Chicago Cubs: 2019 NL Central Projections: Fly the W

by - Senior Writer -
Cubs hope to be celebrating in 2019 (Patrick Gorski - USA Today Sports)
Cubs hope to be celebrating in 2019 (Patrick Gorski - USA Today Sports)

We are about halfway through the Spring Training portions of games, and many questions are still left unanswered for every team.

One thing that has been clear throughout the entire offseason has been the amount of improvement made by the entire National League with the NL East and NL Central standing out in the minds of most in terms of which divisions have improved the most. It appears not only will the NL Central be the toughest division, but it could be entirely possible that any one of the five teams can win that division and a total of three teams making the postseason.

With both the Cubs and Brewers winning 95 and 96 games respectively a season ago, the division was already in a competitive state. Add in the Cardinals who seemingly always win 86-plus games and compete for a postseason berth, and you have a three-horse race.

Unlike what it has been in recent seasons, this division has a chance to not only be the most competitive and toughest division, but it may come down to the final month of the season before the true contenders begin to stand out. Here is how I see the division shaping up this season.

Projection for Chicago Cubs: 93-69 First in NL Central (No. 2 seed in NL)

On paper, the Cubs still have one of the most talented rosters in all of baseball evident by another 90-plus win season a year ago. However, unlike offseasons of the past, a lot of people are not sold on the Cubs entering the 2019 campaign. The Pecota projections even go as far as having the Cubs finishing last in the Central which is just absurd to me.

Even if the Cubs have a better team, the wins won't show that because the division is that much tougher. One thing the Cubs have going for them is a healthy Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish not only feeling good but looking good in camp thus far. That alone is equivalent to two major free agent signings without having to break the bank this offseason. Add in the Cole Hamels option to stabilize the rotation, and the Cubs appear set in almost every position. They still do have some questions left to be answered as the season is fast approaching.

One of those questions will be the bullpen which happened to be one of their strongest points last year. Even with Brandon Morrow out for the first month of the season, the Cubs still have plenty of arms in the pen that have plenty of high leverage experience in the past. The only issue will be can they adjust to different roles early in the season until Morrow comes back.

The age of the starting pitching is a concern, but not as much as some people think. They won’t have the velocity of some teams, but they know how to pitch and work out of trouble when it happens. Offensively, the Cubs need to find more consistency at the plate and find a way to score more than one run in 25% of their games. If all these questions can be answered positively, the Cubs are in for a great season.

Projection for St. Louis Cardinals: 91-71 Second place in Central (#2 WC)

The Cardinals are sick of the Cubs and now the Brewers passing them up in the standings in recent seasons and they made sure to put them on notice this offseason. After trading for Marcell Ozuna last season, St. Louis made more noise this season by making one of the biggest trades of the offseason.

Former Arizona Diamondback and Cubs killer Paul Goldschmidt will now call the Gateway Arch his hometown for this season bringing with him a big stick to a lineup lacking a middle of the order threat. He will not only stabilize a power hitting lineup featuring Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Ozuna, Yadi Molina, Dexter Fowler, Kolton Wong and break out star Harrison Bader, but he will bring 30 home runs and 100 RBI’s while hitting .300 every season. That makes the Cardinals lineup that much deeper.

On the pitching side of things, the Cards added two significant pieces that will prove to be extremely vital this season. Not only did they extend their free agent signing from a year ago in Miles Mikolas but added the most coveted lefty arm to the back of the bullpen in Andrew Miller to stabilize the Achilles heel of the team last year.

With pitching carrying the team during their world series runs, the Cardinals are hoping the young staff of Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, John Gant, and Adam Wainwright or Alex Reyes can get back to the level of the Chris Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Wainwright (2007-12 version) to form a formidable trio that can strike the fear in any team. With an improved bullpen that will be better suited to hold leads this season, look for the Cards to find their way back into the postseason this year.

Projection for Milwaukee Brewers: 90-72 (third in Central)

Much like the Cubs, the Brewers didn’t do much this offseason and could be a better team because of that. I think they are a few pieces away from repeating what they did last season.

Offensively, the Brewers will have no trouble scoring runs as NL MVP Christian Yelich will look to come close to the type of season he had last year with Lorenzo Cain joining him at the top of the lineup as the table setters for the Brewers. Add in the big bats from Ryan Braun, Jesus Agular, Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, and off-season acquisition Yasmani Grandal, and the Brewers will have no trouble scoring runs keeping the pressure on opposing pitchers.

The one thing that could derail the Brewers season and flip it from one direction to another is their pitching staff. Not only do I not see the Brewers bullpen performing at the level they did last season despite Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader, and Corey Knebel all back, but the Brewers also lack a true ace which is imperative during post season time.

Jhoulys Chacin, a career .500 pitcher, had an impressive year last season winning 16 games and sporting a 3.51 ERA which will earn him the opening day start. He will be joined in the rotation by Chase Anderson, Zach Davies (recovering from injury), Jimmy Nelson (recovering from injury) and either Corbin Burns or Brandon Woodruff to round out the staff. Outside of maybe Nelson who has been an ace for the Brewers before, most of the Brewer pitcher are solid # 3 or 4 starters on most teams which could spell trouble throughout the season. Losing Wade Miley was a considerable loss, but the Brewers remain in talks with Gio Gonzalez who would help the back end of the rotation immensely.

