Top 2024 Bounce-Back Candidates for Each Team in the NL Central

A couple of former aces and a pair of powerful sluggers highlight this list of the best bounce-back candidates in the NL Central.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 11: Lance Lynn #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks off the field after the second inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Game Three of the Division Series at Chase Field on October 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Five years ago, Sonny Gray began the journey of reviving his career in the NL Central, when the New York Yankees traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. That culminated in him landing a lucrative contract this offseason to return to the division with the St. Louis Cardinals, a massive success story half a decade after he himself was a bounce-back candidate.

The year and a half Gray spent in pinstripes proved to be disappointing, as the Yankees didn’t get the front-line starter that he looked like during parts of five years with the Oakland Athletics. Gray — who posted a 3.42 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 705 innings with the A’s — struggled as a Yankee, going 15-16 with a 4.51 ERA and 4.40 FIP over 195 2/3 innings pitched.

But Gray was an All-Star and finished seventh in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2019, his first season with the Reds. He was excellent across three campaigns in Cincinnati, before being traded to the Minnesota Twins in advance of the 2022 season. Gray’s success continued in Minnesota, as he finished runner-up to Gerrit Cole in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2023. Over the last five years, Gray’s 16.3 fWAR ranks 10th among all qualified starters.

When Gray became a free agent this offseason for the first time in his career, the pitching-needy Cardinals pounced, giving him a three-year, $75 million deal, which includes a $30 million club option for 2027. Gray has gone from an NL Central bounce-back candidate to one of the most well-compensated players in the division.

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Here’s a look at two players per team in the division who would love to follow the blueprint Gray has set.

Cincinnati Reds Bounce-Back Candidate: Frankie Montas, RHP

2022 Stats (pitched only one inning in 2023): 27 GS, 144.1 IP, 4.05 ERA, 8.85 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, 2.0 fWAR

Frankie Montas’ journey definitely has some similarities to that of Gray, his former Oakland teammate.

While Montas began his career with the Chicago White Sox, he became a well-known name with the A’s. He peaked with Oakland in 2021, going 13-9 with matching 3.37 marks in terms of ERA and FIP over a career-high 187 innings.

Montas got the ball on Opening Day for the A’s in 2022, the second time in three years he had the honor of starting the team’s first game. The 4-9 record he posted with the A’s that season is misleading, because he had a 3.18 ERA in 19 starts, which was enough for Brian Cashman and the Yankees to trade for him in hopes that he would bolster their rotation for a World Series run.

Instead, Montas would make a total of nine appearances for the Yankees over parts of two seasons, with right shoulder inflammation and eventual surgery turning his time in the Bronx into a disaster. Montas had a 6.90 ERA and 4.90 FIP as a Yankee, but it came across just 41 innings, and he likely wasn’t healthy for a large chunk of that time.

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Even in Oakland, there were durability concerns about Montas, so there’s no guarantee he ever recaptures the ace form he showed for a brief period with the A’s.

Still, the one-year, $16 million deal with a $20 million mutual option for 2025 was a worthy risk for a Reds team that’s hoping to return to the postseason for the first time since 2020. If healthy, he and Hunter Greene could form a pretty impressive one-two punch atop David Bell’s rotation.

Honorable Mention: Tyler Stephenson, C

Between 2021 and 2022, Tyler Stephenson slashed .297/.368/.448 with an .815 OPS in 585 plate appearances. In 2023, he slashed .243/.317/.378 with a .696 OPS in 465 plate appearances. This one is fairly cut and dry.

Milwaukee Brewers Bounce-Back Candidate: Rhys Hoskins, 1B

2022 Stats (missed all of 2023): 156 G, 672 PA, .246/.332/.462, 30 HR, 79 RBI, 122 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR

Rhys Hoskins tore his left ACL late in the spring last year, and while he mounted a valiant comeback attempt, he ultimately missed his whole contract year and a second consecutive deep playoff run by the Philadelphia Phillies.

With Bryce Harper moving to first base on a full-time basis and Kyle Schwarber relatively entrenched at DH, there ultimately wasn’t room for Hoskins to return to Philadelphia, despite mutual respect between the two sides.

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Hoskins landed with the Brewers on a two-year, $34 million deal, which features a player opt-out after the 2024 season and an $18 million mutual option for 2026. In reality, if Hoskins returns to the level of power production that he put up during his six seasons in Philadelphia, this will likely turn into a one-year, $12 million deal (plus a $4 million buyout), and the slugging first baseman will return to the open market next winter.

On a young team with a first-year manager in Pat Murphy, Hoskins will provide veteran leadership and much-needed pop in the middle of the lineup. Obviously, trading away former NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes shortly after signing Hoskins doesn’t help the team’s playoff odds in 2024, but this still is a roster that could be competitive this upcoming season.

