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The State of the NL Central

With most teams locking in their rosters prior to the lockout, the NL Central picture is pretty clear. It should be a competitive division with familiar names on top.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s now February. In a normal year pitchers and catchers would report in two weeks and Spring Training games would be on the horizon at the end of the month. Instead, we still don’t know when the lockout would end and the chance of having the season delayed for a third straight year seems high. Still, the start of February is a good occasion for looking at the state of the NL Central and the St. Louis Cardinals’ place in it.

There will surely be a flurry of activity in the free agent market when the lockout ends, but many players have already signed contracts. A few key players remain on the market, but most organizations have their teams in place, save for a reliever, a bench bat, or other players of the sort.

This is the position that the Cardinals are in. The team may still in the market for a reliever or two but the team is mostly set. Is this team good enough, on paper, to take the division from the Brewers and hold off the Reds and the Cubs? Let’s examine.

We’ll start with the ZIPS projections. A team that compiles exactly 0.0 WAR (exactly replacement level) should win 47-48 games. Before I go any further it is important to note that the projections that I am using only includes six starters, eight relievers, and the primary bench players/platoon partners. Because of this, the projected win totals will be on the conservative side.

St. Louis Cardinals

ZIPS projects the Cardinals for a total of 38.7 fWAR. This would bring the team to 85-86 wins. Steven Matz adds 2 fWAR, but for the most part, like most years, the Cardinals are relying on internal improvements to spur the team to further heights. The strong second half is a reason for hope as is an outfield projection of 11.2 fWAR among the three starters. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado also project for 8.2 fWAR combined.

The lack of a true ace (in terms of projection) hurts a bit as Jack Flaherty (3.3 fWAR) has the best projection. Age may catch up with Adam Wainwright but he is still projected for a solid 2.6 fWAR season after compiling 3.8 last season.

A bullpen starring Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, and Genesis Cabrera has a high ceiling, while Kodi Whitley could also become a key contributor this season. However, the bullpen is only forecast to be the third best unit in the league, with just a marginal lead over the fourth placed Cubs. I expect it to do much better than that.

With production from Nootbaar, Yepez, and others, as well as a bullpen that is likely to overperform its projection of just 2.6 fWAR, it is easy to see the Cardinals winning more than 90 games.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers pitching staff has been projected for 22.4 fWAR. When combined with the projected 19.3 fWAR from position players, the Brewers are projected for 88-89 wins. This does include a DH, which for Milwaukee is projected for 0.5 fWAR. The Cardinals ZIPS projection do not have such an inclusion. Still, this projection is a few wins better.

The first thing to notice is that the projection for the Brewers pitching staff (22.4 fWAR) is much better than that for the Cardinals pitching staff (14.4 fWAR). Even with a projection that probably undersells the talent in the Cardinals ‘pen, the Brewers clearly have a better pitching staff. The Cardinals lineup is projected to be much better (26.9 fWAR vs. 19.3 fWAR), which will make for plenty of intriguing matchups against the Brewers pitching staff.

The projections between these two teams are too close too determine a division winner based solely on projections. Paul Goldschmidt is projected for 3.9 fWAR after posting 4.9 last year, and Dylan Carlson should also exceed his 2.5 fWAR projection. The projection system is dinging Goldschmidt for age and perhaps a down 2019 season while it is suppressing Carlson because of his struggles in 2020 and his mediocre first half of 2021. Because of the way the projection system works, the projections for these players make sense, but I would certainly take the over.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are projected for a worse pitching staff at only 13.6 fWAR. This number is heavily boosted by the acquisitions of Marcus Stroman (projected for 4.0 fWAR) and Wade Miley (2.8 fWAR), who was somehow acquired with a waiver claim. The pair projects as the team’s two best starters next season. For a team that sold hard at the deadline, it is perhaps unexpected that they have acquired so much talent in the offseason.

Chicago’s lineup is forecast to be worth 16.5 fWAR, which would give the team a total of 77-78 wins. This certainly places the team in a tier below the Cardinals and the Brewers, but on top of the pitching acquisitions, the team also brought in Nick Madrigal from the Craig Kimbrel trade and then signed Clint Frazier and Yan Gomes to provide depth. At the deadline it looked like the Cubs would provide some easy victories in 2022, but they have added plenty of talent since then.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are projected to have the second best pitching staff in the division (20.1 fWAR), despite losing Wade Miley. The lineup looks a little less rosy with a projection of just 16.3 fWAR. This makes it worse than each of the above teams.

The Reds and Cubs have taken opposite paths. The Cubs were gutted at the deadline and have since added talent to be more competitive. The Reds had a strong team that won 83 games and was in the thick of the Wild Card race for a while, but since the season ended, they have lost Nick Castellanos, Michael Lorenzen, the aforementioned Wade Miley, and Tucker Barnhart.

In total, the team is projected for 83-84 wins. If they hadn’t lost some key players, that projection could very easily have increased to the point of competing with the Cardinals and the Brewers at the top of the division. Since they seem to be in money saving mode, it is unlikely that they will make any significant acquisitions after the lockout.

Pittsburgh Pirates

I guess a preview of the NL Central needs to include a preview of the Pirates, so I’ll keep it short. It would a surprise if the Pirates finished anywhere but last place, especially since the Cubs have not gone into full blown rebuild mode. Still, this is actually a super interesting team. The Pirates will feature Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, and Travis Swaggerty. There are also some other interesting prospects nearing their MLB debuts.

On the pitching staff, 22-year-old Roansy Contreras is one to watch after he practically skipped Triple-A to make his MLB debut last year. In 12 Double-A starts, Contreras had a 34.9% strikeout rate while also filling up the zone (5.5% walk rate). This led to him tallying a 2.74 FIP and 2.65 ERA. He may not start the year in Pittsburgh, but he will certainly see time at the major league level. When he does, he will be a fun pitcher to watch.

2022 may be a season of losing for the Pirates, but at the very least it will be interesting.

How Will the Division Shape Up?

Projections aren’t everything, but the Cardinals and the Brewers are clear favorites in the division. This could be the chance for the Cardinals to re-assert their dominance in the central. The team won three straight divisional crowns from 2013-2015, but since then, St. Louis has won the division just one time (2019). Since 2016, the Cubs and Brewers have won five of the six division titles. With the Cubs entering a rebuild, and the Cardinals having a strong lineup and a healthy pitching staff, this could be the year that the team is able to reach the top of the Central again. It’s tough to bet against the Brewers’ pitching staff but the two teams should be neck and neck all year. It may come down to which team is the healthiest, which team has the strongest depth, or how well Oli Marmol handles personnel decisions.

It is unlikely that any team in the division makes any more key signings, but if they do then the divisional picture might change. At this point, it looks like the Brewers and the Cardinals will make the playoffs and compete for the division while the Reds will finish in third with the Cubs not too far behind. Pittsburgh should again come in last, but they will have a fun team to watch.