clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Could the 2021 NL Central Be the Most Underwhelming Division Ever?

St. Louis’s trade for Nolan Arenado was the exception that proved the rule amid the reverse arms race in the division this offseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NL Central will be bad this season. How bad? So bad that even the complete heist of Nolan Arenado—who ranks third in Baseball-Reference WAR since 2014, has won a Gold Glove every season of his career, and is still just 29 years old—can’t even compensate for the rest of the mess the division is in.

This isn’t just an issue with Arenado’s new team, the Cardinals: The schedule-agnostic version of FanGraphs’ projections places all five NL Central clubs below .500 this season. The division’s combined World Series odds are just 3.8 percent, across all five teams—easily the worst for any group in the majors.

Other than the Arenado trade, the entire NL Central joined in a largely lethargic offseason, collectively sitting on their hands or trading away their best players in a sort of reverse arms race: As the Dodgers and Padres one-upped each other to build superteams out West, all the NL Central teams apparently figured they had no mandate to improve, because none of their rivals were improving much either, never mind how far behind it leaves them in the World Series chase.

The result is a division that looks like the worst in decades, at least before the season has begun.

The first problem is that the NL Central was not starting from a particularly strong position even before the offseason teardown. Because of the pandemic-mandated regional schedule last season, the 10 teams in Central divisions played only each other in the regular season, meaning it was difficult to judge how they stacked up against the other regions.

But the offenses sure looked rather terrible. The Cardinals had the NL Central’s best offense in 2020, by wRC+, but finished just 19th in the majors. Eight of the bottom 12 teams belonged to the two Central divisions.

With those lowly team performances, it follows that Central Division games, as a whole, saw much less offense than games in the other two regions.

Offense by Division and Region, 2020 Regular Season

Division Runs/Game wRC+
Division Runs/Game wRC+
NL East 5.0 110
AL East 4.9 108
NL West 5.1 103
AL West 4.4 96
AL Central 4.4 96
NL Central 4.0 88
... ... ...
East 4.9 109
West 4.7 99
Central 4.2 92

In fact, the NL Central’s average team wRC+ was the worst for any division in the six-division era (since 1994)—and that was with a universal designated hitter. The 15 worst divisional wRC+ marks before last season all came from National League divisions with pitchers batting. Of course, the small season sample and schedule strangeness contributes to this anomaly—the two best divisional wRC+ marks in this era belong to the 2020 NL East and 2020 AL East—but that’s an ignominious record in any context.

Given the siloed geographical play, it’s possible the Central divisions just had much better pitching than the other regions—but the playoffs saw the seven Central teams that qualified lose every matchup in the wild-card round, once again bringing up the rear at the plate.

Offense by Region, 2020 Playoffs

Region Record Runs Per Game OPS
Region Record Runs Per Game OPS
West 26-18 (59%) 5.1 .791
East 25-21 (54%) 4.3 .709
Central 2-14 (13%) 2.8 .612

At least some of the AL Central clubs took steps to course-correct during the offseason. The Twins signed Andrelton Simmons; the White Sox signed Liam Hendriks and traded for Lance Lynn; the Royals and Tigers completed a host of mostly under-the-radar acquisitions. Yet while the NL Central was already—probably—bad, during the winter, it got a lot worse. This graph shows the combined projected 2021 WAR totals for every player who changed divisions this winter, according to FanGraphs’ projections and transactions tracker. Guess which division comes in last!

Thanks in large part to the Mets’ trade for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, as well as pitching additions like Atlanta’s Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, the NL East grabs the top spot by this accounting. The NL East also didn’t lose any prominent names: The best-projected players to leave the division were back-end Mets starters Rick Porcello and Steven Matz. And the NL West, despite some heavier losses, imported a whole playoff rotation, with Trevor Bauer to the Dodgers and Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove to the Padres.

Three of those new NL West pitchers came from the NL Central. Of the 10 best-projected players to move in or out of that division this offseason, eight left, while only two entered: Arenado and Joc Pederson, a like-for-like replacement for the Cubs for Kyle Schwarber, who left the division after being non-tendered.

Moreover, many of these losses were the result of conscious, active choices by management. Besides the free agent Bauer, most of the notable players who left the division did so via trade—former Pirates from Musgrove to Jameson Taillon to Josh Bell; former Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, whom Cincinnati salary-dumped to Anaheim—or non-tendering, like Schwarber and erstwhile Reds reliever Archie Bradley.

It seems that the NL Central owners didn’t want to spend. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts declared his team’s pandemic-related losses “biblical.” (The Ricketts family’s holdings in the Cubs and Marquee Sports Network are worth an estimated $2.8 billion, per Forbes.) Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt observed, “The industry isn’t very profitable, to be quite honest.” (DeWitt bought the Cardinals for $150 million in 1996; the team is now worth around $2.2 billion, an increase of some 1,500 percent.) The Pirates haven’t spent in generations.

