Roundtable: Who will win the NL Central?

February 20th, 2021

Who will win the National League Central division? We gathered a roundtable of MLB.com reporters to discuss:

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): This is going to be a great division race; not because the teams spent the offseason all trying to get better, but because no one did quite enough backtracking to fully fall out of contention. Clearly, the Nolan Arenado deal puts the Cardinals at an advantage. But are they the crystal-clear favorite?

Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): I see no clear favorite in this division. None of them did a whole lot to get better this winter aside from the Arenado trade.

Will Leitch (@williamfleitch, MLB.com columnist): I understand arguments about the rotation, particularly if Jack Flaherty is not the ace they were expecting. I also have no idea who hits leadoff, especially if there is no DH. But I sort of think the Cardinals or MAYBE the Cubs were the favorites before the Arenado trade … and now I’m more certain of it. Know that this analysis is entirely fact-based and absent of any outward or emotional factors whatsoever, yep, yep, absolutely.

Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy, Brewers beat reporter): Some of the projection systems are surprisingly high on the Brewers. Baseball Prospectus/PECOTA has them taking the division comfortably with 89-ish wins, which shocked me. Then the Cubs, then Cardinals, then Reds. I think a lot of execs within the division would say St. Louis is the frontrunner, though.

Feinsand: The only thing I know for certain about the NL Central is that the Pirates are going to finish last. Ben Cherington has a tall task ahead of him in rebuilding this club. He’s a great executive and I have faith in him, but the 2021 version is going to be a bad, bad team.

Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian, Cubs beat reporter): The Cubs are returning as the reigning division champs, but they are now short an ace (Yu Darvish) and continuing to count on comebacks from their core hitters, who slumped across the board last season. They are counting on the small-sample effect -- that Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Co. will live up to the back of their baseball cards. But, the offensive issues stretch over multiple seasons now. I don't see a favorite for the division title right now.

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Leitch: The problem is not just that no one got better. The problem is that the Reds and the Cubs are appreciably worse. The Brewers can reasonably argue that they had a ton of underachievers, and that there’s room for growth, but that there were no moves isn’t entirely the problem: The problem is that the two teams everyone was excited about last year, the Cubs (our last ride!) and the Reds (all-in for this year!) actively lost two of the best … five? pitchers in baseball?

Feinsand: I apologize for jumping all over the place, but the Reds seemed like a team that was going for it in 2020 with Trevor Bauer, but it didn’t happen. And now they have these contracts (Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos) without any real chance of winning the division.

Mark Sheldon (@m_sheldon, Reds beat reporter): I don't think the Reds are tremendously worse though, Will and Mark. They knew they wouldn't have Bauer back and they replaced Raisel Iglesias with likely Sean Doolittle as closer at a savings of $8 million.

Feinsand: Cincinnati will be a very important team in July. If Luis Castillo and/or Sonny Gray are available, I will be writing about them regularly.

Sheldon: If their offense can get off the mat from last year's stink, they have a lot of offensive weapons and a rotation that opens with Gray and Castillo is nothing to sneeze at. But like each of the top 4 clubs, there's a lot to dislike.

Leitch: I kinda get the Brewers being underappreciated by non-robots. When you look back on it, it kind of feels like everything that wasn’t Devin Williams went sideways on them. And they still reached the playoffs and almost reached .500. I think it’s reasonable to think that, had they had a full season, they would have figured it out and maybe won the division. That’s clearly the bet this year.

McCalvy: I think Will's point emphasizes why some people like the Brewers' chances. They didn't get significantly better -- though signing Kolten Wong and getting Lorenzo Cain back from an opt-out is a vast improvement to their up-the-middle defense -- but unlike the Cubs and Reds they didn't have significant losses. Milwaukee basically is returning a playoff team, albeit one that backed in with a losing record. The key to the whole thing is Christian Yelich being Christian Yelich again.

Feinsand: The Brewers frustrate me. I love the core pieces of that team, but they never invest in enough starting pitching to make me feel confident about picking them to win the division. If they sign Jake Odorizzi right now, I’d have them as favorites.

I fully believe in Yelich being Yelich again. I recently ranked him as my No. 3 player in all of MLB for the MLB Network Top 100 Right Now show -- and was roundly mocked by Mike Petriello, Sarah Langs and Greg Amsinger.

