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NL Central preview: Questions on Brewers’ offense, Cardinals’ pitching, Cubs’ additions, Pirates’ prospects, Reds’ future

Our countdown to MLB Opening Day continues with a deep dive on the National League Central.

Baseball season is right around the corner, which means it’s time for divisional previews! Between now and MLB Opening Day on March 30, Yahoo Sports will be rolling out our thoughts on each division, including a quick recap of the offseason and best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.

So far, we’ve covered the AL East, NL East and AL Central. Let’s move on to the National League Central.

Milwaukee Brewers

Projected record (per PECOTA, as of March 16): 87-75

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: A towering starting rotation led by Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff gets Freddy Peralta, its third musketeer, back to full health and performance. And for the first time since Christian Yelich’s fleeting superstardom, the Milwaukee offense packs a nearly equal punch.

How? Thanks to an offseason of coyly impactful moves. William Contreras, an All-Star for Atlanta thanks to his bat, continues to hit and takes a step forward on defense — improving in framing as prior Milwaukee catchers have — to become a well-rounded star. Winker, who had a nightmarish season in Seattle riddled with injury and ineffectiveness, loves his return to the NL Central and pairs 35 homers with strong on-base skills. Together with Yelich, Rowdy Tellez and Willy Adames, the additions lengthen the lineup, mustering a top-10 offense and encouraging the front office — led by general manager Matt Arnold after David Stearns stepped away — to add instead of subtracting at the trade deadline.

With Burnes in the running for another Cy Young and Devin Williams settled in as a dominant closer, the Brewers create a stark contrast to the Cardinals’ uninspiring pitching staff and reclaim the division crown.

Worst-case scenario: The clock keeps ticking on the team’s most recognizable faces: Years since Yelich really hit like a star. Years until Burnes, Woodruff and Adames are due to hit free agency. Days until the trade deadline, when the front office — if there aren’t enough wins on the board — might choose to make another painful, future-focused move. Adames, in particular, could be an attractive trade piece for a shortstop-needy contender (hello, Dodgers) if the Brewers determine that they aren’t willing to pony up for a long-term extension.

A new version of 2022’s demoralizing Josh Hader trade and water-treading whiff of a season flows from continued stagnation on offense. Yelich keeps driving baseballs into the ground, and Adames again struggles to hit much more than homers. Tellez regresses on the power front, while Winker and Keston Hiura stumble into their strikeout-heavy personal pits. The youth expected to contribute — Brice Turang, Sal Frelick, Garrett Mitchell and Joey Wiemer — don’t find their footing.

Even bleaker, the rotation hits health stumbling blocks, creating uncertainty about whether any of Burnes, Woodruff and/or Peralta are long-term building blocks.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Not to beat a dead horse, but the Brewers need to show progress on the hitting side. For all of the team’s laudable success in finding and developing pitchers — Aaron Ashby was set to be the latest example before a shoulder injury sidelined him — multiple Brewers hitters have stalled short of their supposed ceilings in recent years.

Any number of players could change this in 2023, including Yelich or Winker in big rebounds, but the most intriguing possibilities spring from the prospects set to debut and the young-ish players such as Hiura and Luis Urias still trying to unlock their final forms. Any real movement on that front figures to return the Brewers to the playoffs, a bar they cleared in four straight seasons prior to 2022. — Crizer

St. Louis Cardinals

Projected record: 86-76

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Ultimately? A deep October run with the Cardinals’ almost shocking competence across decades becomes a prevailing national narrative. The unassuming antidote to the boom-and-bust teams of the tanking era, the Cards haven’t had a losing season since Mozeliak took over in 2007, and they haven’t had a bottom-10 offense in 45 years!! In a best-case 2023, the Cardinals prove that pairing their reliably productive lineup and stellar defense with pitching to contact can work in the postseason.

Reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt takes a small step back in his age-35 season, but that simply allows Arenado — newly beloved after prioritizing stability in St. Louis over maximizing his money — to shift more into the spotlight. Tommy Edman becomes the poster child for the new rules, demonstrating his athletic range at shortstop and running aggressively on the basepaths. Lars Nootbaar rakes. But it’s Jordan Walker, the Cardinals’ 2020 first-round draft pick, who steals the show after forcing his way onto the Opening Day roster with a hot spring and challenging for Rookie of the Year honors.

Fans concerned about the lack of arm added in the winter are somewhat reassured when Jack Flaherty makes as many starts in 2023 as he did the past three seasons combined (32), giving the Cardinals a top-of-the-rotation guy with bat-missing stuff, and the subtle changes the Cards made to Jordan Montgomery’s repertoire keep him looking like his 2022 second-half self. Those fans feel even better after the team goes out and trades for another starter to bolster the postseason rotation instead of coasting through a weak division.

Worst-case scenario: The lineup as constructed can struggle only so much. Of course, key pieces can always get injured, projectable breakouts — such as for Nootbaar — might not materialize, MVP candidates could regress. But more likely, Walker’s compelling Grapefruit League performance gives way to rookie struggles that lead commentators to second-guess the club’s decision to have him skip Triple-A entirely.

