Baseball might be on pause at the moment but MLB futures live on.
Sportsbooks are still rolling out MLB futures both of the individual and team variety, but in continuing with my six-part series breaking down the divisions across Major League Baseball, we’re sticking with team futures here.
This one here goes down as part five of my six-part series in which I’ll be taking a look inside the NL Central Division.
It’s a division that has changed hands a few times in recent years, but 2020 figures to have at least four teams capable of taking down the division crown.
With that in mind, let’s go ahead and break down all five NL Central clubs while checking in on some odds and predictions for each team as well.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
**Breakdowns down in order of last season’s final regular season standings
NL Central Division Odds, Breakdowns and Predictions
St. Louis Cardinals
- 2019 Record: 91-71
- Playoff Result: Lost NLCS vs. Nationals
- NL Central Odds: +225
- NL Pennant Odds: +900
- World Series Odds: +2800
Annually a competitive club, the Cardinals took down the NL Central in 2019 and marched their way to the NLCS after taking Game 5 of the NLDS over the Braves by virtue of bashing Mike Foltynewicz and Braves pitching for a 10-run first inning en route to a 13-1 victory.
That said, the Cardinals were no competition for the eventual World Champion Nationals in the NLCS, getting swept in that series without much push back.
This year’s version of the Cardinals looks quite similar to the group that finished last season, although there is one big bat missing in the form of outfielder Marcell Ozuna.
Ozuna – now a member of the Atlanta Braves – found his footing in his second season with the Cardinals after a rough first tour of duty.
In 2019, Ozuna posted an .800 OPS and 109 wRC+, but flashed much more power with 29 home runs and a .231 ISO compared to 23 homers and a .153 mark in the 2018 season.
His absence leaves the Cardinals with a thin-looking outfield from an offensive standpoint. That group now looks to feature glove-first Harrison Bader in center with veteran Dexter Fowler in left and youngster Tyler O’Neil in right.
Fowler bounced back with a solid 103 wRC+, however Bader was far below league average with an 81 wRC+ and O’Neil wasn’t great in part-time duty with a 91 wRC+ in 151 plate appearances. Remember, 100 is league average.
The majority of the offense will likely come from the infield with Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman rounding out that group, the latter of which came up big with a big 123 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR in just 92 games played. Whether that’s sustainable is up for debate, but he provides hope at the hot corner – a position the Cardinals are lacking in depth.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals were tied for 18th with just a .314 wOBA in 2019, and without Ozuna it’s no guarantee that number increases in 2020.
With a less-than-stellar offense, it was up to Cardinals pitching to do the heavy lifting last season, and they stepped up.
Overall, Cardinals pitching ranked fifth with a 3.82 ERA with the rotation putting forth a fifth-ranked 3.78 mark with the bullpen coming in with a sixth-ranked 3.88 mark.
The rotation looks mighty similar to last year’s group, but Jack Flaherty positioned himself as a full-blown ace in the season’s second half and into the postseason and is now among the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award in 2020.
The team also added South Korean Kwang Hyun Kim to compete for a rotation spot among a group of holdover including Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson, among others.
It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals bullpen putting forth that nice ERA figure in a season that closer Andrew Miller posted a 4.45 ERA. It was his second straight season with an ERA north of 4.00, although unlike 2018, 2019 featured scary peripherals in the form of a 5.19 FIP, 4.43 xFIP and a 4.45 BB/9 rate.
All told, Miller was worth -0.4 fWAR in 2019.
It was mostly a cast of little-known relief arms getting the job done last season, but they’ll need more from their former world-class closer this time around.
Prediction: Misses Playoffs
I can’t remember where it was, but I saw Tweet that said the Cardinals could win the division again in 2020, or they could finish fourth. I whole-heartedly agree there.
For one, the team rarely takes a year off. If history is any indication, this team will be competitive again this season. Whether they’ll be good enough to outlast the rest of the division is another question.
Unless Goldschmidt can return to his MVP form that we witnessed from his days in Arizona, I’m worried about the offense. Ozuna’s loss might hurt and I don’t see much offense coming from the outfield.
It’s not as if DeJong and Wong are elite-level bats at their positions and given his minor league track record, Edman’s 123 wRC+ breakout is probably too good to be true and he benefited from an elevated .346 BABIP as well.
The rotation should do fine and the Cardinals will need it to be great. They’ll also need Miller to come around in a big way and have their no-name cast from last season repeat that work again this season.
To me, there’s too many ifs in a wide-open division and I just don’t see it for the Cardinals in 2020, although don’t expect them to fade into the darkness, either.
