With the season, goodness, less than three weeks away now, it’s time to start previewing some divisions. While allotting for the fact that there are still surely plenty of moves to be made, we have a pretty good idea, at this point, what teams will generally look like. We begin our barrage of division previews today with the National League Central.
The NL Central has the look of a division that contenders in all the other divisions will be looking upon with envy all season. The Brewers and the Cardinals are clearly aiming to win it in 2022, even if they’re not going all-in with payroll and acquisitions like some teams on the coasts.
But the Reds and the Pirates are taking obvious steps backward this year. The Cubs, even with acquisitions such as Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki, are coming off a season in which they lost 91 games.
Thus, considering this is the final season of an unbalanced schedule that has so many intradivisional games, there could be a lot of wins out there to pad the records of the Brewers and Cardinals -- wins that may come in handy in the Wild Card standings for whoever misses out on first place. The Yankees and Red Sox would sure love to get as many games against the Cubs, Reds and Pirates as the Brewers and Cardinals.
But, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it will all play out. Let’s preview the NL Central with two key questions for each team heading into the season.
1) Will Christian Yelich ever be Christian Yelich again?
After the 2019 season, you really wondered if Yelich, who had won the NL MVP Award in ‘18 and might have even better in ‘19, was starting to put together a Hall of Fame resume. But it has gone downhill fast since then. He fell from a 179 OPS+ in 2019 to a 110 OPS+ in ‘20, but hey, that was a short season when all sorts of strange things happened. The fall continued in the 2021 season, though. How in the world is Christian Yelich hitting nine homers and batting .248? The Brewers had been counting on him being a superstar for the next half-decade; now he’s barely an average big league hitter. This lineup, even with the addition of Andrew McCutchen, still looks like the weak link here. Can Yelich find any of his old form?
2) Can all those pitchers stay healthy?
The Brewers had an all-timer of a starting rotation last year, with NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes displaying dominance at a level that may have been matched only by his rotation mate Brandon Woodruff. Freddy Peralta had a huge bounce-back year as well. The Brewers have some depth behind them, and their usual bullpen tandem of Josh Hader and Devin Williams, but considering how weak the lineup has been (and looks likely to remain), they need those horses atop the rotation to make nearly every available start they can. The Brewers have enough pitching to win this division. They just need to make sure it, you know, pitches.
St. Louis Cardinals
1) Are they going to run out of pitching again?
As much as everyone mocked the Cardinals for trading for elderly veterans J.A. Happ and Jon Lester last year, it was obvious that’s what was desperately needed: Injuries had ravaged the Cardinals’ staff, and they had essentially run out of guys to fill out the innings. One would have thought the team would have learned its lesson, but with the offseason injury to Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals look as if they’re short on pitching yet again. Right now, they’re relying on 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, two pitchers who threw a combined 53 innings last year due to injury (Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson), a rookie (Jake Woodford) and free-agent signee Steven Matz, who had a 9.68 ERA in 2020. The Cardinals claim they have enough arms to fill out the gaps, but they said that last year, too. This club has a fantastic defense that can cover a lot of pitching issues. But you still need actual pitchers.
2) Can the outfield be even better?
If you’re looking for growth potential from the Cardinals’ lineup, you’re looking at that young outfield, which finally emerged last year. The triumvirate of 26-year-old Tyler O’Neill (34 homers, Gold Glove), 27-year-old Harrison Bader (116 OPS+, Gold Glove) and 23-year-old Dylan Carlson (.343 OBP, perhaps the most growth potential on this roster) was at the center of the 17-game win streak that pushed the Cardinals into the playoffs last year, and they could all be even better this year. Every team in baseball would want an under-30 defensive whiz outfielder who has power. The Cardinals have three of them.
1) How much better can the starting pitching get?