That stinginess led to both active salary shedding—see: the Darvish and Iglesias trades—and a near total reluctance to add payroll. The Cubs have cut roughly $45 million in payroll compared to last season, per Cot’s Contracts’ estimation of their competitive balance tax calculation, and their great bounds backward are particularly relevant to the division’s overall standing: Unlike fellow “superteams” like the Yankees and Dodgers, they can no longer act as an anchor for the rest of the division, pushing other teams to compete.

Meanwhile, their top rivals in St. Louis won’t pay any money for Arenado in 2021, thanks to Colorado’s contributions, and their second-best addition was Tyler Heineman, a backup catcher projected for 0.1 WAR this season. They also curiously declined an eminently affordable option to cut Kolten Wong loose. (Because Wong went to the Brewers, he doesn’t factor into the divisional comparison calculations.)

Or consider the Reds, who didn’t add anyone projected for more than 0.3 WAR this season; they lost a whopping five players—Bauer, Iglesias, Bradley, Anthony DeSclafani, and Freddy Galvis—who projected as more valuable, thereby lowering the ceiling of the pitching staff and installing an offensive black hole where a shortstop belongs. That lack of acquisitional activity, combined with the club’s heavy losses, means the Reds lost more projected 2021 WAR (8.6 wins) than any other team.

The overall effect of this transactional trend is to depress the outlook for every team in the division. Right now, the Cardinals are the division’s best-projected team, but at just 81.7 wins, with the Brewers (80.8), Cubs (79.2), and Reds (78.7) bunched close behind. Dating back to 2005, using an archive of public projections, this would be the lowest figure for the projected winner of any division on record. (These figures account for strength of schedule; because of how poor the division is, the Cardinals and Brewers look to have the easiest schedules in the majors, with the Reds tied for third and the Cubs tied for fifth.)

That projection places the eventual NL Central winner in line with the 2005 Padres, who at 82-80 are the worst division winner ever. (This stat ignores the 1994 Rangers, who led the AL West at a preposterous 52-62 before the strike.) But will this actually prove to be the worst division in league history? It’s possible, but not likely, thanks to a trick in the projection math.

FanGraphs’ projections are an average of 10,000 simulations of the season—meaning they tend to clump closer toward the middle, in a close approximation of a bell curve, than actual outcomes. Since 2005, about one in four teams have finished six or more games better than projected, about one in four teams have finished six or more games worse than projected, and the remaining half have finished within six games of their projection. So if the NL Central has four teams bunched together around .500, we’d expect one of them to push into the mid-to-upper 80s in wins.

Indeed, looking at the other worst-projected divisions since 2005, they almost all had a winner that cleared the low projection bar, because someone would expect to overachieve.

Divisions With Worst Projected Winners, 2005-19

Division Projected Wins for Winner Actual Wins for Winner Difference
Division Projected Wins for Winner Actual Wins for Winner Difference
2010 Al Central 83.1 94 +10.9
2012 NL West 84.0 94 +10.0
2010 AL West 84.4 90 +5.6
2007 NL Central 84.4 85 +0.6
2011 Al Central 84.6 95 +10.4
2005 Al Central 85.0 99 +14.0
2008 NL West 85.4 84 -1.4
2009 AL West 85.4 97 +11.6
2009 Al Central 85.5 86 +0.5
2011 NL Central 85.5 96 +10.5
Average 84.7 92.0 +7.3

That overachiever could be the Cardinals, with a balanced lineup and pitching staff, or the Cubs—division winners just last year!—in the potentially last hurrah of the Báez-Bryant-Rizzo core, or the Reds with a collective bounce-back from all the lineup’s veterans. The Brewers might be the best bet of all, if Christian Yelich rediscovers his MVP form, as they made massive defensive improvements this winter by signing Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. (It won’t be the Pirates, the early favorite for the no. 1 pick in 2022.)

Yet the average outlook for all these clubs is still rather miserable, especially when compared to the exciting clubs in the other NL divisions. Last season, at least, they could hide their deficiencies by playing just among themselves for the regular season; now, they have more than half their games against teams from other divisions, where they may be overwhelmed.

The only silver living is that the NL Central shouldn’t be as bottom-heavy as, say, the 2018 AL Central, which at least had a good Cleveland squad propping up three truly terrible teams. There will be a competitive divisional race in the NL Central this year. That race might look like a JV game compared to the varsity matches in Southern California and Atlanta and Queens—but it will be a race nonetheless, if only to something like 85 wins.