Predicting the NL Central isn’t always easy, as it’s generally closer than other divisions. The Dodgers annually rule the West, while the East boasts an ever-changing balance between power and plight.
For the last five years, the NL Central has remained relatively unchanged. Look toward the top, you’d see the Cubs, then look toward the bottom and you’d find the Reds, but all of that may soon change. Between the additions that Cincinnati has made this year and the lateral (or in some cases) backward moves steps that others have taken to improve, the Reds probably won’t live in the bottom 40% of the standings this season.
Having been born and raised in Chicago, I’ve been a loyal Cubs fan for nearly 50 years. I also shed tears in 2016, but unlike a lot of Cubs’ fans, I’m also a realist. I don’t like the thought, but it’s becoming painfully obvious that their window may now have slammed shut.
The truth is, this team has declined since winning the World Series. They Cubs bowed out at the NLCS in 2017, but then fell short in Wild Card game in 2018. Last year? Ugh. Third place, while watching the playoffs from home.
Theo Epstein sold his soul, depleting the farm system to build a dynasty that only lasted a year. Now strapped for cash and trying to avoid the luxury tax threshold, owner Tom Ricketts has slammed the checkbook shut yet again.
Ricketts stated on 670 The Score, free-agent spending wasn’t equating to wins.
Ricketts stayed true to his words this winter, as Steven Souza Jr. has been the Cubs’ only major league signing this winter. I wrote recently that the Cubs would be maintaining the status quo for a while, and I stand by that. Among other bad deals, the team was bogged down with financial obligations, such as Jason Heyward‘s ridiculous $184M contract. Things got even worse for Chicago over the last 48 hours.
With a current bullpen roster containing rookies and Tommy John survivors, re-signing Brandon Kintzler was a must. On a personal note, I speak with some regularity to Kintzler’s agent, and I know firsthand that Brandon wanted a one-year deal at a great price.
Three million dollars and you couldn’t sign a vet who wanted to remain in your bullpen? It wasn’t a lack of trying on Kintzler’s part, because I know that Kintzler and his agent were in touch with the Cubs until the very end. The fact that they couldn’t retain their best reliever from 2019 for that price speaks volumes about the direction the Cubs may now be heading.
The Cubs still have a lot of young talent on the roster, but they’ve underperformed for the last three years. Trading for Nicholas Castellanos last July was a breath of fresh air for a stagnate Cubs’ offense, but re-signing him this season was imperative to winning. I firmly believed that the Cubs would deal Kris Bryant, then reinvest it into a long-term deal with Castellanos. That theory was shattered Monday morning.
As of now, the Cubs, led by rookie skipper Davis Ross, will be forced to try to resurrect themselves with a skeleton crew. Cubs’ fans can only pray that their young core have bounceback seasons while they rely on young relievers and an aging rotation trying to limit the damage. A week ago, I thought the Cubs would be a 90-win, second-place team. Today? They might want to shoot for 82 wins (.506) and buy themselves new TV sets to watch the playoffs on. As it stands now, this could now potentially be a very ugly season.
One word for 2019: Wow. I thought the Reds might surge to third place last year, but despite several promising additions, they never played consistently. Even with additional players added to the roster, the team just never melded or materialized under manager David Bell.
Reds President of Baseball Ops Dick Williams got busy early this winter. On December 10th, he struck hard, as the Reds signed Mike Moustakas, while also covering their void at second base. Cincinnati would grab another former Brewer in the form of Wade Miley on December 18th, then they swapped with Cleveland for Trevor Bauer. Williams then went next-level, grabbing Japanese superstar Shogo Akiyama when he posted to MLB. Looking for a big finish to an already improved offense, Williams absolutely nailed it on Monday, when he won the bidding war for Castellanos.
The Reds’ depth chart is looking pretty stout right about now. With a starting rotation consisting of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray (another of last year’s acquisitions), Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani and Miley, look for the Reds’ rotation to go deep. They’ll be afforded the luxury of run support, while working their way to the wins. With Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett and others in the pen, closer Raisel Iglesias might want to bring a book.
