Elegy for 2021: Recapping the NL Central, Team by Team

After a one-year hiatus due to the oddity and non-celebratory feeling of a season truncated by a raging pandemic, we’re bringing back the Elegy series in a streamlined format for a 2021 wrapup. Think of this as a quick winter preview for each team, discussing the questions that faced each team ahead of the year, how they were answered, and what’s next. Do you like or hate the new format? Let me know in the comments below! We’ve already tackled the AL Central; now on to its Senior Circuit counterpart.

Milwaukee Brewers (95–67)

The Big Question
Could Christian Yelich bounce back from a weak 2020 season? His .326/.402/.598 breakout season in 2018 netted him an MVP award, and he may have won back-to-back trophies if not for a fractured kneecap that ended his ’19 season prematurely. And while 2020 was a disappointment, you could at least chalk some of it up to a low BABIP.

The Brew Crew didn’t look like a 95-win team coming into the season, but in a weak division and with possible upside from players like Yelich and the contact-challenged Keston Hiura, you had to like their chances as much as anybody. Helping matters was a pitching staff that took a big step forward during the shortened season. Corbin Burnes provided an ample demonstration of why you shouldn’t freak out about homers allowed for otherwise effective pitchers, and Brandon Woodruff had an entire season at bonafide ace status.

How It Went
The Yelich part? Not so well. He largely drifted back toward the lower-loft, lots-of-liners, high-BABIP hitter that he was in Miami, but without the old ability to feast on fastballs. His .384 SLG against heaters in 2021 was easily the worst of his career, well off his over-.600 marks in ’18 and ’19. Heading into his age-30 season, there are good reasons to worry about his future.

For the Brewers, however, the season went swimmingly — almost shockingly so. If you were told at the start of the year that Yelich would turn into Mark Loretta, Jackie Bradley Jr. would have an OPS below .500, Hiura would hit .168, and Avisaíl García was one of the offensive highlights, would you think “shucks, now that sounds like a team that’s going to coast into the playoffs?” Some things did, in fact, go in the lineup’s favor. The Brewers gave up an excellent prospect in Drew Rasmussen to get Willy Adames, but he was a key factor in them outpacing the division and has three more years until free agency. Luis Urías provided a lot of power, and I personally appreciate him not making me look stupid.

In the end, the Brewers got just “enough” offense, with the rotation pushing the team over the top. Burnes issued fewer walks than a Texas judge, handing out one or zero in 17 of his 28 starts. It’s not like he went full-on Bob Tewksbury to manage that either; he hit double-digits in strikeouts in eight games, punching out 96 batters against a measly five walks in those eight games. He would have been my NL Cy Young pick, but you could have put Woodruff and/or Freddy Peralta on the ballot without looking like you’re taking kickbacks from Miller.

What’s Next?
The good news for the Brewers is that there aren’t any serious losses in free agency this winter. Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer fill out the rotation, and Milwaukee has additional depth there. Improvements this offseason ought to primarily be lineup-based. Yelich isn’t going anywhere, but expectations have to be adjusted downward. Lorenzo Cain will be 36 and is increasingly fragile, and Bradley is not the answer; Starling Marte would be a lot of fun in center. Rowdy Tellez and Daniel Vogelbach aren’t long-term solutions at first, and the Brewers can’t assume that Hiura will be given his struggles.

Player Projection Spotlight: Corbin Burnes
The 2020 season was enough for ZiPS to believe that Burnes was a three-win player as a full-time starter and the No. 31 pitcher in rest-of-career projected WAR, so a legitimate Cy Young-worthy season puts him easily over the top. The projections for next year obviously have not been made yet, but the preliminary one would have placed him at the back of the top 10 at the start of the 2021 season.

