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BLOG #11: NL Central Projections

The first two weeks of Spring Training is under way, and fans have finally gotten an initial glimpse of live baseball in 2021. There is always this “extra buzz” during the March portion of a baseball season, and while some fans aren’t exactly impressed with the talent and effort on display, Spring Training undeniably provides that well-needed “baseball is back” sensation. Watching high-level players enjoy their craft without the stress of high-leverage situations, as well as watching young players prove why they are deserving of a roster spot is what baseball is all about. As of late, some players are even mic’d up (click here for some 2020 Bryzzo action) and provide witty commentary ranging from their approach at the plate to funny stories that have taken place during the spring. Listening to these interviews enhances the viewing experience and gives fans a small glance of the players’ personalities – which is exceedingly important in a sport that many claim is “too slow” or “too boring.” It may not be everyone’s preference, but Spring Training provides a nice break for both the players and fans to relax just enjoy the purity of the sport.

With the season just three weeks away and teams’ rosters finally beginning to take shape, the decision to do another set of projections felt right. Not only do I get the pleasure of updating myself on what to expect this season now that free agency is over, but I also give myself the opportunity to see how accurate my projections are when the season comes to a close.

I begin my first set of six projections (one for each division) with the one I am most passionate and familiar with: the NL Central. While I may be biased, I truly see a season in which the Cubs are repeat division champs… shocking. I will explain why I believe in my Cubbies and why I can say with certainty the division will be a four team race. Sorry Pittsburgh.

N.L Central 2021 Projection
1st: Chicago Cubs (84-78) —
2nd: Milwaukee Brewers (83-79) 1.0 GB*
3rd: St. Louis Cardinals (80-82) 4.0 GB
4th: Cincinnati Reds (71-91) 13.0 GB
5th: Pittsburgh Pirates (52-110) 32.0 GB
* = games back

1st: Chicago Cubs (84-78)
Manager: David Ross
MVP: Anthony Rizzo
Additions: Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies, Jake Marisnick, Shelby Miller, Joc Pederson, Austin Romine, Eric Sogard, Trevor Williams, Brandon Workman
Departures: Albert Almora Jr., Victor Caratini, Tyler Chatwood, Yu Darvish, Jason Kipnis, Jeremy Jeffress, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Schwarber
Projected Starters:
1) Kyle Hendricks
2) Zach Davies
3) Jake Arrieta
4) Alec Mills
5) Trevor Williams
Adbert Alzolay (potential starter)
Andrew Chafin
Jonathan Holder
Craig Kimbrel (closer)
Shelby Miller (potential starter)
Kyle Ryan
Ryan Tepera
Rowan Wick
Brad Wieck
Brandon Workman
1) Ian Happ (CF)
2) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3) Kris Bryant (3B)
4) Javier Baez (SS)
5) Joc Pederson (LF)
6) Willson Contreras (C)
7) Jason Heyward (RF)
8) Nico Hoerner (2B)
9) –
David Bote IF/OF
Jake Marisnick OF
Cameron Maybin OF
Austin Romine C
Eric Sogard IF

What do the North Siders have in store for the 2021 campaign? This team’s ceiling is winning the division. Only two starters remain on the rotation from last season with the departures of Yu Darvish (SD), Jon Lester (WSH), and Jose Quintana (LAA), so most projections don’t like the Cubs’ chances. Looking at the updated roster, it is also hard to ignore the harsh reality that A LOT of changes took place. The Cubs lost the most players out of any team in the division, and there is a lot that can go wrong in terms of team chemistry when something like that takes place. The focal point, however, needs to be that we still have our core and the starting lineup remains unchanged, which is enough to keep myself optimistic.

