2020 NL Central Preview

Kris Bryant, Luis Castillo, Christian Yelich, Josh Bell and Paul Goldschmidt
Kris Bryant, Luis Castillo, Christian Yelich, Josh Bell and Paul Goldschmidt
Illustration: Eric Barrow (Getty Images)

The NL Central is the rare occurrence in modern-day Major League Baseball where an argument could be made for four teams to win it. Or, to put it more accurately in today’s context, only one team has actively given up and merely exists to siphon off revenue-sharing and BAMTech money while causing its entire fanbase to listen to My Bloody Valentine exclusively, and that’s the Pirates.

Illustration for article titled 2020 NL Central Preview
Graphic: 2019 NL Central Standings

Last year’s division winner, the Cardinals, returns essentially their entire team to try and do the same. The Cincinnati Reds were the big movers of the offseason and most picked them to be the surprise team of the NL, before everything went to shit. The Brewers still have Christian Yelich, who can account for even more in just 60 games. And the Cubs, despite their owner’s best efforts, still have more than enough talent to pop off for a third of a normal season and make some noise, before Tom Ricketts goes around asking everyone if they have change for a button.

With 60 games hardly being enough to cause too much separation for anyone, this collection of teams could look like Jim Ross’ favorite analogy, “A Saturday night in Muskogee on a payday weekend!”

Let’s dive in.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs

Javier Baez
Javier Baez
Graphic: (Getty Images)

Chicago Cubs

COVID Response: Not great. In accordance with his unparalleled whining about having no money (and hoping no one would look behind the curtain marked “Your family’s company just sold for $26B”), Tom Ricketts cut salaries for all non-playing staff.

That didn’t stop Ricketts from bellyaching even more during a pandemic when up to a third of the U.S. population could lose their jobs. Which makes for an even better look weeks after joking around about how the renovations to Wrigley Field, which he pockets all the profits from, went some $500M over budget. Oh, to be Tom.

As for the actual virus, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy contracted it and pulled no punches about the experience:

“For 30 days, this virus, it was always worse at night. I wouldn’t sleep from midnight to six in the morning. Then from 6-10, I’d get some sleep. Every night, I’d get up at 2 and my wife would still be cleaning. She had to bring me food and water every day,” — Hottovy

Staying Away: None so far.

Oh, He’s Here Now?: It seems defeating Cleveland for the franchise’s only World Series championship in a century has caused Ricketts to want to become them, perhaps sustaining some of that “Longest Championship Drought” luster he can’t do without. The Cubs have essentially sat out the last two free-agent markets while they treat the luxury tax threshold like the pit of despair. Only bench pieces Jason Kipnis and Steven Souza Jr. (and his one leg) were brought in, along with a couple cans of gasoline in the bullpen.

Where’d He Go?: Somehow Kris Bryant didn’t end up on this list, even though ownership was desperate to move him to not pay him in two years. Cult hero Nicholas Castellanos waited and waited for the Ricketts Family to cut a check, but eventually took Cincinnati’s. Cole Hamels took his loosely-banded-together collection of ligaments and pronounced cheekbones to Atlanta.

What To Expect: A lot of 7-6 games, with most of the runs late. The Cubs still have an explosive lineup, or one capable of being so. If Bryant shows MVP form for 60 games, it will be...before he’s shipped off to the Dodgers in the winter as their yearly bounty to illustrate just how far ahead they are as an organization of everyone. The Cubs need to solve holes in center and second, and the ones in Anthony Rizzo’s back, but aren’t without possibilities in those spots (Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, acupuncture). And perhaps no NL team will benefit more from the DH, as they can keep all of Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, and Victor Caratini in the lineup every day if they so choose. They’ll score.

But the bullpen is Three Mile Island West, as the front office’s inability to develop any pitcher in years has festered there the most. A rotation of Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Jose Quintana, when he returns, is probably solid enough, but not when the parade of pyromaniacs after them comes in. Craig Kimbrel will have a second straight season without a spring training, and the first one was toxic. But any pen can put together six weeks of not having its head fall off, so hold on tight.

