Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:
2020: 34-26, first place, lost to Marlins in first round of playoffs.
Manager: David Ross (second season).
He’s Here: OF Joc Pederson, RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Zach Davies, RHP Trevor Williams, RHP Brandon Workman, INF Eric Sogard, RHP Kohl Stewart, C Austin Romine, OF Jake Marisnick, RHP Jonathan Holder, RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Robert Stock, INF Sergio Alcántara.
He’s Outta Here: RHP Yu Darvish, OF Kyle Schwarber, LHP Jon Lester, LHP José Quintana, OF Albert Almora, Jr., C Victor Caratini, 2B Jason Kipnis, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, OF Billy Hamilton, OF José Martínez.
Projected Lineup: CF Ian Happ (.258, 12 HRs, 28 RBIs, .866 OPS), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.222, 11, 24, .755 OPS), 3B Kris Bryant (.206, 4, 11), C Willson Contreras (.243, 7, 26, 37 runs), SS Javier Báez (.203, 8, 24), LF Joc Pederson (.190, 7, 16 with Dodgers), RF Jason Heyward (.265, 6, 22, .848 OPS), 2B Nico Hoerner (.222, 0, 13) or David Bote (.200, 7, 29).
Rotation: RH Kyle Hendricks (6-5, 2.88 ERA), RH Zach Davies (7-4, 2.73 for Padres), RH Jake Arrieta (4-4, 5.08 for Phillies), RH Alec Mills (5-5, 4.48), RH Trevor Williams (2-8, 6.18 for Pirates) or RH Adbert Alzolay (1-1, 2.95).
Key Relievers: RH Craig Kimbrel (0-1, 5.28, 2 saves), RH Brandon Workman (1-4, 5.95, 9/12 saves for Red Sox and Phillies), RH Ryan Tepera (0-1, 3.92), RH Dan Winkler (0-0, 2.95), LH Andrew Chafin (1-2, 6.52 for Diamondbacks and Cubs), RH Rowan Wick (0-1, 3.12, 4 saves), LH Kyle Ryan (1-0, 5.17, 1 save), RH Shelby Miller (1-3, 8.59 for Rangers in 2019).
Outlook: Rizzo, Bryant and Báez are coming off down years, and they are eligible for free agency after this season. The rotation took a hit when Darvish was traded to San Diego. It remains to be seen if Kimbrel can carry over his strong finish in 2020 into this season. But the rest of the NL Central isn’t exactly imposing, so it’s not hard to imagine the Cubs contending for another playoff appearance. Rizzo, Bryant and Báez struggled with the unusual circumstances surrounding last year’s pandemic-shortened season, and Bryant was hampered by injuries. A return to form for any one of them would help the Cubs improve on their .220 team batting average from a year ago. While the loss of Darvish is a big blow, Davies is coming off a strong season in San Diego. Arrieta is looking to regain the form he showed during his first stint in Chicago, and Williams was a 14-game winner with Pittsburgh in 2018. The Cubs also are hoping Kimbrel has solved the issues he had at the beginning of last season. The closer had a 1.29 ERA over his last 15 games last year, including 1 1/3 scoreless innings in his only playoff appearance.
St. Louis Cardinals
2020: 30-28, second place, lost to Padres in first round of playoffs.
Manager: Mike Shildt (third season).
He’s Here: 3B Nolan Arenado, 3B Jose Rondon.
He’s Outta Here: 2B Kolten Wong, OF Dexter Fowler, LHP Austin Gomber, RHP John Brebbia, C Matt Wieters, 1B Rangel Ravelo.
Projected Lineup: 2B Tommy Edman (.250, 5 HRs, 26 RBIs), SS Paul DeJong (.250, 3, 25), 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.304, 6, 21), 3B Nolen Arenado (.253, 8, 26 with Rockies), RF Dylan Carlson (.200, 3, 16), C Yadier Molina (.262, 4, 16), LF Tyler O’Neill (.173, 7, 19), CF Harrison Bader (.226, 4, 11).
Rotation: RH Jack Flaherty (4-3, 4.91 ERA), LH Kwang Hyun Kim (3-0, 1.62), RH Adam Wainwright (5-3, 3.15), RH Carlos Martinez (0-3, 9.90), RH Miles Mikolas (did not pitch in 2020).
Key Relievers: RH Alex Reyes (2-1, 3.20), RH Giovanny Gallegos (2-2, 3.60), LH Andrew Miller (1-1, 2.77), RHP Jordan Hicks (did not pitch in 2020), RH Ryan Helsley (1-1, 5.25), RH John Gant (0-3, 2.40), LH Tyler Webb (1-1, 2.08), RH Kodi Whitley (0-0, 1.93), RH Daniel Ponce de Leon (1-3, 4.96).
