2021 National League Central Preview: Arenado, Cardinals Ready to Reclaim Central Crown

Eddie Griffin

In recent MLB history, there have not been many seasons in which the St. Louis Cardinals were not either first or second in the NL Central standings. In fact, over the past 21 seasons, the Cardinals won 11 NL Central titles and finished second five other times.

Last season, the Cards finished second in the Central behind the Chicago Cubs and bowed out of the MLB postseason in the wild-card round. To enhance their chances for 2021, they pulled off a blockbuster trade in the off-season. Perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado came over from the Colorado Rockies after a stellar career in Denver.

Other teams around the NL made big moves as well, so the Arenado trade is no guarantee of serious pennant contention. But in the Central, the move for Arenado could lead the Cardinals back to a familiar spot. They did lose their season-opening series at Cincinnati, but that does not diminish their position.

Their expected closest challenger, the Milwaukee Brewers, also lost their season-opening series after an Opening Day win. But for now, the Cardinals and Brewers should still be considered the strongest NL Central contenders.

2021 NL Central Preview Menu

2021 NL Central Odds and Team Win Totals

  • St. Louis Cardinals +105 (Team Win Total: 86)
  • Milwaukee Brewers +280 (Team Win Total: 83.5)
  • Cincinnati Reds +380 (Team Win Total: 81.5)
  • Chicago Cubs +450 (Team Win Total: 78.5)
  • Pittsburgh Pirates +7500 (Team Win Total: 58.5)

2021 NL Central Team Previews

St. Louis Cardinals

Division Title Odds: +105

National League Title Odds: +1000

2021 World Series Odds: +2200

2021 Team Win Total: OVER 86 (-122), UNDER 86 (+100)

Odds to Make 2021 MLB Playoffs: YES (-142), NO (+116)

Since reaching at least the NLCS each year from 2011-14, the Cardinals have done so only once in the past six seasons. The Dodgers, Padres, Braves, and Mets all look stronger on paper, so getting there this year won’t be easy.

Better Bats = A Better Season

That the Cardinals even reached the postseason last season with such poor hitting is a notable achievement. They were 22nd in batting average, last in doubles and homers, 28th in runs scored, and 27th in stolen bases.

What will 2021 bring? It brought 18 runs in their three games against the Reds, 11 of which came on Opening Day. Arenado (+1500 for NL MVP) hit his first homer in Saturday’s loss, and he and Paul Goldschmidt (+5000 for NL MVP) both went 5 for 13. But they were the only two hitters to post .300 or better averages or more than three hits against the Reds, and four of Goldschmidt’s five hits were in Thursday’s 11-6 win. And the Cardinals recorded 29 strikeouts and only 10 walks.

It is too early to worry, but better results against the Miami Marlins would be encouraging.

Should There Be Concern About the Rotation?

The Cards’ starting rotation is without Dakota Hudson (Tommy John surgery) for most or all of 2021, while Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim are both on the 10-day injured list to start the season. The three starts against the Reds went to Jack Flaherty, Carlos Martinez, and Adam Wainwright, and none fared well. Flaherty gave up six runs in 4.1 IP on Opening Day, Wainwright gave up six runs in 2.2 IP in Saturday’s 9-6 loss, and Martinez gave up four runs in five IP in yesterday’s 12-1 loss.

Time will tell if the rotation is the strength it could be, but it could still be even without Hudson. The potential is there, even after disappointing returns in Cincinnati. The sooner Kim and Mikolas returns, the better. Flaherty is still +1400 to win the NL Cy Young after his rough start against the Reds, so there should be optimism that such starts will be a rarity.

Milwaukee Brewers

Division Title Odds: +280

2021 World Series Odds: +4500

2021 Team Win Total: OVER 83.5 (-120), UNDER 83.5 (-102)

Odds to Make 2021 MLB Playoffs: YES (+140), NO (-172)

The Brewers have made the playoffs three seasons in a row, which is a franchise first. But this season’s aim will be to advance to the NLDS, which they failed to do in 2019 and 2020.

The Brewers opened the season with a home series loss against the Minnesota Twins, which was a tough draw. And the Twins shut them down offensively for the most part, outside of the late rally that brought the Brewers an Opening Day win. But the talent is there at the plate and on the mound to make a fourth straight postseason appearance.

