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Team-by-team 2024 season outlook for National League Central

Brewers Diamondbacks Baseball
Posted at 11:55 AM, Mar 14, 2024

A team-by-team look at the National League Central, including key players each club acquired and lost, top hitters and projected rotations, and outlooks for the 2024 season.

Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:
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MILWAUKEE BREWERS

2023: 92-70, first place, lost to Arizona in Wild Card Series.

Manager: Pat Murphy (first season).

Opening Day: March 28 at New York Mets.

He's Here: 1B Rhys Hoskins, DH/1B Jake Bauers, OF Jackson Chourio, INF/OF Christian Arroyo, C Eric Haase, LHP DL Hall, LHP Bryan Hudson, RHP Jakob Junis, INF Joey Ortiz, RHP Joe Ross, C Gary Sánchez.

He's Outta Here: Manager Craig Counsell, RHP Corbin Burnes, INF Brian Anderson, OF Mark Canha, C Victor Caratini, LHP Andrew Chafin, 3B Josh Donaldson, RHP Adrian Houser, LHP Eric Lauer, 1B Carlos Santana, OF Tyrone Taylor, RHP Julio Teherán, 1B Rowdy Tellez, OF/DH Jesse Winker.

Top Hitters: LF Christian Yelich (.278, 19 HRs, 76 RBIs, 28 SBs, .818 OPS), C William Contreras (.289, 17, 78, .825 OPS), SS Willy Adames (.217, 24, 80, .717 OPS), 1B Rhys Hoskins (.246, 30, 79, .794 OPS with Philadelphia in 2022; missed 2023 with torn ACL), C/DH Gary Sánchez (.217, 19, 47, .780 OPS in 75 games with Mets and Padres).

Projected Rotation: RH Freddy Peralta (12-10, 3.86 ERA, 210 Ks in 165 2/3 IP), LH Wade Miley (9-4, 3.14, 79 Ks in 99 IP), RH Colin Rea (6-6, 4.55), LH DL Hall (3-0, 3.26, 23 Ks in 19 1/3 IP for Baltimore) or RH Joe Ross (hasn't pitched since 2021 due to injuries) or RH Jakob Junis (4-3, 3.87, 96 Ks in 86 IP for Giants) or LH Aaron Ashby (2-10, 4.44, 126 Ks in 107 1/3 IP in 2022; missed last season with shoulder injury) or LH Robert Gasser (9-1, 3.79 at Triple-A Nashville).

Key Relievers: RH Devin Williams (8-3, 1.53 ERA, 36/40 saves, 87 Ks in 58 2/3 IP), RH Joel Payamps (7-5, 2.55, 77 Ks in 70 2/3 IP), LH Hoby Milner (2-1, 1.82, 59 Ks in 64 1/3 IP), RH Elvis Peguero (4-5, 3.38, 54 Ks in 61 1/3 IP), RH Abner Uribe (1-0, 1.76, 39 Ks in 30 2/3 IP), RH Bryse Wilson (6-0, 2.58).

Outlook: The defending NL Central champions will have a new look without Counsell and Burnes. Counsell, who guided the Brewers to the playoffs five of the last six years, left to manage the Chicago Cubs. The new manager is Murphy, who had served as Counsell's bench coach since 2016. Burnes, a three-time All-Star and the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, was traded to Baltimore for Hall, Ortiz and a 2024 draft pick. The Brewers also probably will play the entire season without two-time All-Star pitcher Brandon Woodruff, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Burnes' exit and Woodruff's likely absence leave plenty of questions in the rotation. That could put more pressure on a normally strong bullpen anchored by Williams — but he's expected to miss three months with stress fractures in his back. Milwaukee struggled offensively last year but could get a boost from the additions of Hoskins and Sánchez. The Brewers need to see growth from Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang, who showed flashes of promise as rookies last year. Milwaukee also has one of baseball's most intriguing rookies in the 20-year-old Chourio, the projected starter in center field.

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CHICAGO CUBS

2023: 83-79, second place.

Manager: Craig Counsell (first season).

Opening Day: March 28 at Texas.

He's Here: LHP Shota Imanaga, RHP Héctor Neris, RHP Yency Almonte, INF Michael Busch.

He's Outta Here: Manager David Ross, RHP Marcus Stroman, INF Jeimer Candelario, RHP Michael Fulmer.

