2019 saw the St Louis Cardinals claim the NL Central, their 11th division title in the last 25 years. The aim will no doubt be to repeat that this year as it again looks like a wide open competition, with the Cubs having regressed since winning it all four years ago and the Brewers cutting payroll heading into 2020. The upstart Cincinnati Reds are certainly trending upwards but have it all still to prove, so the Red Birds will be confident they can reign supreme in the Central again.
As much as the Cardinals will be confident of repeating as division champs, doubts linger in St Louis – as illustrated by the quiet offseason they’ve had. Only two position players have been brought in, with Brad Miller and catcher Matt Wieters both signing one year, $2 million deals in the Gateway City. Miller will provide backup to the exceptional Kolten Wong at second and Wieters returns to once again provide cover for the seemingly ageless Yadier Molina behind the plate. Kim Kwang-hyun, a left handed starting pitcher, has arrived from Korea and he will provide some balance in the Cards rotation.
The Cards are putting all of their chips on having enough strength internally to stay atop the division and that begins with ace Jack Flaherty. Flaherty is a genuine stud and projects to have an elite, Cy Young-contending season, following on from ’19 where he posted an excellent 2.75 ERA in 196 frames. Behind him Miles Mikolas will be a solid number two starter, but he is now likely to miss the start of the season after feeling soreness in the flexor tendon of his throwing arm.
Dakota Hudson impressed in 2019, his first season as a starter in the bigs. He went 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA, but he must improve on a league worst 86 walks yielded that gave him 4.43 walks per nine innings and an 11.4% walk rate – both figures ranking him last in the league. If he fails to rectify that problem, he projects to have a much tougher time of it in 2020. Adam Wainwright is a legendary Cardinal but is entering his fifteenth season with the franchise, aged 38. Wainwright enjoyed his best season in years and was excellent in the postseason too, but at his age it cannot be assumed that he will dominate like in years past. If he can remain healthy he can be a steady fourth starter and his leadership will prove invaluable. The fifth spot in the rotation is in doubt and although Carlos Martinez is competing for the spot during Spring Training, he will resume closer duties if the coaching staff deem him unfit to take on a starters responsibility with him coming back from a procedure to alleviate pain in his shoulder.
The success of the teams offence is going to be dependent on the performance of players like Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt had a so-called “down year” in his debut season with the Cards, posting only a .260 average with a .821 OPS (the lowest OPS he has managed since his debut season). Goldschmidt did still smack 34 HRs and 97 RBI along with a more than respectable OBP of .346, so there is no doubting he was not far away from the elite standards he has set in the past. Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong teamed up with Goldschmidt to produce a fantastic defensive display in the infield last season, helping the Cards go from worst in 2018 (133 errors) to first in 2019 (66). Wong won the Gold Glove at 2B but it is imperative that his bat steps up in 2020 too. DeJong projects to be an All Star calibre player and the Cards will need him to be. Dexter Fowler will also need a bounce back year and Matt Carpenter too, as the Cardinals are light at the top of the order.
The big reason behind the doubts surrounding this offence especially is the loss of Marcell Ozuna, the power hitting outfielder who has moved on to NL rival Atlanta. Given his willingness to accept a one year deal with the Braves, it remains a mystery as to why the Cardinals did not try to outbid Atlanta for a player that will be a big miss for their lineup.
Dylan Carlson projects as a Major League starter but will likely be a bench player whilst Dexter Fowler is given the chance to regain his form. Andrew Knizner is a highly thought of catcher and the Cards will have a big decision to make regarding his future – if Yadier Molina retires at the end of the season he will be their guy moving forward, but Knizner is ready now and will either have to be played or traded for someone who will play. Alex Reyes is a talented pitcher and could definitely help fill out a bullpen missing Jordan Hicks for at least the first half of the season. If Reyes can prove durable, he could also provide a big boost to the starting rotation too.
The NL Central is seemingly there for the taking and if all goes to plan, the Cardinals will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. Ironically enough though the exact same could be said about the Cubs, about the Brewers and about the Reds. It may be inconsistent, but the NL Central will no doubt an intriguing division in 2020.