National League Central Preview

By Matt Carlin

The National League Central is poised to be one of the most exciting divisions to follow in 2019.  Unlike other divisions, all five teams project to be at or around .500 as well as publicly viewed as competing (with this term used loosely for the Pirates).  This past offseason saw both the Cardinals and Reds make massive moves via trades, changing the complexion of their rosters and potentially the balance of power in this tight division for years to come.  On the other hand, the Brewers and Cubs, both playoff teams a year ago, made only small changes to their ballclubs. Interestingly, PECOTA is quite bearish on the Chicago Cubs, projecting regression to below .500 in 2019.  For consistency with our other division previews, I will use PECOTA projections for the order of team breakdowns. However, I have included ZiPS projections as a way to demonstrate discrepancies in projecting this division, specifically with regards to the Cubs.  In my opinion, the disparity comes down to the way the different systems view the Cardinals’ and Reds’ offseason improvements. While I hesitate to use the phrase wide open, the parity in NL Central will provide an extremely competitive race that may once again be decided with a game 163.  

Milwaukee Brewers

2018 Record: 96- 67 (first in NL Central)

2019 Projected Record: 87-75 (PECOTA), 85-77 (ZiPS)

2019 Playoff Odds (ZiPS): 39.6%

Key Acquisitions (ZiPS fWAR): Yasmani Grandal (3.6), Ben Gamel (0.9), Alex Claudio (0.8), Mike Moustakas (re-sign, 3.4)

Key Departures (ZiPS fWAR): Jonathan Schoop (2.2), Curtis Granderson (0.3), Wade Miley (1.1), Domingo Santana (1.6), Keon Broxton (0.8), Gio Gonzalez (1.6), Joakim Soria (1.0)

Outlook/Key Players:

After a relatively quiet offseason, the defending 2018 NL Central Champions enter 2019 with a target on their backs.  As evidenced above, there is great disparity between various projection systems in their ability to repeat. The Brewers return reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, who is off to a torrid start to his 2019 campaign.  Although some regression is to be expected, ZiPS projects a rock solid .384 wOBA and 141 wRC+ season from the superstar outfielder.  Interestingly, with so much emphasis put on lifting the baseball, among NL Leaders, Yelich had an extremely low launch angle (4.7 deg) yet still hit 36 home runs.  Behind Yelich on the offensive side of the ball, the Brewers have put together a potent lineup led by Lorenzo Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Mike Moustakas and Travis Shaw.  

The general consensus was that the Brewers did not do enough to bolster their rotation going into 2019.  Resurgent Wade Miley departed for Houston while mid-season acquisition Gio Gonzalez finally agreed to a minor league deal with the Yankees a few weeks ago.  The Brewers will look to rely heavily on young arms such as Brandon Woodruff, Wily Peralta and Corbin Burnes, as well as Jimmy Nelson once he returns from injury.  As in 2018, the Brewers pitching will go as far as their bullpen can carry them.  With injuries to Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, the Brewers will need to rely heavily on relief ace Josh Hader.  In Hader’s breakout 2018, he had an astronomical 46.7% K-Rate across 81.1 innings.  Overall, the Brewers are a young and exciting team but pitching remains a huge question mark. While they opened 2019 with a record $122 million in payroll, we would love to see them take complete charge of this division and add one of Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel.  

Players to Watch:

Christian Yelich is clearly the crown jewel of this BrewCrew offense, but the Brewers did a tremendous job of addressing two of their pressing needs at second base and catcher with Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal.  Once again the victim of a slow free agency, Mike Moustakas resigned with the Brewers on a one year, $9 million deal as a second baseman. In 2018, Brewers second baseman put up 68 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR.  Moustakas represents an immediate offensive upgrade with a projected 118 wRC+ and 3.2 fWAR. Defensively, while Moustakas will be in the lineup as “4 – second base” the Brewers deployed the eighth most shifts in Major League Baseball in 2018 and can utilize the athleticism of shortstop Orlando Arcia to “hide” Moustakas in certain situations.  Despite a forgettable 2018 playoff run in Los Angeles, Yasmani Grandal has been a preimer backstop in baseball over the past few years.  For a team that recieved 2.1 fWAR from the Manny Pina/Erik Kratz tandem, Grandal provides a projected 1.5 win increase per ZiPS.  The switch hitting catcher provides power from both sides of the plate, and is also lauded for his efforts behind it as he led all of baseball in adjusted FRAA with 16.3 in 2018.   

