The Rundown: NL Central Preview, Bellinger to Play Next Week, Union Expects Jersey Issues Fixed by Opening Day

I believe the Cubs are the favorites to win the NL Central now that Cody Bellinger has returned, though a lot of the doom-and-gloom fans continue to say they are bringing back the same team. While that’s not necessarily true, Chicago did earn 91 Pythagorean wins last season. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a quick look at the division.


Slow starts and poor finishes in the last two seasons didn’t endear David Ross to fans, and many analysts say Craig Counsell may be worth as many as eight wins. That’s difficult to quantify until you look at their records in one-run games.

The Cubs have the strongest up-the-middle defense in the National League, but they can hit too. The North Siders had one of the better offenses in MLB last year, particularly in the second half, scoring 5.06 runs per game, so maintaining that output makes this unit formidable in 2024. Chicago boasted a 32-18 (.640) record in blowout games, a trend that should continue. They’ll also get a full season from Christopher Morel, and the addition of Michael Busch gives them another basher. If Seiya Suzuki builds on his second half, the Cubs could dominate offensively. Look for Ian Happ to generate more power this season as well.

The pitching staff looks the same as last season with the exception of Shōta Imanaga, who replaces Marcus Stroman. That looks like an upgrade on paper, especially considering Stroman’s poor second half. Cade Horton will join the rotation by mid-May, if not sooner, adding both depth and power to Counsell’s pitching staff. Jameson Taillon is expected to have a better year, and Kyle Hendricks is steady and always dependable. Counsell should help Justin Steele take the next step toward becoming a legitimate ace based on the manager’s previous work with Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff.

Adbert Alzolay, who didn’t earn a save until the sixth week of the ’23 season, will be the Cubs full-time closer. Héctor Neris and Daniel Palencia give Counsell options in case Alzolay struggles. Chicago’s bullpen is deeper, and with better management, won’t be gassed during the last month of the season. The Cubs went 12-17 in September and October, including crucial losses to the Diamondbacks and Brewers, missing the playoffs by one game. That won’t happen with Counsell, who has had a stellar September record in all but one of his seasons as a manager.


Milwaukee lost Burnes and Woodruff is injured, but they still have the best bullpen in the division. They’ll be a more offense-oriented team under Pat Murphy, and first baseman Rhys Hoskins gives them a legitimate slugger to pair with Christian Yelich. They’ve also got one of baseball’s best rookies, Jackson Chourio, slated to start in center field. Joey Ortiz might be the best utilityman in the majors and William Contreras is the division’s best catcher defensively, though his offense should start to catch up.

The Brewers’ rotation will look a lot different this year. Freddy Peralta is the de facto ace, at least until Woodruff returns, and Wade Miley, Joe Ross, and Colin Rea can be best described as adequate. If each can give Milwaukee five strong innings and put close games in the hands of its relievers, the Brewers will be competitive and that should be the case. DL Hall, acquired from the Orioles in the Burnes trade, is the rookie to watch.

Devin Williams leads the division’s best bullpen. Though the rest of the relievers aren’t household names, they’re all good when used properly ahead of the elite closer. That’s the rub, however. Counsell is considered to be among the best in the game at bullpen management, so Murphy will have to be equally adept to give the Brewers a shot at the playoffs.


Cincinnati’s pitching is better with the acquisitions of Frankie Montas and Nick Martínez giving the Reds arguably the best rotation in the NL Central. The team can hit too, but their defense is shoddy at best. Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, and Christian Encarnacion-Strand lead a solid offense. The Reds also added Jeimer Candelario and will retain Jonathan India. Cincinnati leveraged a 12-game winning streak, with comeback wins and walk-offs becoming a regular part of their identity, to challenge for a Wild Card berth before falling two games short. Joey Votto will be missed from a leadership perspective.

Montas and Hunter Greene are a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of Cincinnati’s rotation. Greene has big heat as a starter but has yet to harness his filthy repertoire. He had the league’s fourth-best fastball velo (98.3 mph) and finished with a top-16 whiff rate (15.1%). He also walked 9.6% of the batters he faced. Andrew Abbott had a strong rookie season, as did Brandon Williamson. They’re all good, but lack experience, which is why the team signed Montas.

