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20 questions that will define the NL Central

February 14, 2019

Previews so far • American League WestIt was only five years ago that the Cardinals won the National League Central with just 90 wins. Heck, it was only 12 years ago that the Cubs won it with 85, and 13 years ago that the Cards won it with 83. Point

Previews so far
American League West
It was only five years ago that the Cardinals won the National League Central with just 90 wins. Heck, it was only 12 years ago that the Cubs won it with 85, and 13 years ago that the Cards won it with 83. Point is: There have been times in recent baseball history that the NL Central was not exactly the toughest gauntlet in the sport.
But in 2019, it looks like the scariest division in baseball. You have a team that just won the World Series three years ago and whose young talent is peaking right now. You have a team that traded for an ace starter last July and is coming off its first winning season since 2015. You have a last-place team that appears to be all-in for 2019, trading for multiple All-Stars to add to a lineup that was already strong. And you have a proud 11-time World Series champion who has missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and responded by trading for perhaps the greatest first baseman in the sport.
And none of that even includes the team that actually won the division last season.
Thus, our weekly series previewing each of baseball's six divisions continues this week with the NL Central. Like last week, our previews will be extended games of 20 Questions, in which we look at four pressing questions for each team heading into the 2019 season, and at the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings, predictions that are unassailable and so obviously iron-clad correct that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once you read them.
Chicago Cubs
1. So is this really it?
The Cubs were one of the more disappointing teams in baseball last year, at least down the stretch, when the supposed dynasty split apart at the seams, relinquishing the NL Central to the Brewers in a tiebreaker game and then losing a heartbreaker of an NL Wild Card Game to the Rockies. The Cubs, after their historic breakthrough of 2016, have taken a step back each season, and now their competition in the NL Central is tougher than ever. So how did they respond? They added Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach and ... that's it. They claim to be holding the budget tight because of all the raises due to their young players over the next few years, but while the rest of the division is ramping up, the Cubs are sitting idle.
2. Is Maddon being set up to be a scapegoat?
Joe Maddon's place in Cubs history, in baseball history, is secure: He was the manager when the Cubs -- the Cubs! -- won the World Series, after all. But all has not been well between this front office and Maddon in a while, made even more apparent by the dismissal of hitting coach Chili Davis and a refusal to extend Maddon's contract beyond this year, his last on the deal. Maddon is one of the three highest-paid managers in the game, but front offices don't like to pay up for managers anymore; the trend is going in the opposite direction. If the Cubs get off to a slow start, look out.

3. How's Yu?
The first year of Yu Darvish's six-year, $126 million contract couldn't possibly have been more of a disaster. He was hurt most of the year, he was ineffective when he did pitch and he took criticism for the management of his injuries and how much he traveled with the team. Darvish at least says he's healthy.

Whether Darvish is healthy and available or not could be the difference between the Cubs winning this tough division or finishing third or fourth. Even an average season from Darvish would be a vast improvement on last year. But the Cubs are paying for a lot more than average.
4. Is this a pivot season?
The Cubs bottomed out for several years in order to build a perpetual contender, and they were rewarded with four consecutive playoff appearances and, oh yeah, a World Series title. But the clock is starting to tick a lot louder these days. Expensive contracts for Jason Heyward and Darvish, along with trades that have taken away from the farm system, have limited the Cubs' flexibility, and their stars are about to get more expensive in arbitration. If they take another step backward this season, then what? Will it be time to move on from the Maddon Era altogether? This has become a vital question much more quickly than anyone could have anticipated.
Cincinnati Reds
5. So how all-in is all-in?
The Reds have done what any fan of their team should want their team to do in an offseason. They haven't been complacent or idle. They've been aggressive, adding Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Tanner Roark, Sonny Gray and Alex Wood, five veterans who provide instant credibility to a team that had a fantastic lineup and a not-so-fantastic pitching staff last year. It might be a risk to go all-in in a division as strong as this one, but it's impossible not to admire the chutzpah. But how far is Cincinnati willing to go with this? If the Reds are, say, three games out of the Wild Card race at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, will they give away anything that really hurts in order to contend? Or is the goal just to be relevant?

6. Is Puig your friend?
Puig, for some justifiable reasons and some less-justifiable reasons, has been one of the flashpoint players in the sport since he arrived in 2013. He is insistent on still being himself in Cincinnati, but Cincinnati sometimes has a history of having less patience for players of Puig's, shall we say, flair. Great American Ball Park seems perfectly constructed to mesh with Puig's game, and in a contract year, he has every incentive to have a massive season. But will he be a fan favorite, or a headache? Or, like so often happened in Los Angeles, both?
7. Who plays center field?
Letting Billy Hamilton go, off to Kansas City, made a certain amount of sense, particularly with the new even more pumped-up lineup. But it left the Reds without a center fielder. There are no good options on the current roster: The position is probably too much for Puig, Kemp, Jesse Winker or Scott Schebler. The answer appears to be, once they call him up, top prospect Nick Senzel, who has the agility to play the position but is, in fact, an infielder. Cincinnati's roster is beefed up this year, but somebody has to play center field. Who is it?
8. Can that rotation hold up?
The Reds' rotation has been such a nightmare for so long now that their last two Opening Day starters were Homer Bailey and Scott Feldman. They looked outside the organization this year, and at first glance, they seem to have at least four league-average starters to fill out the rotation (Wood, Gray, Roark and Luis Castillo). But rotations never freeze at your first glance. Some of these guys are going to get hurt and/or be ineffective, and if that happens, Cincinnati is back to the set of uninspiring/disappointing prospects that got it in the rotation mess in the first place.
Milwaukee Brewers
9. Was last year entirely real?
The Brewers were downright terrifying down the stretch last season, a tear that brought them within one game of the World Series. They have doubled down on that team, essentially bringing back the same roster, with a couple of key additions, to go after it again. But as great as Christian Yelich was last year, he was a monster in September, enough to win him a well-deserved NL MVP Award. Can he keep that up for a full season? Are we sure Jesús Aguilar can do that again? Can Ryan Braun hold up? And can they rely on that terrific bullpen for six months?
10. Seriously, can that bullpen hold up?
It was a wonder anyone scored on Milwaukee past the sixth inning last September and October. Josh Hader is basically the epitome of how bullpen usage has changed, Corey Knebel is a reliable closer and Jeremy Jeffress, Matt Albers, Jacob Barnes and whoever else was hanging around out there shut down anyone even walking near a batter's box. But there is no area of a baseball team that's more variable than the bullpen. The bullpen was brilliant last year. Now it has to go do it again.

