Offseason breakdown: NL Central
Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2013.
On Aug. 10, the Cardinals were reeling, sitting four games behind first-place Pittsburgh after losing 13 of 17 games. St. Louis went 31-15 the rest of the way -- despite a stretch in late August and early September when it lost six of eight to the Pirates and Reds -- and ultimately won the most competitive division in baseball by three games.
The Cards, of course, then proceeded to their fourth World Series appearance in the past decade. They got there with an offense that led the National League in runs scored, and a starting staff that was second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers among NL clubs in ERA, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), and WAR. The emergence of Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly complemented the usual brilliance of Adam Wainwright.
Surprisingly, however, this winter looks to be a period of transition for the Cardinals. Some big names could be on their way out, and some talented young Redbirds are ready to make their mark.
Primary needsShortstop, right field.
Shortstop Pete Kozma was among the worst hitters in the majors, posting a .217/.275/.273 slash line and .241 wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average). Kozma is great with the glove, but some high-profile defensive miscues in the World Series won't help his case with Cardinals fans.
Right field will be a need if, and only if, St. Louis is unable or unwilling to bring Carlos Beltran back in 2014.
Beltran is the elephant in this room. Despite his age (he'll be 37 next season), Beltran continues to be productive and will be an attractive option for a number of teams (especially over in the American League, where he can serve as designated hitter occasionally). Edward Mujica had a surprisingly great season (2.78 ERA, 37 saves) as closer before faltering in September.
St. Louis should have some money to spend, and Stephen Drew would fit in nicely at shortstop. In the alternative, the Cards could bring back Rafael Furcal as a stop-gap measure, with some upside potential depending on his health.
In the outfield, Oscar Taveras is nearly ready, which gives the Cardinals some flexibility. Taveras could play right field or center field, freeing up Jon Jay as a trade chip, or permitting the Cards to kick the tires on a guy like Jacoby Ellsbury.
There have been rumors, as well, that the Cardinals might try to package some young arms to acquire Detroit's Max Scherzer. That seems like an odd play for St. Louis, given the abundance of young pitching talent in the organization, but a Scherzer/Wainwright/Wacha trio would look awfully tough come playoff time.
The strength of the Cardinals over the last decade has been their ability to reload, rather than rebuild. This should be a very interesting offseason in that respect, as the Cards have plenty of options.
Prospect Kolten Wong made his debut this year, and the Cardinals could install him at second base, while moving Matt Carpenter back to third (and making David Freese, who stands to get a raise via arbitration, expendable).
If Chris Carpenter is healthy enough to pitch again, the Cardinals are likely to give him that opportunity, at a reduced price, of course. With the expected return of Jaime Garcia, however, that would give the Cardinals no fewer than seven legitimate options for the starting rotation (five of whom are 27 or younger). This seems like a good opportunity for general manager John Mozeliak to get creative and explore trade possibilities, while dealing from a position of strength.
For a team that just made the World Series, the Cardinals could look very different by next year's Opening Day. With a boatload of young talent on hand -- especially pitching talent -- there is no reason that the Cards shouldn't be the team to beat again in 2014.
What a season. The Bucs fought with St. Louis for first place in the NL Central all season before settling for second. Forget those two decades of losing; after a hard-fought loss to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, Pirates fans have real reason for optimism.
Though the Pirates actually scored 17 runs fewer than they did in 2012, they allowed 97 fewer runs. That was due partially to a new emphasis on defense -- specifically, they embraced shifts on defense -- but also to a much-improved pitching staff. Led by a resurgent Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, the Pirates were among the top three staffs in baseball, by some measures (third in ERA, third in FIP, fourth in xFIP).
First base, right field, shortstop.
The Pirates got less production from their first basemen than any playoff team (.243/.324/.402, 0.4 wins above replacement), by far. Justin Morneau probably won't return, and neither Gaby Sanchez nor Garrett Jones seems like a good bet as a full-time starter.
In right field, the Pirates might be tempted to bring back Marlon Byrd after 115 excellent plate appearances for the club late in the season, but (a) he'll have offers elsewhere, and (b) Byrd is 36 years old, and counting on another productive season is a risky proposition indeed.
Morneau wasn't particularly good in 25 September games after joining Pittsburgh, and he is likely gone. If Clint Barmes returns, it should be in a backup, or platoon, role.
The big question is whether Burnett will retire. He hasn't made a decision yet, but after a solid age-36 season, there's no reason to believe that Burnett can't be an effective major league pitcher for another year or two. If he decides to play in 2014, he has said that he will return to Pittsburgh.
With nearly every relevant Pirate returning, and a stocked farm system, GM Neal Huntington may be tempted to play it safe this offseason.
Cuban defector Jose Abreu was a logical target to fill the first-base vacancy, but he signed with the Chicago White Sox. The only other first baseman in a very weak free-agent class that might make sense is Mike Napoli, though James Loney and Kendrys Morales could be options (especially if manager Clint Hurdle were willing to explore a platoon with Gaby Sanchez, who mashes lefties).
