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Mar 19, 2024 6:05 pm

NL Central capsules: Cubs early favorites in wide-open division

Shota Imanaga

2024 NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL CAPSULES

Cincinnati Reds
2023 record 82-80 (3rd place, NL Central)
He gone: 1B Joey Votto, 3B Nick Senzel, C Curt Casali, OF Harrison Bader
New faces: INF Jeimer Candelario, RHP Frankie Montas, RHP Nick Martinez, RHP Emilio Pagan, LHP Brent Suter

Biggest question entering Opening Day: Will the Reds be rewarded for doling out free-agent dollars to bolster their starting rotation and bullpen? Cincinnati is not always an organization that is eager to spend in the offseason, but the front office got the green light to sign Montas (one year, $16 million), Martinez (two years, $26 million), Pagan (two years, $16 million) and Suter (one year, $3 million). They also brought in an impressive switch-hitting corner infielder in Candelario (three years, $45 million), who tallied 22 homers and 70 RBIs last season. Those additions, plus the continued development of young hitters such as Spencer Steer and Matt McLain, give Cincinnati a chance to win games on the mound as well as at the plate.

2024 Outlook: For years, Votto was a bright spot on an otherwise dreary Reds team. Now, Votto has moved on, but the organization as a whole is looking a lot more promising. Cincinnati has a real chance to compete for its first division title since 2012.

Chicago Cubs
2023 record 83-79 (2nd place, NL Central)
He gone: RHP Marcus Stroman, 3B Jeimer Candelario, RHP Michael Fulmer, RHP Brad Boxberger
New faces: LHP Shota Imanaga, INF Michael Busch, RHP Hector Neris, RHP Yency Almonte

Biggest question entering Opening Day: Is this version of the Cubs good enough to win the division, or will the front office have to beef up the roster before the trade deadline to make a serious push for the playoffs? The Cubs stayed quiet for most of the offseason, but their patience paid off when they finally re-signed 1B/OF Cody Bellinger to a three-year, $80 million deal with the potential for opt-outs after years one and two. By bringing back Bellinger, the Cubs answered a huge question about the middle of their lineup. He shined last season, hitting .307 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs while stealing 20 bases, and if he can come anywhere close to that production this season, it could put the Cubs over the top in the NL Central. Imanaga, who signed a four-year, $53 million deal, is expected to boost the starting rotation.

2024 Outlook: The Cubs look like the favorites to win the NL Central, especially if they trade some of their farm-system depth to help fill any gaps they have midway through the season. Chicago is not on the same level as NL powerhouses such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, but in a weak Central, they don’t need to be a juggernaut to win.

Milwaukee Brewers
2023 record 92-70 (1st place, NL Central)
He gone: RHP Corbin Burnes, 1B Rowdy Tellez, RHP Adrian Houser, 1B Carlos Santana
New faces: 1B Rhys Hoskins, C Gary Sanchez, LHP DL Hall, SS Joey Ortiz

Biggest question entering Opening Day: Can the Brewers compete for another division title without their best two starting pitchers from a season ago? Milwaukee traded Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Hall and Ortiz, two young players with bright futures and comparatively cheap salaries. The Brewers also will likely endure a season without RHP Brandon Woodruff, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Yet another key pitcher, RHP Devin Williams, is expected to miss about three months because of two fractures in his vertebra. Milwaukee’s main move in the offseason was the signing of Hoskins, who hit 30 homers with the Philadelphia Phillies last season but can’t do anything to fill the pitching void. The Brewers still have RHP Freddy Peralta to anchor the staff, but the rotation lacks solid depth.

2024 Outlook: The word “underwhelming” might be the kindest way to describe the Brewers’ offseason. They will have a tough time repeating as division champions after trading their top pitcher, encountering injuries to other key players and mostly sitting out the free-agent shopping season as a small-market team on a budget.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2023 record 76-86 (4th place, NL Central)
He gone: RHP Vince Velasquez, RHP Andre Jackson, RHP Osvaldo Bido, RHP Thomas Hatch
New faces: LHP Marco Gonzales, LHP Martin Perez, C Yasmani Grandal, LHP Aroldis Chapman, OF Michael A. Taylor, 1B Rowdy Tellez

Biggest question entering Opening Day: Can the Pirates compete in what seems to be a fairly wide-open division, or will they trend toward another fourth- or fifth-place finish that has become all too common in Pittsburgh? The Pirates showed signs of promise last season and have an opportunity to build on that after adding respectable big leaguers such as Gonzales, Perez, Chapman, Grandal, Taylor and Tellez during the offseason. The team’s chances could hinge on the rotation, which is led by RHP Mitch Keller, Gonzales and Perez but includes some unknowns such as LHP Bailey Falter and RHP Quinn Priester. SS Oneil Cruz has the makings of a star, and he alone will be a good reason to keep an eye on the Pirates.

2024 Outlook: The Pirates are on the right trajectory, but they seem to lack the pitching depth to climb to the top of the division. A .500 finish might be a more realistic goal that still would show Pittsburgh is making progress in its march toward respectability.

St. Louis Cardinals
2023 record 71-91 (5th place, NL Central)
He gone: RHP Adam Wainwright, OF Tyler O’Neill, RHP Dakota Hudson, C Andrew Knizner
New faces: RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Kyle Gibson, SS Brandon Crawford

Biggest question entering Opening Day: Can the Cardinals bounce back from a miserable season and make a worst-to-first push in the NL Central? St. Louis fell far short of expectations last year, and it responded by bringing in a trio of veteran hurlers in Gray, Lynn and Gibson. The emphasis on veterans continued as the Cardinals turned to Crawford, whom they watched for many seasons in San Francisco. Perhaps more important this season is whether Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado can spark a resurgent offense, or if they take another step back in their stellar but aging careers. St. Louis also is hoping for another step forward from Jordan Walker, who flashed plenty of potential as the top prospect a season ago but needs to prove that he can hit on a consistent basis in 2024.

2024 Outlook: The Cardinals were humbled last season, and they are determined to avoid another bottoming out this season. They should be better, particularly if Gray can maintain his health as a top-end starter, but so many key players are getting older and it is fair to question whether the team can compete for 162 games or if it will run out of steam.

–Field Level Media

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