For the NL Central, it has always been a hodgepodge of what-ifs and oh-nos. A fight to the finish line for all five teams involved—well, it’s a fight for four out of five at least. There are so many interesting storylines within the NL Central that often go under the radar or simply do not live up to the hype. In the following preview, we will look over each team’s projected lineups, benches, rotations, and bullpens.
Disclaimer: All lineup info has been based on findings on MLB.com and via beat writers on social media. Their projected rosters are set for 26 players right now. Major League Baseball also announced that for this upcoming season—exclusively on road trips—a team will be allowed a taxi-squad of five players. While I did not include those possible players, one can assume who may or may not make the squad as the season progresses.
St. Louis Cardinals
2020 Record: 30-28 (.517 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
In usual Cardinal fashion, the outfield remains a problem. With Harrison Bader beginning the season on the IL due to a flare-up in his forearm, manager Mike Shildt will more than likely lean on top prospect Dylan Carlson on Opening Day. In 119 plate appearances, he went .200/.252/.364. Whereas Bader last season, who went .226/.336/.443 in 125 PAs.
Another situation that the organization will face this season: Matt Carpenter. Without the Universal DH and with the addition of Nolan Arenado, the St. Louis veteran remains in limbo and on the bench. Last season Carpenter went .186/.325/.314 in 169 plate appearances and 24 RBIs. Importantly, the three-time All-Star has gone one for 36 (.028) this spring. After two troublesome years, Carpenter, who is owed $18.5m this season with a $2m buyout for his 2022 option, fell short.
On Sunday, March 27, the Cardinals revealed the 26-man team that will take the field in Cincinnati on Opening Day against the Reds. Notables such as Austin Dean, John Nogowski, Edmundo Sosa, and Justin Williams were the final puzzle pieces that the Redbirds see fitting into the roster.
Nogowski has been a wonderful surprise for the organization this spring. The right-handed-hitting first baseman has shared some innings in left field and leads the team with 12 RBIs. In addition, he is also tied for the team-lead with two home runs and has nine walks. Williams, who has been fighting for a spot for quite some time, made a name for himself this spring as well. In fact, it’s likely we will see Williams patrolling in right field. Dean will also be in the mix, a great asset for the bench offensively.
Projected Starting Rotation
|4||Daniel Ponce de Leon||R|
With Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim out with Opening Day looming, the Cardinals will carry into the regular season with Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and John Gant. Without a doubt, the Cards are hoping for Flaherty to have better results than his 2020 season. In 40 innings pitched, Flaherty went 4-3 with an ERA of 4.91, his highest earned run average since 2017 (6.33). He only recorded 49 strikeouts last year. Additionally, this spring Flaherty has posted a 5.40 ERA and a 1.575 WHIP.
Wainwright, who is entering another season with the organization, will be tasked with performing like the ageless Uncle Charlie he has been this spring. Waino went 65.2 IP with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.051 WHIP. Since 2005, Wainwright has been a staple in Cardinals lore and will take the mound for Busch Stadium’s Opening Day on April 8. Martinez will get another chance to prove himself in the rotation. As long as Martinez can stay out of his head, it is likely we will see a productive year from him. It should be noted, Ponce de Leon and Gant will have an opportunity to make a name for themselves while Mikolas and Kim are out.
As far as the bullpen goes, the team has decided to go with Jake Woodford over Kodi Whitley. Not much has changed from last season, only with Jordan Hicks returning after Tommy John surgery in 2019. The team has high expectations for Alex Reyes this season—which could range from a 100-plus multi-inning role to even seeing time in the ninth if Hicks is unavailable.
Storylines To Follow
The ultimate storyline to follow this season will be Arenado in St. Louis. Will he prove that he’s MVP-caliber outside of the Colorado Rockies organization? Or will he move slow as we all watched with Paul Goldschmidt in 2019? Arenado hit his first home run of spring and as a Cardinal in the Grapefruit League finale on Monday against the Mets. The star third baseman has admitted that he needs around 50 at-bats to feel fully prepared for the regular season. He recorded 46 in his 2021 spring training with one home run, four RBIs, and a .690 OPS.
