NL Central Division Preview

A division full of flawed teams, where anyone can win.

While MLB tries to have parity as a selling point, the past few seasons as a whole have swayed in another direction, as  100-win and 100-loss teams have become commonplace. At the same time, we could point to the NL Central as the league’s poster boy for a more balanced approach. Over the past decade, every team in this division has made the playoffs at least once, with alternating division champions and rock-bottom seasons not being as frequent as we see in other parts of the league. The ultimate showdown of parity is bound to happen in 2024 when the NL Central’s franchises are separated by a mere six games in terms of projections, and everyone has a realistic shot towards a divisional crown.

This statement is not a ringing endorsement for the division, as this level of parity is fueled by the current situation of its squads, which range from hopeful upstarts to former contenders in tough rebuilds or hoping to fight back. With MLB’s recent balanced schedule reducing intra-division games, the Central faces the possibility of becoming the launching pad for other divisions and struggles to even present a threat in terms of wild card contention. This situation at least creates several scenarios in which the Central’s teams can try to improve via trades or become aggressive with their call-ups, knowing that merely hovering around .500 should be enough to fight for a division title. However, having a guaranteed playoff spot has done no favors to these teams, as the NL Central has become exposed once it reaches October.

For starters, the division has not produced a wild card team over the past two seasons, which seems almost impossible considering the expanded playoff field. Also, no NL Central team has won a playoff series since the 2019 Cardinals, who beat Atlanta in the NLDS only to be swept in the NLCS. Since then, the Central’s team has gone a staggering 2-16 in October, which speaks volumes about the division’s lack of talent and urgency. When you can almost sleepwalk toward a division title, how will you compete against teams who were pushed to the brink? Having said that, there is at least some hope that 2024 can be different. With prospects adding a breath of fresh air and even some intra-divisional manager drama, the Central should be more fun than it has been in recent seasons, even if it is destined to again give us an underwhelming postseason participant.


#5 – Pittsburgh Pirates – 2023 Record: 76-86 – 2024 Projection: 77-85


Entering 2024, Pirates fans may be more optimistic than they have been in recent memory – even if it is a very low bar to clear. This franchise has been mostly an embarrassment for the better part of three decades, as even their 2013-15 run of fun teams was quickly squashed to return to their losing ways. Pittsburgh’s next NL Central crown will be their first, but this is a franchise clearly on the rise, ready to continue its jump toward relevancy. Following a couple of 100-loss seasons, the Pirates rebounded to 76 wins in 2023, even challenging for the division as late as June, as the wheels slowly came off. Nevertheless, the season as a whole was a success and a sign that better days are to come, maybe as soon as this season.

The hope for the Pirates starts with a trio of flawed but exciting players, who represent the best homegrown players since a young Andrew McCutchen. Oneil Cruz has been hampered by injuries in the past two seasons, limiting him to only 96 games in which he was shown only flashes of his potential. He is still only 25 years old, and the franchise hopes that this is the season when he puts it all together, even as his defense at shortstop is still a work in progress. Similar caveats apply to the 27-year-old Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was finally able to put up a league-average bat to match his stellar defense in 2023, so it would be nice to see him repeat that feat and give the Pirates a dynamic left side of the infield. That leaves Bryan Reynolds almost as the elder statesman of this group, as he remains the most steady presence on this lineup, even as he has regressed a bit over the past two seasons. Speaking of McCutchen, he will reprise his role as the veteran leader on this team, albeit one that is not expected to provide much thump, which is a common problem for this offense. Most supporting cast players are of the limited upside type, though a nice sophomore season from prospect Henry Davis could be a difference-maker now that he is moving back to full-time catching duties.

The biggest intrigue for Pittsburgh in 2024 may come in the form of Paul Skenes and how fast he will be called up to the majors. Leaving aside team control shenanigans, it is clear that he would benefit from more pro ball seasoning, but the Pirates will have to unleash him at some point this season. While Skenes is obviously the future, the Pirates appear to have an underrated rotation that will need to step up in the absence of a powerful offense. Mitch Keller’s recent extension is a step in the right direction for the perennially cheap franchise, as he will try to replicate his 2023 early-season success and become the ace of the staff. Martín Pérez and Marco Gonzales remain stable options to surround Keller and eventually, Skenes, though the team’s depth may be insufficient if injury problems arise. Most of Pittsburgh’s pitching prospects look poised for bullpen spots in 2024, which could bolster a solid pen that includes a top closer in David Bednar and the enigmatic acquisition of Aroldis Chapman. If the Pirates are serious about competing, they cannot repeat as only the 22nd-best staff in baseball.

