By Shane Hulsey
Will the Brewers take the division for the second straight year and make a run at the World Series? Will the Cubs return to 2016 form and regain control of the division? Will the Cardinals be the Cardinals again and return to their old ways? Do the Reds and Pirates have the pieces to make a run?
All are poignant questions regarding the National League Central heading into the 2019 season. The consensus in most circles is that it is a three-team race between Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis, but Cincinnati and Pittsburgh may have something to say about that.
I consulted a fan from each team with Quincy University connections to get their take on their favorite team. I talked to current students (Brewers fan Nate Krueger and Cardinals fan Brenon Crenshaw), former students (Cubs fan Adam Bednarek and Reds fan Damon Maynard) and a professor (Pirates fan Robert Manning, Ph.D.).
Let’s take a look at how each team stacks up and what each fan’s prospectus is for their team and the rest of the division.
2018 record: 96-67 (1st)
Key additions: C Yasmani Grandal, RP Alex Claudio, OF Ben Gamel
Key subtractions: OF Keon Broxton (traded to Texas), 2B/SS Jonathan Schoop (signed with Minnesota)
2019 Outlook: The Brewers did not lose a whole lot of talent from last year’s team that took the Dodgers to Game 7 of the NLCS. They added one of the best catchers in the league in Yasmani Grandal (24 home runs, .815 OPS in 2018 with the Dodgers). The re-signings of Travis Shaw and Mike Moustakas solidify a strong infield with Jesus Aguilar at first base and Orlando Arcia at shortstop. Oh, and they have Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, headmanning the outfield alongside Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain. Don’t forget about Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress in the back end of the bullpen, either.
The Brewers really have no glaring weaknesses except that they lack a true ace. They have a solid one through five, but they don’t have a proven No. 1 at the top of the rotation. Milwaukee will need a 2018-esque year from Jhoulys Chacin (15-8, 3.50 ERA in 35 starts) and Jimmy Nelson, who missed all of 2018 with a shoulder injury, to stay healthy if the Brew Crew want to solidify their chances at a second straight NL Central crown.
What does the fan say? Krueger had a name in mind that could help the Brewers get over the hump and return to the World Series for the first time since 1982.
“I’m really hoping we can sign another starting pitcher, like Dallas Keuchel,” he said. “We’re already in great shape, but if we do that, I think we’ll be in even better shape.”
2018 record: 95-68 (2nd)
Key additions: RP Xavier Cedeño, RP Brad Brach
Key subtractions: 2B Daniel Murphy (signed with Colorado), RP Jesse Chavez (signed with Texas), RP Justin Wilson (signed with New York Mets)
2019 Outlook: Minus Daniel Murphy, the lineup looks pretty much identical to last year’s, which ranked in the middle to the top of the pack in most major offensive categories. Kris Bryant missed 50 games in 2018 with a shoulder injury, but he appears healthy, so expect him to return to form in 2019. If Javier Baez can come anywhere close to his MVP-runner-up 2018 season, the Cubs will have a formidable lineup capable of competing with the best in the league. Manager Joe Maddon likes to mix up his lineup, but whatever lineup he chooses, he has a lot of interchangeable parts to mix and match.
The Cubbies’ rotation is aging but solid. Cole Hamels pitched very well after coming over in a trade from Texas last July, posting a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts with Chicago. Jon Lester had a typical Jon Lester year, going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 181.2 innings over 32 starts. Yu Darvish returns after making just eight starts and missing roughly 75 percent of the 2018 season. The back end of the bullpen remains pretty much intact, with closer Brandon Morrow coming off a career year with a 1.47 ERA and 22 saves. The Cubs and Brewers have the two best bullpens on paper in the division.
What does the fan say? Bednarek said there is not much room for error in a division that is likely to be crowded at the top.
“It’s World Series or bust,” he said. “There isn’t much wiggle room in this division, though. This year in the Central you can’t go on seven-game losing skids and expect to be there at the end.”
St. Louis Cardinals
2018 record: 88-74 (3rd)
Key additions: RP Andrew Miller, 1B Paul Goldschmidt
Key subtractions: RP Bud Norris (unsigned), RP Tyler Lyons (signed with Pittsburgh), SP/RP Luke Weaver (traded to Arizona)
2019 Outlook: The Cardinals made the splash of the early offseason, landing Paul Goldschmidt in a four-player deal with Arizona on Dec. 6. Two weeks later, they signed Andrew Miller, one of the top free-agent relievers on the market, to a two-year, $25-million deal. Miller solidifies a bullpen that struggled at times last year but pitched well down the stretch with the emergence of Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson in the set-up roles.