What’s the real reason the Cubs strike me as division favorites despite losing so many players? Because the NL Central is the worst division in baseball and none of the other teams got that much better! The Cubs started the offseason with the Darvish trade, and then went silent. Fans like myself worried about the trajectory of the franchise, especially with the news of our President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein stepping down just months before. Along with the decision to “limit” spending and endless trade rumors swirling about involving high-profile names such as Bryant, Hendricks, and Contreras, the team looked like it was on pace for a rebuild and a fourth place finish. Luckily, none of those outrageous trade rumors came into fruition and we even managed to sign a couple guys in the last couple weeks of free agency.

I won’t lie, losing Darvish hurts. That was our ace and he got better as his tenure with the Cubs progressed. Aside from Darvish and Jeffress, the Cubs didn’t lose anyone else that would have helped win a significant amount of baseball games in 2021. Pederson was a clean exchange for Schwarber, the bench/depth players we gained are similar to the guys we lost, and we added lots of “low-risk, high-reward” arms to a rotation and bullpen that was already on the downswing. This team has the potential to be a top 10 offense and defense in the league, including six guys who have the potential to reach 30 HR and 4 players capable of a gold glove. The issue, however, looms with our pitching staff. The average velocity of our starters is dangerously low and there are tons of question marks in the bullpen that will most likely arise throughout the season. This leads us with the unfortunate possibility of possessing a bottom 10 staff in the league.

In simpler terms: If the Cubs rotation and bullpen is a train wreck it would take one hell of an offense to put together a division title, and a playoff chance is pretty much out the window. If we manage to avoid being a complete train wreck and our pitchers perform somewhere near “average”, I don’t see how any of the other teams beat us this season when our offense figures it out. In the shortened 2020 season, the Cubs found a way to win the division while heavily underperforming; let’s just hope that underperformance was left behind in 2020.

2nd: Milwaukee Brewers (83-79)
Manager: Craig Counsell
MVP: Christian Yelich
Additions: Jackie Bradley Jr., Kolten Wong, Travis Shaw, Jordan Zimmermann
Departures: Ryan Braun, Ben Gamel, Jedd Gyorko, Corey Knebel
Projected Starters:
1) Brandon Woodruff
2) Corbin Burnes
3) Josh Lindblom
4) Adrian Houser
5) Brett Anderson

Brad Boxberger
Josh Hader (closer)
Eric Lauer (potential starter)
Freddy Peralta
Drew Rasmussen
Brent Suter
Justin Topa
Devin Williams
Jordan Zimmermann

1) Kolten Wong (2B)
2) Lorenzo Cain (LF)
3) Christian Yelich (RF)
4) Keston Hiura (1B)
5) Jackie Bradley Jr. (CF)
6) Travis Shaw (3B)
7) Orlando Arcia (SS)
8) Omar Narvaez (C)
9) –

Avisail Garcia OF
Manny Pina C
Billy McKinney OF
Daniel Robertson IF
Luis Urias IF
Daniel Vogelbach 1B

The Milwaukee Brewers had a disappointing 2020, placing fourth in the division and their worst finish since 2016. Players like Corbin Burnes and Devin Williams had exceptional years, while others like Christian Yelich, Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff, and Keston Hiura showed flashes of success but ultimately struggled with their consistency. The additions of Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. via free agency as well as adding Lorenzo Cain back into the mix from injury, gives the Brewers a very high chance to win the division. Milwaukee boasts the best outfield in the Central with four real options in Garcia, Cain, Bradley Jr., and Yelich; add McKinney into the mix and it can certainly help Cain stay healthy and fresh throughout his 12th season in the majors.

In terms of pitching, both the bullpen and rotation have a nasty 1-2 punch with Williams/Hader and Woodruff/Burnes. The remainder of Milwaukee’s arms are relatively solid, and makes a case for the best pitching staff in the division and a top 10 staff in the league. Similar to the Cubs, the Brewers look to play to their potential and rely heavily on their defense. Unlike the Cubs, the Brewers are relying more on their pitching rather than their bats.

