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The 2019 N.L. Central: The division that nobody ‘needs’

Would you give up parts of the future to win now?

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Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Many years ago, when writing persuasive articles on something other than sports, it was impressed on me. Write on one topic in each piece. I usually am best served when holding to that. However, in this instance, two entirely different ideas, from different sides of my awareness, merge. Both are equally in need of discussion, and each somewhat explain, and justify, the other. 2019 is a season where nobody needs to win the National League Central.

"That's the most absurd thing you've ever said, and you've said quite a few of them. Everyone wants to win the N.L. Central." Absolutely. I agree, entirely. But nobody needs it.

Fifty years ago, baseball expanded to the point where four teams made the postseason. Only two had made it, before. To use a discussion topic used often in college football chatter, the regular season was cheapened to encourage more fans to attend late season games. With four, then eight, then ten teams allowed into the post-season, winning 98 games (or whatever number) became less important. Making it to October gave more teams a chance to win. Which sounds fantastic, but MLB has reached an interesting point where competitiveness might have been compromised on two different sides.

Before I get there, I put on my language guy hat. Often, online, people like to emphasize the importance of their assessment by a brash overstatement. For instance: "The Cubs need to win this game tonight."

"Or else what?"

"What do you mean, or else what?"

"You said they need to win tonight. If they don't win, then what horrible thing happens?"

"They might fall in the standings."

"So, they don't need to win?"

"I want them to, so they need to."

In our society, "want" has been raised to the level of "need." Nobody asked me. I didn't get to vote on it. Need is considered the same as want, even though most people realize both words have significantly different wallop attached to them. Saying "nobody needs" is equated with "nobody wants." The N.L. Central is the division that teams would like to back into, not obtain by will of force.

Back to competitiveness being compromised. Nobody was talking much about percentage chances back in the late 1960s or early 1970s in baseball. When the Red Sox qualified for the World Series in 1967, it was presumed they had about a 50-50 chance to win. As the Cubs/Mets race tightened in 1969, both teams had a 10-to-20 percent chance at a title. As the post-season field grew, the likelihoods diminished. However, now, you can choose between Fangraphs, The 538, and other prognostication models. When the Cubs added Aroldis Chapman, he added about five percent in a chance to hoist the trophy, and every last percentile added was needed.

As 2019 has hit trade month, none of the teams in the N.L. Central seem overly committed to aggressive upgrades. This could change, but the three leaders are all in a similar spot. The Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers have, very recently, been good, but not good enough.

For many, the Cubs’ 2017 and 2018 seasons were considered abject failures. If that's the case, and it seems to be a popular assessment, what is the long-reaching benefit of burning prospect depth to get churned out by the Braves or Dodgers in five games? Many Cubs fans have reached the level of "Hoist Or Fail." The 2018 team didn't get a parade. The Brewers reached the LCS in October. Unless they go a step further, they don't much feel like burning their future for a three percent better chance at an unlikely World Series. The Cardinals glow from their 2015 division title is so slight as to be invisible.

None of the three have deep and respected pipeline pools. To upgrade to the "15 percent range" to win the big trophy, all would have to give up morsels of youth that would help in the future. The Braves have depth and time on their side. The Dodgers are still formidable, and the Padres are looming. MLB teams are now forced, on either side of the competitiveness bubble, to decide if "this is the right year to be aggressive." For now, I'm not seeing the Brewers, Cubs, or Cardinals mortgaging the future for a slightly less tepid present. With baseball postseason expansion, the value of cost-control is more important than a spot in the Division Series. A few wins in October are wanted, but not needed.