National League Central preview capsules

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              Craig Counsell watches during a spring training baseball workout Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:

More Brewers coverage

 

Milwaukee Brewers

2018: 96-67, first place, lost to Dodgers in NLCS.

Manager: Craig Counsell (fifth season).

He’s Here: C Yasmani Grandal, OF Ben Gamel, 2B-3B Cory Spangenberg, RH Josh Tomlin, LHP Alex Claudio, RHP Deolis Guerra, RHP Bobby Wahl.

He’s Outta Here: LHP Gio Gonzalez, LHP Wade Miley, OF Keon Broxton, OF Domingo Santana, 2B Jonathan Schoop, RHP Joakim Soria, LHP Dan Jennings, OF Curtis Granderson, LHP Xavier Cedeno.

Projected Lineup: CF Lorenzo Cain (.308, 10 HRs, 38 RBIs, 30 SBs, .395 OBP), RF Christian Yelich (.326, 36, 110, 118 runs, 22 SBs, 1.000 OPS, NL MVP), LF Ryan Braun (.254, 20, 64, 11 SBs), 3B Travis Shaw (.241, 32, 86, .825 OPS), 1B Jesus Aguilar (.274, 35, 108, .890 OPS), C Yasmani Grandal (.241, 24, 68, .815 OPS with Dodgers), 2B Mike Moustakas (.251, 28, 95 with Royals and Brewers), SS Orlando Arcia (.236, 3, 30).

Rotation: RH Jhoulys Chacin (15-8, 3.50 ERA), RH Corbin Burnes (7-0, 2.61), RH Brandon Woodruff (3-0, 3.61), RH Freddy Peralta (6-4, 4.25), RH Zach Davies (2-7, 4.77).

Key Relievers: LH Josh Hader (6-1, 2.43, 12 saves, 143 Ks), RH Jeremy Jeffress (8-1, 1.29, 15 saves), RH Corey Knebel (4-3, 3.58, 16 saves), RH Chase Anderson (9-8, 3.93 in 30 starts), LH Alex Claudio (4-2, 4.48, 1 save with Rangers), RH Matt Albers (3-3, 7.34), RH Junior Guerra (6-9, 4.09), RH Taylor Williams (1-3, 4.25), RH Jake Petricka (3-1, 4.53 with Blue Jays), RH Jacob Barnes (0-1, 3.33, 2 saves).

Hot Spots: Starting Rotation and Injured Relievers. After Chacin, who set career highs with 15 wins, 35 starts and 156 strikeouts last year, the starting staff could be a work in progress for a while. A healthy Jimmy Nelson could provide a lift at some point. He missed last season following surgery on his right shoulder and will begin the year on the injured list, but was one of Milwaukee’s best starters in 2017. Davies also was hampered by injuries last year. Jeffress and Knebel were dealing with arm injuries at spring training, which could take a major toll on Milwaukee’s dominant bullpen.

Outlook: Right there with the rest of baseball’s championship contenders. The pitching staff is a concern, but Counsell managed Milwaukee to a deep playoff run with fewer options in the rotation a year ago. Yelich is an offensive force, and Grandal adds another potent bat to the lineup. Moustakas is learning his way around second base, but the Brewers could always move Shaw back to second and return Moustakas to third if it doesn’t work out. There is a lot to like about Milwaukee as it tries for the franchise’s first World Series title.

 

Chicago Cubs

2018: 95-68, second place, lost to Colorado in wild-card game.

Manager: Joe Maddon (fifth season).

He’s Here: INF Daniel Descalso, RHP Brad Brach, RHP Tony Barnette, RHP George Kontos, RHP Junichi Tazawa.

He’s Outta Here: 2B Daniel Murphy, INF Tommy La Stella, LHP Justin Wilson, RHP Jesse Chavez, LHP Jorge De La Rosa, LHP Jaime Garcia.

Projected Lineup: 2B Ben Zobrist (.305, 9 HRs, 58 RBIs), 3B Kris Bryant (.272, 13, 52, .834 OPS), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.283, 25, 101, .846 OPS), SS Javier Baez (.290, 34, 111, 21 SBs, .881 OPS), LF Kyle Schwarber (.238, 26, 61, .823 OPS), C Willson Contreras (.249, 10, 54), RF Jason Heyward (.270, 8, 57), CF Albert Almora Jr. (.286, 5, 41) or Ian Happ (.233, 15, 44).

Rotation: LH Jon Lester (18-6, 3.32 ERA), RH Yu Darvish (1-3, 4.95), LH Cole Hamels (9-12, 3.78, 188 Ks with Rangers and Cubs), RH Kyle Hendricks (14-11, 3.44, 161 Ks), LH Jose Quintana (13-11, 4.03).

Key Relievers: RH Brandon Morrow (0-0, 1.47, 22 saves), RH Pedro Strop (6-1, 2.26, 13 saves), RH Steve Cishek (4-3, 2.18, 4 saves), RH Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2, 2.60), LH Mike Montgomery (5-6, 3.99), RH Brad Brach (2-4, 3.59, 12 saves with Orioles and Braves), RH Brandon Kintzler (3-3, 4.60, 2 saves with Nationals and Cubs), LH Brian Duensing (3-0, 7.65, 1 save), RH Tyler Chatwood (4-6, 5.30).

Hot Spot: Dugout. Maddon is beginning the final year of his contract after the team declined to offer him an extension over the winter. He also is working with a revamped coaching staff. Former major league infielder Mark Loretta takes over as bench coach after Brandon Hyde became the manager in Baltimore. Anthony Iapoce replaced the fired Chili Davis as hitting coach, and Tommy Hottovy was promoted to pitching coach after Jim Hickey resigned for personal reasons.

Outlook: After a long, cold offseason, the Cubs still have one of baseball’s deepest rosters and plenty of confidence that they can rebound from last year’s disappointing finish. If the deep rotation and Bryant stay healthy, they should be right in the mix for their third NL Central title in four seasons and another long playoff run. If they stumble once again, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein could shake up the roster after staying with largely the same group that won the 2016 World Series for the past couple of years.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

2018: 88-74, third place.

Manager: Mike Shildt (first full season).

He’s Here: 1B Paul Goldschmidt, LHP Andrew Miller, C Matt Wieters, CF Drew Robinson.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Luke Weaver, RHP Bud Norris, 1B Matt Adams, RHP Tyson Ross, C Carson Kelly.

Projected Lineup: 3B Matt Carpenter (.257, 36 HRs, 81 RBIs), RF Dexter Fowler (.180, 8, 31), 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.290, 33, 83 with Diamondbacks), LF Marcell Ozuna (.280, 23, 88), SS Paul DeJong (.241, 19, 68), C Yadier Molina (.261, 20, 74), 2B Kolten Wong (.249, 9, 38), CF Harrison Bader (.264, 12, 37).

Rotation: RH Miles Mikolas (18-4, 2.83 ERA), RH Jack Flaherty (8-9, 3.34), RH Michael Wacha (8-2, 3.20), RH Adam Wainwright (2-4, 4.46), RH Dakota Hudson (4-1, 2.63).

Key Relievers: RH Jordan Hicks (3-4, 3.59, 6 saves), LH Andrew Miller (2-4, 4.24 with Indians), RH John Brebbia (3-3, 3.20), RH Alex Reyes (0-0, 0.00 in 1 start, 4 innings after missing 2017 due to injury), RH John Gant (7-6, 3.47 in 26 games, 19 starts).

Hot Spot: Outfield. Fowler gets a chance to bounce back this season, but the Cardinals won’t wait for him forever. Ozuna and Bader are solid at the other two positions, while Tyler O’Neill (.254, 9, 23 in 61 games) and Jose Martinez (.305, 17, 83) are ready to step into starting roles. Fowler needs to get off to a quick start — and keep it going — if he wants to hold down his job.

Outlook: The Cardinals hope Goldschmidt and Miller, their two big offseason acquisitions, are enough to put them back in the playoffs following a three-year absence. St. Louis made a late run at a wild card before falling just short a year ago, and front-office boss John Mozeliak was aggressive in pursuing those two pieces through a trade and free agency. Carlos Martinez (8-6, 3.11) will start the season on the injured list because of shoulder weakness, leaving a potential void in the rotation. But the Cards have plenty of pitching depth and should remain in the NL Central mix. Reyes, a top prospect who had a long road back, will begin the season in the bullpen.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

2018: 82-79, fourth place.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (ninth season).

He’s Here: OF Lonnie Chisenhall, SS Erik Gonzalez, RHP Jordan Lyles.

He’s Outta Here: SS Jordy Mercer, 2B Josh Harrison, RHP Ivan Nova.

Projected Lineup: 2B Adam Frazier (.277, 10 HRs, 35 RBIs, 23 2Bs), CF Starling Marte (.277, 20, 72, 33 SBs), LF Corey Dickerson (.300, 13, 55), 1B Josh Bell (.261, 12, 62), 3B Jung Ho Kang (.333, 0, 0), C Francisco Cervelli (.259, 12, 57), RF Lonnie Chisenhall (.321, 1, 9 with Indians) or Gregory Polanco (.254, 23, 81), SS Erik Gonzalez (.265, 1, 16 with Indians).

