- After trading for All-Star Nolan Arenado, St. Louis has moved clear of the NL Central pack to become the favorite to win the division
- The Reds, Brewers, and Cubs are expected to contend, while the rebuilding Pirates are a longshot
- Read on for analysis, full odds, and a best bet for what should be a tight division race
More than any other division in baseball, the National League Central opened its doors over the winter and ushered players towards the exits. Four quality starters left the midwest for new addresses in southern California: Trevor Bauer (Reds to Dodgers), Yu Darvish (Cubs to Padres), Joe Musgrove (Pirates to Padres), and Jose Quintana (Cubs to Angels).
Very few players came the other way to make up for the talent drain. Joc Pederson was one, leaving behind the World Series-champion Dodgers for a new challenge with the Cubs. The other newcomer to the division was slightly more notable, if only for the fact that the Colorado Rockies almost appeared to give All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado away in a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The result leaves the Cards as the front-runner in what should be a respectable four-horse race, at least according to the NL Central odds.
2021 NL Central Division Odds
|St. Louis Cardinals||+100|
Odds as of Feb. 25 at DraftKings.
St. Louis Set for Success?
The Cardinals’ braintrust decided to add Arenado to a squad that brings back almost everyone from last year’s 30-28 roster that was good enough to finish second in the division and clinch the NL’s fifth seed for the playoffs. Kolten Wong may have decamped to Milwaukee, but St. Louis re-signed catcher Yadier Molina and long-time starter Adam Wainwright.
There have been only 10 NL @RawlingsSports Platinum Gloves ever awarded. With Nolan Arenado & Yadier Molina, the @Cardinals infield would have won 8 of those 10 awards. #STLCards pic.twitter.com/zNxxvbRmOx
— Adam Van Grack (@AdamVanGrack) January 31, 2021
They’ll likely lean on both heavily to have a shot at the division in 2021.
The Cardinals team ERA of 3.90 was fourth best in the NL and second in the Central behind the 3.84 of Cincinnati – but much of that was anchored around Bauer’s Cy Young-winning 1.73 mark. Wainwright was still the team’s workhorse at 38, going 5-3 with a 3.15 ERA, while the highly touted Jack Flaherty took a step backwards in 2020 following a sparkling couple of seasons to begin his pro career. But that regression was balanced out by the performance of Kwang Hyun-Kim, who went 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his first year in the majors.
Adam Wainwright threw his 1st complete game since 2016 ???? pic.twitter.com/0KkHnI4I8z
— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) August 30, 2020
Given the team relied on pitching and defense to get by, the hope is that the addition of Arenado can help spark the offense. St. Louis scored just 240 runs last year, worse than every NL team outside of Pittsburgh. On the bright side, the Reds registered just 243, Milwaukee just 247, and nobody was about to mistake the Cubs for the 1927 Yankees with their 265 runs.
Who is the BEST of the BEST for 2021? #MLBNRTopTen
New Home, Same Ranking – For the FIFTH straight season, the @Cardinals Nolan Arenado is the NUMBER ONE third baseman in all of baseball
Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear it — pic.twitter.com/QlB50FLlnD
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 16, 2021
The Cardinals will be counting on Arenado to return to All-Star form in 2021, which means improving mightily on the eight home runs and 26 RBI he posted. But it’s hard to bet against a 29-year-old who had at least 110 RBI in each of the five seasons before that.
Can Cincy Cope With Bauer Outage?
The Reds have been left to cope with a Cy Young-sized hole in their rotation this season. That Bauer left for the Dodgers was perhaps no great surprise, cashing in on his 2020 season for the ages. How Cincinnati responds to his departure will determine its chances of success in 2021.
#Reds Sonny Gray has lots of great pitches. His sinker might be overlooked.
33.3% K rate on sinkers in the last 2 years. Watch him ???? the corners of the zone ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/IByJZF80n6
— Matt Kelly (@mattkellyMLB) February 2, 2021
Cincy was a playoff team in 2020, locking up the seventh seed with a 31-29 record. But while Bauer’s 1.73 ERA and 0.79 WHIP were a massive part of the pitching staff’s success, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray were no slouches, each posting sub-4.00 marks. The team will also suffer from the loss of closer Raisel Iglesias, choosing to replace him with Sean Doolittle and his 5.87 ERA.
