The St. Louis Cardinals and the rest of the NL Central were viewed as the best division in baseball in recent years. Now, things have changed.
It wasn’t too long ago that the NL Central was viewed as the most competitive division in baseball. Coming off of a down year in 2019, the Reds built up a ton of talent and it was expected that the division would bounce back, even if the St. Louis Cardinals weren’t pegged to end up winning the division again.
Bleacher Report agreed when they listed the NL Central as second in their preseason division power rankings. However, I don’t think the NL Central would be anywhere near the top after 2020.
The NL Central was the only division in baseball to not have a team win 35 games during the 2020 season. The Cubs ended the season at 34-26, but did so while their core group of stars continued a backward slide. No longer was the middle of the lineup a threat as it used to be. Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras all still have their star power in name, but the belief is that the Cubs’ core will be broken up before the 2021 season.
After the team signed Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and other players to expensive contracts, the payroll swelled to huge heights. Last winter, the Cubs let it slip that even signing anyone more than Daniel Descalso (two years, $7M) was going to be a pinch. Now, after the pandemic ruined revenues, the Cubs are going to have to make some very tough decisions this winter.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the master craftsman of the Cubs’ current financial predicament, Theo Epstein, was resigning. Just like he did with the Red Sox, Epstein came in, tanked, drafted, spent a TON of money, then left when the inflated payroll led to a dip in performance. Even with the World Series he brought to both cities, there is no question about the state the teams were in when he left.
Epstein’s resignation really does cap off the transition that the NL Central has made from the powerhouse it once was to what it seems to be now.
The Pirates still sit at the bottom of the division without much of a hope for contention anytime soon. The Brewers’ perpetual need for pitching has been solved slightly, but their strategy of acquiring as many utility infielders as possible before 2020 tanked their offense. The Reds brought in talent, but their defense and offensive struggles stood in the way of success. And finally, the Cardinals seem like a team on the rise in the next five years, but not in 2021 for sure.
With most teams cutting back rather than looking to spend, it is tough to imagine the NL Central continuing to be anything but a bottom-tier division in baseball.
The Central will still send at least one team to the playoffs, leaving some hope intact. However, the days of NL Central domination are past us for the time being. Everything is cyclical and the NL Central will regain its pride at some point, but the backward trend across the board has left it in a bad spot.