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NL Central season preview: What's in store for Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Reds and Pirates in 2024?

The Cubs and Cardinals are expected to contend, with the Brewers and Reds right on their tails, in what could be baseball's most competitive division

The NL Central isn’t going to be the best division in baseball this season, but it has the potential to be the most competitive. There is no true front-runner in this division, though the Cubs made moves this offseason to position themselves to be that team. Every team in the Central has a strength, and they all have weaknesses. This could be a season in which 89 wins are enough to take the division title — and at least four teams could do it.

Here’s what you can expect from the National League Central this season.

Other divisions: AL East. NL East. AL Central. AL West. NL West.

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ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Projected record (per FanGraphs, as of March 20): 83-79

Best-case scenario: The Cardinals find the fountain of youth and receive major production from veterans Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Willson Contreras while getting impact from youngsters such as Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. After being a weakness last season, the starting rotation gets a big boost from Sonny Gray’s first season in St. Louis as he continues his late-career renaissance and leads the Cards to the postseason.

Worst-case scenario: The Cardinals have déjà vu and realize their 2023 season is reality again in '24. Not only do their moves to bolster the rotation not work, but also their pitching gets worse as Gray’s hamstring issue lingers, and Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Miles Mikolas can’t revert to yesteryear and stop the bleeding. St. Louis’ stars show their age, with drops in production from Arenado and Goldschmidt leaving the heavy lifting to an inexperienced and unproven lineup. The window stays sealed shut as the Cardinals drop 90 games for the second consecutive season.

Make-or-break player: Jordan Walker. In 2023, Walker showed that he can handle the highs and lows of a major-league season. And after a solid rookie year overall, his sophomore season would be the perfect time for his breakout. With this team led by aging veterans and looking for a young star to make an impact, success for the Cardinals this season will require Walker continuing to unlock his potential.

Season prediction: It seems like the Cardinals’ plan going into 2024 was to pray that last year was an aberration and hope for a bounceback from much of the roster. The problem with that is a whole lot of things need to go right for this to be the team St. Louis is hoping for. It’s not impossible — Goldschmidt is just two years removed from an MVP season, and Arenado has shown he has good years left in the tank — but the Cardinals are an aging team, and their window might be closing. This year, I expect they’ll show flashes of being a playoff team, but ultimately, their pitching will again keep them out of the postseason.

CHICAGO CUBS

Projected record: 82-80

Best-case scenario: Craig Counsell comes to Chicago and does what he does best as a manager: reach the postseason. Cody Bellinger proves last year was no fluke with another All-Star season. Justin Steele and rookie left-hander Shota Imanaga become one of the NL’s best duos. The Cubs use their prospect capital to make a blockbuster trade-deadline splash and land Pete Alonso to increase their postseason chances.

Worst-case scenario: The lack of a true superstar bat comes back to bite the Cubs. Bellinger is unable to duplicate his 2023 performance and reverts to old habits. Imanaga struggles in his first season in MLB, and the rest of the young rotation can’t pick up the slack. The lack of late-inning bullpen options costs the Cubs games, and they miss the postseason, leaving fans in Chicago frustrated again.

Make-or-break player: Cody Bellinger. Bellinger proved many people wrong last year and earned himself a nice payday in the process. In 2024, the expectation is that he will continue to be that guy in the middle of the Cubs' lineup, and in fact, he has to be if the Cubs are going to get where they’re hoping to go this season. Bellinger proved that he can stay healthy and deliver an impact bat during his MVP season in L.A. But the name of the game now is consistency, and whether Bellinger can do it two straight years will be crucial for the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

Season prediction: Chicago brought back Bellinger, added Imanaga, retained the majority of the 2023 roster and added Counsell as manager — there’s no question the Cubs are a better team than they were a year ago. With the other teams in the NL Central trying to figure out who they are, the Cubs should be the favorites in the division. And with the most continuity in the division and the farm system to make a big move, the Cubs should come out on top and return to the postseason for the first time since 2020.

[Read more: MLB 26-and-under power rankings: Cubs and Cardinals feature young cores on the rise]

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Projected record: 80-82

Best-case scenario: The Brewers are similar to the Rays in that no matter the roster, somehow they seem to always reach the postseason. This year, Freddy Peralta thrives in his new role as the ace, finishing top-five in NL Cy Young voting. The offense does enough behind William Contreras, Rhys Hoskins and Christian Yelich, who rediscovers his power stroke and hits 30 homers for the first time since 2019. Jackson Chourio puts on a show and becomes a five-tool player as new manager Pat Murphy continues the Craig Counsell tradition of getting the absolute most out of Milwaukee’s roster.

Worst-case scenario: The losses of Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff (out for the season after right shoulder surgery) become too much to handle, and Milwaukee’s rotation can’t make up for the losses. And without closer Devin Williams, who’s recovering from stress fractures in his back, the back end of the Brewers’ bullpen, long a strength for this team, suffers. Milwaukee becomes a seller at the trade deadline, and shortstop Willy Adames, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and others find themselves on different rosters by September.