McCalvy: I think David Stearns loves frustrating you and everyone else, Mark. It's pretty clear he doesn't believe in investing big dollars in one pitcher. Not only have they not signed a guy like that, they have barely been linked to one. But they have made the postseason three years in a row with some pretty good pitching numbers thanks to adds along the lines of 2018 Jhoulys Chacín.

Leitch: And it’s not like Yelich hasn’t had rough 60-game stretches before. The weird thing about Yelich, and you’d know this better than me, was that he really just felt OFF all year. Which I get: I also feel like I was a bit off in 2020. But betting on Yelich to be one of the best players in baseball feels like an awfully safe bet to me. Put it this way: If Yelich just isn’t Yelich anymore, the Brewers have a lot bigger problems than just 2021.

McCalvy: I'm not a betting man (yes I am, but I don't want to admit it), but I would bet on Christian Yelich being one of the best players in the division in 2021. Hard-hit rate for days.

Footer: I look at the Cubs' projected rotation and my first thought is, “Hmm. Not bad.” But then I looked at it closer. This is … not good. Change my mind?

Feinsand: I will not change your mind, Alyson. I think you’re spot on.

This feels like a last-hurrah kind of year for the Cubs given the impending free agency of Bryant, Rizzo and Baez. Which is why trading Darvish seemed so strange. After Kyle Hendricks, there isn’t a starter on the Cubs that I would feel great about making 25 starts.

Bastian: It was a stunning trade, but Jed Hoyer -- now the president of baseball operations after Theo Epstein stepped down -- has a tall task in trying to extend this window. It definitely has that "last dance" feel and the players have talked about that dating back to last year. These trade rumors aren't going away, and Hoyer even said at the start of camp that a strong start will be crucial. The Darvish trade looked like Step 1 in the long-view plan, but the Trade Deadline could accelerate that approach.

Sheldon: Seeing Craig Kimbrel close for the Cubs last year was ... painful

McCalvy: Mark me for the over on the Cubs. Baez is in the same boat as Yelich -- 2020, whether it was no fans in the stands or small sample or whatever, hurt him. I still love their offense with that World Series core. Can they pitch? Who knows. But they'll hit.

Bastian: Baez also was one of the more vocal critics of not having access to in-game video. We'll see if that will help fuel a comeback this year. As for the rotation, the Cubs are cornering the market on righties who throw 88-91 mph. What Chicago is hoping -- with Kyle Hendricks as the poster boy -- is that the team's pitching infrastructure can get the most out of these arms. Zach Davies was good last year.

Jake Arrieta was good -- in the past. Trevor Williams is a few years removed from a strong season. Alec Mills threw a no-hitter last year, so that's something. Adbert Alzolay is trying to change the narrative about the Cubs developing pitchers. So many question marks everywhere. We'll see.

Leitch: It feels like the issue with the Cubs' rotation is pretty basic: Nobody throws very hard. Hendricks has obviously made it work, but otherwise, this has to be one of the softest-tossing rotations in the Majors. Which, uh, is not generally the path to success in baseball in the year 2021. Maybe they’re just zigging where everyone else is zagging? Otherwise this looks like those old Twins rotations where no one threw harder than Kyle Lohse or Glen Perkins.

Feinsand: Perhaps they’ll make a move in July if they’re in the race. They’ll hit for sure; I just don’t believe they can pitch enough.

Leitch: I wrote this a while back, but I sort of agree that the Cubs are undervalued. The problem is that I don’t trust them to make more moves, particularly if they get off to a slow start. If they’re, say, five games out of first after a month and a half, everyone’s going to freak out and a whole lot of guys with contracts that are ending are going to be back on the block. There might be no team in this division that more eagerly needs to get off to a decent start. Because there will be vultures circling if they are wobbly at all.

Sheldon: I think that would be the case for every club but STL, Will.

Feinsand: Here’s my bottom line with whoever wins this division: They’re likely a one-and-done in the postseason. No team here is good enough to beat the Dodgers, Padres or whoever comes out of the NL East.

Ironically, although I don’t love the Reds’ chances this year, they’re probably set up better than anyone in the division for a postseason series.