Outlook: The Cardinals thought they were missing one big piece last season and they landed it when they made a stunning late-offseason trade for Arenado to play third base. He provides protection in the order for Goldschmidt while also adding another Gold Glove winner to what could be the best defense in the National League. The rotation returns intact from last season with the exception of RHP Dakota Hudson, who had Tommy John surgery in September, and the bullpen is deep. Wainwright and Molina are back as one of the longest-tenured batterymates in baseball history, providing plenty of experience for a team that will have a relatively young outfield. Put it all together and the Cardinals believe they can make another postseason run this year.
2020: 31-29, third place, wild card, lost to Braves in first round of playoffs.
Manager: David Bell (third season).
He’s Here: INF Dee Strange-Gordon, INF Kyle Holder, OF Scott Heineman, OF Tyler Naquin, RHP Noé Ramirez.
He’s Outta Here: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Raisel Iglesias, RHP Anthony DeSclafani, SS Freddy Galvis, C Curt Casali.
Projected Lineup: LF Jesse Winker (.255, 12 HRs, 23 RBIs), RF Nick Castellanos (.225, 14, 34), 1B Joey Votto (.226, 11, 22), 3B Eugenio Suarez (.202, 15, 38), 2B Mike Moustakas, (230, 8, 27), CF Shogo Akiyama (.245, 0, 9) or Nick Senzel (.186. 2, 8), SS Kyle Farmer (.266, 0, 4), C Tucker Barnhart (.205, 5, 13).
Rotation: RH Luis Castillo (4-6, 3.21 ERA, 89 Ks), RH Sonny Gray (5-3, 3.70, 72 Ks), RH Tyler Mahle (2-2, 3.59, 60 Ks), LH Wade Miley (0-3, 5.65), RH Michael Lorenzen (3-1, 4.28).
Key Relievers: RH Tejay Antone (0-3, 2.80, 45 Ks), RHP Lucas Sims (3-0, 2.45), LH Amir Garrett (1-0, 2.45, 1 save), LH Sean Doolittle (0-2, 5.87 in 7 2/3 IP for Washington).
Outlook: Despite more offseason subtractions than additions, confidence is high in Reds camp. Bell believes the team was just hitting its stride last September when it won 11 of the last 14 regular-season games to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. There are questions about pitching without Bauer, the NL Cy Young Award winner who signed a free-agent contract with the Dodgers, and Iglesias, the veteran closer who was traded to the Angels. But the Reds feel they have a solid staff. Galvis left to sign with Baltimore, leaving Farmer, Strange-Gordon and others to compete for the shortstop job. Cincinnati hit a major league-worst .212 during the 60-game 2020 season and will need better performances out of veterans like Votto, Suarez, Castellanos and Moustakas to make another run in what shapes up as a soft NL Central. Around 12,000 fans will be allowed to attend games at Great American Ball Park to begin the season.
2020: 29-31, fourth place, wild card, lost to Dodgers in first round of playoffs.
Manager: Craig Counsell (seventh season).
He’s Here: 2B Kolten Wong, CF Jackie Bradley Jr., 3B Travis Shaw, C Luke Maile, INF Daniel Robertson, RHP Jordan Zimmermann.
He’s Outta Here: OF Ryan Braun, LHP Álex Claudio, OF Ben Gamel, 1B/3B Jedd Gyorko, RHP Corey Knebel, INF Eric Sogard.
Projected Lineup: 2B Kolten Wong (.265, 1 HR, 16 RBIs, .350 OBP with Cardinals), LF Christian Yelich (.205, 12, 22, .356 OBP), 1B Keston Hiura (.212, 13, 32, NL-high 85 strikeouts), CF Lorenzo Cain (.333, 0, 2, opted out after 5 games) or Jackie Bradley Jr. (.283, 7, 22 with Red Sox), RF Avisaíl García (.238, 2, 15) or Bradley, 3B Travis Shaw (.239, 6, 17 with Blue Jays), SS Orlando Arcia (.260, 5, 20) or Luis Urías (.239, 0, 11), C Omar Narváez (.176, 2, 10).
Rotation: RH Brandon Woodruff (3-5, 3.05 ERA, 91 Ks in 73 2/3 innings, NL-leading 13 starts), RH Corbin Burnes (4-1, 2.11, 88 Ks in 59 2/3 IP), LH Brett Anderson (4-4, 4.21), RH Adrian Houser (1-6, 5.30), RH Josh Lindblom (2-4, 5.16) or LH Eric Lauer (0-2, 13.09) or RH Freddy Peralta (3-1, 3.99, 47 Ks in 29 1/3 IP) or RH Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 7.94 with Tigers).
