Off-Season Preview: NL Central

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(Benny Sieu / USA TODAY Sports)

As the offseason marches on, we at M-SABR are continuing our previews for each division in the MLB. Want to know what’s in store for the NL Central in the next couple of months? We got you covered.

Chicago Cubs

by Max Brill

2017 Record: 92-70 (1st in NL Central, lost in NLCS)

2017 Payroll: $182,400,336 (10th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

The Cubs are, fortunately, anchored by their young talent. Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards, and Eddie Butler are all under team control or in arbitration. That group is expected to take home around $40 million, according to Baseball Reference, which leaves a large amount of cap room should they choose to pursue one of the free agents in this year’s upcoming class. Some additional considerations include the contracts of Jason Heyward ($28MM due in 2018), Jon Lester ($27MM), and Ben Zobrist ($16.5MM). Those, along with the relatively low salaries for Anthony Rizzo and Jose Quintana ($7.2MM and $8.8MM, respectively), put the total at only about $125MM, a far cry from last year’s $182MM payroll. The Cubs are set up for yet another deep playoff run this upcoming season.

Biggest Needs:

Pitching. They’ve lost starter Jake Arrieta to free agency, and while they have the funds to re-sign him, I doubt Theo Epstein and co. would be comfortable handing out a multi-year deal to a pitcher who will be 32 come opening day. John Lackey is also a free agent, and despite rumors of his return, it seems unlikely that he will be re-joining the Cubs after his disappointing 2017 season.

The Cubbies have also lost bullpen arms Wade Davis, Brian Duensing, and Koji Uehara. It’s a definite possibility that they attempt to re-sign Davis (they have the funds), but they may look for relief help in the form of a trade or lower profile signing.

The team would also benefit from adding a veteran catcher, given that both Alex Avila and Rene Rivera are no longer with the team.

Recommended Moves:

The number one priority for this team needs to be acquiring starting pitching. Unfortunately for the Cubs, all of the notable free agent pitchers are on the wrong side of 30 so they may have to pursue a trade. A high-profile trade option, such as Chris Archer, would cost a lot in terms of prospect capital and/or young talent, but the Cubs have made it clear, with their acquisition of Aroldis Chapman in the middle of 2016, that they are willing to pay up when they see their window of opportunity closing. Any offer for Archer would likely have to include Schwarber and more, which the Cubs can definitely afford, but any such trade would mean the Cubs need to win (again) because they would be mortgaging the future somewhat.

In terms of lower-profile starter acquisitions, they could look into buying low on Mets starter Matt Harvey, assuming the Mets would be willing to sell. They could also go after younger, cheaper free agent options like Jhoulys Chacin and Michael Pineda, or Tyler Chatwood, who could become another Mike Montgomery-type swingman.

In the way of bullpen help, there is a dearth of available free agent options. I would prioritize getting one of Wade Davis, Addison Reed, or Bryan Shaw. They’d also benefit from signing a guy that won’t come at such a high cost, like Juan Nicasio, Joe Blanton, or Mike Minor. Fortunately for the Cubs, there are a lot of relief options on the market, so they should focus their early efforts on locking up a solid reliever or two and then go after starters.


Cincinnati Reds

by Cam Cain

2017 Record: 68-94 (Last in the NL Central)

2017 Payroll: $115,323,803 (24th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

Though they ended up with the same record as they did the previous year, there was so much more for Reds fans to be proud of in 2017, and so much reason to be optimistic heading into 2018. The team’s lineup was 4th in the NL in Wins above Average, higher than 3 playoff teams. Joey Votto very nearly won MVP, and at age 34 had one of the best seasons of his career. Six Reds hit 24 or more home runs in 2017, including breakout star Scooter Gennett. With his 124 wRC+, Gennett has earned the job of starting second baseman, leaving Jose Peraza’s future in jeopardy. Peraza will likely begin the season as the Reds’ shortstop, but he needs to improve his dismal .297 OBP. In the outfield, Jesse Winker was sensational in 47 games last year. The Reds have a surplus of outfielders with Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton, and Scott Schebler, all of whom have proven to be worthy of playing time. If the players currently in the lineup don’t excite you, top prospect Nick Senzel will likely be called up in September. The third baseman was the #2 pick in the 2016 draft, and he has absolutely mashed at every level. The Reds plan to try him out at multiple positions this season since incumbent 3B Eugenio Suarez was worth 4.1 WAR in 2017. Both players should be key parts of Cincinnati’s future.

