Ahh, the NL Central. The place where the Chicago Cubs, just a couple years ago, were expected to form a dynasty. Streak now broke, talent still stacked to the sky, even with a new big-name free agent in town in Yu Darvish — the Cubs are still the team to beat in this division.
But the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers aren’t just going to sit there and watch it happen.
No, both went out and swooped into the Miami Marlins fire sale to acquire a major outfield talent. Marcell Ozuna is now in St. Louis and Christian Yelich is now in Milwaukee. The Brewers didn’t stop there either — getting Lorenzo Cain to create a loaded outfield.
The Cincinnati Reds and PIttsburgh Pirates are around too, just to a lesser extent. The Pirates are tearing down after trading away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole and the Cincinnati Reds are rebuilding while Joey Votto continues to play like an MVP.
So the NL Central really revolves around the Cubs. Is Darvish the piece they needed? Will a lean Kyle Schwaber make them even better? Or can the Brewers’ and Cardinals’ moves close the gap? We’ll dissect the NL Central with a look at its new faces, its biggest questions and what each team would have to do to win.
In case you need you a reminder of who plays where now
Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs
The Cubs may have lost Jake Arrieta this offseason, but fans dried their tears using their brand new Yu Darvish jerseys. Darvish was the biggest free agent available this offseason, and though the competition was tough, the Cubs emerged victorious. Despite injuries and a dismal World Series performance, Darvish is a dynamite pitcher who will make the Cubs, a team that’s already frighteningly talented, even better. After missing out on the Fall Classic in 2017, with Darvish on board it’s World Series or bust in 2018. He just has to stay healthy, because when he is, he’s an unbeatable strikeout machine. If the rest of the NL Central wasn’t already quaking in their boots at the Cubs juggernaut, they are now.
Marcell Ozuna, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals came so close to acquiring Giancarlo Stanton. Close enough that a deal was in place. If it weren’t for Stanton’s no-trade clause, that’s who we’d be talking about here. But when Stanton said no, the Cardinals eventually settled for Marcell Ozuna. Though “settled” isn’t the right word, because Ozuna may have been the best player on the Marlins not named Giancarlo Stanton. He infuses even more excitement into an outfield that already includes 2017 breakout Tommy Pham, and 2018 bounce-back candidate Dexter Fowler. Cards fans probably feel a little desperate and distressed, since their team has missed the season two years in a row (GASP), but Ozuna will help them try to break that long, depressing playoff drought.
Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
In one single day, the Brewers made their biggest moves of the offseason: they acquired Christian Yelich from the Marlins, and they signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal. There’s no greater sign that a team is on the upswing (or at least feeling it) than signing and trading for impact players. After coming within a hair’s breadth of that second wild-card spot in 2017, they clearly want another shot at October baseball. Whether Cain and Yelich will measurably improve the Brewers is a valid question, because both are pushing out (or shuffling around) players who did well in 2017, like Domingo Santana, Eric Thames, and Keon Broxton. Having too many productive players is a high-end problem, but it’s still a problem. It’s one the Brewers will handle happily, though. Having Cain and Yelich on the team means more than just upgrading the outfield, it means they’re once again a team on the rise, and they’ve waited a long time for that.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NL CENTRAL
Good news: We’ve got 162 games to figure out the answers
Can Cubs new hitting coach Chili Davis fix Jason Heyward?
The Cubs don’t have a lot of questions surrounding them. One that’s lingered though for two years is whether Jason Heyward will ever get on track. After signing a $184 million contract before the 2016 season, Heyward has put up back-to-back disappointing seasons at the plate. Getting him turned around might be the biggest task for newly hired hitting coach Chili Davis, and based on the extensive time they’ve reportedly put in together this offseason, it’s a challenge he’s accepted. The onus is more on Heyward to figure it out, but if Davis can provide a perspective that clicks with him, the Cubs could theoretically gain another huge weapon.
How will the Brewers fill out their rotation?