Grandal’s veteran presence behind the plate is also key for the development of the Brewers’ young arms.  Corbin Burnes came into last season as the Brewers number 2 overall prospect, and provided quality innings down the stretch out of the bullpen.  While Burnes could be deployed in a variety of roles in 2019, his increased fastball/slider usage and projected 4.12 xFIP would be much needed in the rotation.  Lastly, should the Brewers not make a move for another starter, former ace Jimmy Nelson, who had a 3.15 xFIP and 4.8 fWAR when he last pitched in 2017 should provide a jolt to the rotation barring any setbacks in his return from injury.   

St. Louis Cardinals

2018 Record: 88-74 (third in NL Central)

2019 Projected Record: 86-76 (PECOTA), 86-76 (ZiPS)

2019 Playoff Odds (ZiPS): 45.9%

Key Acquisitions (ZiPS fWAR): Andrew Miller (0.8), Paul Goldschmidt (3.9), Drew Robinson (0.3), Matt Wieters (0.7)

Key Departures (ZiPS fWAR): Luke Weaver (1.2), Carson Kelly (1.8), Matt Adams (1.2), Bud Norris (0.1), Tyson Ross (0.9)

Outlook/Key Players:

After missing the postseason for the third straight season, the St. Louis Cardinals made one of the biggest splashes this off-season by trading for and extending Paul Goldschmidt.  Goldschmidt has achieved All Star – Super Star fWAR status (above 4 fWAR) in each of the past six seasons and  joins a long line of superstar 1B in St. Louis. With his three home run performance last week, Goldy has already given Cardinals fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2019 season.  As a result of this trade, Matt Carpenter will take his salsa and resurgent bat back across the diamond to third base while Jose Martinez will provide a power bat off the bench.  A quick note about Matt Carpenter: on May 15th of last year, he had three home runs and a .140/.286/.272 slash line.  Carpenter ended the season with 36 home runs, a .257/.374/.523 slash, and finished ninth in the NL MVP voting. St. Louis returns an exciting outfield of Marcell Ozuna (candidate for a bounce back year), Dexter Fowler, and Harrison Bader.  Top prospect and absolute physical specimen Tyler O’Neill projects to start the season with the big club and should see more playing time as the year goes on.  

Future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina and veteran Adam Wainwright will be relied upon to lead a pitching staff of Miles Mikolas (3.67 xFIP), Michael Wacha (4.12 xFIP), Jack Flaherty (3.58 xFIP) and Dakota Hudson (4.76 xFIP).  After serving as the staff ace, Carlos Martinez could turn into a multi inning relief weapon forming a three headed monster with Andrew Miller and Jordan Hicks.  

Players to watch:

New York native Harrison Bader enjoyed a breakout season in 2018.  The now 25 year old possesses elite speed (29.9 ft/sec sprint speed, 4th in MLB) and extraordinary defensive skills at a premium position (19 outs above average in 2018).  The biggest question mark in Bader’s game will be his ability to overcome drastic platoon splits throughout the minors and last season (.695 OPS vs RH, .886 OPS vs LH) but his defensive prowess will give him ample opportunity to improve at the plate.  

Rumors are that Merriam Webster dictionary is considering updated the definition of gas to a picture of Jordan Hicks.  In an era dominated by velocity, Hicks stands atop the Statcast leaderboards with an average two seam and sinking fastball all over 100 MPH.  In 2019, Hicks has implemented a changeup and increased four seam fastball usage – batters beware!

Lastly, while the Cardinals are excellent at developing young talent on the mound, such as Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber, I wanted to focus on the return of Alex Reyes.  Reyes burst onto the scene in 2016 and has long been lauded for his potential.  After a long recovery from Tommy John surgery, Reyes made one appearance last season before undergoing season ending surgery to repair a torn tendon in his lat.  Entering 2019, Reyes is without a clearly defined role, but I would suggest using him as a multi inning reliever paired with Adam Wainwright. Consider the below “bullpen day” for the Cardinals (pending Carlos Martinez’s return from injury):

  1. Wainwright
  2. Wainwright
  3. Wainwright/Reyes
  4. Reyes
  5. Reyes
  6. Reyes/Miller
  7. Miller/Martinez
  8. Miller/Martinez/Hicks
  9. Hicks

Cincinnati Reds

2018 Record: 67-95 (last in NL Central)

2019 Projected Record: 80-82 (PECOTA), 80-82 (ZiPS)

2019 Playoff Odds (ZiPS): 11.5%

Key Acquisitions (ZiPS fWAR): Sonny Gray (2.2), Alex Wood (2.3) , Yasiel Puig (3.1), Matt Kemp (0.1), Kyle Farmer (0.3) , Derek Dietrich (0.5), Jose Iglesias (1.4), Tanner Roark (1.2)

Key Departures (ZiPS fWAR): Matt Harvey (1.3), Billy Hamilton (1.5), Homer Bailey (FA)

Outlook/Key Players:

