5 NL Central predictions for September

August 29th, 2019

There are fewer than five weeks remaining in the regular season. What’s left to decide in the National League Central? Well, just about everything.

Can the Cardinals hold off the Cubs and the Brewers atop the division? How will Christian Yelich finish another NL MVP-worthy season? (And will Roxane, in fact, relax?) What can the Reds build around as they reload for 2020? How will the Pirates’ second-half tailspin affect their future?

In addition to all the big-picture stuff going on, there are plenty of team records, individual accomplishments and unresolved storylines to monitor over the final month of the season. Here, MLB.com’s NL Central beat reporters offer five predictions -- one for each team -- as to how it will all play out.

Brewers: Braun will make it back to first base

It gets forgotten that Ryan Braun was the Brewers’ Opening Day first baseman in 2018, part of a plan going into that season to use him there against left-handed pitchers. It didn’t last long; the plan was scuttled when Jesus Aguilar emerged as an All-Star.

But now Aguilar has been traded away and Eric Thames is nearing the end of the final guaranteed season of his three-year deal, and the Brewers, who have been fading from the postseason picture, need to figure out a plan at first base in 2020, the final guaranteed season of Braun’s franchise-record-setting contract.

Playing him at first base makes sense, provided he can get comfortable there, since the Brewers have Lorenzo Cain and Yelich entrenched in the outfield and plenty of other internal options for the final spot. Reintroducing Braun to first base in September would help expand the club’s options, and potentially allow Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns to instead spend offseason resources on the pitching the team needs.

Cardinals: Goldschmidt and Ozuna will push the Cardinals to the postseason

The Cardinals’ recent offensive surge has them sitting on top of the division, and it’s been possible because they’re getting contributions up and down the lineup. Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are beginning to sync up in terms of production, and that’s going to be critical for the Cardinals in the last month of the season as they look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Each player is racing toward 100 RBIs; Goldschmidt entered Thursday with 71 and Ozuna with 77, while Goldschmidt holds the home run advantage (29) over Ozuna (24), who missed a month on the injured list with a right middle finger fracture. When they’re both on, they force opposing pitchers to pick which slugger to face in the middle of the order, giving the Cardinals a better chance to do damage and support one of the Majors’ most effective pitching staffs.

Cubs: Zobrist will make a bigger impact behind the scenes than on the field

Ben Zobrist, who has been on the restricted list since May 8, is expected to return to the Cubs for the final month of the season. After three months away from Major League competition, it's hard to envision the 38-year-old Zobrist making a major impact for the lineup, especially in a part-time utility role.

But Zobrist’s influence in the batting cage and in the clubhouse could go a long way for a team that has missed the kind of contact-oriented, professional at-bats Zobrist offers -- not to mention a veteran presence in the room.

One of the biggest flaws for the Cubs' offense since Zobrist left the team has been an NL-low contact rate and NL-high swinging-strike rate. Zobrist can help that improve incrementally, and by leading by example in the cage and in conversations.

Pirates: Bell joins the 40-homer club

There’s no doubt that Josh Bell, the Pirates’ All-Star first baseman, has slowed down since his historic month of May. Bell posted a .764 OPS in June and a .769 OPS in July, though he bounced back with an .851 mark in his first 22 games this month.

But heading into Thursday's series opener against the Rockies, Bell was sitting on 34 home runs. We’ll say he reaches that magical round number: 40. Why would that be special? Well, start with the fact that we entered the season wondering -- after Bell’s 12-homer campaign in 2018 -- if he was going to pan out as a power hitter.

There’s also this: The last Pittsburgh player to slug 40 home runs in a season was Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who hit 44 … in 1973. There have only been seven 40-homer campaigns during the franchise’s 133 years in the NL -- five by Ralph Kiner, two by Stargell.

Bell still has a chance to join them. In his worst months, June and July, he combined for nine homers. He hit six in April and six in August, plus 12 in May. We’ll say his strong finish starts with the Pirates’ upcoming trip to Coors Field.

Reds: Aquino will hit 20 home runs

It will take some doing, especially if the scouting reports catch up to “The Punisher,” but Aristides Aquino was the quickest Major Leaguer to ever reach 12 homers, doing it in his first 22 games. Heading into Thursday, he only needed seven more to reach that level. That seems attainable with a little more than a month to go -- and it wouldn’t be such a bad total at all for a player who was called up on Aug. 1.

It would be hard to jump into an NL Rookie of the Year Award race that already includes the Mets’ Pete Alonso, the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., the Braves’ Mike Soroka and the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds, among many others. But a 20-homer finish by Aquino would be reminiscent of when the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez clubbed 20 homers and 12 doubles in 53 games and finished second in the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting.