Last year, I was successful in predicting the outcome of the NL Central division. With every placement predicted correctly, it was my only perfect division last year.
Other than separating the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2018 NL Central division wasn't too difficult to predict. This year, however, there's a lot more grey area. Offseason acquisitions by the Cardinals and Reds are certain to shake up the division.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have done the exact opposite over the last few months. Ownership justified the Cubs' not spending any money this offseason simply by stating something along the lines of "we don't have any to spend."
With the 4th highest payroll in all of Baseball, losing to the Brewers and Rockies in back-to-back one-game playoffs was a disappointing ending to Chicago's season.
Moving on to the rest of the division, the Reds made a series of moves that included a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I'll go over that transaction when I talk about Cincinnati, but that move should at least take them out of the cellar of NL Central.
Although their 82-79 record in 2018 was promising, the Pirates don't seem destined to contend in what's shaping up to be one of Baseball's toughest divisions. On the bright side, they have star pitcher Chris Archer under contract through 2021, including a club option for the last 2 seasons.
Along with the AL and NL East, the NL Central is bound to have 3 or 4 teams finish with a .500+ winning percentage, maybe even all 5. The real question with this division is where the teams will stack up following a major shake-up over the offseason.
1st Place; Milwaukee Brewers
I know we haven't seen the full impact that the Christian Yelich trade has left on Miami, but it's pretty safe to say that the Brewers won this trade. Milwaukee has the 2018 NL MVP under contract through the 2022 season, and they're only paying him around $12 million dollars per year.
In addition to Yelich, the Brewers might just have the best infield in all of Baseball. Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia, and Mike Moustakas provide a balance of power as well as speed. As far as offense is concerned, it's hard to fault this Brewers team.
My main concern for the Brewers in 2019 is most definitely their rotation. Jhoulys Cachin is a reliable starter, but he's not the ace that Milwaukee needs for a World Series run. The rest of their rotation is a bit questionable, so if the Brewers find themselves in postseason contention once again, trading for a high-caliber starter at the deadline is essential.
2nd Place; Chicago Cubs
On paper, the Chicago Cubs are the most talented and well-balanced team in the NL Central. Unfortunately, their window for winning another World Series title could be closing if it hasn't already.
Kyle Schwarber is simply not progressing the way they hoped he would, and Addison Russell, another star from the 2016 World Series team, is walking on thin wire following a 40-game suspension. Even though they still have the pieces in place for a Fall Classic run, management and ownership seem to be holding the Cubs back.
They still have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, perennial MVP candidates, and a phenomenal rotation to back them up. However, the game is constantly changing, and the Cubs are not. Until they implement some major changes to keep up with the times, the Cubs won't match their 2016 performance for a long time.
3rd Place; St. Louis Cardinals
While the Cubs appear to be taking steps in the wrong direction, the Cardinals are making progress towards re-establishing themselves as a major threat in the National League. Just a few months after they made a blockbuster trade for 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis signed the 6-time All-Star to a 5-year $130 million dollar extension.
Although I'm slightly skeptical of Goldschmidt signing an extension with a team that he's never played for, he's an extremely consistent player and should fit in well in St. Louis. In addition to veteran hitters like Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong, the Cardinals have an abundance of young players ready to prove themselves like Harrison Bader and Jack Flaherty.
St. Louis' .543 winning percentage in 2018 definitely came as a shock, yet the Cardinals still missed the playoffs once again, something they're not used to doing. While they don't seem ready for a World Series run in 2019, the Cardinals are shaping up to be a contender within the next few years so long as Goldschmidt continues to perform at a high level.
4th Place; Cincinnati Reds
One of the most puzzling trades of this year's offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds completed a blockbuster deal in mid-December. In a salary dump trade that saw the Reds trade multiple top prospects, Cincinnati received Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, and Yasiel Puig from LA.
I'm not sure what the Reds plan to do with all these new veteran players, especially given that it's Puig's contract season, but they should improve in 2019 if nothing else. Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett had breakout seasons in 2018 and remain some of Baseball's most underrated players.
And of course, franchise player and probable future Hall of Famer Joey Votto is still there as well. At 35-years old, I doubt he'll capture a World Series title in his career unless he's traded. Still, Votto seems to love playing in Cincinnati, even if the best they can do is finish 4th in the NL Central.
5th Place; Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates' first season in over a decade without franchise player Andrew McCutchen was surprisingly successful, but I don't expect that to continue in 2019. They may have a few respectable pieces here and there, but Pittsburgh lacks an impact player to take their team to the next level.
Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte have flashes of brilliance every now and then, but they both lack consistency. Chris Archer is dominant when it comes to strikeouts, but his ERA typically suffers. Besides those guys, I don't know a whole lot about this Pirates team.
Regardless, I just don't see them being able to contend with the heavyweights in the NL Central.