The 2019 version of the Cincinnati Reds will be one of my favorite teams to follow this season.  While the future looks incredibly bright with top prospects Taylor Trammell, Nick Senzel, and Hunter Greene,  I love their current strategy of buying low on players in need of a change of scenery (as well as in a contract year).  While PECOTA and ZiPS project an 11 game increase in win total, it is not out of the question for the Reds to shock the NL and pop up as a dark horse Wild Card team.  Led by Joey Votto (4.8 ZiPS fWAR), Eugenio Suarez (4.0 ZiPS fWAR), and Scooter Gennett (out for 10-12 weeks), the Reds have an intriguing blend of power, contact, and speed returning to their lineup.  Additionally, the Reds totally revamped their rotation via acquisitions of Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood to complement incumbent ace Luis Castillo.  Although I am incredibly optimistic about this team, should everything go south, the Reds have a plethora of players that would be desirable to any team looking to add for the playoff push.  While Matt Kemp enjoyed an All Star season last year, he faded down the stretch and is most likely a trade chip for the Reds to an AL club.  Derek Dietrich and Jose Iglesias both signed minor league contracts late in the offseason and could be viewed as necessary defensive upgrades to potential playoff teams.  Overall, the Reds front office did a fantastic job this past off season by taking a shot at competing in the short term while also having desired pieces to sell off and improve their club in the long term.

Players to watch:

While many people were displeased with the open dissatisfaction Yasiel Puig and Sonny Gray displayed towards their former clubs, I saw it as quite refreshing.  Puig has always been a toolsy yet enigmatic player caught in a reverse platoon in Los Angeles.  After the trade, Puig stated “I’m supposed to play every day…when I play every day, and I have more opportunities, I can do what I do, and what I’m supposed to do….I played good in the playoffs when I had my opportunities to face lefties.”  Should Puig be able to improve upon the below splits, the Reds may finally be able to unlock that “next level” in Puig’s natural ability.

Secondly, Sonny Gray is another buy low candidate the Reds acquired this past off season.  In two seasons in the Bronx, Gray saw a massive uptick in his slider usage. Reunited with his Vanderbilt pitching coach, Gray spoke with The Athletic on his high fastball spin rate (2,448 RPM) and low ride (311th in MLB) as well as his desire to throw more cutters.  Overall, both Gray and Puig expressed gratitude for their new circumstances and desire to prove they are better than the past few years.

Lastly, the Michael Lorenzen two way experiment will be a trend to follow this year.  In 2018, Lorenzen pitched to a 50.2% ground ball rate out of the bullpen while going 9 for 31 with four home runs off the bench.  Originally a center fielder/closer at Cal State-Fullerton, the Reds plan to use him as a two way reliever and center fielder with the opportunity to gain more playing time in both capacities.  While it is unclear how this will play out, the willingness of manager David Bell and the Cincinnati front office to be forward thinking in their player deployment and roster construction set the Reds up for success in 2019 and beyond.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2018 Record: 82 – 79 (Fourth NL Central)

2019 Projected Record: 80-82 (PECOTA), 78-84 (ZiPS)

2019 Playoff Odds: 7.6%

Key Acquisitions (ZiPS fWAR): Melky Cabrera (0.1), Lonnie Chisenhall (0.7), Jordan Lyles (0.3)

Key Departures (ZiPS fWAR): Josh Harrison (0.8), Jordy Mercer (0.4)

Outlook/Key Players:

While doing research for this portion of the article, I came across a fascinating quote from Dan Szymborski’s annual ZiPS installment on the Pirates.  Szymborski stated that the Pirates are “excellent at finding just below average to average talent for peanuts, and average or better talent for whatever is a little bit better than that…free one-win players, two-win players who are paid like one-win players, and three-win players who are paid like two-win players means you have a highly efficient roster.  But it’s a highly efficient roster that will generally win between 77-85 games.” Overall, the Pirates are in a puzzling spot in their division. While the rest of the teams took strides to get better (or were simply better to begin with), Pittsburgh seems content to essentially float through the season. While part of the blame can be assigned to the inability of their last crop of young studs such as Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell and Starling Marte to take the ever-so-important “next step,” the organization seems reluctant to choose a direction.  I loved the Chris Archer addition at last year’s trade deadline, but to follow that up with key acquisitions of Lonnie Chisenhall (10 day IL already) and Melky Cabrera (96 WRC+ ZiPS projection) further indicates that Pittsburgh is content to roll the dice this upcoming season and hope for the best.  