While this team still has an offense that can put up runs, it most likely will not be a team that does so via home runs. The Brewers have always been amongst the top teams in the MLB in home run totals each year, given they play in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. This year, however, the Brewers’ lineup strikes me as a team that will finish more in the middle of the pack. After finishing second in strikeouts in 2020, Milwaukee’s main concern at the plate has shifted to putting the ball in play rather than focusing on power (the power will come eventually). Players like Yelich look to improve after a horrendous 2020, and a bounce back campaign for the former MVP seems very likely now that he has a full season to work with. If the Cubs weren’t the division winner in 2021, Milwaukee is my next best guess. They have all the tools to do so with a good manager, rotation, bullpen, and an improved defense. The only thing stopping the Brew Crew this season will be their offensive performance, or hopefully lack thereof.

3rd: St. Louis Cardinals (80-82)
Manager: Mike Schildt
MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
Additions: Nolan Arenado, Matt Szczur
Departures: Dexter Fowler, Austin Gomber, Brad Miller, Matt Wieters, Kolten Wong
Projected Starters:
1) Jack Flaherty
2) Kwang-Hyun Kim
3) Adam Wainwright
4) Miles Mikolas
5) * (potential fifth starter)
Genesis Cabrera
Giovanny Gallegos
John Gant*
Ryan Helsley
Jordan Hicks (closer)
Dakota Hudson*
Carlos Martinez*
Andrew Miller
Daniel Ponce de Leon*
Alex Reyes*
Tyler Webb
1) Tommy Edman (2B)
2) Paul DeJong (SS)
3) Paul Goldschmidt (1B)
4) Nolan Arenado (3B)
5) Dylan Carlson (RF)
6) Yadier Molina (C)
7) Tyler O’Neill (LF)
8) Harrison Bader (CF)
9) –
Matt Carpenter 3B
Andrew Knizner C
Lane Thomas OF
Edmundo Sosa IF

The St. Louis Cardinals made a statement this offseason when they announced a trade with the Colorado Rockies for 3B Nolan Arenado. The 8x gold glove winner and 5x all star makes this team substantially better, and will undoubtedly provide significant improvement on both sides of the diamond. After losing their best defensive infielder in Kolten Wong, the Cardinals managed to at least bolster the left side of their infield with Arenado, while sliding Edman over to second base. The Cards also desperately needed an impact bat, and Arenado looks to form a lethal duo with Paul Goldschmidt that can potentially combine for 65+ HR and 200+ RBIs. Unfortunately, the bottom of the lineup looks awful, and I don’t see the 6-9 hitters really contributing all that much on the offensive side of things. In order for the Cardinals to win the division, the bottom of the lineup will need to step up in high-leverage situations or at the very least work counts in their plate appearances. Aside from that, the young talent of Edman and Carlson along with the veteran presence of DeJong and Carpenter hope to assist “Goldenado” and improve an offense that ranked last in the MLB in home runs in 2020.

The rotation centers around Flaherty and Kim, with the rest of their arms as questionable as they come. Adam Wainwright performed well the last two seasons, and will definitely show flashes of brilliance on the mound in 2021. The chance the 39 year old maintains that level of play for a full 162 is slim, and the Cardinals may look to become buyers at the deadline for another starter to share his workload heading into the second half. Miles Mikolas could be a dark horse this season, as it was only two years ago the former all star went 18-4 and finished 6th in Cy Young voting. The fifth spot remains the big question mark as it is still up for grabs, with as many as 5-6 names that could potentially fill that role.

Similar to Chicago and Milwaukee, St. Louis has that 1-2 punch in their rotation, but unlike the Brewers (and just like my Cubs) the rest of the pitchers don’t impress me. The bullpen has a lot of potential, however, and with a closer like Jordan Hicks back in the picture the Cardinals can be hard to score on in late-inning games. Injuries have been tough for St. Louis in the past, particularly in their bullpen, and because of that it is hard to gauge what to expect with any of their pitchers this season.