- 2019 Record: 89-73
- Playoff Result: Lost Wild Card game vs. Nationals
- NL Central Odds: +350
- NL Pennant Odds: +1400
- World Series Odds: +5000
The Brewers were the closest team to eliminating the future World Champion Nations in the 2019 postseason. They blew an eighth-inning lead on a Juan Soto RBI single, and the Nats moved on to glory.
It’s possible that we’ve seen the last of the Brewers contending for the division, because they lost a lot in the offseason.
In other words, it’s a much different Brewers roster – mostly in the lineup – than we saw that fateful night in D.C.
Gone from last year’s lineup are a pair of difference-making bats in catcher Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas. You can add a third in there in the form of Eric Thames who punished right-handed pitching again in 2019.
The loss of Grandal hurts from a defensive standpoint as well, and combined with the offense the team lost the second-best catcher in all of baseball behind only J.T. Realmuto. Offensively, Grandal put forth an .848 OPS, .361 wOBA, 121 wRC+ and 28 home runs while catching almost every game for the Crew. He posted a massive .380 OBP and 17.2% walk rate.
Moustakas’ bat is to be missed after he launched another 35 home runs to go along with an .845 OPS, .348 wOBA and 113 wRC+.
Thames – who largely sat versus lefties – posted an .851 OPS, .354 wOBA and 117 wRC+ with 25 long balls in just 396 at-bats. He also walked 11.1% of the time.
To be clear, those are three big losses from an offensive standpoint.
They added Omar Narvaez to catch and also added outfielder Avisail Garcia to the outfield, a move that pushed Ryan Braun to first first. Right field and first base are where Thames spent his time with the Brewers in 2019.
They also added Eric Sogard coming off a career-year split between the Blue Jays and Rays to help with infield patchwork given the loss of Moustakas and Travis Shaw – the latter of which endured a disastrous 2019 season.
The rotation dealt Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays, and looks much different than it did just a couple of seasons ago.
The new ace is town is Brandon Woodruff coming off a breakout 3.62 ERA/3.01 FIP with a 10.58 K/9 in 2019, albeit in just 22 starts.
After Woodruff, it’s likely Brett Anderson, Adrian Houser, Josh Lindblom (signed after time in Japan), Eric Lauer (acquired via trade from Padres) and potentially Corbin Burnes, Brent Suter or Freddy Peralta.
It’s certainly not the best group around on paper, and whether they can improve from their decent 4.20 starters ERA from last season (14th) remains to be seen.
The bullpen will get a big name back in the form of late-inning arm Corey Knebel who missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. Previously, Knebel had established himself as a reliable closer with a 2.50 ERA and 55 saves over his previous two seasons.
Don’t forget elite-level closer Josh Hader while whoever misses out on a rotation spot from the names above will simply become bullpen members with Burners and Peralta potentially becoming high-leverage arms for the 2020 Brewers bullpen.
They’ll need a better season from that group after they tied for 17th with a 4.40 ERA in 2019, and with the re-addition of Knebel, the bullpen has the potential to be this team’s greatest asset this season.
Prediction: Misses Playoffs
While the offense likely isn’t going to fall into a black hole with MVP Christian Yelich aboard, he’s going to need to be every bit of his MVP form coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season for this team to have a chance.
The aforementioned additions are fine, but they don’t replace what was lost in free agency. They’ll likely also need a career-year from shortstop Orlando Arcia, Keston Hiura to maintain what he showed in his debut last season and perhaps a name like Justin Smoak to have another power surge in the hitter-friendly Miller Park.
I don’t want to rule the rotation out of having a solid season, because that could happen. Still, it looks less than stellar on paper and will need to outperform.
They bullpen will also need a bounce back and as noted, I believe it can be the strongest department of this Brewers call club, but to me that won’t be enough to get into the postseason in a crowded NL field once again.
- 2019 Record: 84-78
- Playoff Result: Did not qualify
- NL Central Odds: +225
- NL Pennant Odds: +1400
- World Series Odds: +3300
There was no postseason baseball on the north side in 2019, but there probably should have been if this world was fair.
The Cubs’ finished with a 84-78 record, but their expected win/loss – based on run differential – should have been 90-72, which would have netted them the second Wild Card spot over the Brewers.
The Cubs posted a +97 run differential – the fifth-best mark in the NL – with the Brewers only coming in slightly positive at +3. Add in the Brewers’ expected record of 81-81 and it appears the wrong team made the postseason a year ago, by a mile.
Nonetheless, changes were seemingly on the horizon, and the biggest of which ended up being the parting of ways with manager Joe Maddon and the subsequent hiring of former Cubs catcher David Ross.
That said, the on-field personnel didn’t change at all despite months of trade rumors, mostly involving Kris Bryant but also catcher Willson Contreras and shortstop Javier Baez, to an extent.
The offseason agenda was to get payroll under the luxury tax, which resulted in a quiet offseason with low-cost signings only.
