As the winter chill thaws and the scent of freshly cut grass wafts through the air, baseball fans everywhere eagerly anticipate the start of the 2023 Major League Baseball season. With excitement building, it's the perfect time to preview the National League Central Division - a hotbed of talent, rivalries, and baseball history.
In this post, we'll dive into the division's five dynamic teams - the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals - as they gear up for a season of action and competition. From the rise of emerging stars to the impact of key off-season moves, we'll examine the factors that could shape the battle for supremacy in the NL Central.
So, grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and join us on this thrilling journey through the heartland of America's favorite pastime.
St. Louis Cardinals
2022: 93-69, first place, lost to Philadelphia in wild-card round.
Manager: Oliver Marmol (second season).
Opening Day: March 30 vs Toronto.
He’s Here: C Willson Contreras, RHP Guillermo Zuniga, SS Jose Fermin.
He’s Outta Here: C Yadier Molina, DH/1B Albert Pujols, OF Corey Dickerson, LHP Jose Quintana.
Top Hitters: 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.317, 35 HRs, 115 RBIs, 41 2Bs, .981 OPS, NL MVP), 3B Nolan Arenado (.293, 30, 103, 42 2Bs, .891 OPS), SS Tommy Edman (.265, 13, 57, 32 SBs), OF Tyler O’Neill (.228, 14, 58).
Projected Rotation: RH Adam Wainwright (11-12, 3.71 ERA), RH Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29), LH Jordan Montgomery (6-3, 3.11), RH Jack Flaherty (2-1, 4.25), LH Steven Matz (5-3, 5.25).
Key Relievers: RH Ryan Helsley (9-1, 1.25 ERA, 19 saves), RH Giovanny Gallegos (3-6, 3.05, 14 saves), RH Jordan Hicks (3-6, 4.84), RH Jake Woodford (4-0, 2.23), LH Zack Thompson (1-1, 2.08), LHP Packy Naughton (0-2, 4.78).
Outlook: It’s a new era in St. Louis after longtime stars Pujols and Molina headed into retirement, though batterymate Wainwright is back for one more season on the mound. The Cardinals have one of the best 1-2 punches in the game in Goldschmidt and Arenado, and 20-year-old outfielder Jordan Walker is poised to make a big impression this season. Few teams can move seamlessly from one era to the next, but the Cardinals have enough young talent to believe the loss of clubhouse leaders Pujols and Molina can be overcome and St. Louis can make another NL Central run.
2022: 86-76, second place.
Manager: Craig Counsell (ninth season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Chicago Cubs.
He’s Here: 3B/OF Brian Anderson, C William Contreras, LHP Wade Miley, INF/OF Owen Miller, RHP Tyson Miller, OF Tyler Naquin, RHP Joel Payamps, INF Abraham Toro, 1B Luke Voit, RHP Bryse Wilson, OF/DH Jesse Winker.
He’s Outta Here: RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Trevor Gott, OF/DH Andrew McCutchen, C Omar Narváez, INF Jace Peterson, OF Hunter Renfroe, LHP Taylor Rogers, LHP Brent Suter, 2B Kolten Wong.
Top Hitters: SS Willy Adames (.238, 31 HRs, 98 RBIs), OF Christian Yelich (.252, 14, 57, .355 OBP), 1B Rowdy Tellez (.219, 35, 89), C William Contreras (.278, 20, 45, .860 OPS with Atlanta), OF Jesse Winker (.219, 14, 53 with Seattle), INF Luis Urías (.239, 16, 47).
Projected Rotation: RH Corbin Burnes (12-8, 2.94 ERA, 243 Ks in 202 IP), RH Brandon Woodruff (13-4, 3.05, 190 Ks in 153 1/3 IP), RH Freddy Peralta (4-4, 3.58, 86 Ks in 78 IP), LH Eric Lauer (11-7, 3.69, 157 Ks in 158 2/3 IP), LH Wade Miley (2-2, 3.16, 28 Ks in 37 IP with Cubs).
