The most intriguing things to watch in the NL Central division this season. Faces in new places, turnaround candidates and more.
The NL Central appears to be one of the weaker divisions in baseball heading into the 2021 MLB season. Despite a lack of clear title contenders, the division still projects to be plenty competitive. Four teams are in play for first place. It may not be the best division in baseball. However, it certainly appears poised to be one of the most competitive. All five teams have compelling storylines to keep an eye on as opening day approaches.
St Louis Cardinals
All in all, it was a pretty quiet offseason in the NL Central. St. Louis provided the most notable exception to this trend when they traded to acquire slugging third baseman and perennial gold glove winner, Nolan Arenado. Nobody doubts the former Colorado Rockies standout is a very good player. The question is: can he continue to be a great player outside of the hitter-friendly haven that is Coors Field. Arenado’s career slash lines (BA, OBP, SLG) are .322, .376, .609 at home compared to .263, .322, .471 on the road. Rockies players are at a disadvantage acclimating to the lack of altitude in road games. However, it’ll still be tough for Arenado to live up to the astronomical numbers he accumulated in Denver’s thin air.
If the Cardinals are going to live up to the expectations that accompanied the Arenado trade, they’ll need a strong bullpen. That unit could take a step forward thanks to another player who wasn’t around for the 2020 season. Flamethrowing reliever Jordan Hicks opted out last season, citing health concerns due toType 1 diabetes. Hicks also only pitched 28 ⅔ innings in 2019 before being shut down with Tommy John surgery. If Hicks can stay healthy and maintain the triple digit gas he’s become known for, the Cardinals should have one of the best bullpens in the division.
Milwaukee also looks to have one of the strongest, if not the single best, bullpen in the NL central. Relievers Devin Williams and Josh Hader are a dynamic one-two punch to close out games. The bullpen seems like a no doubt advantage for the Brew Crew. The real question is can the starting rotation create separation from their counterparts throughout the division? Starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes may well represent the best top two of any rotation in the NL Central. However, a back end consisting of Josh Lindbloom, Adrian Houser and Brett Anderson leaves much to be desired. The Brewers will need one or two of those end of rotation arms to step up and surprise to compete for the division title.
Former MVP outfielder Christian Yelich represents another looming question for Milwaukee. Was the pandemic shortened 2020 season a fluke for the slugger or were his .205 batting average and .786 OPS serious cause for concern? It’s probably fair to give Yelich the benefit of the doubt after two straight 1.000+ OPS seasons in 2018 and 2019, but the Brewers offense simply can’t survive another down year from theri star. Milwaukee’s division hopes live and die by the bat of Yelich. If he can return to form, his MVP caliber hitting should cover up a lot of holes in otherwise unspectacular lineup.
Chicago could very well be nearing the end of an era. A roller coaster offseason saw ace Yu Darvish traded to the San Diego Padres. The deal returned four young prospects unlikely to contribute for several years to come. Pitcher Jon Lester departed to become a Washington National in free agency. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber joined him after being non-tendered. Other core players from the 2016 title run such as catcher Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant were constant subjects of trade rumors throughout the winter. Much of this speculation was fueled by the fact that Bryant, shortstop Javier Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are all entering the final years of their contracts. If the Cubs are in fact on the verge of a rebuild, they may prove to be big sellers at the trade deadline.
With that in mind, all eyes will be on how the Cubs start out of the gate. They may need to find themselves comfortably in command of the division by July’s trade deadline. Otherwise, it will be tough to avoid the temptation to unload short term assets. If Chicago is close to the pack, a trade frenzy may ensue, as the team looks to build for the future. It’s also worth watching to see if any of the core three of Baez, Rizzo or Bryant can secure contract extensions prior to entering free agency. Could this be another last dance in Chicago?
Cincinnati entered the 2020 season pegged by many as the favorites to win the division. Ultimately, the Cubs took home those honors as many of the Reds hitters sumped their way to a 31-29 record. Cincinnati’s starting pitching was phenomenal last season and looks to be strong again this year, but they’ll need the bats to show up if they want to take a step forward in the standings this year. One of the big storylines to watch will be if the core of the lineup, Eugenio Suarez, Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, can improve upson a season in which none of the three hit above .230. Bad BABIP in a short sample size certainly played a factor in the Reds’ 2020 woes, but they’ll always have to score a lot of runs to win at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.
The Reds’ NL Central hopes will also hinge on the strength, or lack thereof, of their bullpen. Longtime closer Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the offseason and reliever Archie Bradley was non-tendered. These departures left an already shaky bullpen looking even more vulnerable entering 2021. Relievers Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims and Tejay Antone appear to be the leading candidates to fill the closer role, but all three may have to pitch well to help propel Cincinnati to the top of the division.
If Pittsburgh doesn’t finish last in the NL Central, something must have gone horribly wrong for one of the other teams in the division. The Pirates enter 2021 with one of the lowest payrolls in the game and a roster that looks better suited to compete in AAA. Despite poor odds to compete for a playoff berth, there are a few things worth watching on this team this year. Most have to do with young third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who burst on the scene last year with a .376 batting average and a 1.124 OPS. The 24 year old infielder is far and away the most talented bat in the lineup, but it remains to be seen if he can develop into a consistent star. Pittsburgh may have a piece to build around in Hayes if he can even come close to repeating last year’s stellar numbers.
On the pitching side, Mitch Keller appears to be the closest thing resembling talent for the Pirates. However, that’s not saying much considering the desolate state of their hurlers. Keller, a former top prospect, has struggled to a 5.81 ERA at the MLB level. He did show improvement in 2020, but that was only across 21 and ⅔ innings. Keller is still only 25 and the Pirates are banking on him tapping into his upside. If nothing else, perhaps Keller can become the next Pirate player to improve drastically after being traded away from the team.
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