NL Central Preview: Successful or Stressful? A Look At Best-and-Worst Scenarios

Welcome back, baseball.

The NL Central is the NL’s lollapalooza division. It should be wild, it should be colorful, it should be theatrical, it should be entertaining. Pardon my excitement level, but competition in the NL Central will give us a baseball wonderland to watch and enjoy.

Or maybe this will be Wrestlemania in cleats. The Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Reds and Pirates have reasons to dislike each other.

Yeah, everyone knows about the Cubs-Cards rivalry, but bad blood flows in this division. Remember the Cardinals vs. Reds? Brandon Phillips vs. Yadier Molina? Dusty Baker vs. Tony La Russa?

The beanball battles between the Pirates and Reds? Cubs fans taking over Miller Park in Milwaukee — and Cole Hamels making fun of Brewers fans? The Brewers (and their fans) got the last word by beating the Cubs 3-1 in a one-off game at Wrigley Field to decide the 2018 NL Central title.

The Cardinals and Brewers went at it — hard — during  La Russa’s long term in office as STL’s manager. There was Nyjer Morgan inciting Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals in 2011 … the Cardinals terminating Milwaukee’s World Series dream by knocking off the Brewers in the 2011 NLCS … Milwaukee manager Ned Yost losing his mind in a crucial late-season 2008 game by initiating a hit-by-pitch brawl in response to TLR’s gamesmanship, which cost Yost his job … La Russa accusing the Brewers of dirty tricks with the ballpark’s ribbon-board lighting … The Brewers winning the season series from the Cardinals in 2017 and 2018 to move past St. Louis in the NL Central.

The Cubs and Pirates have gotten into it… at some point all of these teams have bickered or brawled with each other. The feuds were everywhere.

And 2019 should be a crazy time in the NL Central.

There are no easy opponents.

There will be few easy wins.

The Reds had an aggressive offseason to renovate their roster. Cincinnati has declared its intention to re-enter the competition and probably kick up some dirt with a feisty attitude.

The sneaky Pirates have a deep reservoir of pitching, and Clint Hurdle’s teams always play with an edge … and will not hesitate to knock a batter down.

The Brewers have lineup muscle, an underrated starting rotation and seem peeved about the way they’re being overlooked a bit after winning the NL Central last year. They get to carry the annoying no-respect card around.

The Cubs are in a foul mood after being dumped out of the 2018 postseason in a wild-card loss to the Rockies — a disappointing end to a season of unrest, which led to an unsettling offseason that included a payroll freeze and harsh assessments from president of baseball ops Theo Epstein. Management has tried to snap the Cubs out of a perceived complacency by putting manager Joe Maddon and the players on notice for 2019.

The Cardinals? They’re a happy team with the positives floating around them like butterflies. Their spring-training camp was a Disney World experience, with everything so perfect and special that the media somehow managed to turn Dexter Fowler’s .200 batting average, anemic .340 slugging percentage and 29 percent strikeout rate into The Greatest Spring Ever! What the hell is in the tulips down there in Jupiter?

Do not be misled by manager Mike Shildt’s happy talk. After missing the postseason for three consecutive seasons, the Cardinals’ are determined to climb back to the top of the NL Central. And they’ve enlisted the services of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and lefty-ace reliever Andrew Miller to lead the charge.

Here’s my offering: Two fat paragraphs on each team…

One reason on why the season will be successful.

One reason why the season will be stressful.

Let’s go, in alphabetical order…

CHICAGO  CUBS

Why the season will be successful: This team won 95 games last season even though (a) pricey free-agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish missed most of the season with a bad elbow; (b) free-agent starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood was a bust; (c) damaged closer Brandon Morrow didn’t pitch after July 15; (d) injuries limited 2016 league MVP Kris Bryant to 102 games, 13 homers and 52 RBIs; (e) catcher Willson Contreras was below average offensively; (f) Kyle Schwarber was vaguely disappointing despite mashing 26 homers; (g) Jason Heyward had eight homers and a .395 slug; (h) would-be shortstop phenom Addison Russell regressed professionally and personally; (i) everything else that went wrong. All of those negatives … and 95 wins? The Cubs only need about half of the things on this list to trend more positively in 2019 and they’ll have a scary-good season.

Why the season will be stressful: A bad moon is rising, or something. All of these directives from management about needing a sharper edge, displaying more urgency, being less comfortable, eating less junk food, consuming less alcohol, taking more batting practice, staying out of the clubhouse during games, and directing manager Joe Maddon to cut down on his media sessions to spend more time, pregame, on the field with his players … well, what do we make of such distemper? Maybe this will tick the Cubs off in a way that makes them better. Maybe the new rules will demoralize the group. Maybe Maddon will get sacked. This thing could blow either way … or just blow up. But away from the drama … subpar starting pitching or serious rotation injury issues could be fatal for this team, and the bullpen seems thin.

