NL Central preview: Every team (even the Pirates) in contention for playoffs
It might seem as if the Chicago Cubs have been dominating the NL Central in recent years, but is it really a dynasty when they’ve won the division just twice? The Cubs have averaged 97 wins per season over the past four years but twice had to settle for wild cards.
That, as much as anything, might best tell the story of how deeply-buried in the past “Comedy Central” reputation has become. The NL Central is one of baseball’s best divisions.
Last season, only the Cincinnati Reds had a losing record among NL Central teams. Would you believe that just nine teams outside the division in all of baseball had a better record than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who placed second-to-last in the NL Central?
Part of the division’s strength is its immunity to the increasing penchant for “tanking” that is taking hold throughout baseball. There’s no Marlins or Orioles or White Sox of recent vintage — teams that aren’t necessarily even trying to win in a given season. Look at the Reds: Coming off a 95-loss season, they were the NL Central’s most aggressive team over the winter.
Not content with their longest postseason absence (three seasons) since the turn of the century, the St. Louis Cardinals added perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and veteran bat-missing reliever Andrew Miller. They join the defending champion Milwaukee Brewers and the Cubs as those whom most consider the likeliest playoff-contending teams in the NL Central.
The Pirates, of course, characteristically had a quiet hot stove. Could they be the darkhorse that their management insists they can be?
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Is Bader the next in a long line of seemingly anonymous outfielders the St. Louis factory seems to produce who end up being All-star level performers (and Pirates-killers)? Bader finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last season, and he was one of the majors’ best defenders in the outfield.
With Cincinnati being so bad in recent years, it might be easy to overlook the Hall of Fame resume Votto continues to buttress, even as he turned 35 in September. He’s signed for five more seasons. How long can he continue to be elite?
Ozuna was one of the NL’s best players in 2017. St. Louis bought high on him, and he regressed closer to his career norms last season. Entering the final year of his contract, Ozuna bouncing back to 2017 form would make him a boatload of money on the free-agent market.
Williams was borderline historically good the second half of last season. Is he actually an elite starting pitcher, or was that a mirage?
TRENDS TO WATCH
The Cubs are rollin’
The Cubs have made the postseason four consecutive years for the first time in franchise history (their previous four playoff berths covered a 25-year span). They’ve also won at least 92 games four seasons in a row for the first time since 1904-11.
Top offensive players
Goldschmidt’s addition to the Cardinals means the NL Central has five of NL’s eight most productive offensive players from last season, based on wins above replacement: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Javier Baez, Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter.
Pirates vs. Central rivals
Over their first 24 seasons in the NL Central, the Pirates had a winning record in division games only once (2013). Last season, however, the Pirates went 43-33 against their NL Central rivals.
Can Cincy turn it around?
The Reds have finished in last place each of the past four seasons, the longest active streak in baseball (Baltimore is the only other team that has even has two consecutive last-place finishes running). Will the misery in southwestern Ohio end this year?
What each team needs to win the division
The Cubs were quiet over the offseason, but perhaps the best two additions to their 2019 team might be healthy versions of slugger Kris Bryant and $126 million starter Yu Darvish. If they perform like the high-end talents they were in the past, Chicago again could dominate.
If the bevy of new additions have career years, the Reds could be on to something. Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark — to varying degrees — have a relatively recent track record of major league success.
For the second offseason in a row, the Brewers made a “splash move,” following the 2018 additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich by signing catcher Yasmani Grandal in January. If the latter move is anywhere close to working out as well as the others, look out.
The Pirates are confident they have one of the league’s best pitching staffs. On paper, that’s not a laughable assertion. If true, refer to the cliché about good pitching beating good hitting — and watch the Pirates thrive.
St. Louis Cardinals
It isn’t quite the Steelers’ coaching stability, but the Cardinals had just four managers between 1982 and last season when Mike Matheny was fired. If the additions of Goldschmidt (in particular) and Miller mesh with new manager Mike Shildt, it’s easy to envision a return to the postseason.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .