2019 MLB Preview: Let’s try and predict the crazy NL Central

Image result for christian yelich
Christian Yelich mashed his way to the 2018 NL MVP. IAN D’ANDREA

If you missed my breakdown of the AL East and NL East, click here.

What to do with the pesky NL Central? Oh, what to do … what to do. We’ve got last year’s division winners, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew are led by superstar outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and added an excellent catcher in Yasmani Grandal, but the pitching is a question.  The Chicago Cubs are no stranger to stars either; Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the like are still around. But perhaps injuries and the fatigue of constant contention has worn them down. And meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds added firepower and the Pittsburgh Pirates might have the best pitcher in the division. There isn’t an actual bad team to be found here.

The AL Central likely will have a familiar champion. But a slow recovery by superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor could open the door to a push from the Minnesota Twins, who could blossom into an exciting team if a few things go their way.

The bottom of the division is … well …

Let’s dig in.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Christian Yelich

The Brewers as currently constituted are a really good team. Yelich and Cain are about as good a pair of superstars as you’ll find. Grandal was a great addition. Travis Shaw is a heck of a player to have around. Josh Hader’s stuff threatens to violate the Geneva Convention and somehow Jeremy Jeffress was even better last year by bWAR.

And yet … I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy because you kinda need to squint to find a pretty good starting pitcher here. Yes, Jimmy Nelson — another gift to us pitcher-giffers — is healthy. Partnering with him Jhoulys Chacin makes a solid pair of starters, but the rest of this picture doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Brewers starting pitchers finished with a combined -2.2 bWAR last season, 22nd best in the world, amid such luminaries as the Los Angeles Angels. It worked because the bullpen usage was creative, plus the offense and defense were so good — the Brewers non-pitcher WAR ranked third-best in the sport. It might have to be that good again.

It can be.

2. Chicago Cubs

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Kris Bryant

Amazing how good the North Siders are despite the owners being broke. Silly ownership comments aside, isn’t it odd how gloomy the feeling is around the Cubbies? Sure, Kris Bryant didn’t continue his run of MVP-caliber seasons last year; okay, year one of the Yu Darvish experience was a disaster. These are indeed first world problems. They nearly won 100 games and the manufactured rules of the sport kept them from the NLDS.

The Cubs are really good. I’m not high on the rotation at Joe Maddon’s disposal either — as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his excellent newsletter, not a lot of strikeouts here — but much like the Brewers, the elite talent on the position player side is hard to ignore. That infield is incredible, and if Javier Baez finally figures out what walks are, watch out.

But, it’s really hard to keep pushing like this for years on end.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Paul Goldschmidt

Yet another NL Central team with excellent position player talent that you wish had just one more good arm, the St. Louis Cardinals added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to an offense that finished tied for second in the NL by OPS+. This team won’t struggle for runs.

Oh, how the Cards could benefit from having someone like JA Happ on this roster (or even Gio Gonzalez, also gobbled up by the Yankees on a — wait, what? — minor league deal). The Cardinals could really use 170 more quality innings somewhere to pair with Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty. In fairness, that’s true of basically everyone but the Indians; alas, the Birds must hope for health. Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright could all have 2+ WAR years; but if only two of them threw more than 130 innings, would you be shocked?

4. Cincinnati Reds

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Joey Votto

The Reds had an aggressive offseason. They acquired a bunch of outfielders — Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp — plus starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Alex Wood. At the time, I was supportive of the moves, even despite giving away a couple good prospects to get Puig. The Reds have been some frustrating combination of incompetent (the Zack Cozart debacle comes to mind) or immobile since they last made the playoffs. At least the team was trying, right?

It won’t be enough, but the future is bright. Here’s the first key; don’t screw up Nick Senzel. Play him in center field and leave him the hell alone. I’m sure they’ll dick around and leave him the minors for a while, whatever. Once he’s in Cincy, he plays center. Period. Whether he ever plays a full season might be a different — perhaps unanswerable — question.

The second key: can Luis Castillo be a top-end starter? He throws hard and that changeup produces plenty of whiffs, but the fastball is straight as a board and he serves up batting practice way too often. Of the options close to or in the majors, no one else has Castillo’s potential to lead a rotation. Ultimately, the fastball might be what it is, but could mechanical tweaks help him locate it more often? Could a revised approach — a la Masahiro Tanaka — exemplify his strengths?

