A Quick Look At The National League Central
Saturday, March 27 2021 @ 06:36 AM EDT
Contributed by: Eephus
All in on the Pirates, baby!
We continue the
tour of the senior circuit with the Central division, a division that
for most of the off-season seemed like a race to the bottom. The Reds
and Cubs were determined to make themselves worse, the Brewers did
nothing and the Pirates already had the worst record in baseball. It was
a pretty tight four way race in 2020, with the 4th place Brew Crew only five
games behind the victorious Cubs. Lets go in that order and see how
things look now.
Chicago Cubs (2020: 34-26, 1st, lost WCS)
Q: Do they still have enough left to be a threat?
think they do, but trading away your best 2020 player (Yu Darvish)
doesn't help. Either way, this strikes me as the last hurrah for the
core of the 2016 team that famously broke the century of Cubs pain.
Schwarber and Lester departed this off-season (granted neither was
particularly good in 2020) and now three bigger names are set to hit the
market this winter: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. I wrote
how it seems unlikely the Dodgers will be able to keep all three of
Seager, Chris Taylor and Kershaw, and they're the Dodgers. Money
ain't no thing there. Considering how the Cubs have been penny pinching
lately, unless somebody has a down/injury season I think it's very
likely they don't re-sign any of those guys.
now though they have them, and those three are crucial for any hopes
Chicago has of one last good run. Rizzo was ok in 2020 (a 103 OPS+, well below his 129 career mark) but Bryant and Baez were legitimately awful. It was a weird season for everybody, obviously, and considering their body of work you'd bet on some degree of rebound. Strangely enough, it was Jason Heyward and Ian Happ who carried the 2020 Cubs offense, because bizarro world. Not sure I'd depend on that happening again, but if both can be positive contributors while the big trio returns to their former brilliance... this team is going to score.
Pitching is a big question mark, as it is for almost anybody who aren't the Dodgers. Losing Darvish will hurt, though getting back Zach Davies will help a little bit. Kyle Hendricks is still around throwing 87 mph fastballs nobody can square up, while old friend Jake Arrieta is back to see if he has anything left. Aside from that, you're hoping Alec Mills is actually a thing, or that Adbert Alzolay is a viable piece in an expanded role (I had to check like six times to make sure I spelled his name right). Beyond them, it's a bunch of darts at the board. Shelby Miller! Brandon Workman! Maybe Craig Kimbrel can be not bad again!
Their path to winning this thing one more time will be through their bats, which I think they realize with the flyers they've taken on Joc Pederson and Cameron Maybin. I could go either way on the Cubs, personally. Lets see how I feel after I look at the other four teams.
St. Louis Cardinals (2020: 30-28, 2nd, lost WCS)
Q: Who is the real Nolan Arenado?
Answer: I do think the Coors Effect is strong with this one, but (as I recall posting when the trade was made) an elite defensive 3B who gives you Arenado's career road numbers is still likely an all-star. Outside of 2020 (becoming a theme around here) he's been real, real good. And naturally the Rockies are paying the Cardinals money to play for them. Man, the Rockies are like the Knicks of MLB except not as funny.
Adding Arenado helps this team a lot, if he's closer to what he was. The 2020 Arenado was a terrible hitter, and elite glove or no that's tough to keep in a lineup everyday. This team has multiple other questions also, mainly that their key players... are kinda old. Matt Carpenter is 35 and in steady decline, Adam Wainwright was terrific in 2020 but is 39 now, your starting catcher (Yadi) is 38. Even Paul Goldschmidt (born the exact same day as me!) is 33 and at that age you'd think his career is now in that winding down stage. Great, I just made myself sad.
They've got some young pieces, sure. Jack Flaherty is an exceptional young starter, and the Cardinals always seem to churn out useful players you've never heard of... except do they really? Maybe not recently. Shortstop Paul DeJong has regressed since his stellar rookie season, outfielder Harrison Bader has been inconsistent, Jordan Hicks throws a zillion miles an hour but is coming off Tommy John.
I usually make the mistake of underestimating the Cardinals, then they always assemble a great pitching staff and score just enough runs to be a problem. Still not sure if I'm ready to crown them the division favourites, so.... uhhhh! Lets move on to my adopted NL team.
Cincinnati Reds (2020: 31-29, 3rd, lost WCS)
Q: Buyers or sellers?
Answer: Before I get into that, I find it amusing all three of these NL Central teams I've covered so far lost last year in the Wild Card Series (*insert weak division joke here*).
All off-season the Reds were rumoured as huge sellers. Everything but the kitchen sink must go! (we need that to wash these contracts off our hands). Thing is, they didn't really end up getting rid of anybody. They decided not to pay Trevor Bauer (good for them) and traded reliever Raisel Iglesias, that's it. Sonny Gray is still around, Mike Moustakas is still around, Luis Castillo, Eugenio Suarez etc. I don't think they're sellers... yet. If July rolls around and they're perched atop a 45-50 record, then you might see the nest untangle.