Silenced Bats Should Wake Up

The hitting statistics from the Brewers’ series against the Twins do not make for pretty reading. They hit .170, scored eight runs, and struck out 36 times (and walked only six times).

On the bright side, Keston Hiura, who was 0 for 11 against the Twins, will get a hit sooner or later. And Christian Yelich (+1500 for NL MVP), with three hits in 12 at-bats, has a higher average (.250) than he did in 2020 (.205). Small positives, right?

It does have to be said that few teams can match the Twins’ rotation in either the AL or NL. Keep an eye on how the Brewers fare against the back end of the Cubs’ rotation over the next couple of days, however.

Burnes Stands Out in Mixed Results for Rotation

If you’re looking for value outside of the main contenders for the NL Cy Young, it might be a good time to hop on the Corbin Burnes bandwagon. Burnes was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 59.2 IP last season and is primed for more. He went 6.1 IP without allowing a hit and struck out 11 without walking anyone, but he took a hard-luck loss because he made one mistake–Byron Buxton’s seventh-inning homer to break up his no-hitter and shutout–and Jose Berrios and the Twins relievers did not make any. Burnes is still available at +3000 to win the NL Cy Young. A few more starts like that one, and he won’t be.

However, Brandon Woodruff (+2200 for the NL Cy Young) lasted only four innings on Opening Day against the Twins, allowing six hits, two walks, and three runs. It was a shaky start, but he should be better next time out. Adrian Houser was actually pretty decent in five Sunday innings, but poor run support hurt him. Houser was 1-6 with a 5.30 ERA last season, so his outing was a positive.

Star closer Josh Hader pitched only once against the Twins, as he was not needed otherwise. But he excelled in his stint, striking out the side in the 10th inning and earning the win last Thursday. That is an ideal start after he posted a career-worst 3.79 ERA last season.

Cincinnati Reds

Division Title Odds: +380

National League Title Odds: +2000

2021 World Series Odds: +3500

2021 Team Win Total: OVER 81.5 (-110), UNDER 81.5 (-110)

Odds to Make 2021 MLB Playoffs: YES (+205), NO (-260)

The Reds bounced back from giving up 11 runs on Opening Day to take their series against the Cardinals. That is a nice response by a team that reached the postseason last season and has an interesting core.

Castellanos Leading the Charge Early

Nick Castellanos is only +6000 to win NL MVP, but if he can build off of his strong start, those odds will shorten soon. Castellanos was 6 for 11 with two homers, five RBI, and six runs scored against the Cardinals. He might have had an even better stat line had he not been ejected in the bottom of the fourth on Saturday for this moment:

The Pirates are up next for the Reds, so he should have another strong series. He started last season with a 12-game hit streak in which he hit .366 with six homers, then hit only .192 in the final 48 regular-season games to finish with a .225 average. So the key will be to avoid such a disastrous drop-off this season.

Last season, the Reds were seventh in MLB in homers (90) but last in batting average (.212) and 27th in runs scored. If they can cut out the feast or famine lifestyle, the Reds could actually have a formidable lineup. So it’s on the likes of Eugenio Suarez and Aristides Aquino to be much closer to .250 than .200.

Look out for rookie infielder Jonathan India. India was 5 for 11 against the Cardinals and had multi-hit games in his first two games on Thursday and Saturday. There are a lot of excellent candidates for NL Rookie of the Year, but performing well on a team that is winning games is a good way to stand out in the crowd.

Will Bauer Be Missed?

The Reds did not take the leap they hoped for during Trevor Bauer’s time with the club, but the departure of such an elite talent is a loss.

But there were two solid, winning starts against the Cardinals from Jeff Hoffman and Tyler Mahle, offsetting Luis Castillo’s Opening Day horror show. Given his history, you have to feel like Castillo (+2500 to win the NL Cy Young) will get it right sooner rather than later. But eight runs allowed in 3.1 IP is not good at all. Fortunately it did not set the tone for the rest of the series for the Reds.

