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NL Central preview: Behold, the most exciting division in baseball

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Pick a favorite! Just about anyone could find themselves on top of a wide-open division in 2019.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last winter, the Milwaukee Brewers made headlines when they traded a bevy of prospects for Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. The promising outfielder was coming off a great season, but had not quite unlocked his considerable offensive potential. They also added free agent Lorenzo Cain, paying a premium when few others were spending serious (if any) money. The Brewers went on to win 102 games — 96 in the regular season and six more in the playoffs, just five shy of a title — proving to the baseball world that yes, it’s generally a good idea to try to make your team better. The rest of the division din’t quite match Milwaukee’s arms race, but still saw four teams finish above .500.

This year, the division projects to be just as exciting. FanGraphs’ projections have all five teams within 10 games of one another, while Baseball Prospectus’ margin is even smaller. Neither publication has the same team finishing in either first or last, and one team (spoiler: it’s the Cubs) is projected to finish in first and last! There are legitimate “here’s how we finish first” scenarios for all five clubs, giving each fanbase a healthy dose of hope for the season to come.

Basically, it’s a bundle of chaos. The NL Central might not house the best team in baseball, but it will almost certainly be MLB’s most exciting division in 2019.

Chicago Cubs

Projected record: 88-74
Key additions: RHP Brad Brach, IF Daniel Descalso, RHP Kendall Graveman
Key subtractions: 2B Daniel Murphy, IF Tommy La Stella, RHP Jesse Chavez, LHP Justin Wilson

Normally, statistical projections are not as reactionary as actual fans. For teams coming off a particularly good or bad season, projections normally provide a good indication of where that team’s true talent level lies.

But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why PECOTA has the Cubs projected at just 79 wins. FanGraphs has them nine wins higher, and at the top of the division, not the bottom. The differences between the two sites make sense, though, and highlight a lot of the questions surrounding this Cubs roster as we head into 2019. Will Willson Contreras’ awful framing numbers sink the pitching staff? Can Kris Bryant rebound after a down 2017 season? Is there a legitimate ace in the starting rotation?

These questions might not matter as much if the Cubs played in another division. Bryant is still projected to be a four-win player at worst, and the starting rotation has five guys capable of putting up Cy Young numbers — only Jose Quintana is without a top-five finish in his career. They also have Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and MVP runner-up Javier Baez in their everyday lineup, along with a deep supporting cast. The bullpen could ultimately cost them a few important games, especially if probable closer Brandon Morrow suffers another setback, but expect the Cubs to be in the thick of the division race (if not ahead of it) all year long.

St. Louis Cardinals

Projected record: 85-77
Key additions: 1B Paul Goldschmidt, LHP Andrew Miller
Key subtractions: 1B Matt Adams, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Luke Weaver, C Carson Kelly

How successful have the Cardinals been over the past 20 years? The 2018 season marked the first time the Cardinals have missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row since 1999. They have yet to finish below .500 in this stretch, mind you, and are projected for another winning season — their 12th in a row, if it happens — in 2019. But their fans are still frustrated because of the organization’s refusal to fully push all in on their team, despite the club’s seemingly endless window of contention.

The Cardinals pushed some of their chips in earlier this offseason when they acquired Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but stopped short of making a big play for Bryce Harper. Still, acquiring Goldschmidt was a bigger risk than we’ve seen out of the Cardinals front office recently, though this wouldn’t be the first time they acquired a big-time slugger on an expiring contract before re-signing him later on (we’re assuming this is their goal with Goldschmidt).

But that’s a discussion for next winter. Right now, the Cardinals are deeper and more talented than they were last season, when they won 41 of their final 69 games under then-interim manager Mike Shildt. They have four starting caliber outfielders and five legitimate infielders, not to mention a rotation deep enough to weather Carlos Martinez’s latest injury setback — though another casualty or two might spell trouble. There’s not a terrible amount of upside here, outside of flamethrowing righthander Alex Reyes, but the Cardinals always seem to pull a promising rookie or two out of nowhere.

Plus, we’re a few years overdue for some #CardinalsDevilMagic. Maybe it will return in 2019.

