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
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.The NL Central has the potential to be the most fascinating and compelling of the six @MLB divisions in 2019. @bytomdorsa takes a look at the division going into another highly anticipated season.Click To Tweet
2. Milwaukee Brewers
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.
*injured to begin the 2019 season
3. Chicago Cubs
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.
4. Cincinnati Reds
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.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
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.