NL Central preview: Questions on Brewers’ offense, Cardinals’ pitching, Cubs’ additions, Pirates’ prospects, Reds’ future
Baseball season is just around the corner, which means it’s time for the division preview! From now until MLB Opening Day on March 30, Sportzshala Sports will be sharing their thoughts on each division, including a sneak peek of the offseason and best and worst scenarios for each team.
So far, we’ve covered AL East, NL East, and AL Central. Let’s move on to the Central National League.
Projected record (according to PECOTA as of March 16): 87-75
The Brewers beat Corbin Burns, their future selves, in contentious arbitration hearing
In the blockbuster A’s-Braves, the Brewers end up with catcher William Contreras.
Batsman candidate Jesse Winker heads to Milwaukee in exchange for Kolten Wong
Willie Adams interested in renewal but enters season with no guarantees
Best Screenplay: The starting rotation led by Corbin Burns and Brandon Woodruff returned Freddie Peralta, the Third Musketeer, to full health and performance. And for the first time since fleeting superstar Christian Yelich, the Milwaukee offense strikes nearly evenly.
How? Thanks to the off-season of shy showy moves. William Contreras, an Atlanta All-Star with his bat, continues to hit and step up defensively, improving framing like previous Milwaukee catchers to become an all-around star. Winker, who had a nightmarish season in Seattle full of injuries and underperformance, loves his return to NL Central and combines 35 homers with strong on-base skills. Along with Yelich, Rowdy Tellez and Willie Adams, these additions lengthen the roster, bringing together a top 10 hitter and prompting the front office – led by general manager Matt Arnold after the departure of David Stearns – to add instead of subtract at the trade deadline.
With Burns vying for another Cy Young and Devin Williams taking over the dominance, the Brewers make a stark contrast to the Cardinals’ boring pitching staff and reclaim the division crown.
At worst: The clock continues to tick on the team’s most recognizable faces: the years since Yelich truly became a star. Years before Burns, Woodruff and Adams become free agents. Days before the trade deadline, when the front office – if there aren’t enough wins on the board – might decide to take another painful forward-looking move. Adams, in particular, could be an attractive trade item for a short-stop contender (hello, Dodgers) if the Brewers decide they are unwilling to splurge on a long-term extension.
A new version of Josh Hader’s demoralizing 2022 trade and season’s heavy smell stems from continued offensive stagnation. Yelich continues to hammer baseballs into the ground, and Adams again struggles to hit much more than homers. Tellez regresses on the power front while Winker and Keston Hiura stumble into their personal pits with a heavy out. The youth who should do their part – Bryce Turang, Sal Frelik, Garrett Mitchell and Joey Wymer – are not finding support.
Even more grimly, the rotation is hitting health stumbling blocks, creating uncertainty over whether any of Burns, Woodruff and/or Peralta are long-term building blocks.
Regardless of the record, what will success look like in 2023? Not to beat a dead horse, but the Brewers need to show progress on the side of the punch. Despite all the team’s commendable success in finding and developing pitchers – Aaron Ashby should have been the latest example before a shoulder injury sidelined him – several of Brewer’s hitters in recent years have fallen short of their intended ceilings.
Any number of players could change that in 2023, including Jelic or Winker with big rebounds, but the most intriguing possibilities are with debuting prospects and youngsters like Hiura and Luis Urias who are still trying to unleash their final form. Any real movement on that front means the Brewers return to the playoffs, a bar they’ve broken in four straight seasons through 2022. — Kreiser
St. Louis Cardinals
Projected record: 86-76
Nolan Arenado pulls out of free agency, agreeing to the remaining five years of his contract
Forced to confront the post-Yadier Molina era in St. Louis, the Cardinals are bolstering the roster with first-time catcher Wilson Contreras.
“We really haven’t been that active in this,” John Moseliac, president of baseball operations, says of the free agent market. “We noticed,” Cardinals fans supposedly say in response.
Best Screenplay: In the end? The deep October run with the almost shocking competence of the cardinals has become the prevailing national narrative for decades. An unassuming antidote to tank-era teams seeking to rise and fall, the Cards haven’t had a losing season since Mozelyak took over in 2007, and they haven’t had a top ten worst offense in 45 years!! At best, in 2023, the Cardinals will prove that, in combination with their reliable production team and stellar contact serve defense, Maybe work in the postseason.
Reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt is taking a small step back in his 35-year season, but it’s just allowing Arenado – recently beloved by him after he prioritized stability in St. Louis over maximizing his money – to move more into the spotlight. Tommy Edman is becoming the epitome of the new rules, showing off his athletic range in shortstops and running aggressively down the base lanes. Lars Nutbaar rakes. But it’s Jordan Walker, the first-round pick of the 2020 draft by the Cardinals, who outshines the show after breaking into the Hot Spring Opening Day roster and vying for Rookie of the Year honors.
Fans worried about the lack of a hand added by the winter are somewhat reassured when Jack Flaherty is making as many starts in 2023 as he has in the last three seasons combined (32), giving the Cardinals the batting rotation leader. the missing pieces, and the subtle changes the Cards made to Jordan Montgomery’s repertoire make him look like himself from the second half of 2022. These fans feel even better after the team leaves and trades for another starting player to keep the postseason rotation going, rather than coasting through a weak division.
At worst: The composition in the form in which it was built can only deal with certain difficulties. Of course, key elements can always be corrupted, predicted breakthroughs – for example, for Nootbaar – may not materialize, MVP candidates may regress. But it’s more likely that Walker’s convincing performance in the Grapefruit League is giving way to a rookie struggle that leaves commentators questioning the club’s decision to skip Triple-A entirely.
The problem, however, is the pitch—just like last year, when the Cardinals won the division despite having the lowest K/9 in all of baseball, only to be forced out in a wildcard round. This problem is only exacerbated by the replacement of renowned rotational shepherd Yadier Molina with a Contreras built for the ABS era. Flaherty is back in the sense that he is healthier than he was, but it looks more and more like he hit his peak early in his career. Montgomery’s stats are more in line with expected numbers (ERA over 4.00) over the past two seasons than the results he’s gotten, which would be nice if the Cardinals didn’t need him to be their ace. Adam Wainwright is as cunning as ever, but his troubling lack of speed in the spring never recovers, and at 41, he’s making fewer than 30 starts in an (unshortened) season for the first time since 2018.
The time is indeed coming for all of us. And this time Albert Pujols has no B cinematic to give a positive spin to the season that ends before the (real) birds start to fly south for the winter.
Regardless of the record, what will success look like in 2023? Stop us if you’re feeling the theme, but revealing an ace in the rotation will go a long way in creating a path in St. Louis from postseason exit to trophy-lifting. There are options, of course. Montgomery scored in his first month in St. Louis last year, Flaherty is only 27 and once finished a season almost 200 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA, and despite a brutal introduction to big players in 2022, Matthew Liberatore retains its newcomer. status and remains in the top five prospects in the organization.
And if you look at the battery, it’s hard not to notice the new face (behind the mask) behind the plate. They’re all pros, so maybe having a new catcher in St. Louis is perfectly normal, but after nearly two decades of Molina, a smooth transition to Contreras would mean success for the Karts. — Keyser