X-St. Louis Cardinals 91-71
After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2019 Major League Baseball campaign by flying under the radar as in recent years they’ve been surpassed in the division by the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers. But whereas it was the Brewers and Cubs that made the playoffs from the N.L. Central in 2019, it was the Cardinals who breezed past both of them in 2020 to win the division. And even though that the Cardinals were swept by the eventual World Series Champion Washington Nationals in the National League Championship Series last October, this team is heading into the new season looking for more as they’re seeking to win the World Series Title for the third time in as many decades.
The names may change on the back of the jerseys in St. Louis, but they continue to possess one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Last year the Cards team earned run average of 3.80 was second in the National League, and a big reason for this prolonged success is catcher Yadier Molina.
Molina is set to begin his 17th season with the Cardinals, and he is simply one of the best to do it in regards to calling a game behind the plate. Molina is a nine-time All-Star based not only on his ability to call a game, but also the way that he affects a game with his defensive prowess.
For Molina’s career he has thrown 40% of the runners that’ve attempted to steal bases on him, and although that he is not throwing out runners at the clip that he did earlier in his career, runners must still be weary of him; especially his ability to throw behind runners that are on first base. Molina is 37-years of age, and although that he is entering the last year of his contract with the Cardinals, he will still have a solid impact on this squad.
St. Louis continues to roll out quality starting pitchers, and the next one who is set to add his name to that mix is Dakota Hudson. For years the Cards have had a tradition where they will call up a young pitcher from the minors, and immediately assign him to the bullpen to acclimated, but it won’t be long before he is set to turn it loose in the starting rotation.
That was the case with Hudson who made 26 appearances with the Cards in 2018 out of the bullpen, but he turned it loose last year as a starter as he lead the club in wins with 16. Hudson was solid all year long as he made 32 starts, while recording an earned run average of 3.35 en route to finishing fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. Hudson heads into 2020 looking to not only build off of that strong season, but to also show that he is ready to be a frontline starter for St. Louis, while also reaching the 200-inning plateau.
Like Hudson, starting pitcher Jack Flaherty is another rising contributor in the Cardinals rotation. The 24-year old Flaherty made his debut with St. Louis in 2017, and last season he won 11 games, while posting an earned run average of 2.75. Flaherty has quickly developed a reputation around the National League for being a strikeout machine as he had 21 putouts in 2019 in just 196.1 innings pitched. And once you factor in Flaherty’s power arm, along with Molina’s ability to call a game behind the plate, he’ll definitely get some recognition to win the N.L. Cy Young Award.
And behind Hudson and Flaherty, the Cardinals still have veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright in their rotation, while they also posses a solid bullpen that features relief pitchers Andrew Miller and Carlos Martinez who together form one of the most formidable setup-closer combos in the National League.
The Cardinals lost outfielder Marcel Ozuna in free agency to the Atlanta Braves, but they still have a solid combo in the middle of their lineup in the form of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and shortstop Paul DeJong. Last year Goldschmidt and DeJong combined to hit 64 homers, and the young DeJong along with the veteran Goldschmidt will once again make the Cards a tough team to reckon with.
Just like it has been in recent years, the National League Central will not see any team runaway from the pack in the divisional race. But for Cardinals manager Mike Schildt, he has a team that is poised to win the N.L. Central for the second consecutive year.
Chicago Cubs 89-73
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs were sitting on top of the baseball world as they claimed their first World Series Championship in 108 years. The Cubs were able to accomplish this with one of the youngest teams in baseball, and there were plenty of people felt that they were on the verge of a dynasty. But since then the Cubs have never been able to rekindle the magic of 2016, and surprisingly last season, they would miss the postseason altogether. Chicago was only able to win 84 games last year as they finished in third place in the National League Central. The underachievement of the Cubs led to the team parting with Joe Maddon as their manager in spite of the fact that he was one of the most successful skippers in franchise history. And as the Cubs are set to begin a new season, there will be plenty of questions surrounding this team as they to reclaim the top spot in the National League Central.
When the Cubs won it all in 2016, they were able to rely on the veteran leadership of catcher David Ross behind the plate and in the clubhouse as well. Ross would retire following the Cubs triumph, and since then he has spent time in the broadcast booth. But once it became apparent that the Cubs were going to move on from Maddon, Ross began to publicly campaign to become the next skipper on the North Side. And Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein would grant that wish.
