Will a new band of outsiders overthrow the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central?

Editor’s note: With Major League Baseball aiming to return for a 60-game season amid the coronavirus pandemic on July 23, we have updated our division previews. Plenty of questions remain about whether the season is safe or feasible, but as teams return to summer camp, here is a look at the on-the-field prospects for the division.

For most of the last decade, you could count on the NL Central being one of the tightest divisions in baseball. There was more than one season where it produced three of the NL playoff teams. The last few years, we’ve seen the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers all make runs as legitimate contenders.

And now? The Cincinnati Reds have entered the chat.

Re-tooled after a bold offseason and a 75-win finish last year, the Reds are trying to make the NL Central a four-team race — and they might just do it. If nothing else, it will be fun to watch them try. They signed Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Wade Miley and Japanese star Shogo Akiyama.

While the Reds are definitely going for it, the rest of the division is just hoping for business as usual.

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The Cubs’ biggest offseason move was hiring a new manager and beating Kris Bryant in a service time grievance. The Cardinals did almost nothing and the Brewers return the same talented lineup with the same rotation question marks. Oh, and the Pirates are here too, trying to avoid 40 losses.

Due up …

Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.

By Mark Townsend

1. Trevor Bauer, Reds RHP: After spending several seasons in rebuilding mode, the Cincinnati Reds seem poised to break through in 2020. Some projections even have them pegged as true division contenders, which would represent a huge jump from 2019. For that to happen, a lot will have to go right. That includes Trevor Bauer, who was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a blockbuster three-team trade last season, rebounding and pitching like an ace.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 15: Trevor Bauer #27 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 15, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Trevor Bauer struggled mightily after joining the Reds in a deadline deal, but could form part of an elite trio atop the Cincinnati rotation. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Bauer's transition to Cincinnati and Great American Ball Park, which is regarded as a hitter-friendly stadium, was not a smooth one. In 56 1/3 innings with the Reds, Bauer’s ERA was a troubling 6.39. Obviously, that won't cut it. With some time now to process his new surroundings and make adjustments, the hope is Bauer will look like something closer to the All-Star pitcher who posted a sparkling 2.21 ERA and allowed just nine total home runs in 2018. If Bauer can be that guy again, the Reds will be dangerous.

2. Christian Yelich, Brewers OF: Christian Yelich was perhaps on his way to back-to-back NL MVPs when a fractured kneecap ended his 2019 season on Sept. 10. The Brewers rallied to make the NL wild-card game even without their star, but following an offseason with huge roster turnover, his health and production will be the key for Milwaukee in 2020.

Yelich has elevated his game to an elite level in two seasons with Milwaukee. He's won the NL batting title in both seasons, and combined to hit 80 home runs while stealing 52 bases in 277 games. During his five seasons in Miami, Yelich hit a total of 59 homers and stole 72 bases. Be it the change of scenery or just the natural evolution of a star, Yelich is now a franchise player whose very presence could tip the scales in a competitive division. So far, it sounds like Yelich will enter 2020 at 100 percent. The Brewers can't afford anything less.

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3. David Ross, Cubs manager: A new era begins at Wrigley Field. Out is veteran manager Joe Maddon, the man who helped bring the elusive World Series title to Chicago in 2016. In is David Ross, the beloved former catcher who brings zero coaching experience to the table after spending his brief time away from the dugout as a broadcaster. It's a fascinating shift that figures to shape the next several years on the North Side, for better or for worse.

We know Ross wants to bring accountability and structure to the Cubs clubhouse. Players, many of whom were teammates with Ross in Chicago, have already complimented him on improvements they've noticed in preparation. We also know he's committed to batting Kris Bryant leadoff, which was a spot Maddon struggled to fill. What we don't yet know is how Ross will manage his bullpen, construct the remainder of his lineup and just generally approach regular-season games. Those unanswered questions coupled with the Cubs core’s potential drift toward the decline phase will make his rookie season intriguing to watch.

The Teams

How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.

By Chris Cwik and Jack Baer

Cincinnati Reds

Best-case: The Reds prove that going for it is actually a good team that more teams should do moving forward. Mike Moustakas hits homer and Nick Castellanos finds an extra power gear in a friendly home park. A healthy Joey Votto returns to posting elite .400 on-base percentages. Sonny Gray continues his post-New York resurgence while Luis Castillo cuts his walk rate and becomes a top 10 starter in baseball. Trevor Bauer deletes his Twitter account, and is immediately rewarded with a second All-Star season. The scenario: 35 wins, a division title and all the Skyline chili you could eat.

Worst-case: The Reds’ big investment in bats all around the field yields a good offense, but at the expense of having the worst defense in MLB. That triggers a constant shifting of players around the diamond to find a combination that works, which might take a while because they have enough outfielders to field a whole lineup. Former top prospect Nick Senzel is forced to change positions once again (which ones are left?) and his bat suffers as a result. Bauer gets in trouble for tweeting Astros conspiracy videos between innings of his starts. The scenario: A .500 season and the team’s players confirm that Joe Burrow is 100 percent correct.