Players to watch:

One of the more interesting storylines to follow in Pittsburgh has been the plight of Jung Ho Kang.  After putting up a 1.138 OPS in the KBO, Kang signed a 4 year, $11 million contract with the Pirates.  His first two years in Pittsburgh were solid, with 3.7 fWAR and 2.1 fWAR (in 103 games) in 2015 and 2016.  Before the 2017 season, Kang ran into visa problems stemming from a string of DUIs in Korea. Kang enters his age 32 season under a one year, $3 million “prove it” contract.  While ZiPS is not friendly to Kang (1.8 fWAR, .331 wOBA), his seven home run performance in spring training was an encouraging sign that he can add some much needed pop to the Pirates lineup.  With the departure of Josh Harrison, Adam Frazier will most likely be looked upon as the leadoff man and everyday second baseman.  The Mississippi State product produced 3.4 fWAR over his first 950 plate appearances while bouncing around the infield and outfield.  Over a full season at the keystone it will be interesting to see if Frazier is able to utilize his high contact skills and increased walk rate throughout his first three seasons to serve as a catalyst for the Pirates lineup.  

On the mound, the Pirates will be led by Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon.  Additionally, Pirates are fortunate to have an elite relief arm in Felipe Vasquez.  Despite early season struggles, Vasquez possesses an electric fastball (average 98.5 mph in 2018) and sixth highest WPA for relievers in 2018.  Having pieces such as Taillon, Archer and Vasquez will allow the Pirates to remain competitive throughout the season, however, it is apparent that this team just does not have the depth of the other four teams in a very competitive NL Central.

Chicago Cubs

2018 Record: 95-68 (second in NL Central)

2019 Projected Record: 79-83 (PECOTA), 87-75 (ZiPS)

2019 Playoff Odds (ZiPS): 51.3%

Key Acquisitions (ZiPS fWAR): Brad Brach (1.0), Kendall Graveman (1.1), Daniel Descalso (0.4), Jaime Garcia (0.8)

Key Departures (ZiPS fWAR): None

Key Players/Outlook:

After a relatively silent off season, the Cubs enter 2019 as a contender, but with question marks around the diamond.  The much lauded young core of Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell had up and down seasons in 2018 and with the exception of Baez and Rizzo, has not fully progressed as expected.  The legal troubles of Russell open up opportunities for David Bote (1.4 ZiPS fWAR) or Ben Zobrist (1.0 ZiPS fWAR) at the keystone with Ian Happ and Zack Short waiting in the wings.  On the mound, the Cubs are counting on a return to form from Yu Darvish as well as consistency from Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks.  The Cubs have an interesting predicament in that their highest paid players have not produced consistently enough. Yet for the financial bind the team is in (Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish), they are reluctant to break up the current Major League roster to address weaknesses, and the farm system is drying up.  While I do not think that the Cubs will be as bad as their PECOTA projections, 2019 is a pivotal year for Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon and co to either take another step forward or start considering alternative routes

Players to watch

Since doing his best Pablo Sanchez impersonation in 2015 spring training, expectations have been sky high for Kris Bryant.  After accumulating 20.9 fWAR in just three seasons, Bryant battled injuries throughout 2018 on his way to a 125 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR in 102 games.  Additionally, Bryant had steadily decreased his K% and increased his BB% the first three years of his career before the 2018 season. While the Cubs value positional flexibility, part of me would love to see them entrench Bryant at third base and let him go off in 2019.  

Kyle Schwarber had a resurgent 2018 season after his 2017 demotion.  Surprisingly, Schwarber had the sixth highest UZR among outfielders last season while producing a career best 3.2 fWAR.  Schwarber struggles with left handers (85 wRC+) yet has a high walk rate (15.3%) and elite power. This season, Schwarber has reverted back to his college/pre injury swing which saw him as a consensus All-American, first round draft pick and 131 wRC+ as a rookie in 2015.  As a result, 2019 could be a defining year in Schwarber’s career if he can take a step forward and become a more complete hitter.

One of the most tantalizing players to watch, Javy Baez enjoyed a breakout 2018 season.  From his towering home runs, athleticism in the field, no look tags and elusive slides, Baez has earned the nickname El Mago.  His 131 wRC+ in 2018 was supported by 8.7 barrels per plate appearance % in 2018 despite a 25.9% K Rate and an astoundingly low 4.5% walk rate.  The bottom line is Baez swings early and often, and when he connects…look out. Heading into 2019, due to his skillset on both sides of the ball, versatility, and marketability Baez is arguably the most valuable asset in Wrigleyville.  

Links:

All data courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Statcast leaderboards

https://theathletic.com/850202/2019/03/05/sarris-tracking-machines-spin-efficiency-and-the-plan-to-get-sonny-gray-back-on-track/

https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/la-sp-yasiel-puig-reds-dodgers-20190214-story.html

https://blogs.fangraphs.com/author/dszymborski/

Stats courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs and Statcast leaderboards

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