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Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Offseason breakdown: NL Central

By Christina Kahrl
ESPN.com

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 2012.


Cincinnati Reds

At 97-65, the Reds finished with the second-most wins in the majors while winning their second division title in three seasons. All that got them was a wild-card round bye and then buh-bye, as Dusty Baker's club earned the underwhelming distinction of having the Giants sweep them in Cincinnati for a come-from-behind division series triumph.

Even so, the Reds' core strengths remain in place: Joey Votto is an offensive force, and he's backed by a few solid second bananas (Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier).

Cincinnati Reds

Thanks to Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and the big step forward from Homer Bailey, they have a front-end rotation trio that should be able to beat anybody in a short series.

Primary needs

With Scott Rolen's breakdown, the lineup is short a star right-handed bopper to balance Votto's potent bat from the left side. They also desperately need a leadoff hitter; last year's collective .254 OBP out of the top slot in the lineup won't help them repeat. And they need to find a left fielder after Ryan Ludwick opted to become a free agent.

They also need to decide what Aroldis Chapman's job title will be in the future -- starting pitcher or closer? One advantage to moving Chapman? It could free them up to shop somebody else in the rotation, giving GM Walt Jocketty a bargaining chip to try to solve either of these big needs.

Free agents

Ryan Ludwick
Ludwick

Scott Rolen
Rolen

• 3B Scott Rolen
• OF Ryan Ludwick
• UT Miguel Cairo
• RHP Jonathan Broxton
• RHP Ryan Madson
• C Dioner Navarro

Expected losses

Ludwick would be expensive to bring back and might be a tough sell to expect to repeat for the money and considering his age (34); unfortunately there aren't that many goodies on the free-agent shelves to choose from. The reasons to bring Rolen back involve sentiment or depth, but the starting job at third should belong to Frazier. If they decide to leave Chapman in the closer's role, there will be that much less cause to retain Broxton or take a chance on Madson's comeback from Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

Potential targets

Torii Hunter
Hunter

Via free agency, someone like Michael Bourn would fill the bill for a leadoff man, which would perhaps free them to shop Drew Stubbs to teams looking for a premium defender in center. Torii Hunter might represent a classic Baker-minded addition: The established veteran looking for a good situation with a contender, and a guy whose power stroke would get a boost from the Gap. And if they move Chapman, adding a late-game righty reliever to mix and match with Sean Marshall would make sense.

Outlook

The Reds are a team that should stretch their budget. Given the weak field of free agents and if you accept the need for another premium slugger, they'd be better off shopping for one already under contract -- Andre Ethier? Justin Upton? A heavily discounted Alfonso Soriano? The Reds have plenty to bargain with, starting with shortstop Zack Cozart -- top prospect Billy Hamilton also plays short and is nearly ready. (Think the Reds can't win with a rookie shortstop? Guess again, because they just did with Cozart.) If they move Chapman back into the rotation, they also can barter with Mike Leake's three remaining seasons under club control. But if the purse strings stay tight, expect budget solutions in the outfield -- like Ludwick was -- and not a lot of action.


St. Louis Cardinals

Even after losing some of their biggest names -- Albert Pujols to an enormous pile of cash, and Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter to injury -- the Cards nevertheless followed much of their 2011 championship script. They used a 12-4 closing kick to slip into October as a wild card again, beating teams with better regular-season records only to fall to the Giants in the NLCS.

St. Louis Cardinals

The tough question is whether they were close to repeating or lucky to be there, because they tied for an MLB-worst five games below their expected record. Do they need major improvements to take a better shot at another pennant, or are they good enough to settle for a few minor tweaks this winter, counting on regression to cure what ails them?

Primary needs

Barring doing something major, the Cardinals don't have many needs, even with some high-profile departures. Shoring up the bullpen could be the obvious must-do item. Their biggest trouble was in the sixth and seventh innings, where you normally see starters handing off to middle men; the Cardinals' RA/9 was 4.8 in those frames. Blame the middle relievers or blame rookie skipper Mike Matheny's initial learning curve, but as important as that is to fix, you could understand if the Cards think it already is, with the second-half bullpen ERA improving to 3.28 from 4.48.

Are they happy with their middle infield situation, though? Shortstop Rafael Furcal's strained elbow ended a mediocre season early, Skip Schumaker remains a defensive liability at second and Daniel Descalso doesn't have the bat to be an everyday player. Will they count on Pete Kozma's October surprise?

Free agents

Kyle Lohse
Lohse

• RHP Kyle Lohse
• 1B Lance Berkman
• LHP Brian Fuentes

Expected losses

Say goodbye to Lohse, not just because he's going to be in demand, but because the Cardinals nevertheless have four established starters (Carpenter, Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia) as well as a trio of excellent candidates for the fifth slot in Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller. And while the Big Puma earned the love of Cardinals fans, there isn't really room for him in the lineup or the payroll.

