NL Central preview: Cubbies remain on top, Brewers continue climb

The National League Central division was a top-heavy division last season.

The 2016 World Series Champion Chicago Cubs separated themselves at the top by the end of the year, leaving both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals jostling for Wild Card spots. The Cubs (92-70) advanced all the way to the National League Championship Series before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games.

Both the Brewers (86-76) and Cardinals (83-79) fell just short of the Wild Card game. The Brewers finished just a game out of the second spot, and the Cards four games out.

These three teams will likely be battling it out for National League Central supremacy once again this season, due to key additions that each made. This will leave the Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87) and Cincinnati Reds (68-94) once again sitting in the basement of the division. Both teams got even worse this offseason after trading key players, or letting them walk in free agency.

That being said, here are SFbay’s projected standings for the NL Central in 2018.

Chicago Cubs

Key Additions: SP Yu Darvish, RP Brandon Morrow, RP Tyler Chatwood, RP Steve Cishek, LP Drew Smyly

Key Losses: SP Jake Arrieta, C Alex Avila, RP Wade Davis, RP Hector Rondon, OF Leonys Martin

Chicago was the division’s cream of the crop in 2017. While they were given much more of a run for their money than expected by the Brewers, the Cubs ended up showing its championship pedigree when they eventually pulled away. The Cubs have resided at the top of the division for the last two seasons, and this year does not project to be any different.

They do lose starter Arrieta, who has seen his ERA jump from 1.77 in his 2015 Cy Young season to 3.53 last year. However, the team’s replacement for him is Darvish, who figures to be a comparable replacement, if not an improvement over what looks to be a declining Arrieta. Their closing role may be a difficult hole to fill, as they lose Wade Davis. However, they can overcome this hole with additions such as Cishek and Morrow.

Projected Record and Playoff Finish: (98-64, National League Champions)

Milwaukee Brewers

Key Additions: OF Lorenzo Cain, OF Christian Yelich, SP Yovani Gallardo, SP Jhoulys Chacin, RP Matt Albers

Key Losses: SP Matt Garza, RP Jared Hughes

Milwaukee had an up-and-coming team last season, and was anything but stagnant in trying to build on that success over the winter. They finished 2017 just one game out of the second wild card spot, and were not satisfied with that at all.

The Brewers went out and traded for All-Star outfielder Yelich, taking advantage of the Miami Marlins’ fire sale. They also added a second All-Star outfielder Cain through free agency further solidifying their offense and outfield. Starters Gallardo and Chacin are sure to bolster the rotation, which finished last season with a 4.10 ERA (fifth-best in the NL), and this team will almost certainly give the Cubs a fight for first place in the division.

If they fall slightly short, the Brewers are still almost certain to secure a Wild Card spot, even in a stacked National League.

Projected Record and Playoff Finish: (90-72, 1st Wild Card-Lose in NLDS)

St. Louis Cardinals

Key Additions: OF Marcell Ozuna, RP Luke Gregerson, RP Miles Mikolas

Key Losses: LP Zach Duke, RP Juan Nicasio, SS Aledmys Diaz

The Cardinals are always a team in the playoff hunt, and 2018 will be no different. They gave the Wild Card chase a run for a while until they, like the Brewers, fell a bit short of the dominant Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks of the NL West. However, they will once again be a factor in the Wild Card race, and will be helped by bolstering their bullpen with the additions of Gregerson and Mikolas.

St. Louis also took advantage of the Marlins’ salary dump by picking up All-Star Ozuna, a young outfielder who had a breakout year last year with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs. He is sure to bolster an offense that struggled to score runs at times last year.

Projected Record and Playoff Finish: (84-78, 3rd in Wild Card-miss playoffs)

Cincinnati Reds

Key Additions: RP David Hernandez, RP Jared Hughes

Key Losses: SS Zack Cozart

The Reds are clearly still in the midst of a long rebuild. Possibly driven by the success of long rebuilds in recent years by the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros, Cincinnati seems content to dwell in the depths of the NL Central for years to come, while accumulating young talent through their farm system. Teams like those mentioned previously have proven that success can come after consecutive bad seasons, and the team has not made the playoffs since 2013.

Projected Record and Playoff Finish: (72-90, miss playoffs)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key Additions: OF Corey Dickerson, RP Kyle Crick

Key Losses: OF Andrew McCutchen, RP Gerrit Cole, RP Daniel Hudson

The Pirates, like the Reds, are in the process of a long rebuild, but they, unlike Pittsburgh, are really just diving into their rebuild this season. They traded away two of their best remaining players this offseason in All-Stars McCutchen and Cole. These players will look to remain stars with their new teams, but getting rid of them will allow the Pirates to go from mediocre to terrible, fully launching them into their rebuild.

Pittsburgh will have a long way to go before they can obtain relevance once again, but has already began the reloading of their farm system with the Cole and McCutchen trades.

Projected Record and Playoff Finish: (64-98, miss playoffs)