5 eye-popping trends for the NL Central

April 29th, 2021

One of the best things about the game of baseball is that every season is full of surprises.

It’s the nature of 162 games. Some teams get hot, and some get cold. Some players outperform expectations, while others don’t live up to the hype.

In the first month of the season, things can tend to be magnified. The grind of the season has only begun to set in, yet questions are already being raised and statements are already being made. So what has been a surprise for each team in the National League Central so far this season? Here's what our beat reporters have to say.

Brewers: has more home runs than

Houser, the pitcher, was 2-for-28 with 21 strikeouts lifetime before he got into a fastball in Tuesday’s 5-4 win over the Marlins and became the 27th Brewers pitcher to hit at least one home run. That put him ahead of Yelich, who has been stuck on the 10-day injured list since April 14 and hasn’t played since April 11 because of nagging stiffness in his lower back.

An MRI scan last weekend ruled out structural damage, so Yelich resumed hitting in the cage on Tuesday and will try to get back on the field as soon as possible. He was swinging the bat well before he went down, with 10 hits in his first 30 at-bats -- though only one of those hits was for extra bases, a double -- and a .459 on-base percentage.

Credit fill-ins Billy McKinney and Tyrone Taylor for giving the Brewers some outfield production while Yelich and Lorenzo Cain have been on the IL. -- Adam McCalvy

Cardinals: Struggles from and

The outset of the season made it seem as though Goldschmidt and Arenado could do no wrong. The MVP-caliber tandem hitting in succession at Nos. 2 and 3 in the lineup -- “a [first-inning] punch in the face,” their manager said -- got off to blazing starts, each keying victories in the first week and then homering on the same day for the first time on April 13. It’s been a cold spell for each since then, with Goldschmidt slashing .216/.259/.373 across his last 13 games entering play on Thursday, and Arenado at .196/.241/.333.

Small sample sizes abound, the Cardinals feature zero concern that the duo will pick it up, but they’ve made some adjustments with the hopes in maybe jolting a revival, which has already appeared to be fruitful. Dylan Carlson has been slotted in the No. 2 hole and is simply raking since then. With more ducks on the pond for the Cardinals’ heavy hitters moved towards the middle of the lineup, the club believes production will soon follow. The pedigree, at least, is not in doubt. -- Zachary Silver

Cubs: Leadoff issues have resurfaced

Chicago cycled through 17 players in the leadoff spot (in terms of starts) across the 2017-19 seasons, but they felt they found a solution in ’20. That is when enjoyed a breakout campaign, earning the everyday job in center and the regular table-setting role atop the order. Going into this year, there was no question that Happ would continue to be the Cubs’ No. 1 hitter.

Through his first 92 plate appearances entering play on Thursday, Happ was sporting a .135 average to go along with a .472 OPS. Recently, manager David Ross dropped the outfielder lower in the order and began experimenting with the more contact-based in the No. 1 spot. Through 23 games, the Cubs collective leadoff men were hitting .184/.330/.264. The subpar production has set an unfortunate tone for a Chicago offense that ranked last in MLB with a .203 team average entering Thursday. -- Jordan Bastian

Pirates: They’re hovering around .500

The Pirates lost their best player, , in the second game of the season. From that game, they lost six straight contests. And yet, as of April 28, they are sitting at 12-12.

What’s fueling the Bucs' relative success after they were picked to finish near dead last in the Majors? For one, they’ve had one of the most stellar bullpens in the early season. From April 13 into entering play on Thursday, their 'pen produced a 1.53 ERA, which was the best in the NL.

They’re getting decent starts from the majority of their starting pitchers, including (2.01 ERA) and (3.38). Despite sitting tied for the second-fewest homers in the Majors, Pittsburgh’s offense has been able to grind out at-bats to produce small-ball results and jump out to early leads. Plus, the club has committed only 13 errors in 24 games after recording 47 in 60 games last season -- the second-worst mark in MLB. -- Jake Crouse

Reds: struggling, especially vs. lefties

Garrett badly wanted to close games this season, but he has been struggling big time in high-leverage situations (and low-leverage ones, too). Garrett held lefty hitters to a 1-for-23 mark with 12 strikeouts in 2020. In '21, they are 5-for-11 (.455). His bread-and-butter pitch -- the slider -- has failed him so far. He’s already allowed four home runs this season, equaling his total from last season.

“I think now it’s just having a little bit of patience trying to figure out what spots to put him in to get him to get that confidence back and also to get the reps back too, so that he can get it right,” Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson said on Tuesday. “The good part is it’s early. We have 140 more of these things.” -- Mark Sheldon