ZiPS Projection – Corbin Burnes (Preliminary)
2022 11 5 0 2.94 27 27 156.0 120 51 14 44 204 154 4.6
2023 11 5 0 2.87 26 26 150.3 116 48 13 42 194 158 4.6
2024 11 5 0 2.95 25 25 146.7 113 48 13 41 189 154 4.3

St. Louis Cardinals (90–72)

The Big Question
The Cardinals tend to be one of the most stable, unsurprising teams in baseball; the usual question is whether this will be one of those 87-win seasons or one where they win 92. The largest worry was likely an offense that finished 14th in the NL in runs scored in 2020. Nolan Arenado represented a massive upgrade, but most of a not particularly young offense that outscored only the Rangers and Pirates the year prior was coming back for another go. Injuries also created a lot of questions in the rotation; as excellent as Adam Wainwright was in 2020, no team should be comfortable with a 39-year-old pitcher as its most dependable starter.

How It Went
The Cardinals ended up with a very Cardinals-esque number of wins, but it was a roller coaster to get there. After a hot start, the offense disappeared, and they spent most of midseason hanging around fourth place in a not-very-good division. By mid-August, we had their playoff probability down in the 1% range; for context, the 2019 Nationals, another team noted for coming back from the dead, never dropped below 22% at any time.

Everything turned around in September. After hitting 58 homers total in July and August, the lineup combined for 56 in that final month. Neither Jon Lester nor J.A. Happ were actually good after being picked up in deadline trades, but with the offense cruising, they really just needed guys to eat innings for a beat-up rotation, tasks that they handled well. And with the Padres collapsing and the Reds treading water, St. Louis’ 17-game winning streak carried the team into the playoffs with a shocking seven games to spare.

What’s Next?
While the season worked out in the end (at least until the Wild Card Game), there are still problems to address in the offseason. The rotation worked out in the end, but the Cardinals needed Happ and Lester because their depth was severely lacking, and while Wainwright will be back again, he’s going to be 40. Long story short, they really need to add a starting pitcher of some significance. Adding new and better blood should be the goal for the starting lineup as well; St. Louis was quite fortunate to make the playoffs given 400-plus miserable plate appearances from Matt Carpenter and Justin Williams.

Player Projection Spotlight: Tyler O’Neill
Can O’Neill do it again? There were reasons to think that his .621 OPS in 2020 wouldn’t be a thing going forward, but I’ll wager few saw him putting up a five-win season. ZiPS, though, is not ready to say he’s on that level. He’s been a surprisingly high-BABIP hitter in the majors when things are going well, but he wasn’t like that in the minors, and ZiPS saw him more as a .265–.270 hitter in 2021. Still, while the batting average isn’t projected to stick, the power is. O’Neill is more likely to end up as a Ryan Ludwick than a Matt Holliday in the Cardinalverse, but the former still gave St. Louis four solid seasons. The team should be happy to stick him in left and worry about other issues.

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Tyler O’Neill (Preliminary)
90% .303 .376 .629 466 92 141 29 3 39 101 47 22 164 5.7
80% .286 .357 .588 469 89 134 27 2 37 97 44 17 149 4.6
70% .277 .347 .562 470 87 130 25 2 35 92 43 15 139 3.9
60% .267 .336 .540 472 85 126 23 2 34 90 41 14 131 3.4
50% .260 .328 .520 473 84 123 22 1 33 85 40 13 124 2.9
40% .253 .321 .498 474 81 120 21 1 31 82 39 11 116 2.4
30% .242 .307 .475 476 79 115 19 1 30 79 37 10 107 1.8
20% .231 .296 .449 477 77 110 18 1 28 74 36 9 97 1.1
10% .219 .283 .415 479 73 105 17 1 25 69 34 7 85 0.3

Cincinnati Reds (83-79)

The Big Question
The Reds had a void at shortstop, and in an offseason chock-full of fascinating options at the position, they boldly did nothing. In the end, they tried to solve the problem by moving Eugenio Suárez off third base and back to his original position at shortstop and Mike Moustakas back to his original position at third, clearing a spot for Jonathan India to start at second. I was skeptical that this gamble made much sense in a division that could be up for grabs, as middling third basemen don’t usually excel at shortstop, and India hadn’t played above Double A.

