The National League Central is one of the most competitive divisions in baseball year in and year out. At the top, the projected division standings look much like they have the past couple of years; The Chicago Cubs are the favorites to win, just two seasons removed from a World Series, and, as always, the St. Louis Cardinals are a strong playoff contender.
However, there’s a new team on the scene in the Milwaukee Brewers. A team that was picked by many to finish last in the division in 2017 ended up taking second place in the Central and won 86 games. This offseason, the Brew Crew tried to make a splash by acquiring the likes of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, making them a public darling.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds will both be in the cellar of the league, battling amongst themselves for fourth and fifth. The top of the NL Central might be the best trio in baseball, but the bottom of the division bumps them down a notch.
On account of that, let’s get into this.
1. Chicago Cubs
This Chicago Cubs team looks very similar to the one that won 92 games in 2017. The two main offseason moves for the Cubs included swapping out Jake Arrieta for Yu Darvish and making the change at closer from Wade Davis to Brandon Morrow. Outside of these two free-agent moves, the Cubs stayed pretty calm. One of the best young cores in baseball will get another year to grow together and start a path towards another World Series run.
Players to Watch For: Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Chatwood
All three of these players will be essential to Chicago’s success in 2018, each in their own particular way. Happ’s versatility will allow him to man centerfield and keep the defensive wizard Javy Baez at second base. If Baez is to slip up, Happ has the ability to overtake him on the infield. Schwarber showed up this spring looking like a completely different person.
I think that the much slimmer Schwarber is due for the monster year that we thought he always might. Lastly, Tyler Chatwood was a very underrated pickup for this team. A solid pitcher coming from Colorado, Chatwood was pretty good in a difficult environment. If the 28-year-old can stay healthy, which he’s had problems doing in the past, then he could be a vital part of the starting rotation.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
After missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, the Cardinals knew they needed to make some moves. The pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton failed after he turned down a trade to St. Louis, but they were still able to grab his outfield counterpart Marcell Ozuna from Miami.
Adding Ozuna to the lineup, as well as bulking up the bullpen, may be just what this franchise needed to get over the playoff hump. If the birds can get repeat seasons from the likes of Tommy Pham, Paul DeJong, and Jose Martinez, this should be a pretty good offense. On the pitching side, the starting rotation is unproven but having Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, and eventually Alex Reyes should get Cardinal fans excited for the future.
Players to Watch For: Jack Flaherty, Jose Martinez, Dominic Leone
As just mentioned, Jack Flaherty is a name drawing a lot of buzz around town this season. Only making the rotation due to the injury to Adam Wainwright, it is unknown how long he will be in the rotation, but he has some definite staying power. While he struggled in his initial big-league stint last fall, Flaherty dominated the minors to the tune of a 14-4 record and a 2.18 ERA across 25 starts in AA and AAA. He did much of the same this spring, striking out 24 batters in his 15.2 innings pitched. Flaherty just may have the nastiest slider in baseball and there is a chance that, if he pitches well, Adam Wainwright could be bumped from the rotation.With the Cubs, Cardinals, and now the Brewers at the top of the NL Central, the division looks very heavy and very competitive entering 2018.Click To Tweet
Jose Martinez was a revelation for the Cardinals in 2017. Expected to be just a role player, Martinez ended up playing in 106 games while hitting .309 with 14 bombs. It is hard to tell whether that season will turn out to be an outlier or if Martinez is that good. Playing time may be difficult to come by if both Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko are playing, but if he finds a way to keep hitting, he’ll stay in the lineup.
Acquired from the Blue Jays in the Randal Grichuk deal, the buzz for Dominic Leone did not start until about a week ago. When Luke Gregerson, who was expected to be the closer, went on the disabled list to start the season, it was Leone who was tabbed as the new closer for the Cardinals. It will be interesting to see how he does, but in 2017 he had his best season yet, throwing 70.1 innings with a 2.56 ERA and 81 strikeouts. If Leone and the rest of the bullpen do what they’re capable of, this may be one of the best units in the majors.
