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Vaughan: Previewing the National League Central

| Friday, February 10, 2023

The 2023 Major League Baseball season keeps approaching, getting closer and closer by the day. In fact, pitchers and catchers are slated to report as early as Feb. 13, so it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming season and the expectations for each club. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dive into previews for all 30 teams, division by division, helping get fans ready for the 154th season of professional baseball. Already, I’ve previewed the National League West, and up this week, the National League Central.

Division Overview

Over the past decade, the NL Central has shown much parity, with three teams winning the division, and each having done so multiple times. In 2022, two of those three teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, battled throughout the season for the division crown, with the Cardinals ultimately advancing to October (where they would promptly be eliminated, getting swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Wild Card round). As for the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates, they all suffered through tough years, with the Reds and Pirates losing 100 games each. The division looks to feature an interesting race in 2023, with multiple teams potentially reaching October.

Chicago Cubs (2022: 74-88, .457)

After making four consecutive trips to the postseason from 2015 through 2018, the Chicago Cubs have failed to reach October in three of the past four seasons, including in 2022. However, after a busy offseason, the Cubs have put themselves in position to contend again, potentially as early as this season.

After a year in which five of their six starters recorded ERAs under 4.00, the rotation — led by veterans Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks (who missed a good portion of the year due to injuries) – got even better with the addition of ex-Yankee Jameson Taillon on a four-year, $68 million pact. The bullpen, too, was aided by free agency, with Brad Boxberger coming over from the in-division Brewers to fill a gaping void in the bullpen, particularly with many Chicago relivers being traded away last summer.

In terms of position players, the Cubs saw their fair share of star movement. They brought in All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson on a seven-year, $177 million deal, while All-Star catcher Willson Contreras left to sign with the archrival Cardinals. The outfield, highlighted by Gold-Glover Ian Happ and No. 92 overall prospect Brennen Davis, gained a big name as well, with Cody Bellinger looking to return to his MVP form this year for the North Siders. Aside from Swanson at short, the infield projects to be filled with versatile young players like Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner, with free agent signings Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini providing options at first base. Catcher Tucker Barnhart should provide stability in the absence of Contreras, though there will be a noticeable drop-off.

Though money can’t solve all problems, the Cubs sure hope it can get them back to the playoffs after committing close to $400 million to free agents this winter with the objective of speeding up their timeline to October. 

Cincinnati Reds (2022: 62-100, .383)

After a 100-loss campaign in 2022, the 2023 season doesn’t project to be much brighter for the Cincinnati Reds as they continue their rebuild. With a projected payroll in the bottom-five of MLB at just over $70 million (of which $25 million is owed to Joey Votto alone), the Reds understand this. They are preparing for the future, rather than trying to spend themselves into immediate contention.

Their offseason reflected this truth, with their largest acquisition coming in the form of a one-year, $7.5 million deal for Wil Myers, who, in all likelihood, the Reds will hope to trade by the deadline this summer.  Although the Reds do possess what many consider to be a top-five farm system that features four top-100 prospects, only one, infielder Elly De La Cruz, is projected to reach the majors this season.

The current roster does have some bright spots, though. After a solid rookie season last year, starting pitcher Hunter Greene looks to take the next step, continuing to improve his arsenal around his blazing fastball. Graham Ashcraft and Nick Lodolo look to provide some young help in the rotation. Alexis Diaz (brother of Edwin) was lock-down in the bullpen last year, pitching to an ERA of 1.84 in 59 games. In terms of the lineup, Tyler Stephenson showed promise behind the dish as the potential backstop of the future for Cincinnati. Former Rookie of the Year Jonathan India and veteran Joey Votto look to rebound from down seasons, while many of the other Reds could be trade candidates with strong seasons, helping the organization in the future.

Milwaukee Brewers (2022: 86-76, .531)

A year removed from winning the NL Central title, the Milwaukee Brewers missed out on the playoffs entirely, finishing second in the division. However, with much of the roster returning, the Brew Crew looks to recapture the NL Central crown. The strength of this club remains its pitching, specifically the starters. Led by former Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes, along with Eric Laurer (each of whom logged at least 27 starts with ERAs under 4.00), the Brewers have one of the best rotations in baseball. The bullpen, too, though sans Josh Hader after a mid-summer trade last year, features many quality arms with All-Star Devin Williams closing and relievers Brent Suter and Hoby Milner helping lock down games.