How It Went
Shortstop turned out not to be a festering wound. Suárez predictably struggled there and ended up back at the hot corner after Moustakas landed on the IL with a case of plantar fasciitis; instead, it was former backup catcher Kyle Farmer who landed there. That’s not quite as surprising as it sounds: he played shortstop in college, but the Dodgers tried him behind the plate because of his strong arm and their belief he didn’t have the range to play shortstop professionally. India, meanwhile, had a fantastic season and is one of the favorites to end up with the NL Rookie of the Year award, so there are no complaints there.

The rotation handled the loss of Trevor Bauer well, with Wade Miley leading the staff in ERA at 3.37. The bullpen turned out to be the Reds’ weakest spot, a loss that was a lot more apparent thanks to the trade of closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels in December. To add insult to injury, Noé Ramirez, one of the two players acquired in that deal, was released in March and went on to put up a 3.48 FIP for the Diamondbacks. After sneaking back into the race thanks to the Padres, Cincinnati had a low-key trade deadline, picking up just Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson, and while both pitchers acquitted themselves well, like the Friars, the Reds got swamped by the Cardinals’ tidal wave.

What’s Next?
How much spending will the front office be allowed to do this offseason? The Reds seemed to be in cost-cutting mode for 2021, entering the season with a payroll about $10 million lower than 2019. If both Miley and Tucker Barnhart have their options picked up, we have their luxury tax number at just over $140 million. They could save $16 million by Nick Castellanos opting out, but they will likely lose more than $16 million worth of baseballing in exchange, so that’s not much of a tradeoff. Replacing him is necessary, and Cincinnati would be wise to add a few bullpen arms, too. Farmer is more valuable as a versatile sub rather than the starting shortstop, as admirable a job as he did, so an upgrade there would be preferable as well. I don’t, however, see the Reds filling most of this want list.

Player Projection Spotlight: Eugenio Suárez
It’s not a shock that Suárez’s side trip to short was an awkward one, but his offensive decline since 2019 has been a real plot twist. He still hit for plenty of power, setting a new career-high in barrel rate at 15%, but ZiPS does not see the batting average part of his line improving anytime soon, pegging him as a low-BABIP hitter from here on out. Like Yelich, Suárez’s decline against fastballs has been extreme: He lost roughly four wins of offense from ’19 to ’21 just against the hard stuff, and he’s not a disciplined enough hitter to handle being a teetotaler.

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Eugenio Suárez (Preliminary)
90% .273 .367 .617 494 84 135 28 2 46 131 68 4 152 5.3
80% .258 .350 .557 497 79 128 25 2 40 118 65 4 133 4.1
70% .245 .337 .524 498 75 122 23 1 38 110 64 4 122 3.4
60% .236 .329 .501 499 74 118 22 1 36 106 63 2 114 2.8
50% .232 .323 .482 500 72 116 21 1 34 102 62 2 108 2.4
40% .227 .317 .470 502 70 114 21 1 33 99 60 2 103 2.1
30% .219 .308 .453 503 69 110 20 1 32 95 59 2 97 1.6
20% .210 .297 .420 505 66 106 19 0 29 88 57 2 86 0.9
10% .197 .282 .392 508 63 100 18 0 27 82 54 2 75 0.1

Chicago Cubs (71–91)

The Big Question
A lot of players played a part in the Cubs winning their first World Series championship in a century, but none were as prominent as the trio of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Báez. The latter two were elite prospects when the Cubs started rebuilding in earnest — we had them ranked fourth and sixth respectively — and Rizzo was acquired in a prospect-for-prospect challenge trade for Andrew Cashner before he was established in the majors. The Cubs rose along with those three, but with none of them signed past 2021, you could see the end coming, and despite another NL Central crown in 2020, all three struggled in the shortened season. Could they bounce back for one last run?