In right field, the Pirates have to decide whether they are willing to commit to Jose Tabata (presuming Byrd doesn't re-sign), or whether they should explore a trade.
Most of the key pieces will be back. If Burnett chooses to return, the rotation of Liriano, Burnett, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton would be very solid. If one of those guys falters, or if Burnett retires, uber-prospect Jameson Taillon should be ready to move to the big leagues by midseason (and 2013 All-Star Jeff Locke will be in the mix, as well, despite a poor second half). Out in the bullpen, there may be some shuffling, but Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli will return to anchor an effective group.
Pittsburgh seems likely to hand the shortstop job to Jordy Mercer, and he should be, at minimum, a marginal upgrade over Barmes. But the holes at first base and right field are significant.
This club remains young and talented, but it did outperform its Pythagorean win expectation this year. If the front office decides to stand pat, it's not unreasonable to expect the Pirates to regress a bit next year. Huntington needs to be aggressive about improving the roster this winter. Of course, given Pittsburgh's particular weak spots, that may be easier said than done.
The Reds won 90 games, which sounds good, but they failed to win their third division title in four years. With a week to go, Cincinnati still had a chance of catching St. Louis for the division crown, but five straight losses to finish the season left them in third place, seven games back. Reports of chaos within the clubhouse and that disastrous final week, including an embarrassing performance in the NL wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh, culminated in the dismissal of manager Dusty Baker.
The starting rotation was the key to Cincinnati's 2013 success. Mat Latos and Homer Bailey emerged as stars, while Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo were dependable. Rookie Tony Cingrani's brilliant rotation debut made the loss of expected ace Johnny Cueto (to injury for much of the season) much easier to bear.
Left field, center field, on-base ability.
With the (probable) imminent departure of Choo, the Reds are left with a gaping hole in center field and at the top of the order. Of the returning starters, only Votto and Bruce posted OBPs above .315. Speedster Billy Hamilton will get first shot at the center-field job, but while he provided a lot of excitement in September, he's unlikely to be a significant offensive contributor. Meanwhile, Ryan Ludwick is the left fielder by default.
GM Walt Jocketty will be looking to upgrade the offense, and left field seems the obvious place to begin, given Ludwick's age (35) and the fact that he's been a below-average hitter for two of the past three years.
Arroyo is almost assuredly gone, unless Jocketty decides to dangle Bailey, who will be a free agent after 2014, as a trade chip to obtain a big bat. The Reds would like to bring Choo back -- his .423 OBP was second in the league to Votto's .435 -- but he'll be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market. It would probably take a five-year contract for big money, and even if the Reds were willing to make that commitment, they will likely be bidding against the deep pockets of the Yankees, Mets and Phillies, among others.
Choo is the primary target, obviously. If the Reds could somehow manage to re-sign Choo, they could move him to left field, which would improve the defense at two positions. If they can't sign Choo and want to explore the free-agent market, either Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson or Carlos Beltran would make sense.
It's unlikely, however, the Reds will be willing to enter the sweepstakes for any of those guys. A better bet is that the Reds will try to improve their offense via trade; Giancarlo Stanton, anyone? (Or, more realistically, someone like Peter Bourjos.) If the Brewers get serious about trading Ryan Braun (as some rumors suggest), the Reds should explore the possibility, PED baggage or not. Buy low.
Jocketty has already hired a new manager, elevating pitching coach Bryan Price to the top job. That may be the easiest decision Jocketty has to make all winter. If Choo does depart for greener pastures, an already-shaky Reds offense looks much worse, and it will be imperative that Jocketty find a big bat. Don't be surprised if second baseman Brandon Phillips is part of a trade package; his boorish behavior, which included publicly calling Reds owner Bob Castellini a liar, combined with a steep offensive decline since 2011, make Phillips a good bet to get traded.
Fortunately, the Reds should have among the better rotations in baseball again in 2014. The expected rotation includes Latos, Bailey, Cueto, Leake and Cingrani, but don't be surprised if last year's closer, Aroldis Chapman, is in the mix for the rotation. New manager Price was a big proponent of last year's plan to convert Chapman to a starter; he may decide to revisit that idea now that he's calling the shots.
The bullpen should be fine without Chapman, and Sean Marshall has all the tools to be a top-notch closer.
This is an important offseason for the Reds. The window to compete is still open, but it will close in a hurry if Jocketty is unable to address the gaping holes in center field and left field.
Two years after winning 96 games and advancing to the NL Championship Series, the Brewers stumbled to a 74-88 season in 2013. By the end of May (in which they lost 22 of 28 games), Milwaukee was already 15 games out of first place and the season was effectively over, though the Brew Crew did go 36-32 in the second half.
While Brewers' pitching was somewhat improved, surrendering 46 fewer runs than it allowed in 2012, the offense fell off a cliff, mustering only 640 runs. That's 136 runs fewer than they scored the previous season, thanks primarily to the prolonged absences of Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart.
