Making Sense of the Surprisingly Good NL Central

For the last few years, both Central divisions have been the weak links in their respective leagues. No Central Division champion has even received a wild card bye yet, and none have represented their leagues in the World Series since the classic 2016 series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Guardians. While it could be said that the AL Central has been worse, the 2016 Cubs squad is still the most recent NL Central team to win more than 100 games and the second most recent to have the best record in the NL. There was a time a little more than a decade ago when this was arguably the most competitive division in the National League, hosting all but one NL pennant winner not called the San Francisco Giants from 2011-2016.

Finally, in 2024 the tide seems to be turning. This division now has some of baseball’s most exciting teams and it could be a battle that comes down to the very last game of the season. Unlike the AL Central which has already been covered, this division does not have the juggernauts or super-teams you would expect from a marquee race. Unlike the rest of the league, every team is very close and all five teams in this division have a serious chance at the title.  So with a sixth of the season completed, time to make sense of the surprisingly good NL Central.

How Did The NL Central Get So Competitive?

The Cardinals and Brewers Always Find A Way

The St. Louis Cardinals were a complete mess in 2023, putting together one of their worst seasons in franchise history and it never really looked like things would get much better in 2024. The pitching is suspect, the offense is wildly inconsistent, and there is very little depth on the roster to speak of. Yet they seem to find a way to stay relevant no matter what, making the postseason in nine of the last 14 seasons and despite being in last place in the standings they are only two games below .500 and less than five games back of first in the division.

As for the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, a top-three team in the NL despite many thinking they were going to enter a rebuild. They had a sneaky good offseason that has allowed them to remain competitive even after losing their two best pitchers, one to injury and one to trade. Brandon Woodruff has been one of the better pitchers in baseball in recent years but an injury has left him out for the entirety of the 2024 season and the deal that sent ace and Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles may have signified the end of an era to many, but to the Brewers, it was just the beginning.

The Orioles sent them two top prospects, starter DL Hall and third baseman Joey Ortiz who are both going to be impactful players at the big league level in 2024. Hall struggled in his first four big league starts before suffering a sprained knee but he has all the tools to be a very good MLB pitcher and is likely to figure it out. Ortiz has already made an impact in the starting lineup with the fifth most games played and a 121 wRC+ while playing a very good third base. Additionally, the Brewers signed first baseman Rhys Hoskins to a reasonable three-year deal that has already started paying off with six home runs and a 117 wRC+.

They join a very solid returning group of players led by ace Freddy Peralta who is finally healthy and off to a fantastic start, former MVP Christian Yelich who looked like he was returning to form before an unfortunate injury and William Contreras who has quietly been one of the best catchers in baseball over the last few seasons among others. Contreras is off to a blazing start offensively and is leading a surprisingly potent lineup helped by breakout seasons from sophomores centerfielder Blake Perkins and second basemen Brice Turang. If they can get some more production from former top prospects Sal Frelick and Jackson Chourio this could become one of the better National League lineups in baseball, let alone the National League.

The losses of Burnes and Woodruff have certainly been noticed, as has the long-term injury to all-star closer Devin Williams but that hasn’t stopped the Brewers from getting off to an excellent start to the season. Despite somewhat tumultuous times for both the Brewers and Cardinals, the two teams that make up five of the last six NL Central champions, neither has fallen out of the race for the division crown. The Brewers’ great start hasn’t scared anybody off either, as another good team is right on their tail looking to surpass them every opportunity they get.

The Cubs Have Loaded Up and Are Ready To Go

After their first World Series championship in 108 years in 2016, it seemed like the Chicago Cubs were at the start of a dynasty, but that never materialized and the Cubs found themselves in a rebuild just a few years later. With the core of that 2016 team now a distant memory the Cubs have expedited their rebuild with a combination of homegrown youth and free agent acquisitions that have put them on the fast track to return to the postseason for the first time since 2020.

The recent additions of outfielders Seiya Suzuki, Cody Bellinger, and shortstop Dansby Swanson have bolstered a lineup that already boasted lots of homegrown talent. Nico Hoerner is one of the most underrated players in baseball, Christopher Morel has shown he has the tools to be great, and top outfield prospect Pete Crow Armstrong is one of the most exciting rookies in the game. Even though Suzuki and Bellinger are currently on the injured list, this lineup is rolling with a great combination of youth and veteran experience.

As for the pitching staff, free agent acquisition from Japan Shoto Imanaga has been a revelation for this team, posting a 0.98 ERA over his first five starts. He is carrying a rotation that hasn’t had many other consistent performers with ace Justin Steele and 2016 holdover Kyle Hendricks both on the injured list. With all the injuries this team has dealt with in the first month of the season you would expect them to start slowly, making their 17-11 start even more impressive. Once they get their guys back the rest of the division better look out because they may have the best roster in the NL Central.

The Reds and Pirates Are Turning The Corner

Except for the shortened 2020 season neither the Pittsburgh Pirates nor Cincinnati Reds have played a single postseason game since 2015. Both of these franchises have been embedded in long and painful rebuilds that have finally started to pay dividends, in 2024 it looks like both of these teams are turning the corner and are ready to make their return to October.

The Reds, who are a year or two ahead of the Pirates at this point, are looking like a well-rounded and formidable opponent in this division with a very young roster, a good young rotation, and productive hitters up and down the lineup. This rotation is deep, led by Hunter Greene and with young lefties Nick Lodolo and Andrew Abbott alongside 26-year-old righty Graham Ashcraft. The lineup is still developing but they’ve got some special talent. Elly De La Cruz is one of the most unique and impressive players in recent memorySpencer Steer has shown he is one of the best complete hitters in the division in addition to very good offensive production from catcher Tyler Stephenson. The Reds are off to a winning start in their first 28 games and once they get second baseman Matt McClain back from the injured list, they will only get better.

The Pirates are off to a better start than anyone would have thought going into the season, going 14-14 up to this point and while many believe it’s just a fluke like last year, they have the talent to keep this up. The Bucs have their own Cruz who is also a freakishly talented shortstop in 25-year-old Oneil Cruz who is finally healthy and producing. He is joined by elite defensive third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and several other young talented bats around the diamond. The pitching staff is just as impressive, with ace Mitch Keller being supported by rookie standout Jared Jones as they await the arrival of top prospect Paul Skenes. The back end of the bullpen is also impressive with two former all-stars, David Bednar and Aroldis Chapman leading the way. This Pittsburgh squad is better than people think and will hang around in this race all season long unless someone pulls away.

Both of these teams are young, both are talented, and both fanbases are hungry for October baseball again. These youthful groups are ready to roll in 2024 and will give the established clubs in this division a good run for their money. While they may not have been the preseason favorites don’t be surprised if either of these talented squads capture the NL Central crown in 2024.

Finally, the NL Central, which is home to some of the classic franchises of American baseball, is back to being a focal point of the National League playoff chase. This is the only division in baseball where all five teams could walk away with the title, it’s going to be a dogfight down to the very last game of the season and there is no clear favorite to speak of. It will be an incredible and unique race for the top but these teams are also definitely good enough to capture a wild card for the first time under this new playoff format.

Main Image: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

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