Our MLB preview series continues with the NL Central, one of the most highly-contested divisions in baseball over the last decade.
The NL Central, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, has routinely produced multiple playoff teams each year. If Bovada Sportsbook’s odds are any indication, 2020 may be no different. Among the division’s five teams, four of them have odds in the top 10 to win the National League Pennant and two in the top 10 to win the World Series. So, let’s get right to it with our NL Central predictions and preview.
St. Louis Cardinals
+2000 Odds To Win World Series; +1100 NL Champion; +220 NL Central
It has been eight seasons since the St. Louis Cardinals last hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy and six since they last reached the final series of the year. After a three-year window of missing the playoffs came to an end in 2019, the Cardinals enter this year as the defending NL Central champs, a title they have won 11 times.
It took a few years, but it seems the Cardinals may be back and that makes them a dangerous team in the National League. They will have to stay healthy and that’s certainly no guarantee with an average roster age just north of 30. St. Louis’ best players – Yadier Molina (37), Paul Goldschmidt (32), Matt Carpenter (34) and Dexter Fowler (34) just to name a few, all don’t exactly have age on their side. Talent can win out here and if all these guys play the way their numbers suggest, St. Louis might be able to negate their offseason losses in the form of Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez.
From the mound, St. Louis actually has a young up-and-coming rotation but with veteran presence as the starting pitching is still anchored by their World Series hero from 2011, Adam Wainwright. Now 38, Wainwright, who has spent his entire 14-year career with St. Louis, is winding down his time with the Cardinals most likely. He hasn’t been the same pitcher he used to be since 2015, with ERAs over 4.00 in each of the last four seasons. Wainwright still won 14 games last year, which was second most on the team behind two-year veteran Dakota Hudson who won 16 and ace Jack Flaherty, who led the team with a 2.75 ERA. Both guys are under 25 which is a positive sign for the Cardinals as they look to rebuild the rotation which was a big part of their success in the Tony La Russa days.
Pitching could once again be the key for St. Louis as they will look to build off what happened last year when four players made over 30 starts apiece. That combined with an offensive resurgence of their aging bats could bring another playoff season for the Cardinals.
+2200 World Series; +1000 NL; +225 NL Central
The Cubs have won just five Central division titles, the most recent of which came in 2017. A year later the Cubs made the playoffs as the wildcard team. The year prior to 2017, Chicago did what seemed like the unthinkable: 108 years later, Chicago finally broke the curse of the billy goat to win just their third World Series all-time, and first in a century. Since 2016, the Cubs have remained competitive in the division but they did miss the playoffs in 2019 which led to some changes at management. Joe Maddon is out and World Series hero David Ross is in. He will be managing at any level for the first time.
As far as offseason moves, the Cubs didn’t make many changes other than the Ross hire and possibly they didn’t need to. The Cubs still have an extremely talented offensive juggernaut of a lineup with Kris Bryant, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward and more. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the starting nine. However the Cubs’ offseason was filled with some level of discontent and no shortage of trade rumors. Some believe the window may be closing and if the season starts out slow, that may be the case sooner rather than later as Chicago could look to trade Bryant for a hefty prize.
From the mound, the Cubs have name recognition pretty much throughout their rotation. Yu Darvish is set to cement himself as the ace after an unbelievable second half of the season last year, Jon Lester still has the potential to be a stud and Kyle Hendricks is a solid guy to have in the middle of the rotation as well. Plus, there is Craig Kimbrel, who was having a strong spring and looked to be rounding back into form as well.
The Cubs have a really strong team entering this year. There are a few holes they may regret not filling this offseason if things don’t go well, but if the window is indeed closing, this year may be Chicago’s best chance to win again in a while.