Also: I guess you can prove yourself now, Sonny Gray.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Goal: Win more than 85 games?
Most Important Player: Jameson Taillon

The Pittsburgh Pirates might boast the division’s two best starting pitchers. Chris Archer didn’t come cheap, but he’s a reliable strikeout machine. Jameson Taillon is rounding into form and is rightfully being pegged around the baseball internet as a Cy Young pick; the stuff is ridiculous and at 27, he could easily break into that conversation. Don’t be surprised if Taillon produces a +6 WAR kind of season.

Starling Marte is a pretty good player and the leader of a sneaky-good outfield. Gregory Polanco took some really promising steps last season and Corey Dickerson has some pop (can someone tell Corey that walks are not only acceptable but in fact encouraged?). Beyond them, this team has enough players to not suck but not enough players to win. Oh, how different this story could be if the Bucs had ponied up for Manny Machado. Alas.

Even if it delays the chances of serious contention, I understand a team and fan base just not wanting to repeat the dreaded years between Bonds and McCutchen again.

I’ll be honest; you can flip the bottom three in any way you want and I could believe it.

NL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Jameson Taillon 1. Christian Yelich
2. Chris Archer 2. Lorenzo Cain
3. Miles Mikolas 3. Paul Goldschmidt

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Francisco Lindor

The Indians are winning the division again, but there are pathways to trouble for Terry Francona’s boys. The team is so top-heavy; Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the starting rotation are by and large all elite. But the outfield? Yuck. The bullpen? Shiver. That’s why the Lindor situation should send a chill up an Indians fan’s back. As long as the stars are all around, this team competes. Losing one exposes the flaws.

Chances are he’ll be fine and the Indians will cruise to the postseason. But the team didn’t address the bullpen situation and with the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros (spoiler) all competing for the same pennant, one wonders if the window is beginning to slam shut.

2. Minnesota Twins

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Jose Berrios

A lot of things have to go right for the Twins to eclipse the Indians. Byron Buxton stays healthy and finds just enough production at the plate; Miguel Sano also stays healthy and mashes. Heck, even if both of those things occur I suspect the Twins would need trouble from the Indians to really compete.

So, instead, let’s talk about Jose Berrios. I love Jose Berrios. You should too. He’s 24, packs a ridiculous curveball and increased his strikeout rate a healthy amount from 2017-18. The challenge for Berrios is controlling that hammer. Somedays he can; that allows his fastball to live up in the zone. Somedays he can’t; hitters lay off the deuce and sit on the fastball.

As a fan of young, highly-giffable pitchers, I hope Berrios figures that out. The AL Central would be loaded with aces.

3. Chicago White Sox

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Eloy Jimenez

Look. If there was ever a team who should have just ponied up and added both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, it was the pale hose. The outfield situation in Chicago is a car crash. Alas, that didn’t happen.

Eloy Jimenez will surely rake once the team decides he’s saved enough service time. Yoan Moncada probably won’t be a star, but he’s a big league regular anyway. Michael Kopech’s injury really sucks. Losing a year of development at 22 isn’t a picnic for the pitcher, the team or the fans. Things could be so different for this club had a few things broken a different way.

4. Detroit Tigers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Jeimer Candelario

Look. For the big league team, the goal is pretty much to lose all the time. Sure, helping Michael Fulmer reclaim his former glory (Editor’s note: Not happening this season) and working with Jeimer Candelario to develop a bit at the plate are solid goals, but the main focus is to lose and continue to build the farm system. The future could be bright — Casey Mize is doing well in his first pro camp, for example. Sometimes rebuilds aren’t pretty. The Tigers should keep stockpiling high draft picks and pour money and manpower into turning those guys into stars.

Instead of dwelling on that, let’s appreciate Miggy. No one thought he’d age gracefully through the massive contract he signed in 2016, but the last two seasons haven’t been pretty. Sometimes aging sluggers collapse.

However, few batters have his plate discipline, even after age and injuries. The power might be gone for good; who knows. But if he can cobble together enough batting average, I bet Miggy can still be a valuable hitter on the walks alone. I’m hoping he hasn’t gone full Pujols on us.

5. Kansas City Royals

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Adalberto Mondesi

Flags fly forever. The Royals probably should have sold the farm awhile ago, cashing in the now-injured Salvador Perez and Merrifield for prospects. They didn’t. Okay. This team has no prayer of winning and holding onto any valuable, nearing-30 big leaguers only pushes the next contention window out further.

But hey — flags fly forever. The Royals won. It just so happens they might not do that again for a while.

AL Central Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Trevor Bauer 1. Jose Ramirez
2. Corey Kluber 2. Francisco Lindor
3. Carlos Carrasco 3. Adalberto Mondesi
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