Now Ross does join the Cubs without any prior experience as either a manager or as a coach, but what Epstein and team general manager Jed Hoyer are looking for is for some fresh perspective, while going off of his time as a catcher in Major League Baseball. And you can also expect the Cubs front office to force feed sabermetrics and analytics down the throat of Ross.
Ross inherits a roster with the Cubs that is loaded with talent, and it’ll be his job to get the most out of it as there is still plenty of World Series Championship experience on this roster.
After injuries derailed third baseman Kris Bryant in 2018, he bounced back last season to reclaim his spot as one of the top all-around players in baseball. Bryant and the Cubs had a bitter dispute this off-season as he was attempted to have his free agency expedited by one year, and even though that the former National League MVP lost his case, I expect him to have a strong season as he looking to pad his resume before he becomes a free agent in two years.
In eight years with the Cubs, first baseman Anthony Rizzo has become one of the faces of the franchise. Rizzo has been very consistent; especially with his defense as he has won a Gold Glove Award in three of the last four years. Rizzo has also been solid at the plate as you can all but pencil him in four 30 homers and 100 runs batted each year. And as Rizzo could be a free agent after this season, I expect him to have a strong season which could put him in the mix to be the National League’s MVP.
Shortstop Javy Baez has become a solid player for the Cubs, but he will need to regain the form that saw him finish second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2018. Last season Baez took a step back as he committed 15 errors at shortstop. Baez is also prone to the strikeout pitch as in his six-year Major League Baseball career, he has averaged going down on strikes 169 per year. And as Baez is a boom or bust player, will the Cubs be able to afford another season from him like that?
Ross also inherits a pitching staff which was one of the best in the National League a year ago, but he must be shrewd on how he uses them in 2020. Chicago’s starting rotation consists of veteran pitchers such as Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana who all have mileage on their arms, and it’ll be up to Ross to get the most out of them without overusing them.
And if Ross wants to lean on his bullpen, the ninth inning for the Cubs could be shaky. The first year with relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel was not a good one as he posted a 6.53 earned run average in 23 appearances. Dating back to the 2018 playoffs when Kimbrel was with the Boston Red Sox, he has been shaky as the fastball pitch that brought him so much success earlier in his career has lost some zip, while he has also lost the ability to consistently paint the corners of the plate. Kimbrel will be 32 in May, and the time might be right for him to adjust his pitching style and become more of a junk pitcher.
In front of Kimbrel, the Cubbies have the likes of relief pitchers Tyler Chatwood and Kyle Ryan, and it would not surprise me to see Ross go with a “closer by committee” if Kimbrel struggles again.
Ross inherits a veteran team, and it will be interesting to see if a new voice in the clubhouse will be just what the doctor ordered to get the Cubs back to the postseason.
Cincinnati Reds 81-81
The last six years have been difficult for the Cincinnati Reds as they have been unable to finish any higher than fourth in the National League Central. But after the Reds were able to win 75 games last season, while also making some moves on the hot stove this off-season, will 2020 be the year in which they can once again contend in the N.L. Central?
After helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series in 2015, third baseman Mike Moustakas was a vital cog in helping the Milwaukee Brewers make the playoffs in each of the last two years. And as Moustakas has been seeking a big payday over the past few off-seasons, he finally received it this winter when he and the Reds reached an agreement on a four-year deal for $64 million.
In nine Major League Baseball seasons, Moustakas is a career .252 hitter, while he has averaged hitting 26 homers. But the biggest thing that Moustakas brings to the table is experience which is what the Reds needs as they are seeking to end their seven-year playoff drought.
In five years with the Reds, the prowess of infielder Eugenio Suarez is no longer a secret. After belting 34 homers in 2018, Suarez followed that up with an even stronger 2019 with 49 home runs which tied Ted Kluszewski for the second most home runs in a single-season in Reds franchise hist0ry. Suarez did lead the National League in strikeouts last season with 189, but if you’re Reds manager David Bell, you’ll gladly trade that if he is going to continue going to go yard as the rate that he does.
Age is beginning to catch up to first baseman Joey Votto as his offensive production has begun to fade over the last two years, but he still remains as one of the most patient hitters in baseball. Votto has a career on-base percentage of .421 has a keen eye for the baseball. Votto’s strikeout numbers have increased over the last two years, but I can see a situation where Bell will limit the amount of games that his veteran first baseman appears in this season in order to increase his effectiveness.
Starting pitcher Luis Castillo is coming off of his best season as he won 15 games in 2019 for Cincinnati. Castillo is a well schooled pitcher as he has solid control over his pitching repertoire which includes a changeup and slider to go along with his fastball as his arm is a big reason why there is some optimism for this Reds team.