+2500 World Series; +1200 NL; +250 NL Central
Of the top four of the NL Central, the Reds are a team that has mostly been the bridesmaid and never the bride over the past decade of baseball. Having last won the NL Central in 2012, the Reds haven’t been in the playoffs at all since last making it as a wildcard team in 2013. That doesn’t mean the team hasn’t been good. They have just been on the outside looking in. In 2020, the Reds have gone for broke with a ‘win now’ mentality that may see the Joey Votto era end on a positive note.
No one really expected the Reds to be big spenders this offseason but they did just that, making a splash with the signings of Nicholas Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama out of Japan. Add to that Votto, the lifetime Red for his 13-year career, who didn’t have a great year last season but still brings a .309 lifetime average into 2020. Then there is Eugenio Suarez, who hit 49 home runs and led the team in almost all offensive categories last year. In addition, Jose Iglesias, Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino can make their marks. The Reds have a sneaky good lineup and one that looks primed to compete right up there with the Cubs and Cardinals.
From the mound, there is also a lot to be excited about. Luis Castillo won 15 games last year and 226 strikeouts to lead the team, Sonny Gray posted an ERA of 2.87 and Anthony DeSciafani played well also. Then there’s Trevor Bauer. Bauer really struggled last year but it was uncharacteristically so. If he can get back to his game plan and regain his focus, another all-star season is very possible. For the Reds that means this is a rotation that can do damage.
The Reds aren’t as splashy as the Cardinals or Cubs but they have good hitting, good starting pitching and some nice bullpen arms. If the Reds do come out of the NL Central on top this year, it won’t be that much of a surprise.
+4500 World Series; +1800 NL; +325 NL Central
The final team with a decent chance to be in the NL Central race are the Brewers. Winners of the NL Central just twice, the latest in 2018, the Brewers are the one team in the division who enters this year on back-to-back playoff appearances. Might they make it three for three?
The opposite of the Reds, the Brewers took to the lower end of the monetary value when it came to the offseason but that doesn’t mean they didn’t pick up some decent talent. Avisail Garcia still has a very high ceiling, Omar Narvaez can be one of the best catchers in baseball if he works on his defense a little bit and Lorenzo Cain should come off last year’s injury-riddled season in 2019 with a nice bounce back.
Then there is former MVP and one of the best players in baseball in Christian Yelich. Yelich absolutely tore the house down in 2019 with power and accuracy. He hit .329 with 44 home runs and 97 RBI. The Brewers also still have Ryan Braun, who has been a solid player throughout his career for them. Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal are losses but it looks like Milwaukee may have done enough offensively to offset them.
From a pitching perspective, the Brewers have a lot of expectations for Keston Hiura to shine this year, and join Brandon Woodruff in making up a solid 1-2 punch. Woodruff won 11 games last year and led the team in strikeouts. From the pen, Josh Hader is one of the top closers in baseball, finishing with 37 saves last year and being a pretty automatic guy for Milwaukee when it came to taking leads into the 9th inning.
All in all, it still may be tough for the Brewers to overcome the three Cs of the division – Cincinnati, Cubs and Cardinals – but much like the Reds, there is some sneak potential here for the Brewers to surprise.
+25000 World Series; +15000 NL; +8000 NL Central
The Pirates have a pretty modest goal for 2020: try not to lose 100 games. Pittsburgh has been the little brother of the division for some time now, the one who follows all the older kids around but never gets to join them in their activities.
Pittsburgh moved to the NL Central in 1994 and has yet to win the division. They made the playoffs for three straight years in 2013-15, but other than that, this team hasn’t really been a factor in the division of late and that isn’t expected to change in 2020.
Josh Bell will be fun to watch, though he may end up on the trade block to a contender come the middle of the season. Bryan Reynolds had a great rookie year hitting .314. Other than that? This is a team that’s going to make a lot of outs. Their rotation is solid not great, anchored by Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove. The Pirates have some nice pieces they can begin organizing their rebuild around, but fans should know, 2020 could be a tough year for the black and yellow as Pittsburgh is likely to be the only NL Central team not contending for the division crown at season’s end.