16 Oct National League Central
Rather than risk disappointment in 2019, the Milwaukee Brewers kept the pedal into the proverbial metal following a 96-win 2018 campaign.
They left a huge update at catcher by signing Yasmani Grandal. They also reinserted Mike Moustakas into their infield. Together with reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar, the lineup is one of the league’s best.
If there’s a red flag in Milwaukee, it worries the club’s lack of a No. 1 starter. That wasn’t an issue in 2018, however, and the Brewers have the starting pitching overwhelming and depth bullpen for the exact same in 2019.
Like the NL East, the National League Central is deeper than it was a year ago. Yet, these Brewers have 95-win upside that could net them either a division crown or even a wild-card spot.
Playoff chances: 70 percent
The Chicago Cubs are estimated to finish last in the NL Central by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system, and they are not happy about it.
To be honest, they did win 95 games this past year. And they are going into 2019 with a healthy Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez at the center of a lineup that is oozing with upside down. A beginning five Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish has loads of upside down in its own right.
But at least till Brandon Morrow is retrieved from knee operation, the bullpen is an obvious weakness. And while the offense has explosive potential, it’ll be realized only if Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Ian Happ create the strides that were expected of them in 2018.
Though the Cubs almost certainly won’t be the worst team in the NL Central this season, their playoff odds nonetheless look as a toss-up.
Playoff opportunities: 50 percent
St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals responded appropriately to missing out on the 2018 postseason with 88 wins.
Their big move was to include MVP-caliber slugger Paul Goldschmidt to a lineup which was good enough to score 4.7 runs per game without him. They also outfitted a leaky bullpen using Andrew Miller.
It is nevertheless fair to be worried about the sheer volatility within the pitching staff. Neither Miller nor Luke Gregerson was healthy last year, and Jordan Hicks’ results were less impressive than his stuff. In the meantime, Carlos Martinez has run afoul of the injury insect.
If the pitching staff holds together better than expected, the NL Central crown will be within the Cards’ reach. Otherwise, it is going to be a struggle.
Playoff opportunities: 40 percent
In the event the Pittsburgh Pirates are likely to improve on last year’s up-and-down street to 82 wins, it’ll be because of their pitching.
Somewhat quietly, Pirates hurlers set a 3.52 ERA in the second half of 2018. Almost all the key contributors–specifically Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Felipe Vazquez and Richard Rodriguez–are back to maintain runs in a premium in 2019.
It’s too bad the front office did virtually nothing to improve a weak offense. It’ll be around the incumbents–especially Starling Marte, Josh Bell, Corey Dickerson and, even when healthy, Gregory Polanco–to drive an improvement on that, and they may not have the capacity to make it happen.
With any surprises, the Pirates will be hard-pressed to crack the top three of the NL Central.
Playoff opportunities: 10 percent
Despite losing 95 matches in 2018, the Cincinnati Reds took the novel approach of attempting to construct a winner at the offseason.
Hence a batch of new stars headlined by Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood. They figure to improve the offense that relied too heavily on Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett in addition to a rotation with an NL-worst 5.28 ERA because 2017.
However, Cincinnati’s new improvements arguably have more name worth than star power. The pitchers are specifically trouble, as they must contend with Great American Ball Park and a feeble defense.
The Reds are certainly much better than they were a year before, but they are in basically the exact same boat as the Pirates.
Playoff opportunities: 10 percent