It can’t be much worse than it was in 2021. (As FanGraphs pointed out, last year’s rotation might have been the worst in Cubs history.) Unsurprisingly, there are now three new starters: Wade Miley, claimed off waivers from the Reds; Drew Smyly, signed to a one-year, $5.25 million deal; and Marcus Stroman, the likable veteran who instantly becomes the ace. That’s probably not enough to get them back up to contention, but it’s at least respectable, which is the opposite of last year’s rotation. Also, in the context of this division, average -- which is what the Cubs are shooting for -- gives you a solid chance to win.
2) Can they transition to the next phase?
There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when the Cubs traded away their 2016 World Series heroes last year, and for good reason. It’s tough to see the players who gave the Cubs their first title in more than 100 years in other uniforms. But they did bring back some talent in the trades, and they’re clearly gearing up, over the next couple of years, to contend again. The question is how long this dip lasts. They finished under .500 for five straight years from 2010-14 before putting together six straight winning seasons, a streak that ended last year. Can they approach or even exceed .500 this year and show that this turnaround won’t take nearly as long as the last one? Their fans might not be so patient this time around.
1) Can they convince the fan base this is only temporary?
In a vacuum, a lot of the Reds’ moves over the last couple of weeks make some long-term sense, or at least put them in a position to be better in a couple of years. But it’s asking quite a bit of Reds fans to see it that way, particularly with All-Stars such as Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez -- players fans have watched grow with the team for years -- sent away. (With the possibility of more moves coming.) There’s still talent here, and the Reds still seem unlikely to finish last. But the fan base is shaken. Can this team surprise and inspire fans to keep the faith?
2) Is Joey fully back?
We were all pretty worried about Joey Votto a couple of years ago, weren’t we? The power had been gone for a while, but for the first time, even his on-base skills fell off, all the way to .357 in 2019. That’s great for a mortal but not for the guy who has led the NL in OBP six times. It was even worse in 2020, too. So what a joy it was to see Votto’s 2021 season: The OBP was up to .375, but even better, the power was completely back: His 36 homers (in only 129 games, no less) was the second-highest total of his career. He’ll be 39 in September, with just two more years left on his contract, and says he wants to stay in Cincinnati. But if he hits like that again and the Reds are not in the race, both sides would have to be tempted to consider a trade, right?
1) Can Ke’Bryan Hayes get back on track?
Even with the low expectations for the Pirates heading into 2021, you figured, at the very least, you’d get your money’s worth from Hayes, who was a monster in 24 games in 2020 (1.124 OPS, brilliant third base defense). But he did not progress the way anyone expected in 2021, hitting only six homers and having his OBP drop more than 120 points. He had wrist issues that bothered him all year and limited him to only 96 games, and he still played great defense, so it’s not as if all was lost. (He’s also only 25.) But Hayes was the beacon of hope for a franchise that hasn’t had a lot recently. The Pirates could use that beacon again.
2) Are any of these young players going to emerge?
It’s not just Hayes. Heading into 2021, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking, say, Mitch Keller -- at one point a top prospect -- might break through. (He’d even been good in five 2020 starts.) But in 2021, he, yikes, had a 6.17 ERA in 23 starts, which, uh, still might be enough to get him an Opening Day nod. Hayes, Keller, Kevin Newman, JT Brubaker -- they all feel like the latest Pirates prospects to get you excited and then just fall a little short. Is it any wonder that Pirates fans, while wanting to believe in top prospects Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras, are remaining in a defensive crouch? Those fans need something to get excited about, so it’d be great to see some of these guys show some real spark this year.
Milwaukee Brewers: 91-71
St. Louis Cardinals: 88-74
Chicago Cubs: 78-84
Cincinnati Reds: 71-91
Pittsburgh Pirates: 63-99
There’s a clear gap between the top two teams and the rest of the division, and, really, a clear gap between the Cubs and the bottom two. Because of the unbalanced schedule, the division winner will probably have a record that looks better than it is. Right now, the bet is on the Brewers’ pitching, at least until the Cardinals show they’ll avoid last year’s pitching shortage. But don’t be surprised if both of those teams are in the playoffs.