Milwaukee Brewers

Projected record: 83-79
Key additions: LHP Alex Claudio, OF Ben Gamel, C Yasmani Grandal, IF Cory Spangenberg
Key subtractions: OF Domingo Santana, LHP Gio Gonzalez, LHP Wade Miley, 2B Jonathan Schoop

The Brewers were the darlings of baseball last winter when they aggressively pursued upgrades for their roster. That boldness was rewarded with the National League’s best record and an NLCS berth, but didn’t pay off in the Hollywood ending many hoped to see. The Brew Crew fell victim to Walker Buehler and the Dodgers in that pivotal Game 7, giving us the dullest World Series we’ve seen in years.

How did they respond? By shoring up one of their biggest weaknesses, and further improving one of their strengths. Manny Pina was a decent catcher last year, but the Brewers finished 20th in baseball with just 1.1 fWAR received from their catchers. Enter Yasmani Grandal, a top-five backstop in the game on a bargain of a deal. Paying catchers into their 30s is a risky proposition — especially when you don’t have the DH to fall back on — but one almost wonders if the Brewers won’t regret tacking on another year or two to Grandal’s contract if he has a big year in Milwaukee (given how left-handed power plays in Miller Park, I’d bet the over).

On the pitching side, the Brewers are once again going for quantity over quality. Sure, Josh Hader and many of their relievers are top-flight options, but the rotation is mainly just a bunch of guys. That’s not a bad thing, though; Milwaukee seems to be betting on the idea that having 10 “just guys” is a better recipe for success over a 162-game schedule than relying on (and paying for) a couple of ace types. One could argue it worked against them in last year’s postseason — Buehler seems destined for ace-dom, and we Tigers fans know what a stud pitcher or two can do in a short playoff series — but their first order of business will be outlasting the other four teams in their division.

They might have to ward off some regression from Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to do it, though.

Cincinnati Reds

Projected record: 81-81
Key additions: OF Yasiel Puig, RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Tanner Roark, OF Matt Kemp, IF Derek Dietrich
Key subtractions: OF Billy Hamilton, RHP Matt Harvey, IF Dilson Herrera, RHP Homer Bailey

The Reds are this offseason’s “Why not us?” team, and I’m all for it. Sure, I’m biased — the idea of putting Yasiel Puig and Joey Votto on the same field has all of Baseball Twitter giddy — but the Reds made a lot of improvements this offseason without sacrificing much (if any) of their future. Puig, Matt Kemp, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood are all on one-year deals, and Sonny Gray is signed to a very affordable extension.

One could argue whether the upgrades to their starting rotation will be enough — both Gray and Roark are coming off fairly mediocre seasons — but the offense should be fine. Joey Votto is still Joey Votto, and Scooter Gennett is living proof of what happens when you wind a baseball too tight. There’s also Eugenio Suarez, who I was really hoping to avoid mentioning in this preview, as well as young talent like Jose Peraza, Jesse Winker, and Nick Senzel. If they can squeeze a bit more out of Tucker Barnhart, this could be one of the more lethal lineups in the National League.

But unless all of these good things come together — a bounce-back season from Luis Castillo might also be necessary — the Reds will probably come up short of the postseason.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Projected record: 78-84
Key additions: OF Lonnie Chisenhall, RHP Jordan Lyles
Key subtractions: SS Jordy Mercer, 2B Josh Harrison, OF Jordan Luplow

The Pirates had a very weird 2018. They started it off by trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, a pair of franchise cornerstones that (mostly) thrived upon leaving Pittsburgh. McCutchen saw his power dip to its lowest level (per ISO) since 2010, but he still managed a respectable 2.6 fWAR in 155 games. Meanwhile, Cole had the best season of his career, managing 6.2 fWAR with a 2.88 ERA in 200 13 innings.

Had the Pirates taken the prospects they received in those trades and went on their way, no one would have batted an eye. Instead, they made a puzzling midseason trade for Chris Archer, shipping prized prospects Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay. Archer upped his strikeout rate after arriving, but the Bucs floundered; a 10-17 record in August moved them from six games back on July 31 (the date of the Archer trade) to 14 12 games behind by September 1.

Then the offseason happened, and the Pirates did nothing. Most of this can be laid at the feet of owner Bob Nutting, who says that the team’s payroll is not controllable despite being the guy in control of the payroll. They picked up... Jordan Lyles, I guess, which basically makes them the team reading Cliff Notes the night before the final paper is due. This would have been an acceptable plan had the Bucs decided to build around a strong group of prospects — you know, guys like Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows — but instead they are hoping a bevy of minor league signings (including the somehow still effective Melky Cabrera) pan out in a big way.