Say what you will about tanking in baseball–it does make previewing divisions far more economical for baseball writing types such as myself who tend to go off the rails with long tangents and far too heavy of word counts (note added while editing this post: it didn’t help that much). So let me just start off by saying–the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t going to win the NL Central.
The Chicago Cubs aren’t either, but they at least merit a paragraph to themselves, because unlike the Pirates or especially the Reds, the Cubs at least tried in the off-season. The Cubs started off their off-season by claiming Wade Miley off waivers from the Reds and signed former New York Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and Hiroshima Toyo Carp outfielder Seiya Suzuki. They made a few other signings that could better be categorized as interesting than great–Clint Frazier, Andrelton Simmons, David Robertson–but that’s something. But these additions were not supplementing a great roster–the Cubs finished twenty games under .500 last year and that was despite employing Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Craig Kimbrel for a decent chunk of it. Over the last two months, the stripped-down Cubs played at a 58-win pace. That they’ve rebounded enough that they could end up finishing in third is impressive. It’s inconceivable to picture them finishing in first or second.
The St. Louis Cardinals have made the postseason in each of the last three seasons; the Milwaukee Brewers have made the postseason in each of the last four seasons (though it would be fair to note, even beyond typical 2020 asterisking, that the 2020 Brewers had a losing record and only cracked the postseason because of the expanded sixteen-team playoff; they wouldn’t even make it into the new 12-team iteration). Unlike the other three teams in the NL Central, the ones that make the division probably the worst in baseball, these are two teams which are reasonably competitive. Neither is considered a World Series favorite, and neither should be, but both the Cardinals and Brewers would be reasonable division winners, and with a division crown in hand would be worthy of instilling fear in postseason opponents.
Under this season’s new playoff format, the Milwaukee Brewers, as the 95-win NL Central champions, would have received a first-round bye, while the Cardinals, as the National League’s second-best Wild Card, would have drawn a three-game series with all games on the road against the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers. But also, the Cincinnati Reds would have also made the playoffs, so clearly a lot has changed in the last few months.
My macro level analysis of the Cardinals and Brewers is this–I believe the Milwaukee Brewers have a higher ceiling than the St. Louis Cardinals, but I also believe that there is more risk with them. If you told me that one of these teams were to win 100 games, I would pick the Brewers. If you told me that one of these teams lost 90 games, I would pick the Brewers.
The strength of the Milwaukee Brewers is their pitching, by far. The Brewers have three starting pitchers who project as better pitchers for 2022 than any St. Louis Cardinals starters–Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff, and 2021 NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. All three of these pitchers had ERAs under 3 last season, and both Burnes and Woodruff had FIPs to match, with Burnes finishing the season at a striking 1.63 FIP mark. Eric Lauer and Adrian Houser, both still with the Brewers, had ERAs in the low-threes, and the likes of Josh Lindholm and top prospect Aaron Ashby project to be reasonable rotation depth.
The weakness of the starting rotation, to the extent there is one, is that the starters don’t go very deep into games–not that anyone is expecting starting pitchers to throw for 300 innings a year anymore, but even by 2021 standards, the team’s trio of star starting pitching didn’t advance very deep–Burnes and Woodruff averaged a little under six innings per start and Peralta averaged under 5 1/3 per game. But the Brewers are also buoyed by an excellent bullpen. There are, of course, the potential starters who will instead find time pitching in relief, a concept with which the Cardinals are seemingly unfamiliar–Ashby in particular is likely to pitch in the bullpen and will likely pitch really well there–but there are also committed relievers Josh Hader and Devin Williams. Hader is arguably the most consistently dominant reliever in the sport, winning the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year Award in 2018, 2019, and 2021, with his lone gap coming in 2020, when Williams won it. Devin Williams is coming off a self-inflicted injury–he missed the 2021 postseason after punching a wall in celebration after the Brewers clinched the division, as one does, but if he bounces back, the Brewers are right up there with the Liam Hendriks-Craig Kimbrel duo of the Chicago White Sox as the sport’s best bullpen one-two punch.
The Cardinals’ rotation lags dramatically behind the Brewers, and the best-realistic-case scenario for the Cardinals probably still lags behind Milwaukee. Maybe Jack Flaherty returns to 2019 form, a version that still wasn’t as good as 2021 Corbin Burnes. Maybe Adam Wainwright maintains his 2021 form, but unless Miles Mikolas returns to 2018 form and one of Dakota Hudson or Steven Matz becomes the most fully-realized version of the Cardinals infield defense-enhanced pitching monster imaginable, the Brewers are going to enter 2021 with a stronger top of the rotation. And while the Cardinals had a decent bullpen last season, despite it being federal law that one can never think one’s team has an even competent bullpen, their success was largely built on found money marginal acquisitions such as Luís Garcia, now on the San Diego Padres, and T.J. McFarland, who remains but who also spent the first half of his age-32 season in 2021 being signed and released by a Washington Nationals team not exactly swimming with bullpen depth.
