National League Central Odds & Pick To Win
If the National League East is the most loaded division in baseball, the NL Central might be the most wide open. Outside of the Pirates, who have chosen to blow it all up and start over (and rightly so, given how far behind they are the other four), any of the teams in this division could reasonably win it and end up in the playoffs. Any of them could also easily find themselves under .500.
There really is no margin for error in a division where all five teams have appeared in the postseason at least once in the past seven years. A division that has seen a different champion in each of the past three seasons, and that means that any of the four teams could be a reasonably good bet. Each of them has their strengths, and each of them has their warts, and it’s our task to try to figure out who’s going to do the best job hiding those warts once the season gets going.
Chicago Cubs +250
Has the window already shut at Wrigley Field, or do the Cubs still have one more run left in them before it’s time for things to start over on the North Side? The Cubs have a new skipper at the helm in David Ross, who has never managed before at any level, creating an interesting challenge for a club that is clearly running out of chances. The pressure to win isn’t nearly as intense as it would have been had the Cubs not won the World Series in 2016. However, there’s still a real sense of urgency in Wrigleyville because the feeling in the Windy City is that the Cubs are about to become an afterthought for two or three seasons while the White Sox take center stage with their young core.
For the Cubs to own the spotlight in Chicago for one more year, they’ve got to play better defense. Chicago plays in a division where runs do not come easy, and mistakes are punished, and the Cubs were third-worst in baseball last year with 118 errors. In contrast, the Cardinals had just 66, underscoring just how big the gap was in terms of run prevention. Chicago’s ERA was actually a respectable 4.10, and a better defense might have been the difference between the 84 wins Chicago ended up with and the 90 that would have earned it a spot in the NL Wild Card Game.
Beyond that, the Cubs are the antithesis of St. Louis: excellent offense, but a worrisome pitching staff. The Cubs have some quality starters, bur Jon Lester is now 36, and the bullpen remains a massive question mark. The one bit of good news is that the Cubs are clearly going to go into this season with the mentality that this is their last shot before burning the house down and starting over. But, that comes with the double-edged sword of Chicago being more than willing to sell off its assets while it still can if this doesn’t look like it’s going to work at midseason. The best odds for the Cubs to win the NL Central can be found at 5Dimes Sportsbook! Home of -105 reduced juice betting!
Cincinnati Reds +285
If the streak of a different team topping the NL Central is to reach four years, then it’s going to be the Reds who are sitting on top of the pile at season’s end. Based on history, this would seem to be a foolish pick. Cincinnati hasn’t made the real postseason since 2012 (they technically made the wild card game in 2013 but lost it to the Pirates, which shouldn’t count), hasn’t won more than 76 games in a season since 2013 and hasn’t placed higher than fourth in any of the past six years.
But if you watched this team play last season, you likely saw why the Reds see a real opportunity here with the Pirates blowing it up and the window closing fast for the Cubs and the Brewers. To that end, Cincinnati got aggressive in the offseason and attempted to bolster their biggest weakness: hitting. They brought in a pair of power swingers in Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos, who combined to mash 62 home runs and score 180 times last season, numbers that are very attractive for a club that scored just 701 runs last season. Given that the Reds play in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors, those numbers don’t exactly scream contender.
But Cincinnati can pitch. The Reds have an excellent top of the rotation in Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, and if Trevor Bauer can rediscover the form he showed in Cleveland, nobody in the NL Central will be able to match the Reds’ starters. The one problem for the Cincinnati pitching staff is the same as it’s always been for Cincinnati pitchers: Great American Ball Park. The Reds boasted the second-best WHIP in the National League behind the Dodgers, but it was wasted because Cincinnati allowed 214 home runs, which allowed the Cardinals (191) and the Cubs (195) to post better ERAs despite allowing more base runners.
The Reds aren’t getting a different park out of the Queen City any time soon (nor should they, Great American is only 17 years old and is a jewel), so they’ve got to play the park they’ve got. That means getting their offense to the point where they can match the opposition’s home runs and allow their pitching to do the rest. They believe they’ve gotten there, and if they’re right, this will likely be a successful bet.
Milwaukee Brewers +350
If you’re the kind of gambler who likes to go high-risk, high-reward, the Brewers are your kind of team. Milwaukee has made its living on one-run games over the past three years, going 85-59 in such contests and averaging just over 90 wins a season because of that. But luck deserted the Brewers when it mattered most last season, as they fell to Washington in the wild-card game despite holding a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning. Milwaukee has never made it to the playoffs in three straight seasons, and that plus a feeling that the Brewers are due to regress to the mean has gamblers feeling a little down on the Brewers compared to the rest of the competitive clubs in the NL Central.
That means there’s an opportunity if you believe that the pitching and defense will hold up for the Brewers this season. It’ll have to because Milwaukee was one of the few teams that wasn’t able to take advantage of the backyard baseball conditions of 2019. The Brewers’ run total only increased by 15 runs last season, which left them in the bottom half of baseball. That’s not a great situation to be in, and that’s before you throw in that the recent changes to baseball’s roster rules might have sapped Milwaukee of some of its best advantages. The Brewers got by with optioning pitchers to Triple-A whenever they needed a rest and calling them up ten days later, but now an optioned pitcher can’t be recalled for 15 days, which makes it much harder for teams to overcome small injuries. The same is true with the elimination of the September 40-man roster, which the Brewers used expertly to post the game’s best record in the final month of the season.
