The first pitch is almost upon us, and potentially the most contested division heading into this season is the NL Central. St. Louis comes into this season as the favorites to win the division but don’t be surprised if the Cubs, Reds, or Brewers get hot and take the Cardinals crown. That being said, here’s one key player to watch from each NL Central team that could be a difference-maker in this division.
Chicago Cubs: Joc Pederson
After Mookie Betts signed with the Dodgers and Cody Bellinger’s standout season, Joc Pederson found himself trying to fight with Chris Taylor and A.J. Pollock to stay in the lineup. Unluckily for Joc, in the middle of that fight, he had one of the worst seasons of his career. A .190 batting average and only 7 homers in 43 games wasn’t the kind of season Joc was hoping for at the end of his contract and looked for a fresh start.
Enter the Chicago Cubs who remains one of the biggest unknowns heading into this season. They signed Pederson to a $7 million, one-year deal in the offseason, and based on his spring, it’s money well spent.
Pederson tore the cover off the ball, putting up 8 home runs, 19 RBIs, and a .378 batting average in just 45 ABs this spring. If anyone is poised for a comeback season, it’s Joc Pederson. Be sure to watch out for him as an underrated late-round fantasy pick-up and a very key piece for the Cubs.
Cincinnati Reds: Luis Castillo
The spotlight has turned from Trevor Bauer (now in LA) to Luis Castillo to be the ace for the Reds this season. His 4-6 record last year doesn’t tell the full story of Castillo’s season as he posted the second-lowest ERA of his career, pitched a complete game, and only gave up 5 home runs.
2019 was the best season of Castillo’s short career which saw him post a 15-8 record and a spot in the all-star game. Look for Castillo to step up in his ace role this season and get back to his all-star stats that we saw back in 2019 as long as the Reds can give him the run support he needs.
If Castillo gets run support, then his record will be back above .500 and potentially as good as two years ago leading the Reds to a strong season. If the offense doesn’t show, then Castillo will statistically have a great season, but won’t have the record and recognition he deserves. Definitely a player to watch step up in his new role leading the rotation this year.
Milwaukee Brewers: Christian Yelich
No MLB player had more of a setback in 2020 than Christian Yelich. The former MVP struggled mightily last year and is due to get back on track in a full 162 game season. It was hard to believe Yelich, who signed a massive contract prior to last year, was an all-star lock throughout the rest of his career.
Whether you watched him play or look at his stats, clearly Yelich wasn’t himself. The eye test shows him swinging wildly, swinging for the fences on every swing (12 out of his 41 hits were HRs), and trying to do too much which really affected the Brewers season. Meanwhile, the stats weren’t much better as Yelich had 76 Ks in 58 games, posted a .205 average (worst of his career), and saw a previous 30 steal season lead to a 4 steal one.
All eyes are on Yelich for a comeback season this year as he looks to get back to his MVP stature. While he may not get back to what he once was, expect Yelich to at least improve upon his year to forget. A .370 average in spring training is a good sign of things to hopefully come for Yelich and the Brew Crew.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Ke’Bryan Hayes
Pittsburgh is most likely landing in the basement of this division amidst their current rebuild but their one bright spot will be rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes. The former first-round pick in 2015 showed out as a September call-up last year and should be an everyday player given the depleted Pirates roster.
In just 24 games last September, Hayes had a .376 average with 5 home runs, 11 RBIs, and 17 runs scored giving Pirates fans a taste of the good future to come once the rebuild is complete. His spring was just as good this year as Hayes posted a ridiculous .429 average in 49 ABs with 8 RBIs in 16 games.
As one of the most exciting young prospects in the game gets his chance to be a full-time major league player, be sure to keep an eye on him. If he keeps up his trend of performing well against pro pitching, Hayes will surely be the one dominant, consistent star for the Pirates this season.
St. Louis Cardinals: Paul Goldschmidt
St. Louis made a big splash in the offseason getting Nolan Arenado and while he is an important player to watch this year, be sure to not forget about Goldy. The 33-year old first baseman had an underrated season last year and will be important to the Cardinals’ success this season as well.
Paul Goldschmidt is easily a top 5 first baseman in the league still and he proved that last season. While his home run totals took a dip with only 6 in 58 games, Goldy posted a .304 average (second highest of his career) and only struck out 43 times.
Goldschmidt will find himself in an important role for the Cardinals this season if he can continue to get hits and drive in runs as he has done throughout his career. His home run number should improve this year as well, making him a key player to watch this upcoming season.