Everything you need to know about the NL Central
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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:

Chicago Cubs

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2018 record: 95-68 (2nd in NL Central)
Payroll: $227,220,143
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-

Projected lineup

Order Player POS. PROJ. WAR
1 Ben Zobrist (S) 2B 1.5
2 Kris Bryant 3B 5.5
3 Anthony Rizzo (L) 1B 4.2
4 Javier Baez SS 3.4
5 Kyle Schwarber (L) LF 2.9
6 Willson Contreras C 1.7
7 Jason Heyward (L) RF 2.1
8 Albert Almora Jr. CR 1.2

Bench

Player POS. PROJ. WAR
David Bote IF/OF 0.2
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.

Projected rotation

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Jon Lester L 4.39
Kyle Hendricks R 4.05
Jose Quintana L 3.87
Cole Hamels L 3.97
Yu Darvish R 3.73

Bullpen

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Pedro Strop R 3.67
Carl Edwards Jr. R 3.79
Steve Cishek R 3.91
Mike Montgomery L 3.87
Brad Brach R 3.92
Brandon Kintzler R 4.18
Brian Duensing L 4.52
Tyler Chatwood R 4.26

*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.

Cincinnati Reds

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2018 record: 67-95 (5th in NL Central)
Payroll: $139,370,237
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

Projected lineup

Order Player POS. PROJ. WAR
1 Jesse Winker (L) LF 1.9
2 Joey Votto (L) 1B 3.4
3 Eugenio Suarez 3B 3.4
4 Yasiel Puig RF 3.1
5 Scott Schebler (L) CF 0.6
6 Jose Peraza 2B 2.0
7 Tucker Barnhart (S) C 0.9
8 Jose Iglesias SS 0.8

*Scooter Gennett to start season on IL

Bench

Player POS. PROJ. WAR
Curt Casali C/1B 0.1
Kyle Farmer C/IF 0.3
Derek Dietrich IF/OF 0.2
Matt Kemp OF 0.2

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.

Projected rotation

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Luis Castillo R 3.97
Sonny Gray R 3.94
Tanner Roark R 4.57
Anthony DeSclafani R 4.31
Tyler Mahle R 4.72

*Alex Wood to start season on IL

Bullpen

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Raisel Iglesias R 3.60
Jared Hughes R 4.15
David Hernandez R 4.27
Amir Garrett L 3.86
Michael Lorenzen R 4.39
Zach Duke L 3.75
Wandy Peralta L 4.20
Matt Wisler R 4.18

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.

Milwaukee Brewers

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2018 record: 96-67 (1st in NL Central)
Payroll: $143,889,862
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-

Projected lineup

Order Player POS. PROJ. WAR
1 Lorenzo Cain CF 3.7
2 Christian Yelich (L) RF 5.0
3 Jesus Aguilar 1B 1.1
4 Travis Shaw (L) 3B 2.7
5 Ryan Braun LF 1.5
6 Mike Moustakas (L) 2B 2.4
7 Yasmani Grandal (S) C 5.1
8 Orlando Arcia SS 1.1

Bench

Player POS. PROJ. WAR
Ben Gamel (L) OF 0.1
Hernan Perez IF/OF 0.0
Manny Pina C 0.5
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.

Projected rotation

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Jhoulys Chacin R 4.65
Corbin Burnes R 4.48
Freddy Peralta R 4.34
Brandon Woodruff R 4.39
Zach Davies R 4.61

*Jimmy Nelson to start season on IL

Bullpen

Pitcher Throws PROJ. ERA
Josh Hader L 2.91
Jacob Barnes R 4.04
Alex Claudio L 3.56
Taylor Williams R 4.07
Matt Albers R 4.18
Junior Guerra R 3.86
Alex Wilson R 4.37
Chase Anderson R 4.95

*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.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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2018 record: 82-79 (4th in NL Central)
Payroll: $77,375,000
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

Projected lineup

Order Player POS. PROJ. WAR
1 Adam Frazier (L) 2B 2.0
2 Starling Marte CF 3.2
3 Corey Dickerson (L) LF 2.0
4 Jung Ho Kang 3B 2.3
5 Josh Bell (S) 1B 1.7
6 Francisco Cervelli C 1.7
7 Lonnie Chisenhall (L) RF 0.4
8 Erik Gonzalez SS 0.4

*Gregory Polanco to start season on IL

Bench

Player POS. PROJ. WAR
Melky Cabrera (S) OF 0.1
Colin Moran (L) 3B 0.5
Kevin Newman IF 0.3
Pablo Reyes IF/OF 0.2
Jacob Stallings C 0.1

*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.

Projected rotation

Player Throws PROJ. ERA
Jameson Taillon R 3.89
Trevor Williams R 4.72
Joe Musgrove R 4.03
Chris Archer R 3.67
Jordan Lyles R 4.33

Bullpen

Player Throws PROJ. ERA
Felipe Vazquez L 2.90
Keone Kela R 3.16
Richard Rodriguez R 3.80
Kyle Crick R 4.04
Francisco Liriano L 3.75
Nick Burdi R 4.00
Nick Kingham R 4.51

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.

St. Louis Cardinals

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2018 record: 88-74 (3rd in NL Central)
Payroll: $164,328,483
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

Projected lineup

Order Player POS. PROJ. WAR
1 Matt Carpenter (L) 3B 3.4
2 Paul DeJong SS 3.0
3 Paul Goldschmidt 1B 4.2
4 Marcell Ozuna LF 3.4
5 Dexter Fowler (S) RF 0.6
6 Yadier Molina C 3.1
7 Kolten Wong (L) 2B 2.2
8 Harrison Bader CF 2.2

Bench

Player POS. PROJ. WAR
Jose Martinez 1B/OF 1.3
Yairo Munoz IF/OF 0.3
Tyler O'Neill OF 0.8
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.

Projected rotation

Player Throws PROJ. ERA
Miles Mikolas R 4.03
Jack Flaherty R 3.68
Adam Wainwright R 4.20
Michael Wacha R 4.20
Dakota Hudson R 4.26

*Carlos Martinez likely starting season on IL

Bullpen

Player Throws PROJ. ERA
Jordan Hicks R 3.71
Andrew Miller L 2.98
John Brebbia R 3.86
Dominic Leone R 3.94
Mike Mayers R 3.91
John Gant R 4.11
Tyler Webb L 3.80
Alex Reyes R 3.53

*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.

Payroll courtesy: Cots Baseball Contracts
Odds courtesy: Odds Shark
O/U projections courtesy: PECOTA
WAR/ERA projections courtesy: FanGraphs Steamer

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Everything you need to know about the NL Central
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