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Fantasy Baseball NL Central Preview: Offensive talent rules division as pitching options are scarce

Milwaukee Brewers

If you want to take Christian Yelich with the No. 1 overall pick in your draft, it’s tough for anyone to argue with the decision. He’s phenomenal, a fantasy terror across five categories. Last year, he led the NL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, claiming his second straight batting crown. Yelich also hit 44 home runs and stole 30 bags (in 32 attempts) despite playing only 130 games.

Again: He’s a monster. Almost a one-man offense.

After Yelich is selected at or near the top, various other Brewers bats will be taken at spots that allow plenty of profit potential. Second baseman Keston Hiura is a personal favorite following a brilliant half-season in Milwaukee. He delivered 19 homers, nine steals and an OPS of .938 over 84 games in the majors, plus another 19 bombs and seven bags at Triple-A. He’s a sneaky challenger to rank as his position’s top overall fantasy asset by the end of the season. It’s possible he won’t continue to keep his average north of .300, but he’s a terrific power/speed option.

It seems as if Ryan Braun, Avisail Garcia, and Justin Smoak will be sharing two positions, and the two outfielders are definitely worthy of mixed-league attention at their ADPs (244.4 and 246.7). Catcher Omar Narvaez had a quality power season in 2019 (22 HR) and it’s certainly not crazy to think he’ll repeat it. Lorenzo Cain is a clear bounce-back candidate, just one year removed from a 30-steal season in which he hit .308.

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Josh Hader remains unrealistically and annoyingly good. He coaxed an otherworldly swinging-strike rate of 22.7 last year and a ridiculous K/9 of 16.4. He obviously makes life easier for this team’s ace-less starting staff. Brandon Woodruff is a solid mixed-league asset, but he’s no one’s ideal No. 1. Still, he projects to deliver useful ratios (3.01 FIP in 2019) and an excellent K-rate. Woodruff is a top-25 starter in our consensus ranks. Adrian Houser and Josh Lindblom are deep-ish league fliers, but you can leave the rest of this rotation alone.

Milwaukee Brewers Projected Lineup. (Photo by Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals claimed their millionth division and/or league flag last season, winning 91 games and ultimately reaching the NLCS, where they were dismissed by the Nationals. All things considered, it was a hugely successful year, which of course is nothing new for this franchise. St. Louis didn’t make major changes in the offseason, but none were needed. The lineup is potent — a blend of vets and young talent — and the starting rotation has an emerging ace at the top. As ever, the Cards are going to be a problem for the rest of the National League.

Jack Flaherty will be the first St. Louis fantasy commodity off the board in pretty much every draft (ADP 21.3). You can snag him in Round 2 and it won’t (or shouldn’t) be viewed as a reach. He’s obscene, and only 24 years old. Flaherty produced a 0.97 WHIP over 196.2 innings last season, striking out 231 batters while walking 55. His K-rate has held over the past two seasons while the walks have come down. He’s a star — just look at this filth ...

Draft and enjoy. No one else in the Cardinals’ starting staff is anywhere near Flaherty in terms of fantasy upside or relevance, and the team’s presumptive No. 2 arm, Miles Mikolas, is battling elbow/forearm issues. Carlos Martinez is reportedly healthy and headed for a rotation spot. New arrival Kwang-Hyun Kim has passed the eye test this spring, too; he could have mixed-league appeal, assuming he lands a starting role.

The biggest open fantasy (and real-life) question surrounding this team at present is how, exactly, manager Mike Shildt plans to handle the ninth inning. We’re drafting Giovanny Gallegos as if he’s the likeliest closer — he was lights-out last year (0.81 WHIP, 11.3 K/9) — but the team might very well leave him in the role in which he excelled. Andrew Miller may no longer be a bankable option, as he’s dealing with arm issues of as-yet-unknown severity. Other closing options include ... well, pretty much everyone. Jordan Hicks is returning from Tommy John surgery but isn’t going to make an appearance until July at the earliest. If you’re drafting Gallegos, do it because he’s simply a great reliever who can have a positive impact on your ratios. He’s no lock to save 20-plus games, at least not yet.

Paul Goldschmidt is a well-established fantasy commodity deserving his top-five positional ADP, likely to deliver another 90-30-90 season. His batting average dipped 30 points last year, but the key batted-ball rates were in line with prior seasons. Goldy hit .290 or better for six straight years before leaving Arizona, so a bounce-back wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He almost never misses games, a huge plus. Yadier Molina stubbornly refuses to decline and makes for a fine end-game option in deep formats. Paul DeJong offers very cheap power at shortstop (ADP 196.4), a reflection of the depth of his position and the general availability of 30-homer pop. Nonetheless, DeJong has clear value. Tommy Edman was a revelation last season, slashing .304/.350/.500 with 11 HRs and 15 steals over 92 games. He should see time all over the diamond in the year ahead, giving him a path to 450-plus at-bats and multi-position eligibility.

St. Louis, naturally, has a prospect on the way who has the potential to make a serious fantasy splash. Dylan Carlson produced a 26/20 season in the high minors last year while hitting .292/.372/.542. He’d also been raking during spring training. Whenever he arrives, fantasy managers should be ready to add.

St. Louis Cardinals Projected Lineup. (Photo by Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Chicago Cubs

If you’re a fan of the Cubs, the 2020 offseason has not been particularly exciting. The franchise invested heavily in the launch of a brand new sports network, but, curiously, the Ricketts family has declined to allocate additional resources to the on-field product. To date, Chicago’s biggest free-agent signings have been one-year deals for guys like Steven Souza, Jason Kipnis, Jeremy Jeffress, and Dan Winkler. Former MVP Kris Bryant lost the grievance in which he was seeking an additional year of service time, yet the Cubs still appear motivated — or at least willing — to deal away the 28-year-old three-time all-star.

