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Strengths and Weaknesses: What to expect from each National League Central team this season

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Photo credit:© Brett Davis - USA Today
Veronica Chung
29 days ago
The National League (NL) Central, much like the AL Central, has been one of the weaker divisions in recent years. This kind of environment, in a way, provides more opportunities for teams to become creative and competitive because there are so many ways to become successful. This is helpful given that most of the teams in this division consider themselves a small-market team and they require more creativity since their spending is mostly limited compared to bigger-market teams. 
Coming into the 2024 season, NL Central is becoming a more even playing field with more prospects or younger players coming up to make a difference throughout the division. If there’s one thing this division has been strong at, it’s drafting and developing younger talents and those efforts are paying off starting now. 
Below is a quick assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each NL Central team and all teams are in alphabetical order: 

Chicago Cubs (PECOTA Projection: 80.4 – 81.6)

Strength: Underrated offensive performance
The Chicago Cubs yielded pretty respectable offensive stats last season as the lineup became more potent with players like Cody Bellinger in the lineup. The team recorded third place for scoring runs and on-base percentage (OBP) in NL and when the team re-signed Bellinger, it was clear that the Cubs were betting on Bellinger to produce close to 2023 along with other players in the lineup. The offence doesn’t consist of other superstar powers but it got the job done last year. This year, the lineup looks slightly different but as long as all players are able to maintain good plate approaches and perform to their levels, the Cubs’ offence will be sneakily potent once again. 
Weakness: Minor League roster reinforcements
The Cubs’ offseason wasn’t as impressive as what everyone wanted it to be. Heading into the new season, the front office committed to creating a winning team since Chicago bitterly missed out on the playoffs. However, the reinforcements on the overall roster were barely noticeable since the biggest acquisitions were signing relief pitcher Shota Imanaga and bringing in position players like Michael Busch and Garrett Cooper. Whether the team has done enough or not will be hard to tell right now, but if Chicago wants to make a serious push for the playoffs, there will have to be more major moves at the trade deadline, given the fiercer competition this year. 

Cincinnati Reds (PECOTA Projection: 79.4 – 82.6)

Strength: Younger roster
The Cincinnati Reds’ youth movement began in the 2022 season and came into full force last season when the team brought up promising younger infielders like Elly De La Cruz, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Matt McLain and Spencer Steer. The team’s outfield is also younger and so is their rotation. Cincinnati has a very talented younger core and also has more younger players in the system who are also working towards their chances of making it into the big league roster. Cincinnati has a bright future and as long as younger players stay healthy and perform to their potential, this team will be thriving in the central division for a long time. 
Weakness: Relief pitching
The Reds have a much stronger roster compared to the past, and the team will witness some positive progression in the starting pitching department as long as younger pitchers stay healthy for the bulk of this season. But if there’s a weaker or unproven part of this roster, it would be the relief pitching core. The Reds did bring in reinforcements by adding Brent Suter, Emilio Pagan and Nick Martinez to the roster but whether they will be able to perform well with the existing relief pitchers is a giant question mark since relief pitching can be extremely volatile. Last year, the pitching wasn’t the strength of this roster but the starting pitching should get better as pitchers like Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft and Andrew Abbott are more seasoned now. Relief pitching held up okay until it did show negative regression after an unprecedented 12-game winning streak. Chances are, Cincinnati will need more reinforcements in the pitching department if they are competing for a playoff spot this season. 

Oct 1, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Willy Adames (27) waves to fans between innings during game against the Chicago Cubs at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee Brewers (PECOTA Projection: 78.4 – 83.6)

Strength: Pitching development
No matter who they bring up or trade away, the Milwaukee Brewers have never had to worry about their pitching performance given that the team always knew how to develop good pitchers. This is the team that helped develop Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser and even if they part ways with these pitchers, they will always have enough younger pitchers who can replace them. The Brewers might have traded away Burnes this offseason, but there’s no doubt that the team will showcase new, young pitching talent to see who can make a positive difference in the rotation. 
Weakness: Weaker roster
Milwaukee’s roster is much weaker than previous seasons but even with a questionable roster, this team always found ways to make it work and has been successful at making the playoffs somewhat sustainably. The team’s hitting is still in a rough place compared to its rivals, and new manager Pat Murphy’s challenge will be making the roster do its job incredibly well, even with the underwhelming hitting core and slightly weaker pitching throughout. Former manager Craig Counsell always found his way to work. In a weaker division, Murphy’s task will be helping Milwaukee to remain at the top of the division despite all the disadvantages against the team. 

Pittsburgh Pirates (PECOTA Projection: 71.9 – 90.1)

Strength: The rise of younger players
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been showcasing their younger talents on the roster for a few years and they will have more to bring up this season also. Younger players like Oneil Cruz, Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez have all garnered attention around the league. They could become the most crucial cornerstones of the franchise along with starting pitcher Mitch Kellar. If the team is able to help younger players develop further and give more playing time, the team will become more successful in the long-term even if other rivals have been bringing up young talents at an aggressive pace. The Pirates’ job now is to build around the younger players while giving the team that direction and commitment. 
Weakness: Mediocre pitching
The Pirates have struggled with pitching for some time and that’s not going to change this year, unfortunately. Sure, pitchers like Mitch Kellar can get better to prove people wrong but other pitchers on the roster are rather underwhelming and confusing for a team that’s supposed to focus on its own youth movement. There are many pitchers who are still like diamonds in the rough and the relief pitching just has a few players they can rely on for high-leverage situations. Not an ideal situation for a team that’s trying to compete with rivals with better pitching. The Pirates will need to rejig and reinforce their pitching throughout and maybe that starts now since they have traded JT Brubaker to the New York Yankees. 

St. Louis Cardinals (PECOTA Projection: 83.5 – 78.5)

Strength: The strength of the existing core
The St. Louis Cardinals had such a confounding season last year since the offensive core greatly underperformed as their pitching struggled throughout. St. Louis’ lineup is built to perform and they have wreaked havoc against its rivals by beating them up brutally with many runs. Even if the team regressed last year in that department, it will most likely bounce back as long as players like Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras, Tommy Edman and Paul Goldschmidt all perform to their maximum potential. The lineup will be the strength for its team and will bail out pitching when they aren’t able to hold things up. 
Weakness: Starting pitching
Speaking of pitching, the Cardinals had a terrible time with pitching stats as starting and relief pitchers all struggled to perform. The biggest problem with pitching was that hardly any starters relied on strikeouts to finish their innings but they preferred pitching to contact as a whole. With the rule change kicking in last year, the Cardinals’ pitching suffered a lot and the front office tried to address this issue in the offseason. However, the Cardinals curiously signed older pitchers like Lance Lynn, Sonny Gray and Kyle Gibson to fill the holes. Sonny Gray is already starting the season on the injured list and the future of this pitching looks a bit shaky now, if not concerning.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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