Why do I think the Cardinals are in line for a third place finish after just two posts ago I had them as division winners? Besides Nolan, the Cardinals had a very quiet offseason. I understand they are trying to stay within their roster and rely on their minor league talent, but they were truly one MLB-ready starter away from being the clear favorites for the division; and they didn’t so a single thing! How much of that had to do with focusing on the long-term vs. just this upcoming season? My guess is a lot.

With how stacked the NL already is, the Cardinals might be settling for competing for the division, seeing how things play out, and then pushing hard in next year’s free agency. The Cardinals won the division in 2019 and never really got the chance to compete in 2020 with all of their COVID issues, so it’s hard to have any idea what is in store for them in 2021 (for all I know they feel confident with the team they have). One thing is for sure, the St. Louis Cardinals have positioned themselves very well for years to come, while also still possessing a favorable shot at success this upcoming season.

Side note: I hope Yadi and Waino have good seasons, it’ll be sad to see them go…

4th: Cincinnati Reds (71-91)
Manager: David Bell
MVP: Luis Castillo
Arrivals: Sean Doolittle, Edgar Garcia, Jeff Hoffman, Tyler Naquin, Josh Osich, Noe Ramirez, Dee Strange-Gordon
Departures: Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley, Curt Casali, Anthony Desclafani, Freddy Galvis, Brian Goodwin, Raisel Iglesias
Projected Starters:
1) Luis Castillo
2) Sonny Gray
3) Tyler Mahle
4) Wade Miley
5) Michael Lorenzen

Tejay Antone
Cam Bedrosian
Jose De Leon
Sean Doolittle
Amir Garrett (closer)
Jeff Hoffman
Noe Ramirez
Sal Romano
Lucas Sims

1) Jesse Winker (LF)
2) Nicholas Castellanos (RF)
3) Joey Votto (1B)
4) Eugenio Suarez (3B)
5) Mike Moustakas (2B)
6) Nick Senzel (CF)
7) Kyle Farmer (SS)
8) Tucker Barnhart (C)
9) –

Shogo Akiyama OF
Aristides Aquino OF
Jose Garcia IF
Kyle Holder IF
Tyler Naquin OF
Tyler Stephenson C
Dee Strange-Gordon IF/OF

After finishing fourth in the division and 12 games under .500 in 2019, the Reds were a team that carried a lot of excitement heading into the start of the 2020 season. They brought in Trevor Bauer, Mike Moustakas, Nicholas Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama, and Wade Miley – which ultimately led to a postseason birth for the first time since 2013. Yet, just as quickly as their success began, it came to a disastrous end. They were shutout in both games of their wild card series against the Braves last year and similar to 2019, will most likely finish in fourth again this season. Bauer may have represented the Reds last year with a Cy Young, but when a team is unable to score 1 run in 13 innings of a playoff game in which he pitched, no one can blame him for wanting to take his talents elsewhere.

Cincinnati may not be the most intriguing team heading into this 2021 season, but a couple bounces go their way and you never know. With a lineup that boasts names such as Votto, Suarez, Castellanos, Moustakas, and Winker – the potential is clearly there. Along with depth players such as Aquino, Akiyama, and Strange-Gordon, if the Reds were to play their best baseball and the rest of the division were to underperform, it is not out of the equation for the Reds to finesse a division title. How likely is that to actually happen? The same as a team in this division winning more than 95 games this season… so not very probable.

Aside from their lineup, the Reds center their rotation around Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray while also adding quality names such as Sean Doolittle and Noe Ramirez to their bullpen. I don’t want to completely bash the Reds, but they’re fighting an uphill battle this season and their pitching staff isn’t all too exciting. But hey, they are at least better than Pittsburgh.