*Signed RHP Greg Holland on Thursday
3. Milwaukee Brewers
As stated earlier, the Brewers might have “won the offseason”. Adding Cain and Yelich makes this lineup scary, however, it also caused the displacement of Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton, two formidable players in their own right. The Brewers should have used those extra outfield pieces this offseason to fix the pitching staff as that seems to be their main cause for concern right now. After throwing veterans Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo, and Jhoulys Chacin at the rotation, Chacin is the only one who stuck. While there are some decent young pieces, the Brewers lack a true front-end guy that they would need for the playoffs and until Jimmy Nelson returns from injury, Milwaukee’s staff will be hurting.
Players to Watch For: Jonathan Villar, Josh Hader, Zach Davies
Villar was an electric player for the Brew Crew just two years ago when he batted .285 with 19 homers and 62 stolen bases. He fell back down to Earth and struggled mightily in 2017, leaving some to wonder if he would have a job this year. I think that Villar is too talented to just fade away and I believe he will return to form at the top of this lineup in 2018.
Josh Hader is one of my favorite young pitchers to watch. Currently in the bullpen, the lefty reminds many of a young Chris Sale. It remains unknown whether or not he’ll be anywhere close to that good, but his 2.08 Era and 68 strikeouts in just 47.2 innings pitched is very promising.
No one is excited about Zach Davies, which is natural, but he may be the most important part of this Brewers rotation. Davies keeps improving every year and should be able to eat a ton of innings, as he threw 191.1 in 2017. Expect an ERA in the high threes, but Davies is a good pitcher that the Brewers will need in order to be competitive this season.
4. Cincinnati Reds
I struggled with the decision of Reds vs. Pirates here and ended up going with the Reds due to their exciting lineup. Jesse Winker getting some playing time in left field is something that Cincy fans have been waiting for since he first became one of their top prospects. There are the pieces in this lineup to be above average, but the pitching staff still lacks. The full return of Homer Bailey, as well as promising young prospects like Luis Castillo, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson might be enough to make this team not completely atrocious.
Players to Watch For: Scooter Gennett, Jesse Winker, Luis Castillo
Outside of his four homerun game last year, many didn’t pay attention to Scooter Gennett in 2017. Well maybe they should have. He had a career year, hitting .295 with 27 home runs and 97 RBIs. He’ll need to replicate it again in 2018, but the 28-year-old is finally coming into his own.
Jesse Winker has been one of the Reds’ most heralded prospects for as long as I can remember. In recent years the shine has worn off, but Winker is still a guy who should be able to hit for a high average and get on base. In his initial big-league stink last year, Winker hit .298 with a .375 OBP. Playing time may be somewhat difficult to come by if Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler are both playing well, but Winker could be a main component of this offense.
Lastly, Luis Castillo has people buzzing. The electric young righty came up last year and after getting a bit of a rough start, he pitched awesome down the stretch. The 25-year-old has great velocity and movement, as evidenced by his 98 strikeouts in 89.1 innings last season. If Castillo can take the next step in his development, the Reds rotation will at least have one set piece to rely on.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
After a run of sustained success, it looks as if the Pirates might finally be falling. While their ceiling could be about .500, its much more likely that they only win about 72 games. This offseason, Pittsburgh shipped away their long-time cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco and sent ace Gerrit Cole to Houston. There are still many competent players but I have my reservations about the pitching staff and most of the batting order outside of Marte. There’s a good chance that this team can finish above the Reds, but they have a realistic shot at a top ten pick.
Players to Watch For: Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Colin Moran
Jameson Taillon is one player that I’m excited about in Pittsburgh. The 26-year-old was pitching quite well last season before he had to leave the team due to cancer. Taillon went 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA in 133.2 IP, but the 3.48 FIP paints a much better picture of how reliable he was. He’s now back and completely healthy so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do in 2018.
Once he figures it out, Tyler Glasnow is going to be a stud. When will that be? Who knows, but this kid’s stuff is so good. Sitting at 6”8’, he uses every inch of his height to his advantage. Glasnow did not make the rotation after struggling with a 7.31 ERA this spring, however, he did have 25 strikeouts in just 16 innings. Glasnow undoubtedly has talent, it will just be a matter of reigning in the walks and home run issues for him to become a top of the line ace.
Acquired as a piece of the Gerrit Cole deal, Colin Moran is a former high-end prospect for the Astros that never panned out. The sixth overall pick in 2013 will the season in a possible platoon at third with David Freese, but may be able to play his way into more starts. Moran profiles as a .270-.290 hitter that will hit for moderate power. In reality, he’s similar to Freese but with more upside.