Nolan Arenado can push Cardinals atop NL Central

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The Post’s Greg Joyce previews the NL Central.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

O/U wins: 86.5

Key player: Nolan Arenado. The Cardinals appeared to fleece the Rockies in February when they traded for the stud third baseman without giving up any of their top prospects and even getting some money back in return. Now it’s up to Arenado to play up to his hefty contract and give the Cardinals a jolt with a bounce-back season.

Player who’ll need to step up: Jack Flaherty is the Cardinals’ ace, but took a step back last year in the shortened season. If the right-hander gets back to his 2019 form, he’ll be the rotation anchor they need.

Name you’ll get to know: Dylan Carlson had a pair of stints in St. Louis last season, struggling in the first (23 games) before hitting his stride in the second (12 games) — to the point where he was batting cleanup in their playoff series. The outfielder seems poised to break out with an extended shot this season.

Biggest question mark: How dependable is the rotation behind Flaherty? The Cardinals brought back 39-year-old Adam Wainwright, but Carlos Martinez has durability concerns and Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim are sidelined coming out of spring training.

How it’ll go down: The NL Central appears to be open for the taking, but the Cardinals may have the best pieces in place to make a run for it. A mix of veterans (Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Wainwright, Yadier Molina) who can still bring it and young talent (Flaherty, Carlson) make for a promising season in St. Louis. If the Cardinals can solidify the rotation and get flame-throwing closer Jordan Hicks back to his pre-Tommy John surgery form, they could be back on top of the division.

Nolan Arenado
Nolan Arenado
AP

2. Milwaukee Brewers

O/U wins: 83.5

Key player: After being the NL MVP in 2018 and runner-up in 2019, Christian Yelich had a 2020 to forget, batting just .205 with an 111 OPS-plus. If the 162-game season in 2021 allows him to get back to being himself, the Brewers can make a run for the division.

Player who’ll need to step up: Keston Hiura. The one-time top prospect will be moving from second base to first base to make room for free-agent signing Kolten Wong. But it’s Hiura’s swing that made him an alluring prospect and he’ll be looking to get it back after batting just .212 with an 88 OPS-plus and 80 strikeouts in 59 games last year.

Name you’ll get to know: The Brewers acquired middle infielder Luis Urias from the Padres in 2019, and while he has struggled to get consistent playing time, he is a former top prospect who hit .308 in the minors and is still only 23. He’s fighting to win the shortstop job and live up to his prospect status.

Biggest question mark: What will the Brewers get from Lorenzo Cain upon his return from opting out of last season for COVID-19 concerns? It’s also a crowded outfield after the Brewers signed Jackie Bradley Jr. late to put him in the mix with Yelich and Avisail Garcia.

How it’ll go down: Craig Counsell has managed the Brewers to the postseason in three straight years and they could make it four if their deep pitching staff lives up to its potential. The rotation may not have an established ace, though Brandon Woodruff could be on his way there and Corbin Burnes flashed it last season. Josh Hader and NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams lead what could be one of the league’s top bullpens. It’ll take some bounce-back performances from the Brewers’ big hitters to make them a factor down the stretch.

3. Chicago Cubs

O/U wins: 78.5

Key player: There was plenty of speculation over the offseason about a trade including Kris Bryant, but the Cubs hung on to their former MVP third baseman — for now, at least. While a deal may loom over his season, he’ll be trying to get back on track after a rough 2020.

Player who’ll need to step up: Javier Baez. Not only is the shortstop another Cub trying to put together a bounce-back season, after hitting .203 with a paltry 59 OPS-plus last year, he’s another pending free agent at a position that could be loaded with talent next offseason.

Name you’ll get to know: Adbert Alzolay. The right-handed pitching prospect earned the fifth starter spot after posting a 2.95 ERA in six appearances last season.

Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant
AP

Biggest question mark: How do the Cubs handle the uncertainty surrounding the future of their core? Trade speculation will follow them into the season, especially if they get off to a slow start.

How it’ll go down: The Cubs didn’t go full teardown this past offseason — instead settling for trading Yu Darvish, non-tendering Kyle Schwarber and letting Jon Lester leave — though that possibility still lingers for the 2016 champs, with Anthony Rizzo, Bryant and Baez all entering walk years. And yet, the Cubs still have a shot to make some noise this year in a mediocre division, especially if those three pending free agents get their groove back, Ian Happ and Joc Pederson step up in the outfield and the rotation solidifies. If not, the Cubs could be in sell mode by the summer.

4. Cincinnati Reds

O/U wins: 81.5

Key player: With Trevor Bauer off to Los Angeles, it’s officially Luis Castillo’s rotation. While he was mentioned in offseason trade speculation, for now he’s the young ace of the staff and looking to build on the 3.35 ERA he has registered over the past two seasons.

Player who’ll need to step up: Nick Senzel. It’s time for the center fielder to show why he was the No. 2-overall draft pick in 2016. He did it in the minors but has struggled to stay healthy in the big leagues, which has kept his bat from making a major impact in the Reds lineup.

Name you’ll get to know: Another high draft pick, Jonathan India (No. 5-overall in 2018), reached Double-A in 2019. Now the infielder appears set to break camp as the starting second baseman, with his bat and on-base skills forcing the issue.

Biggest question mark: Early in camp, Joey Votto said he wanted to “get back to being dangerous.” But can the 37-year-old get there? A bout with COVID-19 during spring training won’t help, putting his status for Opening Day in question.

How it’ll go down: The Reds made the expanded playoff field last season, but won’t have Bauer to help in that pursuit this season. Another strong season from Sonny Gray, if he’s able to shake off the back issues that bothered him during camp, would go a long way to softening the blow. In the lineup, the Reds are counting on veterans like Votto, Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas (who may be returning to his natural spot at third base) to be better than they were last season, while hoping that their young talent rises to the occasion. It seems like a risky proposition.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

O/U wins: 58.5

Key player: Ke’Bryan Hayes represents hope for the future in Pittsburgh. The third baseman was called up last season and shined in 24 games, batting .376 with a 202 OPS-plus. Now he’ll get to see what he can do in a full season.

Player who’ll need to step up: It was only a few years ago that Gregory Polanco looked like a rising star in Pittsburgh. Then he had a disappointing 2019 marred by injuries, followed by a brutal 2020 in which he hit .153 with a 45 OPS-plus. If he’s going to turn it around, this would be the year to do it.

Name you’ll get to know: Anthony Alford. The 26-year-old outfielder was once a top-100 prospect but never put it together in a few brief opportunities with the Blue Jays. Now he gets what could be his best chance at real playing time with the Pirates, looking to take advantage.

Biggest question mark: What kind of strides will Mitch Keller take? The right-hander arrived in 2019 and struggled, then posted a 2.91 ERA over five starts last season while having command issues. If he can settle in over the course of the season with some experience under his belt, he could break out as the staff ace.

How it’ll go down: It’s looking like it could be another long season in Pittsburgh. There are a few core pieces beginning to emerge, but not nearly enough to make any real noise. Instead, this season figures to be about letting the Pirates’ young players develop while GM Ben Cherington’s rebuild continues.

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