McCalvy: To me the Reds just prove the adage that the team that wins the offseason never, ever, ever wins the in-season.

Sheldon: So if they didn't win this offseason, what does that say for 2021?

McCalvy: Reds in six, Mark.

Feinsand: Nobody in this division won the offseason. So they should have four 90-win teams.

The Brewers’ combo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader gives them an unrivaled 1-2 punch in the back of the bullpen. That will be big for Milwaukee.

McCalvy: But that's 2020, and I don't know what the heck to make of any of those numbers. The Brewers had their worst offensive season ever by average, whiff rate and some other stats, and they were SECOND BEST in the division. All of the offensive numbers in 2020 were a mess.

Feinsand: I think you can safely say 2020 was a mess in general.

Don’t get me wrong. ... I think this will be an entertaining division because of the fact that nobody stands out. Nobody will win 95 games, but these four teams should keep things interesting.

Footer: The Reds lost a lot with Bauer leaving for the Dodgers, but that wasn’t a shock and the Reds knew they were never in that bidding game. But so much of the core is returning. Are my rose-colored glasses a little too rosy? What needs to go right for them to still be in this in September?

Sheldon: They need to hit. Batting .212 for the regular season and 22 scoreless innings in the postseason was a bad look.

I think Eugenio Suárez was someone who really plummeted from the lack of fans and his distance from family. If the fans are back, I could see him back to 2019 version. Castellanos and Nick Senzel are the biggest two keys. Both need to perform and in Senzel's case, be on the field and not in the training room. Joey Votto made some adjustments to be less selective and his home run rate started improving.

Leitch: The thing about the Reds is that they never have everything synced up. That lineup was a MONSTER a couple of years ago, and looked like it was primed … but the pitching stunk. Then the pitching got it figured out, but the lineup imploded. There is always a chance they finally get everything aligned. But everyone here is getting kind of old, and I don’t see much reason to think they’ll be better this year than last. I think they have a higher ceiling than other teams here, but a much lower floor.

McCalvy: I feel like this whole discussion reinforces the strength of the Cardinals. If the Cubs can pitch ... If Yelich hits again ... If the Reds hit again ... Isn't it fair to say that the Cardinals have the fewest ifs?

Sheldon: Don't they have "If Flaherty ... if bullpen"?

Feinsand: Don’t they, though? I love Jack Flaherty. But Miles Mikolas is hardly a sure thing as a No. 2, Adam Wainwright is another year older. The rest of the rotation doesn’t floor me. And the bullpen is a huge if.

Also, as great as Arenado is … he’s coming off an un-Arenado-like year, and now he’s playing for a team with expectations and a fan base that expects him to be a stud. If he rebounds to the form we’re used to seeing, he’ll be great. If he doesn’t, the pressure will mount quickly.

Leitch: This is why the Arenado thing was such a big deal. It’s not just that the Cardinals added someone when no one else did. It’s that they added THAT guy, one who seems to fit so seamlessly AND solve so many issues both offensively and defensively.

As for the pitching, I’m less worried about the bullpen than the rotation. There’s a ton of young arms to choose from there, and that’s not even accounting for Jordan Hicks returning at some point. The rotation is the worry. It’s not just that they have question marks. It’s that Wainwright was legitimately their best pitcher last year, and they sort of need him to do that again. Flaherty becoming an ace again would go a long way. But can you really count on Carlos Martínez?

Footer: Let’s conclude by predicting the division standings, 1-5. Go!

McCalvy: 1. Cardinals 2. Brewers 3. Cubs 4. Reds 5. Pirates

Feinsand: 1. Brewers 2. Cardinals 3. Cubs 4. Reds Distant 5. Pirates

Leitch: 1. Cardinals 2. Brewers 3. Cubs 4. Reds 5. Pirates

Sheldon: 1. Brewers 2. Cardinals 3. Reds 4. Cubs 5. Pirates

Bastian: I'll give the Cardinals the extremely slight edge, followed by the Brewers, Cubs, Reds and Pirates.

Feinsand: Sheldon with the Reds over the Cubs. Bold.

Footer: I think the Cubs are headed for fourth place, too.