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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.