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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / National League Central Division Preview and Prediction

National League Central Division Preview and Prediction

Publish Date: 03/27/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

NL Central preview

The NL Central has two clear favorites heading into the 2023 season. The Cardinals and Brewers are the clear favorites and the Cubs are a dark horse, while, as usual, the Pirates and the Reds look like no-hopers once again.

2023 MLB odds: NL Central

  • St. Louis Cardinals: -125
  • Milwaukee Brewers: +165
  • Chicago Cubs: +650
  • Pittsburgh Pirates: +3000
  • Cincinnati Reds: +6000

1) St.Louis Cardinals

If it ain’t broke… That was the motto for the St. Louis Cardinals this winter as they added Willson Contreras in place of retired backstop Yadier Molina and appear set to promote 2020 first-round pick Jordan Walker to their Opening Day roster. These are the only changes projected to make an impact as they attempt to defend their National League Central title.

The Cardinals had six free agents entering the offseason but chose not to sign any of them. Instead, they signed some minor leaguers and made two Rule 5 draft picks in minor league baseball, giving them a roster of 93 wins heading into the 2023 season. St. Louis ultimately won the NL Central by seven games but fell to eventual NL champion Philadelphia in the Wild Card Round.

Things could have gone very differently for the Cardinals. After giving up six runs in the ninth inning of their 6-3 loss in Game 1, they went on to lose Game 2 by a 2-0 score – an underwhelming end to an otherwise promising season and their third consecutive exit from the Wild Card Round.

The Cardinals continue to amaze me with their accomplishments. There have been 23 seasons since we started this new century, and they’ve made the playoffs, 17 of them – an amazing statistic considering they only had one losing season since 2000! Will they win 90+ games again this season and easily surpass this win total number of 88.5 in Vegas? Who knows!

The Cardinals are second only to the Astros regarding odds to win their division, and I concur. This team is clearly the NL Central class, so I hope they struggle a bit at the start, and I can pick up something at plus money as the season progresses. Milwaukee may take a step back, but I’m unsure if the Cubs have reached contention yet. So while I won’t wager on their season win total or any futures markets, I may stalk World Series prices since they seem like clear favorites to win it all. I wish for better rotation options, but these guys have so much talent development that they’ll likely need reinforcements during the trade deadline and they will probably get it.

Prediction: Cardinals will win 91 games and the NL Central.

Video: Breaking Down Cardinals Depth Chart for 2023

Breaking Down Cardinals Depth Chart for 2023

2) Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers fell two wins short of making the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, meaning they would have made more appearances in five seasons than they had combined throughout all previous 49 seasons combined. But alas, it wasn’t to be, as they finished one game behind Philadelphia, and no tiebreaker was needed to determine the victor.

The Phillies went on to win the National League championship, leaving the Brewers with much soul-searching. It had been an unusual season in many ways, particularly around Trade Deadline when David Stearns and Matt Arnold sent Josh Hader to San Diego with Milwaukee leading in the NL Central.

Some speculated if Stearns would return to Queens and take advantage of his seemingly unlimited cash flow as an executive with the Mets. After leaving Queens, he resigned as President of Baseball Operations but continued serving in an advisory capacity with the Brewers. His contract with them expires after this season, at which point it’s possible he may be on his way out as well.

The Brewers face more financial constraints than most teams due to their small market and proximity to Chicago and Minneapolis. Yet they have achieved greatness despite these limitations through player development and owner Mark Attanasio’s willingness to spend beyond his means. In 2016 and 2017, the Brewers were 30th in payroll; however, their payroll skyrocketed as they entered a window of contention.

At this stage, the Brewers must make decisions regarding Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes while working around Christian Yelich’s $26 million per season due through 2028 (plus deferrals through 2042). While this won’t significantly impact the 2023 season, pressure is mounting because keeping this core together could prove virtually impossible.

Last year’s remarkable power gains seemed to come out of nowhere, so I have doubts about their sustainability and timing – many were made while men were on base.

On the other hand, Burnes and Woodruff remain excellent starting pitchers while Williams is one of baseball’s premier closers. This organization is incredibly smart. The Hader deal rocked the clubhouse to its core; Stearns even admitted after the season that he underestimated its effect and message. With another similar decision coming up with Burnes, will last year’s PR crisis influence their final call, or will Brewers management take what could ultimately be best for everyone involved?

I believe the Brewers season could take several different directions. They could battle again for the NL Central crown or finish below.500. When considering which teams to invest in, high-variance teams often offer me an edge; however, with this team I’m just not sure what the truth will be.

From the total win line, I’m not alone in my thinking. If the Brewers win 85 games this season, it would be their fewest since 2016. They have two seasons with 86, one with 89, one with 95 and one with 96 in that span.

Prediction: Brewers win 87 games.

Video: Five BOLD predictions for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2023

Five BOLD predictions for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2023

3) Chicago Cubs

The 2016 Chicago Cubs were the NL Central’s last World Series participant. Shortstop Dansby Swanson ($77M) was their big off-season signing. Still, other key additions such as outfielders Clay Bellinger and Trey Mancini, first baseman Eric Hosmer ($20M), catcher Tucker Barnhardt ($18M) and right-handed Jameson Taillon ($15.5M) also will have an impactful effect. Happ (.271-17-72) and Nico Hoerner ($.280-10-55) were both sneaky good last season; Seiya Suzuki should improve in his second season with them too. Taillon (14-5 with 3.91 ERA; 151 Ks with New York Yankees) leads off this underrated rotation but could potentially weaken it due to lack of experience within its bullpen area.

Prediction: Cubs win 81 games

Video: Which Cubs Players Can Make The Leap In 2023?

Which Cubs Players Can Make The Leap In 2023?

4) Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the worst teams in baseball. Andrew McCutchen, a fan favorite from 2009-17, is back to bolster the lineup alongside fellow addition Carlos Santana (RV+ 128.5, 33rd). Left fielder Bryan Reynolds – named to each season’s best player – could potentially be traded but could potentially sign on for an extension with shortstop Oneil Cruz and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. The Pirates have improved enough that they should finish well out of last.

Prediction: Pirates win 72 games

Video: NL Central Previews | Pittsburgh Pirates

NL Central Previews | Pittsburgh Pirates

5) Cincinnati Reds

Last season, the Cincinnati Reds welcomed in rookie pitchers Hunter Greene (11.8 Ks/9 IP) and Nick Lodolo (11.4 Ks/9 IP), leading the team in wins and saves. Alexis Diaz (7-3, 10 saves) became the first pitcher since 1992 to lead his team in wins and saves over a 162-game season. Elly De La Cruz and Christian Encarnacion-Strand are expected to join second baseman Jonathan India and catcher Tyler Stephenson this year; Joey Votto returns after surgery to repair his left rotator cuff and biceps after recovering from surgery for his 2021 campaign; clean-up hitter Will Myers is among other top additions for this team.

Prediction: Reds win 65 games

Video: Can the Reds' Prospects help them achieve in 2023? | 2023 MLB Season Preview Cincinnati Reds

Can the Reds’ Prospects help them achieve in 2023? | 2023 MLB Season Preview Cincinnati Reds

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