Complicating the picture was the cost-cutting elsewhere. Already light on pitching from the usual sources of attrition, the Cubs traded Yu Darvish to the Padres and didn’t do a whole lot to shore up the starters. It was a bit like going to see a TV movie version of a James Bond flick, with 007 driving a Mercury Topaz to an exotic location like Fort Wayne or Dubuque to foil the supervillain’s plans.

How It Went
The Big Three did their job; by the end of April, Bryant alone had accumulated as much WAR (1.3) as they combined for in 2020. Though the performances weren’t quite at the level of their earlier peaks, all will likely end up with larger contracts this winter than they would have gotten the last one. That was enough for a while, even with Kyle Hendricks struggling and Jason Heyward and Ian Happ regressing terribly. But the offense collapsed in June against a gauntlet of contenders, hitting .188/.264/.366 as a unit. Patrick Wisdom, one of Chicago’s few pleasant surprises, hit .260/.333/.616 in June for 0.8 WAR; the rest combined for -1.4.

The Cubs fell permanently out of first place by late June and then below the .500 line a few weeks later. By the trade deadline, they were 11-1/2 games back in the Central and 10 back for the second wild card, far enough that the organization didn’t pretend at being a serious contender. Joc Pederson was traded in mid-July, and in a roughly 24-hour period at the deadline, Rizzo, Báez, and Bryant were all sent packing. Hendricks, Heyward, and Willson Contreras still remain from the 2016 champs, but July 30, 2021 served as the official end of the Pax Wriglalia.

What’s Next?
While Chicago appears unlikely to spend massively in free agency, I get the impression that this will be more of a retool more than a complete fire sale. There are no unstoppable teams in the NL Central, and even a Cubs franchise at peak parsimony is likely to be one of the biggest spenders in the division. If they don’t do anything this offseason, they’ll finish around $100 million in payroll, so there’s room to make some second- and third-tier free agent signings and still stay under $150 million, and an odd, disjointed free-agency period thanks to the lack of a CBA contract might prove an advantage for a team trying to execute a skinny rebuild. On top of that, bounce-back seasons for Hendricks and Happ strike me as likely, and Brennen Davis isn’t far off, cushioning some of the blow from the talent departures. Throw in some cheap gambles on starters like Alex Cobb or Rich Hill and landing one of the shortstops available in free agency, and the Cubs are suddenly interesting given the competition.

Projecting with just current rosters, the Cubs stand at about 75 wins entering 2022. I don’t think any of Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, or Rafael Ortega are long-term solutions — they’re as old as Báez, Bryant, and Rizzo — but the diminished expectations provide Chicago ample justification to give those journeymen extended chances in 2022 to prove them wrong.

Player Projection Spotlight: Kyle Hendricks

ZiPS Projection – Kyle Hendricks (Preliminary)
2022 9 9 0 4.46 26 26 149.3 157 74 25 33 114 98 1.8
2023 8 8 0 4.60 23 23 131.3 140 67 22 29 95 95 1.4
2024 7 8 0 4.73 22 22 124.3 133 65 22 28 89 93 1.2

One of the enduring myths, mainly expressed by people super-angry at me on Twitter, is that ZiPS habitually drags Hendricks through the mud, and that is definitely not the case.

ZiPS Past Projections – Kyle Hendricks
2014 6 8 4.46 25 24 139.3 155 69 19 23 81 88 0.9
2015 11 9 3.54 28 28 165.3 164 65 12 38 115 107 2.7
2016 8 7 3.61 28 28 159.7 154 64 14 40 125 105 2.5
2017 13 8 3.21 31 30 182.0 161 65 18 41 157 122 3.8
2018 10 6 3.48 27 27 155.0 146 60 18 39 136 123 3.2
2019 13 8 3.72 30 30 176.7 169 73 22 43 148 115 3.3
2020 12 8 3.67 29 29 169.3 162 69 22 37 143 118 3.3
2021 11 10 4.11 28 28 166.3 167 76 25 35 137 107 2.7

ZiPS was initially skeptical, seeing rookie Hendricks as a fourth starter, but it believed in him quickly after his solid debut. Since 2015, it has projected him at 19.8 WAR (actually 21.5, because the 2020 projection was for a full season) compared to 20.6 actual. But there was a notable dip in the projection from ’20 to ’21, even after a 2.88 ERA in the former year, for two reasons. First, while pitchers can succeed with low strikeout rates, he had dipped well into the danger zone where decline can come quickly. Second, ZiPS didn’t buy the sudden improvement in walk rate based on the plate discipline stats against him; things like first-strike percentage, which robustly predict walk rate, were not notably improved in 2020.