CINCINNATI  REDS

Why the season will be successful: Most, if not all, of their offseason additions will click in and pull the Reds above .500 for the first time since 2013. In case you need a memory freshen, here’s who the Reds added over the winter… Offense: outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, shortstop Jose Iglesias, and LH bat Derek Dietrich … Pitching: Starters Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood; reliever Zach Duke. And No. 1 prospect Nick Senzel (second base) is coming soon. The new starting pitchers will join Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani in a rotation that should be demonstrably better than last year’s tattered staff that produced the sixth-worst starter ERA (5.02) in the majors. The talent upgrade by Cincinnati has lifted the morale, energized the fan base, and put some spice into the Reds’ demeanor. The Reds will be a pain for their enemies to deal with. Oh, yeah … first baseman Joey Votto and third baseman Eugenio Suarez.

Why the season will be stressful: The Reds already have lost infielder Scooter Gennett (groin) for an estimated eight-to-12 weeks, and that blow has caused a shuffle that makes Iglesias the starter at shortstop, with José Peraza moving from short to second. The depth is questionable. The rotation looks good on a laptop screen, but Wood begins the season on the injured list, Gray is coming off a down season with the Yankees, and Roark is a fly-ball pitcher in a home park that turns routine flies into homers … Votto, 35, has lost power … we’re not sold on the bullpen … and as my friend C. Trent Rosecrans points out at The Athletic: “And if the team’s off-season one-year acquisitions – Wood, Roark, Puig and Kemp – don’t live up to expectations, not only will it hurt the team’s record this year, it’ll also hurt their trade value and the expected return come July 31. That could negatively impact the team beyond 2019, and as much goodwill as the team earned with its off-season maneuvering, another 90-loss season would do worse than anger the fanbase, it could encourage its apathy.”

MILWAUKEE   BREWERS

Why the season will be successful: Concerns over the bullpen (more on that later) could be offset by the rising optimism over the emergence of young starting pitchers Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. They’re really talented and poise… lefty Josh Hader — ever so nasty — is still the key piece to the bullpen… The projected Milwaukee lineup is loaded. In order, excluding the pitcher’s spot: Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Orlando Arcia … Yelich won the league MVP last year and could do it again … last season Milwaukee catchers slugged only .363 and were 25 percent below league average offensively; by signing Grandal, the Brewers’ added a bat that has averaged 24 homers and a .467 slug over the last three seasons. Grandal, a switch-hitter, does more damage from the left side and his swing is a great fit for Miller Park … about the bullpen: we’ll get to the injuries in the next section, but the Brewers insist that new relievers Alex Claudio, Alex Wilson and Jake Petricka can keep the late-game procession rolling.

Why the season will be stressful: The Milwaukee bullpen featured multiple monsters last season, none more intimidating than lefty-righty-righty gauntlet of Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel … the Crew and manager Craig Counsell pushed that bullpen all the way to Game 7 of last year’s NLCS (a game won by the LA Dodgers.) In 2018 the Brewers led NL bullpens in strikeout rate (27.6%), expected ERA, and were second in standard ERA and Win Probability Added. But as the 2019 campaign gets underway, Jeffress (shoulder) and Knebel (elbow) are missing. And newcomer Bobby Wahl will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery. If this bullpen goes up in flames, the Brewers will suffer consequences… Grandal is an impact addition, but he’s also streaky … if the young starting pitchers wobble, the Brewers will need help, especially if rehabbing starter Jimmy Nelson (who missed all of 2018) is slow in making it back … and to maximize their offense the Brewers are deploying Moustakas at second base, and keeping Shaw at third … the Moose at second? That’s quite the experiment. But keep this in mind: the Brewers benefit from advanced thinking, and in 2017-2018 combined they saved 47 runs defensively through their use of shifts (most by an NL team) … Peralta has excellent stuff, but LH batters have smacked him around in his early career (.489 slug, .856 OPS) … strikeouts are often the trade-off for slugging, and last year Brewers hitters had the seventh-worst strikeout rate (23%) in the majors. That will likely be an issue in 2019.

PITTSBURGH  PIRATES

Why the  season will be successful: Now that Chris Archer is healthy, the Pirates’ first four starters is an imposing group: Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and Archer. The Bucs may need a fifth starter, someone better than Jordan Lyles. But maybe not; until now Lyles has done most of his big-league pitching with Minute Maid Park (Houston) and Coors Field (Colorado) as home bases. PNC Park in Pittsburgh could be a nice change of venue … the bullpen has at least three relievers that can go after opponents with nasty strikeout rates of 30 percent or higher: Richard Rodriguez, Keone Kela, and LH closer Felipe Vazquez. Another reliever, Kyle Crick, could approach a 30% punch-out rate in ‘19 … the 2018 Pirates got above .500 (final record: 82-79) on the strength of a pitching staff that had the fourth-best ERA in the majors after the All-Star break… so if the Pirates will pitch like mad again, and the team gets some unexpected offense from a few of the hitters, we could see the Bucs crash the wild-card race… and that offense will largely have to come from Josh Bell, who must recharge his power and get back to his 26-homer, .466-SLG from 2017 … another intriguing bounce-back candidate is infielder Jung Ho Kang, back from South Korea after a two-year absence. In 2016, Kang slugged .513 and performed 32 percent above league average offensively … and if Francisco Cervelli can stay healthy, he’s one of the more dangerous hitting catchers out there … the offense will have a launching point if leadoff hitter Adam Frazier can build on his .342 OBP from 2018… and they’ll need another good season offensively from left fielder Corey Dickerson (.474 SLG.)

