MLB

NL Central Preview

The NL Central has been sneaky competitive over the past couple of years. Hell, even the Reds of all teams made the playoffs in 2020 (still counts). The Cubs were a playoff team until last year and are looking to rebuild. In their place, the Brewers and Cardinals battled for the division, with the Brewers ultimately pulling away with dominant pitching. Though this is still Milwaukee’s division to lose, every team has some interesting components to look forward to.  

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Chicago Cubs

2021 Summary: The Chicago Cubs team that brought a World Series title to the franchise for the first time since 1908 is but a distant memory. Last year’s squad had the dubious achievement of being the first Cubs team to finish with a losing record since 2014.

Time for rebuild mode!

Chicago began restructuring the roster last season when they dealt several fan-favorites such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez for prospects at the trade deadline. They also made front office changes by hiring GM Carter Hawkins from Cleveland and assistant GM Ehsan Bokharti from Houston. New assistant hitting and pitching coaches were also added to lead this club filled with talented, but raw talent. 

Although this team is not expected to make the playoffs, the Cubs do have interesting prospects to keep an eye on and should give fans hope as this franchise looks to get back to the promised land.

Batting: Last July, Chicago acquired 29-year-old rookie Frank Schwindel on waivers from the A’s after they designated him for assignment. When the Cubs dealt Rizzo, Schwindel was promoted to starting 1st baseman and rewarded the teams’ faith by winning NL Rookie of the Month honors for August and September. Chicago hopes that Schwindel’s Cinderella story has more chapters left in it. 

Another “rookie” the Cubs hope will make an impact for them is five time NPB All Star outfielder Seiya Suzuki. Suzuki agreed to a five-year, $85 million deal and is an obvious candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. 

Willson Contreras is one of the last remaining pieces of that 2016 Cubs roster and should stick around in Chicago for this year. Quality catcher play is rare and Contreras still has some juice left in the tank.

Pitching: A notable weak spot throughout the Cubbies winning-record streak has been their starting rotation. Pitchers like Jake Arietta and Jon Lester had success but then wilted away. This offseason the team signed ground ball specialist Marcus Stroman to bring stability for this squad, but it must be noted that Stroman benefited from a New York Mets infield that played excellent defense last year. This Cubs team is young; therefore it’s safe to assume that the infield defense will be a downgrade for Stroman. 

Chicago has some interesting pitching prospects to keep an eye on this season. Justin Steele made his debut last year against the Brewers and will probably see some major league action this year. Jordan Wicks was selected by the Cubs in the first round of the 2021 draft and has a lot of buzz around him. Look for Chicago to take a close look at their highly touted pitcher.

Bullpen: The good news for the Cubs is they have a new look bullpen this season. Last years squad was atrocious (1.449 WHIP, 4.95 ERA, 87 walks and 194 strikeouts in 147 innings) so an entirely new squad can only go up from here. Chicago has brought in Steven Brault, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, Daniel Norris, David Robertson, and Drew Smyly to help this team. Robertson and Givens have closer experience and Smyly could potentially become a starter. Again, it can only be an improvement from last season. 

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Milwaukee Brewers:

2021 Summary: The Brew Crew have been the dark horse of the National League for the past few seasons. Last season was their most dominant in recent memory, but they fell short against the Braves in the Division Series. This year might be their last chance with this squad as some key players have contracts up and the ol’ injury bug might be holding back a fan favorite.

Batting: 2019 Christian Yelich was a monster in the batters box. He hit .329/.429/.671 with 44 homers, an 1.100 OPS, and a 179 OPS+. He did not do that last season. He battled a lingering back problem that caused him to spend a significant amount of time on the injured list. It’s insane to ask Yelich to replicate his 2019 campaign, but if he can simply get on base with quality at bats, other teammates can provide power such as Keston Hiura, Luis Urias, or even Andrew McCutchen if he has anything left in the tank.