After a brutal 2021 in which Hendricks’ ERA spiked to 4.77 with a FIP to match at 4.89, ZiPS sees a rebound, but a small one. The computer being worried is much more than a bias against soft-tossers; with his changeup not working as usual, Hendricks lost an important tool to get lefties out, resulting in an OPS against of nearly .900.

Pittsburgh Pirates (61–101)

The Big Question
Who is Ke’Bryan Hayes? Projected through the minors as an average hitter with a tremendous glove, he terrorized the majors in his debut, hitting .376/.442/.682 and getting Rookie of the Year votes despite playing less than half of the 60-game season. ZiPS projected a step back, pegging him for a .261/.334/.432 line, though that was still enough to make him one of only two players on the Pirates to pass the two-win mark (Adam Frazier was the other). Most of the other questions regarding Pittsburgh were of the more depressing variety, such as wondering when Frazier and Bryan Reynolds would be traded and if the team could avoid the century mark in losses.

How It Went
Wrist pain in the spring resulted in Hayes missing most of the first two months of the season and continued to plague him, to the extent that he’s still seeing specialists about it. That’s a major mitigating factor in his .257/.316/.373 line, but his excellent defense was enough to put him at 1.5 WAR over just 96 games. On the other hand, Frazier and Reynolds were pleasant surprises and deserving All-Star picks that saved the Bucs from the “everybody gets an All-Star!” shame that resulted in Ed Sprague (1999) and Mike Williams (2003) representing the Steel City in Midsummer Classics past.

The Pirates were surprisingly respectable for much of April, taking consecutive series against the Cubs, Padres, Brewers, Tigers, and Twins. But the shallow offense failed to score even three runs per game in May, which is a problem when your rotation’s best pitcher is Tyler Anderson, and Pittsburgh quickly sank to the basement, where it stayed for the rest of the year. Frazier and basically any pitchers performing at least passingly well (Clay Holmes, Anderson, Richard Rodriguez) were traded at the deadline, and that was that.

What’s Next?
Can the Pirates contend? It’s certainly possible; the Rays spend just as little money yet have been able to contend successfully for many seasons in the much more competitive AL East. But without spending, your margins for error are much smaller, and you can’t be the Rays without evaluating talent as well as the Rays do. When “throw hard, throw low, and get a lot of grounders” became a less effective strategy thanks to hitters golfing low fastballs into the stands like they were Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach, the Pirates didn’t adjust very quickly. Nor did they compensate by spending more money; even when an infusion of cash might have put them over the top in the mid-2010s, the payroll never eclipsed $100 million.

Reynolds had an impressive season, but the question of when the Pirates trade him is when, not if, and suffice it to say that they aren’t going to be going after Carlos Correa in free agency. Next year will be a lot like 2021: veterans that succeed will be traded while the team waits for a deep farm system to pay off and hopes to avoid 100 losses.

