The Milwaukee Brewers - thanks in part to former Oriole Wade Miley and former National Gio Gonzalez - won the National League Central last season by a game and then came within a victory of winning their the NL pennant, their first pennant since winning the AL pennant in 1982 and losing to St. Louis in the World Series.
Miley and Gonzalez are gone, so the Brewers will bank on young pitchers in the rotation. The biggest addition is Yasmani Grandal, a switch-hitting catcher with power. He played for the Dodgers last season.
The NL Central is not going to be an easy division to win.
The Cubs hope that health will help them improve on a 95-win season from a year ago.
The Cardinals haven’t been to the postseason in three years, and they added first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Cincinnati has a power offense and a rebuilt rotation, so the Reds won’t be pushovers.
And while the Pirates are young, their rotation is better than most people think.
The prediction: Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, Reds.
The storylines in the NL Central:
CHICAGO: The Cubs, after losing to the Rockies in the wild card playoff game in 2018, are taking aim at their fifth consecutive postseason appearance. They won the World Series in 2016. ... They won 95 games last season, despite injuries to 3B Kris Bryant, who played in 32 games after the All-Star break; RHP Yu Darvish, who made eight starts and was shut down after May 20; and closer Brandon Morrow, who missed the second half season with cartilage issues. Morrow is expected back in May. ... The Cubs were big winners in 2018, despite an offense that fell a part in the second half. Their OPS went from a league-leading .771 in the first half to .705 in the second, ranking 10th. ... The Cubs scored one run or fewer in 40 games last season and 1B Anthony Rizzo had 33 walks after the break. ... The lineup is depending on more consistent hitting from OFs Albert Almora Jr. (.280) Kyle Schwarber (.238) and Ian Happ (.233). ... SS Javier Baez has developed into an MVP type with the bat, hitting .290 with 34 home runs last season. ... Darvish returns to a rotation that has LHP Jon Lester, who had a 4.50 ERA in the second half of last season, plus LHPs Jose Quintana (4.03 ERA) and Cole Hamels (2.36 ERA in 12 starts) and RHP Kyle Hendricks (3.44). ... Should the Cubs be concerned that Hamels and Lester are each 35? ... The Cubs still haven’t gotten what they expect out of the big-money contract they gave to OF Jason Heyward, 29, but he did bump his average to .270 from .249 from the previous season. ... Manager Joe Maddon is in his fifth season as a Cubs manager, but he is unsigned after this season.
CINCINNATI: The Reds haven’t been to the postseason since 2013. It was Dusty Baker’s final season as their manager and they got beat 1-0 in the NL wild card game. ... The Reds are trying to put an end to four consecutive last-place finishes with 98, 94, 94 and 95 losses. ... The Reds have three new starters - LHP Alex Wood, who starts the season on the injured list, and RHPs Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray. Wood, 28, was an NL All-Star in 2017 and had a 3.68 ERA in 30 games - 27 starts - for the Dodgers last season. Roark, 32, has been a mainstay with a steady stream of seven-inning starts for the Nationals, but in three of his last four seasons in D.C., he had ERAs of at least 4.34. Roark had a 2.83 ERA in 2016. Gray, 29, had his troubles with the Yankees, but says he can turn his career around by throwing more curveballs. He believes he threw too many sliders - at the Yankees’ suggestion - and that led to his problems in New York. When he pitched for Oakland, Gray had seasons with ERAs of 3.08 and 2.73. ... Scott Schebler will take over for the rangy Billy Hamilton, now with the Royals, in center field. Schebler is making the transition from right field. He’s played 49 career games in center. ... The Reds’ new right-fielder will be Yaisel Puig, the dynamic and controversial player that played for the Dodgers last season. He hit .267 with 23 home runs last season for L.A. ... 2B Scooter Gennett (.310 average) and 1B Joey Votto (.284 with 108 walks) give the Reds an excellent duo on the right side of the infield. Votto is 35 and signed through 2023. His best days are behind him, but he’s still a dangerous hitter. ... On the infield’s left side is 3B Eugenio Suárez (34 home runs, .892 OPS) and SS José Peraza, who hit .288, including .310 in the final four months.
