Home Featured NL Central Preview: Three key questions for each team

NL Central Preview: Three key questions for each team

by Chris Brown

While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in just over one week. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.

With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. We continue our series with the National League Central.

Chicago Cubs

Is this the team’s last chance to compete with its current core?

With a few minor exceptions, the entire core of the Cubs recent playoff teams remains intact. But that isn’t likely to last much longer. Jose Quintana is set to be a free agent following the season. If their club options aren’t picked up, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo could be as well. And with Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber only under team control through 2021, it’s clear the Cubs are going to look a lot different in just a few years. And while there were plenty of changes to the coaching staff this past offseason — including bringing in new manager David Ross to replace Joe Maddon — changes to the roster itself were minor, with just a few low-cost depth additions. The team clearly believes the star power they currently possess is enough to get them back to the World Series in the short term. But they are not without vulnerabilities, particularly in the pitching staff.

Will Craig Kimbrel recapture his previous form?

Kimbrel’s 2019 season is one he’d probably rather forget. After signing a three-year contract with the Cubs in June and getting a late start to the season, the seven-time All-Star never looked quite right, and though he registered 13 saves in 20 ⅔ innings, that came with a 6.63 ERA (and 8.00 FIP). In his final appearance of 2019, Kimbrel surrendered back-to-back home runs to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on back-to-back pitches as the Cardinals defeated Chicago and pushed the Cubs further out of the playoff picture. The most dominant reliever of the past decade, Kimbrel registered 30+ saves each year from 2011-18, posting a cumulative 1.97 ERA in that eight-year stretch and finishing top 10 in Cy Young balloting five times. At age 32, it’s certainly possible he never reaches an elite level again, but with two more years on his contract, the Cubs will give him every opportunity they can to do just that. In a 60-game season, though, the leash can’t be too long.

Could the shortened season greatly benefit a fragile rotation?

One area of great weakness for the Cubs is starting pitching depth, something that became even more problematic when Jose Quintana required surgery after cutting his thumb while doing the dishes. With Quintana now set to miss the start of the shortened season, the team may go without a fifth starter to begin the year, something that illustrates their lack of strong depth options. 36-year-old Jon Lester’s career appears to be in decline, though last year’s numbers indicate a steep dropoff in performance in the second half. If fatigue was the problem, the 60-game schedule could really benefit Lester. And after a year-and-a-half of, well, mixed results, Yu Darvish looked like his old self down the stretch in 2019. If he can carry that over into this season, and remain healthy (which has been a problem in his career), Darvish could be the ace the team will need to make a real postseason push.

Cincinnati Reds

Will the team’s recent moves be enough to propel them forward in a division without a powerhouse?

The NL Central is very much up for grabs, and the Reds seem ready to make a run for it. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez finished second in the NL with 49 home runs in 2019, but no one else on the team surpassed 20 longballs. Enter Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos. The Reds signed the pair, who hit 35 and 27 homers, respectively, in 2019 to identical four-year, $64 million contracts this past offseason. The pair joins Saurez and Joey Votto in what now looks like a very formidable middle of the lineup. The team also made a few notable additions to the rotation in recent years. Sonny Gray had a breakout year in 2019, finishing seventh in Cy Young voting. And after acquiring Trevor Bauer in a three-team deal at last year’s trade deadline, the Reds will look for more from the former All-Star starter in 2020. There are questions about the back end of Cincinnati’s rotation and their lineup depth, but there is certainly the possibility the Reds get off to a hot start in 2020 and never look back.

Can Joey Votto rebound from his worst major league season?

The face of the Reds franchise took a major step back in 2019, posting a career-worst .768 OPS. Though Votto’s 30-homer power is likely never coming back, he certainly could have the ability to rebound in his on-base abilities. Even as the first baseman regressed from 36 homers in 2017 to 12 the next year, he still led the NL in on-base percentage with a .417 mark. Last year, he hit 15 longballs with a .357 OBP, another career-worst mark. With Suarez, Castellanos, and Moustakas around him in that lineup, Votto doesn’t need to hit for power. If he can recover some of the abilities that made him an on-base machine throughout his career, Votto will put himself in position to be driven in by those big bats.

How does the outfield shake out?

The only proven, high-level player in the Reds outfield picture is Castellanos, and he may spend considerable time in the DH spot in 2020. Shogo Akiyama, who spent parts of nine seasons in the Japanese Pacific League, is likely to hold a starting spot after signing a three-year, $21 million contract with Cincinnati this past offseason. Then there’s former second overall pick Nick Senzel, who struggled some in his rookie season last year, power bat Jesse Winker and 28-year-old Phillip Ervin, among several other options at the position. There’s great potential with this group, but also little certainty. And any player not performing is in jeopardy of losing their spot as well.

Milwaukee Brewers

Can the Brewers get off to another hot start in the NL Central?

In a 60-game schedule, getting off to a strong start will be key, and no NL Central team has done that better in the last few years than Milwaukee. The Brewers have led the division through 60 games in each of the past two seasons, with a 37-23 record in 2018 and 34-26 mark last year. 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, who signed a nine-year deal with the team in March, will be back after a fractured kneecap prematurely ended his 2019 campaign. But the team lost key players Yasmani Grandal and Moustakas to free agency after the season, and elected to fill the void not with other high-end players, but rather through a depth approach. The Brewers added 14 players from outside the organization from the end of the 2019 season through mid-February. Will that approach pay off in the shortened season, or will the team’s lack of star power behind Yelich (and a few others) prove too much to overcome? That’s the key question.

