NL Central Divisional Balance Breakdown

2-14-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter

Jim Bowden recently created a stir by posting potential league/divisional changes as a result of adding two new teams. This would relocate the Pirates to the “Mid-Atlantic” division, along with the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals and the expansion Charlotte baseball team.

This got me thinking.

The Pirates have been members of the National League Central Division since its creation in 1994. In that time, they have accumulated zero total division championships:

St. Louis: 12

Chicago: 6

*Houston: 4

Cincinnati: 3

Milwaukee: 3

Even Houston has four wins, and they haven’t been part of the division in ten years! Milwaukee has three after joining the division in 1998.

Initially, the Pirates were slated to stay in the NL East with the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) and newly created Florida Marlins. The Braves would have moved from the NL West (yes, this eastern time zone team was in the west until less than 30 years ago) to the newly created Central division, but their ownership requested to shift to the East, taking advantage of the close proximity of a new opponent to create a rivalry, and the Pirates relented.

And so began our misery.

But this article isn’t intended to dwell on the past failures of the Bucs in this division, but to look to the future and how we stack up against the competition currently:

St. Louis Cardinals (93-69):

Gains: C Willson Contreras

Losses: C Yadier Molina, 1B Albert Pujols, SP Jose Quintana, OF Corey Dickerson, RHP Alex Reyes

The only years in recent history where the Pirates were good – and I mean REALLY good – the Cardinals were just a little bit better, besting us for the division title 2013-15 behind a solid rotation, strong defense, timely hitting, and a catcher who brought out the best in his staff – if perhaps also the worst in opposing fans. A lot of that success is in the past now as their aging rotation has struggled with injuries, Yadier Molina has suited up in catcher’s gear for the last time, and the triumphant return of Pujols to the Red Birds has ceremoniously ended. Now what?

They replaced Molina with former Chicago Cub Wilson Contreras. While not as skilled defensively, his bat should be formidable in a lineup already consisting of NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt at 1B, as well as 3rd place finisher and Platinum Glove Winning 3B, Nolan Arenado.

And that’s not to mention utility infielders Tommy Edman and Brendon Donovan, both of whom are gold glove winners and who combined for over 10 WAR in 2022. Outfielders Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and top prospect Alec Burleson could also be above average parts of their lineup. (Is it expansion time yet?)

If there is hope for an achilles heel, it may be the pitching staff. Adam Wainwright is likely calling it a career after this upcoming season, but Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty are all slated to be free agents next off-season. Essentially, their entire rotation could be heading for some turnover. They also recently lost their pitching coach as Mike Maddux returned to the Texas Rangers, taking back a role he held there from 2009-15.

Despite this, it’s likely the team will rebound just fine. They always do. They’ll certainly try to retain some of their departing pitchers and be aggressive in free agency to pursue others. They also have some top pitching prospects in Gordon Graceffo and Matthew Liberatore (as well as #4 prospect, per MLB Pipeline OF Jordan Walker). Will the “Cardinals Devil Magic” continue for years to come? We’ll see.

Milwaukee Brewers (86-76):

Gains: C William Contreras, 3B Abraham Toro, OF Jesse Winker, OF Blake Perkins, C Payton Henry, SS Owen Miller

Losses: C Omar Narvaez, DH/OF Andrew McCutchen, 2B Jace Peterson, LHP Taylor Rogers, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Brad Boxberger, LHP Brent Suter, OF Hunter Renfroe, 2B Kolten Wong

When the Brewers traded their All-Star closer and pending free agent Josh Hader to the rival San Diego Padres during a playoff run, it raised some eyebrows. That it backfired for both teams as neither found successful results in their returns – with the Brewers missing out on the playoffs entirely and the Padres getting bounced in the first round – it makes it sting a little more for each side.

Their pitching is certainly interesting. Corbin Burnes is a Cy Young contender, Brandon Woodruff could be a 1 in multiple rotations, and Devin Williams is an elite reliever. Outside of those three, it’s questionable how the rest of the staff will perform.