As it stands now, the Reds look to be a second-place team. They only put on their uniforms, tie their cleats, and pray that Joey Votto remembers his ID. If this team meshes, Cincinnati is quite possibly going to be contending for the division title.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Red Birds chased Chicago for four years but finally managed to win the division last year. Had the Cubs not disintegrated, followed by a Milwaukee meltdown, you may have been waiting longer.
Paul Goldschmidt was supposed to be the Golden Child for St. Louis last summer but fell well short of expectations. Contributing only a .260 batting average (ranked 5th among his teammates), the Cardinals pitching is what kept them in the zone. The rotation was strong and the bullpen led the league in saves with 52.
The team initially elected to let Marcell Ozuna walk, but then quickly prioritized re-signing starter, Adam Wainwright, on November 12th. The team remained mostly idle until swinging a trade with the Rays on January 9th. Jose Martinez would be dealt, while the Rays shipped LHP Matthew Liberatore in return. Prospects and future considerations also played into that deal.
That’s been about it for the Cards this winter. See? Kris Bryant told you St. Louis was boring.
The truth is, the Cards didn’t need much. Their rotation is sound, their bullpen insanely effective. They have depth, and if Goldschmidt and a few others improve modestly at the plate, the division is theirs to lose.
I don’t know what happened to the Brewers this winter. After contending for the division last year, President of Baseball Ops David Stearns (combined with a little help from free agency) nearly gutted this team. The list of departures read like a Who’s who of recent notable Brewers, and one could only wonder how far it’d go.
The team rebounded, quickly picking up lefty Eric Lauer and SS Luis Urias from San Diego, in exchange for RF Trent Grisham and righty Zach Davies. Subsequent pickups landed 1B Justin Smoak, C Omar Narvaez, among others.
On the surface, they do have some depth, and Craig Counsell knows how to rally his team. Can the new and improved Brew-Crew come together to compete, or will they languish as Cincinnati did last year?
Here’s where the Wisconsinites will really hate me (eh, what the hell… I’m used to it). Amidst the Brewers’ pennant run last year were faint allegations of sign-stealing by Milwaukee. Yu Darvish eluded to it, sparking a Twitter war between him and Christian Yelich.
The Brewers were great at Miller Park last season, however, played to a road record of only 40-41. In 2018, they were 51-30 at home, yet just 45-37 on the road.
Much like Darvish, I’m not saying they cheated. What I am suggesting, is that in the wake of the Astros’ scandal, any illegal sign-stealing will be quelled this year. If the Brewers did cheat, it should reflect in the home-road splits this year.
Then… there’s this. (I’ll just leave it at that).
Milwaukee is going to be my mystery team this year. I don’t think they beat the Cards and I don’t see them surpassing the Reds. Can David Ross elevate the Cubs to third-place, or will Craig Counsell’s boys let the Cubs languish in fourth?
This team is in shambles. Period. After a 2019 season which saw Felipe Vazquez throw punches at teammate Kyle Crick in the clubhouse, things got even darker. As far as the fight, it was over Crick’s loud music. Crick ended the season needing hand surgery; Vazquez wound up with what Nubyjas Wilborn of the Pittsburgh Pot-Gazette described as a “noticeably swollen and bandaged nose.”
“The behavior exhibited by these two players last night is unacceptable, inconsistent with the standards expected of a Major League player and will not be tolerated by the organization,” (former) general manager Neal Huntington stated, via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.
The fight was bad enough, but things got much worse as Vazquez would subsequently be jailed after admitting to an inappropriate sexual relationship with a minor child. Multiple other felony charges were also filed.
Next, manager Clint Hurdle was fired before the team’s last game, causing him to storm out of the clubhouse prior to game-time. This coming on the heels of a 3-day old announcement by Hurdle that he’d be returning this year. On the following Monday morning, Huntington got the boot after his 12 years with the team. The team has hired Derek Shelton to manage the team and clean up the mess.
Do I really need to go there?
Summing It Up
Cardinals/Reds to win; Reds/Cardinals take second; 90-95 wins each. Cubs/Brewers place third; Brewers/Cubs for fourth; 82-90 wins each: Pirates/Pirates in the cellar and if they play .500 ball (81-81), they should count their blessings.
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