The NL Central features five teams in win-now mode, ensuring a tight race for division bragging rights. The Milwaukee Brewers were a game away from the World Series last year but have a battle on their hands to even reach the postseason given the strength of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. We break down what you need to know about each of the NL Central teams.
Despite some promising patches, 2018 ended in disappointment for the Cubs as they lost Game 183 to decide the division, then fell to the Colorado Rockies in the wildcard game. With all the talent at Joe Maddon’s disposal, more is expected in 2019, namely a deep October run.
The bats of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will again pace the offense, and Chicago will hope that Javier Baez repeats his outstanding 2018 form. The pitching is solid with plenty of experience - Jon Lester is a proven winner while Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels are known quantities. They should get reliable starts night in, night out. Nonetheless, there is little margin for error for the Cubs this year with the strength of their divisional rivals. The motivation to put last October firmly in the rearview mirror could be the x-factor in picking them to win the NL Central.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals pushed their chips into the middle of the table with their trade for Paul Goldschmidt, giving their offense extra pop. The line-up is well balanced and savvy, plus they can call on Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks out of the bullpen to put games to bed. Also, watch for centre fielder Harrison Bader to build on a solid 2018 campaign where he caught the eye defensively.
There are a few question marks in the starting rotation but Miles Mikolas proved himself in 2018. Others have to follow suit this year. If they do, look for St. Louis to pile up 90+ wins and make the postseason.
The Brewers will again start the year in the shadow of the Cubs and Cardinals but seem to thrive in the underdog role. They won 96 games in 2018 and bring back the bulk of that core. Christian Yelich is one of the toughest outs in the league, Ryan Braun’s career is trending upwards again and the bullpen has the same uncompromising look with Corey Knebel and Josh Hader working the business end of games.
Milwaukee do not ask a huge amount from their starting pitchers but that is the most obvious area for regression. They are short on aces who can take over games, which piles extra innings onto their bullpen.
In another division, this roster might be a more concrete contender but the Pirates cannot match the offensive firepower of their NL Central counterparts. Still, they have a powerful bullpen, spearheaded by Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela, as well as the possibility of a refreshed Chris Archer.
The run support is the shakier aspect for Pittsburgh. Unless Corey Dickerson, Josh Bell and Starling Marte are all clicking, getting much beyond .500 could be a real challenge.
There is optimism about the Reds’ chances of getting back on track after piling up losses (67-95) in 2018. Much will depend on Joey Votto playing at an MVP level and others (perhaps Eugenio Suarez and newcomer Yasiel Puig) making leaps of their own.
Cincinnati cannot hang their hat on their starting pitching but the bullpen could salvage a number of games behind Raisel Iglesias and David Hernandez. That said, do not be surprised if there is only marginal improvement on their 2018 record along with some mid-season trades.