In any other division, such a roster would be miles away from contention, but the Pirates are a few upper-percentile individual seasons from putting it all together in 2024. Manager Derek Shelton is getting the best roster he has had during his tenure, and the fans may get a chance to cheer in the middle of a playoff race, but having and sustaining another solid start is key if this team is to become competitive in the long run.


#4 – Cincinnati Reds – 2023 Record: 82-80 – 2024 Projection: 79-83


The Reds were one of 2023’s most surprising teams, fueled by an extreme youth movement that saw them improve by 20 wins and come within striking distance of a playoff spot. Their top 12 hitters in terms of plate appearances were all players under 30 years of age, including the promotion of many of the farm system’s top prospects in the middle of a postseason race. While the results were uneven and a lack of experience may have played a part in a late-season decline that saw Cincy finish 23-31 after July, the season was a welcome sight for a franchise that had hit rock bottom in 2022. With this precedent, the front office has decided to double down and run it back in 2024. With the exit of franchise icon Joey Votto, Cincinnati’s payroll has dropped to a bottom-five number in MLB, as they were never in serious consideration for prominent free agents. Despite its limitations and youth, how can the Reds overachieve and try for their first division title since 2012?

In terms of position players, Cincinnati has assembled a solid squad of positive contributors that still lack a clear star that could elevate them to a new level. For instance, Elly de la Cruz has immediately become a dynamic force and one of the most recognizable young players in the league, but he is still a raw 22-year-old who makes many mental mistakes, which probably explains his conservative projection. Similar profiles could be applied to other Reds players, such as Spencer Steer, Will Benson, and Christian Encarnacion-Strand, all of whom broke out last season but still need more reps before establishing themselves in the majors. The lack of Votto or any other veteran presence in the lineup may be hard to quantify, and it will be manager David Bell’s responsibility to guide the team through the inevitable growing pains.

While the offense gets most of the attention, the Reds have built an intriguing staff that includes a healthy mix of internal promotions and outside help. Hunter Greene had a breakout 2023, with a 12.2 strikeouts-per-nine that showed his ability to overpower hitters at age 23; while the overall results were not great (4.82 ERA), he should get every chance to improve in 2024 and lead the staff. Similar caveats apply to Graham Ashcraft and Andrew Abbott, who used very different approaches to gather similar end results. Ashcraft is almost a throwback in a pitch-to-contact kind of pitching, while Abbott is more of a power lefty, yet both pitchers will probably be defined by their ability to suppress homers in Great American Ballpark. The Reds did have a high-upside signing in Frankie Montas, coming off a disastrous stint in New York. Having appeared in only one game in 2023, Montas is expected to be fully healthy to start the season, and he could become an important addition to a rotation that desperately needs experience.

With such a treasure trove of young players in a very winnable division, the Reds could soon become major players in the trade market, but a lot of that depends on how close they stay to the playoff race throughout the summer. Ownership has always been reluctant to add payroll, but the Reds are in a good spot to exceed expectations and aim for their first playoff win since 2012.


#3 – Milwaukee Brewers – 2023 Record: 92-70 – 2024 Projection: 80-82


It is fitting that the Milwaukee Brewers are expected to finish third in this division, considering that they are stuck in a weird limbo to start 2024. While the Reds and Pirates have youth on their side and the Cubs and Cardinals are counting on their veterans to bounce back, the Brew Crew has a little bit of everything, albeit in a state of transition for the franchise. Projection systems do not account for a managerial move, even if it is one as seismic as the loss of Craig Counsell. Long considered one of the best in-game strategists in the league, Counsell was at the helm for the most successful run in Milwaukee’s history, constantly overachieving en route to 3 division titles and 5 playoff appearances in 9 seasons. That he will now run the bitter rival Cubs makes it more painful for Milwaukee fans, who also have to endure the loss of several key players as the team has shed payroll and may be in line for a full-blown rebuild.

