NL Central preview: Retooled Reds could be tough to beat in wide-open division

Projected finish: Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Pirates.

After missing the postseason for three consecutive Octobers, the Cardinals will defend their National League Central title without one of their best power hitters and questions about their run-scoring capabilities.

The Cardinals finished two games ahead of the wild card Brewers in 2019 and their season ended when the Nationals swept them in the NL Championship Series. Their weak lineup was no match for Nationals pitching.

Last season, the Cardinals were 10th in the NL with 764 runs. They were 11th in OPS (.739), 12th in home runs (210) and 11th in average (.245) while hitting .250 with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals didn’t acquire any bats during the offseason and Marcell Ozuna, who hit 29 home runs, signed with the Braves as a free agent.

So how do the Cardinals fill the gap?

The answer is bounceback seasons from their in-house players, including Dexter Fowler, who hit .238, along with Matt Carpenter (.226) and 33-year-old Paul Goldschmidt, who hit .260 with 33 home runs. Goldschmidt didn’t hit well in the first half of the season, but was stronger in the second.

And, another question: How much decline will the Cardinals see from 38-year-old catcher, Yadier Molina?

The pitching looks good.

The rotation is led by Jack Flaherty (11-8, 2.75 ERA) and Dakota Hudson (16-7, 3.45 ERA). It also has Adam Wainwright (14-10, 4.19 ERA) and Miles Mikolas (9-14, 4.16 ERA) and likely Carlos Martinez, who worked out the bullpen last season.

There are three other teams - the Brewers, Cubs and Reds - that will make the NL Central a fun division to watch. It will be muddled, but competitive.

The Reds, who haven’t had a winning record or a postseason spot since 2013, the year they lost in the wild card round, have added bats - Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos - to a lineup that will be dangerous in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. Another addition was Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, who is 32 and known for his speed. Nick Senzel will play center field and lead off.

Moustakas, the second baseman, hit 35 home runs for the Brewers last year, Castellanos had 27 combined for the Tigers and Cubs. The Reds lineup includes Joey Votto, an aging star, and Aristides Aquino, who came up in August 2019, hit seven home runs in his first 10 games and set a rookie record (14) for a month.

The Reds have strength in the rotation and bullpen. The rotation is led by Sonny Gray (2.85 ERA last season) and All-Star Luis Castillo, who had 226 strikeouts in 2019. The new guy is Wade Miley, who won 14 games with a 3.98 ERA for the Astros last season.

Trevor Bauer is a key. He didn’t pitch well (6.39 ERA in 10 starts) after coming from Cleveland to Cincinnati in a trade last season. The Reds are banking on him making adjustments to a hitter-friendly home park.

In Chicago, David Ross, a part-time catcher when they won the World Series in 2016, is the new Cubs skipper, another example of a manager needing no experience to be hired. He takes over for Joe Maddon. The Cubs won 84 games last season, but didn’t make the postseason.

The rotation is led by Yu Darvish, who posted a 2.97 ERA in the final two months of 2019 after having issues with walks at the season’s start. Jon Lester, 36, is coming off a season where he gave up 205 hits. Kyle Hendricks, a command pitcher, had a 3.46 ERA last season.

They will be without José Quintana at the start, who has a thumb injury. Hendricks drew the opening day assignment.

The lineup is familiar with second baseman Jason Kipnis (17 home runs for Cleveland) joining Kris Bryant (31 home runs) at third, Javier Báez (29 home runs) at short and Anthony Rizzo (.924 OPS with a 4.05 on-base percentage) at first. Kyle Schwarber (38 home runs) will fits as the Cubs’ designated hitter.

The Cubs bullpen could be their downfall. The setup core is thin and closer Craig Kimbrel didn’t dominate after he was acquired in a trade. Kimbrel had 1.597 WHIP with nine home runs allowed in 20 2/3 innings.

In Milwaukee, the Brewers have a deep bullpen they hope will make up for a shaky rotation.

The bullpen has lefty flame-throwing Josh Hader (138 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings) closing with Corbin Burnes (70 strikeouts in 49 frames) and Freddy Peralta (115 whiffs in 85 innings) among the setup crew.

The only two returning starters from last season are Brandon Woodruff (11-3, 3.62 ERA) and Adrian Houser (2.85 ERA in his last 12 starts). The Brewers added lefty Brett Anderson, a talented pitcher that had injury problems until last season when he had a 3.89 ERA in 31 starts for Oakland. The fourth starter is Josh Lindblom, who struggled in the majors (4.10 ERA combined with five different teams) and then went to South Korea to become a consistent starter.

The Brewers will be without catcher Yasmani Grandal, Moustakas, first baseman Eric Thames and Trent Grisham, the right fielder who made the miscue that helped the Nationals in their wild card win against over Milwaukee in 2019.

Grisham will be replaced by Avasaíl García (22 home runs for Tampa Bay), Thames by Justin Smoak (22 home runs for Toronto), Moustakas by Eric Sogard (.290 combined for Tampa Bay and Toronto) and Grandal by Omar Narváez, who hit 22 home runs for Seattle.

Ryan Braun, who hit 22 home runs last season with a .282 average, will get most of the DH at-bats and the Brewers hope that Christian Yelich, can bounce back from his September kneecap injury. At the time, he was hitting .329 with a .429 on-base percentage and 44 home runs in 130 games.

The Pirates are rebuilding after making the postseason as a wild card for three consecutive seasons from 2013-15. Outfielder Starling Marte was traded to Arizona in the offseason, but first baseman Josh Bell (37 home runs) is still there and two other prospects - shortstop Kevin Newman and outfielder Brian Reynolds - showed promise in 2019. Newman averaged .314, Reynolds .308.

The most painful part of rebuild for Pirates fans is watching Chris Archer pitch. He has had a miserable time in Pittsburgh (5.39 ERA in 23 starts last season). The Pirates acquired Archer in a trade from Tampa Bay for outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow, two keys who have help make the Rays a contender.