Rotation: RH Jameson Taillon (14-10, 3.20 ERA, 179 Ks), RH Chris Archer (6-8, 4.29, 162 Ks with Rays and Pirates), RH Trevor Williams (14-10, 3.11, 126 Ks), RH Joe Musgrove (6-9, 4.06), RH Jordan Lyles (3-4, 4.11 with Padres and Brewers) or RH Nick Kingham (5-7, 5.21).

Key Relievers: LH Felipe Vazquez (4-2, 2.70, 37/42 saves), RH Keone Kela (3-3, 3.44, 24/26 saves with Rangers; 0-1, 2.93 with Pirates), RH Kyle Crick (3-2, 2.39, 2 saves), RH Richard Rodriguez (4-3, 2.47).

Hot Spots: Corner Infield. Pittsburgh managed the franchise’s fourth winning season since 1992 despite significant power issues from Bell at first base and Colin Moran (11 HRs, 58 RBIs) at third. Bell is hoping a busy offseason that included an overhaul in his approach will help him return to his 2017 form when he mashed 26 home runs. Moran lost the starting job to Kang, who hit 36 home runs in 2015 and 2016 before his arrest on DUI charges in his native South Korea in late 2016 threatened to derail his career. Any chance at making inroads in a hyper-competitive NL Central will rely heavily on Pittsburgh’s ability to generate more offense.

Outlook: Steady as she goes. In typical fashion, the Pirates declined to invest heavily in the open market and instead will pin their chances of returning to the postseason on a starting rotation that was a serious surprise in 2018 while hoping new hitting coach Rick Eckstein can help stoke more production into a lineup that finished 10th in the NL in runs and 13th in homers. If the starting staff can build on last season, Pittsburgh should be on the fringe of contention, but whether it makes a leap will depend almost entirely on a greater ability to put crooked numbers on the scoreboard.

 

Cincinnati Reds

2018: 67-95, fifth place.

Manager: David Bell (first season).

He’s Here: OF Yasiel Puig, OF Matt Kemp, LHP Alex Wood, RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Tanner Roark, C Kyle Farmer, LHP Zach Duke, SS Jose Iglesias, INF Derek Dietrich.

He’s Outta Here: Interim manager Jim Riggleman, RHP Homer Bailey, CF Billy Hamilton, RHP Matt Harvey, RHP Austin Brice, 2B Brandon Dixon.

Projected lineup: LF Jesse Winker (.299, 7, 43, .405 on-base percentage), SS Jose Peraza (.288, 14, 58, 23 steals), 1B Joey Votto (.284, 12, 67, 108 walks), RF Yasiel Puig (.267, 23, 63 with Dodgers), 2B Scooter Gennett (.310, 23, 92), 3B Eugenio Suarez (.283, 34, 104), CF Scott Schebler (.255, 17, 49), C Tucker Barnhart (.248, 10, 46).

Rotation: RH Luis Castillo (10-12, 4.30 ERA), RH Sonny Gray (11-9, 4.90 with Yankees), RH Anthony DeSclafani (7-8, 4.93), RH Tanner Roark (9-15, 4.34 with Nationals), LH Alex Wood (9-7, 3.68 with Dodgers).

Key Relievers: RH Raisel Iglesias (2-5, 2.38, 30/34 saves), RH Jared Hughes (4-3, 1.94, 7 saves), RH David Hernandez (5-2, 2.53), RH Michael Lorenzen (4-2, 3.11, 1 save), LH Zach Duke (5-5, 4.15 with Twins and Mariners), LH Amir Garrett (1-2, 4.29).

Hot Spots: Center Field and Leadoff Hitter. The Reds gave up on Hamilton after another season of struggling to reach base, leaving a hole at the most important spot in the outfield. Prized prospect Nick Senzel is learning to play center and will likely get a chance at some point. Schebler is the most experienced in center, although Puig also could play there. Bell experimented with Lorenzen playing center field — his college position — when he’s not pitching. Winker or Peraza could bat leadoff, depending upon the starter. Juggling the outfield will be one of Bell’s biggest challenges in his first season as manager.

Outlook: After four straight seasons of at least 94 losses and a plummet in attendance, the Reds made themselves interesting with offseason trades that brought Puig, Kemp and Wood from the Dodgers, Gray from the Yankees and Roark from the Nationals. All but Gray are free agents after this season, along with Gennett — their best hitter the last two seasons — so the front office will have major decisions come July depending upon how things are going. The rotation has been the biggest issue the last few years, with young pitchers failing to pan out. The additions in the offseason should allow the Reds to be more competitive in the daunting NL Central with a possibility of moving out of last place.