Why the season will be stressful: the Pirates are banking on economy-purchase veterans such as Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera to stimulate offense… right fielder Gregory Polanco is coming off a down year and it isn’t clear if he’ll be fully restored after his rehab from shoulder surgery… who knows if Kang can still be an asset offensively … the Pirates will have to hit more big flies after ranking 13th in the NL in home runs a season ago … this offense is uninspiring … the defense was near the bottom ofthe majors last season with an appalling minus 35 Defensive Runs Saved, and the situation may be just as lousy this season … and the starting rotation would wither if pounded by injuries. This low-payroll team is vulnerable; ownership simply won’t spend enough to upgrade the offense or increase depth. And that’s slowly draining fan interest.

ST. LOUIS  CARDINALS

Why the season will be successful: Paul Goldschmidt is the best overall player — offense, defense and baserunning — the Cardinals have had since the glory days of Albert Pujols — and Goldy (now) is a more polished and faster base runner than the younger, STL version of Pujols … the Cardinals don’t have the finest rotation in the league, but they have the rich pitching depth that few MLB teams can match… second-year starting pitcher Jack Flaherty seems poised for a great season, and is being touted as a sleeper Cy Young candidate by Peter Gammons and others … (more on the rotation later) … manager Mike Shildt will be a positive factor in his bullpen process and decisions. And “Shildty,” a terrific communicator, has reinvigorated the culture within the team … and unlike the more recent years of the past, this manager is in synch with the front office AND the players. That’s important … Andrew Miller had knee issues last season in Cleveland, which led to other physical issues. But even at considerably less than 100 percent last year he was a cut above any reliever employed by St. Louis … RH reliever Jordan Hicks should be even more frightening for enemy hitters now that he’s developing a more consistent strikeout pitch to go with his 100+ heat … if Alex Reyes stays healthy, the Cardinals will have a third terminator in the bullpen to go with Miller and Hicks… and Carlos Martinez may be a part of the bullpen when he returns from a rotator cuff strain… the Cardinals should be sharper defensively than we’ve seen in recent years, and the middle defense is legitimately first rate … their baserunning improved when Shildt took over as manager last July 14 and should be even more astute this season … shortstop Paul DeJong should log a full season after missing significant time with fractured hand last year … Marcell Ozuna was powering up as spring training wound down… if third baseman Matt Carpenter (sore back) can get limber soon, the Cardinals will be able to plug in two corner infielders who last season (combined) produced 69 doubles, 77 homers, a .382 OBP, .528 SLG, and were (together) 42 percent above league average offensively. And: catcher Yadier Molina, coming off another All-Star, Gold Glove season that included 20 homers and a .436 SLG.

Why the season will be stressful: Right fielder Dexter Fowler is more like 2018 than 2017 as a hitter … center fielder Harrison Bader doesn’t hit RH pitching, and doesn’t reduce his strikeout total … Carpenter is too streaky and prone to cold spells … Ozuna doesn’t hit for the anticipated level of power … DeJong — who has been cutting down on strikeouts — relapses with the high whiff rate … injuries or ineffectiveness at the back of the rotation (Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright) … as we mentioned, the Cardinals have pitching depth, but standby starters Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon were off form in spring training … the Cardinals will lean on Dakota Hudson as their No. 3 starter; he’s talented but still a rookie… there’s only one lefty in the bullpen in a division packed with LH power hitting… Shildt must prove that he can make tough decisions, if need be, with Fowler and Wainwright … Shildt has to be especially adept in his bullpen handling — if he fails, an anticipated strength becomes a negative … unlike the three previous summers, the front office can’t procrastinate and do next to nothing to strengthen soft spots before the July 31 trade deadline… Molina, 36, is supposed to be old. Suppose he plays like he’s old? (Don’t count on that.) … last season, the Cardinals were energized (in season) by a transfusion of young talent from their Triple A farm team in Memphis. But the instant help from won’t be as profuse this time around… Carlos Martinez could provide considerable impact in the rotation or bullpen — unless he has a physical setback. Ditto: Alex Reyes.

Predicted order of finish:

St Louis, 90 wins
Chicago, 89 wins
Milwaukee, 87 wins
Cincinnati, 79 wins
Pittsburgh, 77 wins

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie