When the offseason kicked off, the National League East’s flurry of moves spotlit the four-team race between the Nationals, Braves, Mets and Phillies as a premier event of the 2019 season. Since then, the National League Central has drummed up quite the competition of their own. PECOTA projections for the 2019 season recently surprised many by dropping the Cubs all the way to last place with a projected record of 79-83. The Brewers are pegged to win 88 games, 85 for the Cardinals, 81 for the Reds and 80 for the Pirates, the takeaway here being that there are five competitive clubs with a shot to win the NL Central. Last year the division gave us a three-team race between the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers that ended in thrilling fashion. After flirting with the division lead for most of two seasons. the Brew Crew finally caught the Cubs and took the NL Central crown in a one-game playoff. The Brewers are the new kings of the Central, but clocks reset and everyone starts from zero on Opening Day, when the race begins anew.
Not only did the Brewers win the Central in 2018, but they’re on the shortlist for winners of the winter. By adding Yasmani Grandal on a one-year deal, bringing back Mike Moustakas and adding another shifty left-hander to the bullpen in Alex Claudio, the Brewers are going for the kill. They still don’t have a bonafide ace, but they didn’t last year either and the staff is deep. Besides, they have reigning MVP Christian Yelich leading a hungry group that’s gotten better every year under Craig Counsell en route to their NLCS loss to the Dodgers. The young Cubs lost the 2015 NLCS and came back to win it all the next season – the Brewers very well could do the same.
The Cubs still won 95 games, and they are returning close to the same club for 2019. They added around edges with Brad Brach and Xavier Cedeno in the bullpen mix and Daniel Descalso taking over David Ross’ empty seat as spirit of the clubhouse. Otherwise, they kept Cole Hamels around for $20MM, they kept Addison Russell around despite his suspension, but all of a sudden the kingpin of the central has been pronounced dead upon impact. Of course, the frightening amalgamate known as Bryzzo is a proven foundation, and if Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo return to form and stay healthy, the first-place Cubs may yet live again.
The Cardinals machine kept pumping in 2018 en route to 88 wins, and they’ve added perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Matt Carpenter will be hitting leadoff for them again, Yadier Molina remains entrenched behind the plate, and they have a slew of young arms ready to make an impact for the major league club. Question marks surround their most-trusted veteran arms as Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright have to prove they’re healthy enough to contribute. Mike Shildt is getting rave reviews for the impact he has had on this ballclub, and in his first full season as skipper, a division title is very much in reach so long as they stick to the Cardinal Way.
In recent seasons, that’s where the conversation has ended – but not this year. The Reds remain a distant fourth for the time being, but for the first time in a long time they made significant upgrades to their starting staff with Alex Wood, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark. The offense should continue to mash in Great American Ballpark, and there’s some real excitement around this team. Top prospect Nick Senzel may break camp as, suddenly, a centerfielder, but even if he doesn’t, Yasiel Puig is more than happy to stall for time and entertain the crowds in Cincy until Senzel is ready. If nothing else, the Reds are definitely a better team than in 2018, and they’re fun.
The Pirates are the sleeper here, which is a kind way of saying they’re likeliest to land in the cellar. They’ve been mostly forgotten in a winter without a significant free agent acquisition, but they have made changes. Their middle infield plays for the Tigers now, and the new duo of Adam Frazier and Erik Gonzalez don’t have to do a ton to match the production from Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, who combined for only 0.4 rWAR while missing significant chunks of time. GM Neil Huntington’s major additions came last July with Chris Archer and Keone Kela, and this team was better than most of us remember in 2018, finishing with 82 wins. If Archer finds his top form and Jameson Taillon takes a step forward in his development, the Pirates might surprise us.
Maybe the Cubs will surprise everyone and sign Bryce Harper tomorrow, but more than likely these teams are who they are for the beginning of 2019. PECOTA has the Brewers at the top with the other four not far behind. What say you?