With the departure of Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman will be the Opening Day second baseman and leadoff hitter. Time and time again, Edman has shown that he has what it takes to fill the shoes of Wong. Last season Edman had 227 plate appearances with .250/.317/.368. In two years, the young talent has not only made a name for himself but his name has latched on to opposing organizations as well.
Above all, Carlson will get his chance to live up to his prospect title this year. With Dexter Fowler in Los Angeles, Lane Thomas optioned, and Bader on the IL, all eyes will be on the young star in the outfield. Tyler O’Neill, who won a Gold Glove in 2020, will look to increase his productivity at the plate. O’Neill went .173/.261/.360 last season.
2020 Record: 29-31 (.483 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||OF||L|
The changes from the shortened 2020 season are divided equally for the Brewers. With four Gold Glove winners such as Lorenzo Cain, Kolten Wong, Christian Yelich, and Jackie Bradley Jr., on paper, it all seems sound. But then again, the team led the National League with 583 strikeouts. And yes, you read that correctly. Respectively, Omar Narvaez turned the page from his abysmal 2020 performance during spring training. He batted .311 with three home runs, six RBIs, and a 1.098 OPS in just 13 games.
Without a doubt, Yelich is poised to return to his MVP-caliber form, batting .400 (10-for-25) with three home runs, 10 RBIs, and a 1.402 OPS in 12 appearances. The newest addition of Wong has also had a positive outlook this spring. His first impression left fans wanting more with his .412 OBP and three leadoff home runs. Along with Keston Hiura’s transition to playing first base, his offense has shined. Hiura batted .286 with four homers, 10 RBIs, and an OPS of .976 in 17 games.
Without the Universal DH, Daniel Vogelbach was held in limbo until the Brewers decided to keep him on the Opening Day roster. Despite his defensive woes, Vogelbach provides an extra bat that could assist the often offensively-destructive Brewers. Travis Shaw, who has also had a troublesome past at the plate will be the likely starting third baseman for the team. Although, it is likely Orlando Arcia, Luis Urias, and Daniel Robertson will challenge him for the rights to third.
The team has strength when it comes to pitching, led by starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. Ace relievers Josh Hader and Devin Williams will steer the helm for the Brew Crew when it’s crunch time. Freddy Peralta won the fifth starter’s job over Josh Lindblom, but this season, the team will need as many arms on hand as possible. And in 2021, nothing will be off the table for how the pitching staff will be use; we could see a six-man rotation, piggyback starters, etc.
Woodruff will be the Opening Day starter and rightfully so. In 2020, he went 3-5 and posted a 3.05 ERA in 73.2 innings pitched. Peralta, who has often been more effective as a reliever logged a 3.59 ERA and 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his Major League career. As a starter, Peralta earned himself a 5.45 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine.
With Lindblom losing the fifth starter role to Peralta, he will play a vital role in the bullpen. While there are many questions, the biggest is Drew Rasmussen. While the organization seems to love his arm and does plan to use him, but with the 25-year-old having options, another arm could step up and send him back to MiLB.
Storylines To Follow
There will be challenges for the Brewers, as there is every year. Health is important for the team to remain in contention for the NL Central title. Lorenzo Cain is a perfect example of such. In 2019, he won his first Gold Glove, and in the next season, he elected to step away one week in. Not to mention, he missed a giant chunk of the 2021 Cactus League with strained right quadriceps. If LoCain can return to the man he once was, reacclimating to MLB pitching, and keep JBJ from taking center field, he will be a vital piece of the Milwaukee puzzle.
Yelich will be playing with a chip on his shoulder this season, especially after last year’s blunders. If he can bounce back and return to the 2019 Yelich, there is every reason to believe his numbers will be impressive. All eyes will be on Kolten Wong as he takes the field under a new organization. Wong was an absolute stud with the St. Louis Cardinals and if his natural athleticism and talents can adjust to the new atmosphere, he will be a fan favorite and quickly.