With that being said, the chances that Castillo and/or Gray is moved before the trade deadline next year is highly likely. Castillo’s tenure in Cincinnati has been prolonged, and if the Reds aren’t in contention the organization owes him a trade to a contending team. On the defensive side of things, this team is average at best aside from 2020 gold glove winner and catcher Tucker Barnhart. The last two seasons the Reds have been in the top half of the MLB in DRS, or defensive runs saved (a metric that compiles all of the defensive ratings into a single number that equals the number of actual runs saved or allowed), and with most players returning I do not see that changing. This team can be an underdog this season, and since no one in this division is going to win by more than 10 games, if the Reds stay in the hunt and become buyers at the deadline, anything can happen. Being realistic though, even Joey Votto knows this season won’t lead to a division title. Right Joey?

5th: Pittsburgh Pirates (52-110)
Manager: Derek Shelton
MVP: Ke’Bryan Hayes
Additions: Tyler Anderson, Todd Frazier, Brian Goodwin
Departures: Chris Archer, Josh Bell, Derek Holland, Keone Kela, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams
Projected Starters:
1) Steven Brault
2) Mitch Keller
3) Tyler Anderson
4) Chad Kuhl
5) JT Brubaker
David Bednar
Kyle Crick
Wil Crowe (potential starter)
Michael Feliz
Geoff Hartleb
Sam Howard
Luis Oveido
Richard Rodriguez (closer)
Chasen Shreve
Chris Stratton
1) Adam Frazier (2B)
2) Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)
3) Colin Moran (1B)
4) Bryan Reynolds (LF)
5) Gregory Polanco (RF)
6) Anthony Alford (CF)
7) Jacob Stallings (C)
8) Kevin Newman (SS)
9) –
Phillip Evans (IF)
Dustin Fowler (OF)
Todd Frazier (3B)
Erik Gonzalez (IF)
Brian Goodwin (OF)
Cole Tucker (IF/OF)
Tony Wolters (C)

“Anything is possible” unfortunately does not apply to Pittsburgh this year, or frankly any year for that matter. The Pirates will again finish as a bottom tier team in the league this season, contending with the Rockies, Orioles, and Rangers as baseball’s worst team. For a team that went 19-41 in the shortened 60 game season last year, they managed to get even worse and their record will surely reflect that in 2021. The Pirates completely wiped their starting rotation this offseason losing Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, and Trevor Williams. This leaves the five starters on the rotation for next season with 17 years of combined experience, posting a pathetic combined WAR (wins above replacement) of 13.1 in that span. The only thing Pirates’ fans should keep an eye on this year in terms of pitching would be the development of starter Mitch Keller, and the expectation that how he plays now can help him prepare for meaningful baseball later on down the road (if that time ever comes).

The lineup for the Pirates this year is without their best hitter the last couple seasons in first basemen Josh Bell, who took his talents to D.C. I expect below-average years for everyone on their roster except Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is the only bright spot in all of Pittsburgh. In just 24 games last season, Hayes posted the highest WAR on the team despite playing in half as many games. Expect the Bucs to finish bottom five in the league in terms of offensive stats for 2021.

Transitioning over to their bullpen, there is not much excitement for that group of guys either. The closing role is Richard Rodriguez’s for now, after posting his highest strikeout percentage and lowest walk rate last year. Unfortunately, if he performs well this season the odds of him being dealt at the trade deadline is highly likely; good news for him, bad news for the Pirates. The rest of the pen is average at best, with most of them just prospects in the early stages of their MLB career. The defense looks to be a little better this season, as it’s hard to do any worse than accumulating the most errors and owning the second lowest fielding percentage amongst all teams in the majors the season prior. Hayes may have been the only player on the roster with the potential to win a gold glove, but doing so at third base is almost impossible when you have a guy like Nolan Arenado standing in your way.

Long story short Pirates fans: your offense is Ke’Bryan Hayes, your defense is Ke’Bryan Hayes, and your team? You guessed it… Ke’Bryan Hayes. That is pretty much all the Pirates have to offer after exploding their roster AGAIN and shedding payroll to $45M in 2021. Expect a sub-55 win season this year. Ouch.

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