Top Hitters: CF Cody Bellinger (.307, 26 HRs, 97 RBIs, 20 SBs, .881 OPS), RF Seiya Suzuki (.285, 20, 74, 31 2Bs, .842 OPS), LF Ian Happ (.248, 21, 84, 35 2Bs), SS Dansby Swanson (.244, 22, 80), 2B Nico Hoerner (.283, 9, 68, 98 runs, 43 SBs), INF Christopher Morel (.247, 26, 70, .821 OPS).

Projected Rotation: LH Justin Steele (16-5, 3.06 ERA), LH Shota Imanaga (7-4, 2.80 with Yokohama in Japan's Central League), RH Jameson Taillon (8-10, 4.84), RH Kyle Hendricks (6-8, 3.74), LH Jordan Wicks (4-1, 4.41) or RH Javier Assad (5-3, 3.05).

Key Relievers: RH Adbert Alzolay (2-5, 2.67 ERA, 22/25 saves), RH Héctor Neris (6-3, 1.71, 2 saves with Astros), RH Mark Leiter Jr. (1-3, 3.50, 4 saves), RH Julian Merryweather (5-1, 3.38, 2 saves).

Outlook: Counsell was a surprise hire in November, taking over a club that made just one playoff appearance in the previous five years. His ability to get the most out of his Milwaukee teams was a major reason why he was brought in by Chicago. The former big league infielder inherits a solid group of position players, led by Swanson and Bellinger, and a rotation fronted by the rising Steele. Bellinger could experience some regression after his resurgent 2023 season, but Suzuki and Morel are capable of increased production. The durable Neris was an important addition in free agency after the bullpen faltered late last year. The minor league system is loaded, so the Cubs have some options in the event of injuries, or if they decide to go shopping for help at the trade deadline.

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CINCINNATI REDS

2023: 82-80, third place.

Manager: David Bell (sixth season).

Opening Day: March 28 vs. Washington.

He's Here: 3B Jeimer Candelario, RHP Frankie Montas, RHP Nick Martinez, LHP Brent Suter, RHP Emilio Pagán, INF/OF Josh Harrison.

He's Outta Here: 1B Joey Votto, 3B/OF Nick Senzel, INF Matt Reynolds, RHP Ben Lively, OF Henry Ramos, OF T.J. Hopkins, C Curt Casali.

Top Hitters: OF/1B Spencer Steer (.271, 23 HRs, 86 RBIs, .820 OPS), CF TJ Friedl (.279, 18, 66, .819 OPS), 2B Jonathan India (.244, 17, 61, .745 OPS), C Tyler Stephenson (.243, 13, 56, .695 OPS), INF Matt McLain (.290, 16, 50, .864 OPS in 89 games).

Projected Rotation: RH Hunter Greene (4-7, 4.82 ERA), RH Frankie Montas (1-0, 0.00 with Yankees after missing most of season following shoulder surgery), RH Graham Ashcraft (7-9, 4.76), LH Andrew Abbott (8-8, 4.50), LH Nick Lodolo (2-1, 6.29; missed most of season after left tibia surgery).

Key Relievers: RH Alexis Díaz (9-6, 3.07 ERA, 37 saves, 86 Ks in 67 1/3 IP), RH Emilio Pagán (5-2, 2.99, 1 save with Twins), LH Brent Suter (4-3, 3.38 with Rockies), RH Nick Martinez (6-4, 3.43 with Padres).

Outlook: The rising Reds were written off by most last season, but an influx of exciting young rookies turned things around. They were back in contention in the NL Central and finished two games over .500 after losing 100 games in 2022. Bell has the happy dilemma of figuring out how to fit all the talented pieces together, including Steer, McLain and blazing-fast infielder Elly De La Cruz. The Reds went out and got Montas, Pagán, Suter and Martinez to bolster a pitching staff decimated by injuries and overwork last season. One major change will be the absence of Votto in Cincinnati for the first time since 2006 after the team declined to exercise his contract option. He became a free agent, and Toronto signed the 40-year-old longtime slugger to a minor league contract.

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PITTSBURGH PIRATES

2023: 76-86, fourth place.

Manager: Derek Shelton (fifth season).

Opening Day: March 28 at Miami.

He's Here: LHP Martín Pérez, LHP Marco Gonzales, LHP Aroldis Chapman, C Yasmani Grandal, 1B/DH Rowdy Tellez.

He's Outta Here: 3B/OF Miguel Andujar, RHP Andre Jackson, RHP Wil Crowe.

