Conventional baseball writer-pundit wisdom: The National League Central is wide open.
Except for the impoverished Pittsburgh Pirates — who are being slowly strangled by a cheapskate owner — you can’t rule any team, or anything, out.
The Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds will slug it out … or maybe slough it out.
Here’s the wins-total forecast for each NL Central contestant, via the PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus:
And another set of projected wins, from FanGraphs:
I’m curious about each team. I was thinking about the most pressing questions about each team. And so I put together a short list of the most important questions surrounding each NL Central fraternity.
I’ll vet the teams in order of their 2019 place in the division standings. I’ll cover at least one team per weekday until we account for all five.
Today: The St. Louis Cardinals.
1–Will the offense drag again 2020 — or blast off for an unexpectedly powerful performance? The front office pushed a big pile of chips to the center of the table and made a substantial bet on (A) young outfielders; (B) much better results under Jeff Albert in his second season as batting coach; and (C) comeback-candidate veterans such as Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Risky strategy. Could pay off. Could be a bust. And it will be another stagnant summer of offense unless this team can dramatically raise its stinking OPS with runners in scoring position — .736 last season, which ranked 27th in MLB.
2–Do the Cardinals have an elite closer? Along the way, they’ll deploy multiple arms to handle save situations. But will one guy take command of the job? Related question: is RH reliever Giovanny Gallegos restored after a being worked so hard in 2019? His high strikeout rate and ability to shut down LH batters makes Gallegos a potentially venomous closer.
3–If the offense stalls again, will the front office break an in-season pattern of caution and complacency to make a bold move for, say, third baseman Nolan Arenado?
4–Will manager Mike Shildt distribute the bulk of the at-bats to his better hitters — or stay too long with declining hitters? Sure, the Cardinals will crank up Carpenter and Fowler at the start of the regular season, seeing if there’s any reason to expect increased consistency and production. But if it comes to this — mediocrity — how soon will Shildt make a move and turn to hitters that have more upside?
5–When will acclaimed outfield prospect Dylan Carlson arrive in the majors? And can he justify the considerable ballyhoo?
I’ll be back with another NL Central team preview (Brewers) tomorrow.
Thanks for reading …