Christian Yelich turned into a stud for his first two years with the Brew Crew, but his contract is looking like a big hole for Milwaukee. His salary accounts for almost a quarter of their total payroll as his production has dropped precipitously. The offense has some other pieces, however, as Willy Adames has done nothing but hit since joining the team in a trade from the Rays.

Hunter Renfroe posted a serviceable season and Pirate-killer Kolton Wong continued to be a thorn in our side each time we faced off, but both were moved this off-season. Catcher Omar Narvaez departed in free agency to be replaced by all-star William Contreras, sent over in a 3-team trade with the Braves and A’s, capping a very up-and-down off-season for Milwaukee.

They have some talent in the pipeline with OF Jackson Chourio netting an 8th ranked prospect mark on MLB recently with OF Sal Frelick spotted at 30 overall, but their window to compete is shrinking quickly.

Chicago Cubs (74-88):

Gains: SS Dansby Swanson, CF Cody Bellinger, RHP Jameson Taillon, DH Trey Mancini, 1B Eric Hosmer, RHP Brad Boxberger

Losses: C Willson Contreras, LHP Wade Miley, OF Jason Heyward

Likely the most improved team in the division, Cubs took the losses of Wade Miley and Wilson Contreras and turned around to sign Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, Tucker Barnhart, Trey Mancini, Cody Bellinger and Eric Hosmer. That’s a pretty impressive off-season by any metrics.

These new acquisitions join an offense powered by Nico Horner and Ian Happ, with a pitching staff anchored by Marcus Stroman. Despite the fresh blood and decent foundation, the team still has some potential pitfalls.

Kyle Hendricks, a mainstay in the Cubs rotation for nearly a decade, missed most of last season with a shoulder strain and could start the 2023 season on the shelf as well. Patrick Wisdom had a solid season at 3B, but posted a strikeout rate above 34%, ranking 2nd in the NL with 183 over just 134 games. The bullpen is a real who’s who – in that I don’t know who most of these guys are.

Many of the new adds could be really good, but there’s always risk involved, as the team could be taking a big step towards contending or stumbling through the season with a few anchor contracts.

Cincinnati Reds (62-100):

Gains: 1B/OF Wil Myers, C Luke Maile, C Curt Casali, SS Kevin Newman, RHP Luke Weaver

Losses: LHP Mike Minor, 3B Mike Moustakas, RHP Chase Anderson, RHP Hunter Strickland, LHP Justin Wilson, C Austin Romine, 2B Donovan Solano, RHP Dauri Moreta, OF Aristedes Acquino

For a team which lost 100 games in a season for the first time in 40 years, they seem to be at a standstill on how to avoid repeating this “achievement.” Like the Brewers, the Reds have one player taking up a substantial percentage of their payroll and preventing the team from making moves to address glaring holes on the team.

Joey Votto has had some AMAZING seasons with Cincinnati, but the $25M he’s making this season is a huge bite for a fairly small market team. At least he should be healthy this year, which is more than the team could say about last season. He made the same amount but spent much of the season riding the pine and preparing for his post-playing career in the broadcast booth.

The offense is returning only one player who posted more than 1 WAR with the team last year (Tyler Stephenson – 1.5). The addition of Wil Myers could provide some pop in the lineup. Great American Ballpark should provide a setting for his bat to bounce back but otherwise, not much to be excited about this off-season.

The pitching, on the other hand, is something to behold – led by a number of rookies. Hunter Greene threw more pitches of 100+ MPH than anyone else in baseball last season. Southpaw Nick Lodolo had a solid season, notching a 3.66 ERA in 103.1 innings with a 29.7% K rate. Alexis Diaz posted a miniscule 1.84 ERA over 59 games out of the bullpen, basically solidifying his spot as the closer heading into 2023.

