For the last several seasons, Major League Baseball has developed a mostly earned reputation for its lack of dramatic divisional races. Some teams are building juggernauts; the rest are tearing down what little they have in hopes of saving money and experimenting with young players to form their eventual competitive core. The American League remains more or less like this, with four teams holding a better than 2/3 chance at earning one of the league’s five playoff spots according to Baseball Prospectus. If you’re a fan of the Baltimore Orioles or the Kansas City Royals or the Detroit Tigers, you are looking at a long season with virtually no chance of reaching the postseason.

But in the National League, the gap between the haves and have nots has closed considerably. In the West, the Los Angeles Dodgers remain heavy favorites, but the Colorado Rockies have appeared in the last two postseasons and are armed with the best rotation in franchise history. The San Diego Padres have the sport’s best farm system and, now, Manny Machado. The Arizona Diamondbacks, even after losing some of its star power, have a terrific pair of aces that should assure they remain respectable. And despite a couple down years, the San Francisco Giants still made a run at Bryce Harper this off-season.

The NL East is even stronger. The defending champion Atlanta Braves added Josh Donaldson, a top-five player in baseball very recently, to their infield. The Philadelphia Phillies added J.T. Realmuto, arguably the best catcher in baseball, and Bryce Harper, arguably the best Not Mookie Betts right fielder in baseball. The Washington Nationals, despite the loss of Harper, added Patrick Corbin and arguably have the best top-three of any NL rotation. And the New York Mets, who might have been considered a rebuild candidate in previous seasons, added a superstar closer and multiple All-Star infielders.

But the NL East also has the Miami Marlins, easily the worst team in the league. There are four teams in the division with a reasonable chance at making the playoffs, but there is also an easy out. The NL Central has no such team. The AL East has two superteams, and another team which could very easily wind up in a Wild Card position, but they also have the Orioles. The NL Central is the deepest division in baseball.

This should be an exciting, terrifying year for NL Central fans, with all five teams competing for a playoff spot. Picking the division was daunting, but three St. Louis Bullpen writers–Mike Bauer, John Fleming, and Josh Matejka–are embracing the challenge. And here are our combined predictions.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates — One of the toughest parts about predicting the National League Central is deciding which team will sink to the bottom. Perhaps its destiny that the team looking most likely to do so is the Pirates.

Pittsburgh is in the tough position of being, “not awful, but not good,” a position exacerbated by the fact that there are few easy wins to pick up in a division like the Central. Usually teams in the Pirates position are able to buoy their standing off the backs of lesser teams, but the Pirates face the unenviable position of playing 57 games against playoff caliber teams (Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee) and 19 more against a squad full of above average players in contract years (Cincinnati).

If there’s hope for the Pirates, it’s found in their lineup, which features admirable depth and untapped potential. Starling Marte anchors a combination of solid younger players entering their prime years – Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco, Adam Frazier – and reliable vets on the wrong side of 30 – Corey Dickerson and Francisco Cervelli. Jung Ho Kang could provide some punch in his return after years of legal trouble, but even a prime Kang wouldn’t do much to raise the Pirates ceiling as much as the floor.

Similarly in the rotation, the Pirates have the potential for high-end output — Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon alone are tantalizing — especially if Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove can provide quality innings. If you squint your eyes and wish on a shooting star, there may even be enough there to sustain one of the division’s best bullpens.

However, the Pirates’ curse is the fact that their margin for error is so small. Of course, they could be pretty damn competitive… if Josh Bell and Adam Frazier take the next step in their development… and if Jung Ho Kang shakes off two years of rust… and Francisco Cervelli and Corey Dickerson stave off the aging curve… and the rotation stays healthy…

You could keep adding to that list. At some point there’s not enough talent on the Pirates roster to reasonably think they’ll hold up under the weight of a full season, even if many things break their way. — Josh Matejka

4. Cincinnati Reds — After four consecutive years of last place finishes and falling attendance, the Reds have decided that they’re tired of being a punching bag for the rest of the NL Central.

Cincinnati had a busy offseason that was highlighted by a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers to bring in Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood. Puig and Kemp will join Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez – all 3.5 fWAR players or better – on an offense that already ranked 4th in the National League in batting average and on-base percentage.

While the Reds should score plenty of runs in a launching pad like Great American Ballpark, run prevention may be another story. With Matt Harvey off to Southern California, the Reds will look to Wood, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark to stabilize a shaky rotation that includes Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani. All five of these starters have shown top-of-the-rotation potential at some point or another, but this is still a highly volatile group without much of an ace. On the back end, closer Raisel Iglesias was good in 2018 (2.38 ERA, 30 saves in 72 innings), but he’ll be an afterthought if the rest of the staff can’t hold leads.

Going from 67 to 82+ wins is a tall enough task as it is, and playing in a brutal division hurts Cincinnati’s chances of getting back to October in 2019. But even if this season doesn’t result in a playoff appearance, this should be a fun Reds team to watch. For a franchise that’s been starved of any kind of buzz in the last several years, that could be enough to put people in seats again.–Mike Bauer

3. Milwaukee Brewers–Following their 2011 NLCS appearance, the Brewers lost Prince Fielder but retained Ryan Braun. They would trade star players, such as Zack Greinke and Carlos Gomez, but would do it in the middle of seasons in which they at least intended to compete. And despite not adhering to the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs model of stockpiling top prospects following terrible MLB campaigns, the Brewers emerged in 2018 with a division-winning club. And while the 2018 team showed signs of potential regression in 2019, the sheer talent on the roster is unquestionably deeper.