Devin Williams and his dominating force on the mound will also be a storyline to follow. In his spring debut, he allowed an earned run and got only two outs on March 20. Nonetheless, he kept his opponent off the scoreboard last Tuesday and used an absolutely mind-blowing and devastating changeup. Williams’ name will be a household name and a nightmare for batters as the season progresses.
2020 Record: 34-26 (.567 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
If there is one thing that remains true for the Chicago Cubs, it’s excitement. As the reigning NL Central champs, the Cubs have a lot to prove this season. With Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant moving toward free agency, the organization will want to try and win it all with them in tow. Despite Baez hitting .203 last season and ending with a 62 OPS+, there is still potential for him to be the Cubs’ top player in 2021.
Last year was one of the worst-hitting Cubs teams in history with a .220 average and yet there is still hope. David Bote, who hit .200 last season will start at second after showing promise this spring. However, he must prove to the organization that he’s capable of being an everyday player. Especially with the Cubs optioning young Nico Hoerner to the alternate site over the weekend. Bote will also have possible competition from Eric Sogard, who hit .209 last year with the rival Brewers.
Rizzo, who has been dealing with contract extensions will naturally be the Opening Day first baseman. He has a career .271 average, .372 OBP, .857 OPS, 229 home runs, 268 doubles, and a 129 OPS+. In other words, if the Cubs and Rizzo do not come to an agreement, another team will have the chance of receiving a great addition at first base.
Ah yes, pitching for the Cubs. There have been many changes good and bad. While the team lost Yu Darvish, they have the likes of Jake Arrieta and Adbert Alzolay to led the Cubs a few victories. The veteran Arrieta and young gun Alzolay will be in the starting rotation along with former Pirates starter Trevor Williams, Kyle Hendricks, and Zach Davies.
Against the Dodgers, Alzolay allowed two earned runs on one hit with one walk and struck out five in over 3.2 innings. Arrieta might have built up 60-plus pitches against the Rangers, but he also allowed four runs on five hits in 2.3 innings. The two have relied on each other this spring: Arrieta’s willingness to work and always adapt has made an impact on how Alzolay works himself. While the two are excitable for this season, Kyle Hendricks will take the mound against the Pirates at Wrigley on Thursday. A perfect fit for the Cubs. Hendricks has gone 2-0 this spring with an ERA of 6.39 in 12.2 innings with 15 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.50.
Craig Kimbrel will need to prove to all naysayers that he can in fact handle the ninth. As of right now, it doesn’t look so swell. He has been absolutely set ablaze with a team-worst 14.29 ERA. Even so, he has strung together a trio of scoreless outings. The seven-time All-Star has often struggled with his velocity and has seen an uptick in it this spring. But when it matters most, it’ll come down to how effective the curveball is leaving his hands. Because we’re all aware of what happens when it isn’t effective.
Storylines To Follow
The Cubs have something to prove, simple as that and they are not worried about anyone picking their opponents as a favorite in the division. It will be interesting to see how Joc Pederson, Trevor Williams, and Jake Marisnick handle their new organization. Although, the trio has all looked very much at home so far.
Pitching will play a giant role in what happens with the Cubs this season. If newcomers Davies and Williams can adjust, they will be dangerous weapons for the organization. A storyline to follow will absolutely be Kimbrel. If he can be the man he once was, there will not be a batter that wants to face him. Until then, the Cubs closer will have to face the music of being so hittable.
2020 Record: 31-29 (.517 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
It will be interesting to see the dynamic of the Reds this season. With Joey Votto battling to return from COVID, the team will need to rely heavily on their bench if he isn’t Opening Day ready. Kyle Farmer has the nod for the roster, a nice piece of news for the utility player. Farmer, who has filled in at first base will likely replace Votto against the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of this week.
Nick Castellanos is in his second season of his four-year, $64m contract he signed with the Reds as a free agent. In his 2020 season, he went .225/.298/.486 with 14 home runs and a 99 OPS+. Although he has had his up and downs, Castellanos is a key player in keeping the Reds in contention. The outfielder along with Mike Moustakas and Jesse Winker can boost the lineup from top to bottom.