Alexis Díaz is young and filthy and could challenge Williams as the division’s top closer. The rest of the relievers are just average, however, and Cincinnati finished 16th in all of baseball with a 4.11 ERA. Nothing deflates a team like a bullpen that blows late leads, something Cubs fans are keenly aware of. The Reds added Brent Suter and Emilio Pagán, both of whom will boost the Reds’ relief corps.


Pittsburgh has a young core that lacks impact players but has waves of very good prospects ready to ascend to the bigs. Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Henry Davis are the best of said core, and Jack Suwinski possesses terrific power at a premium position. Still, his lack of consistency is exposed with the current lineup construction. Nick Gonzalez is one of the team’s better prospects and should get better with experience. Andrew McCutchen and Bryan Reynolds provide veteran leadership.

Paul Skenes will not break camp with the team, but the rookie will lead the rotation within 10 weeks of Opening Day. They just extended Mitch Keller, who’s another solid starter, but the rotation drops precipitously from there. The Pirates are still looking to add starters and could be players for Jordan Montgomery. They’ll also be active in the trade market since they don’t have the depth to consistently win series.

David Bednar returns to lead Pittsburgh’s bullpen as the lone positive from last year. The Pirates finished 2023 with the 19th-best bullpen ERA (4.27) and 19th-best WHIP (1.33), yet the eighth-most strikeouts. The unit is still a work in progress, but Bednar will be mentioned often in trade talks. If he is moved, the Pirates will have a league-worst bullpen.


Offensive leaders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado had down years, and, at ages 36 and 32, could be on the precipice of continued regression. Willson Contreras and Nolan Gorman were strong offensively, but rookie Jordan Walker couldn’t escape mediocrity. Speaking of poor play, the team’s defense was noticeably bad in 2023. St. Louis ranked 20th with -7 defensive runs saved, and the team’s patience with Contreras behind the plate is razor-thin.

Two last-place finishes in a row? Say it ain’t so! The additions of Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson won’t give St. Louis the boost the team’s fans think they will. Last year was a disaster and this year might not be much better. Then again, their starters posted a 5.27 ERA, which ranked 26th in MLB, and they ranked 28th in strikeouts. Miles Mikolas is the Cardinals’ No. 2 starter, so yeah, it won’t be pretty after Gray.

Three of the four relievers who made the most appearances finished with ERAs north of 4.00, with the 3.98 of Drew VerHagen as the only exception. Thing is, he’s gone. Jordan Hicks was also traded away and is attempting to become a starter with the Giants. Ryan Helsley will close for the Cardinals, with Giovanny Gallegos expected to get the bulk of high-leverage innings. This is a poor unit that will be taxed by an aging rotation and that’s why I am expecting another last-place finish.

Cubs News & Notes 

Odds & Sods

What if Morel can handle third base? He’s off to a great start.

Central Intelligence

Spring Training News & Notes

MLBPA Tony Clark is confident that ongoing uniform issues will be resolved by Opening Day.

Spencer Strider has a filthy new breaking ball that is leaving fans awestruck.

White Sox third baseman Yoán Moncada hopes to have a big rebound year.

Speaking of comeback years, Tim Anderson made his debut with the Marlins and hopes to return to pre-2023 form.

Ken Griffey Jr. grabbed a camera and surprised some of baseball’s top prospects at a baseball card photo shoot.

MLB wants to make pitching more prominent, but aren’t they always looking for ways to improve scoring? I can’t keep up.

Extra Innings

Jefferson Rojas will be Chicago’s fastest-rising prospect this year. MLB Pipeline hasn’t dropped the team’s 2024 Top 30 list yet, but Rojas was No. 11 at the end of ’23.

They Said It

  • “Every player wants that opportunity. Now you have to use that appropriately. Because it’s not an endless opportunity. We need performance from Michael [Busch]. You earn those opportunities and we feel like he has earned it.” – Counsell
  • “You’re taking BP and trying to stay ready. But as a hitter, it is a little tougher because you’re so used to getting regular ABs and seeing so many pitches no matter if you’re struggling at the plate. You get 15 at-bats in three days, that always helps. Staggered at-bats are always tough, but it’s part of being a young player and you gotta get used to it. Just be comfortable for when the opportunity does come.” – Busch

Friday Walk-Up Song

Happy March 1, which used to be the start of the calendar year a long time ago. Hope springs eternal.

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