Eye on the enemy: Scouting the National League Central
Who’s gone: 1B Josh Bell, RHP Jameson Taillon, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Trevor Williams, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Keone Kela, LHP Derek Holland
Who’s new: LHP Tyler Anderson, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Wil Crowe, RHP David Bednar, RHP Luis Oviedo, RHP Duane Underwood Jr., OF Dustin Fowler, C Michael Pérez
Key players: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, 2B Kevin Newman, SS Adam Frazier, 1B Colin Moran, RHP Richard Rodríguez, RHP Chad Kuhl, RHP Mitch Keller
Last season: 19-41, 15 games back of Cubs in NL Central
Outlook: The Pirates are deep in rebuild mode. The club finished with the worst record in baseball and traded away three of their best players in Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove. Key reliever Keone Kela was hurt in August last season and missed the rest of the year. Kela and Chris Archer were seen as potential trade chips last season but were held onto and signed elsewhere in the offseason.
There are still intriguing pieces on the Pirates roster, though. Top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes debuted last season and flashed his potential, posting a 1.124 OPS with 5 home runs and 11 RBI in 52 plate appearances and was the club’s most valuable player by WAR (1.9). He’ll be the club’s starting third baseman in 2021. Kevin Newman is the Pirates’ starting shortstop and has been swinging a hot bat in spring, hitting .645. Colin Moran led the team with 10 home runs and will take the reins at first from the departed Bell.
Chad Kuhl will take the ball for the Pirates on Opening Day but there’s a lot of question marks up and down the Pirates’ pitching staff, including with Kuhl. He has played in parts of four seasons, but has only pitched over 100 innings once, in 2017. Former top prospect Mitch Keller figures to be part of the rotation, too, but he’s struggled this spring, posting a 11.91 ERA in 11 innings of work. Tyler Anderson, JT Brubaker and Trevor Cahill will round out the Pirates’ rotation.
The Pirates have a few interesting arms in their pen, highlighted by Richard Rodríguez. Rodríguez was 3-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 4 saves in 2020, but a look at his advanced numbers showed his true brilliance. He posted a park-adjusted ERA+ of 170, 70 points above league average. He had a 36.6% strikeout percentage which ranked in the 96th percentile in baseball and he had a 36% whiff percentage, which ranked in the 92nd percentile in baseball. Michael Feliz pitched in just 3 games in 2020, but in 2019, he had an ERA+ of 110 and had 73 strikeouts in 56.1 innings.
Who’s gone: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Raisel Iglesias, RHP Anthony DeSclafani, SS Freddy Galvis, OF Brian Goodwin, C Curt Casali, RHP Archie Bradley, RHP Robert Stephenson, INF Robel García
Who’s new: LHP Sean Doolittle, INF Max Schrock, LHP Cionel Pérez
Key players: RHP Luis Castillo, RHP Sonny Gray, 2B Mike Moustakas, 3B Eugenio Suárez, OF Nick Castellanos
Last season: 31-29, 3 games back of Cubs in NL Central, lost in NL Wild Card to Braves in 2 games
Outlook: After making their first playoff appearance since 2013, the Reds face a tough task in returning to the playoffs. They lost Cy Young winner and staff ace Trevor Bauer (who signed with the Dodgers) and face plenty of question marks up and down their roster.
Their 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation could be one of the best in baseball with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, but Gray is battling an injury and is likely out to start the season. After those two, there’s plenty of question marks on the rotation. Tyler Mahle had a solid 2020 season, posting an ERA+ of 138. But in 2018 and 2019, Mahle was 10-21 with a 5.06 ERA, a 1.440 WHIP and an ERA+ of 88, 12 points below league average. Wade Miley, Jeff Hoffman and José De León round out the Reds’ rotation while Gray works his way back.
More questions arise when you take a look at the Reds’ pen. Their reliever corps finished with the sixth-worst ERA in baseball, and they lost their top arm in Raisel Iglesias. Iglesias was traded to the Angels for Noé Ramírez and prospect Leonardo Rivas. Ramírez was released by the Reds this spring. They added veteran lefty Sean Doolittle, who was a key part of the Nationals’ bullpen in 2019 that won the World Series. Doolittle, though, appeared in just 11 games last season and had the worst season by ERA (5.87) of his career.
Offensively, the Reds were a true feast-or-famine club. They had the highest percentage of runs scored by home runs in baseball – 59.7% of their runs (145 of 243) were scored via the long ball. In the playoffs, the bats hit a drought. In 22 innings across 2 games, the Reds went scoreless against the Braves, amassing 13 hits and just 1 extra-base hit, a double from Nick Castellanos.
Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Eugenio Suárez can provide plenty of pop, but the question for the Reds offense remains, will they be able to score if they’re not hitting it out of the park?
