In all of the offseason predictions, one thing seemed to ring throughout all conversations: that the National League Central would boast one of the best spreads of teams in the entire league for the 2019 season. While backed up by strong facts and solid opinions in the offseason, those NL Central facts are far from happening around one month into the MLB season.
While it is definitely way too early to jump to any sort of conclusions in terms of how seasons are over already and that divisions favorites have already been decided, there are definitive takeaways that can be made from what has been a bit of a lackluster first month of the year.
Here is how each team has fared so far to begin the season, listed in order of the divisional standings.
St. Louis Cardinals, 15-9, 1st
Making the biggest offseason acquisition provides big standards to live up to, which is seemingly a wonderful fit for the St. Louis Cardinals after bringing in Paul Goldschmidt in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The former desert star was also recently locked up on a long-term deal, so NL Central foes will have to deal with Goldschmidt for a long, long time.
Coupling the acquisition of Goldschmidt with signing Andrew Miller to, what on the surface seems like an overpay, has been the exact combination that the Cardinals have needed to become successful yet again in the Central. 2018 was a tough season for them, experiencing regression, the firing of manager Mike Matheny, making a late push for the Wild Card and having young players go through major growth spurts.
Closer Jordan Hicks and center fielder Harrison Bader both look to be in play as ancillary pieces in the long-term development on this team, as both are playing their positions well. When a premium can be gotten for closer and center fielders, both Hicks and Bader have locked down the Cardinals in those roles for a while.
Their only issue is their bullpen depth, as outside of Miller and Hicks, their ranks seem to be a bit boring. Jon Gant is a solid piece out of the pen, but they would be smart to be hunting other teams looking to sell early on for some veteran relief help.
Chicago Cubs, 12-11, 2.5 GB
What a roller coaster this young season has already been for the Chicago Cubs, who have endured their usual streak of injuries and inconsistencies to go along with a string of games where their core has decided not to show up.
Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Willson Contreras have all seemingly gotten into their roles as team leaders, and Ian Happ, David Bote, and Kyle Schwarber are fitting in nicely as pieces off the bench who can come in and start in a cinch. For a team that looked to be making a mistake when not bringing back David Murphy, their depth looks to be quite fine.
Their starting pitching is another story though, as they have been forced to bring Yu Darvish back at a snail’s pace and he has, in turn, repaid the team with a multitude of walks and inefficient innings. With Jon Lester back from the Injured List, pressure can now be taken off Jose Quintana, who has not been all that sharp this year either.
Like the Cardinals, the bullpen for the Cubs has been their biggest downfall, and an arm that was expected to eat up big innings in Brandon Morrow has essentially been shut down while experiencing lingering discomfort, not a good sign for a reliever who is on the wrong side of 30.
Will Smith from the San Francisco Giants would be an excellent piece to go out and get to help shore up that pen, but more than one arm will need to be brought in to help.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 12-11, 2.5 GB
One of the more surprising franchises this year is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have combined an overperforming cast of non-superstars with an electric bullpen to make things work. Their starting pitching, led by Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, and Trevor Williams, are all looking great early on to begin the year.
They have no true superstar on this team, and with having lost Josh Harrison in the offseason, out went some of the team’s swagger too. But nonetheless, this team has come out of the gates hot, which could lead to some false hope yet again that may preclude moves to get this team to earn a Wild Card berth instead of finishing in the bottom half of this division, which is where many picked them to be.
If looking for upgrades, the outfield would be a great spot for them. Besides Gregory Polanco in right field, this team is generally a non-factor when it comes to outfield offensive production. Going after a player like Kansas City Royal lifer Alex Gordon or David Peralta of the Diamondbacks could represent that under the radar move that would not require giving up a lot to get them.
Milwaukee Brewers, 13-13, 3.0 GB
One of the biggest disappointments so far in the young season, the Milwaukee Brewers have nothing to make a mountain from a molehill out of yet. However, they are toeing a fine line when it comes to lack of production so far.
Their starting pitching, which was a constant topic of conversation in the free agency times, was only addressed in house, relying on the likes of Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, and Corbin Burnes to hold down the fort. With that plan not working so far, like so many had figured it would, they went out and signed old friend Gio Gonzalez to a one-year deal after he chose to opt-out of his minor league deal with the New York Yankees.
Gonzalez, while a veteran and past his prime, showed the Brewers last season what he can do, as he came over at the second trade deadline late last season. While not the splashy pickup that everyone wanted them to make, I am looking at you Dallas Keuchel, he brings enough to the table to hopefully bridge that gap until Jimmy Nelson makes his anticipated return from injury.
Their bullpen, like most of their Central foes, has been decimated after such a dominant 2018 season. Having lost Corey Knebel to Tommy John surgery and Jeremy Jeffress still coming back from having a slow spring, Josh Hader has gotten lit up in a few of his last outings.
They need bullpen help more than ever, so there are two ways that they can go about this:
1. Hit the home run, bit the financial bullet and bring in Craig Kimbrel. While not guaranteed to be ready immediately, Kimbrel is that guy you want leading your team into battle. Pair him with Hader and you are getting close to that shutdown pen they had last season.
2. Back off the Brinks trucks and go for more feasible arms, like a Will Smith, Mark Melancon (package deal with the Giants?), Nate Jones from the White Sox, or Drew Steckenrider from the Marlins (make sure to thank them again for Christian Yelich).
Cincinnati Reds, 9-14, 5.5 GB
A team that is at the crossroads of wanting to contend but being in the wrong division to do it, the Cincinnati Reds are looking like they should not have made that big deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers over the summer, bringing in Alex Wood, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig while giving up two top-30 prospects in what amounts to a salary dump.
The Reds are not in any position to compete this year, even if Scooter Gennett was healthy, Joey Votto was putting up career numbers and Tucker Barnhart finally broke out. They just do not have the pieces to compete, and they should start the teardown now.
Even though Puig is not having a good year, there are a lot of teams that would be willing to eat some of his deal and deal with his attitude, personality and his style in return for what he brings performance wise. Kemp is also a valuable trade piece but is on a bigger money deal, which will be harder to move.
Other pieces that could fetch decent prospect returns would include reliever Jared Hughes, shortstop Jose Iglesias, starter Tanner Roark and reliever Michael Lorenzen.