The NL Central appears to be a fairly open division. Outside of the Pittsburg Pirates, the remaining four teams all have reasons to be optimistic about the 2021 season. In fact, the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, and Reds all made the playoffs last season thanks to the expanded playoffs.
However, this season the playoff format will return to normal with only five teams from each league making the playoffs. With the NL East looking like the best division in baseball and the NL West having maybe the best two teams in baseball, playoff spots will be hard to come by. Winning the division looks to be the only way for an NL Central team to play in the postseason this year.
So, who’s the best team in the NL Central?
St. Louis Cardinals
On Jan. 29, the St. Louis Cardinals went out and acquired 3B Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies. Arenado is a superstar and will join a lineup with Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong Yadier Molina, and Tommy Edman as one of the best infields in the MLB. They also have an ace in Jack Flaherty which gives them an advantage every fifth day. The bullpen is above average and there seems to be magic in St. Louis every year. They are not without flaws with multiple questions in the outfield and the back end of the rotation, but they should be considered the favorite heading into the 2021 season.
The reigning NL Central champions feel like a forgotten team. They were able to win last year despite dismal seasons from Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez. Easy to believe that all three of these stars will bounce back. Ian Happ broke out in 2020 and Nico Hoerner hopes to do the same in 2021. Add in a rotation with Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, and the return of Jake Arrieta, and you have something here. The pitching does leave a lot left to be desired, but if the lineup can reach its potential, the pitching just has to be average for the Cubs to be considered the best team in the NL Central.
The Brewers have the one thing the other three teams in the Central do not, pitching. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes are a solid 1-2 punch while Josh Hader and Devin Williams make up the best backend of a bullpen in baseball. They also have this left fielder you may have heard of in Christian Yelich. He had a slow start in 2020 but started to heat up at the end. It’s hard to believe his numbers in 2021 are more than anything, but the product of a 60-game season.
Lorenzo Cain returns to sure-up center fielder and the signing of Kolten Wong not only lengthens the Brewers lineup but gives them two defensive stars to help the pitching staff. The Brewers are going to pitch and defend their way to wins while watching Yelich mash. They should be considered the best team in the NL Central.
The Reds have the best 1-2 motion in the division with Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Their lineup is full of big names who mostly underachieved in 2020. Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, Nick Castellanos, and Joey Votto highlight a deep lineup that is expected to hit. There are a lot more question marks on this team than the previous three.:
How good is the back of the rotation? Who’s going to play shortstop? Will Nick Senzel finally live up to his prospect hype?
I don’t know if the lineup can hit enough to overcome all of this. This is the only team of the four I don’t see with an argument to be considered the best, but they do have enough talent to where if everything goes right they could win it. They also might start a rebuild by July.
Overall, I do not think it’s that crazy to say the Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals all have cases to be the best team. That being said, the Cardinals have the best roster and should be considered the best team in the Central to open the season. They have the best starting pitcher in the division and a rotation with dependable starters.
Arenado and Goldschmidt are stars and lengthen a good lineup. They are also the only team who saw how close every team in the division was and went out and made a move to separate themselves from the pack. I expect them to do the same in July.