2020 wasn't exactly a failure for the Reds, but maybe a minor disappointment considering the big moves they made. Pitching was their big strength, finishing second (3.84) in the National League in ERA. Losing Bauer hurts, but bringing in Sean Doolittle can perhaps offset that with much improved good vibes at least. Regardless, they've still got Castillo and Gray as a great 1-2 punch, Tyler Mahle has been quite effective in the past and maybe Wade Miley can offset an awful season with a good one like he usually does.
The offense worries me more. Moustakas and Nick Castellanos were pretty ordinary in the first year of their big contracts, Joey Votto is all kinds of awesome but also 37, Shogo Akiyama didn't hit for any power whatsoever (a .297 slg% is... 70s' infielder-esque), Nick Senzel has not figured out MLB pitching whatsoever and they don't really have a shortstop (rumour is they might move Suarez over there, which means they don't have a third baseman). Dee-Strange-Gordon is on the club also, so maybe if he hits well enough you can move Moustakas back to third? Or Senzel? I dunno fellas, I dunno.
It pains me to say, but they're one of those teams where everything just has to fall into the right place for it to work. The floor is high and the rest of the division underwhelming enough that it's hard to see them being terrible either though. Hmmmm. I'll pull a Fox Mulder: I want to believe.
Milwaukee Brewers (2020: 29-31, 4th, lost WCS)
Q: Seriously what is with these 2020 NL Central teams losing Wild Card series???
Okay no, the real question is, after finishing 13th in the NL in OPS, whether they have enough offense. Answer: No.
To hear them out, Christian Yelich was not quite himself in 2020 (a 111 OPS+ after a 164 and 179 in 18-19), Lorenzo Cain opted out, Avisail Garcia had one of his alternating "off" years and they gave 128 plate appearances to the bad version of Eric Sogard (maybe he shaved the goatee. Mirror universe anyone? Anyone?). Now Cain is back, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolten Wong are on board also and... well offense isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of those three but even as average hitters those guys would be huge improvements over what the Brewers were sending out in 2020.
I don't have much to say about the pitching. They always have guys I've never heard of, especially random relievers who strike out absurd numbers of dudes. Instead, I'd like to mention how this is a County Fair (get it) of former Blue Jays. Ladies and gentlemen! Children of all sizes, step right up for this incredible collection of outrageous recollectivity! Have your tickets ready, and clutch them tight! For this first sight... the amazing backstop with no bat... Luke Maile! Gaze your eyes upon this remarkable lad, fearsomely large with thick arms to cause alarm... Dan Vogelbach! In the corner there, beware! Next... he may seemed scared of spheres smaller than your fists... keep your hands in your pockets lest you lose them in the lights... the Frightful Derek Fisher! Feast your senses upon a transaction gone wrong, a promising prime prospect's potential proven powerless posed upon precise perfect pitching... a name that rolls off the game all the same... Billy McKinney! And finally... that's Travis Shaw.
(if you're still with me after all that, thank you).
Pittsburgh Pirates (2020: 19-41, 5th)
Q: What does the future look like?
Answer: Ke'Bryan Hayes. I checked the Fangraphs top prospect list before I did the 2020 Pirates page, and was all set to write about this top 10 prospect to get optimistic about... only to see the dude led the 2020 Pirates in WAR. By a mile. Hitting .376/.442/.682 on a team with a collective OPS+ of 74 will do that.
Hayes is clearly pretty exciting. His advanced batting stats (in a limited 85 AB sample) show he hits the ball extremely hard, and to all fields. I certainly wouldn't start penciling him into all-star games for the next decade after 24 MLB games, and his minor league numbers are solid but not spectacular. Still, he's raking this spring and this is a fanbase that needs anything to enjoy about their team. Because everything else... yeah. Adam Frazier is the third highest paid player on this team and he'll make significantly less than Kirby Yates will this season. Colin Moran is the fourth highest and he'll make less than Shun Yamaguchi. It's rough. They're going to be dreadful.
There are a few little things to follow I suppose. I've always liked Todd Frazier quite a bit (even as a Yankee), and you really have to root for Anthony Alford. Hopefully he just can finally stay healthy and get his career going. He's on the right team for an opportunity, that's for sure.
All right... crystal ball time. The heart says one thing, but the brain says another. Because it's so close, I'll explain my reasoning afterwards.
The Cardinals to me seem like the safest bet. Though the Cubs have the higher ceiling in my opinion, there are a lot more questions about their three star position players and how they'll perform in this contract year. My prediction for the Reds here assumes they're close enough in the race that they don't sell, but not quite enough breaks right for them to be there in the end. I'm fairly low on the Brewers (ironic since I play on a team called the Brewers) but if they went out and had a 90 win season I wouldn't be shocked either. Their defense should be excellent and they always find pitching somewhere. Fun division.
Will the National League East be as fun? Step right up! Divert your eyes from the sky is this suggestion direction and tune in next time!