The MIL Brewers won the NL Central last season winning 95 games and were 5 games better than STL Cardinals. Since 2016, the CHI Cubs have won this division 3 times, including the shortened season of 2020, MIL has won it 2 times, and STL once. Going into the 2022 season, this division should be between MIL and STL. The theme is MIL pitching vs STL hitting.
2021 Standings NL Central
Let's start with where the teams should have finished the 2021 season. The next chart shows several things. Let’s start on the right-hand side. PYTH is the Pythagorean wins for last year and BR is the BaseRuns wins for last year. The 2021 column is the average wins based on those two data standings combined. Ideally, it is the number of wins they should have had based on the team’s output. The columns on the left side show projected wins from FG (FanGraphs), BP (Baseball Prospectus), and SB (SuperBook, LV). The blue columns BLEND is an average of the three projections and its winning percentage. We need to start in the yellow column first, then compare 2021 (left off point), to the expected 2022 performance in the blue BLEND column. Here is the chart.
NL Central Matrix
Even though the final results last year had MIL 5 games better than STL, the production shows they are 7 games better! It mainly is a result of STL though. They won 90 games but should have only won 87 (86.5 rounded up). CIN was 7 games worse than STL but should have only been 3.5 games worse. Too bad for the fans in CIN as this year they more or le4ss dismantled that team from a season ago. This tells me STL has the most work to do and MIL has plenty of room to get better. Let's look at some of the stars in this division and where they rank amongst it.
NL Central Summary
It becomes clear that STL has the best hitters in the division with Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Tyler O'Neil. They have half of the division's best hitters! Ok, but, MIL has by far the best pitchers in the division. Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddie Peralta are 3 of the top 4 in the division with Burnes and Woodruff being number one and two. MIL also has the best bullpen in the division, so by far, they are the best pitching team. Being the best pitching team, they will be in most games having a chance to win. STL will need to outscore their opponents more often, so they have to execute with fewer chances of mistakes. Their margin of error is smaller. The good news for STL, last year anyway, was they had an 11-8 record against MIL. Where MIL dominated CHC (15-4), PIT 14-5); STL struggled against those teams. STL went 10-9 vs CHC, 9-10 vs CIN, and 12-7 vs PIT. Pitching showed its value for MIL against those weaker teams.
NL Offense in key areas 2021
In the chart above, MIL stands out like a sore thumb. They are surrounded by teams in green while showing glaring red. It means they are below average in all of those areas! CIN shows green in many areas and STL the same. CHC and PIT, especially PIT, have a ways to go to make them competitive offensively.
MIL is projected at 90.5 wins for 2022. In a division where CIN has become weaker, CHC slightly better, PIT is one of the weakest teams in all MLB, my first thought is MIL could surpass that 90.5 win total as they did last year. MIL needs offense and continued success for the bottom of the starting pitching staff. MIL did bring in OF Hunter Renfro and OF Andrew McCutchen this off-season. While neither is a star player, they are at least trying to address some of their issues. A return to All-Star levels from OF Christian Yelich would be the best medicine this team could take! It was just the 2019 season where he hit 44HRs, scored 100 runs with +97 RBIs! His OPS was 1.100 that year. He not only was an All-Star level performer but an MVP performer! The 2021 season was his worst in the big leagues, so I expect a better season for him. McCutchen and Renfro will need to be RBI guys. Willy Adames, Luis Urias, and Kolten Wong are good at getting on base, but MIL has lacked the RBI in past. They could be a better offense if things go right with those two. The pitching was stellar last season as Burnes won the Cy Young award in the NL. Burnes took over as the ace last year from Woodruff, and will again be in that role for 2022. However, Woodruff will likely be a favorite against most of the pitchers he opposes coming out of the #2 slot. Freddie Peralta threw "ace-like" at times last season while making 27 starts. He is only 26 years old and now fully entrenched as a starting pitcher after several years of doing a dual role. These top 3 are as good as any in the game. The backend of Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer give MIL innings and average pitching. If anything, they could get another arm here, but these two were good enough last season, and remember, MIL has a great bullpen. Josh Hader is one of the best closers in MLB, yet Devin Williams could close on any other team. Aaron Ashby will play a pivotal role too as the 7th and 8th innings pitcher. He is quality. The bullpen can bridge the gap if there is a starter issue.
