With the season less than three weeks away, it’s time to start doing split qualifiers. While we are clear that there are probably still some moves to be made, at this point we have a pretty good idea of what each team will look like. And we begin our series of analyzes with the Central Division of the National League.
The LN Central Division looks like one that contenders in the rest of the divisions will look upon with envy throughout the season. The Brewers and Cardinals are clearly aiming to win it in 2022, even if they haven’t invested at the level of some teams on the coasts.
But the Reds and Pirates have taken obvious steps backwards this year. The Cubs, even with acquisitions like Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki, are coming off a season in which they lost 91 games.
So, considering that this is the last season of an unbalanced schedule with a lot of matchups between clubs in the same division, there could be a lot of wins out there to bulk up the Brewers and Cardinals records, wins that could go down very well on the standings. Wild Card positions for whoever wins the division. The Yankees and Red Sox would surely love to have as many games against the Cubs, Reds and Pirates as Milwaukee and St. Louis have.
But of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is how everything will turn out this year. So let’s review what could happen in the NL Central with two key questions for each team.
1) Will Christian Yelich be Christian Yelich again?
After the 2019 season, one really wondered if Yelich, who was coming off an NL MVP in 2018 and perhaps even better in 2019, was making a case for a Hall of Fame finish. But since then he has gone downhill. He went from dropping a 179 OPS+ in 2019 to a 110 OPS+ in 2020, but hey, that was a short season in which a lot of weird stuff happened. However, the slide continued into 2021. How could Christian Yelich end up hitting .248 with nine home runs? The Brewers expected him to put on a superstar number for the next half decade, but now he’s just an average major league hitter. This lineup, even with the addition of Andrew McCutchen, still looks like the weak point. Is it possible for Yelich to find his former level?
2) Will all those pitchers stay healthy?
The Brewers had a phenomenal rotation last year, with NL Cy Young Corbin Burnes displaying a level of Dominicanness that was perhaps only matched by his rotation partner, Brandon Woodruff. And the Dominican Freddy Peralta had a great rebound. The Brewers have some depth behind them, and their usual duo of Josh Hader and Devin Williams in the bullpen, but considering how weak the lineup has been (and likely will remain), they need those three horses at the front of the rotation. make almost as many openings as you can. The Brewers have enough pitching to win this division. But they need them to shoot.
*St. Louis Cardinals*
1) Will they run out of pitching again?
As much as the Cardinals were mocked for acquiring veterans JA Happ and Jon Lester last year, that was what was pressing them: Injuries had decimated the staff and they were left without pitchers to cover innings. Presumably the team might have learned a lesson, but with Jack Flaherty injured over the winter, the Cardinals once again appear at risk of falling short of pitching. Right now, they rely on a 40-year-old Adam Wainright, two pitchers who pitched just 53.0 innings between them last year due to injuries (Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson), a rookie (Jake Woodford) and Steven Matz, signed over the winter. as a free agent, who had a 9.68 ERA in 2020. The Cardinals claim they have enough arms to fill holes, but they said the same thing last year. This team has a terrific defense that can make up for a lot of pitching deficiencies. But in the same way pitchers are needed.
2) Can you make the outfield trio even better?
If you’re looking for development potential in the Cardinals’ lineup, you’ll find it with the club’s young outfielders, who finally took hold last year. The triumvirate of 26-year-old Tyler O’Neill (34 homers, Gold Glove), 27-year-old Harrison Bader (116 OPS+, Gold Glove) and 23-year-old Dylan Carlson (.343 on-base percentage, perhaps may be the player with the most potential to evolve on this roster) was in the midst of a 17-game winning streak that propelled the Cardinals to the playoffs last year, and all three could do better this year. Every team would like to have an outfielder under 30 who is both a defensive wizard and a powerhouse. The Cardinals have three.
1) How much can starting pitching improve?