So, it’s a weird time to be a Cubs diehard.

And yet, well ... just look at the projected lineup below. That ain’t too bad. The team’s biggest bats are all in their absolute primes, all 30 and under, with huge seasons already on their resumes. New manager David Ross is reportedly gonna park Bryant in the leadoff spot, which will negatively impact his RBI potential while also giving him a realistic shot to lead the NL in runs scored, assuming good health. Bryant enters the season with a .385 career OBP, so it’s not crazy to think he can cross the plate 110 or more times.

As of this writing, the Cubs have four players ranked inside our consensus overall top-60: Javier Baez (26), Bryant (38), Yu Darvish (46) and Anthony Rizzo (55). All four have, of course, previously delivered seasons that justify their early-round ranks. Baez, Bryant, and Rizzo all finished 2019 in various states of disrepair, but they should be operating at full capacity on opening day.

Darvish stumbled in the early weeks last year, issuing 33 walks over his first eight starts, but he eventually self-corrected and dominated in the final months. From May 15 through the end of the season, he was vintage Darvish: 142.0 IP, 3.61 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 185 Ks, 23 BB. After the all-star break, he was an upper-tier ace: 81.2 IP, 2.76 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 118 Ks, 7 BB. There’s a decent chance he’ll return a significant profit on his not-too-intimidating Yahoo ADP (65.6).

[Yahoo Rankings: Overall | C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Kyle Schwarber is, at this point, guaranteed to be a drag on batting average and a huge boost to your power stats. He’s averaged 31.3 bombs per season over his last three, and he cleared the fence 38 times last year. He’s an exit velocity all-star, for what it’s worth, ranking among the game’s best. Willson Contreras is coming off another standard-issue very solid season (.272 AVG, 24 HR), but, like Bryant, his name found its way into winter trade rumors. He remains a second-tier catcher for fantasy purposes; there’s a pretty fair chance we haven’t yet seen his best season.

Beyond Darvish, the Cubs’ rotation is something of a minefield. Kyle Hendricks remains a bankable fantasy asset coming off another effective season (1.13 WHIP); he does more with low velocity than anyone in the game, by far. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood are, at this stage, best used only as streaming options in mixed leagues. Craig Kimbrel has returned to spin unwatchably tense ninth innings, so continue drafting him if constant dread is your thing.

Chicago Cubs Projected Lineup. (Photo by Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Cincinnati Reds

While most of the teams in the NL Central merely tweaked their rosters over the winter, the Reds were throwing money around — more money, in fact, than they’d spent in the ten previous offseasons. This team is a lock to be fun, and a near-lock to be damn good. No one should be surprised if Cincinnati challenges for the division flag in 2020.

The table-setter for the Reds is likely to be new addition Shogo Akiyama, a player who basically lived on base in Japan. His lowest OBP over his last five seasons in Seibu was .385. He also hit 20 or more homers in each of the past three years while consistently swiping double-digit bags. Akiyama profiles as a terrific top-of-the-order bat, and he’d passed the eye test this spring ...

He’s a no-risk flier at the draft table, a player with the potential to help in four of five standard hitting categories.

Joey Votto, now 36, appears to be well into his decline phase, but that doesn’t mean he’s an easy out. The power is gone, but the batting eye remains. He’s best used in OBP leagues these days. The heart of the Reds’ order has an abundance of power, as veteran third baseman, Eugenio Suarez, is joined by newcomers Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos. Those three hit a combined 111 homers last season. Cincinnati is a friendly power environment, so don’t fret about the relocation of Moose and Castellanos. Draft ‘em with confidence. Moustakas offers dual-position eligibility (2B/3B) yet he’s often available outside the top-100 picks. Aristides Aquino was a late-season beast last season (19/7 in 56 games), but we can’t assume he’ll be an everyday outfielder for this team in April. Longtime fantasy teases Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker are still in the team picture. Senzel should see plenty of playing time, if healthy.

[Yahoo Rankings: Overall | C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

The three starters at the top of Cincy’s rotation — Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Trevor Bauer — all struck out 200-plus batters last season and should be viewed as top-30-ish fantasy arms. Gray is a clear regression candidate (.255 BABIP in ‘19), but his K-rate won’t nosedive and he won’t hurt for run support. Closer Raisel Iglesias saved 34 games last season, but he also posted the worst ratios of his career while losing 12 games. If he struggles early, the Reds have a few quality bullpen arms capable of claiming the ninth, including Michael Lorenzen and Pedro Strop.

Cincinnati Reds Projected Lineup. (Photo by Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Josh Bell is the only player on Pittsburgh’s roster currently being drafted inside the overall top-100 — and with an ADP of 95.6, he’s just barely hanging on. When Bell is off the board, it’s a looooonnnng wait for the next Bucs player to be selected. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds has an ADP of 160.7 following his respectable rookie season (16 HR, .314 AVG) and presumptive closer Keone Kela falls to 181.6. Chris Archer has been a WHIP-killer in recent years, so he, like the rest of the Pirates’ rotation, is not a player to target in standard mixed leagues. Kevin Newman has some appeal in deep leagues with MI slots to fill.

Beyond those few names, the Bucs are strictly for the NL-only crowd.

Pittsburgh Pirates Projected Lineup. (Photo by Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

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