Primary needsFirst base, starting pitcher, left-handed reliever.
As J.P. Breen has noted (over at Disciples of Uecker, the Brewers blog on the SweetSpot Network), Milwaukee first basemen posted a minus-4.6 WAR in 2013, which is the worst mark for any team in the history of baseball. That's bad.
It's time for the Brewers to part ways with Yuniesky Betancourt, who hit .212/.240/.355 as one of the alleged first basemen that were so colossally unproductive this season. Mike Gonzalez is also likely headed out of town, after a poor age-35 season.
The Brewers are unlikely to make a big splash in the free-agent market.
Hart missed the entire season after two knee surgeries; he has expressed a willingness to return at a bargain price, and the most likely scenario is that the Brewers will install him at first base (presuming he is healthy). If Hart can be a 2-win player (which doesn't seem unreasonable), that would be a huge improvement over the minus-4.6 wins of last year's first basemen.
In terms of pitching, Milwaukee could look at guys like Jason Hammel, Phil Hughes or Gavin Floyd (if he will be available in April or May, after undergoing Tommy John surgery). Otherwise, the best bet will be to improve the rotation via trade.
There are plenty of questions to be answered in Milwaukee this winter, but the club professes to be optimistic about contending in 2014. The expectation is that the Brewers will stand pat and mostly hope for better luck on the injury front. That's a dangerous minefield to navigate, but given the emergence of some young talent, it could work out. For example, Scooter Gennett has emerged as the heir apparent to Rickie Weeks at second base. Weeks is owed $11 million in the last year of his contract, and is probably untradeable at this point, but even a platoon at second would give the Brewers increased production from the position.
In addition, Milwaukee was very pleased with Khris Davis, and will explore ways to get him into the lineup more often. The best hope for a big change on Milwaukee's roster would be for Davis to be installed in left field, with Braun moving to right. That permits GM Doug Melvin to shop Norichika Aoki for pitching help, presumedly (unless Melvin looks to trade Braun instead; that seems inadvisable, despite the controversy surrounding his PED suspension). Add in Ramirez (in a contract year) and the sometimes-brilliant Carlos Gomez, and there is some run-scoring potential there.
On the mound, the Brewers were intrigued by the late-season performances of youngster Tyler Thornburg (3-1, 2.03 ERA) and the not-so-young Marco Estrada (7-4, 3.87). With the expectation (hope?) that Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta will improve, and Kyle Lohse anchoring the staff, Milwaukee's rotation has a chance to be serviceable, at least. Melvin will need to find another lefty in the pen to join Tom Gorzelanny, but the relief corps shows promise.
The Cubs lost 96 games, the third consecutive year of 90-plus losses for the franchise. The last time that happened? More than a half-century ago.
No, things weren't good in 2013. The Cubs finished the season in last place, thanks to an offense that scored just 602 runs, the third-lowest total in the major leagues. Chicago got very disappointing seasons from two players -- Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo -- to whom it had recently committed big bucks.
Meanwhile, Darwin Barney's glove couldn't compensate for a miserable .208/.266/.303 season (.252 wOBA).
Second base, third base, center field, bullpen.
In Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, the Cubs have two prospects who are capable of filling the second-base hole in future years (though Baez is a shortstop now). Unfortunately, neither will be ready for the big leagues by Opening Day. The organization is less than enamored with Luis Valbuena at third base; Mike Olt, obtained in the Matt Garza trade, has a slick glove and some power. He'll be given a chance to win the job, but questions abound.
After some intemperate comments drew the ire of team president Theo Epstein, Kevin Gregg will not return, despite recording 33 saves. Dioner Navarro is behind Welington Castillo on the Chicago depth chart at catcher, but a .300/.365/.492 season may convince Navarro to seek a bigger role with another organization.
The biggest name linked to the Cubs in trade rumors has been David Price. Certainly, the Cubs will look to upgrade their rotation, but Price probably doesn't fit Chicago's timeline for fielding a competitive club.
Finally, if the Cubs want to splurge to improve the outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury is an intriguing name. Epstein, of course, drafted Ellsbury originally when he was the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.
The future for the Cubs is bright, if you can believe it, but it's unlikely that Chicago will be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. Still, there is reason to hope that the Cubs will improve. Rizzo and Castro should provide more production, and even if the Cubs are unable to improve the outfield via trade or free agency, Junior Lake and Ryan Sweeney (who just signed a two-year deal to remain in Chicago) have varying degrees of potential offensively.
Jake Arrieta will likely join Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson in the rotation; the fifth spot is up for grabs, and while there are some internal options, it's more likely that Epstein will look outside the organization.
In the bullpen, Pedro Strop should get the first shot at closing. James Russell and Blake Parker are logical choices for setup roles, but everything else is up in the air. The pen wasn't good in 2013, and improving it will be an offseason priority.
Cubs fans should keep the faith. As soon as midseason, the cavalry -- Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, among others -- will begin arriving at Wrigley Field.
Chad Dotson runs Redleg Nation, a blog covering the Reds.