Key Relievers: RH Devin Williams (6-4, 1.95 ERA, 15 saves, 96 Ks in 60 2/3 IP), RH Matt Bush (2-3, 3.47, 3 saves, 74 Ks in 59 2/3 IP with Brewers and Rangers), RH Hoby Milner (3-3, 3.76, 64 Ks in 64 2/3 IP), RH Peter Strzelecki (2-1, 2.83, 40 Ks in 35 IP), RH Adrian Houser (6-10, 4.73, 69 Ks in 102 2/3 IP).
Outlook: The Brewers snapped a franchise-record string of four straight playoff appearances last season as they started out 32-18 — their best record ever through 50 games — but went just 54-58 the rest of the way. Then they lost president of baseball operations David Stearns, who constructed those playoff teams but stepped down after the season. Matt Arnold, who had been Stearns’ right-hand man, took over and acquired Contreras and Winker during the offseason. Contreras was an All-Star with Atlanta last season. Winker struggled through injuries with Seattle but was a potent hitter for Cincinnati in previous seasons while having some of his best games in Milwaukee. The Brewers can contend in the NL Central if their starting pitchers stay healthy, which didn’t happen last season. Burnes and Woodruff give them an exceptional 1-2 punch to head a rotation that could rank among baseball’s best. Relief pitching is a bigger concern as Milwaukee continues adapting to life without Josh Hader, who was traded last July when the Brewers were leading the division. Williams, a two-time All-Star, should shine in his first full season as a closer. But there’s plenty of uncertainty regarding the other relievers in Milwaukee’s new-look bullpen.
2022: 74-88, third place.
Manager: David Ross (fourth season).
Opening Day: March 30 vs. Milwaukee.
He’s Here: SS Dansby Swanson, OF Cody Bellinger, RHP Jameson Taillon, 1B Eric Hosmer, C Tucker Barnhart, DH/1B Trey Mancini, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Michael Fulmer, INF Edwin Ríos.
He’s Outta Here: C Willson Contreras, OF Jason Heyward, LHP Wade Miley, DH Franmil Reyes, C P.J. Higgins.
Top Hitters: SS Dansby Swanson (.277, 25 HRs, 96 RBIs, 18 SBs for Atlanta), LF Ian Happ (.271, 17, 72, .782 OPS, 42 doubles), RF Seiya Suzuki (.262, 14, 46), INF Nico Hoerner (.281, 10, 55, 20 SBs, 5 triples).
Projected Rotation: RH Marcus Stroman (6-7, 3.50 ERA), RH Jameson Taillon (14-5, 3.91, 32 starts for Yankees), LH Justin Steele (4-7, 3.18), LH Drew Smyly (7-8, 3.47), RH Hayden Wesneski (3-2, 2.18 in 6 games).
Key Relievers: RH Michael Fulmer (5-6, 3.39 ERA, 3 saves in 67 games for Detroit and Minnesota), RH Brad Boxberger (4-3, 2.95, 1 save for Milwaukee), RH Adbert Alzolay (2-1, 3.38 in 6 games), RH Keegan Thompson (10-5, 3.76, 1 save).
Outlook: An offseason spending spree strengthened the lineup and pitching staff, but there are several outstanding questions for the Cubs as they look to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Bellinger is hoping to regain his form from his 2019 NL MVP season. He hit just .210 with 150 strikeouts in 144 games last year with the Dodgers. The addition of Swanson should help replace the offensive production and leadership that Chicago lost when Contreras signed with St. Louis in free agency. In the rotation, Steele is looking to build on his solid 2022 season. With Fulmer and Boxberger, the bullpen has a much different look, and it remains to be seen how Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy handle high-leverage situations at the end of games.
2022: 62-100, tied for fourth place.
Manager: David Bell (fifth season).
Opening Day: March 30 vs. Pittsburgh.
He’s Here: 1B/OF Wil Myers, 3B Spencer Steer, C Curt Casali, C Luke Maile, INF Kevin Newman, OF Will Benson, RHP Luke Weaver.