Over the last calendar year, no player in baseball has more extra-base hits than Nick Castellanos (42). pic.twitter.com/IGwzWLkMH7
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) August 8, 2020
While the pitching is likely to fall back to the pack in the NL, the Reds will be hoping for more from their hitters. Nick Castellanos was excellent in his first year in Cincinnati, finishing second on the team in homers and RBI behind Eugenio Suarez. If the team can get more out of Mike Moustakas, and if Joey Votto can get back to being “dangerous,” as he claims, the offense could be much improved.
Milwaukee’s Moment to Shine
After sneaking into the playoffs with the eighth and final seed on the back of a losing season, the hope in Milwaukee is that the Brewers can at least do that again, and hopefully do a lot better.
The team is returning much the same group, with the addition of Wong from the Cardinals. And one of the remarkable things about the Brewers in 2020 was that the team succeeded despite former MVP Christian Yelich having an off year. His 12 home runs were second-best on the team to Keston Hiura, while his 22 RBI were only enough for third.
That’s quite the drop-off for someone who averaged 40 homers and 103.5 in 2018 and 2019.
Christian Yelich might have been the unluckiest hitter in baseball last season. Somehow this led to a .205 BA.
Career-highs in exit velocity, hard hit %, and BB%.
(yes, he did struck out a lot) pic.twitter.com/lfhLCEZhUG
— Danny Vietti (@DannyVietti) February 19, 2021
Milwaukee will need its All-Star outfielder to return to those levels to have a hope. It will also need Devin Williams and Josh Hader to continue to perform well out of the bullpen. If nothing else, that will help insulate Adrian Houser and Josh Lindblom, who went a combined 3-10 with ERAs north of 5.00.
Congrats to Devin Williams on winning National League Rookie of the Year…
His changeup is absolutely devastating. He only surrendered 2 hits with it in 62 at bats. Here’s a breakdown of his swing & misses by pitch type this season. pic.twitter.com/PpNcF25FQn
— Daren Willman (@darenw) November 10, 2020
Windy City Worries
On the bright side, the Chicago Cubs still have Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez to power their offense. Joc Pederson may actually be an upgrade over Kyle Schwarber.
Joc Pederson takes the lead back for the Dodgers ????
What a game so far.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 25, 2020
But the loss of Darvish is huge, and likely the biggest dent in the team’s chances of repeating as NL Central champs. At 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA, he was easily the ace of the staff. His departure leaves Kyle Hendricks as the leader and a lot of questions marks in his wake. However, there is some hope in the return on the Darvish trade.
Zach Davies was 5th in the NL in ERA last season (2.73).
JD likes what he sees. pic.twitter.com/FILc8Zi8yr
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) February 16, 2021
Zach Davies won 17 games for the Brewers in 2017 and had a 2.73 ERA for the Padres last year. But while he should get decent run support in Chicago, he can’t pitch every night, and the rotation just has too many uncertainties. The bullpen seemed to come together to end 2020, with Craig Kimbrel coming full circle after early struggles in the closer role. But it’s hard to believe there’s enough here to contend.
A Pirate’s Life
Ending the season on an eight-game hitting streak, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes provided a rare glimpse of excitement for Pittsburgh fans at the tail of an MLB-worst 19-41 season.
✔️ Ke’Bryan pic.twitter.com/TdlmqGTYaZ
— Pirates (@Pirates) February 18, 2021
It won’t get any better for those fans in 2021. Watching Hayes develop beyond his sixth-place finish in rookie-of-the-year voting might be it for a team that shed itself of quality arms like Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, and hitters like Josh Bell.
There’s a reason the Pirates are a rank outsider at +4000 to win the division, and one of the favorites to once again post the worst record in baseball.
Backing The Brewers
At +385, it might just be that Milwaukee represents the best value bet in the NL Central. The Brewers know how to win, have players that are more than capable of bettering last year’s numbers and in an otherwise underwhelming division, it won’t take much to stand out.
Pick: Brewers (+385)
2021 MLB division previews: