10 key questions that will decide the NL Central
Opening Day is now less than two months away. That’s so soon! Every year, we preview a different division every two weeks leading up to the start of the season, which means we are now on our second division preview: We did the American League West a fortnight ago.
Previews So Far:
American League West
Today we continue with the National League Central, which, for all the talk of a clear hierarchy, has featured a different division champion each of the past three seasons. (The only team that has never won this division is Pittsburgh, which is actually four NL Central titles behind … Houston.)
The Cardinals are the defending champs, and they’ll be favored by most again this year after bringing in Willson Contreras to take over for Cards icon Yadier Molina. But both the Brewers and Cubs have muscled up this offseason as well, and the Reds and Pirates have a little more talent than it might seem at first glance. This division has a tendency to surprise you a little more than you might think.
So, let’s continue our previews with the NL Central. Teams are listed in alphabetical order by nickname up top, with my standings prediction below.
1) Is this offense better than everybody thinks?
The general consensus on the 2022 Brewers is that their pitching was great but they didn’t have quite enough offense to make up for some of their late-season bullpen issues, leading to a skid they couldn’t quite escape. But while there’s some truth to that, the Brewers’ offense was much more productive than you might remember: Essentially every position in their lineup other than catcher was average or above last year (going by OPS+), with much of the production coming from players you wouldn’t have expected, such as Rowdy Tellez and Luis Urías.
Some of those stalwarts from last year are gone, including Kolten Wong and Hunter Renfroe, but the Brewers were smart and stealthy with additions, bringing in Jesse Winker and William Contreras. (We’re still not sure how they snuck into the Sean Murphy trade and snagged Contreras.) This lineup is a lot thicker top to bottom than it was last year, so underestimate it at your own risk.
2) Will they avoid making any too-clever-by-half deals?
On Aug. 1, 2022, the day the Brewers traded Josh Hader to the Padres, the Brewers were 57-45 and three games ahead of the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central. The Brewers then lost their next three games -- two of them walk-offs -- and five of their next six. By Aug. 6, they were in second place … and would never get back in first again, ultimately missing the playoffs entirely. We bring this up not to make Brewers fans relive it -- and we should note that Hader wasn’t exactly dominant for San Diego -- but to remind that even trades that make theoretical sense can fall flat when confronted with reality.
Brewers brass has admitted trading Hader was a mistake -- that the clubhouse was a mess afterward. Sounds like they’ve learned their lesson. Then you keep hearing about Corbin Burnes trade rumors, and you worry again if the Brewers are overthinking everything. Milwaukee has a good team -- one good enough to win the division. Will the front office leave them alone and let them try?
1) How does the outfield sort itself out?
It feels like the Cardinals have had an outfield logjam for half a decade. Remember, they traded away Randy Arozarena (and even Luke Voit and Tommy Pham) to help clear out space for all their outfield depth years ago, and they did so again last year by sending Harrison Bader to the Yankees. Yet they still haven’t figured out any of the positions for 2023.
The Cardinals are loaded with talented outfielders, including former phenom Dylan Carlson, toolsy-but-oft-injured Gold Glover Tyler O'Neill, 2023 breakout star Lars Nootbaar, Top 100 prospect Alec Burleson, Albert Pujols protégé Juan Yepez and even utilityman Brendan Donovan. And that list doesn’t even include No. 4 overall prospect Jordan Walker, who might well be the Opening Day right fielder. The Cardinals are oozing with outfield talent, but they have been for years now, without a corresponding amount of productivity. How this all shakes out may determine how well this offense clicks.
2) Do they have enough pitching?
For all the superstar position players they’ve had the past few years, the true indicator for Cardinals success has been a simple one: When they have enough starting pitching, they make the playoffs, and when they don’t, they don’t. So maybe there should be some alarm bells this year.
The Cardinals’ rotation is oddly spackled together, with Miles Mikolas the only real constant (and he, like 80% of the current rotation, is a free agent after this year). Alongside him, the Cardinals have a madly inconsistent Jack Flaherty, an oft-injured Steven Matz, Trade Deadline star Jordan Montgomery and the farewell tour of Adam Wainwright, who is a great story but completely fell apart down the stretch last year.
Behind them, there’s … Dakota Hudson? Drew VerHagen? Gordon Graceffo? Matthew Liberatore? Jake Woodford? Nothing proven, that’s for sure. Can the Cardinals cover the innings necessary to win the division? If any one pitcher falls off or gets hurt -- a statistical inevitability -- then what do they do? Your guess is as good as ours.
1) What do we make of this transformed offense?
