What players can move the needle for their respective teams in the 2020 Major League Baseball season? Here are X factors for every team in the National League Central.
St. Louis Cardinals: Harrison Bader
The Cardinals got to the NL Championship Series last season with an offense that finished in the bottom third of the sport in production despite having a bevy of high-profile players; it’s astounding. Chances are they won’t be able to do the same this season, and a breakout campaign from Harrison Bader would go a long way.
Bader was one of the bright spots of the Cardinals offense in 2018, as he looked like a potential fixture in their outfield. Then he had a discouraging 2019 campaign at the plate. Hitting .205 while posting a .680 OPS and 78 OPS+ he was an unreliable force in the batter’s box. He logged strikeouts at a high rate and struggled to get on base.
Manager Mike Shildt has a budding starting rotation and a lineup of seasoned veterans; he knows the realistic best-case scenario for his players. Bader is an X factor. A bounce-back season from the versatile outfielder (Bader has extensive starting experience in center and right field) would enhance their offense.
Milwaukee Brewers: Eric Lauer
The Brewers had an offseason of moving parts. One of those many transactions involved acquiring left-hander Eric Lauer from the San Diego Padres. For a pitching staff devoid of an ace and stability, a breakout season from the 24-year-old could change the game.
Lauer made 53 appearances, 52 starts of which were starts, from 2018-19 with the Padres and held his own, recording a 4.40 ERA. Yes, he struggled to keep runners off the basepaths and provide length, but few young pitchers do as such in the beginning stages of their careers.
The southpaw heavily relies on his four seamer and cutter. Moving forward he’ll have to garner superb command of those offerings, as they’ve registered in the low 90s on the radar. Brandon Woodruff is coming off an encouraging season, Adrian Houser is a compelling pitcher, and Brett Anderson is coming off a bounce-back season, but the bulk of the Brewers starting rotation is made up of middle-of-the-rotation starters. Lauer taking the next step could change that narrative.
Chicago Cubs: Yu Darvish
Darvish has been generally viewed as a lost cause and unworthy of his six-year, $126 million contract. At the end of the day, he has the arsenal to pitch up to his hefty salary and showed flashes of the pitcher of old down the stretch of last season.
Darvish was arguably the Cubs best starter across his last 13 starts last season, as he posted a 2.76 ERA, totaled 118 strikeouts, held opponents to a .199 batting average, and pitched deep into games. The right-hander can hit the high 90s on the radar, gets wicked movement on his off-speed pitches, and has the makings of an ace. It has been a matter of consistency and durability.
Cole Hamels signed with the Atlanta Braves; Jose Quintana hasn’t been the pitcher the Cubs gave up a handful of prospects for; Jon Lester‘s best days may be behind him. Outside of Kyle Hendricks, this rotation’s 2020 outlook is a mystery. With that said, Darvish has the highest upside of them all. If he carries the momentum he built up last season into 2020 he’ll be the Cy Young-caliber arm the Cubs signed up for and, therefore, give them a better chance at winning the NL Central.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto
Yeah, it’s odd having a likely Hall of Famer and the face of the franchise being his team’s X factor, but that’s where we’re at with Joey Votto; he’s coming off a couple uncharacteristic seasons.
Last season Votto posted a .768 OPS and 98 OPS+, the lowest accumulation of his career in both categories; the perennial All-Star first baseman is capable of much more. He’s a smooth hitter who’s a force to be reckoned with from the left side and a premier fielder at the corner infield position. But again: he hasn’t been that player in recent memory.
With the offseason additions of Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos to an offense that includes Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Aristides Aquino, and Freddy Galvis, the Reds already have a loaded depth chart. An offensive resurgence from Votto would make that lineup formidable. Accompanied by a stout rotation and deep bullpen, it would make the Reds an even bigger threat to win the NL Central.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Trevor Williams
The Pirates are the lone team in the NL Central without a legitimate case to win the division. This derives from the struggles their starting rotation endured in 2019 and that same unit remaining in place. Can that change? Sure, but it’ll take, at the very least, a bounce-back season from Trevor Williams.
One year ago the right-hander was one of the best young starters in the sport. He recorded a 3.11 ERA across 31 starts, worked out of trouble, and looked like a budding ace. Then he was rocked in 2019, surrendering 27 home runs, providing little length, and posting a 5.38 ERA across 26 starts. What version of Williams will the Pirates be getting: the 2018 or 2019 version?
Jameson Taillon, another budding arm in 2018, missed most of last season with an elbow injury. A healthy version of Tallion will improve their rotation. On the other hand, Chris Archer has struggled mightily in his year and a half with the Pirates, and Joe Musgrove is a middle-of-the-rotation starter; Williams needs to right the ship to give this rotation life. If he does, it can make an already intriguing division enthralling.