11. Do they still need that top-tier starter?
This was the No. 1 criticism of the Brewers for most of last year: Why don't they have an ace? They never did end up going out to get one, and all they did was miss the World Series by one game. Jhoulys Chacín did an excellent impression of an ace last year, but expecting him to do the same in 2019 is maybe asking too much. Manager Craig Counsell is going to have to remain flexible and innovative to make this work. And even that might not be enough.
12. Can Grandal be the difference?
Like last season, when they signed Lorenzo Cain and traded for Yelich in the span of a couple of days, the Brewers were smart and surgical in their offseason moves, bringing in Yasmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in the game, for a relatively reasonable one-year, $18.25 million deal. As we've established, Milwaukee might need to be a little bit better everywhere else to offset a potential step backward from its bullpen, and Grandal could be pivotal to that happening. The Brewers might have to bash themselves to wins this year; a big year from Grandal could be their best route.
Pittsburgh Pirates
13. Is Polanco OK?
It was Gregory Polanco (128 OPS+) who put up the highest OPS+ on the club last year, and, at 27, he should be ready to break through for his big star season. Unfortunately, he had shoulder surgery in the offseason to repair a torn left labrum. When he comes back could be the question of the Pirates' season. If he's not back until late May, as was initially feared, this could get bad, fast. But if he's back by mid-April, like he's hoping, that changes things.
14. Is the rotation what they think it is?
The argument against the Pirates' Deadline trade for Chris Archer last year was that they weren't nearly as close to contention as they were pretending, and that going all-in for a starter in his 30s was asking for trouble. Archer ended up hurt much of last year, but he says he's healthy now. If he is healthy and he can be the Archer the Bucs hoped they were getting, the Pirates have the best top four of a rotation in the division with Archer, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams, who was for a while the best pitcher in baseball last year.

15. Were their last moves enough?
Theoretically, a team like the Pirates should be eager to get in on the market: They were an above-.500 team last year with some young talent maturing and coming off a trade-the-future-for-now Deadline deal. But they waited an awfully long time to make any additions, and the ones they did were just sort of sprucing up around the margins, a Lonnie Chisenhall here, a Melky Cabrera there.
16. Is that really who they're playing at shortstop?
Jordy Mercer had been here so long that it's going to take us until at least June to get used to him playing in Detroit now. His replacement appears to be -- squints -- Erik González, Francisco Lindor's backup in Cleveland last year. Fans will be eagerly monitoring the performance of prospect Kevin Newman at Triple-A -- the Bucs' first-round Draft pick in 2015 -- as he could be the starter sooner rather than later.
St. Louis Cardinals
17. Is Ozuna healthy?
Marcell Ozuna just wasn't himself last season, thanks to a right shoulder injury that plagued him all year, a shoulder he finally had surgery on when the season was over. Suffice it to say, the Cardinals need Ozuna, a free agent to be, to return to 2017 Marlins Ozuna rather than 2018 Cardinals Ozuna. He's going to be batting behind Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, so there will be a surplus of opportunities for him, and he showed signs of life in the second half.
18. How do they fit everyone into a rotation?
The Cardinals arguably have 10 possible starting pitchers: Carlos Martínez, Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber and Alex Reyes. (And that's after they traded Luke Weaver.) Martinez, Wacha, Mikolas and Flaherty seem like locks, and Wainwright will be given every opportunity in the spring to win the job, but if he doesn't, the Cards almost have too many options. The wild card, as always, is Reyes, the otherworldly talent who only threw four innings last year. Whatever pitchers don't stick in the rotation immediately turn into valuable bullpen pieces ... or even trade ones.

19. Can Dexter be Dexter again?
Dexter Fowler had a nightmarish 2018 across the board, and at many moments you wondered if he had anything left at all. But the Cardinals, partly because of his contract and partly because of an improved relationship with manager Mike Shildt (as opposed to former skipper Mike Matheny), passed on opportunities to upgrade right field to give Fowler another chance. The Cards have other options than Fowler, from Tyler O'Neill to the still-here José Martínez, but everything they are trying to do works better if Fowler can be the player the Cardinals thought they were getting.
20. Can they end the streak?
You'll forgive Mariners fans for withholding their sympathies, but if the Cardinals miss the playoffs this year, it'll be the first time since 1995 that they've been outside the postseason for four consecutive seasons. They've brought in Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller to supplement a talented, deep roster, and they're trying to appease a fan base that has grown restless as the Cubs and now the Brewers appear to have passed them. The Cardinals say their whole focus is on getting back to October this year. If it doesn't happen, there could be even more radical changes in St. Louis than we saw last year.

Predicted standings
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 96-66

  1. Chicago Cubs: 94-68
  2. Milwaukee Brewers: 83-79
  3. Cincinnati Reds: 78-84
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 72-90

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.