We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside, the baseball season is close. Two weeks away, in fact.
So far, we have looked at the American League East, the National League West, the American League Central, the National League East and the American League West. Today, we close with the National League Central. Our previews will look at four pressing questions for each club heading into the 2021 season. At the end, we'll make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously ironclad that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once you read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.
Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions in the NL Central this season. Teams are listed in alphabetical order, followed by my predicted standings.
1. Is Christian Yelich back?
Of all the things the Brewers could have possibly been worried about heading into 2020, "Christian Yelich hitting .205” had to have been pretty low on the list. Yelich was a legitimate superstar until being derailed in 2020, and so much of what the Brewers want to do revolves around Yelich returning to MVP status. 2020 was a hard year for everyone, and none of us were at our best. If Yelich is Yelich again -- and he’d have to be, right? -- the Brewers are already a ton better than they were last year.
2. Speaking of which … you OK, Keston Hiura?
The scariest part of Yelich’s 2020 dive was that … he still was probably the Brewers’ best hitter. Many players fell off in 2020, but Keston Hiura's collapse was the biggest surprise. He put up a .212/.297/.410 line a year after going .303/.368/.570. The soaring strikeout rate was the biggest problem; he led the NL in K’s, and while his power went up, everything else went down. Hiura might still be the cleanup hitter for the Brewers this year, but he won’t be for long if that happens again.
3. Can the bullpen carry them again?
When Josh Hader -- who was good once more last season, if not as dominant as he once was -- is your third- or fourth-best reliever, you’re in solid shape. The true revelation for the Brewers last year was Rookie of the Year Devin Williams, who gave up one stinking earned run in 27 innings and struck out 53 percent of the batters he faced. That’s incredible. He also threw only 27 innings. More will be required of him, and everyone else in the 'pen, this year. They were nearly perfect last year. They’ll have to be again, and for much longer.
4. Were their stealth moves enough?
The Brewers struck late in the Hot Stove season, and smartly. They brought in Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr., instantly upgrading their defense in dramatic fashion and giving them some real potential offensive upside too. They’re the sort of smart moves a savvy front office makes, and they might have given them a leg up on some of the competition in the division. But despite all the moves, they're still counting on a lot to go right. Will it?
1. Is there enough in the rotation?
A general rule of thumb with the Cardinals over the past 20 years is that when they have a stable rotation, they win, and when they don’t, they don’t.
Well, they don’t have a stable rotation right now. Three of their top starters from last year are out -- Dakota Hudson is gone for the year, and both Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim are dealing with injuries and questionable for Opening Day -- and Carlos Martínez has proven increasingly unreliable, even though the Cardinals may now be counting on him. That leaves Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright (who has looked terrific this spring) and … John Gant? Daniel Ponce de Leon? The Cardinals’ bullpen looks fantastic right now, but will it ever have a lead to hold onto?
2. How does the outfield shake out?
The Cardinals, for better or worse, remain terrified they’re going to lose another Randy Arozarena: They’re hanging onto all their young outfielders and begging someone to break through and hold onto the job. (Trading away Dexter Fowler secured this even further.) Dylan Carlson seems locked into right field, but after that, it’s a scrum of Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean and even Tommy Edman. O’Neill (who is crushing the ball in Jupiter) and Bader (who was better last year than is widely appreciated) have the inside tracks, but the Cardinals desperately want someone to stick.
3. Who leads off?
If there were a DH in the National League again, this would be easy: Bader against lefties and Matt Carpenter or Edman against righties. But there isn’t, which means it’s probably Edman to start out, despite coming off a season where he had a .317 OBP. Carpenter is getting a lot of play at second, his old position, but the downgrade from Edman (not to mention Wong) to Carpenter is considerable defensively, and it doesn’t help that Carpenter has struggled at the plate too. Edman is the default pick, but he’s going to have to get on base a lot more often than he did in 2020.
4. Can they be the perfect fit Nolan Arenado has been looking for?
Arenado can still opt out after the season if he wants, and while that’s not expected, it’s still possible, particularly if he has a great year but the Cardinals don’t. Arenado and the Cardinals have been rumored to be joining forces for so long that it seems like he’s already been on the team for a while, but so far, the fit has been perfect only in theory rather than practice.
The Cardinals want Arenado to spend the rest of his career in St. Louis, but they need to make this season work out first.
1. Can anybody in this rotation top 90 mph?
OK, so I’m being slightly facetious there: There are in fact several pitchers in this rotation who can consistently throw the ball faster than 90 miles per hour. But there’s no question that in a sport that values pitcher velocity over almost all else, the Cubs are going against the grain with a rotation of soft-tossers. Kyle Hendricks has made it work for him, but the rest of this rotation can barely dent a car door. They have some crafty pitchers -- Zach Davies is almost Hendricks-lite, and Jake Arrieta will at least be nice to see in a Cubs uniform again -- but there isn’t much margin for error here.