For the first time during their rebuild, the Reds’ young pitchers finally started to show promise at the end of 2017. Luis Castillo is an ace in the making. Former first-round pick Robert Stephenson was dominant in August and September after a miserable start to his career. Tyler Mahle, who threw two no-hitters in the minor leagues, picked up right where he left off in 4 starts for the big league club. Throw in Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Sal Romano, and Amir Garrett, and the Reds have more than enough young capable arms. And this is assuming that Homer Bailey will never return to his old form (a fair assumption). With their pitching finally on the upswing, the Reds are a .500 team in 2018, with a chance to be sneaky contenders like the Brewers were this past season.

Biggest Needs:

Here’s a fun fact: Zack Cozart led all major league shortstops in WAR per 162 games. Unfortunately for the Reds, Cozart and his donkey are free agents, and his production needs to be replaced. Besides shortstop, they don’t have any needs in their lineup. However, their pitching was once again historically bad in 2017. Though the rotation has some bright spots, the bullpen needs help.

Suggested Moves:

In the past few seasons, the Reds have signed veteran starting pitchers such as Jason Marquis, Alfredo Simon, and Bronson Arroyo. These players were signed to eat innings while providing a veteran presence, but all three struggled. With their young pitchers finally major league ready, the Reds don’t need to do that this year. They should sign a cheap veteran reliever to fill out their bullpen. Tyler Clippard could fill the same role that Drew Storen did in 2017. Hopefully, he can have a bounce-back season and eat some innings. If they want something more than a reclamation project, they could also target Matt Albers or Tony Watson. As a team just now coming out of a lengthy rebuild, it’s probably best to make only minor moves and let the young guys go out and prove themselves.


Milwaukee Brewers

by Hunter Satterthwaite

2017 Record: (86-76, 2nd in NL Central, missed playoffs)

2017 Payroll: $83,488,679 (30th)

2018 Outlook:

This team was a complete shock to nearly everyone in 2017, as they got off to an insanely hot start only to get ousted by the Cubs down the stretch of the season. They were fueled by Eric Thames who hit 11 HR and had a wRC+ of 218 during the first month of the season. Almost the whole team comes back, as only SP Matt Garza, 2B Neil Walker, and RP Anthony Swarzak are slated to be free agents. The Brewers were the 8th youngest team in the MLB last year, with an average age of 27.9 years old. To add to this youth, the Brewers have the 8th best farm system per Jim Callis of MLB.com. Their top prospect, Lewis Brinson (#12 in all of baseball), is slated to start in CF next season as well. Four out of the eight position players had the best year of their career, as well as four of their five starting pitchers. The Brewers need to see if this success is sustainable, and next year will present an opportunity to mirror their success with the young roster. Ryan Braun is still leading this Brewers team at 34 years young, although his 110 wRC+ last year was a down year by his standards. Jimmy Nelson is projected to miss a significant amount of time in 2018 due to a labrum injury he suffered during the later part of this past year. This comes after he led the Brewers’ pitchers with a 4.9 WAR. The Brewers have all of the pieces to be in playoff contention, but the next step is figuring out how to get consistent production out of this young team. They should be expected to contend for a wild card spot if they are able to replace Nelson’s production within the pitching staff.

Biggest Needs:

The Brewers have two holes that need to be filled for the 2018 season. They traded for Neil Walker in August to help with their second base struggles. He is a free agent this year and would be a fairly expensive keep for the lowest spenders in all of the MLB. Although, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio did say, “We’re in a fortunate position so maybe we can maybe punch a little bit above our weight,” when asked about the Brewers’ plans this offseason. Jonathan Villar is also an option for second base yet it would be a risk as he is coming off of a -0.5 WAR season after a 3.1 WAR season in 2016. The other position that the Brewers need some help with is in the pitching staff. With the injury to Jimmy Nelson, this staff does not have a clear leader and would benefit greatly from having a true ace.

Suggested moves:

The biggest get would be an ace starting pitcher and the Brewers don’t have to look any further than an NL Central opponent. Jake Arrieta is on the market this offseason having a projected contract of four to five years for around $100 million. The Brewers could swallow this contract and they would not have to lose any prospects either, as they would have if they went to the trade market for a starting pitcher. Although Arrieta has yet to repeat his numbers from his Cy Young 2015 campaign, the 31-year-old is still good enough to be a top of the rotation guy. The Brewers would really enjoy Arrieta pitching for them this upcoming year as opposed to trying to hit him.


