MLB 2020 Season Preview: NL Central

Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty penalized by salary renewal system for ...
Jack Flaherty (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
  1. St. Louis Cardinals (Last Year: 91-71): 35-25

The Cardinals snapped a four year playoff drought by winning 91 games and getting to the NLCS a season ago. Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez are gone, but every other key offensive piece returns. Tyler O’Neill will get the first crack at replacing Ozuna after hitting 14 homers over 121 games the last two seasons. Should he struggle, Cardinals number two prospect Dylan Carlson will get the next shot to take over that role. They return veterans coming off strong seasons like Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, and Kolten Wong to the middle of the order. Dexter Fowler was better in 2019 than 2018, and Paul DeJong showed flashes of brilliance last season. The institution of the DH will allow them to slide Matt Carpenter over to that role and let Tommy Edman, a 3 WAR player in just 92 games last year, take over at third. Harrison Bader gives you just enough offensively to keep in the lineup because he is a tremendous defensive outfielder.

Pitching is the strength of this Cardinals team. Jack Flaherty was borderline unhittable down the stretch last season, and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting despite not being an All-Star. The immortal Adam Wainwright has a grip on another starting role, veteran Miles Mikolas is just two years removed from a 6th place finish in the Cy Young Voting, and second year pitcher Dakota Hudson finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Former ace Carlos Martinez returns to round out the rotation after a terrific season as the closer. Giovanny Gallegos slides into the closer’s role this season after dominating in relief last season, and KBO signing Kwang-Hyun Kim will fill in as well. Andrew Miller was average in 2019 and will be counted on to bounce back, especially with set up man John Brebbia out for the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery.

2. Cincinnati Reds (75-87): 32-28

The Reds finished fourth in a pretty competitive division a season ago, but I think they’ll take a pretty big step forward this year. The Reds had a busy offseason, adding Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to bolster the middle of their lineup while grabbing Japanese Outfielder Shogo Akiyama to lead off. As far as returning players, Eugenio Suarez hit 49 home runs last season after hitting 34 in 2018, former top prospect Nick Senzel had a very good Rookie year, and Tucker Barnhart is steady behind the plate. Jesse Winker will slide into another outfield spot after an up-and-down season and after a blazing two weeks followed by a long slump, Aristedis Aquino will not initially be on the Reds 30 man roster. The X-factor for the Reds this season will be their longest tenured player, Joey Votto. Votto was one of the more consistently excellent players in baseball history for years, but has shown decline over the last couple of seasons. If he can recapture some of that earlier magic this lineup is dangerous.

After adding Trevor Bauer at the trade deadline last season, the top three in this rotation is formidable. Bauer slots into the third spot in the rotation, following Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Gray had the best season of his career after struggling for a few years in New York and Luis Castillo is an ace in the making. The Reds also added Wade Miley to add a veteran presence in the backend of the rotation and Anthony DeSclafani is a solid number 4th or 5th starter. The Reds bullpen was 7th in the NL last season, with closer Rasiel Iglesias having a slightly down season after three straight dominant ones. Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen both had huge strikeout rates and did a good job keeping the ball in the yard. The Reds added Pedro Strop and will slide Tyler Mahle from the rotation to the pen for more depth. If Iglesias can get back to his pre-2019 self this bullpen could be amongst the best in the National League.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (89-73): 31-29

The Brewers won the Central in game 163 in 2018 then lost in the Wild Card game last season, so I am anticipating a bit of a stepback going into 2020. They lost a lot of players in free agency, including catcher Yasmani Grandal and infielders Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames. Former Mariners catcher Omar Narvaez was acquired to replace Grandal, which is a slight downgrade but not a hugely significant one. Eric Sogaard and Justin Smoak will replace Moustakas and Thames and try to place over 4 combined WAR between them. Returning to the lineup are declining veteran Ryan Braun and ascending second year second basemen Keston Hiura, who will provide some value in the middle of the order. But the big bats are outfielders Lorenzo Cain, who was worth 3 WAR last season, and 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, who is among the top 5-10 players in baseball. Assuming Yelich and Cain continue their terrific production, the lineup will be good if the other players can play close to their potential.

