St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt takes fielding practice during a workout at Busch Stadium Wednesday, March 29, 2023 in St. Louis. The Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays both did their final workout of spring training at Busch Stadium on Wednesday before opening day of the regular season on Thursday. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

NL Central 2023 Season Preview

Major League Baseball is back. With the 2023 season set to get under way, the NL Central looks to be up for grabs this season. Each squad has something to prove this year.

After a tight battle at the top of the division between the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers last season, the Cardinals managed to finish first in the NL Central, while the Brewers narrowly missed the playoffs. Both teams will likely be locked back into a tight battle for control of the division this year. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs will look to emerge as a potential sleeper team in 2023 following a disappointing season that saw them finish under .500 for the second year in a row.

Rounding out the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds hope to emerge from the division basement. Both squads finished with 100 losses this season, but they also feature plenty of young talent entering 2023. Only time will tell if either squad can break out this season.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Good

What’s not to like about the Cardinals lineup? Reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and seven-time All-Star Nolan Arenado gave St. Louis an extremely high-powered offense in 2022. In the outfield, two-time Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill and rising star Lars Nootbaar provide plenty of excitement both on offense and defense. Shortstop Tommy Edman also took home a Fielding Bible Award in 2022.

Offensively and defensively, the Cardinals are stacked with talent across the roster. This could be the St. Louis squad to make it into the Divisional Round (or even further) for the first time since 2019.

The Bad

The Cardinals will need to see improved production on the mound if they want to contend in 2023. While the team as a whole ranked 10th in the MLB with a combined 3.79 ERA, no pitcher particularly stood out other than 2022 All-Star Miles Mikolas. St. Louis will hope for Mikolas to maintain his high level of play while also holding out hope for a bounce-back campaign from Jack Flaherty. Flaherty earned an All-MLB Second Team nod in 2019, but missed most of the 2022 season due to multiple injuries.

St. Louis also lost a pair of legends in the offseason to retirement. First baseman Albert Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina both hung up their cleats following the 2022 season. Despite the amount of talent on their roster, it will be a difficult hole for the Cardinals to fill.

The Bottom Line

There is no reason the Cardinals should not be able to repeat as NL Central champions. Whether or not they can finally make it past the Wild Card round is a different story.

Projected Wins: 89

Milwaukee Brewers

The Good

Whereas most teams struggle to find a single ace, the Brewers have three ace-worthy players in their rotation. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff gave Milwaukee outstanding production on the mound in 2022. The two pitchers combined for 25 wins, with Burnes maintaining a 2.94 ERA and Woodruff holding on to a 3.05 ERA. With 2021 All-Star Freddy Peralta still showing signs of promise as well, Milwaukee boasted of one of the top rotations in baseball last year. With all three star pitchers returning this year, hitters across the league will likely see Milwaukee in their nightmares.

The Brewers also had some bright spots at the plate. Hunter Renfroe led Milwaukee with a .255 batting average, while Willy Adames tallied up 31 home runs and a team-high 98 RBIs. Rowdy Tellez also belted out 35 home runs for the Brewers, who ranked third in the MLB in home runs (219).

The Bad

Milwaukee needs more out of 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich this season. He batted .252 and hit just 14 home runs last season, compared to his .329 batting average and 44 home runs just four seasons ago. Yelich will likely be the x-factor in determining if the Brewers can snatch the NL Central title from the Cardinals this year.

The rest of the roster has some work to do in the batter’s box as well. Milwaukee combined for a .235 batting average last season, putting them at 22nd in the MLB. When the Brewers could get hits, they were big ones. But they need to become more consistent with those hits as well.

The Bottom Line

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2017, the Brewers have some ground to make up this season. This could be a make-or-break campaign for Milwaukee in determining the direction the franchise will go.

