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NL Central Division Preview

03/27/2023 7:47 PM

Article By: Michael Lane

With just two days until MLB’s Opening Day we’re previewing the NL Central today.

NL Central:
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 93-69 in 2022, lost to the Phillies in the NLWC

The Cardinals said goodbye to the face of their franchise at the end of last season, as Yadier Molina retired after 19 seasons in St. Louis. They moved quickly this offseason to replace their unfamiliar hole at catcher, signing Willson Contreras to a five-year contract. This year may be the final of Adam Wainwright’s career, which would completely wrap up a strong era of Cardinals baseball.

The Cardinals lineup is anchored by Paul Goldschmidt, who was named the 2022 NL MVP, and Nolan Arenado, who finished third in MVP voting. Brendan Donovan (Hyannis ‘17) finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, won a Gold Glove, and had a 126 OPS+ last season. Tommy Edman (Y-D ‘15) also has a Gold Glove, having been an important utility player the past four seasons, but he’ll play shortstop primarily this season. Before he became an international star in the World Baseball Classic, Lars Nootbaar (Orleans ‘17) established himself as a reliable outfielder for the Cardinals last season with a 126 OPS+. He’ll primarily play right field, but appeared in all three outfield positions last year. Jordan Walker, the fourth ranked prospect in MLB, has impressed enough this spring that he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. The Cardinals lineup is one of the most well rounded in the entire league.

The question marks for this team will be on the pitching side. Wainwright, who is 41 years old, will start the season on the IL with groin injury. After finishing fourth in Cy Young voting in 2019, Jack Flaherty has struggled with injury issues the past three seasons. Steven Matz has shown flashes throughout his career, but also has struggled with consistency and injuries. Jordan Montgomery and Miles Mikolas should be a reliable duo at the top of the rotation, but getting quality starts from their three through five starters is the only real hurdle that could prevent the Cardinals from winning the NL Central.

Cape League alumni: Tommy Edman (Y-D ‘15), Dakota Hudson (Hyannis ‘15), Lars Nootbaar (Orleans ‘17), Andrew Knizner (Wareham ‘14/’15), Brendan Donovan (Hyannis ‘17), Packy Naughton (Harwich ‘16), Alec Burleson (Bourne ‘19), Andre Pallante (Chatham ‘17), Taylor Motter (Harwich ‘10), Chris Stratton (Harwich ‘11), and Drew VerHagen (Hyannis ‘10)

2. Milwaukee Brewers: 86-76 in 2022

The Brewers moves this offseason indicate they value their top hitting prospects highly, clearing multiple holes in the lineup for Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick, Brice Turang, and likely Joey Wiemer (Harwich ‘19) at some point this year. Last year broke a stretch of four straight playoff appearances for the Brewers, but their strong pitching staff gives them a chance to get back in 2023.

Corbin Burnes (Orleans ‘15), Brandon Woodruff (Harwich ‘12), Freddy Peralta, and Eric Lauer (Orleans '15) lead one of the best rotations in MLB. Burnes has finished inside the top seven of Cy Young voting three straight seasons, including winning the award in 2021. Woodruff has had a 3.05 ERA or lower in each of the past three seasons. Both Burnes and Woodruff will be free agent eligible after the 2024 season though, and with little progress made so far it’s possible the Brewers could trade one of them midseason. It would be an unpopular move, but so was trading Josh Hader last August despite being within striking distance of the playoffs.

Offensively the Brewers will rely on those prospects previously referenced. William Contreras was a savvy acquisition this offseason, after he broke out last season as the Braves catcher and was named a NL All-Star. Rowdy Tellez and Willy Adames should provide a lot of power again, after combing for 66 home runs last year. There is always the possibility that Christian Yelich returns to his MVP form from 2018 and 2019, but assuming that doesn’t happen, their lineup lacks that true star power World Series contenders have. Considering how strong the NL will be this year, the Brewers postseason hopes might only be by catching the Cardinals for the division title.

Cape League alumni: Corbin Burnes (Orleans ‘15), Brandon Woodruff (Harwich ‘12), Eric Lauer (Orleans ‘15), Wade Miley (Wareham ‘07), Brian Anderson (Hyannis ‘13), Luke Voit (Harwich ‘11) and Owen Miller (Harwich ‘17)

3. Chicago Cubs: 74-88 in 2022

After the departure of Willson Contreras this past offseason, Kyle Hendricks (Brewster ‘10) is the only player remaining from the Cubs 2016 World Series core. The Cubs enter 2023 with a team that isn’t likely to reach the postseason, but is likely to be improved from 2022. Additionally, a lot of talent in the Cubs farm system is getting close to being MLB ready.

