The National League Central has not been seen as a strong division in some time, but in 2019, it looks like it could be the best in baseball where arguments can be made that every team has a legitimate shot at the Division or at least a Wild Card spot. After the Central was essentially a two-team race in 2018, it looks like it will be the most fun division to watch going forward into 2019.
1. Milwaukee Brewers
My boldest prediction of the 2018 season was that the Brewers, not the Chicago Cubs, would come out on top in the Nationals League Central (much to the dismay of one particular Cubs fan on Twitter). While few thought that the prediction would stand the test of a season, it did, well sort of. The Brewers and Cubs tied in 2018 with a 95-67 record, resulting in a one-game tiebreaker to determine the Division Champion and the Wild Card team. The Brewers prevailed and the Cubs went on to lose the Wild Card Game.
Now, the Brewers will be back for more and it will not be as close as last season. The Brewers have a solid starting rotation led by Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Zach Davies, and an incredible bullpen led by Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel. On the offensive front, 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich, All-Star Lorenzo Cain, the newly acquired Yasmani Grandal, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, and breakout star Jesus Aguliar will make up one of the most potent batting lineups in baseball. The Brewers are a star-studded team that will run away with the division in 2019.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals made headlines once this offseason for the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt who will now take over at first base with Matt Carpenter moving to third. Paul DeJong will continue to man short with Kolten Wong at second. Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler will run the outfield and, as always, Yadier Molina will call the shots behind home plate. The rotation is led by Miles Mikolas who after spending three years in Japan before an incredible 2018 season, intends to prove that it was not a fluke. The bullpen is led by fireballer Jordan Hicks and stud Andrew Miller to make for a solid roster from top to bottom that will turn heads in 2019.
3. Chicago Cubs
After settling for a Wild Card Spot and losing the Wild Card Game within a matter of days (both times in Wrigley), the Cubs will bring back most of their lineup from last year after making no major offseason acquisitions or trades. Despite their lack of action this offseason, the Cubs still have a solid core led by 2018 National League MVP runner-up Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Ben Zobrist, and Kris Bryant. The Cubs also have a solid starting rotation with Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks with Yu Darvish being a solid force if he can revert back to his former self with the Rangers and Dodgers in 2017. The bullpen also has some question marks with Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow but besides these two the Cubs have a solid pen. The Cubs will have a solid season but will fall short of the Milwaukee Brewers for the second year in a row.
4. Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds made some improvements to their lineup that will speed up the rebuild they have been in the middle of for some time now. While they will not be contenders in 2019, the Reds are priming to compete within the next few seasons. Cincinnati took one of baseball’s worst rotations and added Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, and the volatile Sonny Gray. On the offensive front, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp are now Reds and they will join the Reds’ star-studded threesome of Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett, and Eugenio Suarez.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
After popping in and out of contention in 2018, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not a bad team, but they are also not a great one and in this division, that is not a good recipe. The Pirates have a solid starting rotation headed by Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, and Chris Archer, but the offense is cause for concern with no real standouts, although Corey Dickerson, Francisco Cervelli, Gregory Polanco, and Josh Bell are all solid if healthy.
1. St Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were the benefactors of the Arizona Diamondbacks throwing in the towel of the recently successful teams, and ended up with All-Star Paul Goldschmidt. This allows them to play Matt Carpenter full time at third base, and now they can platoon Jedd Gyorko instead of having to actually start him. Their rotation appears strong, led by Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty who blossomed in 2018 and is poised to make a big jump in 2019. Andrew Miller certainly isn’t what he was for the Indians in 2016 any longer, but he still adds another solid bullpen piece and could be a great mentor for Jordan Hicks who is one fun flamethrower to watch. One wild card could be pitcher Alex Reyes – who keeps getting hurt – but when healthy was one of the most anticipated pitching prospects we’ve had in some time.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: After winning the most games in the National League last year, I was disappointed the Brewers did nothing in the off-season to help the starting rotation. That alone makes me put them back to second place. After a career year from Jhoulys Chacin, the plan is…more of the same? Josh Hader was, of course, incredible all season long and especially in the playoffs, but his division mate Andrew Miller should be a cautionary warning that all of those innings will catch up to you. Yasmani Grandal was a nice addition behind the plate, but I don’t think it will be enough for the Brewers to repeat as NL Central Champions.
3. Chicago Cubs: The Cubs entered September with the best record in the National League, and before you could barely finish blinking it was all over. First, they catastrophically fell to tie the Brewers after Game 162, then lost Game 163 before finishing off the collapse by losing the wild-card playoff game. If anyone can fix the ship, it is Joe Maddon, who himself isn’t guaranteed a spot beyond this year. Last year their free agency pitching spends went belly up to injury and poor performance. Yu Darvish being Yu Darvish could be a vital piece in getting the Cubs back to the playoffs. Cole Hamels seemed rejuvenated when he joined the team – but can he keep it going another full season along with Jon Lester? I don’t think they can and face some interesting questions heading into 2020.
4. Cincinnati Reds: I love what the Reds did this off-season. They had several players step up last season, led by Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, and stalwart Joey Votto. Yet there were even more positives for this team. Jose Peraza quietly put together his best season yet with a Baseball-Reference WAR rating of 2.3. They have some good young arms including Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo and new addition Tanner Roark. I’ve long had a soft spot for Matt Wisler who may start in the bullpen or AAA but has shown flashes of greatness with both the Braves and Padres minor league system before that. Then this off-season they traded for an outfield from the Dodgers, netting Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Puig should start – but Kemp is likely a 4th outfielder in lieu of youngsters Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler. While this division will be tough to compete in, I’m excited to see how this team comes together and so happy that a team like the Reds is making competitive moves for now and the future.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates: Watch out for these Pirates as well. The Pirates develop good players and also have shown a knack for developing players who fail to develop with other teams. They have some good young pitching anchored by Chris Archer and Jamison Taillon, and the offense should be sturdy if not explosive with another season of Gregor Polanco, Starling Marte, and Josh Bell together. Just not good enough to make a real challenge in the talent National League Central.
Make sure to tune in tomorrow for Doubleday Double Talk’s National League West Division Preview.