Sorce’s Shiny Sphere: NL Central

As former Rockies General Manager and current MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd said during the 2020 MLB Draft telecast, “Baseball is a hard game to predict the future.”

He’s correct. But I’m going to try and do it anyway.

This is part two of a six part series where I take a look into my crystal ball (or shiny sphere for a play on words with my last name) and try to predict the next time each team will be ready to contend for the postseason. (This is not necessarily when each team will make the postseason, because there could be more teams that are contenders than playoff spots, whatever that number is going to be going forward.) It’s going to be when can I look at a roster and say, “that team can make the playoffs.” This is obviously a complete shot in the dark because new players will be drafted and trades and free agent signings will happen over the years, but I’m looking at this mainly with the personnel currently in each organization.

We started in the American League Central. Now let’s stay in our nation’s heartland and go over to the National League.

Previous installments: American League Central

Chicago Cubs

I’m going to have some fun with this one. I think the Cubs are (and have been) done as a World Series contender. I think big changes are coming to the North Side this winter. At least one of Kris Bryant, Wilson Contreras or Javier Baez is getting traded (probably Bryant). All except Contreras are free agents after 2021, as is Anthony Rizzo. (Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora were recently non-tendered.) The offensive core, which has disappeared in the postseason the last few years, is on the verge of being dismantled and, aside from Nico Hoerner, there’s not much to look forward to as immediate help in this farm system. (I do like Brennan Davis and I loved the Ed Howard pick. He’s going to be fun to follow coming up that system. But I need to see more from Miguel Amaya and Cole Roederer and it’s too early to tell on Chase Strumpf.)

Historically a weakness, the Cubs actually had some solid pitching this season, with Yu Darvish a Cy Young finalist, Kyle Hendricks as steady as they come and Alec Mills throwing a no-hitter. But I don’t love the depth. I like Brailyn Marquez but am not sure he’s a starter and they don’t have much else close to big league ready. (Adbert Alzolay is probably a back-end starter and Burl Carraway is strictly a reliever.)

If I were in charge of the Cubs, I would go all-out rebuild, but they’re going to try to do the impossible and win now while also adding to the farm system. That very rarely works. Playing in a rather weak division, they’ll probably be a playoff contender in 2021, but they have a big down arrow for me and it’ll be a long time after that.

Trending: Downward

Projected playoff contenders: 2021

Cincinnati Reds

I felt the Reds were the best team in this division in 2020 and will probably feel the same going into 2021. Losing Trevor Bauer is obviously going to hurt the rotation. But I look at this lineup and think there’s no way they can underachieve this poorly again. Joey Votto is probably a liability offensively at this point in his career, unfortunately. But Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos were big free agent signings last winter and I expect both to have bounce back seasons. Same goes for Eugenio Suarez. I like Jesse Winker and think he could be on the verge of a breakout season. There’s too much talent in this lineup.

Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo is still a very strong top of the rotation and I’d expect Nick Lodolo to be a big factor this summer. Tyler Stevenson should be ready to take over behind the plate and Jose Garcia could be their shortstop in 2021 (they could also make a splash at that position), but most of their other impact prospects are multiple years away. (If Austin Hendrick hits, he could be a monster. Same goes for Rece Hinds. And I think Hunter Greene should be a position player, but that’s another story.) This team is what it is right now, but that’s okay because I think it’s the class of this division and should be for the next couple of years.

Trending: Upward

Projected playoff contenders: 2021

Milwaukee Brewers

I love Christian Yelich. He’s one of my favorite players in baseball. I like the Brewers and want to see them win. But give me an example of a small market team with one player making $200 million that has been a consistent contender. You can’t. There aren’t any. And it’s going to be the same story in Milwaukee. The Brewers are going to surround Yelich with cheap players and hope for somebody to have a career year for the next eight years. That’s not going to equal consistent playoff contention.

Aside from Yelich, I like Keston Hiura a lot and think he’s really going to hit. But I look at this roster and see a lot of question marks. Omar Narvaez/Manny Pina behind the plate? Daniel Vogelbach at first base? Luis Urias and Orlando Arcia on the left side of the infield? I know Urias is very young, but you could certainly argue those are five bench players on a contending major league team. Avisail Garcia probably isn’t an everyday player either and while I love Lorenzo Cain, he didn’t play in 2020 and is not getting any younger. This is a roster with a lot of holes and very little financial wiggle room to fix those holes. The one obvious solution is to trade Josh Hader for some young, cheap position players, because that’s what a team like Milwaukee has to do, and slide Devin Williams into the ninth inning. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes had nice seasons, but this is a team that struggles with starting pitching traditionally and I think it’s still a question mark overall. (We could see Ethan Small and Aaron Ashby soon, which would help.)

