If the American League seems oddly predictable, the same can't be said about the National League, and the NL Central is a prime example of this. The Milwaukee Brewers enter the season as defending champs with the St. Louis Cardinals improved, the Chicago Cubs still a force of nature, the Cincinnati Reds greatly changed, and the Pittsburgh Pirates attempting to ride an underrated pitching staff out of obscurity.
No team is completely out of the running, making the division one of the most intriguing entering the campaign.
As we march toward Opening Day, here's all you need to know about the NL Central:
2018 record: 95-68 (2nd in NL Central)
O/U win total: 84
World Series odds: 11-1
3-year trend: 2016 (1st); 2017 (1st); 2018 (2nd)
Highest projected WAR: Kris Bryant (5.5)
X-Factor: Yu Darvish
Prospect to watch: Miguel Amaya (MLB.com: No. 94)
Winter report card: D-
|1||Ben Zobrist (S)||2B||1.5|
|3||Anthony Rizzo (L)||1B||4.2|
|5||Kyle Schwarber (L)||LF||2.9|
|7||Jason Heyward (L)||RF||2.1|
|8||Albert Almora Jr.||CR||1.2|
|Victor Caratini (S)||C||0.5|
|Daniel Descalso (L)||IF/OF||0.2|
The Cubs didn't do much this offseason. Every player in the projected lineup was a fixture on the roster in 2018, while Daniel Descalso is the lone fresh face on the bench. There's been concern about management's tightened purse strings in relation to free agency; the organization was never a player in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes despite his relationship with Kris Bryant. But it's not like there are any obvious needs. If Bryant stays healthy, this is a lineup that has a proven track record of success and is generally reliable. Where things get dicey is depth - there isn't much of it. If Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, or multiple players miss significant time, there aren't a lot of inspiring options off the bench, and the farm system is much thinner than it used to be. Staying off the injured list will be the biggest key.
|Carl Edwards Jr.||R||3.79|
*Brandon Morrow to start season on IL
The rotation is full of recognizable names, but most have some concern surrounding them. Only Kyle Hendricks is under 30, expectations for Jon Lester are lower than usual, Yu Darvish is coming off a season lost to injury, Jose Quintana has hardly been the model of consistency, and while Cole Hamels pitched his best ball in years down the stretch last season, it is uncertain if he can replicate that production. Meanwhile, Pedro Strop steps in as the ninth-inning arm with Brandon Morrow on the injured list to start the season. Though, if Strop's hamstring issues from spring resurface, the bullpen may be without an anchor to start the campaign.
2018 record: 67-95 (5th in NL Central)
O/U win total: 84
World Series odds: 66-1
3-year trend: 2016 (5th); 2017 (5th); 2018 (5th)
Highest projected WAR: Joey Votto & Eugenio Suarez (3.4)
X-Factor: Yasiel Puig
Prospect to watch: Nick Senzel (MLB.com: No. 6)
Winter report card: B
|1||Jesse Winker (L)||LF||1.9|
|2||Joey Votto (L)||1B||3.4|
|5||Scott Schebler (L)||CF||0.6|
|7||Tucker Barnhart (S)||C||0.9|
*Scooter Gennett to start season on IL
The lineup is obviously the Reds' greatest strength. Joey Votto is the most patient hitter in the game and Eugenio Suarez has emerged as a reliable bat at the hot corner. If Yasiel Puig can inject further life into the offense, then the Reds could be a pesky opponent for the rest of the division. With prospect Nick Senzel transitioning to the outfield, Scott Schebler's starting gig is looking rather tenuous. With Scooter Gennett's contract set to expire after the season, he may be the most likely trade candidate if the team struggles to keep up in the race.
*Alex Wood to start season on IL
The shiny new rotation has plenty of intrigue. If Sonny Gray pitches like he did last season away from Yankee Stadium, then they may have added a solid top-of-the-rotation arm. If he pitches the way he did at home, especially given Great American Ballpark's hitter-friendly reputation, it could be a long season. Still, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood have had varying levels of success over their careers, and Luis Castillo could be on the verge of a breakout, especially if he adds another solid pitch to his elite changeup and electric fastball.
