Another week means another division outlook, and this week it is the NL Central's turn. Similar to it's American League counterpart, there aren't many major competitors in this division in my opinion. They are guaranteed one representative in the playoffs come October, but with relatively weak squads in the division combined with an overall competitive National League as a whole, the division winner will most likely be the only playoff team from the NL Central. With that being said, let's dive right into it and see why that looks like the most likely outcome from this division.
It's no secret the Pirates won't be a playoff team this year. Even with that being already known, I feel as if people aren't giving the Pirates roster enough credit. They didn't lose any major talent, and added a mixture of solid veteran pieces. The headline addition for them was bringing back fan favorite Andrew McCutchen, a superb veteran addition with a previous connection to the city. They also added veterans Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez to bolster their rotation, Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi to create an above average first base tandem, and Austin Hedges to give them a starting catcher.
Where the highlights of the Pirates season will be is the development of their young guys. Most eyes will be on position players Oneil Cruz and Ke'Bryan Hayes, and pitchers Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras, and for good reason. Keller and Contreras are two pitchers that have shown flashes before, but haven't been able to put it together on a consistent basis throughout a season. Hayes has developed into one of the best defenders in baseball, amounting a total of 34 Outs Above Average (OAA) throughout his young career, but is still looking to develop offensively. Oneil Cruiz is a 6' 7" shortstop that has already set records in both hardest hit ball and hardest throw by an outfielder, and has immense potential in the league.
The 2023 Pirates won't be the worst team in the league, nor the best. They are very similar to most rebuilding squads, having a roster constructed of a mixture of young talent and older veterans to hold it down for now. And they still have Bryan Reynolds, a top ten centerfielder in baseball. Hopefully they finally pay him what he wants and deserves or trade him to a contending team.
Team MVP: Bryan Reynolds
Team Cy Young: Mitch Keller
Team X-Factor: Jack Suwinski
The Nationals host the Pirates for three games from April 28-30, and visit the glorious PNC Park for four games from Spetember 11-14.
The Chicago Cubs had a busy offseason, but none of their additions screamed franchise altering, with the biggest one being longtime Atlanta Braves' shortshop, Dansby Swanson. Other notable additions include Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, and former NL MVP and bounce back candidate Cody Bellinger. Overall, it is not a bad group of guys to add to a roster, but not a group that pushes them over the top and into playoff contention. On the other side of the offseason, they lost Willson Contreras to their division rival St. Louis Cardinals. That loss solidifies the end of their longtime core that won them a World Series and brought a lot of joy back into Chicago.
The Cubs 2023 season should be an improvement from the 74-88 finish they had in 2022, but they look headed towards a more .500 finish this year. With Seiya Suzuki, Nico Hoerner, and Ian Happ anchoring the lineup with the new additions, their lineup can surprise at times. Their pitching will be inconsistent at times, but still will show glimpses of talent with a stock of young arms. As mentioned above, a .500 season looks in line for the Cubbies.
Team MVP: Ian Happ
Team Cy Young: Marcus Stroman
Team X-Factor: Cody Bellinger
The Nationals host the Cubs for four games from May 1-4, and visit historic Wrigley Field for three games from July 17-19.
The known pitching factory located in Wisconsin looks geared towards the same season they've had a streak of years now - lots of good pitching but not enough offense to back it up. A rotation led by a three headed monster of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta is enough to scare any lineup. Backed up by an improving Eric Lauer and Aaron Ashby only furthers this pitching powerhouse. Where this roster lacks is their offense, a problem the Brewers are far too familiar with at this point.
Willy Adames and Rowdy Tellez are consistent contributors for Craig Counsell, especially when it comes to the long ball. What the Brewers need is improvement from a number of position players that are involved in their everyday lineup. Christian Yelich is a former MVP and Jesse Winker is only one year removed from a .949 OPS season. Bounce back years from those two would work wonders on this Milwaukee lineup. The addition of William Contreras should add some consistent production from the catcher position, and hopeful improvement from younger hitters such as Luis Urias would be a welcome change.
All in all, this Brewers roster has the chance to compete for the NL Central crown, but they heavily rely on improvements from multiple guys in their lineup. Nothing is guaranteed in the sport of baseball, but the Brewers having dominant pitching is as close to it as it gets. So, how competitive they end up being is in the hands of the offense.
Team MVP: Corbin Burnes
Team Cy Young: Corbin Burnes
Team X-Factor: Christian Yelich
The Nationals host the Brew Crew for three games from July 31 to August 2, and visit Milwaukee for a three game set from September 15-17.
The Reds will not be good in 2023. They will be competing with teams like the Nationals and Rockies for worst record in the National League. Their headline addition was Wil Myers, formerly of the Padres, summing up a rather bleak offseason.
Where the Reds will draw some attention is their young duo at the head of their rotation - Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. Those two arms combined with young hitters like Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson are what Reds fans are going to be looking forward to. The Reds don't have much to talk about, but the eyes are on those guys and the potential call up of phenom prospect Elly De La Cruz.
Team MVP: Tyler Stephenson
Team Cy Young: Hunter Greene
Team X-Factor: Joey Votto
The Nationals host the Reds for four games from July 3-6, and visit them for three games from August 4-6.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals defense could be the best in the bigs this year. They have a stable offense held down by an elite corner duo of 2023 MVP Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Tyler O'Neil, Tommy Edman, Lars Nootbar, and new addition Willson Contreras add to that dynamic duo to create an overall deep lineup.
Where the Cardinals lack is pitching. Longtime vet Adam Wainwright leads their rotation, followed by Steven Matz, Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, and an injury-plagued Jack Flaherty. Now, if Flaherty is able to stay healthy and pitch to his 2019 form, he and Montgomery can create a strong pitching duo. But, that is a big if that they are relying on. They don't have much depth behind those five, so the health and success of those guys are essential for the Cardinals. Their bullpen, on the other hand, is strong, led by Ryan Helsley after his breakout 2022 campaign.
The Cardinals are expected to win the NL Central, and deservedly so. They seem to be the most competitive bunch out of their division, but the question of whether or not they can compete with the rest of the league remains.
Team MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
Team Cy Young: Jordan Montgomery
Team X-Factor: Jack Flaherty
The Nationals host the Red Birds for three games from June 19-2, and visit St. Louis for three games right out of the All Star break from July 14-16.
An interesting development to watch will be the fact that the Brewers and Cardinals are opposites in a senes; one has elite pitching but find themselves lacking offensively, and the other has a strong lineup but finds themselves falling short due to their pitching. To wrap things up, the NL Central looks to be competitive on the interior and within the division, but have no major competitors in the National League. Baseball is almost impossible to predict, and the MLB playoffs are all about who's hot and can go on a run, so who knows if one of these teams can surprise the world and make a deep run. Regardless, here are my predictions for the NL Central standings.
1. St. Lous Cardinals (92-70)
2. Milwaukee Brewers (88-74)
3. Chicago Cubs (80-82)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (69-93)
5. Cincinnati Reds (59-103)