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June 14, 2024
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2024 NL Central Preview: A division where it is truly anyone’s game

2024 NL Central Preview: A division where it is truly anyone’s game

Let’s not beat around the bush, here: The National League representative for this season’s World Series very likely won’t come out of the Central Division. While it’s certainly true that we do live in a baseball world where anything is possible as long as you make the Postseason, I can’t imagine that any of you who are reading this are rushing to place your life’s savings on any of the five teams in this division to make a deep run in October. With that being said, this is a fascinating division to look at since you could make a case for any team to win it.

Yes, that includes the Pittsburgh Pirates. Outside of a three-year period of relative glory that saw the Pirates play at least one Postseason game a season, Pittsburgh has been mediocre-to-utterly dire on the baseball diamond. With that being said, there was at least a glimmer of hope for the future as the team actually moved in the right direction in 2023 and racked up 76 wins in a weak division.

It’s 2024 now and the division is just as weak, which is why not all hope is lost in Pittsburgh for a change. While the Pirates are the team that’s most likely to finish in last place in the NL Central this season, they’re also given a fairly-generous 17 percent chance by FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds to make the Postseason — with around a 9 percent chance to win the division, to boot! Granted, this means that basically everything would have to go right for the Pirates and everything would have to go wrong for everybody else in order to get back to October but it’s not impossible!

There’s a lot to like about the Pirates right now — Oneil Cruz is one of the most exciting young talents in the game right now, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds are cornerstones that are here to stay, Jack Suwinski is another promising young player and they also have a budding talent behind the plate in the form of Henry Davis. If you squint, you can see a scenario where everything goes right and this team goes on a miracle run. I repeat: this would also require everything going wrong for everybody else. This probably won’t be the year for the Pirates — again — but at least the baseball fans in Pittsburgh can actually start feeling some sort of hope again.

You could say the same thing about the Cincinnati Reds, who are in a better position and can’t be written off since the ceiling for this division is just so low. Just like the Pirates, the Reds have a lot to like here — the dynamic Elly De La Cruz is enough reason alone to show up to the ballpark as a fan on any given day and Matt McLain had a breakout rookie season and appears poised to form a dynamic keystone duo with De La Cruz for the foreseeable future. They set the baseball world on fire for a bit last season when they won 12 games in a row at one point and they also came agonizingly close to a Wild Card spot.

Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

They also have a ton of midfield depth and boosted it with the addition of Jeimer Candelario via free agency. It’ll be tested for the first half of the season, though after Noelvi Marte got suspended for 80 games (and all potential Postseason games as well) for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. That’s a pretty big blow since Marte was penciled in for the majority of starts at third base for the Reds, so this’ll be an opportunity for the rest of the infield to help shoulder the load in his absence.

While there’s a lot to like about Cincinnati, they still have concerns. Hunter Greene has yet to turn into the legitimate ace that Cincinnati needs and we’re also waiting on similar leaps from the rest of their pitching rotation as well. The young talent is definitely there for Cincinnati but if the Reds are going to be serious this season then that talent has to take the leap here and now. If that happens, this is a team that can definitely be in the conversation to win the division and they should still be contenders for the Wild Card as long as they avoid a complete calamity. Still, it wouldn’t be shocking either if the Reds are unable to capitalize on all of that potential just yet and end up spending another year on the outside looking in when it comes to the Postseason.

One team that’s not accustomed to missing out on October in recent seasons is the Milwaukee Brewers. They’ve made the Postseason in five of the past six seasons and have racked up three divisional titles in that period. If they’re going to do it again in 2024 then it’ll be a bit of an upset because it appears that they’ve fallen right back into the pack after the offseason that they had. Corbin Burnes is in Baltimore now and Brandon Woodruff is likely to miss the entire season as he recovers from shoulder surgery. They also lost their manager to their rivals on the North Side of Chicago, as the Cubs snatched away Craig Counsell almost immediately after his contract with the Brewers expired. That’s a lot to lose in a division that’s as wide open as the NL Central is.