It can’t be much worse than 2021. (As FanGraphs points out, last year’s rotation was perhaps the worst in Cubs history.) It’s no surprise they now have three new pitchers: Wade Miley, claimed on waivers of the Reds; Drew Smyly, signed for one year and US$5.25 million; and Marcus Stroman, the likeable veteran who instantly becomes the ace of the club. That probably won’t be enough for them to contend for the playoffs, but at least it’s a respectable group, which is the opposite of last year’s rotation. Plus, in this division, being average — which is what the Cubs are aiming for — gives you a solid shot at success.
2) Can you take the next step?
There was a lot of disappointment last year when the Cubs shed the 2016 World Series heroes, and with good reason: It was hard to see the players who gave the Cubs their first title in more than 100 years wearing any other uniforms. But the ninth from north of Chicago added some talent in those changes and obviously she is preparing to fight again. What remains to be seen is how long this bump will last. They finished under .500 in five straight years from 2014-14 before stringing together six straight winning seasons, a streak that ended last year. Can they finish near or above .500 this year and show that the current rebuild won’t last as long as the next? This time, his fans may not be so patient.
1) Will they be able to convince their fans that this is only temporary?
From one standpoint, most of the Reds’ moves in recent weeks make long-term sense, or at least put them in a position to be better in a few years. But it would be too much to ask the Cincinnati club’s fans to see it that way, especially after trades in All-Star players like Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez — figures fans have seen grow with the team for several years. years. (With the possibility of more moves to come) They still have talent, and the Reds would be unlikely to finish last. But the fans are shocked. Can this team pull off an upset and inspire fans to keep the faith?
2) Will Joey be totally back?
A few years ago we were a little worried about Joey Votto, right? The power had been gone for a long time, but for the first time, even his on-base ability was down — quite a bit, to .357 in 2019. That’s wonderful for any player, but not for a guy who has led in six times the National League in on-base percentage. It was also worse in 2020. So what a joy to watch Votto’s 2021 season: On-base percentage improved to .375, but the best thing was that the power came back in full: His 36 homers (in 129 games no less) was the second most of his career. He turns 39 in September, with only two years left on his contract, and he says he wants to stay in Cincinnati. But if he hits like that again and the Reds are out of contention, will both sides be tempted to consider a trade?
1) Will Ke’Bryan Hayes be able to get back on his feet?
Even with low expectations for the Pirates heading into 2021, some assumed they would at least see all the talent in Hayes, who swept 24 games in 2020 (1.124 OPS, brilliant defense at third). But in 2021 he didn’t progress as some anticipated, hitting just six home runs and his on-base percentage dipping more than 120 points. He had wrist problems that limited him to just 96 games, and he still played excellent defense, so all was not lost. (He, too, is only 25 years old.) But Hayes is the beacon of hope for a franchise that hasn’t seen much success lately. It would be good to shine that light again.
2) Will some of these young players emerge?
It’s not just about Hayes. Heading into 2021, no one would be blamed for thinking that Mitch Keller — once a hot prospect — would break through. (Him Until he had five good starts in 2020) but in 2021, he posted a 6.17 ERA in 23 starts, which would profile him as the Opening Day starter anyway. Hayes, Keller, Kevin Newman, JT Brubaker — each seemed to be the recent prospect who generated hype and then fell short. Could it be that some fans have calmed their expectations of Dominicans Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras, who are now the club’s coveted prospects? Those fans need something to get excited about, so it would be wonderful if some of these guys show sparks this year.
Milwaukee Brewers: 91-71
St. Louis Cardinals: 88-74
Chicago Cubs: 78-84
Cincinnati Reds: 71-91
Pittsburgh Pirates: 63-99
There’s a big gap between the top two teams and the rest of the division, and plenty of room between the Cubs and the bottom two. Due to the lopsided schedule, the division champion will likely have a better record than it actually is. Right now, you can bet on the Brewers’ pitching, at least until the Cardinals prove they’re not as armless as they were last year. But don’t be surprised if Milwaukee and St. Louis make the postseason.
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The questions of the Central of the LN