While other divisions might come with more intrigue and suspense, there is not a division that has as much talent as the National League Central. Last season, the division was decided on Game 163, and you can expect the race to be just as tight in 2019. It’s the only division in baseball where every team seeks to be competitive and put their names in contention for at least a Wild Card spot.
The Brewers are defending champs and are the frontrunners to win yet again. The Cubs have been quiet in the offseason, although their improvements will come internally as long as Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, and Brandon Morrow can stay healthy. The Cardinals have made big upgrades as well by acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and signing Andrew Miller to serve in his dynamic fireman role. Even the Reds who were in dire need of starting pitching made moves to acquire Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood. All of these pitchers have pitched at high levels before, and can carry the load for a staff that is young and inexperienced.
With that said, the club that is fascinating to predict are the Pittsburgh Pirates. In less than a year, they traded their two faces of the franchise in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, then won 11 games in a row to become buyers to make another aggressive move this time acquiring Chris Archer from the Tampa Bay Rays. Archer struggled in 2018 posting only a 94 ERA+ while being limited to only 148 innings due to a leg injury. The Pirates were a surprise to many across the industry when they made the move for Archer, but since Archer comes with control through 2021 at a team-friendly number, it made sense especially because they gave up a lot of young talent. They were quiet this offseason with their top moves being Lonnie Chisenhall and Erik Gonzalez, nevertheless the Pirates are not usually a team to be in the headlines in the winter.
What was most interesting about the Archer trade was that Pirates GM Neal Huntington faced criticism for not being as aggressive as he should have when the team won 98 games in 2015 with legitimate World Series aspirations. Ken Rosenthal of the The Athletic reported at the time that the Pirates wanted Archer, but it would have been at the cost of prospects Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. Sure enough, that was the package along with first round pick Shane Baz with everyone’s value slightly declining.In a stacked National League Central, the @Pirates -- with a youthful core and capable pitching -- are dark horses with a chance to surprise everyone. @kyle_oneill96 has more.Click To Tweet
The Pirates are a team that’s currently sliding under the radar, meanwhile they have talent in all the key areas to win in this league. Their rotation is young with the fifth spot up in the air, however a first four of Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer, and Joe Musgrove could be one of the best in the National League. Mitch Keller, who ranks 16 on MLB Pipeline‘s Top 100 is a candidate to earn that spot, along with Nick Kingham and Jordan Lyles, and the Pirates’ have a strong track record of developing young pitchers.
Another spot they vastly improved at is the bullpen led by Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela who are two hard throwers with a K/9 of 11.4 and 12.9 respectively. The rest of the bullpen is a work in progress, and losing Glasnow was a tough blow since he shined out of the bullpen, although Steven Brault and Kyle Crick are two other names to keep an eye on.
Regarding their lineup, they will have to embrace the same theme of internal player development. After their hot summer, they cooled off which gave us an extended look at young players when the rosters expanded in September. There’s a lot to be excited about, yet there’s three players in particular to see if they make a jump in 2019. Josh Bell broke out on the scene as a rookie, but regressed last season especially in the power department. Bell hit 26 home runs with .466 slugging percentage in 2017, and was limited to only 12 home runs with a .411 slugging percentage.
Colin Moran was one of the headliners in the Gerrit Cole trade, and also has a starting job like Bell. Moran also fits the Pirates’ mold of wanting to find players who can put the ball in play. The Pirates did get a breakout player in 2018 in Elias Diaz, and it appears he’ll have a strong chance to be the Opening Day catcher. Francisco Cervelli is still on the roster who could be more appealing though, since he’s been able to get the most out of the pitching staff.
The Pirates organization made it clear that when they were buyers at the non-waiver trade deadline, that it wasn’t only about 2018. Well, here’s the first year of those new guys on the roster. Add that up with the young talent already here looking to make another jump, along with a top manager, Clint Hurdle, who has led teams to the postseason before, and you have a club who should be in legitimate contention for a Wild Card berth.