Make-or-break player: Freddy Peralta. With Burnes in Baltimore and Woodruff out for the year, it’s up to Peralta to be the anchor for the Brewers' rotation. Last season, the right-hander recorded career highs in innings pitched (165 2/3) and strikeouts (210). If Milwaukee has any chance to make noise this season, Peralta is going to have to raise the bar even higher and show he’s built to be “the guy.”

Season prediction: The Brewers don’t have a bad roster, but they have lots of unproven talent. Outside of Contreras, Yelich, Hoskins and Adames, there are a lot of unknowns and question marks. Who among Sal Frelick, Garrett Mitchell, Joey Ortiz and Brice Turang will make an impact? Who will step up in the bullpen with Williams out? Ultimately, there are too many things working against the Brewers this season, and after making the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, Milwaukee won’t have the same luck this year.

CINCINNATI REDS

Projected record: 79-83

Best-case scenario: The Reds' young core continue to show that their time has come and begin to assert their dominance in the Central. Shortstop Elly De La Cruz becomes one of the most dynamic players in the game, not only achieving a 30-30 season but also finishing top-five in NL MVP voting. Jeimer Candelario provides a veteran presence in the middle of the lineup. Hunter Greene takes another step forward, proving he can lead a rotation. And with a farm system full of players other teams covet, the Reds are able to make a splash at the trade deadline en route to the postseason.

Worst-case scenario: The Reds become the latest cautionary tale of putting all your eggs into one basket as their young players struggle in their sophomore seasons. De La Cruz still shows flashes, but the strikeouts make it difficult for him to be consistently effective. And the biggest issue becomes the starting pitching, as Cincinnati’s young arms are unable to stay healthy, and without sustainable depth, they fall out of contention fast, missing the postseason.

Make-or-break player: Hunter Greene. It feels like Greene has been playing for a decade because we’ve watched him throw 100 mph since high school. He’s still throwing hard today and has shown flashes of dominance — his fastball is electric — but we have yet to see the final product on full display. This season, the Reds need Greene to be the frontline starter they’ve always dreamed he would be. This will be the year we find out who the former No. 1 draft pick really is.

Season prediction: The Reds have something to prove, and their young core of position players is as strong as that of any team in baseball. But this season, they have to show that they have more than potential. De La Cruz will rise to full stardom this year, and there’s a chance Matt McLain and Spencer Steer will as well. But the season will come down to their starting pitching: Can Greene, Frankie Montas and Nick Lodolo take a step forward as a trio? If so, Cincinnati should be battling the Cubs all season for the division and, at the very least, be in serious pursuit of one of the NL’s three wild-card spots.

[Read more: 26-and-under power rankings: Reds' young hitters, Dodgers' young pitchers among baseball's best]

Is this the year Elly De La Cruz cements himself as an MLB superstar? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)
Is this the year Elly De La Cruz cements himself as an MLB superstar? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports) (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Projected record: 77-85

Best-case scenario: Oneil Cruz becomes a freakishly athletic spark and a true threat in the Pirates’ lineup. Ke’Bryan Hayes finally starts to hit the ball in the air, tapping into his power potential. Free-agent additions Yasmani Grandal, Rowdy Tellez and Martín Pérez contribute to winning baseball. MLB’s No. 2 prospect, Paul Skenes, reaches the big leagues in mid-May and dominates his way to the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The Pirates play meaningful baseball in September, with a shot to be this year’s version of the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks.

Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario is something fans in Pittsburgh are used to. Cruz, Henry Davis and Nick Gonzales don’t take the next step and struggle in their second full seasons. Skenes doesn’t reach the majors, despite already being the organization's best starting pitcher. After showing potential last season and looking like a team with the arrow pointing up, the Pirates revert to old ways and sink to the bottom of the division as one of baseball’s worst teams.

Make-or-break player: Oneil Cruz. Cruz is one of baseball’s true marvels. Standing 6-foot-7 as a shortstop, he defies all ideas of what can be done at the position. Prior to fracturing his left fibula and missing the entire 2023 season, Cruz had begun to show the baseball world a glimpse of the speed-power threat to come. This season, there’s an expectation that the Pittsburgh shortstop can take his game to another level, and he’s a candidate to go 30-30. And while it’s just his first full season, he wouldn’t be the first player to become his team’s best player this early. That’s exactly what Pittsburgh is hoping for.

Season prediction: The Pirates were one of the more active teams this offseason in their attempts to strengthen a young roster. Last season, they played well through most of the first half before fading in the second half. This season should be similar, with more young talent on the way. It’s still a stretch to expect the Pirates to compete for the postseason, but in a division that’s not overly strong, they have the opportunity to open some eyes.