MLB National League Central 2019 Preview

Pictured: Christian Yelich
Source: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images North America

Chicago Cubs

Though still loaded with team-controlled talent and star-caliber names, the Cubs enter 2019 looking to rinse out the sour taste of a brutal end to their 2018 campaign. Though Javier Baez has emerged as a terrific, dynamic complement to the steady slugging of Anthony Rizzo, and though the anchors of the starting rotation are as sturdy and established as any in the National League, huge questions hang over the team. They’re still banking on development and improved offensive consistency from catcher Willson Contreras, outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. and utility man Ian Happ, and their success will hinge in some meaningful part on the health and effectiveness of Kris Bryant, who was hampered by a shoulder injury in 2018. No longer a budding dynasty, the Cubs are now an expensive team trying to reclaim its place atop the NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds

The year 2019 marks the sesquicentennial of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional (i.e., salaried) team in baseball history. In celebration, Reds players will wear commemorative patches on their jerseys and caps throughout the 2019 season. The team will also feature 15 throwback uniforms on various home dates. The 1869 Red Stockings, playing amateur teams from coast to coast, went 67–0.

Ironically, the Reds are coming off a season in which they exactly matched the 1869 team’s total of 67 wins. Unfortunately, the 2018 edition played 95 other games, finishing last in the National League Central for the fourth straight year.

The offseason focus has been to improve a perennially weak pitching staff that has, more than the offense, kept the team in the cellar. A blockbuster trade sending prospects and the disappointing Homer Bailey to the Dodgers for Alex Wood, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig strengthens the team, though probably not enough to avert another losing season. But with a new manager and young arms moving up the farm system, better days could lie ahead.

Milwaukee Brewers

What was expected to be a long organizational rebuild by the Milwaukee Brewers quickly shifted into overdrive late last January when, in a 24-hour span, they traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain to the largest free agent contract in team history. The moves couldn’t have worked out better. Both were named to the All-Star Team, and behind a huge second half that had him flirting with a triple crown up to the season’s final day, Yelich was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

Their performances, coupled with breakout seasons from first baseman Jesus Aguilar, righthander Jhoulys Chacin and relievers Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress helped set the stage for Milwaukee’s unexpected late-season successes. The Brewers beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Game 163 to win their first Central Division title since 2011 and then fell just a game shy of advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1982.

All of that has set the bar even higher for 2019. Can Yelich somehow improve upon one of the best individual performances in recent memory? Can Aguilar and Hader continue to ascend? Will the team once again utilize the bullpen-centric approach to pitching that worked so well down the stretch?

Salary-cap considerations led the Brewers to play the offseason conservatively. They made minor trades for reliever Alex Claudio and outfielder Ben Gamel and signed second baseman Cory Spangenberg — not exactly matching the major moves made by division foes St. Louis (Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller) and Cincinnati (Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood).

St. Louis Cardinals

For years, the Cardinals have been guided by past championships that set expectations for future contention. A new force steered them into the coming season: the present — and its demand to win. “We realize the importance of 2019,” says John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “I’ve always been one for the longer-term decision making. But we’re trying to win now.”

The Cardinals landed their desired blockbuster hitter in a trade for Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. The six-time All-Star has one year remaining on his contract, as does cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, last winter’s big-bat addition. Include Matt Carpenter’s team option for 2020, and the Cardinals’ top three hitters could all walk by season’s end. Franchise favorites Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright near the end of their contracts as well, adding to the Cardinals’ emphasis on immediacy and a sprint for the division title. The push is on to punctuate this era with a return to October.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates hope to build on the momentum of the final three months of the 2018 season to contend in 2019. General manager Neal Huntington believes that he helped paved the way for better days last July when he traded for Tampa Bay righthander Chris Archer and Texas reliever Keone Kela. The Pirates wound up finishing 82–79, better than expected following the winter trades of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

It was only the franchise’s fourth winning record in 26 years, and it was still only good enough for a fourth-place finish in the National League Central behind the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals. All three teams look strong again in 2019 — and the Reds will be improved as well — meaning the Pirates will have their work cut out, though the team believes that it is on the rise.

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