The offense will need to exceed expectations this year in order to land a postseason spot. Despite reaching the playoffs last season, the Reds batted a Major League worst of .212. With a 162-game season back in place, every flaw will and should be quickly exposed. For example, Moustakas has slashed .159/.208/.250 this spring—which for the second baseman, is not ideal.
After losing Trevor Bauer, the Reds will look to their starting rotation to fill in the gaps that the 2020 Cy Young winner left. Luis Castillo has looked extremely well this spring, boasting an ERA of 1.93, and has struck out eight. The Reds will look to Castillo to be the ace that they need to exceed within the division and in the league.
Arms like Tyler Mahle and Michael Lorenzen will also need to remain strong, minimizing relief outings for guys like Lucas Sims and Sal Romano. Mahle’s spring finished with a 7.94 ERA and Lorenzen with a 9.39. It’ll be fascinating to see if the starters are able to make it through the first half of the season without crumbling.
With the addition of Sean Doolittle, the Reds looked set to have a fantastic closer. However, the closer has posted a whopping 14.63 ERA so far this spring. He has struck out eight and has a 2.63 WHIP. He’ll need to put it together or else he will be competing against Craig Kimbrel for inflated ERA.
Storylines To Follow
Cincinnati finished the abbreviated season 31-29 and went to the postseason for the first time since 2013. Yes, 2013. While the club went on to be eliminated by the Atlanta Braves, it gave the organization and fans a taste of what it feels like to return to the postseason. The biggest storyline will be how the team improves throughout the season.
Hitters such as Castellanos, Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel, and even prospect Jonathan India have looked well during spring training. Even so, they will need to push it even further to compete alongside the Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals.
2020 Record: 19-41 (.317 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
With the departure of Josh Bell in the offseason, Colin Moran will need to step it up and prove himself at first base. This spring, he has batted .235 with two home runs and six RBIs. Adam Frazier, who typically finds himself at the top of the lineup will be expected to have A+ production this year. Frazier went .179/.238/.308 during his 2020 season—his seventh season with Pittsburgh.
Young stars Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes both have what it takes to reclaim what once was with the Buccos. Reynolds rose to the top in 2019 and again in 2020 despite his team’s faulty outlook. The outfielder went .259/.474/.519 last season. In addition, Hayes left the 60-game season with notable numbers slashing .429/.462/.694.
|Mid||Duane Underwood Jr.||R|
With Steven Brault on the IL, the Pirates will need to get creative with their rotation. Wil Crowe is someone that can help fill a large role until Brault returns or even take the position completely. The Buccos might need to piggyback a few arms early on as they did last season with Brault and Chad Kuhl.
At this point, there is no guaranteed closer for the team yet. Richard Rodriguez did well closing out games last season, but he’s been seen as a setup man. Eventually, depending on their decision with Rodriguez, it will solidify Kyle Crick’s spot. Chasen Shreve, who has spent time in multiple organizations, is the lone lefty. Shreve came on a Minor League deal and has been working to crack the Opening Day roster.
Storylines To Follow
The biggest storyline for the Pirates will be: “Can they make it?” This seems harsh but in recent years, we’ve seen blunder after blunder before falling into very last place. The Pirates aren’t projected to contend but the organization believes they have the pieces in place to at least surprise a few people along the way this season.
Guys like Kevin Newman, Adam Frazier, and Bryan Reynolds will not only need to step up but look to be leaders for the younger members of the team. The defense cannot and should not allow errors at the rate they did last season—a whopping 47 errors in 60 games. The team also only stole 16 bases in 60 games last season. Yikes.
The greatest factor for the Pirates this season is Ke’Bryan Hayes. After his incredible debut last year, he is the one to watch. He set the bar last season by posting a 1.124 OPS in 94 plate appearances. Ultimately, Hayes is the right piece for a team that is looking to rebuild and move forward from the historically ugly past few seasons.
Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)