Potential targets

They may decide they want to add somebody to challenge Jason Motte for the closer's role or handle setup duties ahead of him, but will they want to afford the best choices? Even rehabbing relief assets such as Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson figure to go for top dollar. GM John Mozeliak already has shown a good knack for adding good relief help in-season, so if the market isn't to his taste, he may just table patching the 'pen until they get a read on what the losers in the rotation fight bring to the mix as relievers.

Outlook

David Freese
Freese

Even if you're an especially loud critic of Matheny, the Cardinals will contend again because of their comprehensive two-track approach to accumulating talent, between conjuring up initially unheralded homegrown guys such as Jon Jay, Matt Carpenter, David Freese and Allen Craig, procuring quality arms such as Miller and Lynn, but also their proven ability to spend big on the type of players who can make a big difference. The 2013 season is the walk year for Carlos Beltran, Wainwright and Carpenter, as well as Furcal and possibly Westbrook. That's as win-now as it gets.


Milwaukee Brewers

If the 2012 tumble to 83 wins from 96 in 2011 represented a big disappointment, it owed much to having to sort out major changes in the lineup, the rotation and the bullpen after a disappointing start. The in-season fixes on offense took after Corey Hart moved to first base to let Norichika Aoki take over the leadoff role as their right fielder, but the rotation came apart early and the bullpen blew a team-record 29 saves.

Milwaukee Brewers

The good news? The Brewers should have their 2013 lineup already figured out, with the additional benefit of significant up-the-middle defensive improvements after center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura earned everyday gigs.

Primary needs

Pitchers, by the half-dozen given the number of holes they have. If the Brewers want to make good on one of the best offenses in the league right now, they'll need to add a premium starting pitcher or two to a rotation that currently starts and ends with Yovani Gallardo. Among last season's rookies, Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers all have good stuff, but you'd rather leave them fighting for the last two slots. The bullpen is no less an item to address -- closer John Axford remained wild and homer-prone in the second half, and Jim Henderson might be the only guy who truly earned his keep. Don't be surprised if those are the only two holdovers from 2012.

Free agents

Nyjer Morgan
Morgan

Shaun Marcum
Marcum

• RHP Shaun Marcum
• RHP Francisco Rodriguez
• RHP Kameron Loe
• RHP Jose Veras
• SS Alex Gonzalez
• OF Nyjer Morgan

Expected losses

If you haven't already, you might want to say goodbye to every one of their free agents -- yes, even the immortal Tony Plush, if you haven't already forgotten Morgan's social media alter ego. They might bring back Gonzalez as a veteran caddy/challenger to Segura, but we'll see if that's even a guaranteed deal should it happen.

Potential targets

Zack Greinke
Greinke

GM Doug Melvin has the money to retool his rotation, but can he get one starter or two? Bringing back Zack Greinke would make sense, especially if the market for Greinke is softer than expected over concern about his social anxiety and whether he can hack it in a major market. For a veteran second fiddle, Ryan Dempster would be an easy fit as a solid citizen and innings eater, and he's a guy who'd probably like to get back to the Midwest. To restock the bullpen, expect broad, aggressive shopping as Melvin tries getting in on everyone who might help.

There's also the wild card that the Brewers might make a play for Josh Hamilton (reuniting him with former mentor Johnny Narron, their hitting coach). But waiting for a cold market for Hamilton to stay that way may well leave them holding the bag while their other possible targets sign elsewhere.

Outlook

Indulging any Hamiltonian fantasies aside, adding pitching has to be the order of the day if the Brewers want to contend soon. Even as Melvin poor-mouths his ability to outbid major players on the open market, if he wants to cash in on that high-powered offense and take advantage of the fact that he's the guy with Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez putting fannies in the seats, he's going to have to get in on somebody better than and in addition to veteran filler like Dempster. If not Greinke, Anibal Sanchez. If not Sanchez, Edwin Jackson or Kyle Lohse and restock that bullpen. It's a tall order, but pull it off and the Brewers move closer to 90 wins and a return to October. Fail, and they'll just be fun to watch in another summer of slugfests.


Pittsburgh Pirates

After overcoming a brutal season-opening offensive drought, the Pirates made their latest bid to break the longest major sport losing season at 19 … and just as they did in 2011, they faltered late to come up short. So now they're at 20 and counting.

