three-game series that also starts Wednesday.

The Brewers haven’t had a winning record at any point this season. Milwaukee and Houston will be the first teams ever to qualify for the playoffs with a losing mark.

“It’s a celebration,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re in the playoffs. That’s how you see it. There’s no reason to apologize for getting into the playoffs.”

Cardinals starter Austin Gomber allowed one run, one hit and two walks and struck out three over four innings.

Giovanny Gallegos (2-0), Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes combined to pitch the final five innings. Reyes got his first save.

“We’d have been happy getting in as the eight seed,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “We’d have been happy being the one seed, but people can say we got in if there was no expanded playoffs so that’s even another feather in this group’s cap.”

Brett Anderson (4-4) surrendered a triple to Bader and a walk to Tyler O'Neill to start the third inning before departing with a blister on his left index finger. Anderson opened the season on the injured list with a blister on the same finger and did not make his debut until Aug. 3.

Freddy Peralta replaced him a day after being activated from the paternity list, and O’Neill promptly stole second. Kolten Wong then hit a line drive off Peralta’s leg that Peralta threw into right field to score Bader and O’Neill.

Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong each added RBI singles to push the St. Louis lead to 4-0.

After Milwaukee scored in the top of the fifth, Bader hit his fifth home run of the season.

“That was a big counterpunch,” Shildt said of Bader. “Got them on their heels again.”

THREE TIMES THE FUN

Yadier Molina grounded into a triple play in the eighth inning when he hit a one hop grounder to Jace Peterson at third base in the eighth inning. It was Milwaukee’s first triple play since Sept. 23, 2016, when Cincinnati’s Joey Votto lined out to first base. Molina was also the last Cardinals player to hit into a triple play when he grounded out to third base at Boston on Aug. 15, 2017.

TRAINING ROOM

Brewers: Counsell said it was too early to prognosticate Anderson’s status after departing with the blister.

Cardinals: St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced that RHP Dakota Hudson will have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Monday. Hudson went 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts before leaving his start on Sept. 17 at Pittsburgh with right elbow discomfort after two innings.

UP NEXT

Brewers: The Brewers head to Los Angeles and will likely be without two of their top starters in Anderson and Corbin Burnes, who sustained a left oblique injury on Thursday.

Cardinals: This will be the fourth postseason series between St. Louis and San Diego, who faced each other in 1996, 2005, and 2006 in the Division Series.