2 key questions for every NL Central team

July 10th, 2020

Throughout February and March, I spent a disturbingly large percentage of my pre-pandemic hours writing incredibly long division season previews for a season that, as it turned out, would not begin on time. In those previews, I asked (and tried to answer) five big questions about each team in each division and then, at the end, predicted exact records for every one of them. For what it’s worth, every one of those predictions would have been right on the money, had the season happened as scheduled. Trust me.

Anyway, now that we are getting a truncated season, it’s time to dig back into those previews, under the decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. Because there are only 60 games now, rather than 162, we will ask only two questions in these previews, often relating to these decidedly new and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves facing. The predictions are still coming, though, and they’re still 100% guaranteed correct. These will run twice a week until the season begins on July 23.

Today: The National League Central

1) Will their pitching strategy work again?
Every year, observers like me yell at the Brewers for not having any stud starters atop their rotation, and every year, they have so many arms that they make the playoffs anyway and make people like me look dumber than we already looked. But a pitching staff built for a 162-game season might not be the most effective strategy for a 60-game season. Is the plan really Brett Anderson/Josh Lindblom/Eric Lauer at the back of this rotation? Is Josh Hader more likely to break down in a short season, or less likely? The Brewers have patched their rotation together with spit and gristle for a few years now. Can that work in a sprint like this?

2) Who will be Yelich’s supporting cast?
Christian Yelich is one of the best players in baseball. He’s locked in. But otherwise, there are a lot of questions with this lineup. If Keston Hiura is what he was last year, OK, maybe they have two stars. But Lorenzo Cain was banged up all year and is now 34; Ryan Braun might be your cleanup man at 36; and Justin Smoak is your Eric Thames fill-in at first. The Brewers have been incredibly smart about finding bargains and undervalued players over the past few years. But they sure are counting on a whole lot going exactly right.

1) Will the veteran bats bounce back?
You may remember that National League Championship Series, when the Nationals' pitchers made casual fans wonder how the Cardinals made it so far in the postseason when they were apparently getting shut out every game all season. Well, the Cardinals' offense is essentially the same, except now Marcell Ozuna is gone. The Cardinals are counting on a combination of Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and rookie Dylan Carlson to replace him, but they also need rebound years from Matt Carpenter, Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong and Dexter Fowler, and for that matter, Paul Goldschmidt. That’s asking a lot: The pitching will have to be perfect.

2) How deep into the bullpen will they have to reach?
The Cardinals have survived in many ways the past few years because they’ve had so many new bullpen arms to fold into the roster. Jordan Hicks shows up, dominates but then gets hurt, gets replaced by Giovanny Gallegos, and nobody misses a step. Ryan Helsley, Génesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, even Alex Reyes … they’ve come up with guys everywhere. But the ranks are thin this year, with John Brebbia out for the season, Hicks still recovering from surgery and various players still not in camp. Pitching depth has saved the Cardinals in the past and will be more important this year than any other. Do the Cardinals still have enough?

1) Is Darvish an ace again?
Remember, at one point in 2019, there were actually Cubs observers wondering if Yu Darvish was mentally OK with pitching for the team. (Remember when Alex Rodriguez inexplicably went after him?) Well, not like anyone noticed, but Darvish was fantastic in the second half, putting up a 2.76 ERA in 13 starts with a jaw-dropping 16.86 K/BB ratio. (In August, he struck out 42 batters and walked … one.) If Darvish has it figured out, the Cubs have the ace they’ve been looking for since Jake Arrieta’s prime. When one game can mean so much in a 60-game season, they might have the perfect guy to give them the best chance to win on a given day.

2) What is the plan here?
Bringing in David Ross and calling it some sort of fresh start after Joe Maddon left seems to belie the fact that … well, this team looks pretty much exactly like it did last year. And you may remember that last year was the first season the Cubs missed the postseason since 2014. The Cubs have all sorts of contract decisions to make in the next couple of years, and while this shortened season might not be the ideal crucible in which to make them, it might be all the evidence they have to work with. If the Cubs miss the playoffs again this year, will it lead to an extreme makeover? If they win the division, will they bring everybody back? No matter how this season goes down, it’ll be one of the more pivotal in recent Cubs history.

1) Can Votto be Votto again?
The Reds’ lineup, with all its aggressive additions this offseason (Shogo Akiyama, Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos) looks as formidable as it has been in many a moon, even if it raises all sorts of questions on defense. But it sure would be nice to have Joey Votto back to being Joey Votto. Votto had the worst year of his career by a rather dramatic margin, putting up a pedestrian (especially for him) OBP of .357 and only hitting 15 homers during a historic year for dingers. For most of his career, Votto has been dogged by being an on-base guy for a team that needs someone to knock runners in. Now that the team has a bunch of other guys who can do that … he’s getting on base at a career-low rate. If there were ever a year to get back to that .400 OBP, this is it. You don’t have to do it yourself anymore, Joey!

2) Can they reward their own aggression?
As the rest of the division sat mostly idle this offseason, the Reds went for it: They certainly were the most urgent of any team in the division. And why not, right? They’re the team with the longest postseason drought in the NL Central -- they haven’t been back since Johnny Cueto dropped that ball on the mound in Pittsburgh -- so it’s difficult to blame them for seeing a window here and trying to rush through it. Some of the lineup pieces are an awkward fit, though the DH helps, and they’d love Trevor Bauer to step up and be the pitcher he was a few years ago to help out a rotation that is improving. But the Reds put a lot into this year. Can they make it worth it?

1) Can this still be a setting-down-railing year?
We can argue about the reasons for such a decision, but it’s clear the Pirates had decided fairly early on that this was going to be a bit of a reset season. Ben Cherington, a guy who has proven he can build a young talent base, and his staff were basically using this year to figure out what they had moving forward, to start the process of building toward a contender again. So how much has the pandemic messed that up? Is this still an evaluation year? Can you evaluate anything this year? The Pirates are in many ways using 2020 as a data-collection year. How valuable is this year’s data?

2) How much Keller and Hayes do we get?
Mitch Keller may very well be in the rotation from the get-go this year, which makes sense: He’s the top prospect, but he’s also 24; it’s probably time. But will the Pirates get aggressive with third-base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes? Cherington was not known for keeping prospects down too long with the Red Sox, and he certainly wasn’t known for trading them either. Hayes is 23 himself, and he’s the best position prospect this team has. In a season like this, why not send him out there and see what he’s got?

One man’s NL Central prediction …

Cardinals: 34-26
Reds: 32-28
Cubs: 31-29
Brewers: 28-32
Pirates: 25-35