This division race should be as tight as 2018’s, with the same cast at or near the top. It still looks like Milwaukee has an edge over Chicago and St. Louis, but four teams finishing with 85ish wins is very possible.
2018 record: 96-67, 1st NL Central
Postseason: Lost in NLCS
Hello to: Yasmani Grandal, C; Ben Gamel, OF; Cory Spangenberg, INF; Josh Tomlin, P; Alex Claudio, P; Deolis Guerra, P; Bobby Wahl, P.
So long to: Gio Gonzalez, P; Wade Miley, P; Keon Broxton, OF; Domingo Santana, OF; Jonathan Schoop, 2B; Joakim Soria, P; Dan Jennings, P; Curtis Granderson, OF; Xavier Cedeno, P.
2019 Forecast: Having the reigning National League MVP – Christian Yelich – is awfully neat, but the Brewers are far more than just his 36 home runs, 110 RBIs and 7.6 WAR. A team that was a game away from reaching the World Series brings a fair amount of its core back from that campaign. A lot of the faces that were brought in during the season have found themselves somewhere other than Milwaukee, while the Brewers have quietly filled holes without making moves that shook even the slowest of news cycles during the hot stove. Milwaukee’s rotation might be the worst in the division, but that’s because the NL Central is loaded with great starting pitching. In 2018, Milwaukee made bread with its bullpen – and maybe the division’s most dominant reliever in Josh Hader. Adding Yasmani Grandal gives the Brewers the best catcher in the Central – yes, Cardinals fans, I said “best.” While not flashy, Milwaukee has the build to stay in the postseason party for as long, if not longer, than 2018’s team.
Look out for: If 2019 is the “Year of the Chonk” … I submit Jesus Aguilar as a Brewer to watch. Aguilar found his power stroke during 2018, sending 35 balls over the wall while driving in 108 runs and slugging .539. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Aguilar makes for an intimidating presence at the dish, while not horrible with the glove. It’s still Yelich’s show, but Aguilar will do more than enough to garner attention for the Brewers.
St. Louis Cardinals
2018 Record: 88-74, 3rd in Central
Postseason: Did not qualify
Hello to: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Andrew Miller, P; Matt Wieters, C; Drew Robinson, CF.
So long to: Luke Weaver, P; Bud Norris, P; Matt Adams, 1B; Tyson Ross, P; Carson Kelly, C.
2019 Forecast: It took Mike Matheny’s exit after scuffling to a 47-46 record for the Cardinals to play their best ball down the stretch as the Redbirds finished 41-28 in the 69 games that Mike Shildt held the clubhouse keys. Shildt now gets the luxury of a full season with St. Louis and a few new toys, most notably Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. Goldschmidt will certainly aid the Cardinals’ lineup with another power bat, while also being one of St. Louis’ flashiest acquisitions in years. There’s also the possibility that the Cardinals boast the Central’s best rotation with Miles Mikolas fronting the charge. It’s been a while since the Cardinals have tasted the postseason, and while that’s fine for most, it appears that the braintrust in St. Louis has decided that 2019 needs to mark a return to the playoffs. It may take some wrangling beyond what the team did to pass the Cubs and Brewers, but a wild-card spot is certainly within reach.
Look out for: Can a Cardinals preview go without mentioning Yadier Molina? While the attention and pressure will be on Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter to start strong, it’ll be up to Molina, who saw a bit of a power surge in 2018 – his Age 35 season – to keep the lineup consistent. His defense is near the top of the league, but his offensive production will be key of the Redbirds have designs on playing in October.
2018 record: 95-68, 2nd in Central
Postseason: Lost in NL Wild Card
Hello to: Daniel Descalso, INF; Brad Brach, P; Tony Barnette, P; George Kontos, P; Junichi Tazawa, P.
So long to: Daniel Murphy, 2B; Tommy La Stella, INF; Justin Wilson, P; Jesse Chavez, P; Jorge De La Rosa, P; Jaime Garcia, P.
