Fatal Five-way: The NL Central is now up for grabs

With the Cincinnati Reds landing Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood Friday in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the presumed NL Central doormats are ready to rumble, and the division went from being a two-way race at the end of 2018 to an open field with five not unrealistic contenders for the division title.

Hit the music.

The Milwaukee Brewers are division champs, the St. Louis Cardinals got a lot better in two moves, the Chicago Cubs went from one-and-done in October 2018 to perhaps out of the playoff picture altogther. The Pittsburgh Pirates are sneaky good and the Cincinnati Reds just made a big splash. Only the strong will survive 2019.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds play in a bandbox. The Reds should be amongst league leaders in power stats.

The Reds finished ninth in the National League in home runs and slugging, and 11th in doubles and triples. A team that featured Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler and a breakout year from Scooter Gennett couldn’t even get to the middle of the NL pack in a season of never-before-seen power numbers throughout Baseball.

Billy Hamilton is a dynamic outfielder and has probably the best set of wheels in this generation. He also couldn’t hit for anything (unless he was facing the Brewers, against whom he hit .303 in 2018, the best BAA for him with any team in the division.)

Hamilton is gone from the cozy confines of Great American Ball Park to the more spacious climes of Kauffman Stadium (which should suit him better, and gives the Kansas City Royals a formidable outfield trio, including Alex Gordon and Brett Phillips.) The Reds bring in Puig, entering his age-28 season and physical prime, and Kemp, the veteran who revitalized his career upon returning to LA in 2018.

The Reds can run a lineup of Jose Peraza, Votto, Puig, Gennett, Kemp, Schebler for 1-6. That’s good!

The Reds also shed Homer Bailey and add Alex Wood, trading ill-spent cash on an oft-injured pitcher for younger hurler with a plus-FIP to a rotation in need of something resembling a stabilizer. Complimenting the pitching staff is new pitching coach Derek Johnson, who just cemented his reputation as a first-rate MLB pitching whisperer in Milwaukee.

More importantly, in bringing in Dodgers, they’re bringing in winners with a proven reputation for performance and know what it takes to compete at the highest levels. Kemp becomes a clubhouse leader alongside Votto and Puig’s propensity toward silliness helps deflect attention.

This Reds team finished with a Pythagorean record of 69-93, two games better than actual. Assuming some improvement in not retaining Bryan Price–who absolutely should not have been allowed to lead the Reds going into 2018–the Reds were probably better than their record suggested and are anything but a doormat going into 2019.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates were left for dead entering 2018.

This writer suggested “[t]he Pittsburgh Pirates waved the white flag” on 2018 when they dealt away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. That wasn’t entirely the case.

Starting unexpectedly strong, the Pirates spent roughly an accumulated month in first place mostly in the early going, then sputtered from May through July, racking up seven losing streaks of three games or more in that stretch. On July 10, the Pirates sat seven games under .500, 12.5 games out of first place. With the All-Star break in between, the Pirates rattled off an 11-game winning streak, sweeping the Brewers and Reds while winning the interleague series with the Cleveland Indians at the end of it.

From July 11 to the end of the season, the Pirates played to a 39-30 record and finished strong, winning five of their nine series in September and splitting one.

Their prized trade deadline acquisition, Chris Archer, wasn’t enough to push them over the top, and some questioned GM Neal Huntington giving up long-time prospect Austin Meadows (who tore up Triple-A after the trade to Tampa), and Tyler Glasnow, a regarded prospect in his own right, but struggled at the big league level with control. Archer’s FIP was 0.3 better than ERA in ten Pittsburgh starts and he piled up 60 strikeouts in just over 52 innings’ work. While his WHIP was high even by his standards, he kept balls in play under relative control with a flat tOPS and was snake-bitten by a .339 BAbip.

It was Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams who showed why the Pirates might be considerably more dangerous going into 2019.

From July through the end of the year, Taillon went six innings or more in 13 of 16 starts and his splits show he got more effective and induced more strikeouts on average as the season wound down. Despite pitching in what is regarded as a pitcher’s park, Taillon’s metrics indicate that, in some ways, he was actually stronger pitching on the road (including an eye-popping 10.5 K/9 in Cincinnati over three starts [the most he pitched against any one opponent on the road] and only two home runs yielded.)

Williams turned it on in the second half of the season; as good as any pitcher in the National League not named Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer. In 12 back-half starts, Williams gave up only three home runs, held opposing hitters to a .262 BAbip with only 55 strikeouts and held opposing teams to under one run/game on average.

Moreover, Archer could be under team control through 2021, while Williams and Taillon are controllable until 2023.

With a stout bullpen and a promising catcher in Elias Diaz, the Pirates’ hopes rest almost entirely on the 60′ 6″ between the pitching rubber and home plate. Pirates’ bats led the league in strikeouts and, while they also ranked third in doubles and triples, they were 13th in home runs and among the NL’s worst in walks. Any regression from the other clubs in the NLC can be an opportunity for the Pirates to reassert themselves in the division.