Milwaukee is a smart team with plenty of talent, but the Brewers were fragile last season and saw much of their rotation spend time on the injured list. This time, Milwaukee won’t be able to wriggle free of that problem quite as easily, making for a much harder challenge.
Pittsburgh Pirates +10000
A team like the Yankees could absorb the kind of mistakes Pittsburgh has made in the past few seasons and still be able to compete. But the Pirates aren’t the Yankees and never will be the Yankees. Mistakes, like getting a limited return for Gerrit Cole in the 2018 offseason and foolishly thinking they were in the playoff picture and mortgaging the future for a fading Chris Archer, have forced the Pirates to blow it all up and change course. They’ve got a new general manager in Ben Cherington, who has seen the heights of winning big in Boston. But there won’t be any of that this season, as the Pirates are in for a painful learning year while the other teams in the division chase the title and use them to build their records.
Long-term, however, the picture is actually pretty positive in Pittsburgh as long as the Pirates don’t make another foolish trade in the hopes of snagging a wild card berth. The Pirates would be in much better shape if they hadn’t traded Tyler Glasnow in the Chris Archer deal, but as it stands, they do have a solid lineup of young players, such as Josh Bell, who hit 37 home runs a season ago and could be the first baseman for the majority of this decade. Only two of the Pirates’ eight everyday starters are above 29, which sets them up well to compete in 2020 when the window will likely close for both the Cubs and the Brewers. They’ll add another young position player soon, as Ke’Bryan Hayes should arrive in Pittsburgh once he proves that he can hit consistently at the Triple-A level.
But for the time being, the Pirates are more likely to wait for pitching to arrive from Triple-A Indianapolis, where Mitch Keller established himself as a potential future star on the mound. Unfortunately for the Bucs, there aren’t nearly enough Kellers at either Indianapolis or Double-A Altoona, which means that this rebuild will take longer than western Pennsylvania would like to see. But the good news for the Pirates is that they have plenty of time before their window opens — and the good news for gamblers is that it’s clear that there’s absolutely no point in spending a dime backing Pittsburgh to win the NL Central in 2020.
St. Louis Cardinals +225
Has there ever been a team more successful at flying under the radar than the Cardinals? Every year, people seem to overlook the Cardinals as a contender in the National League. And every year, the Cardinals find a way to be successful. St. Louis has had exactly one losing season in the past 20 years, and even that gets an asterisk because it happened the year pitcher Josh Hancock died in a car accident during the first month of the 2007 season.
They’re likely going to keep that run of success going because the Cardinals simply don’t allow teams to hit against them. Jack Flaherty got all of the attention last season when he burst onto the scene with a 0.91 ERA after the All-Star break, but he was far from the only strong pitcher the Cardinals put on the mound. Only the Reds and Dodgers held opponents to a lower batting average than the .238 the Cardinals allowed last season. The only team in the National League to concede fewer runs than the Cardinals was the Dodgers, and the Cardinals got a round further than Los Angeles did a year ago. The Cardinals’ pitchers don’t miss bats, but they don’t really need to miss bats given the defense behind them. St. Louis led baseball with a .989 fielding percentage last season, and the Cardinals’ pitching gave them plenty of chances, as Redbird pitchers induced the fourth-highest ratio of ground balls to fly balls.
If the Cardinals have a weakness, it’s that they don’t hit the ball that well. St. Louis’ team batting average of .245 was easily the lowest of any squad that played in the postseason and was 20 points lower than that of Pittsburgh, which went 69-93 last year. However, there’s one other reason besides pitching and defense that the Cardinals succeeded where the Pirates failed. It’s that St. Louis was very efficient when it got on base, scoring six more runs than Pittsburgh despite 161 fewer hits. This is a team that is far more than the sum of its parts, which makes for “excellent value” that gamblers can easily overlook.
Dan’s Pick to Win the NL Central
To me, two bets look better than the others. Obviously, we’re not going to be picking Pittsburgh, so that leaves the aging Cubs, the up-and-coming Reds, the enlightened Brewers, and the consistent Cardinals. I don’t want to touch the Cubs. There are too many things that can go wrong with their roster, and unlike the Reds, there isn’t enough upside to get me excited. When you make a season-long bet, it’s better to go in on a team a year too early than a year too late, and the Cubs feel like they’re two years too late. Cincinnati isn’t going to be selling its assets if things go wrong, while Chicago won’t hesitate.
As for the Brewers, I think their intelligence has covered up some real weaknesses, and I think MLB has taken away their most significant advantages. Milwaukee will find ways to outthink the new rules, but it will take time, and time is one thing the Brewers don’t have this season with the virus issues.
So that leaves St. Louis and Cincinnati, and I can see either one finishing in first place. It depends on how aggressive you prefer to be in this spot, as I think the Reds are still a year away from winning the division but look like a good bet for the wild card. If you’re willing to take a lower reward in exchange for a lower risk, St. Louis is the best play; if you’d rather go big or go home, you should bet the Reds.
For me, I don’t think the extra payout is worth the additional risk in this case. I’d rather go with the Cardinals’ proven commodity at +225, which represents a solid return for a team that’s been here before. You can bet the Cards to win the NL Central for FREE by taking advantage of a 50% REAL CASH bonus at Bovada Sportsbook! They take credit cards too! (and they offer rebates on EVERY bet, win or lose! Click here to sign up now!