Still, the Brewers aren’t going to lose their position on top of the NL Central without a fight. They signed Rhys Hoskins in free agency, which should help to boost an offense that wasn’t exactly intimidating last season. Jackson Chourio is a very exciting prospect and if he breaks out this season then that’ll also provide some fuel for Milwaukee’s lineup. Willy Adames is still likely to be the star of the show around here and he should get a decent amount of help from William Contreras and Sal Frelick as well. Milwaukee’s bullpen should still be just as reliable as ever, especially with Devin Williams and his “airbender” changeup that lives in the nightmares of hitters across baseball.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers probably aren’t going to be as good as they’ve been in recent seasons but if they can somehow manage to mitigate the losses that they sustained over the offseason then they’ll be right there in the conversation for the NL Central. Everybody in this division is flawed — that includes the Brewers but it also means that they still have plenty of hope to stay on top of the division and failing that, they could definitely sneak in as a Wild Card team. Milwaukee’s path to the Postseason is going to be tough but it’s still one that’s viable for the Brew Crew to traverse.

The most intriguing team in this division is the St. Louis Cardinals. If the Brewers aren’t used to being underdogs in this division, then it’s completely alien for the Cardinals to be in the position that they’re currently in. St. Louis is coming off of their first losing season since 2007 and they weren’t halfway crooks about it either as they finished tied for the second-worst record in the NL. It was a genuinely shocking turn of events for a team that boasted two of the three finalists for MVP back in 2022.

While it would be nice to see both 2022 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado return to form, it’s really hard to find fault with their performance in 2023 since they both still put up relatively solid seasons when you consider their age. If they can both “bounce back” and hit a middle ground between their solid 2023 and their otherworldly 2024 then that alone should help boost the Cardinals.

Still, St. Louis’ lineup was decent enough last season and should be fine once again. Jordan Walker should have a full season to blossom as the team’s brightest young star, Tommy Edman should be solid again as well, Wilson Contreras still figures to be one of the better-hitting catchers in all of baseball and guys like Masyn Winn, Lars Nootbaar and Nolan Gorman are perfectly fine players to round out the lineup.

The big issue for the Cardinals last season was their pitching staff. They were a bottom-tier pitching staff according to FIP- and they finished second-to-last in ERA- in the National League last season. It was obvious that they realized that this was their downfall in 2023 as they went out and acquired Sonny Gray on a multi-year deal and also picked up Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn on one-year deals.

Thanks to these additions, it’s hard to imagine that St. Louis’ pitching will suffer the baseball indignities that they went through last year and if it all goes according to plan then the Cardinals should be right back in the Postseason conversation where they’re used to being. However, they’re already going to be starting the season without Gray due to injury, so a wrench has already been thrown into those plans very early on.

Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not the offseason additions for the Cardinals will be enough for them to get back to the top of the division will be anybody’s guess. One team that probably figures to have the best chance to keep St. Louis from resurging would be the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had themselves a very nice offseason as they pulled off the aforementioned signing of Craig Counsell, managed to retain Cody Bellinger’s services via free agency, pulled off a pretty big coup of a signing by bringing in Shōta Imanaga from Japan and also fortified their bullpen by signing Héctor Neris.

It’s very likely that the Cubs are entering this season with a feeling of unfinished business on their minds after their incredibly poor ending to the season saw them fumble a 92.4 percent chance on September 5 of making the Postseason. The Cubs ended up falling one game short of a Postseason bid and were probably kicking themselves as they watched the Arizona Diamondbacks finish one game ahead of them while eventually claiming the 2023 NL Pennant.

This isn’t to say that the motivation from 2023’s failures alone should be enough to propel the Cubs into the Postseason in 2024 but Chicago is still set up to at least give it another go this season. They’re returning the formidable keystone partnership of Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner and the outfield combination of Ian Happ, Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki should be a fun one to watch. Shōta Imanaga figures to pair very well at the top of Chicago’s rotation with Justin Steele while the rest of the starters and bullpen should be just reliable enough to keep the Cubs in most games and also keep them firmly in the conversation to win the division once it’s all said and done.

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