Those low-cost signing included second baseman Jason Kipnis, outfielder Steven Souza Jr., reliever Jeremy Jeffress and Hernan Perez.
You can’t quite blame the team for keeping the band on offense intact. The Cubs ranked eighth with a .330 wOBA and fifth with a .200 ISO last season. Nothing wrong with that production.
The lone notable change on offense could be the versatile Ian Happ overtaking the underperforming Albert Almora Jr. in center field in order to get some more offense going from the outfield. Souza Jr. could also sneak into the mix if Jason Heyward struggles in right.
The rotation lost veteran Cole Hamels in free agency, but they’re set up nicely nonetheless, barring health of course.
It’s a veteran-laden group, but you could do a lot worse than Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana in your top four.
The Cubs ranked 10th with a 4.18 ERA from their rotation last year and all four of those members were worth at least 2.6 WAR. Low K-rates (outside of Darvish) were mitigated by low walk rates while most members deserved a lower ERA than they got based on peripherals.
It’s high on talent, but shallow on depth has Tyler Chatwood figures to get another shot in the rotation after he did well to post a 3.97 ERA in five starts a season ago while Alec Mills did quite well himself with a 2.70 ERA/3.56 FIP with an 11.70 K/9 vs. a 2.70 BB/9 in his four starts last season.
Another item the Cubs are looking to check off is a bounce back from closer Craig Kimbrel.
Signed mid-season, Kimbrel struggled mightily to the tune of a 6.53 ERA/8.00 FIP with a 5.23 BB/9 and 3.92 HR/9. He did mostly maintain his elite K-rate at 13.06 K/9, however his brief Cubs tenure is labelled a full-blown disaster to this point. That appears to be the risk in signing players mid-season.
Nonetheless, despite Kimbrel’s struggles, the Cubs finished eighth with a 3.98 ERA in 2019, although their true effectiveness could be found in their 20th-ranked 1.3 WAR.
They’ll need Kimbrel to be better while hoping Jeffress can find the form that made him a high-leverage arms with the Brewers in the 2018 season.
Predictions: Wins NL Central, Loses NLDS vs. Braves
I see the most value in the Cubs’ +225 to win the NL Central here.
While those +3300 World Series odds carry some value in my opinion, I see both the Braves and Dodgers as superior clubs and I don’t think the Cubs can win a playoff series, albeit a shortened five-game series, against either of those clubs.
Nonetheless, the offense should rake and if the rotation can stay healthy I believe they’re a top-10 group for sure, potentially top-five if Darvish can come close to that second-half production.
The bullpen is concerning despite their (fortunate) ERA number from last season. They weren’t as good as they appeared on the surface from a numbers standpoint and it was certainly the weak point of the group last season.
Add it up and I like the Cubs to win the division under the guidance of rookie manager David Ross, but I don’t see them marching much further than that.
- 2019 Record: 75-87
- Playoff Result: Did not qualify
- NL Central Odds: +275
- NL Pennant Odds: +1400
- World Series Odds: +4500
I liked the Reds to take that big step forward last season, but perhaps I was a year too early.
Coming off a solid offensive season, they beefed up their pitching to wonderful results, but the offense fell off and it resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Central in 2019.
Like the Cubs, the Reds deserved a better than that 75-87 record, coming in at 80-82 based on their slightly negative -10 run differential, but still not nearly good enough to make noise in this wide-open division.
After solving their pitching issues last winter, the Reds made some bold moves in an attempt to solve their offensive woes this winter.
Owner Bob Castellini opened up his pocketbook and inked both Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos to big-money contracts, shoring up the second base and right field side of things while introducing two potent bats to the lineup.
I outlined Moustakas’ work from 2019 above, but Castellanos could be the key as a 28-year-old coming off a career-year between the Tigers and Cubs.
— MLBRosterMoves (@MLBRosterMoves) January 27, 2020
Overall, he set a new career-high with 27 home runs and led all of baseball with a career-high 58 doubles while his .236 ISO was also a career-best.
His season really caught fire upon his trade deadline deal to the Cubs as he raked to the tune of a 1.002 OPS with 16 homers and 21 doubles, all in just 51 games. He quickly became a fan favorite at Wrigley as a result, however cost-cutting measures allowed him to hit the open market nonetheless.
All the sudden, the Reds’ offense looks quite dangerous. Keep in mind third baseman Eugenio Suarez finished second in baseball with 49 home runs last season while Nick Senzel, their former top prospect, destroyed minor league pitching and showed some power and speed potential with 12 homers and 14 steals in 104 MLB games.
Add in Joey Votto and his still-excellent on-base skills, the underrated bat of Jesse Winker in left field and some pop at short with Freddy Galvis and the Reds’ offense should produce far better than their 22nd-ranked .312 wOBA from a season ago.