Cincinnati’s bullpen is solid as well as relief pitchers Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson are solid in middle relief to set things up for closer Raisel Iglesias who saved 34 games last season. But the one troubling stat for Iglesias is that he had a 4.16 earned run average in 2019 which is never good for a closer.
Make no mistake about it that the Reds will be a competitive team all season long, but they’ll fall short of having enough to contend for a playoff berth.
Milwaukee Brewers 80-82
En route to winning the National League Central in 2018, the Milwaukee Brewers steamrolled down the stretch which propelled them to advancing to the National League Championship Series. In 2019, the Brewers started the month of September strong as they won 20 of their first 24 ballgames for the month, and all signs pointed to them once again being a dangerous team in October. However the Brewers would lose their last three games of the regular season to the Colorado Rockies which paved the way for the St. Louis Cardinals to win the N.L. Central. And to add insult to injury, the Brewers would blow a late-inning lead to the eventual World Series Champion Washington Nationals in the N.L. Wild Card Game. But after a pair of heartbreaking exits from the postseason in consecutive years, how will Brewers manager Craig Counsell and his team respond as they are seeking to make the playoffs in three consecutive years for the first time in franchise history?
In two years with the Brewers, outfielder Christian Yelich has emerged as one of the best players in baseball. Yelich was named as the National League’s MVP in 2018, and he came close to repeating the feat last season as he led the N.L. in batting average (.329), while also belting 44 homers and swiping 30 bases. Yelich’s emergence as a top-flight five-tool player is a big reason why Milwaukee has made the playoffs in each of the last two years, and it also resulted in the All-Star outfielder receiving a nine-year, $215 million extension this off-season to remain in Milwaukee through 2029. And as Yelich is only 28-years of age, he is in the prime of him career which means that barring injury, he should have another big season at the plate for “The Brew Crew”.
Milwaukee was hit hard in free agency as third baseman Mike Moustakas, catcher Yasmani Grandal, and first baseman Eric Thames all signed with other teams. And what it amounts to is 88 homers from the 250 that the Brewers hit last season. Brewers general manager David Stearns was able to sign veteran first baseman Justin Smoak who in his ten-year Major League Baseball career has averaged 25 home runs per season. But in 2019 with the Toronto Blue Jays, Smoak only batted .208 as he joins a Milwaukee team that was only ninth in the National League in the category last season.
A lack of quality starting pitching has plagued the Brewers in recent years as they rely so heavily on their bullpen. Milwaukee’s 4.40 team earned run average was tenth in the National League last season, while they were only able to produce 34 quality starts which was 11. And as the Brewers will once again lean heavily on their bullpen that features the likes of relief pitcher Josh Hader, Counsell will really have to manage this staff effectively in order to avoid them being worn down.
The overall competition in the National League Central has improved, and because of that Milwaukee could get lost in the shuffle in 2020.
Pittsburgh Pirates 65-97
The 2019 Major League Baseball season was a difficult one for the Pittsburgh Pirates as it marked the first time since 2011 that they lost at least 90 games. And for the first since 2010, the Pirates finished in the basement of the National League Central which led to them parting with longtime manager Clint Hurdle. Now after spending the last 15 years as a coach with four different MLB clubs, Derek Shelton will get his opportunity to be the manager of the Pirates. Shelton is taking over a Pirates club that is in the midst of a rebuild, but will he find a way to get them to compete in the N.L. Central in 2020?
Make no mistake about it that the Pirates will be fighting an uphill battle this year in the National League Central, but one everyday player to keep an eye on will be first baseman Josh Bell. In 2019, Bell made his first All-Star Game appearance as he led the team in homers with 37. And after outfielder Starling Marte was traded this off-season by the Pirates to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Bell’s production will be even more important to a team that was 11th in the National League last season in run scored with 758.
The Pirates lost 93 games last year, and look no further than their pitching staff which was abysmal. In 2019, the Pirates were 14th in the National League in team earned run average (5.18) as they were getting lit up. Injuries limited starting pitcher Chris Archer to just 23 starts last season, and Pittsburgh is hopeful that he is healthy in 2020. However with Archer’s contract set to expire at the end of this season, I can foresee a scenario where if he gets off to a strong start this year that new Pirates general manager Ben Cherington will look to trade him to a contender in order to get some prospects in return.
Right out of the chute the Pirates will have to deal with a difficult schedule which includes a pair of series versus the Chicago Cubs as this season could be over before it even starts for the Bucs.