The National League Central might not be the deepest division over the course of the 2021 season, but it will certainly be one of the more intriguing ones.
The intrigue, however, will not come solely from what team beats up on the competition more, but also in the long-term direction all five of these franchises decide to go in. While this question will likely not be answered right away, there might be more clarity on what this answer might be as the season wears on into the summer months.
Regardless of what direction these teams go in, where do they rank in their current state? Well, that is why you are here, so I will just get into it. Here is my 2021 preview of the NL Central, with the expected finishing order of all five clubs.
1. Milwaukee Brewers (2020 record: 29-31)
Milwaukee’s 2020 season was a disappointment, to say the least. Lorenzo Cain opted out of the season (COVID-19). Christian Yelich arguably had the worst season of his career (he struck out in over 30% of his plate appearances). The infield did not bring much bite with the bat. Even with a strong starting duo in Corbin Burnes-Brandon Woodruff and a nasty Devin Williams-Josh Hader back-end tandem, the weaknesses could not be offset.
Even still, Milwaukee made the playoffs, and expanded postseason format or not, that has to be seen as an impressive feat. This season, Milwaukee brings back almost all of its pieces. Cain returns and should bring a fresh set of legs and eyes to the outfield and batting order, respectively. Yelich brings the hunger for a rebound season. Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. shore up the defense and gives the team increased flexibility in how the team can position depending on matchups.
St. Louis might have a better floor, but Milwaukee brings a much higher ceiling, and it will show this season in more ways than one.
2. St. Louis Cardinals (2020 record: 30-28)
Now, I just said the Cardinals had a better floor than Milwaukee, and while I think the Brewers will sit atop the NL Central when all the dust settles at the end of September, St. Louis will still be in the thick of things come crunch time. Their x-factor, however, might be in their blockbuster acquisition they made a move for over the winter: Nolan Arenado. The former Colorado batter brings the pedigree with the glove and the upside with the bat, even if he no longer calls Coors Field his home.
If St. Louis wishes to overtake Milwaukee for the right to hoist the division crown, a strong season from Arenado will be a nice starting point. Getting excellent innings from a rotation spearheaded by Jack Flaherty will also be most welcome. St. Louis, like the Cardinal teams of old, is just well-rounded, and while this might not be as flashy as Milwaukee in the long-run, it will still be enough to garner enough success to make late-season and/or postseason noise at the end of the day. Watch out for this team – they are sneaky, and even if they are not first in this ranking, they are still formidable.
3. Cincinnati Reds (2020 record: 31-29)
Cincinnati was a dark horse World Series team last season, and while the record might not have shown it, their starting trio of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray certainly did. Alas, Cincinnati does not have the same starting luxury this season. Bauer departed for Los Angeles, while Gray has currently battled back issues. Castillo remains formidable with his absolutely filthy changeup, but the depth is no longer there, nor is the guarantee.
Such is the problem with Cincinnati’s outlook this season. They still bring nice pieces to the table, but even in a weaker NL Central, their upside is not at Milwaukee’s level, and their room for error is much, much smaller than the Cardinals. Playing spoiler? Sure, that is a possibility for this team. Legitimate contender? Maybe, but until proven otherwise, not really likely.
4. Chicago Cubs (2020 record: 34-26)
If you read Cincinnati’s excerpt, well you better read it again, because the same problem plagues Chicago. The North Side’s top trio of Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta (yes, that Jake, and not the one from State Farm) and Zach Davies is decent enough to sponge innings, but not dominate them. Then, of course, there is their bullpen, which compiled a decent but not spectacular 4.38 ERA last season. On the offensive side of the diamond, former franchise players in Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have recently found themselves dangled in trade talks.
This is a team stuck in purgatory. They have the talent to compete on paper, but they do not have the financial or prospect surplus to significantly upgrade it. The first couple months of action will be key to what Chicago does moving forward. Do they decide to do a complete teardown, or do they perhaps make a jolly good run at one last hurrah? It is tough to say. Such uncertainty on what they could be lands them here.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (2020 record: 19-41)
You have the quartet of teams listed already, and then you have a crevice, followed by a canyon. After a brief intermission, you then have a bottomless abyss. Then, and only then, do you have the Pirates. Now, to say Pittsburgh has nothing to look forward to this season would be blatantly false – the likes of Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and a potential super star in Ke’Bryan Hayes provide Pittsburgh with an offensive spark that, in the short-term, could help Pittsburgh streak to a plethora of runs here and there. In the long-term, these players could even become the bulwarks that reinforce the next wave of young talent. Whatever the case might be, one thing brings almost absolute certainty – this team is in a lengthy rebuild, and a lengthy rebuild brings a potentially grueling season. Buckle up, Bucco fans. It might get very bumpy.