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Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds

Mike Moustakas
Mike Moustakas
Graphic: (Getty Images)

Cincinnati Reds

COVID Response: Also not great. Furloughed about a quarter of their staff in June and issued pay cuts for others, though paid their entire staff fully up until then. Two players tested positive initially but no one is listed as being out of camp currently.

Staying Away: None so far.

Oh, He’s Here Now?: The aforementioned Castellanos was lured, finally, over to Ohio from the division rival Cubs. The DH being in the NL makes it an even better signing, as Castellanos is often better off wearing his glove on his head in the outfield. Mike Moustakas was also brought in from a division rival, this time the Brewers, to try not to hurt himself at second. Prized Japanese import Shogo Akiyama will man center.

Where’d He Go?: Tanner Roark has made a career of just being there, and now will just be there in Toronto, wherever it plays.

What To Expect: Hard to nail down. The Reds are associated with scoring a ton of runs thanks to their funhouse ballpark, but the lineup is a touch dicey. Joey Votto was starting to look like salad dressing left in the sun last year, and at 36 it’s hard to anticipate that will get better. Castellanos will hit, so will Eugenio Suarez, and Moustakas should provide pop. Anything beyond that is definitely a question. It’s also a good thing the pitching will strike out a ton of hitters, because this defense has every chance of being a gong-show.

What the Reds will surely do is limit runs, however. Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and self-declared universal genius Trevor Bauer stealthily make up one of the best staffs in the league, and even fifth-starter Anthony DeSclafani had an ERA under 4.00 in 2019. The pen was nails last year and returns its top four weapons. While 60 games limits the bonuses of having a great rotation as other teams creatively solve 540 innings total, the Reds will be in just about every game thanks to their pitching. They’re certainly capable of 35 wins over 60 games, and that might be all it takes.

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Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers

Lorenzo Cain
Lorenzo Cain
Graphic: (Getty Images)

Milwaukee Brewers

Covid Response: Decent enough. Didn’t furlough or layoff employees and paid them fully. Three players — Luis Urias, Eric Lauer, and Angel Perdom — have tested positive and are behind held out of camp currently.

Staying Away: No one so far.

Oh, He’s Here Now?: Almost a full line-change. Eric Sogard brings Nerd-Power back to Milwaukee at third. Justin Smoak takes over at first. Avisail Garcia will bring his variety act to right field, and Omar Navarez replaces Yasmani Grandal behind the plate. Luis Urias was acquired in a trade to bolster the middle of the infield. Logan Morrison, Brock Holt, and Jedd Gyorko strengthen the bench, but in manager Craig Counsell’s mad laboratory, everyone gets involved a lot. Brett Anderson is the addition in the rotation, along with Lauer if he makes the bell.

Where’d He Go?: Grandal is the big loss, but Moustakas and Eric Thames also fucking off isn’t to be ignored. Zach Davies was moved to San Diego for Lauer and Urias (what went on in that plane?) and was a reliable if not spectacular contributor in the rotation. Even though Gio Gonzalez threw nothing but milk-bones and rib tips, he made it work at the back of their rotation and moved down I-94 to the White Sox. The Brewers’ main strength of the pen lost Drew Pomeranz and Jeremy Jeffress.

What To Expect: By this point, we should expect that Counsell will get more out of this group than he has any right to. He has spent the last two seasons channeling Merlin around Christian Yelich with his rotation and bullpen to create two playoff teams. Not having the September expanded rosters will take away one of his toys, as Counsell’s Brewers put on furious closing stretches in 2018 and 2019 partly by using 48 pitchers each game. Smoak is an excellent bounce-back candidate after suffering severe, fiendish BABIP treachery last year. But the rest of the lineup outside of Yelich is spotty, as both Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun age (though the latter will get the relief of only DH-ing this year).

