The NL Central is poised to be one of the most interesting divisional races all season, with four teams realistically having a shot at the playoffs. They sent two to the postseason last year, with the Cardinals winning the division and the Brewers capturing the second wild card, and they very well could do the same if not more in 2020. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if by the end of the season, places one through four have done a complete swap with all of them finished above .500, so let’s get started.
St. Louis Cardinals
Jack Flaherty had 9 strikeouts through 4 IP.
That’s *checks math* very good. pic.twitter.com/sAMkKlm5cE
— MLB (@MLB) March 5, 2019
The Cardinals are in a very interesting spot right now after an offseason where they lost more than they gained. Being in one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, there’s a very good chance that they could lose control of the Central this season to any of the top four teams. The big loss was outfielder Marcell Ozuna, signed with the Braves on a one-year deal, betting on himself much like Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas did last season. They also lost starter Michael Wacha to the New York Mets, which is not a huge loss but a loss nonetheless. Their biggest moves have been resigning soon-to-be 33-year-old Matt Wieters and 38-year-old Adam Wainwright, or in other words their fourth or fifth starter and backup catcher. They still have a really strong team, anchored by stud first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and breakout starter Jack Flaherty, but coming off a season in which they won their division by just two games, they don’t look like they’re in any rush to make sure they repeat in 2020.
The Brewers are poised to compete for the top of the division all season long, but they too lost some significant pieces. Moustakas left after just one year in Milwaukee, where he had a rather productive season, and even though they did replace him with a serviceable replacement in Eric Sogard, it’s still a noticeable downgrade. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles and Drew Pomeranz also bolted in free agency, and while they all had varying levels of success the Brewers still lost three major league arms. However, most importantly, they lost star catcher Yasmani Grandal to the White Sox. Replacement Omar Narváez was fine in Seattle last season but there’s really no replacing what Grandal brought to the team. They still have a great outfield which is led by bonafide star Christian Yelich, a solid infield and bullpen and a fine rotation but one that lacks a true ace. The NL Central will be competitive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end, it’s the Brewers who come out on top.
The Cubs offseason has been overtaken by one main storyline: Kris Bryant. Bryant filed a grievance this offseason in an attempt to counteract the Cubs’ service time manipulation, but as expected it didn’t change anything. Therefore, there has been a lot of speculation about the Cubs possibly shipping Bryant off. While Bryant might not be dealt before the season begins, there’s a very good chance that if the Cubs falter early and the playoffs look like a longshot, he could be one of if not probably the biggest piece moved at the deadline. That said, the Cubs should be able to seriously compete for the division. When fully healthy, which hasn’t happened much the past couple of seasons, they have the talent to be one of the best teams in the National League. The core of their lineup — Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Wilson Contreras — is really good, and their pitching staff— Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish, anchored by Craig Kimbrel in the pen — is also really solid. Really, a lot of their season hinges on Bryant and whether or not they keep him, and if they don’t, whether the return will be good enough to keep them competitive.
The Reds are one of the more exciting teams this season, going big this offseason in an effort to become competitive in a division that, while competitive, has no clear best team. If I’m making a bold predictions list, the Reds winning the Central is one of the ones highest up there. They’ve made a bunch of really good under-the-radar signings, poaching Moustakas from the Brewers and Nick Castellanos from the Cubs, the latter of whom teams oddly didn’t seem to have much interest in. They’re on identical four-year, $64 million deals with $20 million options for a fifth year and should slide right into the heart of the Reds lineup. They also signed Japanese star outfielder Shogo Akiyama to a manageable three-year, $21 million deal. They added Wade Miley to the back end of what has become a very solid rotation with Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Sony Gray and Anthony DeSclafani. Joey Votto still has a lot left in the tank, Eugenio Suárez keeps getting better and Jesse Wikner should be another solid bat in their lineup. The bullpen also should be solid, especially with the recent acquisition of Pedro Strop. The Reds are an interesting breakout contender for 2020, keep your eyes on them.
Ready for rockets. 🚀💪 pic.twitter.com/CKpHHnVuJC
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) February 4, 2020
And then there’s the Pirates. There’s always one. Pittsburgh is the one team in the division that’s decided they’re not even going to try to be competitive in 2020, with the final straw being the trading of Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks a few weeks ago. In doing so, they’ve dropped their total 2020 payroll down to just $48 million, which is somehow still the third least in the league, ahead of the Orioles and Marlins. The Pirates right now epitomize what is one of the biggest problems in the MLB right now, and that is the full-fledged tank. The Pirates’ payroll is just over one-third of the league average and about one-fifth of the largest payroll in the league. Sure, you can be realistic and recognize that you probably won’t compete this season, but what the Pirates and teams like them are doing is committing to multiple years of last-place finishes in lieu of spending money to try to improve the team through free agency. Pirates fans, sorry, but don’t get your hopes up. Blame ownership.