He’s Outta Here: SS Kyle Farmer, RF Aristides Aquino, INF Mike Moustakas, INF Donovan Solano, LHP Mike Minor.
Top Hitters: 1B Joey Votto (.205, 11 HRs, 41 RBIs, .689 OPS in 91 games), C Tyler Stephenson (.319, 6, 35 in 50 games), 2B Jonathan India (.249, 10, 41, .705 OPS in 103 games), OF Jake Fraley (.259, 12, 28, .812 OPS), SS Kevin Newman (.274, 2, 24 in 78 games with Pirates).
Projected Rotation: RH Hunter Greene (5-13, 4.44 ERA), LH Nick Lodolo (4-7, 3.66), RH Graham Ashcraft (5-6, 4.89), RH Luis Cessa (4-4, 4.57 in 46 games, 10 starts), RH Connor Overton (1-0, 2.73 ERA in 6 games, 4 starts).
Key Relievers: RH Alexis Diaz (7-3, 1.84 ERA, 10 saves), RH Tony Santillan (0-1, 5.49 ERA, 4 saves in 21 appearances), RH Tejay Antone (2-0, 2.14, 3 saves, 42 Ks in 33 2/3 innings in 2021), RH Lucas Sims (1-0, 9.45, 1 save in 6 games), LH Reiver Sanmartin (4-4, 6.32).
Outlook: After losing 100 games for the first time in four decades, the cost-cutting Reds didn’t do a lot to improve. Cincinnati will depend on India to return to the form that made him the NL Rookie of the Year in 2021. Stephenson will try to stay healthy after injuries shortened his 2022 season. The Reds signed two free-agent catchers to give him a break. One of the big questions will be whether Votto can be productive again at age 39 after shoulder surgery ended his season in August. The Reds hope to build a new foundation around three young pitchers: Greene, Lodolo and Ashcraft. All of them have showed flashes of brilliance.
2022: 62-100, tied for fourth place.
Manager: Derek Shelton (fourth season).
Opening Day: March 30 at Cincinnati.
He’s Here: OF/DH Andrew McCutchen, 1B/DH Carlos Santana, 1B Ji-Man Choi, OF Connor Joe, C Austin Hedges, LHP Rich Hill, RHP Vince Velasquez.
He’s Outta Here: 2B Kevin Newman, 1B Michael Chavis, OF Ben Gamel, INF Josh VanMeter, INF Hoy Park, RHP Zach Thompson.
Top Hitters: CF Bryan Reynolds (.262, 27 HRs, 62 RBIs, 19 2Bs, .807 OPS), SS Oneil Cruz (.233, 17, 54, 10 SBs), 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes (.244, 7, 41, 20 SBs), OF/DH Andrew McCutchen (.237, 17, 69 with Milwaukee), 1B/DH Carlos Santana (.202, 19, 60 with Kansas City and Seattle).
Projected Rotation: RH Mitch Keller (5-12, 3.91 ERA), RH JT Brubaker (3-12, 4.69), RH Roansy Contreras (5-5, 3.79), LH Rich Hill (8-7, 4.27 with Boston), RH Vince Velasquez (3-3, 4.78 in 27 appearances, 9 starts with White Sox).
Key Relievers: RH David Bednar (3-4, 2.61 ERA, 19/23 saves), RH Wil Crowe (6-10, 4.38, 4 saves), RH Chase De Jong (6-3, 2.64, 1 save), RH Duane Underwood Jr. (1-6, 4.40, 1 save).
Outlook: The Pirates believe the top-to-bottom overhaul that began in the fall of 2019 is starting to near completion. McCutchen stressed his return to a team he starred with a decade ago wasn’t based solely on nostalgia. He believes the Pirates can take a step forward the same way the clubs he led in the early 2010s did. A lot will depend on if a mostly young starting staff can keep the momentum going after a solid finish to 2022 and if Cruz can blossom. The 6-foot-7 shortstop is loaded with talent. Consistency at the plate and better defense in the field is the next step. A handful of other highly touted prospects could reach Pittsburgh at some point during the season, signs the franchise thinks the window to contention is close to opening.
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