Despite the fact that the National League Central produced half of the league’s playoff teams in 2020, with four teams competitive enough to reach the expanded field, all four fell in baseball’s version of the Sweet Sixteen, and entering the 2021 season, the division has become regarded as easily the worst in the National League and probably the worst in Major League Baseball.
While there is a lot of weird, small sample size noise to be gleaned from last year’s sixty game schedule, the four playoff team bit still checks out. The four teams–the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers–are still regarded as decent teams, ones perfectly capable of making an eight-team National League playoff bracket, but none are generally perceived as in the same stratosphere as the strongest teams in the NL East or NL West. The defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the rapidly ascending San Diego Padres on the West Coast, as well as the high-powered Atlanta Braves and retooled New York Mets along the Atlantic feel like potential powers, while the Midwest is treading water.
The Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs spent most of the last off-season getting progressively worse, one organically and one in a more sinister fashion. The Reds expected to lose Trevor Bauer, a pitcher who not only commanded a huge payday with his performance but who openly spoke of trying to break the bank in free agency, and the team is currently relying on unprovens like Kyle Farmer and Shogo Akiyama to counteract Joey Votto’s rapid decline. The Cubs, on the other hand, seem to be self-destructing, voluntarily parting with Yu Darvish and Jon Lester on the mound along with Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. in the outfield. On paper, they still have the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Báez, all of whom had down 2020s but have been recently premier players, but swirling trade rumors around the trio have seemingly created quite the distraction for the Cubs.
By far the Cardinals’ biggest loss of the off-season was Kolten Wong, and by far their biggest addition of the off-season was Nolan Arenado, and on paper Arenado is expected to be better in 2021 than Wong so therefore the Cardinals improved on the whole in that sense. But the Cardinals have a paper-thin starting rotation and plenty of question marks in the outfield, and given the age of most of the team’s biggest contributors–the team’s best position player by Wins Above Replacement last year, Paul Goldschmidt, is 33, and the team’s best pitcher, Kwang-hyun Kim, is 32–it is reasonable to expect some decline from the players currently on the roster. But the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished in fourth place but just five games back, last season, improved. They are a team mostly of players in their twenties, and most projection systems have them as favorites to win the National League Central in 2021. And they should be.
Let me be clear–it’s close. The Brewers are, on paper, no better than the fifth-best team in the National League, and if you’re a believer in the Washington Nationals to bounce back and/or the Philadelphia Phillies to take a step forward, you could easily argue they’re even worse than that. But they have been perpetually solid–although they were sub-.500 in the bizarre 2020 season, they won 89 games and nearly took the NL Central crown in 2019, and in 2018, the 96-win Brewers were one win away from winning the National League pennant. And while the Cardinals spent the 2020-21 off-season seemingly more preoccupied with acquiring A Star® than anything else, the Brewers worked from the margins. They took areas of weakness and they addressed them directly. They didn’t acquire any player reasonably expected to become a franchise icon–this move happened three off-seasons ago when they traded for Christian Yelich, and it worked spectacularly–but they acquired a supporting cast. They built a team capable of winning, if not the World Series, the National League Central.
Of course, the biggest hole on the 2020 Milwaukee Brewers was Christian Yelich himself. It wasn’t that he was “bad”–he was actually the team’s best full-time starter at the plate by wRC+–but the Brewers had counted upon Yelich to be better than a 113 hitter. In 2018, Yelich was the offensive equivalent of the career of somewhere between Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb. In 2019, he had surpassed the career wRC+ of Lou Gehrig and Barry Bonds. And in 2020, he was the equivalent of Yuli Gurriel–a fine hitter, but not quite the lynchpin of an elite offense. But all signs point to a bounce-back: Yelich’s .259 batting average on balls in play suggests bad luck, and while his ballooning strikeout rate was a major concern, he was also walking in 18.6% of his plate appearances. Over the course of his career, Yelich’s 2018 and 2019 were the outliers–he never hit that well with the Miami Marlins, so it’s fair to be concerned that he won’t be an MVP again, but there is plenty of room for an All-Star bounce-back.
The Brewers had much bigger fish to fry than improving upon their best player, though, and they spent their off-season doing this. Their most notable acquisition to readers of this site was the aforementioned Kolten Wong, whose presence kills two birds with one stone. Wong provides not only Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base, but he allows Keston Hiura, a well-regarded young hitter who is considered to have a minus glove at second base, to move to first base on a full-time basis, or at the very least form a pseudo-platoon with lefty first baseman Daniel Vogelbach. On the opposite corner of the infield, the Brewers replaced Jedd Gyorko, a familiar face to Cardinals fans, with Travis Shaw, a familiar face to Brewers fans. Although Shaw is coming off a pair of down seasons, he was an indispensible part of the 2017 and 2018 Brewers. Orlando Arcia is still the team’s shortstop and he was one of the team’s brighter spots in 2020, having his best season at the plate. And throughout the infield, the Brewers will have a security blanket of sorts in Luis Urías, a promising twenty-three year-old capable defensively anywhere on the diamond.
But where the Brewers really improved was in the outfield. Yelich’s spot, of course, is assured. Lorenzo Cain opted out of the 2020 season a few days into it, and while the long-time Kansas City Royals center fielder is just twelve days removed from turning 35, he still projects to contribute very good defense and respectable offense. But the team’s addition of Jackie Bradley Jr., also a premier defensive center fielder with an All-Star Game appearance and Gold Glove to his name, provides some security in the form of somebody four years Cain’s junior. Bradley is currently slotted in right, which would give the Brewers an outfield with three center field-capable options, but even if Bradley is forced to move, they still have 2020 starter Avisaíl García, himself a former All-Star in 2017. While the Cardinals are scraping for outfielders, the Brewers have a surplus of them–some of the options are better than others, but in case one of them breaks, they have a fail-safe.
On the mound, the gang is more or less back together in the starting rotation–nominal staff ace Brandon Woodruff, 2020 Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes, and solid depth arms like Adrian Houser, Freddy Peralta, and Josh Lindblom remain. Brett Anderson, oft-injured as he is, has been very strong when healthy in his career, and while betting on him to stay healthy is often a fool’s errand, he could be quite the #3 starter. Of course, the real strength of the Brewers’ pitching is their bullpen–reliever Josh Hader ought not be judged too harshly on 19 innings of work in 2020 and instead by his impressive track record prior to that, and rotation convert Brent Suter, along with 2020 Rookie of the Year and St. Louis native Devin Williams, makes for a potentially devastating three-headed monster out of the bullpen.
As a fan and follower of the St. Louis Cardinals, my team just seems to have more star power, but most of that is perspective and recollection of when, say, Adam Wainwright was a Cy Young candidate and not a guy who would probably be in the back end of the Brewers’ rotation. But while Yadier Molina sounds like a bigger name than a catching duo of Omar Narváez and Manny Piña, their projections are about the same. It is the Brewers who hold material positional edges by projections at second base, left field, and center field, while standing within spitting distance in right field. Although ZiPS would tell you that Jack Flaherty is the best starting pitcher on either team, it would also tell you that the Brewers had the #2, #3, #5, #6, and #7 starters among the bunch, with the Brewers also holding far more starting pitcher depth outside of their projected rotation itself. And it would tell you that the Brewers have the stronger bullpen.
Baseball is weird. There are things that could happen today, even outside of major injuries but just in terms of micro-sample performance, that might persuade me to give the Cardinals the edge in the National League Central. But I see in the Brewers a team that, while certainly flawed and while not exactly brimming with the upside of the Dodgers or Padres, is a more complete team.