Since the National League Central Division came into being in 1994, the Cardinals have won 11 of the 25 divisional crowns and 10 of the past 20. The Pittsburgh Pirates have won none of the 25 divisional titles and haven’t won any division since 1992, when they captured the National League East with 2020 Hall of Famer Ted Simmons, longtime Cardinals star, as their general manager.
As the next quarter century in the division begins, the Cardinals are a lot better bet to get to 12 before the Pirates get to one.
The Chicago Cubs have won five Central titles in 25 years, Cincinnati three and Milwaukee two. If you’re adding these up, that leaves four unaccounted for, and they belong to the Houston Astros before they were dispatched to the American League and ultimate ignominy, having something to do with trash cans.
Much of the offseason buzz surrounds Cincinnati, which made several significant free-agent signings, headlined by third baseman/second baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielder Nicholas Castellanos after landing top-line starter Trevor Bauer in an in-season trade with Cleveland last year.
There was little offseason buzz in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, where scant free-agent or trade activity took place other than the Cubs signing former player/telecaster David Ross as their new manager.
Ross has never managed before, but neither had Craig Counsell before he took over the Brewers in 2015. He’s had them in the playoffs the past two seasons, one of those as division champions in 2018.
Derek Shelton, Pittsburgh’s new skipper, never has managed above short-season ball, but he isn’t likely to match what Counsell has done any time soon.
A look at the Central Division for 2020 and how each team can win. Or not.
The Cardinals will win if …
It starts at the top. The Cardinals and the Cubs were the worst teams in the majors last season in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS from their leadoff men. Kolten Wong, an emerging star, will get a chance to fix that as the Cardinals’ new No 1 hitter.
It ends at the end. With closer Jordan Hicks opting out of the season, the Cardinals must cobble together a late-inning bullpen system that can lock down leads. They could find themselves involved in a lot of close games that will be low-run affairs because of their good starting pitching and their unpredictable offense.
The Cardinals won’t win if …
They don’t replace the threat of departed Marcell Ozuna in the cleanup spot, don’t get bounce-back years from Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler and if Carlos Martinez does not stay healthy. He’s a good bet to start the season in that closer role.
The Cubs will win if …
Yu Darvish finally recaptures — and maintains — the form that made him one of the American League’s best pitchers.
Kris Bryant, in perhaps his final year as a Cub, knocks in more runs. He tallied just 77 RBIs last year.
They will not win if …
Craig Kimbrel, one of the top closers in history, doesn’t pitch any better than he did last year for the Cubs, when he was 0-4 with a 6.53 ERA after Chicago signed him in the summertime.
And if Jon Lester acts his age. At 35, Lester tailed off a bit, winning only 13 games and posting a 4.46 ERA. Now he is a 36-year-old ace whose favorite catcher with Boston and the Cubs has become his manager. Ross may have some anxious moments as to when to pull the plug on a Lester start.
The Brewers will win if …
Christian Yelich plays a full season or what amounts to a full season now. They almost won last year when Yelich missed the final three weeks with a broken kneecap. He is signed for longer than any other current player — through 2029.
Counsell, a master at changing pitchers in the course of innings, finds enough pitchers he can trust to get three outs at a time.
And if one-time lockdown closer Corey Knebel bounces back from Tommy John elbow surgery.
The Brewers will not win if …
Their starting pitching isn’t good enough. They’re counting on Brandon Woodruff (11-3 in 2019), who has less than two years of service, to be their ace.
The Reds will win if …
Their new-look offense, with free agents Moustakas and Castellanos, helps a talented starting corps and bullpen. It used to be the other way around here, with the offense carrying the mail and the pitching desperately trying to keep the ball in the park.
The Reds will not win if …
Their right-side defense is compromised with Moustakas at second base and Castellanos in right field, although Castellanos may DH. Both are sub-par defenders. It helps that the Reds rotation is a strikeout-type staff.
Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who had 49 homers in 2019, has trouble with his surgically repaired shoulder stemming from an offseason swimming pool accident. The extra four months off should have helped him.
The Pirates will win if …
Barry Bonds, Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner return. Bonds, in fact, played on the last division champion Pirates team in 1992.
The Pirates will not win if …
Their pitching does not hold up. Jameson Tallion and Chris Archer already are out until next season after Tommy John surgery and thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, respectively.
Their hitting does not hold up. The lineup, not a deep one anyway, will be weakened by the trade of Starling Marte to Arizona.
Willie Stargell, John Candelaria and Doug Drabek don’t come back either.