St. Louis Cardinals

There were no shortage of tweets thanking the St. Louis Cardinals for taking Paul Goldschmidt out of the National League West.

Against other NLW teams, Goldschmidt has slashed thusly:

Colorado Rockies: .309/.414/.559

Los Angeles Dodgers: .302/.376/.551

San Diego Padres: .312/.427/.545

San Francisco Giants: .284/.397/.507

And now, Goldschmidt gets to belly up against the NLC:

Chicago Cubs: .353/.471/.699

Cincinnati Reds: .272/.355/.519

Milwaukee Brewers: .366/.478/.652 [Editorial aside: ohgodwhy.gif]

Pittsburgh Pirates: .270/.387/.479

With a superior lineup than he was a part of in Arizona, Goldschmidt may well be in position to claim his first MVP (he’s finished in the top-three three other times in his seven full seasons in the majors.) And I hate this.

Oh, and the Cardinals addressed their less-than-typically-stable bullpen situation by signing Andrew Miller to a relatively inexpensive two-year deal. If he’s 80% as effective as he was in New York and Cleveland, he’s going to make that deal look silly. If not, or if he doesn’t shake the injury bug, it wasn’t exactly an unjustifiable investment by the Cards.

A lineup with Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Jose Martinez, Paul DeJong (who is primed for a bounceback 2019), Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler with something to prove along with capable bats in Kolten Wong and the ageless wonder Yadier Molina is a lineup that shouldn’t struggle to the middle of the pack as they did in ’18 in nearly every offensive category.

Further, the Cardinals added by subtracting Mike Matheny and his supposed old-school mentality–really, all it was was enabling bullying and a toxic clubhouse–and Mike Shildt did as much cracking the window as he did a more effective job managing than his much-maligned predecessor.

This is as good a team as any in the National League, saying nothing of the division. The salsa only got spicier.

Milwaukee Brewers

Despite what silliness is perpetuated on Brewers Twitter, the Milwaukee Brewers are The Man in the division.

They drank the Cubs’ milkshake down the stretch and soundly defeated the Cubs at Wrigley to win the division in Game 163. Christian Yelich had a September for the ages to lock down the MVP and Silver Slugger. Lorenzo Cain returned to Milwaukee and came laughably runner-up to Ender Inciarte to his first Gold Glove while turning in an MVP-grade season in the process.

Jesus Aguilar broke out. Manny Pina was Gold Glove-caliber behind the plate. Travis Shaw regressed at the plate, but showed tremendous character and willingness to take one for the team by playing second base after the team rented Mike Moustakas.

The starting pitching was among the best in the National League, while the bullpen was one of the very best in baseball.

This is the new age of Brewers baseball. And the entire core is returning for 2019.

Yes, they are the defending NLC champs. Yes, the rest of the division is improving. But messing too much with the formula that netted 96 wins in 2018 is almost certainly an exercise in counterproduction. There’s a reason David Stearns is in his position; us in ours.

In conclusion, to be the man, well, here.

Chicago Cubs

Entering 2018, I predicted that the Cubs would be severe regression candidates. That wasn’t entirely accurate, but they did blow a six-game division lead and generally stumble and bumble their way from the one-seed in the league to an ignominious departure from the Wild Card Game at the hands of the Colorado Rockies.

Moreover, as buzz brew around Javier Baez‘ MVP push as the season wore on, the team seemed to grow overly reliant on him, to the point of regressing to his tendencies:

Baez’ monthly splits:

.280 .333 .630
.262 .274 .495
.318 .362 .553
.333 .347 .606
.288 .328 .577
.269 .319 .472

Cubs:

.252 .334 .412
.273 .356 .457
.268 .341 .405
.268 .348 .418
.254 .320 .408
.235 .300 .363

If Baez is a team’s most valuable player, that team is in trouble. Like Baez, the walks disappeared, the strikeouts climbed and as the season slipped away, so did the performance of both.

The hitting coaches left, Chili Davis to the Mets, Andy Haines (critically) to the Brewers. Pitching coach Jim Hickey departed for personal reasons. Joe Maddon, perhaps the most overrated manager to win a World Series in modern baseball history, was allowed to go into a lame duck season with no real vote of confidence from the front office.

With a roster that is undeniably talented and extremely well-paid throughout the field ($167 million guaranteed to 14 players in 2019) and seven guys in arbitration, this looks a lot like Theo Epstein’s Red Sox in the intervening years after 2008 and the once-vaunted Cubs as currently constructed, now look absolutely primed for a regression year. If the team sputters, it’s entirely possible Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer may well blow up parts of the roster.

By all appearances, this is the Cubs’ gilded age and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this team either contending for the division blow for blow with the rest, or faltering under the weight of unrealistic expectations from fans and management that closely resembles the Green Bay Packers entering 2018.


The NL Central may be the fiercest and most bitterly-fought battle for any division in Baseball.

All this, and it’s not even Christmas yet.

via GIPHY

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Khurram Kalim and Jonathan Powell contributed to this piece.

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