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National League Central Preview and Predictions

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National League Central Preview and Predictions
Members of the St. Louis Cardinals on October 02, 2020 in San Diego, California. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images/AFP

With each update of numbers from USA betting sites, the St. Louis Cardinals become more and more entrenched as the favorites to win the National League Central Division. The question that begs is, have they really done enough to separate themselves from the rest of the pack?

St. Louis wasn’t anything close to a favorite when baseball futures odds first came out following last year’s World Series. In fact, nobody was really favored in what was seen as a 4-team Battle Royale between the Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, and Milwaukee Brewers. The only known entity then – and still – were the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are the longest of longshots to make it to October baseball in 2021.

Nolan Arenado
Former #28 of the Colorado Rockies Nolan Arenado. Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images/AFP

Arenado Trade Behind Redbirds Rise

Last November, the Cardinals, Reds, Cubs, and Brewers were all listed in the +250 to +300 range to bring home the division title this season. All four made it to the expanded playoffs following last year’s truncated schedule, with Chicago (34-26) taking the title followed by Cincinnati (31-29), St. Louis (30-28), and Milwaukee (29-31). The entire quartet was ousted in the Wild Card round, with the Brewers, Cubs and Reds swept while the Cardinals managed to take one of three against the San Diego Padres.

What led to movement at online sportsbooks in the direction of St. Louis was the blockbuster deal on February 1 to land Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies. The Cardinals are now showing up as even-money chalk at some shops, and +150 for a consensus. Their infield will see Tommy Edman move to second, with Paul DeJong and Paul Goldschmidt back at shortstop and first, respectively. Veteran catcher Yadier Molina was re-signed, and St. Louis will count on a potential-laden outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson.

Much of the pitching staff will remain the same as last year. Veteran Adam Wainwright was re-signed to join Jack Flaherty, Kwang Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas as the top 4 in the rotation, with a competition for the No. 5 starter a key thing to watch during Spring Training. The bullpen is also much the same, Giovanny Gallegos penciled in as the closer entering camp. Jordan Hicks is returning from Tommy John surgery, and could reclaim his closer’s job.

Jon Lester
Former #34 of the Chicago Cubs and new Nationals Pitcher Jon Lester. Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images/AFP

Reds & Cubs Grooming New Aces

Cincinnati is generally showing up second on the MLB lines behind St. Louis, and is still running around the same +250 price the Reds were listed with last November. Considering they lost NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, that shows just how high most folks are on the team left behind. Don’t count me among them. It’s not fair to Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, each signed prior to last season, to blame them for Cincinnati’s offensive woes continuing during the goofy 2020 campaign.

But those problems did persist, and that was with a DH that is unlikely to be used in the NL this time around. Add in the rumors about the Reds potentially shopping starting pitchers Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, and there just isn’t much value on Cincinnati with a +250 return.

Chicago is going off around +300 these days, which is also around where the Cubs were last fall. Like Cincinnati, the Cubs lost their top starting pitcher by dealing Yu Darvish to the Padres, and got a decent arm back in Zach Davies. Chicago also reunited with Jake Arrieta to join the rotation with Kyle Hendricks. The bullpen still has Craig Kimbrel following two horrible seasons. There’s talent galore in the infield, and Joc Pederson’s stroke at Wrigley could make for highlight reels. However, the question marks on the mound are tough to ignore.

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Brew Crew Strong Up the Middle

Milwaukee’s roster didn’t change much during the winter, with two notable exceptions. The Brewers were without Lorenzo Cain last season when he opted out due to the pandemic. The speedy centerfielder is back now and will be a boost to the lineup, the locker room, and, especially, the defense. The other big change is the shift of Keston Hiura from second base to first, with the Brewers bringing in free agent Kolten Wong, formerly of the Cardinals, to take over at second.

Combined with Orlando Arcia at short, Cain and Wong give Milwaukee excellent up-the-middle defense. Now, can the Brewers generate enough offense to support a no-name rotation? Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes are coming off solid showings, and Brett Anderson – if he can stay healthy – joins in for a nice trio. Sleepers at the back end of the rotation are Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer, and the bullpen is strong headed by Josh Hader and Devin Williams.

Which brings us to the Pirates. No, I’m not about to suggest Pittsburgh is going to sneak in to win the NL Central, not even going to quite odds on the Bucs. That doesn’t mean the Pirates won’t be a factor in the race, however. The other four teams are still very close and capable of remaining close all summer to provide the best race in baseball. It could come down to which one of the quartets does the best against Pittsburgh. My MLB pick to do just that is St. Louis. Look for Arenado to get off to a slow start before leading the lineup during the summer, and for Flaherty to be in the running for the NL Cy Young as the Cardinals take the division.