Sure, Christian Yelich probably won’t repeat his MVP last season (more because he had a ludicrous 35% home run/fly ball rate, not because of the dissolution of his engagement to Ariana Grande), but he leads easily the best outfield group in the division, one which also includes Lorenzo Cain and the aforementioned Ryan Braun. And sure, last year’s super-pen led by Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress probably isn’t as good in 2019, but it’s certainly a strength. Plus, the team gets a full season of midseason acquisition Mike Moustakas and they strengthened a weak spot, catcher, by adding Yasmani Grandal, arguably a top-five catcher in baseball, on a one-year deal.

The Brewers have the best bullpen in the division, and arguably the best lineup. But the problem for Milwaukee is the problem they were able to overcome last year–the starting rotation. By ZiPS, the Brewers don’t have a single starter projected for an ERA under four. Jimmy Nelson has upside, but after missing the entirety of the 2018 season, he is hardly a safe bet to rekindle his 2017 excellence. Their top projected starter, Freddy Peralta, projects to be MLB’s 74th best pitcher. Merely decent pitcher would catapult the Brewers to division favorites, but unless Dallas Keuchel comes to town, this looks unlikely.–John Fleming

2. St. Louis Cardinals — By now, you’re familiar with what the Cardinals have done this offseason and where their roster stands heading into Opening Day. So instead of running through those details, here are the storylines that will define the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals:

How well will the rotation hold up? Miles Mikolas was by far the team’s best pitcher last season, but his low strikeout rate (18.1%) may hint at some regression in 2019. Behind him, the Cardinals are counting on 37-year old Adam Wainwright to hold down a spot until Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez is ready to return, which could last until May or longer. On the plus side, Jack Flaherty had a strong rookie season in 2018, and Dakota Hudson pitched well enough in the spring to earn the fifth rotation spot over John Gant.

There will be plenty of eyes on Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader in the outfield, but the biggest question of all has to be how Dexter Fowler responds after a dreadful 2018. It’s possible that last season was just an outlier and Dex will be back to at least a league average player in 2019, but the margin for error is razor-thin in this division. If Fowler gets off to another slow start, the Cardinals might have to give more playing time to Tyler O’Neill in right.

With the 1-2 punch of Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt at the top of the lineup, this could be the best offense the Cardinals have had in a long time. If Goldschmidt lives up to the hype and Carpenter continues his power streak, this team could win 95 games. But if the rotation falls through, St. Louis might have to withstand a fourth consecutive year with no October baseball.–Mike Bauer

1. Chicago Cubs — Ironically, this is the most boring pick we could’ve made for the Central division winner.

The Cardinals have the new superstar and a treasure trove of young talent. The Brewers have the reigning MVP, a makeshift rotation and a bullpen that just won’t quit. The Cubs have… a lot of talent, enough to make you scratch your head as to why anyone in a vacuum wouldn’t have picked them first in the Central.

It starts with the lineup which should be one of the National League’s most dominant. When you’re starting with two MVP talents (Kris Bryant and Javy Baez), peppering in the power of Kyle Schwarber and the eternal on-base prowess of Ben Zobrist and getting whatever scraps you can out of defensive specialists Albert Almora, Jason Heyward and Willson Contreras, you’re not in bad shape. The bench isn’t half-bad either, featuring a second-half-of-career resurgent Daniel Descalso and the dramatic stylings of David Bowie Bote.

Oh, they’ve also got the division’s fourth best first baseman, which isn’t great, but not everyone can be Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt.

On paper, the Cubs rotation is its weakest link, especially if they don’t get bounce backs from at least 60 percent of the staff. Jon Lester is the, “ace,” but could reasonably be called the rotation’s fourth or fifth best pitcher at this point, especially if Yu Darvish is able to find his way home from whatever alternate universe he disappeared to last year. While he’s on his way, he might want to stop and pick up Jose Quintana. Cole Hamels is still fine, but like Lester, is on the wrong side of 35. Kyle Hendricks is the steadiest thing they’ve got, though there are certainly worse positions for an organization to find itself. And while the bullpen isn’t anything to write home about, there are enough solid pitchers to scrap together the innings that won’t be eaten by a staff full of over-the-hill aces.

If this preview blurb hasn’t sounded exactly optimistic, it’s not just because it’s the Cubs. It’s because, honestly, is there a reason the Cubs shouldn’t be first? It feels like they’ve got the most talent, and they still have the core pieces of a recent run to World Series glory. If  Lester and Hamels can ward off the cliff for one more year and Darvish and Quintana return from their voyage to the netherworlds, the Cubs won’t have much of an issues getting to 92 or 93 wins.

However, if the organizations high expectations aren’t met — and as we can recall, 95 wins and a wild-card exit didn’t cut it — there could be major changes coming to Wrigley in the coming calendar year. — Josh Matejka

 

How we ranked the division:

Bauer: 1. Cardinals 2. Brewers 3. Cubs 4. Reds 5. Pirates

Fleming: 1. Cubs 2. Cardinals 3. Brewers 4. Reds 5. Pirates

Matejka: 1. Cubs 2. Cardinals 3. Brewers 4. Reds 5. Pirates

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