The issue, however, is pitching — just like last year, when the Cardinals won the division despite the lowest K/9 in all of baseball, only to get ousted in the wild-card round. That issue is only exacerbated by the replacement of renowned rotation shepherd Yadier Molina with the made-for-ABS-era Contreras. Flaherty is back in the sense that he’s healthier than he has been, but it’s looking more and more like he might’ve peaked early in his career. Montgomery’s stats look more like the expected numbers (ERA over 4.00) from the past two seasons than the results he got, which would be fine if the Cardinals didn’t need him to be their ace. Adam Wainwright is as wily as ever, but his troubling lack of velocity in the spring never really rebounds, and at 41, he makes fewer than 30 starts in a (non-shortened) season for the first time since 2018.

Time really does come for all of us. And this time, there’s no cinematic B-plot in Albert Pujols to put a positive spin on a season that ends before (actual) birds start to fly south for winter.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Stop us if you’re sensing a theme, but uncovering an ace in the rotation would go a long way toward creating a path in St. Louis from making the postseason to hoisting a trophy. There are options, certainly. Montgomery excelled in his first month in St. Louis last year, Flaherty is just 27 years old and once finished a nearly 200-inning season with an ERA under 3.00, and despite a brutal introduction to the bigs in 2022, Matthew Liberatore retains his rookie status and remains a top-five prospect in the organization.

And if you’re looking at the battery, it’s hard not to notice the new face (underneath the mask) behind the plate. They’re all professionals, so maybe it’s totally copacetic to have a new catcher in St. Louis, but after nearly two decades of Molina, navigating the transition to Contreras smoothly would constitute a success for the Cards. — Keyser

Chicago Cubs

Projected record: 76-86

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: After the painful dismantling of the 2016 core, the Cubs are ready to build something new, and for 2023, they made moves — more than $300 million worth — to raise the team’s floor. It probably won’t be enough for a postseason push this year, but let’s focus on the positive.

Swanson might’ve had the least impressive track record of the Big Four free-agent shortstops, and the assumption was that his 6.4-WAR 2022 season was an outlier, but what this hypothetical scenario presupposes is … what if it wasn’t? Even a slight regression leaves the Cubs with an All-Star-caliber, perennial Gold Glove-contending Iron Man around whom the infield will be constructed for years to come. Swanson’s arrival pushed Nico Hoerner back to second, and the two quickly settle in as a top-tier double-play tandem. Hoerner holds on to his low strikeout rate from 2022 and figures out how to use that sense of the strike zone to walk way more. It’s the profile of a pretty great leadoff hitter, especially when you factor in his speed on the basepaths.

Seiya Suzuki misses the start of the season due to an oblique strain, but that only serves to make his sudden ascension all the more surprising. You see, last year was the tricky adjustment period, but in 2023, Suzuki emerges as one of the most productive offensive players, pairing power and discipline. A year later, that signing looks exciting all over again. By the end of the regular season, prospect Matt Mervis has replaced Eric Hosmer at first base, and fans are clamoring to see Pete Crow-Armstrong in Chicago given the way he’s tearing up Triple-A. That move is probably not worth it this year, but the future is certainly looking a lot brighter.

Worst-case scenario: In this version, some of the investments the Cubs have made start to stall. Suzuki struggles to return from injury — oblique injuries can drag out — and even if the underlying talent is there, durability becomes an issue. It becomes clear that Chicago bought high on Swanson, who is not bad by any means but is more of a 2- or 3-WAR player than something twice that. And if the Dodgers couldn’t fix Bellinger, what makes the Cubs so confident? Weighing whether his struggles at the plate should force him out of the lineup despite his defensive value isn’t fun for anyone.

The Cubs have a lot of decent options in the rotation, but no one really rises to the top, leaving many unanswered questions about whom they’ll turn to when they want to contend. Watching Kyle Hendricks, the last remaining connection to the championship squad, turn in a below-average performance for the third season in a row uncomfortably highlights just how long ago 2016 was.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? This might sound like a cop-out for a team likely to miss the postseason, but the Cubs need to close out 2023 with a clear sense of how they’ll contend next year. They’ve been willing to play in the high-stakes division of the free-agent market the past two winters, with the understanding that the payoff would be down the road. But by the end of 2023, they need to feel confident in those moves — that Swanson was the right splurge, that Suzuki can adjust to MLB, that Jameson Taillon can be at least as good and as durable (if not better) than he was with the Yankees — to be on track for the Next Great Cubs Team to arrive sometime around 2024.

