Mediocre but competitive NL Central figures to be a dogfight

BY J.A.SCHWARTZ

The NL Central doesn’t feature a team projected to win more than 82 games, and that mediocrity may create a thrilling four-team division race that could end up being decided by which front office is able to make the most significant in-season trade acquisitions.

The Chicago Cubs were the 2020 National League Central champions, but their machinations this offseason would seem to be at odds with a club trying to defend that achievement. Their biggest move this winter was to trade 2020 NL Cy Young runner up Yu Darvish to the Padres for Zach Davies and a collection of low-level international prospects whose potential impact, should it ever come, might not be felt for five years. None should be expected to contribute to the fortunes of the 2021 roster, which still features franchise icon Anthony Rizzo and fellow infielders Javy Baez and Kris Bryant. Each of those players helped the Cubs win a World Series in 2016, but all three are eligible to become free agents after the coming campaign. The Chicago front office’s tight-fisted ways this winter figure to make it challenging for those players to taste October baseball again this fall, but given that they will compete in the worst division in baseball, a .500 record may well be good enough to punch their postseason ticket.

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A perennial MVP candidate, Anthony Rizzo struggled in 2020 but he averaged almost 30 home runs and 100 RBI’s a year from 2014-2019 while helping to lead the Cubs into the postseason five of the past six seasons and also collecting four Gold Glove awards.

Given the actions of the Cubs to date, Wrigley faithful would be wise to not expect significant reinforcements. If the core group of Rizzo, Bryant and Baez is supported offensively by Ian Happ and Willson Contreras, the Cubs could score enough to stay in most contests. Their primary offseason acquisition saw them sign Joc Pederson of the Dodgers to a one-year deal, hoping that his lefty bat will boost their corner outfield productivity. Their offense in 2020 was 10th in the NL in runs scored, but disappeared in October, when they were swept by the upstart Marlins in the Wild Card round, scoring just a run over two listless defeats. Their pitching will suffer without the brilliant Darvish, but is still anchored by control specialist Kyle Hendricks, who will be asked to front a rotation that also includes Davies and the returning Jake Arrieta. The pen will remain dependent on the wildly inconsistent Craig Kimbrel, who has a tenuous hold on the ninth inning duties. Former Boston reliever Brandon Workman was added to support Kimbrel, but the Cubs relief corps will once again create anxious hearts on the North Side.

The St. Louis Cardinals made the biggest offseason addition in the division, poaching Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado from the collapsing Rockies to upgrade an offense that struggled to score runs in 2020, finishing 14th in the NL, ahead of only the pitiful Pirates. Arenado will slot in behind Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup, providing a powerful duo who have combined to hit nearly 500 career HRs, and who will be counted on to create crooked numbers on the scoreboard for the Cards. Emerging young outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson will need to take a step forward to provide punch from the bottom of the order, where the ageless Yadier Molina, 38, will do most of his batting.

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A six-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, the Cardinals expect Paul Goldschmidt to combine with the newly acquired Nolan Arenado to form the most solid defensive corner combination in the Majors. He averaged 32 homers and 98 RBI’s between 2015-2019.

The St. Louis rotation will trot out ace Jack Flaherty on Opening Day, followed by another Redbird greybeard, 39 year-old Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is old enough to have been a member of the 2006 Cardinals World Series champions, when he and Molina were the newcomers, and St. Louis diehards are more than thrilled to have their franchise cornerstones back this season for another shot at a ring. If the enigmatic Carlos Martinez, coming off a lost 2020 that saw him compile a 9.90 ERA, can return to the starting rotation after being a dominant reliever in 2019, the pitching may well be a strength of the club. With flamethrowers Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks bringing high octane gas out of the bullpen to protect late leads, the Cardinals could give their veteran stars another October to remember.

