If you can believe it, Opening Day is only six weeks away. That means if we're going to start previewing the season division by division on a weekly basis -- and we are -- we have to start right now. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and seasons moving forward. And to keep it balanced, we'll pick four from each team.
We begin with the National League Central. Tell me what you think -- not just about this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the American League East next week, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
20. Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds
Senzel is the No. 7 prospect in baseball, he turns 23 in June and he's playing for a franchise that's eager to show off a quietly fascinating impending youth movement. He might not be the hitter Rhys Hoskins is -- though he could be! -- but you can see him erupting onto the scene in a similar way: A supersonic talent energizing a fan base that's desperate for something to get excited about.
19. Austin Meadows, Pittsburgh Pirates
Speaking of future Pirates All-Star outfielders, Meadows was supposedly the reason the Bucs could afford to trade Andrew McCutchen two years ago, back when he would have fetched them more of a return (and thus back when he was not actually traded). Meadows is still one of the top 50 prospects in baseball, but last year was supposed to be his big introduction -- except he hit .250 with Triple-A Indianapolis with only four homers. He has all the measurables and organizational excitement. Now it's time for Meadows to, you know, actually start hitting. (And stay on the field.)
18. Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Last year, a movie called "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, hit theaters. It's set in Cincinnati; there are some lovely shots of Great American Ball Park. It also features a closeup of an open-heart surgery, multiple scenes of torture and maiming and has as dark an ending as any movie released last year this side of "mother!" And it still was more pleasant to look at than the Reds' pitching staff in 2017. Castillo was the one pearl amidst the rubble, and while Cincy's rotation doesn't look much better this year, he sure does.
17. Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates
It remains fantastic and inspiring that Taillon is back on the mound, and pitching excellently, so soon after recovering from testicular cancer. But the Pirates' staff needs innings, and that's the one thing they haven't got from Taillon -- or anyone else, really. The Bucs also need something to give their fans to cheer for this year, and Taillon is easy to cheer for.
16. Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers
Thames is still responsible for one of the greatest baseball quotes of all time: "I have lots of blood and urine." (Don't we all, Eric.) Thames tore the league apart in April, and he was actually terrific in September, too. It was the middle part when he sagged, including a ghastly June (he hit .163) and August (.173). He is starting to look lost against lefties, which is why Ryan Braun may see some time at first base this year. Thames was the story for a larger part of the season last year, and he's immensely likable and obviously capable of runs of dominance.
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We take a break one-third of the way through the countdown to talk briefly about the NL Central's offseason. If the rest of baseball had been as active as the NL Central has been this offseason, well, Scott Boras would be making a lot fewer tortured analogies. The division acquired the two most expensive free agents thus far -- Yu Darvish and Lorenzo Cain -- and made the two biggest trades -- Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. The Cardinals made one of their biggest trades in memory, and not only do people barely remember it, the general consensus among their fans is that they've let the aggression of the Cubs and Brewers leave them in the dust. For all the talk of potentially wavering motivations to win among various MLB teams, the NL Central came to play this year.
15. Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
For a while, the Reds were experimenting with turning Iglesias into a multi-inning reliever, and it worked like gangbusters for the former starter. There's little reason to push it with him now that Cincinnati knows how good he is; it's possible he'll be one of the best closers in the league by the end of the year. (He and Felipe Rivero are easily the best relievers in the division.) Still, it'd be nice if the Reds stayed creative with Iglesias.
14. Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates
Now that McCutchen is gone, Bell is actually the top returning hitter for the Pirates; he led all returning Bucs players in homers, slugging, walks and games played. He's a switch-hitter with burgeoning power, and he's only 24 years old. (Until Meadows arrives, Bell will be the youngest player in the lineup.) Bell loses focus sometimes in the field and he has a long swing that has plenty of holes. But he's also underrated, underappreciated and underconsidered.
