Part two of our three-part series will focus on the teams playing in the Central Division. Four teams have a legitimate shot to take the NL crown, while the powerful Twins are the clear favorites in the AL.
National League Central
The Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are in the midst of a rebuild, but the trio of 1B Josh Bell, SS Kevin Newman, and OF Bryan Reynolds each had superb years at the plate proving that the rebuild is heading in the right direction. Bell in particular exceeded expectations with a power surge in 2019 after belting 37 home runs and slugging .569. Top prospects 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes and 6’7 SS Oneil Cruz could join the roster later this season adding to a strong young core.
Pitching remains a major concern for the Bucs after they lose starters Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon due to injury this year, leaving Joe Musgrove (4.44 ERA) as the top arm in the rotation. Top pitching prospect Mitch Keller (7.13 ERA) must rebound from a tough 2019 in which he started 11 games. The Pirates will also begin the season without closer Keone Kela, losing the most valuable relief arm in a bullpen that lacks depth.
The Chicago Cubs
Home runs should be plentiful from the Cubs starting lineup this season as they have six players who hit 20 or more last season. Javy Baez is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the MLB as he is one of the top defensive shortstops in the game and slugged .531 last season. The mainstay corner infielder duo of 3B Kris Bryant and OF Anthony Rizzo once again launched baseballs over the fence as they combined for 58 homers last year. With the universal DH in play this year, Kyle Schwarber (38 HRs) will likely get the bulk of the starts at DH, creating a stronger defensive outfield led by Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr.
After a late-season bullpen implosion, the Cubs will need a bounce-back year from veteran closer Craig Kimbrel (6.53 ERA). Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick, and 6’8 lefty Brad Wieck had promising 2019 campaigns out of the bullpen last year, but lack of experience is worrisome. Starters Jon Lester and Yu Darvish must perform consistently for the next two months alongside, Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks if the Cubs want to compete for an NL Central crown.
The Milwaukee Brewers
It would be an understatement to say that OF Christian Yelich has excelled since arriving in Milwaukee in 2018. These are his season averages over the last two years: .328 AVG, 40 home runs, 104 RBIs, 1.005 OPS, 7.7 WAR, and 26 stolen bases. Simply put: Yelich is a superstar. 2B Keston Hiura is an up and coming slugger who had a slash line of .303/.368/.570 in just 84 games last season. Power hitters from last year’s squad Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas have left Milwaukee, indicating that Yelich and Hiura will supply most of the power.
The bullpen depth for the Brew Crew is also superb as they are led by the lethal set-up man/closer combination in Corey Knebel and two-time NL Relief Pitcher of the year Josh Hader (16.41 K/9).
Outside of 2019 All-Star SP Brandon Woodruff, the Brewers have one of the weaker rotations in baseball as Adrian Houser and Josh Lindblom provide little MLB experience, while Brett Anderson has never performed consistently well since his MLB debut in 2009.
The St. Louis Cardinals
Defensive is the name of the game in St. Louis as the Cardinals were the best defensive team in the National League last season according to FanGraphs. SS Paul DeJong and 2B Kolten Wong form one of the best double play combos in the MLB, Yadier Molina continues to provide elite defense behind the plate, and Harrison Bader does an excellent job patrolling Center Field. Despite losing flamethrower closer Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals have a tremendous bullpen led by veteran lefty Andrew Miller, while Ryan Helsley, Giovanni Gallegos, and Tyler Webb look to follow-up stellar 2019s.
24-year-old SP Jack Flaherty emerged as one of the top young arms in the game after posting a 2.75 ERA, a .097 WHIP, and held opponents to .192 AVG.
Outside of DeJong (30 HRs) and 1B Paul Goldschmidt (34 HRs), the Cardinals lack a consistent power bat. OF Tyler O’Neill has tremendous raw power but has yet to prove he’s an everyday starter after only playing in 121 games in his first two seasons. Top outfield prospect Dylan Carlson has eyes set on making the opening day roster and looks to provide a spark in the lineup.
The Cincinnati Reds
The Reds went all in this offseason adding power bats OF Nick Castellanos and 2B Mike Moustakas in free agency to join Eugenio Suárez (49 HRs) to form one of the most potent middle-of-the-orders in the Central. They also addressed their need for a solid leadoff hitter after signing 32-year-old Shogo Akiyama. With a great combination of power and speed, Akiyama can become a 20-20 guy in the near future. Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, and Sonny Gray form an amazing trio at the top of the rotation, as they each struck out over 200 batters last season.