Of course, the pitching was much improved and has the potential to be even better this season.
Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo formed a co-ace tandem atop the rotation with an ERA of 2.87 and 3.40, respectively, to go along with excellent K-rates with both hurlers coming in around the 10.50 K/9 mark.
The third member of what would be an elite top-three is Trevor Bauer, acquired from the Indians in a three-team trade at the deadline.
Now, Bauer was shelled for a 6.39 ERA 10 starts, and while his peripherals of a 4.85 FIP and 4.44 xFIP were much better, keep in mind this is a guy who spun a 2.21 ERA/2.44 FIP with an 11.34 K/9 in 2018. He’s going to be better.
Even Anthony DeSclafani came in with a sub-4.00 ERA in the four spot while the team also added veteran Wide Miley to fill out the rotation coming off a couple of nice years between the Brewers and Astros, posting a combined 3.52 ERA in that time across 49 starts and 248 innings.
To me, the rotation is set up for serious success and it would be be surprising in the least to see them improve on their ninth-ranked 4.12 starters ERA from a season ago.
The Reds’ bullpen slipped as the season went on to finish at 13th with a 4.28 ERA, but they bolstered that group by adding Pedro Strop, Nate Jones and Tyler Thornburg to the mix.
Add in current arms in Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett and closer Raisel Iglesias and I see improvement on the horizon for this group.
Prediction: Wild Second Wild Card berth, Loses Wild Card game vs. Mets
I have the Mets as the other Wild Card club in the NL based on what could be an elite-level rotation of their own, but facing Jacob deGrom poses a problem for these Reds, if that’s the scenario that plays out.
This is going to be a dangerous club for the Reds and it’s too bad their fans can’t bask in that excitement right away.
Hopefully for the Reds faithful Sonny Gray can maintain his production from his first year in Cincinnati after a tough Yankees tenure, and it appears Luis Castillo is well on his way to becoming a top-tier arm in this league, if he isn’t there already.
Of course, I’m looking for a much-improved offense from this group given the additions while the bullpen has the potential to improve as well with some quality additions of their own.
Get set for postseason ball in Cincy in 2020.
- 2019 Record: 69-93
- Playoff Result: Did not qualify
- NL Central Odds: +10000
- NL Pennant Odds: +8000
- World Series Odds: +50000
It would seemingly take a miracle for the Pirates to make noise in this division.
The Pirates deserved every bit of their record from 2019 given their -153 run differential and it would appear that they are set for a similar fate in 2020.
The offense was a bottom-10 group at 21st with a .313 wOBA a season ago, but improvement doesn’t appear imminent. Josh Bell endured a second-half slump after an All-Star first half while time is running out on Gregory Polanco to deliver on his pre-MLB hype after posting an 87 wRC+ after his return from shoulder surgery in 2019.
The team just doesn’t appear to have much in other positions, save for Bryan Reynolds in left who surprised with a big-time 131 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR in his rookie season.
The teams catching duo of Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz are no longer with the club and the center field job is now light-hitting Jerrod Dyson’s to lose.
It would appear the rotation is their best bet for success.
Chris Archer’s tenure in Pittsburgh has been bad enough before we realize that former top prospects Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow – traded to Tampa Bay at the 2018 deadline for Archer – are thriving as potential perennial All-Stars with the Rays.
While Archer is a rebound candidate, the rotation has some other hope in the form of Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and current top prospect Mitch Keller, the latter of which is supposed to make the jump to the big leagues on a permanent basis in 2020.
Note that Jameson Taillon is likely out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last August.
Most Pirates rotations members deserved better fates as their 26th-ranked 5.40 ERA is much worse than their 19th-ranked 4.76 FIP or 21st-ranked 8.2 WAR.
Still not great numbers, but Musgrove worked to a nice 3.83 FIP, Marcher’s 4.36 xFIP was much lower than his 5.19 ERA and Williams is one year removed from a 3.11 ERA/3.86 FIP in the 2018 season.
It won’t be the best rotation in the league, but there’s a chance it could sneak up close to the top-half of the league if better luck is to be had this season.
The bullpen struggled with a 23rd-ranked 4.91 ERA and peripherals don’t point to bad luck for this group. Given the current makeup of the group, it doesn’t appear much improvement should be anticipated this time around.
Prediction: Misses Playoffs
It should certainly go down as another lost season in 2020 for the Pirates as their division is good enough to make things difficult for them on a regular basis. It might not be as good as the NL East, but the NL Central will be no cake walk, either.
The offense doesn’t have much potential to improve a whole lot, the rotation does have some upside if they can get a bounce back from Archer and Williams while the bullpen figures to dwell near the league’s basement again this season.
Add it up and greener pastures are still a ways away for this franchise.