My whole premise for this season is that a starting rotation is not as important as a team’s bullpen, but I still think competent starting pitchers are important. Brandon Woodruff was this team’s number one starter last season and had a good year, but only threw 120 innings as he battled injuries. Brett Anderson is slated to be the number two starter, but is dealing with a blister on his thumb and may not be ready. Josh Lindblom is the number three starter, but has not pitched since 2017 with Pittsburgh. After that, there will be a lot of bullpenning. Adrian Houser, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta will all make starts for this team, but will try and lead to a bullpen that has been very good the last few years. Closer Josh Hader has been tremendous and Corey Knebel is a great arm as well. Justin Grimm, David Phelps, and Brent Suter are also capable arms coming out of that bullpen. The starting pitching is a big question mark, but if they can get to this pen with a lead most days the Brewers will find themselves back in the postseason.

4. Chicago Cubs (84-78): 30-30

The Cubs lost Nick Castellanos in free agency and Ben Zobrist to semi-retirement but still return a lineup that can score a lot of runs. Kris Bryant was quietly tremendous last season, Javy Baez is the coolest player in baseball and was also worth 6 WAR last season, and Kyle Schwarber can slide into the DH role after hitting 38 home runs a season ago. Anthony Rizzo has been dealing with some back issues but should be good to go for opening day. Rizzo has been worth at least 3 WAR in each of the last 6 seasons, so as long as he’s in the lineup he’ll produce. Willson Contreras has been an All-Star behind the plate over the last couple of seasons, and he rounds out a very solid top five of a lineup. Former prospects Ian Happ and Albert Almora will fill out the outfield, and former Cleveland Indians All-Star Jason Kipnis slides into second base.

Kyle Hendricks leads a rotation that has a lot of question marks. Hendricks has been terrific and consistently outperformed expectations throughout his career. Yu Darvish will start game two after a very good second half of 2019 that he hopes to carry over to this season. However, Darvish was brutal in the first half of 2019 and in the few starts he made in 2018 and has been inconsistent over the course of his career. Southpaw Jose Quintana lacerated his hand in a dishwashing accident and may be available halfway through the season, but I don’t know how much the Cubs can count on him. Jon Lester was a serviceable number four starter last season, but is now 36 and has lost some zip on his fastball, and Tyler Chatwood is a fine number four but not much more. Alec Mills was solid in a very small sample size a year ago and fills out the rotation, with prospect Adbert Alzolay and depth piece Jharel Cotton as depth options as the season goes on. The Cubs lost Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, and David Phelps from their 8th ranked bullpen a season ago, which hurts the depth of this pen quite a bit. Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan both had good seasons in relief last year, and will be counted on to replicate that production. Closer Craig Kimbrel was brutal in 2019, and a bounceback from him could help vault the Cubs into the postseason. A parade of veterans including Brandon Morrow and Ryan Tepera will be tasked with shoring up the pen.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (69-93): 22-38

The Pirates won just 69 games a year ago and did not make any significant improvements. Two new additions project as starters in the field after Gregory Polanco has been shelved by the coronavirus: outfielders Guillermo Heredia and Jarrod Dyson, who combined for just 1.7 WAR between the two of them a season ago. Heredia will replace Melky Cabrera, an outfielder worth negative WAR a season ago, so that is an upgrade, albeit not a great one. Dyson steps in for Starling Marte, a downgrade no matter how you slice it. Left Fielder Bryan Reynolds had a terrific rookie season, finishing fourth in ROY voting after slashing .314/.377/.503. Shortstop Kevin Newman also had a nice breakout season, becoming a useful piece after a horrendous rookie season in 2018. Power hitting first basemen Josh Bell hit 37 homers last season and second basemen Adam Fraizer was perfectly league average a season ago. Jose Osuna will get the first crack at DH and Colin Moran will start at third, but prospects Ke’Bryan Hayes and Will Craig are waiting in the wings.

The Pirates as a pitching staff had a 5.18 ERA in 2018 and they’ll be without Jameson Taillon (Tommy John) and Chris Archer (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) for the entirety of 2020. Joe Musgrove will be the staff’s “ace” after going 11-12 with a 4.44 ERA a season ago. He’ll be flanked by Mitch Keller, who had a very rough start to last season before settling in a bit towards the end, Trevor Williams, who had a very good 2018 and a very bad 2019, Steven Brault, who produced a 5.16 ERA in 25 games last year, and veteran minor league signing Derek Holland. Chad Kuhl and rookie JT Brubaker will add some depth options as well. The bullpen is an absolute mess. Felipe Vasquez is out of baseball for reasons that I will not get into here and Edgar Santana is suspended for the whole season. Keone Kela has been placed on the injured list for undisclosed reasons and had not reported to Summer camp before that as well. Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez and Michael Feliz have shown talent but are all inconsistent and prone to blowing up, and there’s not much other help coming. The Pirates might take some games against a bad AL Central, but it’s going to be a long short season in Pittsburgh.

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