There will be real hope that Brandon Woodruff can A) stay in one piece and B) show the ace stuff he’s flashed in the past, but beyond that, the rotation is once again filled with scenery. But that doesn’t matter to Counsell, who will stretch, bend, and force his bullpen wherever they have to go. With just 60 games, Counsell will probably even have less of a conscience with his pen, and somehow it’ll work. You won’t know why, but they’ll almost certainly be involved to the end.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates

Gregory Polanco
Gregory Polanco
Graphic: (Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Pirates

COVID Response: Like just about anything else owner Bob Nutting does, pretty goddamn iffy. The Pirates were the first to strike against their employees in the shutdown, halting their contribution to their retirement funds. They also furloughed some business-side staff and cut the pay of others, as well as suspending anyone with a uniform employee contract.

Broadcaster Bob Walk tested positive for the coronavirus, which is something of a shock because one would think Walk would have a hard time testing positive for being awake. Outfielder Gregory Polanco has also tested positive and is currently out of camp.

Staying Away: No one has voluntarily opted out.

Oh, He’s Here Now?: Not much, as you’d expect from Nutting’s asshole being constantly puckered up tighter than a snare drum. Jarrod Dyson has joined to run really fast while grounding out harmlessly to second, and Derek Holland’s bad facial hair has also washed up on the banks of the Confluence.

Where’d He Go?: Starling Marte was traded to Arizona’s in Nutting’s never-ending campaign to erase any memory of the fun, good Pirates teams at the beginning of the 2010s. Former closer Felipe Vasquez also had some issues, and will hopefully end up at the bottom of a very dark pit soon.

What To Expect: Trash. The Pirates will be without their two best starters in Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer through injury, leaving Joe Musgrove and Mitch Keller as just about the only competent starters. The offense will probably clear the competent hurdle but not much more, and the bullpen will look like Woodstock ’99. Which is exactly how the owner wants it. Let us not waste any more time, as at least for Pirates fans it won’t last long.

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St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals

Paul Dejong
Paul Dejong
Graphic: (Getty Images)

St. Louis Cardinals

COVID Response: Along with the Twins, were the first to announce all employees would continue to be paid through June. Set up a fund for their game day staff. Three players have tested positive in camp — Alex Reyes, Ricardo Sanchez, and Genesis Cabrera — and are being held out.

Staying Away: Reliever Jordan Hicks has opted out.

Oh, He’s Here Now?: Not much to speak about here. Brad Miller was added to the bench and Kwang Hyun Kim was added to the pen from South Korea, but other than that, the Cards are basically just rolling it all out again with last year’s division winners.

Where’d He Go?: Marcell Ozuna is the big departure, having signed in Atlanta. John Brebbia will miss the season after his elbow went TWANG! But that’s it.

What To Expect: Annoyance, obviously. There isn’t too much spectacular on paper about this squad, but they’ll just be good and tell you about it all the fucking time. Jack Flaherty is one of the league’s best young starters, and while Adam Wainwright needs some variant of crystal meth to get out to the mound at his age (good thing there’s plenty around in Missouri!), he along with Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson will be the embodiment of solid. Carlos Martinez will do the same until he issues one walk in the fifth inning and completely falls apart.

Paul Goldschmidt looked like he may have started his decline last year, and the Cards will be praying that was either a mirage or he can spasm two months of the old Arizona version of Goldie. Tommy Edman will take the ABs lost with Ozuna’s departure and will be the new, go-hard, plucky Cardinal that you come to loathe in no more than eight seconds. The rest of this lineup is decidedly old, so they’ll probably benefit from not having to slog through six months in the soup that is St. Louis summer air.

They’re the Cardinals, so there’s definitely a floor on how bad they can be. They don’t look to have that high of a ceiling either, but the cup-nature of this season reduces their aging problem. And with the other competitors in this division still having questions, a high-floor might be all they need. Which sucks for everyone.

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Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?