The Milwaukee Brewers have quietly built a formidable team, and they’ve managed to fashion upgrades to the roster at reasonably low cost this offseason. Late last month, the Brewers scooped up free agent Jackie Bradley Jr., and will add him to a dangerous lineup that includes 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich and young slugger Keston Hiura. Upgrading the defense was a priority for the franchise, which prompted the targeted signings of Bradley Jr. and Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong, imported from the division rival Cardinals to man the keystone. Speedy Lorenzo Cain will hope to join the defensive stars on the field in 2021 after opting out last year after five games due to concerns over COVID-19, and his contributions may well give the Brew Crew the best outfield in the division.

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The Brewers playoff hopes rest on a return to form by 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, who hopes to rebound from the worst season of his eight-year career. A back-to-back batting champion in his first two seasons in Milwaukee, Yelich struggled mightily last year on the way to a .205 average, but he slammed 44 home runs and 97 RBI’s in just 130 games in 2019.

The Milwaukee rotation may be short on name recognition, but with Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Adrian Houser, they have three righties, each 28 or younger, who should provide dependable innings. Both Woodruff (3.02) and Burnes (2.11) had excellent 2020 seasons, each striking out more than 11 per nine innings pitched. Those starters will hope to hand leads over to the two-headed monster that looms in the bullpen in the form of lefty Josh Hader and 2020 NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams (4-1, 0.33 ERA). That duo combined to smoke 84 batters in just 46 innings last year, and that level of dominance could be the difference in what figures to be a very tight race.

The Cincinnati Reds spent their offseason knowing that NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer was going to leave their team. Bauer led a Reds rotation that was third in the NL in ERA in 2020, and with righties Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray still in the Queen City, Cincinnati fans can at least dream of another strong year of run prevention. They dealt closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels in a cost cutting move, leaving behind righty Lucas Sims and southpaw Amir Garrett, both of whom had identical 2.45 ERAs last year, to squelch opposing rallies late in games.

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Cincinnati fans will have high expectations for Sonny Gray following the off-season departure of Cy Young award winner Trevor Bauer, but the 31-year old Gray has already resurrected his career in his two seasons with the Reds, striking out an average of nearly 11 batters per nine innings with an ERA of 3.08.

The Reds offense struggled in 2020, finishing 13th in runs scored, with outfielder Jesse Winker the only regular to post an OPS over 800. With franchise cornerstone Joey Votto, 37, in decline (and on the COVID-19 list), the Reds will hope that young Nick Senzel and Jonathan India, both former first round draft picks, are ready to contribute at the big league level. Cincinnati does knock the ball over the fence, finishing fourth in the NL in HRs in 2020, and with Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez and Winker in the middle of the order, there will be fireworks again in 2021.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will not have the lowest payroll in baseball this season, saved from that fate by their AL Rust Belt brethren in Cleveland. However, the tight-fisted Pittsburgh front office has held the line steady for the past three seasons, ranking next to last in payroll in each of the 2018-2021 campaigns. It has become an offseason ritual for the Pirates to trade off their most expensive players for salary relief and prospects, and this year Bucs partisans gritted their teeth as the team shed pitchers Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon in separate transactions. They also moved their best hitter, Josh Bell, to the Nats as he began to earn a higher salary through arbitration, purging their roster of three of their top five contract values. Veteran Gregory Polanco and his $11 million deal should not get too comfortable in beautiful PNC Park this summer, though he’ll bat in the middle of a lineup that finished dead last in runs scored in 2020. There are signs of promise in the form of Ke’Bryan Hayes, who blitzed through the NL in his rookie season hitting .376/.442/.682 while playing stellar defense at the hot corner, giving Pirates fans a reason to pay for admittance into their marvelous ballpark. His father Charlie spent 14 years in the Majors with seven teams.

Their rotation will be led by veterans Tyler Anderson and Chad Kuhl, and buoyed by 24-year-old Mitch Keller, who pitched well in five 2020 starts for the team. The best arm on the roster belongs to closer Richard Rodriguez, who had four saves and a 2.70 ERA last year. It figures to be another very long season for long-suffering Pirates loyalists.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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