Top Hitters: 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes (.271, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, .762 OPS), OF Bryan Reynolds (.263, 24, 84, .790 OPS), OF Jack Suwinski (.224, 26, 74, .793 OPS), DH Andrew McCutchen (.256, 12, 43, .776 OPS), C/OF Henry Davis (.213, 7, 24), 1B/DH Rowdy Tellez (.215, 13, 47 with Milwaukee), SS Oneil Cruz (.250, 1, 4 in 9 games).

Projected Rotation: RH Mitch Keller (13-9, 4.21 ERA), LH Martín Pérez (10-4, 4.45 with Texas), LH Marco Gonzales (4-1, 5.22 with Seattle), RH Luis Ortiz (5-5, 4.78), RH Quinn Priester (3-3, 7.74).

Key Relievers: RH David Bednar (3-3, 2.00 ERA, 39/42 saves), LH Aroldis Chapman (6-5, 3.09, 6 saves with Royals and Rangers), RH Colin Holderman (0-3, 3.86), LH Ryan Borucki (4-0, 2.45).

Outlook: The Pirates are optimistic the top-to-bottom overhaul general manager Ben Cherington began after taking over in the fall of 2019 is starting to pick up steam. Pittsburgh escaped the NL Central basement for the first time since 2018 last year, with Keller becoming an All-Star and Hayes winning his first Gold Glove while showing an uptick in power at the plate. Still, questions remain. The starting rotation beyond Keller, Pérez and Gonzales is a mystery, though there's a chance hard-throwing right-hander Paul Skenes — the top pick in last year's amateur draft — arrives by early summer. Davis, the top pick in 2021, will see a heavier workload behind the plate after spending most of his rookie season in the outfield. McCutchen begins his 16th season sitting on 299 career home runs and is coming off an Achilles injury. While Pittsburgh may still be a year away from having the pieces to contend into September, expectations internally and externally are beginning to rise.

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ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

2023: 71-91, fifth place.

Manager: Oliver Marmol (third season).

Opening Day: March 28 at Los Angeles Dodgers.

He's Here: RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Kyle Gibson, RHP Lance Lynn, SS Brandon Crawford, RHP Keynan Middleton, RHP Andrew Kittredge, DH Matt Carpenter, RHP Nick Robertson.

He's Outta Here: RHP Adam Wainwright, LF Tyler O'Neill, RHP Jake Woodford, RHP Dakota Hudson, 1B Juan Yepez.

Top Hitters: 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.268, 25 HRs, 80 RBIs), 3B Nolan Arenado (.266, 26, 93), 2B Nolan Gorman (.236, 27, 76), C Willson Contreras (.264, 20, 67), RF Jordan Walker (.276, 16, 51), 2B Brendan Donovan (.284, 11, 34), CF Lars Nootbaar (.261, 14, 46), LF Tommy Edman (.248, 13, 47, 27 SBs).

Projected Rotation: RH Sonny Gray (8-8, 2.79 ERA with Twins), RH Miles Mikolas (9-13, 4.78), RH Lance Lynn (13-11, 5.73 with White Sox and Dodgers), RH Kyle Gibson (15-9, 4.73 with Orioles), LH Steven Matz (4-7, 3.86).

Key Relievers: RH Ryan Helsley (3-4, 2.45 ERA, 14 saves), RH Giovanny Gallegos (2-4, 4.42, 10 saves), LH JoJo Romero (4-2, 3.68), RH Andre Pallante (4-1, 4.76), RH Andrew Kittredge (2-0, 3.09 with Rays), RH Keynan Middleton (2-2, 3.38 with White Sox and Yankees), LH Matthew Liberatore (3-6, 5.25).

Outlook: The Cardinals are far more accustomed to playing in the postseason than finishing 20 games below .500, so not surprisingly, their last-place flop in 2023 led to some lavish offseason spending to address their biggest shortcomings. At the top of the list was the rotation, where AL Cy Young Award runner-up Gray was signed along with Gibson and former Cardinals starter Lynn to reshape the front end. St. Louis already will need some depth, with Gray dealing with a hamstring injury that could cause him to miss opening day. The lineup returns plenty of power with Goldschmidt, who had a down year by his standards, and Arenado providing the most pop. Donovan followed a strong rookie season with an even better sophomore campaign, and his ability to handle second base frees up super-utility man Edman to play elsewhere. The Cardinals added Crawford for some experience at shortstop, but they would prefer if former top-50 prospect Masyn Winn lives up to expectations. He hit just .172 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 37 games after making his big league debut last season.