While the Reds have a decent bullpen, it does not compare to the likes of the Brewers and Cardinals. Michael Lorenzen (2.92 ERA) had an outstanding season out of the pen last year, but closer Raisel Iglesias needs a bounce-back year if the Reds want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
American League Central
The Detroit Tigers
Finishing with the league’s worst record at 47-114, the Tigers enter the season with one of the weakest rosters in 2020 as they are in a complete rebuild mode. Although the free agent signings of C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop will provide a small boost to a weak lineup, the Tigers will likely finish at the bottom of most offensive categories this season. Left-handed SP Matthew Boyd (11.59 K/9) is a decent number one starter, but after him, the rotation is amongst the worst in baseball.
On a positive note, the Tigers have an up and coming farm system led by the top right-handed pitching prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning who are looking to make their MLB debuts later this season. Riley Greene is one of the top outfield prospects in the game and 2020 number one overall pick 3B/1B Spencer Torkelson will likely join the big-league squad in the next year or two. With an elite farm system, it won’t be long until the Tigers exit the bottom of the division.
The Kansas City Royals
The Royals will fly around the base paths this season after finishing 2019 second in stolen bases and third in triples in all of the majors. This was largely in part due to the speed of MLB hit leader 2B Whit Merrifield and SS Adalberto Mondesi who each had 10 triples and combined for 63 steals. 3B Hunter Dozier also had 10 triples, but the Royals will mostly rely on his ability to hit the long ball along with DH Jorge Soler who led the majors with 48 homers as their 3-4 hitters. Apart from their first four hitters, the Royals lack a significant offensive threat, but hope veteran C Salvador Perez can perform well offensively after missing the entirety of 2019.
Right now the Royals pitching staff is absent of an elite arm but has an abundance of promising young arms in their farm system led by Brady Singer and lefty Daniel Lynch. Similar to the Tigers, the Royals are building from the ground-up and seek to clinch a postseason berth shortly.
The Cleveland Indians
Not one but two 1-2 punches headline the 2020 Cleveland Indians. In the rotation Shane (3.28 ERA) Bieber and Mike Clevinger (2.71 ERA) combined for 429 strikeouts last year, while posting 1.05 and 1.06 WHIP respectively. The other combo comes from the left side of the infield with SS Francisco Lindor and 3B José Ramírez. Lindor finished the season slugging .518 and earned his second career Gold Glove. While Ramírez had a forgetful first half of the season, his bat caught fire after the All-Star break posting a slash line of .327/.365/.739.
Apart from these dynamic duos, the Indians don’t have another potent force on both sides with the exception of 1B Carlos Santana who hit 34 homers last season and had an OPS of .911. Veteran Carlos Carrasco will follow Bieber and Clevinger in the rotation, but after being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2019, health concerns are a major issue going forward amidst the pandemic.
The Chicago White Sox
After finishing 25th in home runs last season, the long ball will occur more frequently in 2020 in large part of acquiring free agent sluggers, C Yasmani Grandal and DH Edwin Encarnación. They will join forces with the powerful trio of 3B Yoán Moncada, 1B José Abreu, and OF Eloy Jiménez as well as 2019 A.L. batting champ SS Tim Anderson. Rookie phenom Luis Robert will be the Opening Day Center Fielder for the Southsiders and he has the makings of the next elite five-tool player. Simply put: The sky’s the limit for Robert.
On the mound, the Sox are led by 2019 breakout star Lucas Giolito (3.41 ERA) and former Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel; another prized free agent signing. Apart from Giolito and Kuechel, many questions emerge about the back end of the rotation. The White Sox hope that veteran lefty Gio González and young righty Dylan Cease can help bolster the rotation. Alex Colomé will need to improve upon a rusty second half of last season to keep his job as the Sox closer, while Aaron Bummer and Steve Cishek look to lock down the 7th and 8th innings.
The Minnesota Twins
Target Field became a launching pad in 2019 after the Twins set a Major League single-season record with 307 home runs. Five players slugged at least 30 home runs for the Bomba Squad last season, led by 40-year old DH Nelson Cruz who hit 41 big flys. The Twins added another powerful bat in 3B Josh Donaldson who hit 37 homers last season for the Braves. Line drive hitters 2B Luis Arraez and SS Jorge Polanco compliment the home run hitters nicely after they hit .334 and .295 respectively last year. The bullpen is also one of the best in the Majors led by the trio of Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, and Tyler Duffey, each of whom posted ERAs under 3.00.
While the starting rotation on paper is not among the best in baseball, José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi emerged as an under the radar duo at the top of the rotation. After Berríos and Odorizzi, the Twins have five to six candidates to fill in the rest of the rotation spots, which is never a bad thing to have.