Pitching: Corbin Burnes achieved Brew Crew immortality by becoming the first Brewer to throw a no-hitter (with Josh Hader). He completed the season with a 2.43 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award. He’s an obvious candidate for the award again and should get some help in the rotation with Freddy Peralta establishing himself last season and Brandon Woodruff looking to move on from an ugly spring training. Three Cy Young Award candidates is formidable to deal with for any team in MLB.

Bullpen: Milwaukee is expected to start the season with a 10-man bullpen given the two extra player rule throughout April the league is implementing. They optioned J.C. Mejia and Miguel Sanchez to triple A ball so the current bullpen will be: Josh Hader (closer), Devin Williams, Brad Boxberger, Aaron Ashby, Brent Suter, Jake Cousins, Trevor Gott, Jandel Gustave, Jose Urena, and Hoby Milner. 

 If this team has a weakness, it is their bullpen. Last year they were in the middle-of-the-pack in ERA (4.02) so this spring training has been crucial for Milwaukee to find consistent relievers. For their sake, this bullpen will need to be better to avoid an early playoff exit.

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St Louis Cardinals

2021 Summary: The Redbirds have been the definition of consistency throughout their storied, success history. This season is no different as they’re looking to build off three consecutive playoff appearances. They are the only true challenger to the Brewers for division supremacy, but they’ll need some factors to go their way to unseat the Wisconsin powerhouse. 

Batting: The Cardinals have benefited from poor team management outside St. Louis and have all stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in their lineup. Who let this happen?! Nevertheless, both players are expected to usher in a new era of dominant Cardinals baseball with longtime fan favorites like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright (we’ll get to him) anticipating this to be their last season. 

It should be mentioned that this lineup has other noteworthy players like power-hitter Tyler O’Neil and speedy second baseman Tommy Edman. Again, why did the league let this happen?

Pitching: No one would have been mad or surprised to see Adam Wainwright decline and retire last season or even the season before that. No one gave Wainwright the memo it seems. In the shortened 2020 season he posted a 1.051 WHIP over 65.2 innings pitched. Okay, but that was a short season no way he’s gonna keep that level of play up, right? Wainwright pitched 206.1 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 174 strikeouts. Not bad for a 39-year-old. This author is not going to count out Wainwright this season until his throwing shoulder literally separates from his body. He’s simply too classy, smart, and talented to be overlooked again.

It’s not all Wainwright though. Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty are looking to bounce back from shoulder injuries that affected their play last season. Reyes was an All Star last season before going down late and the last time we saw a fully healthy Flaherty he finished 4th in NL Cy Young voting. St. Louis needs these guys to stay healthy to make a realistic playoff run, so in true Cardinals voodoo fashion none of these guys will miss a start. 

Bullpen: The relievers are the biggest question mark for the Cardinals this season. Over the last three seasons Giovani Gallegos has been their best arm, but his numbers took a hit in the second half of last season after taking over the closer role. Maybe it was due to the role change, maybe hitters figured something out. 31-year-old Aaron Brooks is making a comeback after not  being in the league since 2019 by having a strong Spring Training. Another strong arm to keep an eye on is Kodi Whitley, who threw 25.1 innings with a 1.07 WHIP. He’ll be relied upon this season in high-stake situations.

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Cincinnati Reds

2021 Summary: In spite of losing key players to free agency and trades this offseason, the Reds do have some young talent to look forward to as they look to rebuild to a playoff contender. Key pieces like Jesse Winker, Nick Castellanos, and Eugenio Suarez are gone so it will be up to the prospects to keep hope alive for this squad.

Batting: Fan favorite had a renaissance year in 2021, but it isn’t realistic to expect the 38-year-old to hit 30+ home runs again. Instead, Reds fans should keep an eye on Tyler Naquin to fit into the power-hitter role. Naquin has been plagued by the injury-bug, but the former first-round pick clearly has talent and should lead this ballclub in home runs for this season.

