At the time I type this, the Cardinals’ season opener is about 48 hours away. It will be great to have baseball back again. The sport has problems, but try to put that aside and enjoy the season. Collectively we’ve been through a lot over the last year or so, and this is a moment to savor our traditions. These customs exist in part to remind us of normal times, consistency, and the things we cherish. We can use that right now.
And baseball is a part of me.
Here’s my best-case, worst-case scenarios for the five teams in the NL Central division.
The Best Of Times: OF Christian Yelich makes pitchers pay after his 2002 season brought down by a 31% strikeout rate and his lowest OPS (.786) since 2015 … new to the Crew, 2B Kolten Wong and OF Jackie Bradley Jr. give the Brewers a top-five defense in baseball, and Wong rockets offensively inside American Family Field (aka Miller Park) where he’s crushed it as a visiting Cardinal … 3B Travis Shaw makes a happy comeback with the Brewers and provides a healthy dose of power, circa 2017-18 … Keston Hiura rebounds from a .657 OPS last season to slug anew … center fielder Lorenzo Cain returns to full health … a hyped rotation led by co-aces Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes gives the Crew the best starting pitching in the division … relievers Josh Hader and Devin Williams make it hell for the hitters in the late inning.
The Worst Of Times: The rotation performs below expectations, which puts the bullpen under duress … debilitating injuries in the bullpen … Cain slumps into the decline phase of his career … Hiura is a defensive liability at first base … Shaw can’t reconnect his power … the decision to go with young shortstop Luis Urias over Orlando Arcia doesn’t click.
It’s Mandatory: A bounceback by Yelich, and a rotation that fulfills the forecast after considerable preseason buzz.
Realistic Outlook: This the most complete team in the division. First place. But even if it comes through the wild card the Brewers make the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Fun Facts: Through 2019 Yelich had pounded RH pitching for a .308 average, .512 slugging percentage and .908 OPS. But last season he only hit .169 against them, with a .345 slug and .671 OPS … Woodruff has never pitched more than 121.2 innings in a big-league season. And Burnes has never reached 50 innings in a MLB season … last season St. Louisan Devin Williams blasted hitters with a 53% strikeout rate, the best by a MLB reliever in a season according to the FanGraphs data that goes back to 2002.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Best Of Times: Third baseman Nolan Arenado emerges as a contender for the NL MVP award … Outfielder Tyler O’Neill has a breakout season and clubs 30+ homers … Outfielder Dylan Carlson plays like a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate … Jack Flaherty returns to 2019 form, and enters the Cy Young award discussion … Carlos Martinez turns the clock back to 2016 when he went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA … the starting rotation stabilizes and performs surprisingly well … an intimidating bullpen slays the dragons.
The Worst of Times: The offense fails to ignite …O’Neill doesn’t come through, and the strikeouts will pile up … the young and inexperienced outfield performs like an outfield that should be at Triple A Memphis … Arenado’s fly-ball tendencies depress his production at Busch Stadium … Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t match slash-line offensive numbers from 2020 … Paul DeJong regresses offensively … the patchy rotation unravels … the bench provides little help … the front-office stays pat and makes no major moves at the trade deadline.
It’s Mandatory: Above-average production from the team’s collection of outfielders. If that doesn’t happen, the offense will drag the team down. But this team has always been constructed with starting pitching as the foundation, and that foundation can’t crack in 2021.
Realistic Outlook: finish in 2nd place in the division; contend for a wild-card spot.
Fun Facts: During Bill DeWitt Jr.’s 25-season run as chairman the Cardinals have won 75 postseason games. Over that time the Cubs, Brewers, Reds and Pirates have only 42 postseason wins combined … only one NL team, the Pirates, had a worse OPS than the Cardinals (.694) last season.
The Best of Times: In the Cubbie version of “The Last Dance,” pending free agents Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez go out with a bang. Outfield newcomer Joc Pederson enjoys hitting at Wrigley Field and cranks 25+ homers. The underrated Ian Happ has a career year. And just like that, the Cubs restore the lightning and thunder of an offense that finished 24th in OPS and 21st in runs last season … the low-velocity starting rotation headed by Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams exceeds expectations by befuddling hitters with a variety of offspeed stuff and pitches with late movement …closer Craig Kimbrel builds on his robust finish to the 2020 season.
The Worst Of Times: Kimbrel blows too many saves, the questionable rotation depth frays, and the free-agent distractions mess with the team’s focus and morale. The Cubs tumble in the standings, and GM Jed Hoyer puts Bryant, Baez and Rizzo on the trade market. But he won’t stop there; the Cubs also shop Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras; both can become free agents after next season. Then it’s onto the next massive rebuild.
It’s Mandatory: The Cubs’ bats should regenerate. But the rotation must not only hold up, but flourish.
