Has the NL Central seceded?

There’s been a ton of activity this month in MLB free agency, with top players like George Springer (Blue Jays), DJ LeMahieu (Yankees) and Liam Hendriks (White Sox) signing. 

Michael Brantley, one of the best second-tier free agents, returned to Houston Wednesday on a two-year deal. 

Bounce-back candidates like Corey Kluber (Yankees) and Jose Quintana (Angels) found new teams.

Oh, and the Padres traded for another good pitcher, 28-year-old former Pirate Joe Musgrove.

So much of this offseason’s activity has involved the teams on the two coasts. It’s come at the expense of the NL Central, a division that has seen a mass exodus of productive players and looks like the clear worst division in baseball for 2021.

The Reds lost Trevor Bauer to free agency, Anthony DeSclafani to the Giants and traded closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels. Sonny Gray is on the trade block.

The Pirates are in stripdown mode, as they seemingly always are. A year ago this week, they sent Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks and have been selling ever since. Musgrove was traded to San Diego and Josh Bell to Washington this offseason. As recently as 2019, they were Pittsburgh’s three best players.

The Cubs traded Yu Darvish to San Diego, non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, let Quintana walk, were rumored to have catcher Willson Contreras on the block, and have lost several of their top relievers from 2020.

The Cardinals reportedly have one-year offers out to 38-year-old Yadier Molina and 39-year-old Adam Wainwright but it’s unclear whether either will return.

 

For the Brewers, Ryan Braun, Brett Anderson and Jedd Gyorko became free agents.

And beyond all those losses, these teams have added almost no one. The most expensive free-agent signing by an NL Central team so far this offseason has been the Brewers’ one-year, $900,000 deal for infielder Daniel Robertson.

There will be schedule imbalances within the National League. The NL East, for example, has four teams that would probably line up as the most talented in the NL Central. The Dodgers and Padres are also clearly superior, and the Giants could compete for that division.

If MLB’s 2021 postseason format again includes the top two teams from each division in addition to a wild-card, you could see an NL Central with 83 wins make it over an NL East team with 87 or so.

Those NL Central teams will face each other 19 times. So while the Phillies play six series against teams with Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Jacob deGrom, Francisco Lindor, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Trea Turner, the Cardinals get 57 games against teams in sell-mode.

Consider, too, the interleague schedule. The Phillies play 20 games against the American League, all AL East. They have four games apiece with the Yankees and Rays, a road series with the Blue Jays, six games with the Red Sox and three with the Orioles.

Compare that again to the Cardinals, who play 14 of their 20 interleague games against the Tigers, Royals and Indians. Talk about lopsided.

“I think you could argue (the NL East) is the toughest division in baseball,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said this week on MLB Network’s High Heat. “You have some of the young, great hitters in our league in Soto and Acuña Jr, you’ve got to deal with the MVP in Freddie Freeman, and again, we’re going to play the American League East. That doesn’t make it any easier.”

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