The Cardinals may have won the NL Central last season (dry heaves), but after an offseason almost as quiet as the Cubs, they’re not necessarily viewed as some kind of prohibitive favorite in the division.
Instead, you could argue the honor of “favorite” is spread across several teams in the division, including the two ball clubs that’ve actually been incredible active this offseason, the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers may have lost several key pieces from their 2018 NL Central winning club and 2019 NL Wild Card team, but they also signed Avisail Garcia, Josh Lindblom, Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard, Ryon Healy, Jedd Gyorko, and Brett Anderson this winter, while trading for a good offensive catcher in Omar Narvaez, a young upside play in infielder Luis Urias, and another starter in Eric Lauer. They are also getting Corey Knebel and Brent Suter back from injury. Their team doesn’t look half bad. I’m not sure it looks half good, either, but not half bad!
The Reds, meanwhile, started their competitive-ramp-up process a year early, adding Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray last year when they had the chance, and have since added Wade Miley, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama to a team that is already expecting big things from guys like Nick Senzel, Aristides Aquino, and Luis Castillo. Throw Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto, Raisel Iglesias, and Freddy Galvis in there and you’ve got yourself a team.
But how good will both of these clubs actually be next season? Well, it’s always tough to tell for certain in January, before the Cardinals and Cubs are even done finalizing their rosters (in potentially ENORMOUS ways), but FanGraphs has its ZiPS projections out for the Brewers and Reds, so let’s take a look.
2020 ZiPS Projections: Milwaukee Brewers https://t.co/tJbF59SeXd
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) January 13, 2020
Last season, the Brewers rotation generated just 8.7 fWAR, which ranked 20th in MLB. Next season, ZiPS is projecting a bump up to 10.4, which would likely land them closer to the middle of the pack. Of course, the rotation is not the Brewers game. They’ve found success relying on their bullpen, and the projection for next season (6.3) tops their top-10 mark last year (4.1 WAR) and more closely aligns with their top-5 showing in 2018.
Point being: ZiPS is not only projecting yet another massive performance out of the Brewers bullpen, they also think the rotation might take another step forward, as well. Given the way Counsell has made that team contend without both halves functioning at once, I’m nervous to see what he can do with a better projected group.
Of course, Josh Hader is projected to have another enormous season (2.45 ERA, 2.29 FIP with 133 strikeouts over 73.3 IP), but you do have to wonder if that’s a bit aggressive with the off-field knowledge we have of their efforts to trade him earlier this offseason. Obviously, nothing came of that, but it makes you wonder … maybe this projection is a tad optimistic (or ignorant to some real-life things it couldn’t possibly know). Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Josh Lindblom, whom we’d hoped the Cubs would target, is projected for just 24 starts (142.7 IP) with a 4.48 ERA (4.27 FIP) thanks to a pretty-darn high 42 walks and 23 homers. Pretty ugly.
Offensively, the Brewers are going to have to hope that Narvaez’s stick can live up to the EXTREME drop off in pitch-framing lost from Yasmani Grandal’s departure. Unfortunately (for them), ZiPS isn’t really seeing it: .270/.351/.441 (106 OPS+). Is that above-average overall and especially for a catcher? Yes absolutely. But Narvaez is not good behind the plate and is projected to be worse much than Grandal offensively, as well. That’s a big hit. Hiura (115 OPS+) and Yelich (149 OPS+) are projected to be the biggest offensive contributors, with Lorenzo Cain falling to a 92 OPS+ for next season.
… I like the Cubs offense better.
2020 ZiPS Projections: Cincinnati Reds https://t.co/LJmKnpLLZP
— FanGraphs Baseball (@fangraphs) January 14, 2020
The Reds rotation is projected to be pretty freakin’ great next season, headlined by Bauer, Castillo, and Gray. Certainly, there’s some risk with each – consistency hasn’t been their calling card – but the upside is obvious and credible.
In contrast to the Brewers, the Reds bullpen projects to be a MUCH bigger liability, but when you’ve got a guy like Raisel Iglesias leading the pack with a rotation featuring that much fire power, I can understand a roll of the dice. With that said, they could probably use more of a sure-thing set-up man, even if Amir Garrett obviously has some talent. If they’re competing come mid-season, look for the Reds to make a big splash to their relief corps.
Offensively, the Reds don’t project great, but that’s such a loaded premise. Shogo Akiyama could easily surprise in his first season in MLB (we dug him for a reason), especially before big league pitchers are positive on how to attack him. I’m not too uncomfortable taking the over on his 98 OPS+ projection. Meanwhile, Joey Votto may be on the decline, but he’s still projecting to get on base at a .384 clip. And Eugenio Suarez+Mike Moustakas are projected to combine for 70 HRs.
If Aristides Aquino and Nick Senzel surprise, this offense could go from mediocre to great pretty fast. There’s a lot of risk, no doubt, but there’s plenty to like, too.
Ultimately, there’s not much here that’s changed my mind on the Reds or Brewers for 2020, but that’s because I was already relatively impressed with their offseasons. Whether the Cubs decide to take a step back in 2020, this division is going to be tough, and that’s before ZiPS has even gotten to the division-champion Cardinals.