It’s difficult not to look at the disparity in pitching quality and not feel pessimistic about the Cardinals’ chances in the division, but when it comes to position players, the Cardinals hold a substantial advantage. The player on whom this entire division race may depend is a position player–Christian Yelich. After two superstar seasons to begin his career in Milwaukee after being acquired from the Miami Marlins, Yelich was merely a decent hitter in 2020, but regressed heavily in 2021, with just nine home runs in 475 plate appearances, en route to a season which was very barely above or below league-average, depending on whether you prefer wRC+ or OPS+ for league-adjusted all-encompassing offensive metrics. His nearly complete loss of power is the reason for his offensive dip–his batting average on balls in play stayed at a reasonable .321 while his walk rate actually increased.
To be clear, Christian Yelich even in his diminished form is a perfectly fine player–certainly not the weak link for the Brewers–but this is a player who makes $26 million per season and will continue to do so for the next seven seasons for the smallest market team in Major League Baseball. And his lack of power is coming at a position, the corner of the outfield, where teams depend on strong offensive production. While the Brewers have gotten relatively strong offensive production (and defensive value) from positions which prioritize defense–the middle infield tandem of former Cardinal Kolten Wong and Willy Adames were above-average at the plate in 2021, Omar Narváez was an All-Star at catcher, and Lorenzo Cain was respectable at the plate while playing a perpetually solid center field–they have struggled at the conventional offensive spots in the lineup.
Last season, first base was an odd patchwork of Daniel Vogelbach (whom the Brewers non-tendered, a move I would understand a lot more if they had better existing options), mid-season acquisition/Vogelbach clone Rowdy Tellez, and Keston Hiura–needless to say, the Cardinals have a major advantage at the position with Paul Goldschmidt. Luis Urías, who began last season at shortstop, had a respectable season at third base, but as a below-average MLB hitter throughout his career, his value potential at the hot corner is considerably lower than it was at shortstop. Avisaíl García was one of the team’s best hitters coming out of right field, but he signed with the Miami Marlins in the off-season and will be replaced by Hunter Renfroe, whose 31 home runs in 2021 with the Boston Red Sox surely look appetizing, but Renfroe’s entire offensive game has long been predicated around home runs and little else, and the ZiPS projection system has him at league average at the plate.
Not that a position-by-position tale of the tape with the Cardinals is especially instructive, but shortstop is really the only position where the Brewers can declare a conclusive advantage. They probably have an advantage at catcher and designated hitter (new acquisition Andrew McCutchen will likely get the majority of starts for Milwaukee), but these are less obvious. The Cardinals have the better projected player at every other position for 2022.
When it comes down to it, while I do think the Cardinals have the superior slate of position players, the Brewers have a larger edge on the mound, so I would pick the Brewers to win the NL Central. FanGraphs gives the Brewers an edge of seven games; Baseball Prospectus gives the Brewers an edge of fourteen games (with the Reds marginally ahead of the Cardinals, which keeps in line with Prospectus’s typically bearish projections on the Cardinals). I certainly don’t think the Brewers are likely to finish 14 games ahead of the Cardinals, and I would probably put their edge at closer to five or six games than seven, but I understand the consensus.
But the Brewers are also heavily depending on their starting rotation, a staff comprised of a bunch of pitchers who as recently as 2019 were either outright bad (Burnes), mediocre (Peralta), or at least not the supernovas they were in 2021 (Woodruff, Houser). Corbin Burnes probably turned a legitimate corner, but would you expect another 2.43 ERA/1.63 FIP season? Is Woodruff as truly dominant as he appeared in 2021, or is he more likely a mid-threes ERA type of guy that he had been previously–a very solid #2 or #3 but not an unbeatable force of nature? Other than Tyler O’Neill, the Cardinals didn’t really have any position players who exceeded their precedents by leaps and bounds, so their floor seems quite high. The Brewers’ pitching still has a decent floor, but given the holes in their lineup, they may need it to be quite a bit above that.
Not to keep beating the same old drum, but the Cardinals’ division chances would look so much better with another starting pitcher. If you added Sean Manaea, the Oakland Athletics pitcher with one year until free agency who surely wouldn’t be that costly in terms of prospect yield, this would be a rare case where you could take a player’s Wins Above Replacement, add it to the team’s win total, and it wouldn’t actually be too much of malpractice. If nothing else, this would put the Cardinals, who will get to feast on their atrocious non-Milwaukee division all season, in prime position for a Wild Card spot. But as it stands right now, I’m picking the Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central.