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So, uh, does anyone want to win the NL Central?

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MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The NL Central was the only division to send four teams to the 2020 postseason. Of course, all four of those clubs were promptly bounced in the opening Wild Card Series, and it isn’t particularly difficult to see why. The NL Central posted a combined 43-55 record against the AL Central in regular season play. (Although this improves to 40-38, albeit with a -5 run differential, if you remove the Pirates.)

I mention this primarily as evidence that the division looks to be a fairly wide-open race entering the new year. The Cubs just became the third different team to win the division title in as many seasons, and they, like the Cardinals in 2019, did so without even breaking a .570 win percentage (~92 wins/162 games). It’s a kingdom without a king. Or, more accurately, tumbleweeds of mediocrity rolling through a quiet midwestern town near you. Too quiet.

I defined a “major addition” as an MLB free agent contract of any value or any trade acquisition with at least one day of MLB service time. As of this writing, here is a comprehensive list of every major addition within the NL Central this offseason. (2020 fWAR in parentheses)

Brewers:

  • Signed Daniel Robertson (0.2 WAR)
  • Signed Luke Maile (missed season with finger injury; -0.3 WAR in 2019)

Cardinals:

  • None

Cubs:

  • Acquired Zach Davies (1.4 WAR)
  • Signed Jonathan Holder (-0.1 WAR)

Pirates:

  • Acquired Wil Crowe (-0.5 WAR)

Reds:

  • Signed Edgar Ernesto Garcia (-0.4 WAR)
  • Acquired Art Warren (0.1 WAR)
  • Acquired Scott Heineman (-0.4 WAR)
  • Acquired Noé Ramirez (0.1 WAR)
  • Acquired Jeff Hoffman (0.1 WAR)
  • Acquired Brandon Bailey (0.0 WAR)

For those keeping score at home, that’s a total of one (1) player, Zach Davies, who topped 0.2 WAR last season. And Davies was part of a return package for the Cubs that saw Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini leaving Chicago.

So virtually nobody new is joining the fray. Let’s take a look at the returning cast for each team. I compartmentalized their 2020 WAR contributors into three groups:

  • Free Agent WAR: Players who remain unsigned free agents, meaning they theoretically could return to their previous club
  • Gone WAR: Players who are officially members of another organization
  • Returning WAR: Total WAR-FA WAR-Gone WAR (i.e. players under contract for 2021 as a member of the same organization)

NL Central Returning WAR

Team 2020 WAR FA WAR Gone WAR Returning WAR Returning Share
Team 2020 WAR FA WAR Gone WAR Returning WAR Returning Share
STL 11.4 3.4 0 8 70.2%
CHC 15.2 2.1 3 10.1 66.4%
MIL 13.4 0.1 -0.7 14 104.5%
CIN 14.6 2.1 0.4 12.1 82.9%
PIT 3.8 -0.8 -0.8 5.4 142.1%

We immediately notice a survivorship bias of sorts. Teams are unlikely to bring back players following a negative WAR season, which leads to the Brewers and Pirates appearing to return over 100% of their 2020 strength through addition by subtraction. Let’s “recalculate” returning WAR by removing negative WAR departures from the equation.

 NL Central Returning WAR (excluding negative WAR departures)

Team 2020 WAR FA WAR Gone WAR Returning WAR Returning Share
Team 2020 WAR FA WAR Gone WAR Returning WAR Returning Share
STL 11.4 3.6 0 7.8 68.4%
CHC 15.2 2.4 3.7 9.1 59.9%
MIL 13.4 1.1 0.1 12.2 91.0%
CIN 14.6 3.2 1.9 9.5 65.1%
PIT 3.8 0.3 0.5 3 78.9%

The Cubs have taken the biggest hit this winter in terms of outgoing WAR, followed by the Reds and Cardinals. The Pirates look relatively intact, which sounds good until you consider that the Pirates are bad at baseball; a well-preserved heaping mess is still a heaping mess. The Brewers are the only team with a 90+% (post-adjustment) retention rate, and it’s a large reason why the current FanGraphs depth charts project Milwaukee to win the division. Their 2021 team WAR projection totals out at 30.2, which, if we assume a replacement-level team wins roughly 48 games, means the division favorite is projected to be a sub-.500 ballclub. Needless to say, 78 wins is not going to be enough to win any division in a 162-game season, but it underscores just how up for grabs the NL Central truly is.

*Pokes with stick*

C’mon, do something...