The other position player to keep an eye on is obvious. Jonathan India took home the NL Rookie of the Year award in a near unanimous decision after posting a 3.9 WAR, .835 OPS, and 21 home runs. Cincinnati has endured the pain of talented players leaving for bigger contracts elsewhere or said players sticking around only for the organization to fail in building a team around them. 

They have another chance here in India. Don’t screw it up.

Pitching: This rotation has plenty of question marks regarding the vets. How many home runs is Tyler Mahle going to give up? Has Vladimir Gutierrez improved his stamina? Can Luis Castillo stay consistent?

There is some optimism with the rookie starters, however. Hunter Greene can pulverize the radar gun and Nick Lodolo has nasty breaking pitches that should only get better as the season progresses. Like the batters, the pitching will have its ugly moments this season, but the Reds have to think two years ahead and keep building on the young talent. 

Bullpen: Oh boy…

Cincinnati could not get the closer role locked up last season. Ten different pitchers recorded saves as the team tried desperately to find anyone who could step up and be ‘the guy’. 

Right-hander Art Warren is a promising candidate this year as he was effective during the second-half of last season. He also had a strong Spring Training. Hunter Strickland is a well-traveled veteran at this point in his career and should be better than the majority of arms the Reds had last season.

Whatever happens with this bullpen, the goal will be to give clear roles to each arm. Something the Reds couldn’t do last season.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

2021 Summary: Every division has a bottom feeder, but the Pirates are living in the baseball mariana trench. After finishing the 2020 season with a MLB-worst record 19-41, Pittsburgh outdid themselves by finishing with the second-worst winning percentage in the National League. Many sports journalists believe the team tanked both seasons intentionally to get a high draft spot.

Not a lot of fun to be had here for fans or players. 

Batting: It isn’t all bad though, Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes are still here. Reynolds reached 5.5 in fWAR last season, reached the All Star game,and was clearly the best hitter. He showed improvements in his hitting by walking more, hitting more home runs, and striking out less. All good things last time I checked. Hayes dealt with a wrist inflammation last season but became the quickest Pirate to 20 career extra-base hits in the modern era. He is an electrifying player who mixes excellent batting with fantastic defensive plays at third base.

Another player to watch is shortstop Oneil Cruz. His power was a sight to behold in the minor leagues and the Pirates would be smart to get this young man in the majors as soon as possible. 

Pitching: The starting rotation has two key names to look out for: Mitch Keller and JT Brubaker. The latter struggled in his first full season in the majors, but his performance in the minors suggests he can only improve from that season and should become a quality starter. He just needs to keep the ball within the confines of the ballpark. For Keller, he has caught everyone’s attention with his ‘sweeper’ pitch. Instead of diving vertically, the ball does a big horizontal break to the pitcher’s glove side. Keller isn’t a one-trick pony though, he regularly flirts with triple-digits on the radar gun and seems confident he can be a breakout star for Pittsburgh this season. 

Left-hander Dillon Peters could be a dark horse for the Pirates, remember he became a reliable starter for the team during the second half of the season. Peters re-added the sinker to his arsenal and with solid command he should be an effective ground-ball pitcher for this rotation

Bullpen: The obvious piece missing for this bullpen is last years closer Richard Rodriguez. Nevertheless, this squad was a rare strength for this ballclub and with the veteran Chris Stratton and local star David Bednar sticking around, the closer role should be handled with no controversy.  

Fangraph’s NL Central Projected Standings

TeamRecordWin DivisionClinch ByeClinch WCMake PlayoffsWin World Series
Milwaukee
Brewers
897329%8.8%81.1%5.9%
St. Louis
Cardinals
82804.8%15.9%36.1%1.1%
Cincinnati Reds 75870.4%3.8%7.6%0.1%
Chicago Cubs75870.3%3.2%6.6%0.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates69930.0%0.4%0.8%0.0%
It should be noted that I rounded up or down for the decimal point on the predicted records for Fangraphs