Baseball Essential 2019 Preview Series: National League Central

The National League Central is a microcosm of what makes baseball awesome. Historic franchises, surprise contenders, lovable individual personalities, and excellence in pitching, hitting, and defense encapsulates the perfect baseball experience, and fans in the five NL Central cities have the opportunity to feel this in 2019. The competition level should be the highest in Major League Baseball’s six subclasses, with all five clubs getting measurably better over the offseason.

Here is our preview for the NL Central, complete with standings predictions, players to watch, lineup projections, and more.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

ST. LOUIS, MO – SEPTEMBER 22: Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated by Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals after hitting a two-run home run against the San Francisco Giants in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 22, 2018 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Maybe it is a tad ridiculous to assert that the Cardinals will win a stacked division despite 1) not having made the postseason since 2015 and 2) finishing 7.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the division crown in 2018. However, a slew of savvy offseason acquisitions and the progression of some quality young players might set St. Louis up for success in 2019. On paper, they have a solid argument as the most talented team in a division loaded with raw skill.

Players to Watch For: Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Andrew Miller

Goldschmidt is a perennial Most Valuable Player Award candidate and will provide the biggest boost to the lineup with his acquisition, which came via trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The right-handed slugger can hit for power, average, walk a lot, and impact the game with his baserunning speed; Carpenter had career highs in home runs (36) and OPS+ (143) last season, but shifts back to third base with the Goldschmidt attainment. The biggest question is whether he’ll have the same success at a different position, full-time; Miller had a dormant 2018 season, but comes to the Gateway City as a low-risk, potentially high-reward option out of the bullpen.

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Projected Lineup:

3B, Matt Carpenter (L)
1B, Paul Goldschmidt (R)
SS, Paul DeJong (R)
LF, Marcell Ozuna (R)
RF, Dexter Fowler (S)
C, Yadier Molina (R)
2B, Kolten Wong (L)
CF, Harrison Bader (R)
Pitcher

Projected Rotation:

RHP Miles Mikolas
RHP Jack Flaherty
RHP Dakota Hudson
RHP Michael Wacha
RHP Adam Wainwright

Notable Relievers:

RHP Jordan Hicks
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Alex Reyes
RHP Dominic Leone
RHP John Gant

2. Milwaukee Brewers

ST. LOUIS, MO – SEPTEMBER 25: Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates after hitting a three-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning at Busch Stadium on September 25, 2018 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

On September 1, 2018, the Brewers were third in the NL Central and five games back of the first-place Chicago Cubs before an emphatic late-season charge that saw them tie the Cubs on the final day of the regular season, beat their rivals in a Game-163 tiebreaker, and end up a game away from winning the NL pennant. On the back of league MVP Christian Yelich, the Brew Crew threw their names into the World Series hat for the present and near future and look to repeat that success in 2019.

Players to Watch For: Christian Yelich, Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal

Yelich is the reigning MVP and the spearhead of a high-powered Milwaukee offense, and if the Brewers can repeat as division champions, it will likely be because of the play of their star right fielder; Moustakas signed a low-cost extension after last season’s trade acquisition from the Royals and played exceptionally well down the stretch, but is tasked with learning to play second base, a spot at which he has no high-level experience, in 2019; Grandal is one of the game’s best and most complete catchers and signed a team-friendly one-year deal that shored up an otherwise weak spot in the Milwaukee clubhouse.

Projected Lineup:

CF, Lorenzo Cain (R)
RF, Christian Yelich (L)
LF, Ryan Braun (R)
3B, Travis Shaw (L)
1B, Jesus Aguilar (R)
C, Yasmani Grandal (C)
2B, Mike Moustakas (L)
SS, Orlando Arcia (R)

Projected Rotation:

RHP Jhoulys Chacin
RHP Freddy Peralta
RHP Brandon Woodruff
RHP Corbin Burnes
RHP Zach Davies

Notable Relievers:

LHP Josh Hader
LHP Alex Claudio
RHP Corey Knebel*
RHP Jeremy Jeffress*
RHP Junior Guerra
RHP Matt Albers

*injured to begin the 2019 season

3. Chicago Cubs

CHICAGO, IL – SEPTEMBER 28: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs Anthony Rizzo #44 and David Bote #13 celebrate their win against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 28, 2018 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs won 8-4. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

It’s a little weird to project the Cubs — a team that has averaged 97 wins per season since 2015 — as a non-playoff team. But their late-season collapse, coupled with the division’s increase in overall competition, can help convince you to see this way. They were inconsistent down the stretch of last season, got bounced in high-stakes games by two inexperienced teams (Milwaukee, Colorado Rockies), and didn’t have an offseason that was quite as good, on paper, as their NL Central rivals. On the flip side, whenever you have guys like 2018 MVP finalist Javier Baez, 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, and Silver Slugger Anthony Rizzo, as well as a pitching rotation full of stars, the postseason is always in reach, and it isn’t unlikely that Chicago makes another pennant push.