Projected Wins: 84.5

Chicago Cubs

The Good

The Cubs landed a pair of potentially game-changing signings this offseason. On Dec. 14, they signed 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger to a one-year, $12.5 million deal. Bellinger has struggled at the plate in the past two seasons, with a .210 batting average and a league-worst .265 on-base percentage. Nevertheless, Bellinger has expressed confidence that he can return to his MVP-caliber play. If he manages to do so, the Cubs may have pulled off the biggest steal of the offseason.

https://twitter.com/Cubs/status/1640096102236971009?s=20

Seven days after the Bellinger signing, Chicago inked a seven-year, $177 million deal with 2022 All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson. With the Cubs looking to emerge from their recent rebuilding phase, Swanson will likely serve as the face of the Cubs franchise for the foreseeable future.

The Bad

Since their World Series victory in 2016, the Cubs have become one of the most “middle-of-the-road” teams in the MLB. Based on the current construct of their roster, they may be doomed to stay in the middle this year as well. They have multiple hitters that can perform at a high level, including Nico Hoerner (.281 batting average in 2022) and Ian Happ (.271 batting average in 2022). The Cubs also have some solid arms in their rotation. Marcus Stroman pitched 138.2 innings and maintained a 3.50 ERA in 2022, while Keegan Thompson tallied up a team-high 10 wins.

While all these players are solid pieces, they cannot lead the Cubs back to the promised land by themselves. Chicago needs more starpower, both at the plate and on the mound. Until then, they will likely continue to be just good enough to stay afloat, but not good enough to make it back to the postseason.

The Bottom Line

Whether it’s Bellinger, Swanson or a “diamond in the rough” that pops up out of nowhere, the Cubs need a new franchise cornerstone to emerge if they want to make some noise this year.

Projected Wins: 78

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Good

Pittsburgh has multiple potential cornerstone players that could emerge in 2023. Oneil Cruz has already established himself as one of the most exciting players in baseball. Standing 6’7″ and weighing in at 220 pounds, Cruz has shown plenty of speed and strength early on in his career. He currently holds the record for the hardest-hit ball in the MLB StatCast era, as he belted out a single at 122.4 MPH last season.

https://twitter.com/Pirates/status/1562493466696974336?s=20

Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes will also be a Pirate to keep an eye on this year. He signed an eight-year, $70 million extension with the Pirates last April. Having previously won a Fielding Bible Award in 2021, Pittsburgh has plenty of promise in their infield, and more prospects could be on their way up later in the year.

The Bad

Last season could not have been uglier for the Pirates. Second-to-last in the MLB in batting average (.222). Fifth-worst ERA in baseball (4.66). Tied for the third-worst record in the league at 62-100. The Pirates have seen their fair share of bad seasons in the last three decades, but 2022 was hard to watch even by their standards. With not that much improvement to their roster this offseason, it could end up being more of the same this year.

The Bottom Line

Pittsburgh most likely will not be the worst team in the NL Central this year. But that does not mean much. It will take a few more years of rebuilding before the Pirates can reach their full potential.

Projected Wins: 67.5

Cincinnati Reds

The Good

Two words: Hunter Greene. The #2 pick in the 2017 MLB Draft made his major league debut last season, and he did not disappoint. In just the second game of his career, Greene threw out an MLB-record 39 pitches with a velocity of over 100 MPH. Greene still has a ways to go with his consistency on the mound, as he finished the season with a 4.44 ERA and 13 losses. But if Greene can iron out out repertoire on the mound, his ceiling is nearly limitless.

The Bad

Cincinnati ranked in the bottom-10 of nearly every category imaginable last season. Hits, runs, batting average, RBIs, ERA, WHIP; the list goes on. The Reds also saw multiple players regress in 2022. Most notably, 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto and 2021 NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India. Additionally, only one Reds pitcher finished the season with more than five wins: closer Alexis Diaz, who compiled a 7-3 record.

The Bottom Line

Don’t hold your breath, Reds fans. The talent may be on the way, but it will be a long time before Cincinnati is back in the playoff hunt.

Projected Wins: 66

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a third-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

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