NL Central Preview: Cardinals, Cubs and Reds are at the front of a wide-open division

Mon, Mar 18, 2024
MLB News (AP)

NL Central Preview: Cardinals, Cubs and Reds are at the front of a wide-open division

CHICAGO (AP) - The St. Louis Cardinals signed Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. The Chicago Cubs added Shota Imanaga and Hector Neris. Even the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates jumped into free agency.

There are no tanking teams in the NL Central right now, making for a wide-open landscape in a division that was captured by St. Louis or Milwaukee in five of the past six years.

It was Milwaukee's turn in 2023, finishing nine games ahead of second-place Chicago. But the top of the Brewers' rotation took a hit when Corbin Burnes was traded to Baltimore and Brandon Woodruff had shoulder surgery.

That problem belongs to Pat Murphy, who was promoted to manager after Craig Counsell departed for Chicago in a move that adds a little spice to one of the division's best rivalries.

"Glad he's on our side now," Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said of his new skipper.

Cincinnati was in the mix for a playoff spot in 2023 before fading to an 82-80 record. The Reds then strengthened their pitching staff by signing Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan.

Even Pittsburgh got into the act, adding reliever Aroldis Chapman and left-hander Martin Perez, and bringing back Andrew McCutchen on a one-year contract.

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The Reds last won the division in 2012. The Pirates have never won the NL Central; their last division title happened in the NL East in 1992.

HOW THEY PROJECT

1.) Chicago Cubs. With the additions of Counsell and Imanaga, along with the return of Cody Bellinger, it was a very good offseason for Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer. Imanaga is a Japanese left-hander with an impressive arsenal that should help ease his transition to the majors. He steps into a rotation fronted by Justin Steele, who went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA last year in a breakout performance. Bellinger is looking to prove himself once again after he hit a career-best .307 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs in his first season in Chicago. Michael Busch was acquired in a January trade with the Dodgers, and the Cubs are hoping the young infielder is ready for a regular role. The big variable for Chicago is Christopher Morel, a streaky slugger who blasted 26 homers last season but also struck out 133 times in 107 games.

2.) Cincinnati Reds. Cincinnati's promising young infield, led by Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain, took a hit when Noelvi Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. But the Reds have several different ways to replace Marte while he is out. Jeimer Candelario signed with the team in free agency, and 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India also could be a factor in the infield alignment. Injuries for Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft turned Cincinnati's rotation into a patchwork mess last season, but Andrew Abbott and Brandon Williamson gained some valuable experience that could pay off this time around. Montas also joins the rotation after an injury-decimated stint with the Yankees.

3.) St. Louis Cardinals. It's hard to imagine the vaunted Cardinals repeating their lackluster performance from last season. St. Louis went 71-91 in 2023 and finished last in the NL Central. It was the franchise's first losing record since it went 78-84 in 2007. Its rotation had a 5.08 ERA, and that was the Cardinals' biggest focus in the offseason. Gray cashed in with a $75 million, three-year contract after he had a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts with Minnesota. Lynn and Gibson each got a one-year deal. But each of the three right-handers is on the wrong side of 34, and Lynn surrendered a major league-high 44 homers in 32 starts last year. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are back to help anchor the lineup, and Jordan Walker could be even better after a solid rookie season.

4.) Milwaukee Brewers. Rhys Hoskins fills a hole at first base after signing a $34 million, two-year contract in free agency. Also worth watching is an athletic group of young position players that includes Jackson Chourio, Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick and Brice Turang. Mitchell, Frelick and Turang are former first-round picks in the amateur draft, and the 20-year-old Chourio is one of baseball's top prospects. Following the Burnes trade and Woodruff's injury, Freddy Peralta is the team's top starting pitcher. The right-hander went 12-10 with a 3.86 ERA in a career-high 30 starts last year. Wade Miley was brought back on a one-year contract, but the veteran lefty has been slowed by injuries. If the Brewers stumble early on, closer Devin Williams and shortstop Willy Adames could be two of the top names on the market ahead of the trade deadline. Williams will begin the season on the injured list because of two stress fractures in his back.

5.) Pittsburgh Pirates. With Oneil Cruz, Ke'Bryan Hayes and Henry Davis, the Pirates have the beginning of what they hope becomes a solid young core. Cruz is looking for a healthy campaign after he missed most of last season with a fractured left ankle. Hayes continued his development in 2023, winning his first Gold Glove at third base while batting .271 with a career-best 15 homers and 61 RBIs. Davis, a catcher and right fielder, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 amateur draft. Marco Gonzales was acquired in a trade with Atlanta in December, putting another veteran arm in the rotation behind All-Star right-hander Mitch Keller.

NO RESPECT

Milwaukee made the playoffs in five of the previous six years, and it doesn't sound as if the team cares all that much about possibly being underestimated going into this season.

"I definitely think we're going to be a competitive team this year," outfielder Christian Yelich said. "Even when we've been good the last few years, no one ever picks us to be good just because we're the Brewers."

WAITING IN THE WINGS

Pittsburgh took Paul Skenes with the No. 1 pick in last year's amateur draft, and the 6-foot-6 right-hander could make his big league debut this season.

Skenes, 21, helped LSU win the 2023 College World Series, going 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings. He pitched in five minor league games last summer over three levels, allowing four runs in 6 2/3 innings.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Milwaukee contributed.

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