Who’s gone: OF Ryan Braun, RHP Corey Knebel, OF Ben Gamel, 1B Jedd Gyorko, INF Eric Sogard, LHP Alex Claudio
Who’s new: OF Jackie Bradley Jr., 2B Kolten Wong, C Luke Maile
Key players: OF Christian Yelich, RHP Brandon Woodruff, RHP Corbin Burnes, LHP Josh Hader, RHP Devin Williams, OF Lorenzo Cain, INF Keston Hiura
Last season: 29-31, 5 games back of Cubs in NL Central; Lost NL Wild Card 2-0 to Dodgers
Outlook: After a slow start to the offseason, the Brewers turned it on late to prove they once again have their sights set on the playoffs. The Brewers made a flurry of moves late in the offseason, adding 2020 Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong and former All-Star and Gold Glover Jackie Bradley Jr.
Add that with former MVP Christian Yelich, big-hitting infielder Keston Hiura and former All-Star Lorenzo Cain and it gives the Brewers a formidable lineup. But the Brewers will have to hope that Yelich and those other bats can return to their career norms if they want to compete for an NL Central crown. Yelich slashed a lowly .205/.356/.430 with 12 home runs in 2020. Wong had his option declined by the Cardinals after posting an OPS of .675 with 1 home run. Cain played in 5 games before opting out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Hiura bopped 13 home runs but hit only .212 and posted a -0.4 WAR. They’ll need a bounce back from that group if they hope to contend.
The Brewers’ pitching staff could be the real shining spot for Milwaukee, though. Their 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff could prove to be one of the better 1-2 punches in the National League. Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson and Freddy Peralta will round out the Brew Crew’s rotation. Woodruff posted a 3.05 ERA and a 0.991 WHIP last season as the Brewers’ ace and Burnes was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA and 1.022 WHIP.
As good as their 1-2 punch of Burnes and Woodruff could be, there’s no denying the prowess of their top arms at the back of the bullpen. Lefty Josh Hader and righty Devin Williams give the Brewers as dominant of a backend setup as there is. Williams really impressed across baseball. He had 53 strikeouts in 27 innings of work, posting a 53% strikeout percentage. He had an amazing 0.630 WHIP and allowed just 1 earned run. Opponents hit just .090 against Williams. Hader had a down year by his standards, but still had an impressive 0.947 WHIP and 31 strikeouts in 19 innings.
The Brewers will need Burnes, Woodruff, Williams and Hader to post those caliber of numbers throughout the season and the hitters to return to form if they hope to contend in 2020.
St. Louis Cardinals
Who’s gone: OF Dexter Fowler, RHP Austin Gomber, 2B Kolten Wong, UTIL Brad Miller, C Matt Wieters, RHP John Brebbia
Who’s new: 3B Nolan Arenado
Key players: 3B Nolan Arenado, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, C Yadier Molina, RHP Jack Flaherty, RHP Adam Wainwright
Last season: 30-28, 3 games back of Cubs in NL Central; lost NL Wild Card to Padres 2-1.
Outlook: The Cardinals didn’t make a ton of moves this offseason, but the few that they did make were huge.
The Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado, one of the top third baseman in baseball in February. After making the splash in the trade market, they re-signed longtime Redbirds in Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals had been looking for a complementary bat to pair with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and they seemed to have found it in Arenado. Goldschmidt led the team in OPS with an .883. Brad Miller, who is now with the Phillies, was the only other player with an OPS above .800 for the Cardinals last season. The Cardinals finished last in baseball in extra-base hits (131), home runs (51) and finished 26th in baseball in OPS (.694).
St. Louis is hoping Arenado’s 235 career home runs and lifetime .890 OPS will boost the lineup. The question for Arenado and the Cardinals is whether or not he can post those kinds of numbers away from the thin air of Coors Field and Denver. Arenado has 5 home runs, 17 RBI and an .848 OPS at Busch Stadium in 98 plate appearances.
Even if Arenado produces at the high-level he has done his whole career, the Cardinals will need more bats to step up if they hope to score enough runs to contend for the NL Central crown.
Pitching-wise, the Cardinals have an up-and-coming ace in Jack Flaherty, who posted a 2.75 ERA in 2019 and an NL-best 0.968 WHIP with 231 strikeouts. Outside of Flaherty, there’s plenty of question marks, though. The Cardinals’ Opening Day rotation consists of Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martínez, Daniel Ponce de Leon and John Gant.
Wainwright turned back the clock last season, going 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 10 starts with a 1.051 WHIP. He had a stellar spring, posting a 2.42 ERA and a 0.716 WHIP in 22.1 innings of work. The question for Wainwright and St. Louis will be whether or not Wainwright, at 39, can maintain that level.
Martínez made just 5 starts in 2020 as he battled COVID-19 and was hospitalized with the virus during the season. He posted a 9.90 ERA in 20 innings. He served as the Cardinals’ closer in 2019 as they made a run to the NLCS. Martínez pitched in the Dominican Winter League in the offseason and was the ace for the Dominican Republic team that took home the Caribbean Series title.
Ponce de Leon made 8 starts in 2020 and posted a 4.96 ERA. Gant served as a reliever for the Cardinals and had a 2.40 ERA and 1.067 WHIP in 15 innings of work. Like their offense, the Cardinals will need some of their pitchers outside of Flaherty and Wainwright to step up if they hope to battle for an NL Central crown.