Key Relievers: LH Josh Hader (1-2, 3.79, 13/15 saves, 31 Ks in 19 IP), RH Devin Williams (4-1, 0.33, 53 Ks, 8 hits allowed in 27 IP, NL Rookie of the Year), RH Eric Yardley (2-0, 1.54), LH Brent Suter (2-0, 3.13), RH Brad Boxberger (1-0, 3.00 with Marlins), RH Drew Rasmussen (1-0, 5.87, 21 Ks in 15 1/3 IP), RH Justin Topa (0-1, 2.35, 12 Ks in 7 2/3 IP).
Outlook: The Brewers’ chances of reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight season depend on whether they can get more offense after hitters up and down their lineup failed to meet expectations last season. The Brewers are counting on Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP, to regain his All-Star form. Hiura, García and Narváez also must bounce back from disappointing seasons. Milwaukee should benefit from having Cain for a full season after he sat out most of the 2020 campaign. The additions of Bradley and Wong – both left-handed hitters and Gold Glove winners – should balance the lineup and help out the pitching staff. Woodruff and Burnes provide a solid 1-2 punch, but the Brewers must get more consistency from the rest of their rotation. Milwaukee probably won’t blow many leads with Williams and Hader anchoring the bullpen. City health officials are permitting spectators to fill 25% of American Family Field’s seating capacity at the start of the season.
2020: 19-41, fifth place.
Manager: Derek Shelton (second season).
He’s Here: INF Todd Frazier, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP David Bednar, RHP Wil Crowe, RHP Sean Poppen, RHP Miguel Yajure, C Michael Perez, INF Wilmer Difo, LHP Chasen Shreve, C Tony Wolters, OF Brian Goodwin, OF Dustin Fowler.
He’s Outta Here: RHP Jameson Taillon, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Trevor Williams, 1B Josh Bell, RHP Keone Kela, INF/OF Jose Osuna, LHP Derek Holland, LHP Nik Turley, RHP Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP Nick Burdi.
Projected Lineup: 2B Adam Frazier (.230, 7 HRs, 23 RBIs), LF Bryan Reynolds (.189, 7, 19, 5 OF assists), 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes (.376, 5, 11 in 24 games), 1B Colin Moran (.247, 10, 23, 10 2Bs), RF Gregory Polanco (.153, 7, 22), C Jacob Stallings (.248, 3, 18), SS Kevin Newman (.224, 1, 10) or Erik Gonzalez (.227, 3, 20) or Cole Tucker (.220, 1, 8), CF Brian Goodwin (.215, 6, 22 with Reds and Angels) or Dustin Fowler (.224, 6, 23 with Oakland in 2018).
Rotation: RH Mitch Keller (1-1, 2.91 ERA in 5 starts), LH Steven Brault (1-3, 3.38), RH Chad Kuhl (2-3, 4.27), LH Tyler Anderson (4-3, 4.37 with Giants), JT Brubaker (1-3, 4.94) or Wil Crowe (0-1, 1.35 in 3 games with Washington).
Key Relievers: RH Richard Rodriguez (3-2, 2.70, 4/5 saves), RH Kyle Crick (0-1, 1.59), RH Michael Feliz (0-0, 32.40 in 3 games), LH Sam Howard (2-3, 3.86), RH Chris Stratton (2-1, 3.90), RH Duane Underwood (1-0, 7.36 with Cubs), RH Cody Ponce (1-1, 3.18), LH Chasen Shreve (1-0, 3.96 with Mets), RH Trevor Cahill (1-2, 3.24 with Giants).
Outlook: The Pirates are in the midst of a massive reset as general manager Ben Cherington enters his second season on the job. Gone are familiar faces like Taillon and Bell, among others, their departures via trade part of a plan dedicated to stockpiling prospects in the hope that enough pan out down the road to return Pittsburgh to contention. While the future looks (sorta) bright, the present figures to be bumpy. The Pirates finished with the worst record in the majors in 2020 and head into 2021 with a roster that has even less major league experience. Hayes was even better than advertised during his September call-up and finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He and Keller are the linchpins whose individual development this season could be far more important than anything that happens in the win/loss column. Bounce-back seasons from Reynolds and Polanco (likely in his final months with the team) would help the offense, but even in a division that might be the worst in the NL if not the majors, expectations are really, really low. Fans will be allowed back at PNC Park this spring, but given the lack of buzz in general the Pirates may be hard-pressed to even fill those seats after the initial “we’re glad baseball is back” crowd gets its fix.