It’s no secret that the NL Central is one of the most competitive divisions in Major League Baseball, entering the 2020 season. While last year the race for the crown was as close as it gets, this year’s could prove to be much more dramatic.
On the one hand, a sixty-game campaign should make for a more competitive season, even in the NL Central. On the other hand, the Reds might have finally joined the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Brewers as contenders.
After two years that saw successful offseason acquisitions and historical performances by their rotation, Cincinnati’s new bats and bullpen arms may be the final piece of the puzzle that will make them NL pennant contenders. On their way though, they still have a St. Louis club that reached the NLCS, and two other above-average teams in Milwaukee and Chicago.
There are more good teams in the NL Central than the NL playoff picture could cope with, but who’ll come out on top? Here is a ranking of how the teams stand as we approach the start of the 2020 season.
1. Cincinnati Reds
Last season’s 75-87 record posted by the Reds didn’t really reflect the upside that the season provided. The truth is that the 2019 season showed just why Cincy has reasons to believe that contention is close. Furthermore, it also showed what improvements needed to be made.
The Reds front office, led by general manager Nick Krall, added Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos – two proven hitters – to a core that already included a power-hitting force like Eugenio Suarez. Cincy finished 2019 with the sixth-fewest runs scored but the addition of those two, as well as Shogo Akiyama and Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino for a full year, the lineup gets the power and the consistency it so desperately needed.
The club also signed a big-name reliever that could become the cornerstone of the bullpen. Pedro Strop posted four straight years with a sub-3.00 ERA before last year’s downfall, joined the Reds on a one-year, $1.83-million deal.
The lineup and the bullpen might be solid but nothing even comes close to the team’s rotation. With an ERA of 4.12, ranking ninth within the league, it shined bright in 2019 despite the club’s losing record. Luis Castillo had a breakout season with a 3.40 ERA and more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Meanwhile, both Sonny Gray and Anthony DiSchlafani posted an ERA under 4.00 during 31 starts each with the team. They join Trevor Bauer, whose form slipped after coming to Cincy in July 2019, and the new addition Wade Miley.
Establishing deeper lineup and bullpen was a crucial task for the Reds during the offseason. Seemingly, the job was relatively well-done. Now, a terrific rotation finally has the pieces around in order to succeed. All in all, the Reds are probably the most talented (and balanced) team in the division.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals’ biggest strength is, without a doubt, the rotation when it’s at its best. In each of the last two seasons, the team has had a starting pitcher that has placed amongst the league’s best.
In 2018, Miles Mikolas finished sixth in Cy Young award voting. Jack Flaherty followed that up by having one of the greatest second halves on record. St. Louis’s group of starters has been sensational beyond the ace of the staff, posting the fifth-best ERA in both years.
The rotation will need to have another terrific year because the production of the lineup is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The offensive display wasn’t nearly as positive as on the mound, with the NL Central champions scoring the 12th-fewest runs, worst out of all NL postseason teams. The biggest factors were an injury to outfielder Marcel Ozuna and an exceptionally bad season by Matt Carpenter. While the latter could return to his 2018 form, Ozuna left to join the Braves and the Cardinals didn’t address the whole created by his departure. With Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong’s ceilings not being too high, Paul Goldschmidt is the only reliable hitter in the Cardinals lineup.
Despite all the mediocrity for the Cards offensively, and the likeliness that this carries onto 2020, the rotation is good enough to overcome that and compete for the NL Central crown. Especially compared to the problems that the Brewers experienced in compensating for the losses during the offseason.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers were the center of attention late in September last year, when they made one of the biggest turnarounds to grab an NL Wildcard berth. That was despite the absence of big-name outfielder Christian Yelich, who went down due to an injury at the beginning of the month.
Entering 2020, the Brewers have Yelich back, and a lineup which seems thoroughly solid. Despite failing to replace Mike Moustakas with another free-agent third baseman like Anthony Rendon, the team filled that hole by signing Eric Sogard. Sogard was excellent last year in AL play, especially in the first half with the Blue Jays, batting .300 with an OBP of .363. Avisail Garcia also provided an upgrade in rightfield.
The team also brought in Eric Lauer and Luis Urias from San Diego in an early-offseason blockbuster trade. Urias provides a great future option at shortstop. However, the rotation effectively replaces Zach Davies with Lauer. This certainly is a downgrade to a starting group that lacks depth. Milwaukee tried to fix that by signing former A’s starter Brett Anderson but depth issues remain. With Anderson starting the year on the Injured List, Adrian Houser is set to become the No. 2 starter, exposing the problems on the mound beyond ace Brandan Woodruff.
While many of the signings were solid, they don’t come close to making up for the losses. The rotation looks worse than ever in recent memory, while the lineup lost significant production. Even if a healthy bullpen gets to shine, the team could be bound for an up-and-down campaign that doesn’t see the Brewers contend for anything beyond a Wildcard spot.
4. Chicago Cubs
Since winning the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2016, the Cubs have disappointed more and more every year. Who would have guessed that a horrible 2018 NL Wildcard loss to Colorado would only lead up to the 2019 failure to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014?
The starting pitching on the north side of Chicago has been very inconsistent, despite Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks proving to be the aces of the staff. The loss of Brandon Kintzler to Miami has hurt the bullpen even more, leaving it without a trustworthy relief pitcher except for closer Craig Kimbrel. Moreover, even Kimbrel would need to improve upon a weak stint with the Cubs after signing in June.
The Cubs batting order, the tenth-best in the league in 2019, is subject to some positive evaluations, however. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant both got near their career-high figures. Kyle Schwarber hit more than 25 homeruns for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, Javier Baez posted a mere slip, but he’ll be looking to up his value in a shortened 2020 campaign.
The club could replicate its good offensive display to boost its effort. Even then, the Cubs’ rotation could continue declining, leaving the team out of the chase for the crown.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are still far away from contention for the postseason. Even with a couple of rising stars and a rotation waiting to unveil its full potential, the efficiency in the lineup isn’t enough to combine individual effort into a run-scoring team ability.
The Pirates are in the middle of the pack with a .321 on-base percentage, under the league average for 2019 of .323. Moreover, the club hit the third-fewest homers with 163, resulting in a bottom-ten lineup within MLB.
Still, the trio of Josh Bell, Kevin Newman, and Bryan Reynolds could further establish the team’s new core. If the rotation remains healthy, unlike last year, the club could potentially surprise some people. However, it’s more likely that Pittsburgh finishes closer to a top ten pick rather than a playoff spot in a division like the NL Central.
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