Widely seen as the league’s best division coming into 2019, the National League Central is going to be an absolute treat to watch this season, as three teams have a real chance at not only making the playoffs but all making some noise. Whoever wins this division should immediately jump to the top of the list for World Series favorites from the NL, hoping to present a big challenge for their American League foe, which will most likely be the Boston Red Sox as they try to turn their team into a dynasty and make it back to back WS victories.
Starting at the bottom, the Pittsburgh Pirates somehow got tricked into believing that they were in the thick of the Wild Card hunt last season, selling the top of their farm system that they had worked so hard to draft and develop, just to trade it for Chris Archer. While they do have Archer for more than just last season, giving up two key members of their farm system in outfielder Austin Meadows and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow is not an easy pill to swallow for the Pirates.
Both Glasnow and Meadows were on the cusp of breaking into the regular MLB rotation for playing time, as they had bid their time in the Pirates farm system long enough.
Meadows is a toolsy outfielder who had a cup of coffee at the major-league level but had not quite reached his full potential yet. He has 20/20 potential written all over him as the floor for his potential, and the Tampa Bay Rays were smart to insist that he was included in any Archer deal.
Glasnow is no throw-in either, as his stuff on the mound shows that he can, down the road, become a solid two or three in a major league rotation. The Rays are dealing with an identity crisis at the moment, as fans are having reservations of not only coming to games but helping fund the team’s next stadium, as baseball never quite seemed to take off in Florida for the Rays.
The Cincinnati Reds, who seemingly have been in every deal running across the ticker on the bottom of the screen, have participated in a revamp of their roster in a sense to help jumpstart their rebuild. Going through countless seasons of wasting superstar cornerstone Joey Votto’s career has been a sore subject for Reds fans, and ownership finally had enough.
Making a big-time deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in giving up two top-20 prospects as well as long-time Red Homer Bailey, the likes of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood have joined the team in Great American Ballpark in hopes that this team can now look to improve and compete for years to come. While that trifecta is in no way, shape or form world beaters, they have a good amount left in the tank and can help ease their fellow younger teammates and prospects into their roles while providing solid production.
Puig should especially thrive in Cincinnati, as the spotlight is off of him from his days in LA. He should become the team’s fiery player who has that sense of swagger and spunk that this team has been lacking for quite some time. Adding both Puig and Kemp to the mix in the outfield was a very shrewd move by the front office, but should pay dividends early on, especially with being able to plug Kemp right in for outgoing Billy Hamilton.
The final three Central foes will all be grouped in together, as they can all finish first, second or third in certain situations.
The Milwaukee Brewers, winners of the Central in 2018, managed to fall one game short of making the World Series after falling to the Dodgers in seven games. This team came out of nowhere in 2018, rode some unconventional managing tactics by Craig Counsell and used career years by Jesus Aguilar, Lorenzo Cain and NL MVP Christian Yelich to the playoffs.
After holding the divisional lead up until the All-Star break, the Brewers faltered coming out of the break and succumbed to the Cubs for the divisional lead. Charging hard before the deadline and after, the Brewers forced a game 163 after the Cubs lead dwindled down to zero on the second to last day of the season. In that extra game, the Brewers rode solid offensive production and a lights-out bullpen to win in Wrigley and be the first team to use the visitor’s clubhouse in Wrigley as a large champagne bathtub.
Reeling from losing a game that was easily in their reach the entire game, the Cubs then had to face the Colorado Rockies in the Wild Card round at Wrigley again. In a game that went on forever, almost to the point where the game had to be stopped and started the next day due to Chicago regulations for lights and noise after hours, the Rockies finally pulled out the improbable victory and kept the Cubs from having to book hotels in Milwaukee.
The Cardinals season was rocky from the get-go, as a tumultuous early season led to the firing of manager Mike Matheny and the promotion of Mike Shildt to interim (and eventually full time) manager. Not making many moves at the trade deadline showed that the team was content with what pieces they had, but also were not sure if they had what it took to make that final run to make the playoffs, which they ultimately did not.
In 2019, all three teams made additions over the offseason to improve their chances of winning the division, as the Brewers (Yasmani Grandal, C), Cardinals (Paul Goldschmidt, 1B and Andrew Miller, RP) and Cubs (Yu Darvish, SP) all either brought in free agents or have an impact player coming back from injury for this season.
If having to choose a winner, look for the Brewers to repeat. They have the most returning pieces on the squad, with a few feelers out in the free agency market on players that can still make big impacts (Dallas Keuchel, Mike Moustakas).
In what is turning into an arms race, the NL Central has great potential to be the league’s strongest division one through five. Do not be surprised if four teams add pieces at the deadline in July to try and compete come August and September.