Everett: NL Central race will be amazing, again
Joe Everett | Friday, March 29, 2019
Bottom of the ninth. Two outs.
St. Louis pinch-hitter Jose Martinez stepped into the box to face Milwaukee left-handed, fire-baller Josh Hader, his team down one run. While the Brewers closer had retired the first two Cardinal batters with relative ease, Martinez made sure he didn’t go down quietly. The St. Louis right fielder jumped on an outside fastball and drove it towards deep right center field — a rocket that seemed destined to tie the game.
But Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain had other ideas. He tracked the ball to the wall, timed his leap perfectly and reached the top of the wall to rob Martinez of a home run and end the Opening Day matchup in dramatic fashion.
Man, oh man. The National League Central is going to be fun this season.
The only division that saw four teams finish above .500 last season, the NL Central once again figures to have the best and deepest competition in the MLB. Based off of last season’s performance and the work each of the five teams did over the offseason, it’s not inconceivable that the division could compile an even better total record than last season. Let’s explore each of the five teams that will foster a fascinating division race all season long.
Milwaukee Brewers (2018 record: 96-67)
The reigning division champs, Craig Counsell’s squad returns nearly all their key pieces from last season. Right fielder Christian Yelich won the National League MVP last season after a breakout year, and he leads an offense that finished second in home runs last season. Cain, Jesus Aguilar and newcomer Yasmani Grandal will continue to pace the offense. Hader — who recorded 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings and an 0.81 WHIP — is the stud of a lights-out bullpen. The only question is the starting rotation: Do they have enough depth and talent to keep themselves in the race for the whole season? They managed to last year but still lack a bona fide ace.
Chicago Cubs (2018 record: 95-68)
Joe Maddon’s club will look to bounce back from a disappointingly early exit in last year’s playoffs and will be led once again by its infield corps of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo. While they lost Daniel Murphy in the offseason, they’ll enjoy a full season of Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Brandon Morrow and Bryant, who missed 50 games. If the Cubs manage to avoid the injury bug, they will be an extremely dangerous team.
St. Louis Cardinals (2018 record: 88-74)
When new manager Mike Shildt took over last season, the Cardinals were 47-46. With new leadership, the team got hot the rest of the season and almost snuck into the playoffs. St. Louis hopes to carry that momentum over into this season. The big addition is perennial MVP-candidate Paul Goldschmidt, who comes over from Arizona and will provide a big right-handed bat in the middle of the order for the Cardinals. If the Cardinals’ young and talented pitching staff stays healthy, they’ll be a legitimate contender to win the division.
Pittsburgh Pirates (2018 record: 82-79)
Clint Hurdle’s club has a lot of potential with a lot of intriguing prospects that could help the team at various points this season. The starting rotation is anchored by Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer, while top pitching prospect Mitch Keller could be promoted at some point this season. Other top prospect, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, could come up this season, while Jung Ho Kang returns after missing nearly two seasons to lock down the hot corner in the meantime. Can Josh Bell rediscover his 2017 power, and how soon will Gregory Polanco return? If everything swings the Pirates’ way, they’ll be in the playoff race.
Cincinnati Reds (2018 record: 67-95)
David Bell’s first season as manager should result in an improved Cincinnati club. After trading Homer Bailey to the Dodgers during the offseason (and unloading his huge contract), the Reds will work with Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood this season, while adding Sonny Gray to the rotation. Top prospect Nick Senzel should make his major league debut this season. The offense always produces, especially inside the friendly confines of Great American Ballpark, so if Cincinnati can get some quality outings from its rotation, its record could see significant improvement.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.