Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: MLB’s Opening Day will showcase a wide open NL Central

<p>Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks to the dugout during a spring training game against the San Diego Padres on March 1. Thursday is Opening Day for MLB. </p>

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks to the dugout during a spring training game against the San Diego Padres on March 1. Thursday is Opening Day for MLB.

The National League Central is by far the most interesting in baseball. Four teams can win the division, which means a good team will finish in fourth place. The race for the pennant should be neck and neck all year — except for Pittsburgh. Although the division was not superior in the shortened 2020 season, the division's countless stars should bounce back after underperforming last year.

The good news is these teams are all primed to recuperate on the offensive side after being the five worst teams in the National League in batting average last season. With the talent on these five teams, hopefully, this is just a historically bad break.

Graphic by Abby Carmichael

The Cincinnati Reds lost NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer this offseason. Although it's a big hit to the pitching staff after having the 2nd best ERA in the National League, three star pitchers — Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and rising talent Tyler Mahle — remain. Potential Rookie of the Year candidate Jonathan India, likely starting at second base, will hope to boost the offense. Mike Moustakas and Eugenio Saurez at third base and shortstop with Joey Votto filling out the infield could result in a big rebound year after ranking last in hitting in National League batting average at .212. Now, the biggest worry for Cincinnati is its weak bullpen outside of relief pitcher Amir Garrett. 

The Pittsburgh Pirates also carry a potential Rookie of the Year in Ke'Bryan Hayes. Hayes is a star in the making, joining a club with absolutely none. It will be a shock if the Pirates are not the worst team in the MLB at the end of it all. They have not one starting pitcher to count on, and their hitting will only likely be worse than their 2020 batting average of .220 after trading first baseman Josh Bell.

Despite being tied for second-to-last with the Pirates in National League batting average, the Chicago Cubs won the division last season. The batting should jump back up after superstars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant had a down year. The Cubs lost key pitchers in Yu Darvish and Jon Lester, resulting in a shaky outlook for Chicago's defense. Their replacements will determine whether the Cubs can win back-to-back division titles.

The Milwaukee Brewers superstar Christian Yelich also struggled with a .205 batting average in 2020. But it's a new year. Critical pieces in Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolten Wong joined the Brewers this offseason, along with Lorenzo Cain returning having opted out of last season due to COVID-19. With above-average pitching and great defense, all they need is Yelich to return to MVP form.

The St. Louis Cardinals are the safest team coming into the 2021 season. With an already elite bullpen and solid batting, the Cardinals added Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies to complete their lineup. Arenado has a career batting average of .311 and can take this team to the next level. The leading cause for concern is an injury-plagued starting pitching rotation. The biggest of the injuries is Dakota Johnson, who is out all season due to Tommy John surgery. If the starting pitching can keep the Cardinals in games, they should be in for another successful year. 

With four above-average teams, it’s hard to predict the winner of such a tight division. I believe the Cubs have the best chance of winning, going back-to-back, while also reaching the 90-win mark. With four teams with winning potential, the NL Central won’t stop at one playoff team.

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