Player Projection Spotlight: Bryan Reynolds

2022 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Bryan Reynolds (Preliminary)
90% .299 .390 .550 536 92 160 36 9 27 91 76 10 150 5.7
80% .291 .378 .520 540 91 157 33 8 25 87 72 8 140 4.9
70% .284 .369 .495 543 89 154 32 7 23 83 69 6 131 4.2
60% .276 .361 .476 544 87 150 31 6 22 79 68 6 124 3.7
50% .269 .353 .460 546 85 147 29 6 21 77 66 5 118 3.2
40% .263 .346 .442 547 85 144 28 5 20 74 65 5 112 2.8
30% .256 .335 .430 551 83 141 26 5 20 72 61 4 105 2.2
20% .248 .325 .400 553 81 137 25 4 17 67 59 4 95 1.4
10% .239 .312 .381 557 78 133 23 4 16 63 55 3 86 0.8

Reynolds simultaneously swung at more pitches in-zone and fewer pitches out-of-zone and got more loft with his swing, all of which paid off handsomely. ZiPS sees some regression coming, as it can’t completely forget 2020 as much as everyone would like to, but he’s a solid offensive player who doesn’t need a lot to go right in order to be an All-Star-caliber player. And with four years to go until free agency, Pittsburgh shouldn’t be in any particular hurry to trade him, though given that he’s 27 and not 23, I still expect it to happen.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Pirates Hurdlesmember
10 months ago

I’m really curious how fast Cherington will go back to Roansy and Cruz and the like. The 2021 debuts that each made is something that the previous group would not have done. Is 2022 another lose terribly until at least summer plan, or can we get them up and get some hope flowing.

10 months ago

I think the answer is both. There’s going to lose terribly throughout the year and they’ll be up and there will be hope flowing. Someone has to play in the majors and their 40-man is more or less accounted for, plus, if they already called them up once…

I think the most curious thing with Oneil Cruz is where he’s going to play. Everyone seems to be proceeding with the idea that he’ll be a shortstop but he’s been pretty, uh, inconsistent there. Third base is definitely taken. So that leaves somewhere in the outfield if he can’t stick at short, or second base.

10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The sad thing is, while they’ll inevitably make next to zero moves, the market seems fairly inviting for them to do something to start laying the groundwork at the MLB level.

When they had their mini window in 13-15, a key part was acquiring talented but inconsistent arms (Burnett, Liriano) and turning them around. This pitching market has a lot of that, or even guys who are underrated too: Miley, Rodriguez, Gray, Matz, DeScalfani. They’re desperately going to need outside help, especially in the pitching side and I’m not sure where they expect all the pitching to come from. If they signed two of the above to say…three year deals, I think that would at least be some kind of signal that they’re starting to get serious about turning things around.

You and I have disagreed on the state of Pittsburgh’s 40 man before so I’ll stifle myself and not dredge that up again!

10 months ago
Reply to  gettwobrute79

Honestly, if they think those guys are ready and aren’t going to mess around with service time games, everything they did with the 40-man makes more sense. If Oneil Cruz and one of Castro/Marcano is on the opening day roster and playing everyday, and maybe some other guys too, then there’s really no problem at all. I just thought they wouldn’t do it.

They’ve got tons of interesting pitchers in the upper minors; they probably want to see which ones can work. Between Brault, Brubaker, Keller, Contreras, Yajure, and Kranick, they’ve got six guys who they probably want to see what they can do.

You probably want to roll with seven, so maybe they’ve got space to sign a reclamation project type like Dylan Bundy, or Zach Davies, or maybe Matz or Andrew Heaney if their market doesn’t pan out. But Rodriguez and Gray are probably going to get $60M deals or more, whether that’s right or wrong, and Miley’s definitely getting his option picked up. Maybe deSclafani if they want to outbid the Rangers for the 3 year, $30M deal they’ll offer him like they offer to a pitcher in every offseason.

10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’m far more interested in Contreras and Yajure than the rest. Keller appears broken, Brault was never very good to begin with, and Brubaker is a 5. They’ve got to be honest with themselves on some of these pitchers.

As for this $60M contracts, I certainly believe they can play in that field. Cincinnati does. Milwaukee does. They signed Liriano to a $40M more than half a decade ago. The individual names don’t matter as much as the concept; future seasons don’t have nearly as many pitchers like this available.

This division is winnable, and unless they do something drastic and out of character (make a couple of moves above and trade for a Ketel Marte), they’re looking at another 90-95 loss season.