Chicago Cubs

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 03:  Chicago Cubs manager David Ross (3) looks on before the spring training MLB baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Colorado Rockies on March 3, 2020 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
New Cubs manager David Ross is leading a group of players that remember him as the beloved backup catcher on the 2016 World Series team. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Best-case: Turns out, David Ross was exactly what this team needed. The Cubs trade wacky themed road trips and too-smart-for-their-own-good substitutions for wins. Kris Bryant re-joins the MVP conversation after his shoulder proves to be 100 percent. Ian Happ delivers a breakout and locks down center field. Yu Darvish pitches like he did in the second half (118 Ks, 7 walks), Jon Lester delays age-related decline another year and Kyle Hendricks turns in another ho-hum season besting the league average ERA by at least 25 percent. Craig Kimbrel regain his form and pitch like an All-Star again. The scenario: 36 wins, a division title and silence from White Sox fans who thought it was finally their year.

Worst-case: An ownership group that watched its once mighty core win only 84 games last year is shocked to discover that an offseason highlighted by adding OF Steven Souza Jr. and reliever Jeremy Jeffress is not the way back to winning the NL Central. The Bryant situation becomes even worse as the team stumbles out of the gate, and he’s eventually traded for even less than what they would have drawn this winter. A rotation composed entirely of guys older than 30 starts experiencing the cruel effects of time. The scenario: A .500 season and the window for another World Series officially begins shutting.

St. Louis Cardinals

Best-case: Cardinals devil magic is alive and well. How else are you going to explain it when Tommy Edman makes the All-Star team in 2020? Don’t worry, though, the Cardinals’ brand of devil magic also works on older players. Matt Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt and Adam Wainwright are all rejuvenated. Yadier Molina stays healthy, plays 55 games with a good enough batting average. He even manages a down-ballot MVP vote because people get weird when Molina plays well. The scenario: 36 wins, and the city of Chicago admitting St. Louis style pizza is superior to deep dish.

Worst-case: The rotation’s stability comes nowhere close to last year’s group that saw four different players make 30-plus starts, especially because Jack Flaherty fails to replicate his epic second-half run. Few, if any, of Goldshmidt, Carpenter, Molina or Dexter Fowler return to form at the plate, thinning a lineup that already lost Marcell Ozuna and won’t get a repeat .304/.350/.500 season from Edman. Carlos Martínez’s return to the rotation goes bust, either via injury or ineffectiveness. The scenario: 30 wins while watching the Cubs return to the top of the division.

Milwaukee Brewers

Best-case: The low-cost players the Brewers brought in during the offseason pay off in major ways. Avisaíl García mashes 30 home runs for the first time in his career. Omar Narváez’s defense improves enough to make him one of the best catchers in baseball. Lorenzo Cain shrugs off the injuries that held him back at the plate last season. Keston Hiura takes a massive leap forward in Year 2. Brandon Woodruff rides his fastball to an All-Star selection. The rest of the pitching staff is ... good enough. The scenario: 36 wins, a division title and no one referring to Miller Park as Wrigley North.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park on September 08, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Christian Yelich's MVP-level play in Milwaukee will be necessary to keep the Brewers in contention as the NL Central becomes a four-team race. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Worst-case: The team that outperformed its run differential by eight wins last year instead under-performs drowns in a deep NL Central. The loss of Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames drains the lineup of power, especially as Hiura’s power spike in 2019 turns out to be juiced ball-driven. The team’s constantly shifting rotation falls apart, and there’s only one Josh Hader to pick them all up. Or Hader’s home run problem could return, his ERA creeping all the way up to 3.00. The scenario: 25 wins, as fans boycott home games in protest of renaming Miller Park after some insurance company.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Best-case: Who cares if the team is good, have you been to this ballpark? Pirates fans enjoy the scenic view more than the team on the field, but Josh Bell occasionally crushes a ball far enough that fans turn their attention away from the river. Chris Archer finds himself again, making the team’s trade with the Rays just bad as opposed to historically bad. Gregory Polanco gets over his injuries and produces like he did in 2018. Joe Musgrove — he of that other embarrassing trade — delivers the type of season stat nerds believe is possible based on his stuff. The scenario: 27 wins, but at least you enjoyed the scenery.

Worst-case: Considering this team has made it very clear that it just isn’t interested in contending for the playoffs this year (or next), um … MLB institutes a salary minimum? Maybe a good chunk of Bell’s stardom leaves with the juiced ball, and the team becomes downright unwatchable for all but the most dedicated of Pirates fans. The scenario: 19 wins, while Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows combine for like 20 wins above replacement.

Fun Meter

How entertaining will this division be as a race and summer-long TV show?

By Mike Oz

The NL Central has a new manager who did surprisingly well on “Dancing With the Stars,” the team that pioneered people racing around their field in sausage costumes and Trevor Bauer. On the other end of things is the St. Louis Cardinals, who are almost never fun.

The Reds are easily the most fascinating team in the division and could be fun — Joey Votto is often a delight — but whether that turns into “fun” might depend on whether Bauer keeps his outspoken offseason going into August.

The Pirates? Fun probably isn’t the word. The Brewers? Christian Yelich is definitely fun. The Cubs? Javy Báez is as fun as an amusement park, but the offseason storylines surrounding the Cubs have been a tad morose. Service time grievances and not spending money? Not fun. If that continues into the regular season, this could be the roller coaster you want to get off.

NL Central UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 6.8

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