How the NL Central is still a 4-team race

February 2nd, 2021

The Cardinals went out and did it, finally. After a winter of relative inactivity, other than the unpopular move to decline Kolten Wong's option, they brought back Adam Wainwright, seem likely to bring back Yadier Molina, and stunned the baseball world by acquiring Nolan Arenado from the Rockies for ... well, we don't want to say "almost nothing," but they didn't give up any players they will significantly miss in 2021.

Given the complete and total transaction blackout in the NL Central, a division that up until this week had been absolutely bleeding talent all winter, the Cardinals -- who finished 30-28, three games out in 2020 -- must by virtue of the Arenado trade alone be the favorites. Right? If we're talking about "winning the winter," well, yes, clearly. If we're talking about '21 projection? Maybe not.

If it feels like this is the only major move made in the Central so far this winter, trust your feelings. We took at look at the combined 2019-'20 wins above replacement from the FanGraphs offseason transaction tracker and came up with these shocking numbers:

Talent leaving NL Central: 44.2 WAR
Talent joining NL Central: 6.6 WAR

Think that's a large gap? Note that Arenado himself was worth 6.9 WAR in 2019-'20, so before he was acquired, the grand total was ... -0.3 WAR. And even that looked to be a lot less as recently as a few days ago, before the Cubs signed Joc Pederson, who at 2.9 WAR was the only other 1+ WAR player signed.

Looking back is not the same as looking forward, we grant; these numbers are not 2021 projections. Plus, perhaps Molina, or Wong, or Trevor Bauer, or other unsigned free agents find their way back to the Central. But as things stand right now? So long, Wong, Yu Darvish, Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, José Quintana, Kyle Schwarber and others. Hello ... Arenado, and Pederson.

That's why the Cardinals have the most helium right now, because they went and did the thing no one else was willing or able to do. But is it that hard to make a case for any of last year's top four teams? Not really. (Yes, only four -- the Pirates are clearly rebuilding and are not expected to be competitive.)

After all, here's how the 2021 NL Central is projected. You might be surprised.

Cardinals 79-83
Brewers 77-85
Cubs 76-86
Reds 75-87
Pirates 64-98

It's ... tight. We didn't say the Cardinals aren't the favorites, because they are, at least by this reckoning, and yet there's not a single team projected to be a winner. (That says a lot about how hard it is for one player -- even a great one like Arenado -- to move the needle himself, and it also says a lot about how strong the top teams in the Easts and Wests are. This division does not exist in a vacuum.) Here's another projection system that has the Cardinals, with Arenado, in fourth, and while we think that's more than a little too pessimistic, it is a system that exists.

All of which is to say: It's still up for grabs. Allow us to make a case for each of the four contenders.

The case for ... the Cardinals

Well, they did just trade for Arenado. His batting line will likely take a slight step back, and we'll spend all year arguing about whether it's that he's leaving Coors Field (it's not what you think it is) or just that Busch Stadium is one of the least hitter-friendly parks in baseball or wonder about the health of his shoulder, but it probably won't matter. If he's healthy, he's going to be a star. It's nice, too, that it pushes Matt Carpenter to the bench, because St. Louis had the weakest bench performance in the Majors in 2020.

The question, however, is whether the Cardinals were an Arenado short of greatness in 2020. We'd argue both that "no, they were not, because the offense wasn't that good in 2019 either," and also that "it's incredibly difficult to judge any St. Louis performance in their COVID-interrupted season." The case here is easy to see, anyway; Jack Flaherty pitches like he did in 2019, Dylan Carlson has the breakout everyone thinks he's capable of, Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt anchor the middle of the lineup and Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks are each able to be healthy and contribute.

None of that is that unreasonable. It's just a lot of ifs happening, and not a lot of depth should things go wrong. Arenado makes them better, a more complete roster. It just can't only be about him.

The case for ... the Brewers

Milwaukee has been so quiet this winter that it's easy to forget just how dominant the top half of its pitching staff can be. Take the group of starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, and relievers Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta, Eric Yardley and Brent Suter. They combined for 263 2/3 innings, or just over half of all Brewers innings in 2020, combining for a 2.59 ERA and a 35% strikeout rate. That's a lot of elite pitching, from pitchers who are still around, and that doesn't account for higher hopes from Josh Lindblom or Adrian Houser.

Half of a 60-game season is different than half of a full one, obviously, and the larger issue here is that they've done almost nothing to improve their offense, although the likely return of Lorenzo Cain, who sat out almost all of 2020, ought to help. But really, a lot of this falls on the shoulders of Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, to rebound after a down -- by his standards -- '20. When we investigated this in December, we didn't really find a lot of reason for concern, other than an oddly passive approach at the plate. Another great 2018-'19 vintage season from Yelich, a solid year from Cain, and that top-end pitching will get you pretty far. Will anyone from the infield step up to help?

The case for ... the Cubs

Set aside all the disappointing feelings around this offseason and realize that the Cubs are the defending division champs -- despite terribly underwhelming seasons from Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, among others -- and they may have made a small upgrade in the lefty power department in going from Schwarber to Pederson. There's still a great deal of talent here, and at least one projection system likes their offense a great deal:

We're not so naïve as to pretend they're better positioned to contend in 2021 without Darvish around, because very clearly they are not. But Ian Happ had himself something of a breakout in 2020, and Kyle Hendricks is quietly one of baseball's best starting pitchers. The rotation depth is lacking, to say the least, and yet "a top 20 starter and a bunch of bats with good track records we believe in" is a good place to start in a division without a Dodgers/Padres/Yankees-esque behemoth.

The case for ... the Reds

We understand that there have been plenty of rumors about starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, but for now they are still Reds, and quite honestly, it seems like they still will be, given that Bauer is likely to sign elsewhere and Anthony DeSclafani already went to the Giants. There's still a lot to like about the Cincinnati pitching behind their top two starters, as Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Tyler Mahle and Tejay Antone all bring their own interesting tools to the table.

The question, really, is whether the very disappointing offense we saw in 2020 can look more like the team we expected it to when they went out and made big moves last winter. Mike Moustakas's 108 OPS+ is about where you'd expect him, but it hardly seems unfair to expect more from Nick Senzel (57 OPS+), Nick Castellanos (102 OPS+), Shogo Akiyama (76 OPS+) and Eugenio Suarez (102 OPS+). Pair that with Jesse Winker's breakout, and the likely ascension of Tyler Stephenson to take some real catcher playing time soon, and you could really have something here. Now: How about a shortstop? Any shortstop?