Honorable Mention: Taylor Clarke, RHP

With such a young roster, there weren’t a ton of candidates to pick from here. Taylor Clarke posted a 5.07 FIP in 58 games for the Kansas City Royals a year ago, a disappointing follow-up after finishing with a 3.30 FIP over 47 games in 2022. Clarke could be an option for Murphy to use as an occasional opener if he rebounds this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates Bounce-Back Candidate: Rowdy Tellez, 1B

2023 Stats: 105 G, 351 PA, .215/.291/.376, 13 HR, 47 RBI, 78 wRC+, -0.9 fWAR

While one could argue a reunion with Carlos Santana would have given the Pirates a higher floor at first base, they ultimately made the decision to sign Rowdy Tellez to a one-year, $3.2 million deal instead.

Two seasons ago, Tellez clubbed 35 home runs, drove in 89 runs and posted a .767 OPS for the division-rival Brewers. If the Pirates get that version of Tellez for just over $3 million, it will prove to be one of the biggest steals of the offseason.

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The problem is that Tellez became a free agent before accumulating six years of service time for a reason. He followed up his career year of 2022 with a dud in 2023, slashing .215/.291/.376 with a .667 OPS, leading to the Brewers non-tendering him. Additionally, Tellez has graded out poorly defensively in his career, with -19 Outs Above Average (OAA) and -13 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).

With Andrew McCutchen back at DH, the Pirates will likely be left to ride out any defensive lows with Tellez at first base in 2024. And they’ll be happy to do that if he bounces back offensively, helping them in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Honorable Mention: Oneil Cruz, SS

If you ever get the chance to watch Oneil Cruz take batting practice, don’t pass it up, because he puts on a show. However, 2024 will need to be the year that he proves he’s more than a player with just incredible athletic gifts. A left ankle fracture limited him to nine games a year ago, but there should be high hopes for the 25-year-old this upcoming campaign.

St. Louis Cardinals Bounce-Back Candidate: Lance Lynn, RHP

2023 Stats: 32 GS, 183.2 IP, 5.73 ERA, 9.36 K/9, 3.28 BB/9, 0.5 fWAR

Lance Lynn spent the first six years of his career with the Cardinals, and the story of him and Matt Carpenter returning to St. Louis this season and helping the team to reach the playoffs would be a great one.

Of course, not every story has a happy ending. And Lynn’s 2023 season, which he split between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, was a disaster. Across 183 2/3 innings pitched, Lynn allowed a league-high 44 home runs, while posting an unsightly 5.73 ERA. It’s fair to be skeptical of the Cardinals’ decision to offer him an $11 million contract this offseason, in addition to the team signing veterans Gray and Kyle Gibson.

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If you’re looking for a reason to feel positively about Lynn, he posted a 3.42 ERA and 3.48 FIP between the 2019 and ’22 seasons, which he split between the Texas Rangers and White Sox. Can he return to being a borderline ace in his age-37 season? We’ll see, but if he does, not only will $11 million in 2024 be a bargain, but so will the $11 million club option that the Cardinals have on him for 2025.

Honorable Mention: Nolan Arenado, 3B

Perhaps this is unfair because Arenado still posted 1 DRS and 5 OAA a year ago. But there was definitely a decline relative to the 19 DRS and 14 OAA he finished with in 2022.

The 2023 season was the 11th of Arenado’s career and the first in which he didn’t win the Gold Glove Award for NL third basemen. Was that just a blip on the radar, or a sign that one of the greatest defensive players in MLB history has finally started to slip up a bit in the field?

Chicago Cubs Bounce-Back Candidate: Jameson Taillon, RHP

2023 Stats: 29 GS, 154.1 IP, 4.84 ERA, 8.16 K/9, 2.39 BB/9, 1.6 fWAR

When you sign a player to a four-year, $68 million deal and they turn in a 4.84 ERA and 4.61 FIP in their first season, it’s hard not to view that as a disappointment.

Make no mistake, there’s value in a pitcher who takes the ball every day and goes five or six innings, even if they aren’t especially effective over those frames. There’s 162 games in a season, and your bullpen can’t pitch six innings every night.

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But man, there’s a drastic difference in the numbers Taillon put up in his first season with the Cubs compared to the 3.91 ERA and 3.94 FIP he posted over 177 1/3 innings during his final campaign with the Yankees.

What should be encouraging to the Cubs is that after Taillon finished the first half of the season with a 6.15 ERA over 15 starts, the former No. 2 overall pick was much better in 15 appearances (14 starts) after the All-Star Break, posting a 3.70 ERA.

Honorable Mention: Drew Smyly, LHP

Smyly struggled mightily in the first season of a two-year, $19 million deal with the Cubs, posting a 5.00 ERA over 142 1/3 innings pitched. It appears he’ll open 2024 in the bullpen, but there’s a real chance that at some point this season, manager Craig Counsell will need Smyly to work out of the rotation. Either way, he’s got to improve on his results from a year ago.