Long considered one of MLB’s most evenly-matched divisions, the NL Central once again enters another season with a nearly open chance for four of their five teams to contend for a divisional crown.
Only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who continue to project as one of MLB’s bottom-ranked teams, seem out of the race. That leaves the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, all with a shot to claim the spot as the top of the mediocre Central.
In fact, the division is projected to be so close that the PECOTA rankings and betting odds don’t line up, with the two in disagreement over who has the best chance to emerge as the NL Central champ. Both, however, predict a close finish with PECOTA listing projected win totals between four of the division’s five teams within a margin of just under seven games.
As the 2021 MLB season quickly approaches, we take a look at the NL’s final grouping, the NL Central with this preview and give our predictions for the division. You can read our previous MLB division previews here: NL West and NL East.
Milwaukee Brewers (projected to win 90.1 games; +300 to Win the NL Central)
Like much of the NL Central this winter, the Milwaukee Brewers took on an addition by subtraction approach. Focusing on financial flexibility, the team kept their payroll light, most notably in declining an option on longtime Brewer, Ryan Braun’s contract. A player who has certainly earned his place on the team’s Wall of Fame, Braun is aging and as the saying goes, Father Time waits for no man. Moving on from Braun may not be a sentimental move but it is a smart move and it allows the Brewers to continue building on the core that helped the team reach the playoffs for the third straight year in 2020.
To start to the offseason, Milwaukee also re-activated Lorenzo Cain. One of the team’s best players, Cain opted to sit out last season due to COVID, but is back now and ready to be a difference-maker yet again alongside Christian Yelich, who is coming off a down year. How the year off will affect Cain remains to be seen but Milwaukee is confident that he and Yelich will both return to form.
The Brewers also stole Kolten Wong from the Cubs, helping shore up the middle infield. Elite pitching continues to look like Milwaukee’s strength as the team retains their top starters and bullpen arms. You can never have enough great bullpen arms. All in all, the Brewers look like a strong contender.
Chicago Cubs (projected to win 85.2 games; +550 to Win the NL Central)
It hasn’t been that long since the Chicago Cubs were winning 100+ games or since they finally broke the curse to win their first World Series in over 100 years. Chicago is still a great team and while they have seen some falloff in their talent over the years, this is a group that can, and expects to contend in 2021 and beyond.
Chicago’s offseason was head-scratching to most as the Cubs really didn’t do anything major with the exception of luring Joc Pederson away from the Los Angeles Dodgers. If you’ve read our NL West preview, they really didn’t need him anyway. Instead, the team, which is the defending NL Central champs, is looking to improve from within.
Consider this: The Cubs won the division in spite of players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez, all guys who had down years in 2020. These three are all stars in their own right and a return to form is really all Chicago needs to find themselves back at the top of the title picture.
From the mound, the Cubs did lose Yu Darvish, a huge blow to the rotation, and if anything, pitching will be a weakness. Chicago doesn’t play in the NL West so taking a step back in the pitching department won’t hurt as much as it might if they played in a different division. The Central remains for the taking and the Cubs, with a strong-looking offense and at least one top-20 starting pitcher, have as good a chance as any to claim the crown.
St. Louis Cardinals (projected to win 79.4 games; +110 to Win the NL Central)
The St. Louis Cardinals used to be the class of not just the NL Central, but of the entire NL. With players like Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina (in his prime) and David Freese, the Cardinals teams of the mid 2000s and early 2010s was a force to be reckoned with. Reaching the World Series four times in between 2004 – 2013, St. Louis won two titles with the oft-mocked but incredibly successful, ‘Cardinal Way.’
In 2019, the Cardinals returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, but it’s clear that the team now is not as dominant as it once was. That said, the Central is wide open so St. Louis finds themselves still able to contend, especially because the Cardinals went out and made the biggest splash of any NL Central team this offseason, when they traded for Nolan Arenado. One of baseball’s best middle infielders, the addition of Arenado instantly makes St. Louis a better team. That said, the Cardinals had one of the worst benches in MLB last year and depth remains a problem.
The talent is there, but should any player miss significant time due to injury, St. Louis doesn’t really have a ‘next man up’ who would be able to match that missing production. Should the Cardinals stay healthy though, and be able to rely on performances from Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt with the bat and Jack Flaherty from the mound, this team should definitely contend for the Central title in 2021.
Cincinnati Reds (projected to win 78.5 games; +375 to Win the NL Central)
In a division with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers, the Cincinnati Reds have always felt right on the cusp but never quite there. The Reds haven’t won the NL Central since 2012 and before last year, hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013. The victim of playing in such a well-balanced division has hurt the Reds seemingly more than the others, but in 2021, Cincinnati is hoping its fortunes change.
Like the rest of the Central, the Reds lost some significant players to the 2021 offseason as more talent seemed to leave the division than came in. Notably, Trevor Bauer headed to the Dodgers. It was a blow but not an unexpected one. The Reds did manage to hold on to some of their other top pitchers and all-in-all, still possess a very capable and talented staff.
From an offensive standpoint, yes, the Reds stood pat this year but that’s only because of the big winter they had heading into the 2020 season. The team boasts Mike Moustakas, Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos and the rising Jesse Winkler. Numbers were down for these guys in 2020, but it is hard to take any definitive conclusions from the COVID-shortened season.
On paper, the Reds project to have a much better offense than they showed in 2020. The shortstop situation is murky to say the least (a backup catcher may be in the running for the starting job), but Cincinnati is certainly in a position to compete.
Pittsburgh Pirates (projected to win 62 games; +10000 to Win the NL Central)
Then there is the Pittsburgh Pirates. If the Reds are the NL Central’s also-rans, the Pirates symbolize the easy wins. Projected to finish as the second-worst team in baseball, Pittsburgh seems like they have been in an eternal state of rebuild dating to 2015, the last time the team made the playoffs. Pittsburgh has never won the division, and they aren’t particularly close but Pittsburgh isn’t completely hapless. The team has new ownership that took over prior to last season and they are building from within. Their farm system offers promise, having recently produced Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, and Steven Brault, all players who could contribute to a playoff roster one day. 2021 will be about seeing these guys play more and continuing their development. The team has the second lowest payroll in baseball for a reason. Pittsburgh isn’t contending this year, but maybe in the future, they will come close.
Our Preview’s NL Central Predictions & Picks Conclusion
This division is tough to make a call. Each team had a relatively quiet offseason, hoping for improvements from within as opposed to big free agency splashes. The NL Central is arguably baseball’s worst division on paper, which is why it’s so wide open.
- As for a betting prediction, our wager is to take the Chicago Cubs at +550 with Bovada Sportsbook to bring home the NL Central title as there is no reason to expect Bryant and co. won’t return to form this year.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.