STL won 90 games last year but should have only won 87. Their projected wins total is 82. Yet another falloff for this team. 82 wins are only 1 game above .500. I really like their offense but have major issues regarding the pitching. Offensively, they can win this division because there is another team in it as good as they are. I think Tyler O'Neil backs up his break season of 2021 with a strong All-Star level performance. He along with Arenado and Goldschmidt all projects with over 30 HRs. O'Neil projects at 38. STL does not have guys that hit near .300 for average, but they do have almost everyone hit around .250. The League average is .242. These three are run producers, projecting at 91 RBI or more for each one of them! Dylan Carlson is a player on the rise. He is already solid OF, and could potentially, blossom into an All-Star level player too. Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Edmundo Sosa are players that need to find more ways to get on base. They three are just below league average there. The issue in STL is pitching. Adam Wainwright is the best pitcher they have but almost by default. He is going into his age 40 season. He should be a great number 3 or 4 starter, but will again be relied upon to go against the opponent's number one starters. He is just in a mismatched way regarding his stuff. Jack Flaherty is supposed to be the ace, but he has not started 30 games since 2019 and already is shut down for a couple of weeks in this 2022 spring training due to shoulder issues. STL brought Steven Matz back from the AL. He will likely fill the #3 slot behind Miles Mikolas. Mikolas missed the entire 2020 season and started only 9 games in 2021. Mikolas is another pitcher who is better suited for the 4th or 5th spot in the rotation and certainly not 2nd! Dakota Hudson, another pitcher missing years for STL) is back for 2022. He started 8 games in 2020 (pandemic shortened) and only once in 2021. This is it. #2 prospect Matthew Liberatore may find his way into this rotation this season. He ranks 65th in all of MLB. The bullpen ranks 3rd in the division and will not provide the support to the starters as they likely need.
CHC and CIN are likely headed for a battle to see which team can capture 3rd spot while the other gets 4th. The Cubs won 71 games and the Reds won 83 games in 2021, yet they project to win 75 and 74 games for 2022. CHC should have only won 67 games in 2021. They did make more positive moves in the off-season though. They brought in Marcus Stroman and signed Japanese superstar OF Seiya Suzuki. Both of these players are the only players CHC has showing up on the list of best players in the division. Suzuki projects with 29 HRs and ops of .915. He and Ian Happ lead the offense. Newly acquired SS Andrelton Simmons and recovering from injury 2b NickMadrigal will provide new faces to the infield. Mainstay catcher Wilson Contreras, will be a carryover veteran type for this team going into his age 30 season. Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel are players that made good use of themselves last season and will get another look this year. Marcus Stroman becomes the ace and takes the one slot. This move puts Kyle Hendricks in the #2 spot. These are not terrible spots for these guys as they will be underdogs most of the time, but both have a high competitive drive. Newly acquired Wade Miley fills in the #3 slot. These three are much improved over last year (Hendricks, Zach Davies, Adbert Alzolay, Jake Arrieta,). CHC also signed Drew Smiley who likely will save the spot for Alzolay when he becomes ready for the 2022 season. As they are getting better, they haven't really built up the bullpen yet, so they really don't have a true closer type entrenched. They have plenty of arms, but not really defined roles. CHC will still play many players so I expect lots of platoon-type situations, and young players getting opportunities to catch on the MLB roster. They are improved over last season.