2. Can Javy Báez rebound?
I’ve long argued that if you didn’t have access to stats or context or anything and just sat down to watch a Cubs game, you’d assume, watching him, that Javier Báez must be the best player in the world. The talent has always just wafted off of him -- the swipe tag is still my personal favorite -- but he sure did fall off in 2020. There are various theories as to why this was the case, and there’s a good argument that, of all players, Báez suffered the most for not having any fans watching him in person. Suffice it to say, Báez should never, ever end a season slugging .360. He’s 28, and should be in his prime. Can he play like it again?
3. What do they do with all the free agents?
In a perfect world, this should be The Last Ride for the key players of the Cubs 2016 World Series run: Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo will all hit free agency when the season ends. (Craig Kimbrel will too, if you want to be pedantic about it.) But it is definitely up in the air whether or not all those players will be in Chicago by August, let alone when the season ends. Bryant has been involved in so many trade rumors you almost forget he’s still a Cub, and if the wheels fall off this thing early, well, you wouldn’t imagine the heroes who brought the Cubs their first World Series title in more than 100 years would be shipped out for parts at the Trade Deadline, but that very well might be what happens.
4. So, is that it?
Few teams have made their fans grumble under their breath more, for a variety of reasons, than the Cubs have in recent years. It has been quite a fall from 2016, something that’s particularly noteworthy considering the team has only missed the playoffs once in that time. But the Golden Age, the Theo Age, of the Cubs is now just about over. What’s next? Can they squeeze one last division title out of this? And can they bring back the Era of Good Feeling? The Cubs have been decidedly less cuddly the last few years. It may be a while until they are again.
1. Will Ke’Bryan Hayes stay hot (and not discouraged)?
The Pirates have a legitimate stud on their hands in Hayes, who is their best player by a rather wide margin. Of course, that means most pitchers will mostly avoid him. Can Hayes ascend to the next level on a team this bad? Is it actually detrimental for a young talent like him to play for a team like this?
2. Can Gregory Polanco show enough to bring back some value?
The former phenom hasn’t played a full season in three years, and it has been easy for the rest of baseball to forget about him. But he has looked healthy in the spring and is hitting the ball extremely hard. He’s already almost 30, and thus not of much use for the Pirates moving forward, but if he can bring something back in a trade by having a hot year, it would certainly help this perpetual rebuilding project.
3. Is Mitch Keller the ace?
At times, Keller has looked like the best pitcher the Pirates have, but he’s now 25: It might be time to start doing that more consistently. The Pirates have a lot of potential rotation possibilities, but the only one who gets you all that excited right now is Keller. Though the way this bullpen is looking, it might not matter.
4. Can they just grit their teeth through it?
The Pirates are among a few clubs in the early stages of a rebuild that might take a while, but they at least seem to have a clear eye for what they are and what they have to do. The Pirates are the only non-competitive team in a division that’s not all that great, anyway, so the goal for now has to be to try to find parts that are worth keeping, not discouraging Hayes and … hoping people love that gorgeous stadium enough to still head out to the park. The problem is not that this is how their preview ends. The problem is if it still ends like this in 2023, or 2024.
1. Can the slumping hitters finally hit?
Remember when we all thought the Reds were defensively challenged but certain to make up for it by bashing homers everywhere? Well, the underachieving Reds hitters were everywhere in 2020, from Mike Moustakas to Nick Castellanos to Eugenio Suárez to whatever happened to Nick Senzel. How many people had Jesse Winker as the best hitter on this team last year? And he was the best by far. The Reds don’t have the rotation they did last year, and they need this lineup to be what it should be, even as it gets older. There’s upside here, but there’s also collapse potential.
2. Have they cobbled together a rotation/bullpen?
Most assumed Trevor Bauer would leave, and Luis Castillo seems more than capable of taking over the role of ace here. But otherwise? After Sonny Gray, is Wade Miley the No. 3 guy here? How many innings do they really think Michael Lorenzen -- a fun player, and the only actual two-way player in baseball -- can throw? And the bullpen brought in names like Sean Doolittle and Noé Ramirez and Cam Bedrosian, but it sure looks like there are plenty of soft spots here.
3. Will Joey Votto be himself again?
After a truly miserable 2019, Joey Votto rebounded a bit in 2020, particularly in the power department, putting up his highest slugging numbers since his second-place MVP season of 2017. But one of the greatest on-base guys in baseball history has clearly started to lose much of that skill in his late 30s, putting up sub-.360 figures the past two years, the lowest since his first two years in the bigs. The irony is that, with the sluggers behind him, the Reds need his OBP skills more than ever. He is recovering on the IL after testing positive for COVID-19, and here’s hoping that it doesn’t derail his season.
4. Did they miss their window?
As writer Joe Sheehan pointed out in his excellent newsletter, no team was hurt more, financially, competitively, cosmically, by the pandemic than the Reds, who had built up 2020 to be their breakthrough year just in time to have no fans available to see it. Now Bauer is gone, everyone’s a year older and there’s all sorts of slack everywhere. Last year was supposed to be the Reds’ year. It wasn’t. So what does that make 2021?
One man’s NL Central predictions (based on current rosters):