If this team is in contention throughout the season as many expect them to be, I would not be shocked to see the Brewers make a run at Madison Baumgarner or Jacob DeGrom to add that established ace to the staff. Not only would that change the division landscape, but it would take pressure off the entire pitching staff allowing the bullpen to get more rest and unleashing the three-headed monster to put teams away yet again.

Projection for Cincinnati Reds: 83-79 (fourth in Central)

By far the most improved team in the division will be the Cincinnati Reds as first-year manager David Bell has plenty to smile about entering 2019. Not only did the Reds at Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the home run launching pad, but they focused on pitching and made a point to add to that all offseason long.

When you remember the excellent Reds teams of the past, not only did they have a potent offense, but a decent pitching staff anchored by an ace, (most recently Johnny Cueto). It appears the Reds have that make up yet again this season as they traded for former Oakland ace Sonny Grey and immediately inked him to an extension. The Reds are hoping a change of scenery can do him well despite pitching in a very hitter-friendly park.

Other trades made to better the rotation were the addition of Tanner Roark from the Nationals and Alex Wood of the Dodgers who had a career year in 2017 before missing a chunk of time with injuries last season. Those three will most likely be at the top of the rotation with last years ace Anthony DeSclafani moving to the No. 4 spot and either Luis Castillo or Tommy Mahle battling for that final spot in the rotation.

The bullpen is what might make or break the Reds this season as closer Raisel Iglesias will lock down the back end of the pen, but who will get him the ball. Veteran lefty Zach Duke will be a nice matchup lefty to have with Amir Garrett and former starter Sal Romano and free agent righty Matt Bowen as some other names that should find the way onto the opening day roster. Michael Lorenzen is expected to make the roster, but what will his role be.

In terms of offense, the Reds have plenty of potential as they have added some nice pop in Kemp and Puig. Even with the loss of Billy Hamilton at the top of the lineup, the Reds still have plenty of bats that can drive in runs. Breakout stars Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez will look to add to their career years from a season ago while savvy veteran Joey Votto aims to get back on track. Tucker Barnhart and Scott Schebler continue to improve while Jose Peraza, Phillip Ervin, and Alex Blandino appear to be future cornerstones for the Big Red Machine. Will the Reds take their bumps this season? Of course, they will, because they don’t know how to win yet, but as the season goes on expect them to be a team that no one wants to play.

Projection for Pittsburgh Pirates: 81-81 (Last in Central)

I honestly believe everyone in this division has the potential to finish the season without a losing record. With that being said, someone must take last, and I am putting the Pirates in that spot. That is mainly because of the offensive question marks as they will need to find ways to score runs when pitching fails them.

On paper, the Pirates may have the brightest future in terms of pitching as their rotation is not only young but full of potential. Jameson Taillon took significant strides last season and finally asserted him into the ace of the staff. Last seasons deadline deal to acquire Chris Archer blew up in their faces, but with a full offseason to reset, I expect big things from with a potential comeback player of the year honor in the works. Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove are two more young arms that showed continued growth last season, while free agent pickup Jordan Lyles will likely hold down the No. 5 spot while Chad Kuhl recovers from Tommy John.

In the bullpen, Felipe Vazquez continues to be a nightmare for hitters as the Pirates want to get him the ball as often as possible. With Kyle Crick and Keone Kela added to the team late July, the back end of the pen not only appears set but dangerous also. Edgar Santana is another hard-throwing pitcher to watch in the pen while former starters Steven Brault and Nick Kingham should break camp on the opening day roster in the pen. Kingham could make his way into the rotation pushing Lyles back to the pen.

With the pitching staff pretty much set where will the Pirates offense come from as it has not been the same since Russell Martin and Andrew McCutchen have left in recent seasons. One of the Pirates top RBI men in Gregory Polanco will be lost for the beginning of the season as he recovers from an injury. That means everyone else on the team needs to pick up the slack with Starlin Marte, Francisco Cervelli and Josh Bell the three most likely to carry the team early on.

With Josh Harrison now off to Detroit, expect second-year sensation Adam Frazier to not only step into the second base job but to be the leadoff hitter also. Corey Dickenson and Colin Moran will look to build off their increased roles from a season ago while free agent Lonnie Chisenhall not only wants to become an everyday player but to produce on a high level also.

The biggest question for me is who plays shortstop now that Jordy Mercer is gone. It appears Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker are the two front runners now. Keep your eye on Jung Ho Kang who returns to the bigs after several physical and personal issues the past couple of seasons. If Kang can play at a level even close to his rookie year in 2016, he immediately goes to the lineup and becomes a must play. Given that he was a third baseman, that would make things interesting to see what Pittsburgh would do, but I think he could handle shortstop if given a chance.

There is still three weeks of spring training left so plenty of things can happen from now until the start of the season that could alter these projections. For now, let's strap in and fasten our seatbelts as we get ready for one of the most intense NL Central races in recent memory.

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