Behind the scenes, the Cubs are several years out from revamping and reinvesting in the pitching side of player development. Some of those internal options have already started to bubble up to the big leagues, such as Justin Steele, but the more homegrown arms in an organization, the better. (Don’t sleep on how valuable it is to be able to build and rebuild a reliable bullpen!) Some of that will be evident publicly, but even more important this year will be the Cubs’ self-evaluation of how that process is panning out. — Keyser

Pittsburgh Pirates

Projected record: 72-90

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Human lightning bolt Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes leap forward to form one of the game’s most exciting, most valuable, left-side infield tandems. Cruz, the 6-foot-7 shortstop with mind-boggling power and athleticism, lays off bad breaking balls and starts terrifying pitchers around the league. Hayes continues vacuuming up balls at third and adds the lift his otherwise solid swing so sorely needed in 2022. Pop-up catcher slash infielder slash outfielder Endy Rodriguez arrives early and continues to swing the hot bat that made him one of the stories of the minors last summer. Together, these three pour a foundation that GM Ben Cherington and perhaps outfielder Bryan Reynolds can buy into to the tune of a reasonable contract extension that solidifies the heart of a young batting order.

McCutchen both delights Pittsburgh fans and, at age 36, shows signs of a second wind with the bat. Veterans such as Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi spackle over some holes and reinforce good habits among the still fledgling roster. They get a breakout from punchy, switch-hitting second baseman Rodolfo Castro, who plays himself into the Pirates’ long-term picture.

In the rotation, Roansy Contreras amps up his strikeouts to the eye-catching levels he achieved in the upper minors and shows the promise of a top-of-the-rotation starter across 25 or more outings. Luis Ortiz harnesses his visually tantalizing stuff enough to project a mid-rotation starter or better. And the latest extreme Mitch Keller makeover proves to be the one that sticks, as he finds equilibrium as a No. 3 starter type, stacking up solid outings alongside J.T. Brubaker. Meanwhile, 43-year-old Rich Hill dips, dives, dodges and grunts his way to a defiant first half, and the Pirates flip him to a contender at the deadline for a decent prospect they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

With Cruz, Hayes and Reynolds in place, the Pirates flirt with .500 and enter 2024 as a fun dark horse on the hot stove market.

Worst-case scenario: Feel that breeze? Yeah, that was Cruz altering weather patterns with yet another supersonic cut at a slider in the dirt. The Pirates have some more talent on the way, undoubtedly, in the form of catcher Henry Davis, a No. 1 overall pick, and contact-king second baseman Terrmarr Johnson, but their hopes of ending an interminable down period will rely heavily on progress from Cruz and Hayes. Can Cruz develop enough of an approach at the plate to allow his highlight-reel abilities to stick at shortstop and at the top of the order? Hayes, the second-generation big-leaguer, is clearly an every-day player. What’s still in question is whether he can be something more. Can he turn his knack for hard contact into real production by lifting it?

Also, can this regime fully develop a starting pitcher? Contreras, Ortiz, Quinn Priester and even Keller offer an opportunity to reverse the Peter Pan-esque, “never fully grown up” narrative and wipe away some of the bad taste left by the previous front office’s failure to maximize Gerrit Cole. Then again, none has offered very concrete reasons for optimism yet.

If the answers to the above questions are something less than yes, this is a depressing 70-to-75-win team awaiting yet another wave of talent that might not be enough, on its own, to produce a competitive team. And as Pirates fans will bitterly tell you, there’s no reason to believe Bob Nutting’s ownership group will spend on the course-correction measures that might prove necessary.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? It’s about establishing an upward, solid line that gives way to an even more enticing dotted line. A maturing Cruz approach produces Twitter freakouts like popcorn, and the future feels more promising. Some of the veteran additions turn into useful trade chips, and newer, younger players debut with aplomb. — Crizer

Cincinnati Reds

Projected record: 68-94

Offseason headlines:

Best-case scenario: Look, it would be great if Joey Votto bounces back to at least 2021 levels. It would be nice if Wil Myers and/or other members of the Reds riff-raff (TJ Friedl, Jake Fraley, Kevin Newman, take your pick) hit well enough to bring back fun trade returns. But a longer view is required to envision positivity for the 2023 Reds.

A return to Rookie of the Year form for second baseman Jonathan India is a great start. Beyond that, it’s about totally new or new-ish faces. Former top pick Hunter Greene stakes his claim to stardom by taking the fastball (average velocity: 99 mph) and slider that won him a commendable 30.9% strikeout rate in 2022 and deploying them in finer fashion to cut down on the ERA-wrecking homer problem that plagued him as a rookie. But even with huge steps forward, Greene winds up a No. 2 behind Nick Lodolo, the powerful lefty who reins in his control just enough and looks like the second coming of Chris Sale in his first full season. Behind them, a solid pitching development program turns out more gems, starting with Graham Ashcraft, a hard-throwing righty who leans on a 97 mph cutter.

But come September, all anyone can talk about is new shortstop Elly De La Cruz. Standing 6-foot-6 and still growing, the springy De La Cruz reaches Cincinnati with a bang, ripping homers, racing for triples and overshadowing the Pirates’ Oneil Cruz in a thrilling preview of his superstar future.

Worst-case scenario: Phil Castellini’s putrid, pessimistic Powerpoint presentation proves prescient. Pity.

Oh, and De La Cruz backslides against upper-minors pitching.

Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Three deadline trades that jettison veterans for young talent, two foundational pitchers in the rotation and one Elly De La Cruz debut in a pear tree. — Crizer