The NL Central featured more parity in 2019 than any season of this current era of Cubs baseball. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers were locked in a three-way battle for the NL Central crown deep into September, while the up-and-coming Reds tallied their most wins (75) since 2014 (76).
On the heels of a disappointing, 84-win season, the Cubs have yet to make a significant splash this winter. Kris Bryant’s ongoing grievance case is a factor, as is the club’s proximity to the luxury tax threshold.
After missing the postseason in 2019 for the first time in five years, the Cubs are set to return largely the same roster in 2020. Bringing that group back has been misconstrued as the Cubs suddenly not having a talented team.
The NL Central is up for grabs and the Cubs will be a contender, though they realistically could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the standings. A look at the state of a competitive division:
The division is up for grabs, but the Pirates won’t be in contention for the crown. After holding a 44-45 record at the All-Star break last season, Pittsburgh entered a freefall in the second half, going 25-48 the rest of the way.
The collapse cost manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington their jobs with two years remaining on their contracts. Monday, the Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks. Ace starter Jameson Taillon underwent his second Tommy John surgery in August and could miss the 2020 season.
Closer Felipe Vazquez’s career is likely over, as he's in jail stemming from statutory sexual assault charges. He now faces counts of child pornography and unlawful sexual contact with a minor.
New manager Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington face an uphill climb towards relevancy. The Pirates have solid young pieces — first baseman Josh Bell, shortstop Kevin Newman, outfielder Bryan Reynolds — but won’t be a contender for the foreseeable future.
The Brewers are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in team history, but a chunk of the 2019 team won’t be back this season, including:
-Catcher Yasmani Grandal
-Infielder Mike Moustakas
-Infielder Hernan Perez
-Infielder Travis Shaw
-First baseman Eric Thames
-Outfielder Trent Grisham
-Starter Jordan Lyles
-Starter Zach Davies
-Starter Chase Anderson
-Starter Gio Gonzalez
-Reliever Drew Pomeranz
That’s a lot of production to replace, highlighted by Grandal and Moustakas — 2019 All-Stars. Grisham, a promising 23-year-old outfielder, was sent to the Padres with Davies for infielder Luis Urías, a former top prospect, and starter Eric Lauer.
Lauer, former Cub Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom — whose career was revitalized in Korea — are new starting options. Adrian Houser was better as a reliever (1.47 ERA, 30 2/3 innings) than starter (4.57 ERA, 18 starts) in 2019 but will get an opportunity at the latter in 2020.
There’s potential in that rotation, led by ace Brandon Woodruff, but the group will again be a major talking point. The Brewers have been successful in recent seasons relying on a cast of starters and their bullpen, especially closer Josh Hader. They will do so again in 2020.
Christian Yelich is an annual MVP candidate; Lorenzo Cain is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and is a bounce back candidate after being hampered by injuries last season. Ryan Braun is 36 but coming off his best season is several years. Second baseman Keston Hiura is an ascending force at the plate.
The Brewers’ must replace a ton of talent and hope their rotation moves pay off. They won’t be projected to win the division, but manager Craig Counsell has proven the past two seasons to never count his squad out.
The Reds are one of the most improved teams this winter and a candidate for champions of the offseason. Cincinnati has added four impactful free agents in Moustakas, starter Wade Miley, and outfielders Shogo Akiyama and former Cub Nicholas Castellanos, the latter officially joining the club on Monday
Miley sported a 3.98 ERA last season, though a rough September (16.68 ERA in five starts) hurt him. He joins what already figured to be one of the best rotations in baseball, featuring Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray.
The Reds’ have put the NL Central on notice but winning the offseason doesn’t guarantee success on the field. Longtime first baseman Joey Votto didn’t have a bad 2019 offensively (.261/.357/.411) but it was his worst as a big leaguer. Jose Iglesias isn’t known for his bat, but he and his phenomenal defense are now with the Orioles.
With Castellanos in the fold, the Reds have a conglomerate in the outfield. There isn’t enough playing time for Castellanos, Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winkler. The Reds are reportedly considering trading Senzel, a former top prospect entering his sophomore season.
Even with the odd outfield dynamic, the Reds are greatly improved from 2019, when they were a thorn in the Cubs’ side (11-8 against the North Siders). For the first time since 2013, the Reds are a true threat to win the NL Central.
Like the Cubs, money has been a factor in the Cardinals’ offseason. Owner Bill Dewitt Jr. said in November he didn’t anticipate a major bump in the team’s payroll.
The Cardinals added starter Kwang-Hyun Kim in December to fill out their rotation. Earlier this month, they dealt slugger Jose Martinez and young outfielder Randy Arozarena to the Rays for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, the No. 16 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
St. Louis reached the NLCS last season and they’ll return a similar squad in 2020. Cleanup man Marcell Ozuna recently signed with the Braves, creating a void in the heart of the Cardinals lineup.
Yadier Molina is one of the top catchers in the game, though he turns 38 in July. Setup man Andrew Miller turns 35 in May and sported a 4.45 ERA last season. Longtime starter Adam Wainwright is back to eat up innings but turns 39 in August. Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter had the worst seasons of their careers in 2019. Closer Jordan Hicks will miss at least a chunk of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.
Goldschmidt and Carpenter are good bets for some positive regression. Jack Flaherty is a 2020 Cy Young Award candidate, and Dakota Hudson is a solid No. 2. The bullpen features up-and-coming arms in Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. Youngsters Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman will take on larger roles.
The Cardinals are always a factor in the division and that won’t change in 2020. They just won’t be heavily favored and will face stiff competition to defend their title.
The Cubs are hoping David Ross replacing Joe Maddon as manager will change the dynamic of a team that hasn’t ascended to dynastic status after 2016. The group has question marks — jobs up for grabs include five in the bullpen, one in the rotation and the starting second base and center field roles.
The rotation is another year older and lost Cole Hamels, who signed with the Braves. Jon Lester surrendered a league-high 205 hits in 2019, sporting a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. However, he said at the end of last season he and the Cubs found some helpful adjustments and wished they found them sooner, though didn’t elaborate on what they found.
The Cubs are counting on Yu Darvish to continue where he left off last season and Kyle Hendricks to remain his consistent self. Jose Quintana is good for 30+ starts each year and had the third-highest WAR (3.5) among Cubs pitchers last season. He’s shown flashes of brilliance as a Cub while also struggling at times. The Cubs need more of the former in 2020 — the last of Quintana’s deal.
The pitching staff is a concern, but the position player core is chock full of talent. Like Darvish, the Cubs need Kyle Schwarber to carry over his torrid 2019 second half. Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. ascending offensively would go a long way.
If Bryant isn’t traded by Opening Day — a deal looks increasingly unlikely as the grievance case drags on — the Cubs will once again challenge for the division’s crown. That will require internal improvements, as the division is too strong for them to start off slow and fall behind their rivals.
It will be up to Ross to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which wasn’t the case in 2019.
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