The farm system does not have any impact players on the horizon. I am a Garrett Mitchell guy and loved that pick when it was announced. He may be quick to the big leagues. But other than him, I really don’t see a lot of players in this system where I can confidently say “this guy will be an everyday player for them.” (I need to see more offensively from Brice Turang.) It’s hard for me to pinpoint a timeline for Milwaukee because they could have a year where things click and they make the playoffs. But I can also see a lot of years like 2020 in their immediate future, where bargain players perform like, well, bargain players and they’re never above .500. They have a lot of fixes to make and very little room to do so.

Trending: Downward

Projected playoff contenders: 2029 (They’re handcuffed until Yelich comes off the books or they develop some impact players to surround him with)

Pittsburgh Pirates

You order those Kumar Rocker jerseys yet, Pirates fans? (It would be a shocker if he’s not the No. 1 pick next summer.)

It’s going to be a while for the Pirates, who are a prime example of what was a really good team that never got close to a World Series (will argue to my grave they were the best National League team in 2015) and a really good era of Pirates baseball will be remembered for losing in two Wild Card Games (to an all-time great postseason pitcher and one of the hottest pitchers ever, awful luck) and in the one Division Series they did get to.

That said, I loved their 2020 Draft class. Nick Gonzales was one of my favorite players in the draft and he’s going to man second base for a long time. Then they added three arms in Carmen Mlodzinski, Jared Jones and Nick Garcia to a system that needed an infusion on arms. Quinn Priester and Brennan Milone are high-upside high school arms that are years away. (Oh yeah, Kumar Rocker is going to help, too.)

Ke’Bryan Hayes is locked in at the hot corner with one of the more fascinating prospects in baseball in 6’7” shortstop Oniel Cruz not far behind. Liover Peguero and Travis Swaggerty should be everyday pieces moving forward as well. You can start to see the pieces fall into place in the minors, but it’s going to be a while for the talent to matriculate to PNC Park.

Trending: Downward

Projected next playoff appearance: 2025

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are a strange team to me. This is not a roster I look at and think this is a playoff team. But they seem to find a way. The name of this organization has always been pitching and Jack Flaherty is their next big time ace. Kwang Hyun Kim looks like a nice pickup to give them a nice right-left duo at the top of the rotation. After them though, I have my questions. Carlos Martinez seems to be going back and forth and I think he’s best suited for the bullpen at this point. I think they can use more starting pitching depth.

It wouldn’t be right if Yadier Molina (a no-doubt Hall of Famer, anyone who thinks otherwise needs to have their eyes examined and/or put the spreadsheets away. Definitely put the spreadsheets away) was playing for another team in 2021. I expect him to return, but could see them going in another direction as this team needs to get younger (perhaps Ivan Herrera is the long-term answer). Paul Goldschmidt is still a good player, but he’s probably past his prime. Same goes for Matt Carpenter. Paul DeJong and Tommy Edman are nothing special to me. Tyler O’Neill is young, but has not shown he’s an everyday player (despite winning the gold glove). Harrison Bader is a fourth outfielder to me and Dexter Fowler is just not good. (Fortunately, Dylan Carlson is coming.)

The Cardinals seem to find players that come out of nowhere every year, and that’ll need to continue to do so because there’s not a lot of advanced impact players in this system (aside from Carlson). I love the Matthew Liberatore/Nolan Gorman story and hope they get a chance to star in St. Louis. Zack Thompson could be quick as a mid-rotation arm. They had a big time upside 2020 draft in Jordan Walker, Tink Hence and Masyn Winn, who might be the most exciting player in the entire draft. Those guys are all years away though. (Are they going to make a big splash? Who knows, but they have the pieces to do so.)

Honestly, when I look at the position players on this roster, this does not look like a good team to me at all. But the game is not played on paper (and here I am doing this anyway) and they always find a way. And in this division, they’ll probably find a way again next year.

Trending: Sideways

Projected playoff contenders: 2021

(Cover Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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