Pittsburgh Pirates

But move past that understandable frustration and you'll see that not only did Andrew McCutchen break out to become an established superstar, former first-rounder Pedro Alvarez finally broke through as their third baseman of the present, pounding 30 homers to McCutchen's 31. The Bucs also added veteran starting pitchers for more than rental deals, getting a big year out of A.J. Burnett and then adding Wandy Rodriguez for the stretch run. You can't say they aren't trying.

Primary needs

There's less that the Pirates need to shop for so much as they need to decide whether certain players are going to develop, and when, and then use that to inform their decisions on the kind of placeholders they might add. They need offense from their outfield corners -- will they get it from Starling Marte, Travis Snider and/or Jose Tabata? Is James McDonald an All-Star-caliber starter, the way he was in the first half, or the guy who lost focus and got torched in the second? Either way, how far off are top arms such as Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon? Or will they want to rent a veteran placeholder to shore up the staff?

Free agents

Rod Barajas
Barajas

Kevin Correia
Correia

• RHP Kevin Correia
• RHP Jason Grilli
• RHP Chad Qualls
• C Rod Barajas

Expected losses

It might be nice to see 2011 All-Star surprise Correia come back as veteran insurance for the fifth slot or a swing role, and Barajas established a good rapport with Burnett. But that's roster embroidery, not major moves that might push the Pirates to 81 wins and beyond.

Potential targets

Grady Sizemore
Sizemore

Repeating the Burnett experience to quietly move on a veteran high-profile outfielder, either via free agency or trade, would be a good idea. Whether that's as bold as getting in on Nick Swisher or merely taking a flier on Grady Sizemore, letting it ride with what they've got would be a mild disappointment.

Outlook

For two years running GM Neal Huntington has been willing to make deadline deals, rent veterans for single seasons. The Pirates surprised people last year with the Burnett trade, and they got McCutchen to agree to a six-year, $51.5 million deal to stick around and see through this franchise's reversal of fortune. Basically, they're slowly ratcheting up the expectations of fans that they'll finally see wins, and players that they'll see those and dollar signs. They'll pick up a couple of people you've heard of, but watch for at least one winter surprise to get people talking.


Chicago Cubs

Year One of the Age of Theo was exactly what you might have expected, as long as you weren't expecting instant gratification. As Theo Epstein warned up front, the Cubs' rebuild is going to be a long-term project, and while he tries to swap out what few short-term assets he can for stuff the Cubs will need, there's going to be more than a little losing.

Chicago Cubs

The good news, as far as it went, was that Alfonso Soriano had his best year in the past four, Carlos Marmol had a mini-comeback in the second half, and Jeff Samardzija broke through as a starting pitcher. And Anthony Rizzo arrived and promptly started hitting for power, visibly reminding folks that Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have added some right-now improvement before anyone started getting too upset over a 100-loss season.

Primary needs

Third base is fairly obvious after the Cubs' hot-corner minions delivered a putrid .611 OPS, but they're already talking about bringing Ian Stewart back if he proves that his wrist is healed, which means Josh Vitters isn't ready. They're also talking about adding an outfielder for center or right, which means Brett Jackson would be going back to Iowa as well. (This progress thing, we mentioned it's incremental, right?) And they'll need at least two starting pitchers to round out the rotation beyond Matt Garza, Samardzija and Travis Wood, because there's nobody obviously ready on the 40-man roster.

Free agents

• RHP Shawn Camp

Expected losses

While Theo's shaking things up, no point in getting too attached; you really may as well be rooting for the laundry. That, or sunshine and beer; the Cubs always have that going for them, right?

Potential targets

Brandon McCarthy
McCarthy

Edwin Jackson
Jackson

In the big picture, other people's prospects, in all shapes and sizes, playing any position, or pitching, or the possession of a willingness to learn. Those aren't so easy to wangle, so in the meantime there's that rotation to patch up. Could they gun for both Edwin Jackson and Brandon McCarthy? Maybe so, Doug Padilla reports, and that would at least bring ballgames within the reach of the Cubs' 14th-ranked offense in the NL.

Outlook

Having already offered Marmol in his last year under club control (in the thwarted Dan Haren deal with the Angels), he's obviously available, but not excited about getting traded. The Cubs can afford to shop Soriano (absorbing some of the $36 million total owed him in 2013 and 2014) and Bryan LaHair to teams looking for power from the outfield corners or DH, and David DeJesus to anyone who needs OBP. Matt Garza is in his last season of arbitration eligibility and might command the highest price in terms of prospects in return, but he first has to demonstrate health to be a legit bargaining chip. The silver lining? Without the Astros to keep the NL Central basement warm for them after getting realigned to the AL West, there now really is nowhere for the fifth-place Cubs to go but up.

Christina Kahrl is a SweetSpot blogger and an editor for ESPN.com.