Miles Mikolas, who hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2014, turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings of the 2018 offseason. Mikolas emerged as the team’s ace, going 18-4 and posting a 2.83 ERA in 200.2 innings. He made his first All-Star Game and finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting. The Cardinals paid Mikolas for his breakout campaign, signing the 29-year-old to a four-year, $68 million contract extension through 2023. Jack Flaherty also emerged as a solid No. 2 in his rookie season, striking out 182 batters, posting a 3.34 ERA in 151 innings and finishing fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Goldschmidt bolsters a lineup that hopes to see a resurgence from Dexter Fowler (.180 average in 289 at-bats in 2018). Fowler has been tabbed the Opening Day starter in right field, so José Martinez, who hit .305 in 2018 and signed a two-year extension this offseason, will likely have to primarily come off the bench unless Fowler’s struggles continue. With the Goldschmidt signing, Matt Carpenter will likely spend most of his time at third base. Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong will have to be more consistent at the plate, and Marcell Ozuna will have to get off to a much better start than he did in 2018.
What does the fan say? Crenshaw said the Cardinals only improved from their near-playoff run last season.
“We were only a few games out of the postseason last year, and we signed two All-Star caliber players, so we should be in good position to make a run this year,” he said.
2018 record: 82-79 (4th)
Key additions: OF Lonnie Chisenhall, SP Jordan Lyles, 2B Erik Gonzalez, OF Melky Cabrera
Key subtractions: OF Jordan Luplow (traded to Cleveland), SS Jordy Mercer (signed with Detroit), IF/OF Josh Harrison (signed with Detroit)
2019 Outlook: The Pirates are sort of stuck in neutral, not at the bottom of the league but not strong enough (at least not proven enough) to compete with the top dogs. They have a decent rotation led by Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer, who they acquired via trade with Tampa at the 2018 deadline. Most of their offseason moves were depth moves, adding outfield depth with Chisenhall, getting some help in the back end of the rotation with Lyles, and shoring up the middle infield with Gonzalez, who they gave up Jordan Luplow to get from Cleveland.
After a rocky start in 2018, Felipe Vazquez settled nicely into the closer role, finishing third in the NL behind Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen with 37 saves. Keone Kela has settled into the set-up role, and Kyle Crick has become a reliable arm in the middle innings.
The Buccos will look for more consistency out of the leadoff spot from Starling Marté, whose on-base percentage declined for the second straight year in 2018 (.362 in 2016, to .333 in 2017, to .327 in 2018). Marté did hit a career-high 20 home runs, and the speed is always going to be there, so prospects are good for the 30-year-old centerfielder.
Josh Bell didn’t put up near the power numbers he did in 2017 (26 home runs and 90 RBI in 2017 down to 12 home runs and 62 RBI in 2018), so a return to 2017 form, or somewhere close, is necessary for the switch-hitting first baseman. With right fielder Gregory Polanco out until at least May 1 with a shoulder injury, Chisenhall and Cabrera will have to fill the void in the corner outfield while Polanco heals.
What does the fan say? Manning was none too pleased about the Cardinals signing Goldschmidt, but he said he is excited to see a particular Pirates player get a chance to prove himself as an everyday player.
“The Cardinals have had (Mark) McGwire, (Albert) Pujols, and now Goldschmidt. Just another first baseman to ruin my life as a Pirates fan,” he said. “I’m glad to see Adam Frazier get a chance at second base now that Harrison’s gone. Things are looking up, but they just have to live up to expectations.”
2018 record: 67-95 (5th)
Key additions: OF Matt Kemp, OF Yasiel Puig, SP Alex Wood, SP Sonny Gray
Key subtractions: SP Homer Bailey (traded to LA Dodgers), CF Billy Hamilton (signed with Kansas City), SP Matt Harvey (signed with LA Angels)
2019 Outlook: It seems like the Reds are done (or very close to done) rebuilding and are ready to win now. They acquired Kemp, Puig and Wood in a Dec. 21 trade with the Dodgers and bolstered their rotation with Gray, who will likely slide into the third spot behind Wood and Luis Castillo. Castillo posted the lowest ERA of any Reds starter in 2018 at 4.30, and the Reds’ 4.65 staff ERA was second-worst in the NL. The ballpark doesn’t help, but an improvement from the starting pitching is imperative if the Reds want to compete for a playoff spot in 2019.
David Hernandez, Jared Hughes and Raisel Iglesias were reliable in the back end of the bullpen last season, as all had ERA’s of 2.53 or less, but no other reliever was able to give Cincinnati consistent innings out of the ‘pen. If the Reds’ starters can get through six innings with a lead, and they have those three for the seventh, eighth and ninth, they have to like their chances.
The lineup, at least on paper, looks scary. Eugenio Suarez clubbed 34 home runs and had an OPS near .900 in 2018, and Joey Votto is still Joey Votto. If Scooter Gennett continues to put up power numbers (he had 20-plus home runs, 90-plus RBI and a .490-plus slugging percentage for the second straight year in 2018), and the Kemp and Puig signings pan out, the Reds might boast one of the better lineups in the NL. Factor in a former Gold Glove winner behind the plate in Tucker Barnhart and a top prospect in Nick Senzel ready to take over in center field, the future’s looking bright for the Redlegs.
What does the fan say? Maynard believed his team will be much improved from recent years, but he still had concerns about the NL Central’s depth.
“I think the Reds will be a sneaky good team this year,” he said. “But everyone in the NL Central can compete. The Cubs and Brewers proved that they are postseason teams, and the Cardinals made huge moves and are now just as good. The Pirates have a bunch of young talent, too.”