The teams in the NL Central seem to be going completely anarchist punk these days. In a league where everyone is trying to hit more homers and amass more power, the top of this division’s strength is going to be defense, the absence of runs and hits, the cooler. When is that the case with one baseball team, much less three?
That’s what happens, though, when the one mega-power, or the team that should act like a mega-power (the Cubs), tries to convince everyone they’re the Royals. The Cubs should have spent the past couple years collecting hitters and doomsday fastballs out of the pen, but instead decided to be the exec making a big show out of ordering a High Life at the bar to prove he’s “just one of the guys.”
The Cardinals made the big splash, being paid $50 million for the torture of having to take on Nolan Arenado. It’s a wonder they didn’t ask for more! The Brewers waited out the market a bit and got Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr., which are good moves,
But all of these teams will have their defense bolstered overall. Last year, the Cubs were the second-best defensive team in the NL, the Cards 3rd, and the Brewers 6th. While Arenado should boost the Cards lineup, assuming his shoulder isn’t Swiss cheese like it was last year, it’s still not all that imposing. There’s Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, and then everyone else. Paul DeJong has been threatening a breakout offensive season for so long everyone has turned off the light and told him to wake them up when he finally breaks in the house. Yadier Molina died three years ago.
But what Arenado does give St. Louis is probably the best defensive infield in the league, with DeJong at short and Tommy Edman moving to second full-time (though he’ll be hard-pressed to be any better with the glove than Wong was). The Cards were already the second-best team in baseball in ground-ball defensive efficiency in the last full season of 2019, and now they’ve added the best defensive third-basemen in the NL. A grounder against this outfit is assured a quick death.
The Brewers infield defense will also be greatly improved by Wong moving Keston Hiura over to first, as Hiura was a danger to himself and society at second. Wong has been a plus-defender his entire career, and he and Luis Urias should soak up everything up the middle.
But the real joy to watch will be in the outfield, where Jackie Bradley Jr. will take his yearly gold-glove candidacy from center to right to join another gold glove center fielder in Lorenzo Cain. Both Cain and Bradley Jr. are over 30 and have seen their defensive metrics start to decline, but putting them next to each other in what isn’t a huge outfield in Milwaukee could probably arrest that slide a tad. Cain’s also had basically a year off to recharge. They might have to cheat to their right a bit more than usual, because Christian Yelich was an absolute disaster in left field last year, piling up -6.3 defensive runs saved in just a 60-game season.
As for the Cubs, while the furor has always been over their inability to hit a fastball over “here ya go” speed the past couple years, they still do catch the ball. They replaced their one problem area defensively, Kyle Schwarber trying to not eat his glove in left, with Joc Pederson, a former center fielder. Ian Happ is on the upswing in center, and though Jason Heyward isn’t what he was once, he’s still an advantage in right. God help this outfield at the plate when there’s a lefty pitching against them, but that won’t matter when they’re in the field.
The Cubs will still boast Mystique-in-a-baseball-uniform Javier Baez at short, and Anthony Rizzo is one of the better defensive first basemen around. With a defensively-improved David Bote starting at second base, Should Nico Hoerner (starting the season in Triple-A) take most of the starts at second, it’s about as solid of an infield as you can find, while maybe lacking the supreme standard of the Cardinals infield.
They’ll all need it. As mentioned above, the Cardinals won’t hit a ton. The Cubs might get some runs from a bevy of free-agent years in the top half of the lineup, but what Heyward, Pederson, and the collection of whatsits at second will provide is anyone’s guess. And Bryant might get hurt again, and the other impending free agents might raise a middle finger to the owner who left them high and dry the past couple seasons. Unlikely, but possible. The Brewers still have a former MVP anchoring the lineup, too, in Yelich, but will almost certainly not get much more than pool-noodle contributions from Bradley, Luis Urias, and the catcher spot.
As for the other teams in the division, the Pirates will make a serious run at 110-losses and killing Ke’Bryan Hayes’s will to live. Killing an exciting young player’s zest for life is a Pittsburgh tradition! The Reds gave up before they accomplished anything (Sonny Gray is already hurt)and are the antithesis of the other teams in the division. There’s nowhere on the field you can hit it against the Reds that won’t at least contain the possibility of a Vaudeville revival. They’ll fashion together a serviceable pen because they always do, and finish up the track as they seemingly always do as well.