Players to Watch For: Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, David Bote

Bryant has exhibited a superstar-caliber ceiling with his raw hitting skill, power, baserunning, and defense, but has been struck with injuries over the past two seasons and has not since played at the MVP-level Cubs fans had become accustomed to in 2016; Darvish looks to come back with a vengeance after struggling — before going down with a right-arm injury — in his first season with the Cubs in 2018; Bote was an energetic and easily-lovable presence in the Cubs lineup last season after being recalled from Triple-A Iowa and looks to keep that swagger going in 2019 as a superutility player.

Projected Lineup:

2B, Ben Zobrist (S)
3B, Kris Bryant (R)
1B, Anthony Rizzo (L)
SS, Javier Baez (R)
LF, Kyle Schwarber (L)
C, Willson Contreras (R)
RF, Jason Heyward (L)
CF, Albert Almora Jr. (R)
Pitcher

Projected Rotation:

LHP Jon Lester
RHP Yu Darvish
LHP Cole Hamels
RHP Kyle Hendricks
LHP Jose Quintana

Notable Relievers:

RHP Brandon Morrow*
RHP Pedro Strop
RHP Carl Edwards Jr.
RHP Steve Cishek
RHP Brandon Kintzler

4. Cincinnati Reds

PEORIA, AZ – FEBRUARY 25: Yasiel Puig #66 of the Cincinnati Reds bats during a spring training game against the Seattle Mariners at Peoria Stadium on February 25, 2019 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)

The story out of the Reds over the last few seasons has been… well, next to nothing. That’s why regardless of how they perform on the diamond this season, it’s a good sign for fans in southwest Ohio that the team is taking a step in the right direction by showing a willingness to take on talent; they did so in trading for Yasiel Puig, Tanner Roark, Sonny Gray, and Matt Kemp this offseason, shoving their skill in a group with established Reds like Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez. They could finish at .500 with their current roster assembly, but again, the biggest part of their 2019 campaign is the simple notion of trying again.

Players to Watch For: Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, Joey Votto

Puig should be an instant star in terms of entertainment value and energy at Great American Ball Park, but more than just a personality, Puig could instantly be one of their most productive offensive players if he finds his groove; Gray had a miserable tenure with the Yankees, and fans in the Bronx couldn’t wait to say goodbye. Now the Reds inherit the former All-Star and look to bring him back from the dead and help him reemerge as one of the best pitchers in the sport; Votto had a down year, but retained his ability to work the count to his advantage in 2018. We must see if his power returns in 2019.

Projected Lineup:

SS, Jose Peraza (R)
RF, Yasiel Puig (R)
1B, Joey Votto (L)
3B, Eugenio Suarez (R)
2B, Scooter Gennett (L)
LF, Scott Schebler (L)
CF, Nick Senzel (R)
C, Tucker Barnhart (S)

Projected Rotation:

RHP Luis Castillo
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Sonny Gray
RHP Tanner Roark
LHP Alex Wood

Notable Relievers:

RHP Raisel Iglesias
RHP  Michael Lorenzen
RHP  Jared Hughes
LHP  Amir Garrett
LHP  Wandy Peralta

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

DETROIT, MI – AUGUST 10: Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hi-fives teammate Sean Rodriguez #3 in the dugout after hitting a two run home run in the third inning against the Detroit Tigers during a MLB game at Comerica Park on August 10, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

The Pirates are in the same boat as the Reds: for quite some time, they were horrible, then, behind an MVP season (in this case, from Andrew McCutchen) shot back up to the top. And then, of course, because baseball is a cyclical hellscape, fell down again. But like their friends from Cincinnati, the Pirates are trying again, and that is something that hasn’t been seen in the Pittsburgh baseball scene in quite some time. With the acquisition of Chris Archer at last season’s trade deadline, which reinforced one of baseball’s brightest rotations, the Pirates showed their willingness to at least try to contend for now.

Players to Watch For: Chris Archer, Jung Ho Kang, Jameson Taillon

Archer is a star right-hander with some troublesome seasons as the Tampa Bay Rays ace behind him, and he has already embraced the culture and fan impact of the city with the joy and fun he has been known for his entire career, making him a fan-favorite in a new town; Kang has returned to the Pirates after being denied a work visa in 2017 due to a DUI conviction in South Korea, and how a genuinely talented player sorts things out with himself both physically and mentally will be interesting to watch; Taillon looks to follow-up his impressive 2018 season, a comeback from a testicular cancer diagnosis, and live up to the hype from when he went second overall in the 2010 MLB Draft.

Projected Lineup:

2B, Adam Frazier (L)
CF, Starling Marte (R)
LF, Corey Dickerson (L)
C, Francisco Cervelli (R)
3B, Colin Moran (L)
1B, Josh Bell (S)
RF, Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
SS, Erik Gonzalez (R)

Projected Rotation:

RHP, Jameson Taillon
RHP, Chris Archer
RHP, Trevor Williams
RHP, Joe Musgrove
RHP, Jordan Lyles

Notable Relievers:

LHP, Felipe Vazquez
RHP  Keone Kela
RHP  Kyle Crick
RHP  Michael Feliz
RHP  Nick Kingham

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