The Rundown: NL Central Predictions, Counsell Expecting ‘Fun’ Season, Ohtani Addresses Gambling Scandal

The Cubs finalized their roster on Monday, and though I was disappointed Alexander Canario was one of the final cuts, the 26-player team heading north looks a lot better than last year’s. I’m not quite sure who gets the final edit, Craig Counsell or Jed Hoyer, but it’s much more youthful than the group David Ross went to battle with in 2023. Hoyer said last year at this time that he was planting trees, and some of those seedlings have begun to bear fruit.

Morel is a huge upgrade over Torrens, while Busch, Cooper, and Tauchman represent a bigger improvement over last year’s choices. The bullpen looks much more trustworthy, but will likely be in flux all season. I also like Imanaga and Wicks over Stroman and Wesneski, plus the addition of a healthy Hendricks over Smyly.

Chicago’s biggest upgrade is Counsell over Ross, hands down. This year’s team isn’t as talented as the Dodgers, Braves, and Phillies, but it is good enough to unseat the Brewers in the NL Central. And, as the Diamondbacks and Rangers proved last year, anything can happen once you secure a playoff berth. With that in mind, I’ll predict how the division will play out.

  1. Cubs (85-77): Even with room for improvement, Chicago has the best team in the division. I’m not worried that Cody Bellinger will regress, I can’t argue with you if you have concerns. I do think this team would be stronger with Bellinger at first base, Busch at DH, and Pete Crow-Armstrong in center. The propensity for less-than-stellar defense at the infield corners worries me, especially with a mostly pitch-to-contact rotation. I’d also like to see Cade Horton and Ben Brown on the roster. I understand it’s a numbers game and guaranteed contracts limit available roster spots, but each is ready for the bigs.
  2. Pirates (81-81): Pittsburgh will be this year’s version of the 2023 Reds, and Paul Skenes leads an influx of young talent that will make the Bucs a formidable foe as the season progresses. Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes are primed for monster years, by the way. Let’s also not forget the Pirates started 20-9 last year, so they do know how to win. The caveat? Pittsburgh has several potential midseason trade candidates, particularly relievers Aroldis Chapman and David Bednar, so a late-season fade is entirely possible.
  3. Reds (78-84): The Reds could land anywhere from first to last in the NL Central. Do they get the Athletics’ version of Frankie Montas or the one that struggled with the Yankees? Will Elly De La Cruz hit 30 home runs, strike out 250 times, or hit both benchmarks? The biggest keys to this season are Spencer Steer and Hunter Greene, but keep an eye on hard-throwing righty Rhett Lowder, who could get a call-up as early as May if needed. The Reds can hang with anybody if their youthful roster reaches its potential, but only if they stop giving away at-bats and runs with poor fielding. Cincinnati’s .984 fielding percentage in ’23 was the worst in the division, though the Cubs and Pirates weren’t much better. The Reds are still a year away, and probably more.
  4. Brewers (77-85): Rhys Hoskins and Jackson Chourio are fantastic additions and will make Milwaukee fun to watch. That said, the defection of Counsell and the trade that sent Corbin Burnes to the Orioles are worth 10 losses alone. DL Hall is a very good prospect who will start the season in the Brewers’ rotation, but he’s got some big shoes to fill with Brandon Woodruff on the IL. Freddy Peralta is not Burns and it’s not close. Milwaukee has made the playoffs in five of six seasons despite low payrolls and often low expectations. That dog won’t hunt this season with Pat Murphy replacing Counsell.
  5. Cardinals (72-90): The Redbirds get a lot of love from projection analysts, but I just don’t see it. St. Louis is counting on an aging rotation prone to giving up home runs, resurgent seasons by Miles Mikolas and Jordan Walker, and a return to the norm of the well-fermented Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. In an era when the game is getting younger, faster, and more athletic, St. Louis has but one shiny toy: shortstop Masyn Winn. The 22-year-old was electric at Triple-A but batted .172 in 137 big-league plate appearances as a rookie. I see the Cardinals as the obvious scorched-earth rebuild candidate in the NL Central. Steven Matz is the team’s youngest starting pitcher, and he turns 33 in May. That’s fine if you’re playing 16″ softball in Grant Park, but it doesn’t bode well for a big league rotation expected to compete for a postseason berth.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

One of these three is not like the others.

Central Intelligence

Climbing the Ladder

A quirk in this year’s schedule means the Cubs won’t play a division opponent until facing the Brewers on May 3. Additionally, Chicago finishes its season series against the Brewers and Cardinals with three home games against Milwaukee on July 22 and a four-game home set against St. Louis that starts August 1. Counsell’s squad needs to be fully prepared to win the division in the middle third of the season.

Spring Training News & Notes

On Monday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, Shohei Ohtani (accompanied by his new interpreter, Will Ireton) read a statement in which he denied betting on baseball or any other sport or asking anyone to do so on his behalf. Ohtani added he did not know about Ippei Mizuhara’s gambling and debt until after the Dodgers and Padres’ first game in Seoul last Wednesday when Mizuhara addressed the Dodgers about his gambling addiction.

The Rays’ bullpen bonds over the New York Times Crossword puzzle. I wouldn’t want to face any of their relievers on a Friday evening.

Rob Manfred has made some questionable decisions, but he made the right one by not isolating the Reds as the league’s Opening Day attraction.

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston will be the voice of baseball’s marketing campaign for the second consecutive year. He’s a Dodgers fan and has a little Vin Scully to his personality.

Several players have an opportunity to reach major milestones this season, including Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, and Anthony Rizzo.

Speaking of milestones, four MLB players are aged 40+ this season: Justin Verlander, Joey Votto, Charlie Morton, and Max Scherzer.

Analysts expect stolen bases to increase for the second consecutive year.

Extra Innings

Suzuki could hit 25-30 taters this year, and I believe he will if he stays injury-free.

They Said It

  • “I can’t play GM too much. There was a little bit last year where I was always dreaming about going up. But this year, the goal is just to execute pitches, get the most out of my routines and my bullpens, and whatever happens, happens. I’ll be ready for Iowa, Tennessee, Chicago, whatever the case is.” – Brown
  • “Everything we do here, there’s a purpose. It’s explained as to why we’re doing it. We have meetings. We talk about standards for the year, and things we want to embody as a group. All that stuff is very intentional to this group. Spring training is all about culture. There’s no in-game managing going on in spring training, right? It’s just cultivating that every day.”Dansby Swanson

Tuesday Walk-Up Song

You’ll want to follow Smurfstools Oldies Music Time Machine if you’re a fan of classic pop and rock.

Back to top button