Realistic Outlook: The Cubs certainly are capable of winning the division — but will probably end up in third place.
Fun Facts: The Cubs’ tentative 26-man roster has 15 players who can become free agents after the season … among MLB third basemen in 2020, STL’s Matt Carpenter posted a higher wRC+ (82) than Kris Bryant (77.) And among shortstops, the Cards’ DeJong had a higher wRC+ (86) than Baez (57.) As a point of reference, 100 wRC+ is the league average.
The Best Of Times: After ranking 28th in runs per game last season the Reds reverberate in ‘21 through the resurgence of hitters Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Nicholas Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama and Nick Senzel … 3B Mike Moustakas maintains his .815 OPS from the last seasons … a Reds rotation topped by the terrific Luis Castillo remains stout despite the free-agent departure of 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer … Suarez makes a successful transition from third base to shortstop … the offense gets a boost from impressive rookie second baseman Jonathan India … despite the payroll-slashing trade of superb closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels, the Reds effectively protect late leads with Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims and Sean Doolittle.
The Worst Of Times: The rotation collapses, which is quite possible. No. 2 starter Sonny Gray (back) is opening the season on the Injured List, as will 5th starter Michael Lorenzen, and that leaves Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley and Jeff Hoffman to assist Castillo in carrying the load … Votto, 37, will struggle to keep his slugging percentage above .400 and the expected upturn on offense doesn’t happen … Suarez doesn’t play well at shortstop … the bullpen detonates.
It’s Mandatory: The offense will likely rally up, but it won’t matter if the rotation goes down and the bullpen fritters leads away.
Realistic Outlook: The Reds just have too many questions. The top-three arms in their rotation (when healthy) are good. But after that, not so much. Compared to the Cardinals and Brewers and Cubs, the Reds’ defense doesn’t measure up. That sets up easy runs for opponents. Run prevention isn’t a strong point for the Reds. Even if the offense surges and turns dangerous, it probably won’t be enough to avoid a fourth-place destiny.
Fun Facts: The Reds’ .212 batting average in 2020 was the worst in a season in franchise history … since Derek Johnson became pitching coach pre-2019, the Reds have led the NL in strikeouts in each of his two seasons … since capturing the World Series in 1990, the Reds have a .485 winning percentage, made it to the playoffs only five times, and have a grand total of five postseason victories.
The Best Of Times: The home ballpark is glorious and beautiful … Um, well, let me see what I can find here. How about third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes? He busted into the big leagues last season by batting .376 with a .442 OBP and .682 slug in 95 plate appearances. He has a chance to be special … otherwise I won’t waste your time. In the Position Power rankings at FanGraphs, the Pirates are rated 27th or worse at five positions, 22nd at second base, and 29th in both starting pitching and relief pitching. This is what happens when the front office trades SP Gerrit Cole, SP Jameson Taillon, SP Joe Musgrove, 1B Josh Bell, OF Andrew McCutchen, OF Starling Marte — and others — over the last 3 and ½ years. And not getting much in return.
The Worst Of Times: I’ll turn this over to Keith Law of The Athletic: “The Pirates don’t have anyone who projects as a league-average starting pitcher, and even though I see offensive improvement at several lineup spots, they had the fewest runs per game in the NL last year, with only Colin Moran and Ke’Bryan Hayes posting wRC+ figures over 93.” I’ll add this: the Pirates rotation consists of Chad Kuhl, Tyler Anderson, Mitch Keller, TJ Brubaker and Trevor Cahill. Yikes. And when manager Derek Shelton was asked about his choice for closer a few weeks back, he responded with “I don’t know.” (He later settled on Richard Rodriguez.)
It’s Mandatory: The Pirates have collected plenty of prospects in trades during their roster sell-off, and it is imperative for the kids to develop into quality players for future Pirates teams. “Part of the excitement about the job is the challenge of the job — the challenge of figuring this out,” said Ben Cherington, the team’s 7th general manager since 1986.
Realistic Outlook: Last place with total losses somewhere in the range of 95-110. Unless Baltimore wants to win the race to the bottom,the Pirates will likely be the worst team in the majors this season. Perhaps the Pirates can become spoilers in the NL Central by winning more games than anticipated in matchups against division contenders.
Fun Facts: Since the start of the 1994 season, the Pirates have had losing records in 22 of the 27 years, compiled a .453 winning percentage and made the playoffs three times … in the past three seasons the Pirates have ranked (in order) 27th, 30th and 30th in MLB payroll and should be at No. 30 again this year with a projected 40-man payroll of $60.8 million. But the Pirates’ franchise value increased 2 percent from last season, up to $1.285 billion according to the annual Forbes survey. That’s 22nd in the majors.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.