Even with all these doomsday circumstances, the Brewers can still be considered a serious player in the Central, though that speaks more about the division than Milwaukee’s roster. The core of William Contreras, Christian Yelich, and Willy Adames immediately provides a high floor for the offense, even if they are coming off a disappointing season. The Adames situation will be a clear indication of what the Brewers expect to achieve in 2024, as the shortstop is entering his walk year and was part of several trade rumors, only to stay put. The new front office may not have targeted any prominent free agent, but they still came away with veterans Gary Sánchez and Rhys Hoskins, suggesting that they are more in a retool rather than a rebuild. With that in mind, the extension for the franchise’s top prospect was a welcome addition, as Jackson Chourio will make his MLB debut at 20 years old and with $80 million guaranteed in his near future. Other youngsters like Sal Frelick and Garrett Mitchell will get even more at-bats to round out the lineup, with the expectation that it improves upon a dreadful 2023.

Where the Brewers may falter is in the rotation, even as run prevention had been their identity for many years. The loss of Corbin Burnes via trade and having Brandon Woodruff out for the season are tough blows, especially considering that no readily available replacements are in store. Freddy Peralta has now become the team’s ace by default, and even he dealt with lengthy injuries last year. DL Hall, the biggest return in the Burnes deal, seems like a good long-term prospect, but he will start the year in the minors and probably be subject to an innings limit. The rest of the rotation appears to have many unexciting arms, including Wade Miley, Jakob Junis, and Colin Rea, so expect a lot of work for the bullpen. Speaking of the pen, it will start the season without closer Devin Williams, which is bound to make things more challenging, even as the likes of Trevor Megill, Joel Payamps, and Abner Uribe are a solid backup plan.

New manager Pat Murphy will have to live under the shadow of Craig Counsell for a while, and at the same time navigate a season with a makeshift rotation, and yet it would seem foolish to count out the Brewers. With such an experienced roster and a new mix of young players, they can still run it back and challenge for the division title, unless a slow start makes them pivot and start anew. In any case, this is a franchise that should do well in the long term, with Chourio immediately becoming a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.


#2 – Chicago Cubs – 2023 Record: 83-79 – 2024 Projection: 82-80


The Cubs have not won a playoff game since 2017, as their post-World Series hangover led to a full franchise makeover and several tough episodes. It all appeared to turn a corner in 2023 when the Cubs entered the final month of the season with a solid chance to make the playoffs. Alas, a late collapse amid a 12-17 record squashed those hopes, though the foundations of a new chapter for the Cubbies were definitely set. In this effort to improve, the front office went for the jugular and landed former rival Craig Counsell as manager, in what could become one of the most significant transactions of this offseason. Along with the re-signing of Cody Bellinger and the addition of Japanese import Shota Imanaga, Chicago is set to start 2024 with plenty of optimism.

Bellinger may not have landed the mega-deal he and his agent were expecting, but his signing was key for a franchise that helped him re-establish his value. Even if he regresses a bit, the former MVP should still be a useful player for this offense, if not necessarily its best one. That responsibility could be better bestowed upon Nico Hoerner or Dansby Swanson, as their all-around play could be the difference between a division title or another long winter. In terms of pure thump, there are several sluggers that can carry the offense for weeks at a time, though it is hard to predict just how consistent they can be. Ian Happ, Patrick Wisdom, and Christopher Morel are prime examples of low-average, high-slugging profiles, and they could dictate what type of summer the fans will have at the Friendly Confines. In the middle of that, the right balance should come in the form of Seiya Suzuki, who will start his third year in MLB with higher expectations than ever before. A year after posting his first 20-homer season with a solid .357 OBP, he has the chance to be even better as he enters his prime.

