When speaking of parity, Major League Baseball (MLB) is close to the king of it, save for the National Hockey League (NHL) and college basketball.
Parity, though, might take an entirely new meaning in 2020 regarding the National League Central, as all five teams possess talent that could make the division one of the bloodier stalemates in the sport. With what looks to be an exciting division from start to finish, here is the preview of each team with their ranking in the division as the 2020 season begins.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (2019 record: 91-71)
The reigning division champions get the nod for the top position at the start of the season. While their collective .737 On-base plus slugging (OPS) ranked 21st in all of MLB, their collective pitching ERA of 3.82 ranked fifth. Jack Flaherty is their crown jewel on the rubber, as the 24-year-old pitched to a 2.75 ERA in 196.1 innings. While reliever Jordan Hicks will sit out the season, the Cardinals still bring overall balance and depth on the pitching side to counteract any discrepancies on the pitching or hitting side.
Every MLB playoff contender in 2020 will have one of two qualities: overall roster balance or a significant roster strength. The Cardinals bring overall roster balance, which comes in the form of steady pitching and timely, veteran hitting. This balance will keep the Cardinals in contention all season and should give them the opportunity to win another division title. However, their balance must show its patented consistency once more, as another particular team will be hot on their heels.
2. Cincinnati Reds (2019 record: 75-87)
The team to give St. Louis a good run for their money is no other than the Reds. However, many baseball pundits will pound their fists and holler that this is too high of a ranking for Cincinnati.
While the Cardinals have overall roster balance, the Reds potentially have a significant roster strength: their starting rotation.
In 2019, Luis Castillo’s nasty changeup and Sonny Gray’s pitching revival netted the Reds the ninth-best starter ERA (4.12), 10th-most innings pitched (883.1), and ninth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.17 K/BB) in MLB. While Cincinnati’s summer deadline acquisition of Trevor Bauer was not as effective as they presumed (Bauer had a 6.39 ERA in 10 starts with the team), 2020 brings a new season and a revamped Bauer who, from 2015-18, pitched to a 3.81 ERA.
While the offense was weak last season (their 701 runs ranked 25th in MLB), they still have talent potential there, including that of Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, and offseason acquisitions in Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama. Even if the offense falters once more, the starting pitching is a major strength that, over a shortened season, can shine and mask any roster weakness. Watch out for Cincinnati, ladies and gentlemen.
3. Chicago Cubs (2019 record: 84-78)
Over the past five seasons, the Cubs have retired the “Lovable Losers” nickname, as the team has averaged over 94 wins a season and have a 2016 Commissioner’s Trophy to boast.
Their work for 2020, however, will be cut out for them; David Ross will be in his first-ever managerial season at the major league level and will have to work around a slowly aging starting rotation and a bullpen that, while led by Craig Kimbrel for the latter part of the season, was not as effective in 2019 as many thought it would be.
Everything pivots back to the rotation, though. If Yu Darvish can produce with Kyle Hendricks, and if Jon Lester can squeeze a big-time season out, the Cubs, coupled with a formidable offense, will contend. Simple as that.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (2019 record: 89-73)
Yes, the Brewers have an MVP candidate in Christian Yelich. They have a budding star in Keston Hiura. Omar Narvaez brings a flavor of offense to the catcher position that should offset the loss of Yasmani Grandal. Justin Smoak will bring a nice burst of power to the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park. Lorenzo Cain should be able to rebound from a sub-par 2019 hitting season. Ryan Braun should be able to build off of a productive season where he collected an .849 OPS, his highest since 2016.
The problem for Milwaukee, though, does not come from offense. It comes from their rotation. Zach Davies and Chase Anderson, Milwaukee’s top starters in terms of innings last season (159.2 and 129.0 innings pitched, respectively), are no longer with the team. The team will now rely on a tandem that includes Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and offseason acquisition Josh Lindblom. While the potential is there, they are unproven and have not brought ace-caliber material.
While the starting rotation has question marks, Milwaukee’s roster strength could come from its bullpen, spearheaded by Josh Hader. In the 61 games Hader appeared in last season, the then-25-year-old pitched to a 2.62 ERA with a strikeout per nine innings (K/9) of 16.41. The eye-popping stat, though, comes in Milwaukee’s record in games the closer appeared in. The Brewers went 51-10 in games Hader pitched in. In a 60-game season, Hader, along with the rest of the bullpen, might be Milwaukee’s saving grace and golden ticket to a potential postseason berth. The rotation must give the relievers a lead, however. Will they be able to?
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (2019 record: 69-93)
The Pirates head into the 2020 season with a new manager in Derek Shelton and look to continue their retooling and rebuilding stretch.
The season, however, will give the Steel City a better idea of what their offense could be in the future. High-profile prospects in Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes (with the latter hopefully returning after he recovers from COVID-19) will look to find their spot in a lineup that includes Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman.
The bigger experiment, though, will come from the starting rotation. With both Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, where will the productive starter innings come from after Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams? These will be the questions Pittsburgh must answer this season.