In terms of the lineup, this squad has dangerous bats. Acquired in a three-team deal this offseason, All-Star catcher William Contreras should provide a huge offensive boost from the catcher’s spot, more than filling the void left by free agent Omar Narvaez. The infield features high-upside players in slugger Rowdy Tellez, athletic shortstop Willy Adames, young utilityman Luis Urias and former first-round pick Keston Hiura. Solid role players like Mike Brosseau and Owen Miller provide additional depth.

The outfield, led by former MVP Christian Yelich and UCLA standout Garrett Mitchell, looks to get back to its production level of a few years ago, when Lorenzo Cain won a Gold Glove and Yelich was a top-five player in the game. Reinforcements are on the way, too, with trade acquisition Jesse Winker looking for a bounce-back year and top-100 prospects Sal Frelick (30th) and Joey Wiemer (90th) set to reach the majors this year. The club is solid throughout and looks to contend with St. Louis again this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates (2022: 62-100, .383)

Following a seventh consecutive season without reaching the postseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t appear poised to break through this year either, despite their active offseason. In fact, even with the signings of catchers Roberto Perez and Austin Hedges, first baseman Carlos Santana, and former face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen, among others, for around $30 million in 2023, the Pirates are slated for a payroll of just over $56 million, the third-lowest in MLB. The trade market didn’t yield much for the team either. Their biggest addition came in the form of Ji-Man Choi, while multiple offers involving the Bucko’s star centerfielder Bryan Reynolds were turned down.

On the bright side, this season should be full of opportunities for a team full of young players (as of writing this, around half of the players on the Pirates active roster are age 25 or younger). In particular, the left side of the infield should be fun to watch on both sides of the ball. Contact-oriented Gold Glove finalist Ke’Bryan Hayes and powerful 6’7’’ Oneil Cruz are expected to man third base and shortstop, respectively.

The outfield is full of unknowns. The aforementioned McCutchen and Reynolds are the only two players with over 600 career MLB at-bats. The rotation will be led by Mitch Keller, who, in 29 starts last season, pitched to an ERA of 3.91 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.3. Out of the pen, closer David Bednar earned All Star honors last season and looks to provide stability at the end of games.

In terms of potential prosects who could impact the club this season, utilityman Endy Rodriguez (the 55th overall prospect in baseball) and pitcher Quinn Priester (60th) have MLB ETAs for this season, giving them big-league experience for the future. In what appears to be another rebuilding year, the Pirates hope their young Bucs can take advantage of playing time and develop into the cornerstones of tomorrow.

St. Louis Cardinals (2022: 93-69, .574)

The Cardinals made it back to October in 2022, winning the NL Central before being swept by the eventual NL Champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Wild Card round. However, this team returns loaded with talent, namely Paul Goldschmidt (2022 NL MVP and Silver Slugger) and Nolan Arenado (2022 Gold Glove and Silver Slugger).

The infield will also feature the likes of utility Gold-Glover Brendan Donovan, young power threat Nolan Gorman, and solid quick shortstop Tommy Edman. However, this Cardinals infield got even better over the winter, as the team inked All-Star backstop Willson Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million deal to replace the retired Yadier Molina.

The outfield features many strong options as well, with two-time Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill joined by young risers Lars Nootbaar, Juan Yepez, Dylan Carlson and Alec Burleson (the 91st overall prospect in baseball). Even with these good options, though, the Cardinals best outfielder may not even be on the roster yet, with Jordan Walker (the fourth-rated prospect in baseball) waiting in the wings to debut.

On the pitching side, St. Louis returns many of the arms that helped them finish 10th in ERA and third in shutouts last season. All-Star Miles Mikolas leads the way, followed by Adam Wainwright and Jordan Montgomery (both of whom finished with ERAs under 4.00 last season with the Cardinals). Former ace Jack Flaherty looks to get back on track after an injury-riddled campaign. Dominant closer Ryan Helsley is the backbone of the St. Louis pen, though Giovanny Gallegos and Andre Pallante provide reliable relief as well, not to mention Jordan Hicks, one of the hardest throwers in MLB.

After falling short last postseason, the Red Birds appear poised to contend once again, this time looking to play deep into October.

Closing Thoughts and Other News

The NL Central appears set for a season similar to that of 2022, with the Cardinals and Brewers battling for the division, while the Reds and Pirates look to avoid another 100-loss campaign. The Cubs, a true wildcard after a massive offseason spending spree, could end up close to either end of the extreme, depending on how those signings work out. Either way, the division should be tightly contested, leading to an exciting pennant race throughout September and into October. Look out for next week’s edition, as I continue these previews with the NL East.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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