NL Central: What's real and what's not? 

April 25th, 2019

We all figured the NL Central would be one of baseball’s most entertaining divisions, and thus far it has delivered. That doesn’t mean that every development in this young season was easy to see coming.

So is taking a look at some of those early-season trends, and trying to determine which ones are real, and which will be forgotten long before we get to September.

What’s real: Cracks in the bullpen. There’s still a lot of ability here, but it’s fair to worry. Corey Knebel is gone for the season, and he will be missed. Jeremy Jeffress was outstanding last year, but it’s not a given he’ll repeat that, given his inconsistent track record. Josh Hader is still Josh Hader, but the Brewers’ bullpen has gone from “dead-solid lock” to “certainly should be plenty good, but …”

What’s not: The “struggling” offense. There are just too many good hitters here. They’re going to hit. Lorenzo Cain will get hot. Travis Shaw will produce. Even if Ryan Braun isn’t an MVP anymore, he’s better than this. Jesus Aguilar will hit. Mike Moustakas will be back in the lineup soon. There’s too much depth and talent here for this team not to hit. They’ll be fine.

What’s real: The return of Marcell Ozuna. He’s flat out crushing the ball, and that’s great news. He’s barreling the ball at an elite rate, and metrics across the board indicate that this power surge is for real. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before. A healthy Ozuna is one of the most dangerous power hitters in the game. It appears that’s what the Cards have this year.

What’s not: The rotation’s struggles. Could the Cardinals use a proven, durable, front-of-rotation type? Sure. You know who else could? About 27 teams. But Miles Mikolas and especially Jack Flaherty will be better than this. Michael Wacha should be back soon, and he’s better than what he’s shown recently. Plus the Cards have internal alternatives.

What’s real: Jose Quintana’s resurgence. The lefty is doing it slightly differently than he used to, but it’s legit. He currently has career-high strikeout and ground-ball rates, and that’s as good a combination as it gets for a pitcher. He still walks a few more batters than he did at his peak, but between missing bats and getting worm-burners, he looks like a legit front-of-rotation starter again.

What’s not: Anthony Rizzo’s struggles. If you’re worried about Kris Bryant, that might be reasonable. But it’s harder to get too worked up about Rizzo. He’s controlling the strike zone and hitting for power, he’s just not getting any bounces. Rizzo’s BABIP is .200 through Tuesday -- acknowledging that BABIP is flukier for pitchers than for hitters, that’s still very likely to rise.

What’s real: Josh Bell’s breakout. Bell has always had an advanced command of the strike zone, and he’s always looked like a guy who ought to hit for power. He showed signs of this down the stretch last year with a huge September. He’s followed it up with an excellent start with strong underlying numbers. His average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are both near the top of the league, and he’s barreling the ball more than ever.

What’s not: The bullpen woes. While granting that relievers are the flightiest of all baseball players when it comes to performance, these guys are just too good to scuffle all year. Keone Kela is throwing the ball better than his results. Kyle Crick has had one bad outing. They’ll miss Nick Burdi if he’s out for a long time, but this is a strong unit. It’s too early to worry.

What’s real: The front of the rotation. No, Luis Castillo isn’t going to post a 1.47 ERA all year, but he’s building on his strong finish from 2018. His stuff is big-time. Sonny Gray is doing an excellent job limiting hard contact, while also enjoying a surge in K rate. It’s a strong one-two that should set the Reds up to rebound some as the year goes on.

What’s not: The lack of power. It’s no guarantee the Reds will have a superlative offense -- they have a few positions where OBP may be a real issue -- but they’re going to hit for power. Cincinnati’s .381 team slugging percentage is almost inconceivable, and it will climb. Yasiel Puig will hit for power. Scott Schebler won’t slug below .300 all year. And before too long, they’ll have Nick Senzel and Scooter Gennett. The big hits will come.