Manager David Bell will be looking forward to the return of injured starters Sonny Gray (+4000 to win the NL Cy Young) and Michael Lorenzen. Gray should be back within the next few weeks, while it could be a bit longer for Lorenzen. Lorenzen has mostly relieved since making 21 starts as a rookie, but he will start this season. If the experiment goes well, the Reds could have a pretty sound rotation from front to back.

Chicago Cubs

Division Title Odds: +450

National League Title Odds: +2500

2021 World Series Odds: +3500

2021 Team Win Total: OVER 78.5 (-122), UNDER 78.5 (+100)

Odds to Make 2021 MLB Playoffs: YES (+340), NO (-470)

The Cubs had a nice run, including their long-awaited, epic World Series win in 2016, but their window has tightened. They missed out on the playoffs in 2019 and were bounced swiftly by the Miami Marlins last season after winning the NL Central.

There is still a lot of talent at the plate and on the mound, and they did get a winning start to the season by taking two of three from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But keep your hopes of a Cubs run to an NL Central title in wait and see mode until May or June.

A Positive Start for Bryant Stands Out in Poor Plate Production

Kris Bryant (+4500 to win NL MVP) had a decent showing against the Pirates, recording three hits in nine at-bats in the series and hitting his first homer of the season in Sunday’s win. That is something to be pleased about after he hit only .206 with four homers in 36 games last season.

While they did take the last two games after an Opening Day loss, there was little to write home about at the plate overall. They hit .143 against the Pirates, and Bryant was the only Cub with three or more hits. That is not ideal production for a home series against one of the worst teams in the league.

In the series, Javier Baez (+4000 to win NL MVP) was 2 for 12, Ian Happ (+5000 to win NL MVP) was 1 for 6, and Anthony Rizzo (also +5000 to win NL MVP) was 2 for 8. Baez and Rizzo, like Bryant, finished barely above .200 last season, so they need to get going soon.

Can a Retooled Rotation Be Relied Upon?

Pitching was not a weakness for the Cubs in 2020, as they were 10th in the league in ERA (3.99). But things look a bit different this season, with Yu Darvish and Jon Lester now both elsewhere. Of last season’s primary starters, only Kyle Hendricks is slotted into this year’s rotation, with Alec Mills an outsider for now.

Now in the mix are returning Cub Jake Arrieta, who was 69-31 with a 2.73 ERA from 2013-17 and won the 2015 NL Cy Young with the Cubs, Zach Davies, who was 7-4 with a 2.73 ERA with the Padres last season, and former Pirates starter Trevor Williams. Williams will make his debut tonight against the Brewers, while Arrieta and Davies both won their starts against the Pirates.

The most noteworthy performance of the weekend came from the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel has had a rough start to his Cubs career, posting a 6.53 ERA in 2019 and a 5.28 ERA in 2020. But he was perfect in two innings against the Pirates and struck out five of the six batters he faced. If he has his mojo back, the Cubs may just have something to say about the NL Central race.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Division Title Odds: +7500

National League Title Odds: +7500

2021 World Series Odds: +15000

2021 Team Win Total: OVER 58.5 (-110), UNDER 58.5 (-110)

Odds to Make 2021 MLB Playoffs: YES (+2200), NO (-10000)

Let’s be honest there. There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be written about the Pirates. They were awful last season, going 19-41, and they will be awful again this season.

But they do have the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year in Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is an exciting young talent. Hayes hit .376 with five homers in 95 at-bats last season and hit .431 with 10 extra-base hits in 54 spring training at-bats.

However, Hayes is now on the 10-day injured list due to left wrist inflammation, so the most intriguing thing about the Pirates is shelved for the moment.

The Pirates could also have another promising rookie in the mix at some point this season in Oneil Cruz. Cruz, an infielder by trade with a potential future in the outfield, was listed among the NL Rookie of the Year odds but is unlikely to seriously be in the mix there. He had a rough spring and is starting the season in the minors, but he may be up eventually. Interestingly, Cruz is named after five-time All-Star outfielder Paul O’Neill, his father’s favorite baseball player.

More 2021 MLB Season Preview Content:

More Articles You Might like

Latest on Betting News

There are many great MLB betting options on a packed Tuesday schedule. But the best of the bunch is in Milwaukee, where the Brewers should stroll again against the Pittsburgh Pirates.