2018 record: 96-67 (1st in NL Central)
O/U win total: 89
World Series odds: 14-1
3-year trend: 2016 (4th); 2017 (2nd); 2018 (1st)
Highest projected WAR: Yasmani Grandal (5.1)
X-Factor: Jimmy Nelson
Prospect to watch: Keston Hiura (MLB.com: No. 20)
Winter report card: B-
|2||Christian Yelich (L)||RF||5.0|
|4||Travis Shaw (L)||3B||2.7|
|6||Mike Moustakas (L)||2B||2.4|
|7||Yasmani Grandal (S)||C||5.1|
|Ben Gamel (L)||OF||0.1|
|Eric Thames (L)||1B/OF||0.5|
When the Brewers re-signed Mike Moustakas, it seemed like a cumbersome fit. But, the plan is apparently to use him as the primary second baseman even though he has never played the position as a pro. If the gambit pays off, the lineup will be a monster with the addition of Yasmani Grandal at catcher. The Brewers struggled to find production from behind the plate in 2018. On top of that, Milwaukee still has the reigning NL MVP in Christian Yelich and breakout slugger Jesus Aguilar holding down the fort. They'll be tough to beat.
*Jimmy Nelson to start season on IL
*Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel likely to start season on IL
If Jimmy Nelson returns from injury anywhere close to how he looked in 2017 (12-6, 3.49 ERA, 10.21 K/9) then the rotation will be in infinitely better shape than it was last year. With Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff all vying for rotation spots, the youth movement could spell a new era. The bullpen, though, may be the best relief corps in the game. It made up for rotation shortcomings a year ago, and with word that Craig Kimbrel could be nearing a deal to join the division champs, look out.
2018 record: 82-79 (4th in NL Central)
O/U win total: 66
World Series odds: 70-1
3-year trend: 2016 (3rd); 2017 (4th); 2018 (4th)
Highest projected WAR: Chris Archer (3.7)
X-Factor: Josh Bell
Prospect to watch: Mitch Keller (MLB.com: No. 19)
Winter report card: F
|1||Adam Frazier (L)||2B||2.0|
|3||Corey Dickerson (L)||LF||2.0|
|4||Jung Ho Kang||3B||2.3|
|5||Josh Bell (S)||1B||1.7|
|7||Lonnie Chisenhall (L)||RF||0.4|
*Gregory Polanco to start season on IL
|Melky Cabrera (S)||OF||0.1|
|Colin Moran (L)||3B||0.5|
*Elias Diaz likely to start season on IL
Where are the Pirates going to generate runs? When Gregory Polanco returns, things will get a little easier, but there aren't many game-changing bats in the lineup. Starling Marte is capable of minor pop with the potential to steal 30 bags, but the rest is less than inspiring, especially after Josh Bell took a step back in 2018. Third base prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes could get the call at some point, but at 22, that's hardly a certainty.
The pitching staff is the Pirates' greatest asset, and it might be the most balanced in the division. The bullpen isn't as deep as the Brewers, but the Felipe Vazquez-Keone Kela-Richard Rodriguez trifecta at the back end is among the more daunting groups in the entire league. Jordan Lyles could be on borrowed time in the rotation despite it being his first year with the team, as Mitch Keller is a possibility to make the leap from Triple-A. If Chris Archer can reclaim some of his lost effectiveness from Tampa Bay, the Pirates are a contender for best rotation in the Central with Jameson Taillon leading the way. It might not be enough for them to crawl out of the division's basement, though.
2018 record: 88-74 (3rd in NL Central)
O/U win total: 89
World Series odds: 12-1
3-year trend: 2016 (2nd); 2017 (3rd); 2018 (3rd)
Highest projected WAR: Paul Goldschmidt (4.2)
X-Factor: Alex Reyes
Prospect to watch: Nolan Gorman (MLB.com: No. 61)
Winter report card: A
|1||Matt Carpenter (L)||3B||3.4|
|5||Dexter Fowler (S)||RF||0.6|
|7||Kolten Wong (L)||2B||2.2|
|Matt Wieters (S)||C||0.3|
*Jedd Gyorko to start season on IL
Paul Goldschmidt is being counted on to get the Cardinals back into the postseason. He's projected to provide the biggest offensive impact, which should take the pressure off Matt Carpenter who shouldered a heavy load in 2018. The biggest question mark is Dexter Fowler and whether or not he's able to justify being in the starting lineup on a daily basis. The Cardinals have Jose Martinez and Tyler O'Neill waiting for an everyday opportunity, so Fowler may not be afforded the requisite time to adjust if he gets off to a slow start.
*Carlos Martinez likely starting season on IL
*Brett Cecil to start season on IL
If the Pirates don't own the division's strongest rotation, the Cardinals have a strong case. Sure, Adam Wainwright isn't the dominant right-hander he used to be, but Miles Mikolas has shown he can eat innings and induce soft contact; Jack Flaherty is ace material, and Dakota Hudson has ripped through spring to make the Carlos Martinez injury easier to swallow. Martinez could come back as an ace reliever, further bolstering the bullpen. Alex Reyes will make his long-awaited return at some point, too, further showcasing the absurd depth the Cardinals have accrued over the years.