Chase Anderson is the ace. Zach Davies is the next best thing for Milwaukee. Then it’s a bunch of question marks after the team failed to add another top notch starter. Jimmy Nelson is expected back before the All-Star break, but it will be difficult to rely on him coming off shoulder surgery. Jhoulys Chacin is a solid, if not inconsistent back-end starter. Junior Guerra, who started for Craig Counsell last opening day, will start in the minors. The Brewers have some intriguing young arms, but none that seem ready to contribute. The Brewers will still be good, but they’ll need some pitchers to really step up in order to be relevant.
Will the Cardinals pitching hold them back?
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are searching for answers in the rotation and bullpen. Carlos Martinez is a solid anchor, but with Lance Lynn and Mike Leake gone, Adam Wainwright aging, Alex Reyes coming off Tommy John surgery and Michael Wacha struggling to stay healthy, Mike Matheny might have to patch his rotation together all season long. The bullpen is in flux too with Sueng-hwan Oh, Juan Nicasio and Trevor Rosenthal all out. Luke Gregorson was added, but he’s already hurt, leaving Bud Norris as the biggest addition. Unless St. Louis finds some magic, pitching could be its downfall.
Can the Pirates or Reds be this year’s Brewers?
It’s the same question we asked of the Royals and Tigers in the AL Central. On the surface, it seems both the Pirates and Reds will need more time to develop. The Pirates especially so after they unloaded the heart and soul of their lineup and rotation this offseason by trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. The Reds rebuild, meanwhile, seems stuck in wait and see mode. They’re tough to evaluate until they put together a healthy season. Perhaps there’s a little more room for upward movement in the NL, but the Braves and Phillies seem better positioned to take advantage of that.
HOW THEY COULD WIN
Every team can’t win. Most won’t. But here’s how each could *could* win the NL Central:
• Cubs – Not much to worry about here. The Cubs are deep, talented and young, but they wouldn’t mind the following: Kyle Schwarber delivers on his promise, though the team proved they could win with him struggling last season. The starters are better after not experiencing a World Series hangover. Jose Quintana lowers his ERA, but keeps the extra strikeouts. Getting Tyler Chatwood out of Colorado turns out to be a tremendous idea. Brandon Morrow stays healthy and pitches without issues on consecutive days. Willson Contreras starts in the All-Star Game, escalating his rivalry with Yadier Molina.
• Brewers – The offense does what it’s supposed to do and mashes. The pitching turns out better than expected. Chase Anderson proves last year wasn’t a fluke. Brent Suter shows that 85 mph fastballs can be effective in an era where velocity rules. Jimmy Nelson comes back sooner than expected and doesn’t lose any effectiveness. Josh Hader dominates in the pen, but then gets stretched out and turns into a tremendous starter.
• Cardinals – The Cardinals do what they always do. One or two players you’ve never heard of — who weren’t even strong prospects — turn in All-Star type seasons to push the team to the top of the division. Someone like Yairo Muñoz or Max Schrock or something. Yadier Molina remains an iron man, and stays productive for another year. Adam Wainwright re-discovers his curve and turns in a vintage year. Carlos Martinez puts it all together and takes home the NL Cy Young.
• Pirates – Pitching coach Ray Searage gets the most out of his options. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl all take major steps forward. Joe Musgrove proves that he can start in the majors. Josh Bell puts more loft on the ball, and turns into a legit middle-of-the-order slugger. Gregory Polanco realizes his full potential. Colin Moran turns out to be a huge prize in the Gerrit Cole trade. Starling Marte rebounds after his suspension in 2017.
• Reds – Joey Votto convinces the rest of the team to walk more and strike out less. They actually make that happen. Billy Hamilton gets his on-base percentage up to acceptable levels for a leadoff hitter. Eugenio Suarez once again takes another step forward. The rotation is better than expected. Homer Bailey finds his old form. Luis Castillo breaks out. Tyler Mahle pitches like he did in Triple-A. Amir Garrett overcomes his initial bullpen role to show his strong spring is a taste of what’s to come in the rotation.
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Mike Oz is a writer at Yahoo Sports . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @MikeOz
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