Last year’s NL Central was an epic battle, as you might recall, resulting in the underdog Brewers winning the division in a game 163 with the favorite – and possibly overconfident – Cubs. Those two teams are still good and it seems like the other three may all have improved. It should be a good year for Central fans, right upto the end of September.
Team by Team:
Chicago – perhaps the most balanced team in the division, if not the whole NL. Good rotation, good hitting, good ‘pen, good defense, good manager , although the organization may have lost a bit of faith in Joe Maddon. Note though that I say “good”, not “great”. Nothing about the team shouts “exceptional” other than the lack of obvious holes. Keys will be how well Yu Darvish comes back after missing almost all of 2018 with an elbow injury and which Cole Hamels will show up… the tired, ordinary one who looked every bit of his age (35 this year) for the last 2 seasons in Texas, or the rejuvenated one the Cubs got for the stretch last year when he added an inning per start and cut his ERA exactly in half (4.72 in TX, 2.36 Chicago)? If Yu is indeed at the best he’s been since coming to America, as spring reports suggest, and Cole keeps up his late ’18 performance, the Cubs could go far.
Cincinnati – baseball’s oldest team is making a big deal about the franchise turning 150, wearing a number of old-fashioned caps and so on. The team has a lot of history, but it wasn’t long ago one had to wonder about their future. To their credit, they decided to try to give their faithful more than just 20 new cap designs to celebrate with. A number of gutsy trades improved the roster considerably, adding the likes of pitcher Alex Wood and beefy outfielder Yasiel Puig in the off-season. The Reds clearly wanted to go for it, and make year 150 one to remember. Problem is, they are better … but not especially good still. Even worse for them,their star infielder Scooter Gennett (last year a .310 average , 92 RBI) tore his leg up in spring training and will be out for at least two months. Alex wood went unnoticed in LA, despite a career 3.29 ERA and should gain appreciation on the shores of the Ohio, Joey Votto is always an MVP-caliber player and I’ll second SI‘s prediction that Sonny Gray, who hates the big city lights apparently, will have a career year away from the Big Apple. but, when all’s said and done, this is still a relatively compact Red machine.
Milwaukee – no team did more last year and got less respect to show for it this year than the brew Crew. they have much of the same crew back for an encore, including re-upped free agent Mike Moustakas who’ll be switching to his left to play 2B for the first time in his career and they have a lot of hope for a big comeback from Jimmy Nelson, their ace-in-the-making who missed all of last season due to a torn labrum. They’ll need a good return from him if they are to have a chance to return to the NLCS. Christian Yelich? He’s legit although I would be surprised to see him go into the final weekend of the year challenging for a Triple Crown again.
Pittsburgh – our friend and reader Hanspostcard’s team, which could be the twin of the Reds. An old team with a history of great teams and players, championship-caliber teams that evoked awe and respect not that long ago, in nice wooded cities along the Ohio River. And teams that have been allowed to fall into a condition rustier than the belt they reside in. Like the team downstream, all is not lost for the Pirates who surprised all last year with a winning season, but… there’s not a whole lot here to expect miracles from. Jameson Taillon is quickly becoming one of the best starters in the league coming off his career best year with 191 innings, 14 wins and a 3.20 ERA. At age 27 he could be better this year. I like the pickup of Lonnie Chisenhall for the OF and Corey Dickerson adds not only gold glove defense but a .284 career avg. Still, it’s a run of the mill team in a tough division.
St. Louis – the Cards are used to being an October force, and fans are getting a bit red-faced over not winning the division since 2015. So although they didn’t do a lot of changing to the roster in the off-season, they did something big…bringing in Paul Goldschmidt. The new 1B leaves the Arizona desert after 8 years, 6 of which have been All Star campaigns, with a WAR of 40 and an average over the past 4 years of 157 games a year, 32 HR, 105 RBI and over 100 walks. His on base last year at .389 would be the envy of most… but was his lowest since 2012. The question deciding if the Cards are another 3rd place team or an October force is the pitching. Andrew Miller is a great addition to the bullpen. The starting rote probably hinges on two arms- Adam Wainwright, a franchise icon but an aging one who’s trajectory has been straight downwards since his 227 inning, 20 win, 2.38 ERA 2014, and Miles Mikolas, pitcher ordinaire for a few years before departing for Japan and returning last year to be a Cy Young contender, with 200 innings for the first time in his career, sub-3 ERA and the lowest rate of walks of any regular starter in the majors. Was that a fluke? If not, and if Jack Flaherty can improve upon his solid rookie year, things will be rosy for the team with the red birds on the cap. My guess- Mikolas will be good but not 2018 good but Goldschmidt will turn it up a notch and be a valid MVP candidate.
Milwaukee – 93 – 69
St. Louis – 93 – 69
Chicago – 91 -71
Cincinnati – 76 – 86
Pittsburgh – 73 – 89