Does the team have enough talent in its rotation?

Few contenders have as shaky of a rotation as the Brewers. There is promise, but also great risk. Brandon Woodruff broke out last season, but has significant durability concerns. Adrian Houser surprised last year with a 3.72 ERA in 111 ⅓ frames, but the team really micromanaged his appearances down the stretch. Lefty Brett Anderson pitched more than 80 innings last year for the first time since 2015. 33-year-old Josh Lindblom is a bit of a wild card after spending the last few seasons pitching overseas. And finally, lefty Eric Lauer hasn’t shown much at the major league level yet. Perhaps the durability concerns of several pitchers won’t be a problem in the shortened season. But this also has the potential to go horribly wrong.

Will the team make the best of the DH spot?

His years as one of the best hitters in baseball are long over, but Ryan Braun has shown in the last few years that he still has something left in the tank. The 36-year-old has required frequent off days, but hit 22 home runs with a .285/.343/.505 batting line in 2019 in 144 games. The addition of the DH spot helps few teams more than the Brewers, who can slide Braun into that spot, helping him to remain healthy and potentially play in a higher percentage of games in the shortened season. It also helps clear room for two intriguing bats to play pretty much every day. Avisail Garcia signed a two-year deal with the team in December and is coming off a 20-homer, 10-steal campaign with a .282 average. Justin Smoak, who’s set to be the team’s everyday first baseman, is coming off a disappointing year but is just two seasons removed from hitting 38 home runs with the Blue Jays.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Will Keone Kela get dealt?

Every team in the NL Central has a legitimate chance to claim the division title. Except the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team failed to win 70 games last season for the first time since 2010, and is in the early stages of a rebuild. After Starling Marte was traded over the winter, reliever Keone Kela’s time in a Pirates uniform appears limited as well. After posting a 2.12 ERA in 29 ⅔ innings in 2019, Kela is expected to be the Bucs’ closer this season, though he has yet to report to training camp for undisclosed reasons. Assuming he does return and pitch well the first half of the season, Kela, who’s slated for free agency after the season, seems like one of the most likely players in baseball to be dealt at the trade deadline, which for this season is Aug. 31.

What can this team learn about its future in 2020?

It’s likely to be another rough few months for Pirates fans, as the abbreviated 2020 schedule will be used by the Pirates for evaluation more than anything else. There are a few intriguing young players to watch, including outfielder Bryan Reynolds and pitcher Mitch Keller. Reynolds had an impressive first major league season, hitting .314/.377/.503 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI in 134 games, finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. Keller, the team’s top prospect, struggled in his first MLB season, pitching to a 7.13 ERA and 1-5 record in 11 starts. New pitching coach Oscar Marin is tasked with helping Keller discover his full potential in the big leagues.

Do any hitters get traded?

Yes, another question about possible trades. If the Pirates don’t believe they’re likely to contend any time soon, they could continue to trade away significant pieces from their roster. First baseman Josh Bell is coming off a breakout year and is only a few years from free agency. Infielder Kevin Newman also impressed last season with a .308 average and is set to turn 27 this season. And Reynolds could surely return a nice package should he continue to impress to start the season. It seems unlikely that any of these players will be dealt in 2020, but given the Pirates’ circumstances, it certainly wouldn’t be a major shock.

St. Louis Cardinals

Can Paul Goldschmidt show his first season in St. Louis was just a down year?

The first baseman’s 34 homers and 97 RBI in 2019 were in line with recent seasons, but don’t tell the full story. Goldschmidt’s average dropped from around .300 to .260, and his .476 slugging percentage was the worst mark since 2011, his first big league season. Particularly given Matt Carpenter’s decline last season and uncertainty in the outfield, the Redbirds need Goldschmidt to come out of the gates strong in 2020 to have much of a chance to defend their division title. At age 32, it’s certainly possible that Goldschmidt’s decline stage has set in. His career hitting profile, though, lends itself to success into his mid-30s, so perhaps 2019 was just a down year. The Cardinals are certainly hoping that was the case.

How does playing time shake out in the outfield?

As mentioned, there is plenty of uncertainty in St. Louis’ outfield, only increased by the departure of Marcell Ozuna, who signed a one-year deal with the Braves this past offseason. Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler appear in line to start in center and left field, respectively, but each comes with significant questions on the offensive end. An excellent defender, Bader hit just .205 last season and was even sent down to AAA for a while. Fowler, meanwhile, has struggled mightily over the last two seasons to a .216/.321/.688 batting line, but is under contract through 2021. Without Ozuna, the left field spot was left wide open, with 21-year-old top prospect Dylan Carlson, power-hitter Tyler O’Neill, and five-tool player Lane Thomas, among others, battling for playing time. It’s still unclear how that will shape out, but what is clear is that there’ll be opportunities in the Cardinals outfield for whoever performs.

Will the team’s pitching depth pay off in the shortened season?

Pitching depth may be more important than ever in the shortened season, and per usual, the Cardinals have plenty of it. St. Louis has the best ace of any team in the division in Jack Flaherty, who finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting last season following a breakout year. Miles Mikolas is now fully healthy after recovering from a strained flexor tendon. Also in the team’s rotation depth chart: Dakota Hudson (who won 16 games with a 3.35 ERA in 2019), Adam Wainwright, former KBO lefty Kwang-hyun Kim, former staff ace Carlos Martinez (who has battled injuries in recent years), and others such as Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, and Ryan Helsley. 

Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.

Photo by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr

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