Pittsburgh Pirates

by Anthony Brown

2017 Record: 75-87 (4th in NL Central)

2017 Payroll: $109,840,330 (25th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

The Pirates find themselves in an interesting position heading into the 2018 season. While their declining record over the past few seasons suggests a rebuild may be in order, they played without Starling Marte for half of the season and the front end of their rotation struggled mightily in the second half. This gives the front office the impossible task of choosing between selling off their top players for prospects or adding a few free agents and hoping everyone plays to their potential. With Marte back for the whole season, alongside Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, the Pirates will have one of the best outfields in baseball. Pair this with the emergence of Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl as solid back-end starters, as well as the dominance of Felipe Rivero in the bullpen, and the Pirates have a legitimate shot at contending for a wild card spot. One spot for concern is the front end of the rotation. Gerrit Cole struggled all season, and his 4.08 FIP suggests it might not have been a fluke, and Ivan Nova started out hot but completely fell apart as the season went on (3.21 ERA before the All-Star break, 5.83 ERA after). A return to form from both of these pitchers will go a long way towards helping the Pirates return to the postseason.

Biggest Needs:

While not an overwhelming need, the Pirates would be well off adding some help to their rotation. Their average starters ERA of 4.47 was right around the MLB average of 4.49, but it remains to be seen whether or not Nova and Cole will improve or keep struggling. Add this to the struggles of top prospect Tyler Glasnow, and the Pirates should be searching for an addition to their rotation. Another place to find relief for the 2018 season is the bullpen. The Pirates bullpen actually finished 10th in the MLB in ERA, but have lost Tony Watson and Juan Nicasio, two of their top set-up men. This leaves Felipe Rivero at the head of a young and inexperienced bullpen, which could need some veteran assistance for next season. Finally, the Pirates have struggled to find a power bat over the past few seasons. McCutchen and Josh Bell are good bets for 20+ home runs, but other than that they don’t have much in terms of power. The market is well saturated with cheap power bats, so that shouldn’t be too difficult to find.

Suggested Moves:

With a small payroll, the Pirates will likely shy away from big free agent signings and focus more on trading to plug any holes in their roster. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the Pirates keep their core together and make another playoff push. One move that could help them is signing low-price starters such as Tyler Chatwood or Doug Fister. Both have shown promise recently and could help fill a hole in the rotation. Adding a solid free agent reliever such as Fernando Abad or Craig Stammen would bolster the bullpen. However, possibly the best move for the Pirates would be reuniting with second baseman Neil Walker. Walker performed well last year despite a hamstring problem, and a reunion could come with the benefit of a hometown discount. This would add a power bat to the Pirates lineup, while also adding to their infield depth.


St. Louis Cardinals

by Ryan Castellano

2017 Record: 83-79 (3rd in NL Central, missed playoffs)

2017 Payroll: $149,454,185 (16th)

Current 2018 Outlook:

Despite another disappointing season for the Cardinals and their fans, they still look to be a contender in 2018. Their pythagorean record of 87-75 suggests that they were unlucky last year and that there is plenty of talent on the roster with more minor league support coming up. While they are not favored to win the division, a successful offseason could lead to a return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Biggest Needs:

With Lance Lynn likely departing the organization, expect the Cardinals to target a top of the rotation pitcher to round off the rotation for next year. With Trevor Rosenthal on his way out following Tommy John surgery, it is also widely expected that the Cardinals will make a move for a closer to solidifying a league average bullpen. Lastly, if the Cardinals are to make a real push for the National League Central title, expect them to make a move to acquire an outfielder to supplement Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham.

Suggested Moves:

So far the Cardinals have been linked strongly to NL MVP Award winner Giancarlo Stanton (156 wRC+, 6.9 fWAR). While Stanton has a no-trade clause in his contract, the Cardinals would be instant playoff contenders if they manage to land him. Rather than go all in on a big free agent reliever such as Wade Davis, the Cardinals would be much better off taking a chance on Mike Minor, whose ground ball percentage of 42.4% led him to a 2.1 fWAR with the Kansas City Royals last year. Lastly, if the Cardinals want to compete, expect them to go all in on Jake Arrieta despite the qualifying offer.

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