Cubs fans have been frustrated by the team’s lack of activity the last few years -- and, of course, its willingness to let all those World Series heroes leave town -- but they certainly can’t say the team sat on its hands this offseason. The Opening Day lineup will have more new faces than returning ones: Eric Hosmer at first, Cody Bellinger in center, Tucker Barnhart at catcher, Trey Mancini at DH and, most ambitiously, Dansby Swanson at shortstop, signed to the team’s second-biggest contract ever (and higher by average annual value than Jason Heyward’s 2015 deal).
As many signings as there were, though, it’s tough to argue the Cubs added any superstars, even including Swanson, who was clearly fourth among the big four shortstops to hit the market. This offense is clearly better. But is it by better enough?
2) Are we clear about the long-term plan here?
Signing Swanson was definitely a sign that the Cubs are no longer punting: That’s a lot of money to commit to a key position for seven years, money that sure makes it look like the Cubs are ready to start winning games again. (The short-term deals to Bellinger and company certainly imply this as well.) But even in a division like the NL Central, which is hardly some bastion of juggernauts the caliber of the NL and AL East, the Cubs still seem to have a clear ceiling.
To contend this year -- and really for the next couple of years -- they need the Cardinals and Brewers to stumble and they need to hope the Reds and Pirates don’t make a run with their young players. The Cubs have some good prospects coming, but they’re hardly stacked like the Orioles. The Cubs have spent enough money this offseason to make it look like they are trying. But, you know, how hard?
1) When do the prospects start showing up and paying off?
This is the fourth consecutive season that the Pirates have reached the top 10 in MLB Pipeline’s farm system rankings, which is great but also its own sort of indictment; even with that talent, they’ve still finished last in the NL Central every year. Players such as Ke'Bryan Hayes, Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz have reached the Majors and found success, but nothing resembling superstardom.
You’ve got prospects like Henry Davis, Quinn Priester, Liover Peguero and others coming, but they’re hardly 100% ready themselves. And the team looks essentially like it always does, except now their best player, Bryan Reynolds, wants to be traded. The Pirates will likely have a top 10 class next year. They will likely finish in last again, too. This is the definition of spinning one’s wheels.
2) How cool is it going to be to have Cutch back?
If you want to make the argument that bringing franchise icon Andrew McCutchen back won't help the Pirates seem more fun and exciting and emotionally engaging than they otherwise would be, that’s probably a fair point and wow are you no fun. Seeing Cutch -- a guy who for a while looked like he’d have his own statue outside PNC Park -- back in a Pirates uniform is low-key one of the best storylines in baseball this year, and it’s worth remembering that he can still hit, too.
He makes the Pirates' lineup better, and the lineup could use the help. No matter what happens this year, 2023 is going to be memorable because it was the year MCCUTCHEN 22 was an active Pirates uniform again. That might not lead to a division title. But it’s not nothing.
1) Do they have two of the best five starters in this division?
The Reds are a few years away from serious contention, particularly with a lineup that looks … let’s call it patchwork. (There’s hope in the farm system, but not in 2023.)
That’s a shame, because you can make an argument that the Reds have a 1-2 punch that would be the envy of a lot of teams in baseball -- and they’re both young. In Hunter Greene (age-23 season) and Nick Lodolo (25), the Reds have the sort of foundation any team would want: Two cost-controlled starters with ace potential, perhaps as early as this season. Greene, in particular, seems poised to make an All-Star team this year. The rest of the rotation doesn’t have their upside, but when it lines up right, the Reds will be a headache to go visit on many a weekend.
2) Can Votto have a fond goodbye?
It has been 11 years since Joey Votto signed his $251 million, 12-year extension, and if the Reds don’t pick up his $20 million option for 2024, this could be his final year in a Cincinnati uniform. (And maybe any uniform.)
Considering how much Votto has meant to this franchise -- according to Baseball-Reference WAR, Votto is Cincinnati's fourth-best player ever, behind only Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Barry Larkin -- you’d love to see him have the sort of sendoff Albert Pujols had in St. Louis last season. One thing has definitely changed since 2012: The AP story about that extension said that Votto’s “shy personality came across during a news conference.” It is fair to say that no one considers Votto shy anymore.
THIS HUMBLE SCRIBE’S BEST GUESS AT THE STANDINGS
It really feels like people are sleeping on the Brewers. They looked like a legitimate World Series contender until last season’s Trade Deadline, and they still have a killer rotation, solid bullpen and an underappreciated lineup. And after the backlash to the Hader trade, it sure feels like they’ll have to try to keep them together. Meanwhile, the Cardinals not only seem short on pitching, it should be mentioned that they will probably miss Pujols more than people think. He was the third big bat alongside Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt the team had been looking for over the past few years, and now he is gone. They should still end up with a Wild Card berth, but the Brewers, to these eyes, look a little bit better over the long haul.