The National League Central is open for business.
The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers have each taken a turn atop the division over the last three seasons and now the Reds are hot on everybody's heels.
Right now, there is no clear favorite for the 2020 division crown, even with the Cardinals advancing all the way to the NLCS this fall and the Brewers making the playoffs for a second straight season. There's a realistic scenario where the Reds might emerge as the team with the best roster entering spring training as they're likely to go all-in on 2020 following the big Trevor Bauer trade last summer (Bauer is a free agent after this season).
There's also a scenario where the Cubs could continue their freefall and finish in fourth place in 2020 (and, in fact, PECOTA may even project that) given the rise of the Reds in the division.
The Pirates are an absolute mess right now and will have a new manager and GM next season while potentially unloading pieces like Starling Marte in trades this winter. Oh yeah and their ace, Jameson Taillon, is recovering from a second Tommy John surgery while their All-Star closer, Felipe Vazquez, is currently in jail and his career is likely over.
It's easy enough to forecast the Pirates for last place in the NL Central next season and wave them off as being nonfactors this winter (unless they trade Marte to somebody else within the division).
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have come out and said they don't anticipate a major bump in payroll this winter, so what you see on their roster might be what you get apart from any minor moves at the outskirts or trades that free up salary. They seem to be in a similar spot the Cubs were in last winter.
Yes, this is a Cardinals roster that made it just a few games shy of the World Series last year, but they're losing their cleanup hitter (Marcell Ozuna), 40 percent of their rotation (Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright) and backup catcher (Matt Wieters) to free agency.
Beyond that, they face major question marks on the roster from aging veteran — Yadier Molina will be 38 in July, Andrew Miller will be 35 in May and Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Paul Goldschmidt are now officially entering their mid-30s. Plus, there's the injury issues (Carlos Martinez has pitched only 167 innings the last two seasons due to shoulder issues and young flamethrower Jordan Hicks will miss the 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery) and concerning performances from core players (Goldschmidt and Carpenter are coming off the worst seasons of their respective careers).
This will still be a good team, thanks to the emergence of Jack Flaherty as a legit Cy Young contender and the arrival of some young players who played a big role in 2019 (infielder/outfielder Tommy Edman and pitchers Dakota Hudson, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley), but they have clear holes on the roster and apparently won't be spending much money to address the issues.
The Brewers won't have the advantage of exploiting the 40-man roster in September with extreme bullpenning anymore, but they will have the opportunity for an extra arm all year long now with the addition of the 26th man on the roster.
They're in a very curious spot this winter, as they are losing a host of impact and role players from the 2019 squad that lost to the Nationals in the NL Wild-Card Game:
C Yasmani Grandal
INF Mike Moustakas
1B/OF Eric Thames
LHP Drew Pomeranz
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Matt Albers
INF Cory Spangenberg
INF Hernan Perez
RHP Jordan Lyles
RHP Jay Jackson
Some of those free agents may wind up back in Milwaukee, but that's a big group of players currently creating a lot of holes on the roster. They also already traded away pitcher Chase Anderson to the Toronto Blue Jays for salary relief. Meanwhile, Ryan Braun is about to turn 36 and Lorenzo Cain will be 34 in April and both players struggled to stay healthy and provide a consistent impact in 2019.
The same pitching questions linger around this Brewers team and now they'll also have to pay Josh Hader more than a pre-arbitration rate (he's slated for an estimated $4.6 million in 2020), which greatly impacts the resources available for the rest of the staff.
Christian Yelich is still incredible, Brandon Woodruff looks like a legit ace and Cain is one of the best defenders in the game when healthy. Young guys like Keston Hiura and Trent Grisham look to be ascending, but there are still so many question marks that it's hard to project the Brewers as a favorite for anything when they don't appear to be on the cusp of handing out big money in free agency.
The Reds are the most fascinating team in the division, and they return almost the exact team they had last year when they went 11-8 against the Cubs (including taking two out of three on the final homestand of the season).
Cincinnati's rotation — led by Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray — is probably the best in the division and might be the best starting staff in the NL. The bullpen still has Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Amir Garrett and the offense still boasts an under-the-radar superstar (Eugenio Suarez), the ghost of Joey Votto and a group of intriguing young players who could emerge as budding stars this season (Aristedes Aquino, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Josh VanMeter, Phillip Ervin).
If they can add another big hitter and see some ascension from the young guys, the Reds honestly could become the favorite for the division. As it stands right now with the offseason beginning in earnest, they're right up there in terms of talent on paper.
So where do the Cubs fit in?
The Cubs are going to be hamstrung by the budget once again this winter, they have a new manager/coaching staff and some major pitching concerns, but they also still have a solid core of position players and plenty of talent on paper.
Theo Epstein's front office will probably have to cut some salary on the payroll and there will certainly be more change to the roster than we saw last offseason, but the Cubs have a prime opportunity to take advantage in a division with no clear powerhouse. Given the financial limitations of the other three contending teams, that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon, either, so the NL Central will very much be winnable next season from the Cubs' perspective.
So even if the Cubs don't go all-in on maximizing their roster this winter and make a run at Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon, this is still a team with enough talent to challenge for its first division title since 2017.
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