13. Paul DeJong, St. Louis Cardinals
A rookie comes out of nowhere and has a jaw-dropping year, leading to in-season honors and the Cardinals believing that, at last, they have solved their perpetual shortstop problems. That's DeJong now, but that was also Aledmys Diaz in 2016. Diaz, the most recent shortstop of the future, fell apart last year and has since been traded to Toronto. The Cards are counting on DeJong, who somehow led the team in homers last year despite only playing in 108 games, to secure the shortstop position for the next half-decade, at least. But DeJong hasn't completely solved the strike zone (he walked only 21 times in 2017), he strikes out a ton (nearly one-third of his at-bats) and his range is solid at shortstop, but not spectacular. He better hang onto the job because, unlike Diaz, there is no DeJong behind him waiting to take over.
12. Domingo Santana, Milwaukee Brewers
One month ago, it looked like Santana was the Brewers' brightest future star on offense. One flurry of moves later, you wondered if Santana would even be on the team in 2018. Santana hit 30 homers and got on base at a .371 clip last year, but he was inconsistent and terrifyingly strikeout prone. The addition of Cain and Yelich changes the whole equation for Santana: He went from "foundational piece" to "potential trade bait for a front-line starter" overnight. That said, if he can build on last year, he can make sure he's a centerpiece of this Brewers resurgence … and maybe even be the team's star after all.
11. Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals haven't improved either their rotation or their bullpen the way their fans expected them to, and with the losses of Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Juan Nicasio and Seunghwan Oh, they're arguably worse than they were last year. But the Cards would argue having Reyes -- who missed all of last year after Tommy John surgery -- is their ace in the hole, a pitcher who can take over in the rotation if a spot opens up or can fix the closer issue if everybody holds up. He'll be back by May, and St. Louis won't rush him. If the Cardinals can get back to the postseason, Reyes will be as devastating an October weapon as you'll find.
10. Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
Now that the Cubs have signed Darvish, the general consensus is that they now have the best rotation in the division, perhaps by a wide margin. But let's not forget who had their lowest ERA last year. It was Hendricks, which is particularly impressive, considering his ERA was nearly a full point higher than it was in 2016. (He has now thrown 590 career innings with an ERA under 3.00.) But unlike the rival Cardinals, if one of the Cubs' five stalwarts falters, there isn't much depth.
9. Chase Anderson, Milwaukee Brewers
With Jimmy Nelson out for a while still, Anderson is the star of the Brewers' rotation (until they make a trade, anyway). He was central to their surprising rotation performance in 2017, putting up a 2.74 ERA in 141 innings. The problem is now, with Nelson out, they're counting on Anderson putting up a lot more innings than that, which he has done before in his career … but with not nearly the success he had last year.
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We break before the final stretch run to rank the NL Central's mascots:
1. Bernie Brewer. Remember, he was gone from 1984-93 until fans voted for his return: Fans are always right. Who among us doesn't want to drink beer all game and then yell "Weeeeeeee" while sliding down a slide when our team hits a home run?
2. Pirate Parrot. All told, though, I think Pirate Parrot's mom might be a little more fun to party with. Is that weird to say? It's probably weird.
3. Mr. Redlegs. The Reds have a lot of mascots! In fact:
Reds' mascots, ranked
- Mr. Redlegs
- Rosie Red
- Mr. Red
4. Fredbird. As far as I know, Fredbird is the only mascot to be the target of an attack-ad listicle by Buzzfeed.
5. Clark the Cub. Stuck here in last place until somebody puts some pants on that bear.
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8. Addison Russell, Chicago Cubs
We all thought the Cubs would be laughing forever when they acquired Russell from the A's for two aging starters a couple of years ago. But for all Russell's defensive wizardry, he still hasn't figured out how to hit (he put up a rough .239/.304/.418 stat line in 2017). There was a time when you wondered if Russell, who just turned 24 a couple of weeks ago, had a chance to end up being the best of all their young players. But he still hasn't put up a league-average offensive season and Javier Baez would love to play shortstop. It's probably time for Russell to figure it out.
7. Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have considered Martinez ace material for several years now, and at times, he can be as dominant as any pitcher in baseball. But he has never quite been a top-shelf No. 1 the way they've expected him to be. He made his second All-Star team last year, but his ERA was up .60 points to 3.64, and all told, Lynn was the better pitcher in 2017. The good news is that Martinez is somehow only 26 years old.
6. Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
On April 17 last year, Marte looked like a budding superstar, and the very linchpin of everything the Pirates were trying to do. He'd just won his second straight Gold Glove Award, he was coming off his first All-Star appearance and he was under team control through 2021 at highly discounted rates. Then came Marte's shocking 80-game PED suspension, and when he returned, he looked diminished and exhausted. The talent is obviously still there, but this is supposed to be his prime, and instead he's trying to put his career back together at the age of 30.
5. Baez, Chicago Cubs
If you only watched highlights of baseball, you might think Baez is the best player in baseball. He has mind-bending defensive abilities -- he's the only player I can remember who is fun to watch while tagging people -- and he has raw, terrifying power. Unfortunately, he has a staggering lack of pitch recognition and plate discipline; somehow he only walked 30 times last season in 508 plate appearances, and half of those were intentional. Baez is only 25 -- but can you still figure out the strike zone at 25? If he can, he might yet become that best player in the game, non-highlight edition.
4. Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
Yelich is the highest-profile addition of the offseason, and the Brewers had to pay through the nose in terms of prospects to get him. He's still worth it, particularly when you consider his team-friendly contract, and the scary thing about him is that he still has another gear left in his game. If Yelich can embrace the Launch Angle Revolution -- it's like a Dance Dance Revolution, only less stressful on the hamstrings -- he could become a truly next-level superstar, adding the one thing (power) missing from his overall game. The downside here is Jason Heyward, another ground-ball hitter who never stopped being a ground-ball hitter.
3. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
The Cubs insist that Schwarber is their left fielder for the long haul, that he's just not a designated hitter stuck in the wrong league. But remember, the best Cubs team was great primarily because of its incredible defense, and one of the main reasons its defense was so incredible was because Schwarber tore his ACL the second game of the season. And it's not like Schwarber was J.D. Martinez with the bat last year: He still hit 30 homers in just 422 at-bats, and he still draws walks, but .211, with 150 strikeouts, isn't going to cut it for a guy who plays left like he's wearing flippers.
2. Tommy Pham, St. Louis Cardinals
Here is your obligatory reminder that Pham did not just show up out of nowhere last season:
That was the last great Cardinals postseason moment -- he was so unheralded that the chyron called him "Thomas" Pham -- and the Cards are counting on him to give the club an opportunity to have another one. Pham was a revelation last year, a player who didn't get out of Triple-A until May (at the age of 29, no less) and then went HAM on the whole league, ending up 10th in FanGraphs WAR despite playing 30 games less than everyone else in the top 10 other than Michael Trout. It's not just talent, though; Pham is outspoken and brash and cocky and everything, frankly, that St. Louis hasn't been in recent years and desperately need more of. If the Cardinals are getting back to October, it'll be because Pham was, in his words, Pham-tastic again.
1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds likely aren't going anywhere this season, which means once again, we're all going to look past Votto. So it's time for some love here. Votto has slowly been putting together a sleeper Hall of Fame resume for the past few years -- he seems likely to be a beneficiary of the younger, more statistically minded voting bloc that's expected to emerge over the next decade -- but last year, at the age of 34, he might have had the best year of his career. He kept all that place discipline but started hitting the ball out of the park more, bombing 36 homers, the second highest of his career. Votto led baseball in OBP, walks, OPS and OPS+, and he played every single game. He's also funny!
I've written an ode to Votto before, so I'll spare you another one here, but we are watching an all-time great and we don't even realize it. Votto is the best player in the NL, and probably the best player not named Trout. And at age 34, Votto is getting better. I don't care if the Reds win 56 games or 106; Votto is the best thing in this division, now and until further notice.
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We finish this preview, as we will with all of them, with predictions. Keeping in mind that half of baseball is currently a free agent and thus this could change at any moment …
Chicago Cubs: 93-69
St. Louis Cardinals: 88-74
Milwaukee Brewers: 86-76
Cincinnati Reds: 78-84
Pittsburgh Pirates: 68-94
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.