NL Central 2021 preview: How do the Cubs rivals look?

The division seems like it's wide open. Which of these teams can topple the Cubs?

NL Central 2021 preview: How do the Cubs rivals look?

Don't mind me, I'm just asking questions about the NL Central opponents of Your Chicago Cubs™.

So, the NL Central. Are these guys even trying?

Short answer: Not really! Most of the big moves this offseason in the Cubs' division were sell-offs. Trevor Bauer left the Reds for the riches of the Dodgers. The Reds moved their excellent closer, Raisel Iglesias, to the Angels for, when the dust settled, literally nothing. The Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish for Zach Davies and prospects (?), and they let Kyle Schwarber go to the Nationals as a free agent (although Joc Pederson could turn out to be as good or better). The Brewers brought in Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. to improve their defense, but Milwaukee had the 27th-best offense in the majors in 2020 (and yet only the third-worst offense in the division, somehow). The Cardinals spent their free-agent money on their own players — Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. And those guys on the Pirates you've heard of? Not there anymore. Had to go.

It was a collective dog paddle at best.

NL Central teams combined to spend a league low of $95.350 million in free agency this offseason. By comparison, look at this chart of free-agent spending by all MLB divisions in 2020-2021 offseason:

MLB Free-Agent Spending By Division, 2020-2021 Offseason
Compiled by Jon Becker

Here's what the division bought per player in free agency:

AL East: $12.204M
AL Central: $7.044M
AL West $5.697M
NL East: $11.754M
NL Central: $4.334M
NL West: $11.338M

What kind of player can you buy in free agency for $4.334 million? A great one — in 1993.

How can you say nobody's trying when the Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado?

That's their one, that's their one! Every time someone says the NL Central is sitting on its ass, some Cardinals fan pulls Nolan Arenado out of their tush. The Cardinals appeared to make themselves look like frontrunners for 2021 with the annexation of Arenado from the Rockies, even if the move didn't move the needle much among many SABR magicians. Even if Arenado's production is muted some by leaving Coors Field for 81 home games a year, he's still a big slugger with one of the best gloves ever at third base. He and Paul Goldschmidt, over at first, give the Cardinals some former NL West star power at the corners.

What does PECOTA think?

Former Royals infielder Bill Pecota? Who knows what he thinks. Well, actually we do know what he thinks. What does VIGODA think? That's another kettle of Fish entirely. Aside from that non-sequitur, here is what the PECOTA projection system, proprietary information used by Baseball Prospectus, thinks the NL Central standings will go in 2021:

Baseball Prospectus

Whoa. What has to happen for the Cardinals to win more than 78 games?

Their outfield has to congeal into something good. Tyler O'Neill's production has regressed since his rookie season in 2018. He needs to cut that out and start flexing at the plate like his dad used to flex at the Mr. Universe competition. All three of their starting outfielders need to develop (including Harrison Bader — once he gets off the injured list) but the biggest key is Dylan Carlson. At 22 years old, he's the No. 9 prospect in MLB by Baseball Prospectus. If he makes good on that hype, the Cards will have a home-grown star. He will be filling in for Bader in center while Bader's forearm pain settles down.

Is Ryan Braun still on the Brewers?

He is ... not. Could the Brewers use a 37-year-old Ryan Braun? Probably not, though he slugged .505 as recently as 2019. Braun was rumored to be hanging around in case the NL adopted the DH again for 2021 but that isn't happening. No matter: What the Brewers really need, and probably will get, is a return to form by Christian Yelich. He endured a brutal slump in 2020 and now gets to pretend like it never happened. Hey, who doesn't wish they could pretend like 2020 never happened? Sure enough, Yelich hitting well in spring training and probably will be a top MVP candidate in 2021. Collectively in 2020, the Brewers nearly bottomed out offensively, but in 2019 they were closer to league average in runs scored. If Yelich hits like Yelich, if Keston Hiura hits more like he did as a rookie in '19... it's still hard to imagine these guys getting to 88 or 89 victories. But 85 will keep you in the race.

You want to get really frustrated?

Become a Reds fan. After being active adders in recent off-seasons, the Reds were mostly a subtractor this time, when they could have surged ahead of the Cubs and Brewers. They were never going to retain Bauer, the Cy Young winner and drone dilettante who went to the Dodgers for way more than the $17 million Reds paid him in 2020. The Reds still have a sound top of the rotation, led by Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, and Tyler Mahle is third (even though he would be better at No. 4 or 5). The Reds also have a solid base in the bullpen (even after giving Iglesias away), with Amir Garrett, Sean Doolittle and Lucas Sims anchoring the late innings. The Reds have several solid position players, notably Eugenio Suarez, a top slugging third baseman forced to play shortstop because management refused to sign or trade for one. Nicholas Castellanos is notable for his drives into deep left field. Nick Senzel in center field is ready to make good on his deep promise as a prospect. Mike Moustakas still produces dongs at third base, second base, whatever base they need him. Joey Votto produced COVID-19 this offseason. Now zooming past 37 years old, Votto is three seasons removed from hitting like himself. He's an all-time great, so it's possible for him to rebound. If he does, the Reds just might contend in this sad-ass division.

What about the Pirates?


What do you mean, "No"?

They don't bother, so neither will we.



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