They also have a pair of top shortstop prospects on the way, as 14th ranked Elly de la Cruz and 17th ranked Noelvi Marte look to rise quickly through the system. Both have a chance at seeing some time on the roster this season.

For now, however, it looks like the Reds will be relegated to the NL Central basement.

I’m not saying that the Pirates have made enough moves to put them into contention this season. As I advised in last week’s article, a lot would have to go right for a shot at ‘Buctober’ in 2023. But on the other hand, no team is perfect.

The Cardinals failed to solidify their rotation, and they have had a number of injuries to existing starting pitchers, many on the cusp of free agency. The Brewers, arguably, got worse this off-season and have an inconsistent offense that keeps taking steps backwards. Chicago is relying on somehow fixing Cody Bellinger, having Seiya Suzuki take a step forward, and Dansby Swanson’s career year in 2022 to be part of a trajectory and not a blip. And the Reds, well…I think I’ve said enough about them.

The NL Central is not the battlefield of the 2013-15 seasons, where 98 wins only guarantees you a wild card spot. It’s become more wide open.

A few games go the Pirates’ way. Prospects come up to play at or above expectations. Ke’Bryan Hayes re-finds his 2020 swing, Andrew McCutchen re-finds his 2013 glory, Rich Hill keeps drinking from the Fountain of Youth.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance to finally hang an NL Central Division Championship flag at PNC Park. And while it’s not very likely, it’s much more possible than a year ago.

But hey, there’s always that Mid-Atlantic Division in the hypothetical future.

3 thoughts on “NL Central Divisional Balance Breakdown

  1. Charlotte, eh? It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s that or Nashville. It feels likely to be one of the two.
    I was thinking through locations and realignment and landed on PIT-NYM-CIN-MTL/PHI if they keep NL and AL separate. If not, I’d say it depends on who the other expansion team is. Obviously I’m assuming MTL, in which case I think as follows is difficult to avoid:

    Southwest: LAD-LAA-SD-ARI
    Northwest: SEA-SF-OAK-COL
    Central: CHW-KC-STL-CHC (I don’t think they ever separate CHC-STL, and CHC-CHW would make no sense to separate. Add the other Missouri team–who else fits?)
    Midwest: TEX-HOU-MIN-MIL (default per Central)
    Southeast: FLA-TB-ATL-NSH/CHA (makes no sense to shove WSH down there in my opinion)
    Northeast: NYM-NYY-BOS-??? (Do I need to explain?)
    Atlantic: WSH-BAL-???-???
    North: remaining four

    We have DET PIT CLE CIN TOR PHI MTL left. I don’t see the MLB separating the Ohio teams, which slot either weirdly in the Atlantic (meaning one Canadian team goes to the Northeast and the other with PIT, PHI, and DET, also weird) or make the foundation of the North. I’m figuring the latter, in which case MTL fills the last spot of the Northeast.

    From there it’s hard to argue anything geographically that contradicts TOR-DET joining CIN-CLE and PIT-PHI joining BAL-WSH. (Not sure where Charlotte instead of Philadelphia comes in–must be based on whatever Bowden figures will be the other expansion spot, which must be in the Southeast because it otherwise throws that division totally out of whack.)

    Great, I hate it. X-D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the hypothetical divisions Bowden suggested, he put teams in both Charlotte and Nashville. Possible a team ends up in Montreal instead though. He did have it as 8 divisions and eliminated leagues. IIRC, playoff spots would go to division winners and the next 4 best records.

      The divisional realignment (if/when it does happen) is all conjecture. Pirates are more likely to be part of a “Rust Belt” division with Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit, or something to that effect


      1. Ah, thanks for the further detail. I’d be all for that foursome (even better if we switch Detroit and Baltimore between this hypothetical division and the AFC North X-D), just didn’t expect MLB would go for Nashville and Charlotte when they’re both fairly close to Atlanta (and each other). Let alone the huge number of MiLB teams between them.

        For expansion, just anywhere but Las Vegas, please.


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