The Cardinals already visited the Brewers at Miller Park and now it’s the Cubs’ turn beginning Friday, when the teams tangle for the first time (Spring Training doesn’t count) since last year’s National League Central tiebreaker. At the same time, the Reds will be in Pittsburgh with each team seeking its first winning streak.
Is it a good thing to gather intelligence about division foes right from the start?
“I always pay more attention to the division games, news-wise, across the league. You do pay more attention to your division,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “When you’re playing a team that much, there is more information to gather.
“But I don’t know, we play these teams a lot. In one sense, you already have a lot of information built up," Counsell said. "Like, we’re going to play the Angels in Anaheim next week, and there’s more homework to be done. We don’t see them. We’re unfamiliar with their players. So, I don’t know if I have a great answer on that. You just know these division teams so much better.”
Here’s what we know -- and don’t know -- about the NL Central teams one week into the regular season.
One thing we’ve learned so far: The Brewers can win the one-run game. Milwaukee is off to a 6-1 start thanks to a 5-0 record in one-run games, including four in a row. Counsell expects more from an offense that scored nine total runs in a just-completed three-game sweep of the Reds, especially with Lorenzo Cain (.414 on-base percentage) and Christian Yelich (four home runs, 1.531 OPS) off to big starts.
“If there’s anything I would take away from our close games it’s that the bullpen has done a fabulous job of pitching in tough spots,” said Counsell.
One thing we still don’t know: Can that depleted bullpen, led by dominant left-hander Josh Hader, hold up? So far, so good for a relief corps missing Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder weakness) at the moment and without Corey Knebel (Tommy John surgery on Wednesday) all season. Those injuries pushed Hader into more of a traditional closer role, even though the Brewers prefer using him for multi-inning appearances with multiple days of rest. After Hader pitched a second straight day, and for the fourth time in six days, he needed a break. Veteran right-hander Alex Wilson saved Wednesday’s 1-0 win in Cincinnati.
One number: Forty-seven. That’s how many consecutive fastballs Hader fired at hitters to start 2019 before throwing his first offspeed pitch, a changeup. He has struck out 10 of the first 17 batters he’s faced.
One thing we’ve learned so far: Paul Goldschmidt will fit right in. With four home runs and eight RBIs through the team’s first five games, Goldschmidt has been exactly the impact bat the Cardinals acquired him to be. The first baseman has settled in as the team’s two-hole hitter, and subsequently teamed up with Matt Carpenter to be a headache for starting pitchers in the first inning. There’s also early evidence to corroborate the expectation that Goldschmidt would improve the Cardinals’ infield defense.
One thing we still don’t know: How good will the outfield be? Questions about Dexter Fowler’s offensive ceiling persist, though the Cardinals are encouraged by the number of walks the right fielder has drawn in the first week. Of equal concern, though, has to be Marcell Ozuna. The left fielder still looks compromised defensively, and the early returns at the plate have not been encouraging. Ozuna, as the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter, opened the year with strikeouts in each of his first six at-bats with a runner in scoring position.
One number: Sixty-four. That’s how many times the Cardinals’ offense had struck out through the club’s first five games. Not only was that tops in the National League through Tuesday, but it also included double-digit strikeout totals in every game. For a club boasting a contact-oriented philosophy under a new hitting coach, it’s not exactly the start the offense would have liked.
One thing we’ve learned so far: Out of the gates, the Cubs' lineup has looked vastly improved over the final two months of last season, when the offense cratered. Kris Bryant looks healthy, Kyle Schwarber's revised stance has paid dividends (in the spring and in the early games) and Chicago has been taking an opposite-field approach, when appropriate. All the things manager Joe Maddon preached in Spring Training have shown up in the first handful of games. Sustaining that will be critical for the club, given its long list of pitching question marks.
One thing we still don’t know: The Cubs are still sorting out who can be trusted in the middle innings between the starter's exit and Pedro Strop's entrance. The early results have varied widely, which is to be expected in the most volatile aspect of any roster. Still, the Cubs' relief corps came in as a potential trouble area and Maddon will use the next few weeks to sort out which approach is best for handling his arms.
One number: 91.7 mph. That was the average four-seam fastball velocity for all Cubs pitchers combined through the first four games, and it ranks 29th in MLB.
One thing we’ve learned so far: The starting pitching could be as good as advertised. Jameson Taillon pitched better than his final line on Opening Day, Trevor Williams picked up right where he left off in the second half of 2018, and Chris Archer showed dominant stuff for five innings in his season debut. The rotation is the backbone of this team, so it’s critical that they carry the load.
One thing we still don’t know: Can they hit enough? While the rest of baseball is launching homers all over the place, the Pirates managed to go deep only twice, while hitting four doubles in their first three games of the season. Josh Bell’s bat has been quiet, and Jung Ho Kang homered Wednesday against the Cardinals, but hasn’t yet displayed the power that helped him win the third-base job this spring.
One number: Two. The Pirates committed two costly errors -- not to mention a run-scoring passed ball and a handful of other misplays -- in their 6-5 loss to the Cardinals in Monday’s home opener. Their infield defense was an issue throughout last season, and it needs to be better this year to provide their pitchers with the support they need.
One thing we’ve learned so far: First-time big league manager David Bell isn’t afraid to try different things. Bell has already used reliever Michael Lorenzen as a center fielder later in a game. He’s done multiple defensive shifts, including a set-up of four outfielders against the Brewers' Yasmani Grandal. Bell has also been quick to use his bullpen and often works the matchups.
One thing we still don’t know: Will the new pitchers help the rotation? Sonny Gray had a poor debut with 2 2/3 innings vs. the Pirates, and Tanner Roark also had a rough first inning to his start before hanging in there for 96 pitches over 4 1/3 innings. Lefty Alex Wood opened the season on the injured list (sore lower back) and his timetable to return is murky. Cincinnati hinged its hopes of competing in the division to these three pitchers.
One number: Zero. It was the number of rookies on the Reds’ Opening Day roster, the first time that’s happened since 2013. This season, Cincinnati has the 19th-youngest roster in MLB after being second-youngest in 2018 and the youngest in 2017 during its rebuilding phase.