As CHC is moving forward, CIN is moving backward. They won 83 games last year ago. Their projection for 2022 is only 75 games. A team that was on the cusp of the playoffs in 2021, is not protected below .500 and could be 4th in this divison. CIN players not on this team from 2021 include Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker, Amir Garrett, Sonny Gray, Tucker Barnhart, Michael Lorenzen, Wade Miley, and Nick Castellanos. Ok so with all of that lost talent, maybe they have brought much newer talent to replace it. Here is what they brought in. This list includes these players Colin Moran, Andrew Knapp, Donovan Solano, Mike Minor, Hunter Strickland, Justin Dunn, and Jake Fraley. By far, the talent lost is more productive than the talent gained. Hence the lower win total projection. 2B Jonathan India won the NL Rookie of the year last season. He is the batter that shows up on the best in the division list. Luis Catillo, off of a terrible first half of 2021, is one of two pitchers on the list. Tyler Mahle is the other. As we can see, despite all those players gone, this team is not void of talent. In fact, they have a quality 1B Joey Votto. He had a resurgent season last year hitting 36HRs with 99 RBI. His production since 2017! OF Nick Senzel only played in 36 games last year, but has a chance to be a good everyday outfielder. Mike Moustakas is sure glad for the DH in the NL. He can rotate back to his natural spot 3B and play DH to get his at-bats. Votto, India, and Moustakas will need to be the run producers. The pitching staff sure could use a complete good season from Castillo. He finished 2021 strong. Mahle is a quality guy I like better in the #3 slot but he will need to pitch from the #2 spot as Sonny Gray has moved on. regardless, Castillo and Mahle are good pitchers. Mike Minor was signed to give the rotation a veteran and depth. Vladimir Gutierrez and Tony Santillan are listed as #4 and #5 however, one of them will be on their way out when prospect Hunter Greene steps in. He CIN #2 prospect and #34 overall. When he arrives, he will bring that 100mph fastball! CIN is not completely bare, and they have some talented prospects on the way, but this team is not as good as last year's team.
The PIT Pirates seemingly have been in the cellar for a decade now. That is totally not true. The last time they finished above .500 was just 2018. They made the playoffs 3 straight years from 2013 to 2105. This is a team that has won in the past and likely will cycle around to that gain, but not in 2022! They won 61 games last year but should have won only 59. Their projected win total is 67 for 2022. Only one player shows up on the best in division list and that is OF Bryan Reynolds. He is a solid player and could play for almost any team but looks more like a superstar on this team. He is good at getting on base, hits for a decent average, and has a little above average power. After this player, we need to be looking at the future and development. This team is void of depth and veteran presence. 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes is a player who projects as a solid starter. He hits bats above average for hits and is limited on power. He has already been playing so he should be around now as a player to build around as he is only 25 years old. SS Oneil Cruz is the #1 PIT prospect and overall #8. He should take over SS at some point this season! He is another young exciting player on the way, but like the others, does not project with big power. The rest of this team is made up of guys hanging around more like spot holders! The list of players is Daniel Vogelbach, Roberto Perez, Kevin Newman, Ben Gamel, and Yoshi Tsutsugo. This group is not going to win many games. The pitchers are in rough shape too. Mitch Keller and JT Brubaker are their best pitchers and likely neither would start for many other teams. They did take a flyer on Jose Quintana so I hope he provides some meaningful innings but I think he is washed. A name to keep an eye out for is Roansy Contreras. He is the #3 prospect for PIT and #41 overall. He should see some starts this season. The rotation looks like this Quintana, Brubaker, Keller, Bryse Wilson, and Zach Thompson. If anything, their 3 guys at the backend of games could be decent. David Bednar is the closer. Chris Stratton and Heath Hembre are set up guys. Stratton has found i niche for him. How often these guys get to hold a lead will not be often, but they should do a reasonable job when given those chances.
In summary, this is the MIL Brewers divsion. They have the best pitching and have improved their offense with a possible upside (Yelich). I also like the idea of playing the OVER 90.5 win total set for them. STL needs pitching but can hit. The trouble is they need more than just one pitcher. I don't think they need to worry about anyone else catching them this season for 2nd, but I also think they cannot make the playoffs unless they fix their needs. They should be a .500 or slightly better team so I think the win total is right. CHC is an interesting team because they moved forward but by how much? I think the win target of 75.5 is a lot to ask. This team should have won 67 games last year. The projections call for 74 wins. I like them to battle CIN for 3rd but cannot make a wager over or under. CIN falls but how far? I think they still have talent there. A team that should have won 83 last year has their number set at 71.5 this season. I think that is too big of a drop. I like CIN OVER 71.5 wins more near where CHC projects. PIT is just bad but should have talent moving up. Their number is set at 65.5 wins. They should have won 59 last year. Hard to see that much improvement, but not worth of a wager.