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To call the National League Central balanced last year would be a massive understatement. Two teams were in playoff contention until the final week of the season, two teams finished with more than 100 losses, and one team was just kind of in the middle. It was weird but it happened.
Now with a clean slate, it’s time to wonder if teams will do it all over again or if a different result with come from it. On paper some teams definitely changed, for better or worse, and the rest may just be looking at a mirror of last year.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Last Year’s Record: 93-69
Player to Watch: Outfielder Lars Nootbaar
X-Factor: Catcher Wilson Contreras
Last year, St. Louis sent future hall of famers Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina off in style with a fantastic final stretch in the regular season and a playoff appearance. While they didn’t make it out of the first round, one last chance at a postseason run was a more than sufficient way to end two storybook careers.
However, that was then, this is now, and now St. Louis will be entrusting former rival catcher Wilson Contreras with their pitching staff. If this pitching staff can have continued success, and a few younger players can have breakout seasons, then this could be a next level team.
2. Chicago Cubs
Last Year’s Record: 74-88
Player To Watch: Pitcher Jameson Taillon
X-Factor: Catcher Yan Gomes
It’s the hard to gage the Chicago Cubs year after year. Some years they look like a team who’s trying to develop their younger players to potentially become stars and other years, they’re pushing their chips to the middle of the table. This year, at least on paper, may be a year they’re trying to go all in.
Several huge additions including first basemen Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini, shortstop Dansby Swanson, pitcher Jameson Taillon and outfielder Cody Bellinger should play crucial roles in Chicago’s pursuit of another ring. They may also play a pivotal role in the future of manager David Ross, as his seat may be getting a little warmer after making the playoffs just once in his tenure (and that was during the shortened COVID season)
3. Milwaukee Brewers
Last Year’s Record: 86-76
Player To Watch: Outfielder Jesse Winkler
X-Factor: Outfielder Garrett Mitchell
Is it fair to say that Milwaukee’s championship window may have closed? Despite boasting two top tier pitchers in Brandon Woodroof and Corbin Burnes, as well as perennial power houses like first baseman Rowdy Tellez and shortstop Willy Adames, it feels like the team has kind of evened out, and their time is up.
This could very well be wrong, and Milwaukee shows up back to form, but they need to find a way to jam some sort of wedge to prop the window open now. If they can’t do it, it may be time for them to look towards the future.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Year’s Record: 62-100
Player To Watch: Outfielder Bryan Reynolds
X-Factor: Outfielder Andrew McCutchen
Pittsburgh brought back outfielder Andrew McCutchen for what may be his final season(s) in the league. They also brought in veteran first baseman Carlos Santana and pitcher Rich Hill as ways to seemingly balance out their younger talent with seasoned players to help develop a locker room culture.
Pittsburgh probably will take another year to be ready to make any sort of run, but this season should be a huge step. Depending on what happens with outfielder Bryan Reynolds and the trade request he made during the off-season (despite Pittsburgh wanting to extend him), this could either end really good or it could start another restart.
5. Cincinnati Reds
Last Year’s Record: 62-100
Player To Watch: First Baseman Joey Votto
X-Factor: Catcher Tyler Stephenson
How long until first baseman Joey Votto says he’s had enough? Cincinnati hasn’t fielded many teams in his career, and whenever they have, they didn’t last long. This year should be much of the same.
To see any sort of success, their younger players are going to need some sort of breakout season, their veterans are going to need mammoth rebound seasons, and catcher Tyler Stephenson is going to have to get his pitchers into top shape. There’s too much that will need to happen for this team to see success, so get ready for another subpar season.