Similar to his Dodgers’ counterpart Yamamoto, Imanaga will enter MLB with plenty to prove, though without the same kind of spotlight. The “Throwing Philosopher”, as he was called in Japan, had a 3.18 career ERA over eight seasons in the NPB, and early results suggest that he should adapt well to the stateside game. If he can live up to the billing, Imanaga will become the co-ace to Justin Steele, who came out of nowhere to finish fifth in last year’s Cy Young voting. The drop-off after them is significant but not insurmountable, as crafty veteran Kyle Hendricks is still around to provide bulk and the occasional masterpiece, along with the likes of Jameson Taillon and Jordan Wicks. The bullpen may be thin on brand names, but Craig Counsell is well-known for his ability to manage pitching, so it should not be a cause for concern for the Cubs. Overall, it is a solid staff that could benefit from an aggressive trade or even an unlikely late addition of Jordan Montgomery via free agency.

While this version of the Cubs is still a far cry from their 2015-17 heyday, their fans must at least be content with the efforts of the front office to build a roster with plenty of upside. Adding another starter might have been a better bet than re-upping with Bellinger, but it is still a defensible move that can propel Chicago to a division title, especially if the team is fired up to avenge last season’s collapse. There are several factors working in their favor, especially if Imanaga can quickly become a quality MLB starter.


#1 – St. Louis Cardinals – 2023 Record: 71-91 – 2024 Projection: 83-79


After being the standard for consistency in the NL for over 20 years, the Cardinals had their worst season since 1990, dropping all the way down to the bottom of the division for the first time since realignment. It all happened rather unexpectedly, as St. Louis was the reigning division champ and featured an experienced roster that featured the league MVP. While the 2023 Cardinals malaise was overshadowed by other high-profile collapses, it is still shocking to see how this franchise fell into a worst-case type of season out of nowhere. With a stagnant offense and an underachieving pitching staff, it became clear that this team needed a new approach, which is why the Cardinals are hoping their new additions turn things around in 2024. The projections are giving them the benefit of the doubt, even if seeing a quick return to prominence is not a given.

For starters, the Cardinals are following a Brewers-like formula, relying on three veteran leaders to anchor things. It helps that two of these players are all-time greats, albeit coming off lackluster seasons that may be signaling their inevitable decline. Paul Goldschmidt turned from MVP to merely good in a hurry, while Nolan Arenado had an even more pronounced fall, producing the worst offensive numbers of his career. With both of them on the wrong side of 30, another slow start may be a real reason for concern. Similar concerns apply to Willson Contreras, who endured a bizarre situation last season in which he eventually was demoted from catcher for a stretch of the season. Even as he reclaimed the gig, his defense is still a liability and could soon be moved to full-time DH, trimming most of his value. The only silver lining for the Cardinals in 2023 came from younger bats starting to develop, and we should see a full season of development for Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, and especially Jordan Walker, who struggled in his first stint in the majors but is expected to become the eventual face of the franchise. The late signing of Brandon Crawford suggests that this franchise will still rely on a steady presence of veterans to mentor their younger counterparts but expect this offense to bounce back mostly if their prospects take a leap forward.

With the pitching debacle of last season, it was clear that the Cardinals needed a revamp in the rotation. It happened in free agency, but not in any particularly exciting way. Sonny Gray is the biggest addition, by far, but he comes with several question marks regarding his durability and ability to sustain the career year he just had in Minnesota. The rest of the signings include middling righties like Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn, to be paired with incumbents Miles Mikolas and lefty Steven Matz. This uninspiring group will put the so-called Cardinals pitching lab to the test, as they will need all the help they can get to produce league-average results. The bullpen should be in better shape, even with the departure of Jordan Hicks. The Ryan HelsleyGiovanny Gallegos duo is a strong back-end to have, but it is not guaranteed that manager Oliver Marmol will maximize their contributions.

Speaking of Marmol, he will probably be on the hot seat since Opening Day, even with the recently signed extension the team announced. While the division is there for the taking for anyone, the pressure is different for the Cardinals, as their veterans are closing in on their most productive seasons and could see 2024 as a last chance to achieve something big. St. Louis may be considered the slight favorite to win the Central, but a good start would behoove them to quickly forget last season’s disaster and focus on what’s ahead.


Pablo Figueroa

Pablo Figueroa is a Baseball Writer here at Pitcher List, with experience as a writer since 2013. He lives in Aguascalientes, Mexico - proud home of Los Rieleros. When he´s not thinking about baseball , he's a husband, owns two dogs, watches random episodes of The Sopranos , plays padel, and works on his day job to pay the bills.

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