2019 Forecast: The Cubs were a very streaky team in 2018, boasting four winning streaks of five or more games while also suffering two losing streaks of five games. A run between April 26 and May 12 saw Chicago win five, lose five and then win five. Aside from those runs, Chicago won more than it lost but never looked dominant in doing so. The Cubs’ injury list is pretty beefy as the season opens, but most seem to be of the nagging type and not the long-term kind. The lineup will be quite strong as names like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Scwarber, Anthony Rizzo and so on are hitting peak years – age wise – in 2019. The rotation is only topped by St. Louis with a bullpen that only Milwaukee is besting in the division. Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek offer a brutal 1-2 hammer on the back end of that pen. Simply put, the Cubs will be very in the hunt.
Look out for: While he’s never going to be a high-average guy, Schwarber’s bat will be a big part of what the Cubs do in 2019. If the run production can trend upward, “War Bear” can nestle himself in a lineup that will be one of the scariest in the National League. Some of that can happen if Schwarber can collect more hits than strikeouts. So far, that’s been a negative as he’s whiffed more than he’s made contact during his career (369 strikeouts compared to 248 hits). It’s not quite Joey Gallo bad, but when he’s clustered strikeouts, he becomes more of a black hole in the lineup than anything.
2018 Record: 82-79, 4th in Central
Postseason: Did not qualify
Hello to: Lonnie Chisenhall, OF; Erik Gonzalez, SS; Jordan Lyles, P; Melky Cabrera, OF; Francisco Liriano, P.
So long to: Jordy Mercer, SS; Josh Harrison, 2B; Ivan Nova, P.
2019 Forecast: Did you love the 2018 Pirates, but wished that only the middle infield was different? Then the 2019 Pirates are the team for you! Gregory Polanco will be nursing a shoulder injury, keeping him sidelined until about the end of April and Jung Ho Kang seems to have a lock on the third-base platoon with Colin Moran. There are new faces in the Pirates lineup, but the arms are what will carry the team to anything in 2019. The promise is certainly there with the Pirates’ rotation with Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams as good as any four-man group in the NL. Pittsburgh’s bullpen is another in a line of stacked relievers in the division, boasting a solid back end of Kyle Crick, Keone Kela and Felipe Vazquez. Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte are solid pieces of a lineup that needs a bit more power to strike fear in opposing staffs. If any team puzzles fans on their potential and payoff more than the Pirates, it’ll be a stunner.
Look out for: Archer was welcomed to Pittsburgh as a conquering hero, but had his struggles over the 10 starts he made for the Corsairs after being acquired from Tampa Bay. It’s not out of the question to expect Archer to slice a bit off his ERA and WHIP when pitching full seasons in a park that favors his kind more than it does batters. While this is Taillon’s rotation, Archer is another name that will need to come up big if the Pirates are to stay above water in 2019.
2018 Record: 67-95, 5th in Central
Postseason: Did not qualify
Hello to: Yasiel Puig, OF; Matt Kemp, OF; Alex Wood, P; Sonny Gray, P; Tanner Roark, P; Kyle Farmer, C; Zach Duke, P; Jose Iglesias, SS; Derek Dietrich, INF.
So long to: Jim Riggleman, MGR; Homer Bailey, P; Billy Hamilton, CF; Matt Harvey, P; Austin Brice, P; Brandon Dixon, 2B.
2019 Forecast: The Reds are certainly going for something, making some of the loudest trades in baseball during the offseason. Yasiel Puig’s presence will certainly help the Reds lead the majors in GIFs and bat flips, while Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Sonny Gray will be crucial to any hopes that Cincinnati has of climbing out of the basement. Not having Scooter Gennett for almost three months to start the season will be a blow to the Reds, given that Gennett and Eugenio Suarez were key cogs in a lineup bereft of consistency. Elder statesman Joey Votto returns after seeing a severe dip in his numbers a season ago.
Look out for: Puig. Seriously, that’s where the eyes will be as the Reds have a recognizable name in their fold. Puig played in 125 games during the 2018 season, staying consistent with his career production numbers, while seeing a spike in defensive miscues – leaping to eight in 2018 from just one the year before. With Gennett out for the biggest part of the first half, the pressure is on Puig to generate not only numbers, but excitement for a Reds team itching to no longer be the laughingstock of the Central.