MILWAUKEE: The Brewers lost the NLCS to the Dodgers last season. Before that, the Brewers were last in the postseason in 2011 when they lost the NLCS to the Cardinals. The Brewers were in the World Series and lost in 1982 and then didn’t make the postseason again until 2008. ... The two biggest changes in the lineup include switch-hitting Grandal as the catcher, replacing October hero Eric Kratz, and Mike Moustakas, a left-handed power guy, moving from third to second base. ... Grandal, playing for the Dodgers, hit 20 home runs with an .844 OPS against right-handed pitching. ... Moustakas, a player the team sees as a leader in the clubhouse, hit .256 with eight home runs last season. He’s in an infield that has 3B Travis Shaw, SS Orlando Arcia, who had a .959 OPS in the postseason last year, and 1B Jesús Aguilar, who made the NL All-Star team even though he barely made the Brewers’ roster out of spring training in 2018. ... The outfield, from left to right, is Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain and NL MVP Christian Yelich, who is making $9.75 million this season. ... How much production will be the Brewers get out of 35-year-old Braun? ... Yelich set career highs in home runs (36) and slugging percentage (.598). His previous highs were 21 and .483. ... The rotation, which last year got solid contributions from the departed Miley and Gonzalez, is led by RHP Jhoulys Chacín (3.50 ERA) and RHP Chase Anderson (3.93). ... The Brewers are hoping for the return of RHP Jimmy Nelson, 29, who had a breakout year in 2017 (3.49 ERA, 199 strikeouts) and then missed the 2018 season because of a shoulder injury. ... The Brewers bullpen was dominant last season, but can the crew of Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader repeat what it did in 2018? Hader pitched 81 1/3 innings last season, allowing 36 hits. Hader has 12 saves, Jeffress 15 and Knebel 16 last season.
PITTSBURGH: The Pirates went to the postseason for three consecutive seasons from 2013-2015, losing in the NL Division Series as well as two wild card games. They have had two consecutive fourth-place finishes, but they were 10 games over .500 against NL Central teams in 2018. ... Manager Clint Hurdle is in his ninth season in Pittsburgh. ... The Pirates’ strength is their rotation, led by RHPs Chris Archer (4.30 ERA in 10 games), Jameson Taillion (3.20 in 191 innings) and Trevor Williams, who had a 3.11 ERA with 14 wins. ... Former Nationals LHP Felipe Vázquez had a 2.70 ERA as the closer, pitching 70 innings and saving 37 of 42 games. ... With Jody Mercer and Josh Harrison gone, CF Starling Marte, 30, is the Pirates’ most-tenured player. He’s also their best athlete. In his first full season in 2018, Marte stole 33 bases with 20 home runs. He had a .312 on-base percentage. ... Corey Dickerson won a Gold Glove last season while hitting .300. ... Gregory Polanco, a rising star for the Pirates, will start the season on the injured list with a shoulder issue. He could be out until mid-June. ... 1B Josh Bell, 26, dropped from 26 home runs to 12 last season, but his on-base percentage jumped from .334 to .357.
ST. LOUIS: The Cardinals haven’t been in the postseason for three years, an eternity in St. Louis. Before that, they were in the postseason six out of seven seasons. They won the World Series against Texas in 2011 and lost the World Series to Boston in 2013. ... The big addition was Goldschmidt, acquired in a trade from Arizona. Goldschmidt, 31, who has finished second twice and third one in NL MVP voting, hit .290 with a .389 on-base percentage last season. Before last season, he had a .400-plus on-base percentage in three of four seasons. He joins a lineup that averaged 4.7 runs a game last season, fourth in the NL. ... Goldschmidt has one year left on his contract, and so the Cardinals are hoping he’ll connect with the baseball-crazy city and want to sign a long-term deal in St. Louis. ... The lineup is also expecting improvement from LF Marcell Ozuna (.280 with 23 home runs), the same energy from CF Harrison Bader (.334 on-base with 12 home runs, 15 steals) and a consistent bat from 3B Matt Carpenter (.257 with 36 home runs) and SS Paul DeJong (19 home runs). ... The Cardinals’ under-the-radar pitcher is RHP Jack Flaherty, who struck out 182 batters in 151 innings last season, allowing only 108 hits. ... IF LHP Andrew Miller can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge plus in the Cardinals’ bullpen that features RHP Jordan Hicks, a flame-throwing 100-mph closer. ... Another developing story will be how the Cardinals use RHP Alex Reyes, 24, one of the top pitching prospects in the game who is coming back from two surgeries, one on the elbow and the other on the shoulder. ... The Cardinals’ backup catcher is former Oriole and National Matt Wieters. He’ll be backing up Yadier Molina, 36, who doesn’t believe he should ever not start a game. Last year, Molina started 123 games and hit 20 home runs. He’s a future Hall of Famer..