Dansby Swanson was the biggest acquisition for the Cubs this offseason, signing him to a seven-year contract. The Cubs hope Swanson and Nico Hoerner (Y-D ‘17) will be an incredible duo up the middle of the infield for the foreseeable future. Ian Happ (Harwich ‘13/’14) is in his contract year and looking to build off last year’s success. Happ was named to his first All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove in 2022. He also set career highs in extra-base hits (61), batting average (.271), RBI (72), and games played (158). Matt Mervis (Cotuit ‘19) is one of those prospects close to being MLB ready. Mervis will begin the season in AAA, but expect him to make his MLB debut at some point this season.

Marcus Stroman (Orleans ‘10/’11) had a solid first year with the Cubs in 2022, finishing with a 3.50 ERA over 138.2 innings. Stroman excels at getting ground balls, so the improved infield defense should be a nice boost this year. The Cubs also signed Jameson Taillon to a four-year contract to strengthen the front of their rotation. Henricks is scheduled to return from last season’s shoulder injury at some point in the spring. The back end of the rotation and the bullpen aren’t quite as reliable, but overall 2023 should be another step in the right direction for the Cubs!

Cape League alumni: Ian Happ (Harwich ‘13/’14), Kyle Hendricks (Brewster ‘10), Nico Hoerner (Y-D ‘17), Marcus Stroman (Orleans ‘10/’11), Trey Mancini (Harwich ‘12), Yan Gomes (Cotuit ‘07/Chatham ‘08), Brad Boxberger (Orleans ‘07/Chatham ‘08), Miles Mastrobuoni (Y-D ‘14), Zach McKinstry (Orleans ‘16), and Edwin Rios (Cotuit ‘13/Orleans ‘14)

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 62-100 in 2022

The Pirates have finished last in the NL Central for four consecutive seasons, and while their realistic ceiling this season is third place, this should be an exciting season for Pirates fans.

After being called up in late June, Oneil Cruz finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Cruz had 17 home runs and a .744 OPS in 87 games. The raw talent is extraordinary, so it’ll be fun to watch his development over a full season in the major leagues. Ke’Bryan Hayes finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020, slashing .376/.442/.682 in the shortened season. He’s struggled offensively the past two seasons, but he’s only 26 years old and is an important part of the Pirates future. Bryan Reynolds (Orleans ‘15) is entering the prime of his career at age 28 and has slashed .281/.361/.481 since debuting in 2019. Reynolds has publicly requested a trade due to contract negotiations failing to materialize, but Pittsburgh hasn’t shown a willingness to move him. Until that changes Reynolds will remain the most well-rounded player in the Pirates lineup.

The Pirates farm system is becoming rather strong and there will likely be a handful of MLB debuts this season from their high-end talent. Endy Rodriguez, currently the 55th ranked prospect in MLB, will begin the season in AAA, but you can expect to see him be the everyday catcher by sometime in June. Henry Davis (Bourne ‘19) and Nick Gonzales (Cotuit ‘19) both ended last season at AA, but if they perform well in AAA they could be called-up towards the end of the season. Quinn Priester, the Pirates best pitching prospect, should make his MLB debut sometime in the second half of the season. The Pirates won’t be playoff contenders this year, but the development of all these players will be key to getting Pittsburgh back to the postseason in 2024 or 2025.

Cape League alumni: Bryan Reynolds (Orleans ‘15), Rich Hill (Chatham ‘00/’01), and Connor Joe (Chatham ‘13)

5. Cincinnati Reds: 62-100 in 2022

This year could be an emotional one for Reds fans, regardless of their final record, as it could be Joey Votto’s final season in a Reds uniform. Votto won’t be ready for Opening Day as he continues his recovery from a torn rotator cuff and bicep injury suffered last August. Votto is 39 years old and entering the final year of a 10-year contract extension. Votto has had a remarkable 16-year career, featuring sixth All-Star Game appearances and a MVP award in 2010.

After winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2021, Jonathan India (Harwich ‘16/’17) experienced some injury and offensive struggles in 2022. The Reds are still extremely high on India, so you can expect to see him leading off their lineup on Opening Day. Spencer Steer (Orleans ‘18), acquired at last year’s trade deadline, will get the opportunity to be the everyday third baseman after making his debut last September.

The Reds rotation is led by a trio of pitchers entering their sophomore seasons: Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Graham Ashcraft. All three had respectable rookie campaigns and will look to build on that in 2023, despite pitching in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark. Overall though it will be a difficult season for Cincinnati, as they’re still in the early stages of a rebuild.

Cape League alumni: Jonathan India (Harwich ‘16/’17), Nick Senzel (Brewster ‘15), Kevin Newman (Falmouth ‘13/’14), Justin Dunn (Cotuit ‘15), Luke Weaver (Brewster ‘12), Ian Gibaut (Hyannis ‘14), Bennett Sousa (Orleans ‘15), Buck Farmer (Chatham ‘11), Curt Casali (Hyannis ‘08/Cotuit ‘10), Luke Maile (Cotuit ‘11), Spencer Steer (Orleans ‘18), and Jake Fraley (Chatham ‘14/’15)