2018 Off-Season Preview: NL Central

Today we continue our off-season preview series with a glimpse at the NL Central, which has the potential for a number of interesting moves before the 2019 season. Here, we discuss how the Brewers and Cubs can build upon last year’s playoff appearances, how the Cardinals can find themselves back in the playoff conversation, how the Pirates offseason will play out after their startling decision to acquire Chris Archer at the trade deadline, and how the Reds can become relevant again.

Cincinnati Reds

By Cam Cain

2018 Record: 67-95 (5th in NL Central)

2018 Payroll: $100,305,768 (25th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

Every time I begin to lose faith in the Reds, they find a way to pull me back in. After a dismal 3-18 start in 2018, they caught a bit of fire, by Reds standards, going 28-22 in June and July. But things fell apart from there, as they ended up with just 67 wins, one fewer than their total from each to the previous two disappointing seasons. It felt as if the rebuild had taken a step back, or at the very least stalled. But then, something happened. When the season ended, GM Dick Williams seemingly decided to make a clean break with the past, sending the entire coaching staff packing save for first base coach Freddie Benavides, who has been moved to bench coach.

The Reds wasted no time filling their personnel vacancies, creating a downright enviable coaching staff. The team will be led by former big-leaguer and Cincinnati native David Bell. Bell has spent the previous six seasons coaching for the Cubs, Cardinals, and Giants, where he has been exposed to analytics that simply weren’t being utilized during the Bryan Price era. If we are to believe his post-hire quotes, it seems that Bell plans to help bring the Reds into the 21st century in regards to coaching philosophy.

Joining Bell in Cincinnati are new pitching coach Derek Johnson and new hitting coach Turner Ward, hired away from Milwaukee and Los Angeles respectively. Both coaches are incredibly highly regarded around the league, and their former teams certainly didn’t let them go without a fight. Johnson specifically has been credited as a huge reason behind the success of the Brewers’ ragtag pitching staff, and it will be exciting to see what he can do with the Reds’ even-worse-than-ragtag rotation. Additionally, the Reds hired Jeff Pickler for the equally nebulous and intriguing position of Game Planning Coach. It’s not quite clear what his role will be, but the fact that the Reds are bringing in a coach with a title like this can only be a good thing.

While the Reds’ coaching staff is promising, it can only take the team so far. The Reds will need immediate production from Nick Senzel, as well as continued excellence from the rest of the lineup. After the departure of Billy Hamilton, the Reds are intent on starting Senzel in center field, perhaps on Opening Day. Jesse Winker had a .405 OBP in an injury-shortened season, and shortstop Jose Peraza was surprisingly solid in 2018. And that’s before you factor in all-stars Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, and Scooter Gennett. The Reds have the lineup, and possibly the coaches, to be contenders in 2019. Unfortunately, there’s just one hold-up.

Team Needs:

As Redleg Nation’s Chad Dotson would say, it’s time to “#GetThePitching.” From 2015-2018, the Reds have compiled 19.3 WAR as a pitching staff, just over half as much as the second worst team. Their starting pitchers have a 4.97 ERA during that time, better only than the Orioles. Nearly every pitcher they have brought onto the team has struggled, specifically with their control. The Reds need to bring in two controllable starting pitchers this offseason, and probably a bullpen arm as well.

Suggested Moves:

While Patrick Corbin was my preferred free agent signing, he opted to take his talents to the Nationals. Instead, I’d love to see the Reds go all in on Dallas Keuchel, a 30-year-old ground ball pitcher whose stuff should play well at Great American Bandbox. If they can give him a 4-year deal to be the team’s ace, the Reds’ rotation will immediately be in much better shape. They’ll still need a solid #4 starter, such as Wade Miley, Mike Fiers, or yes, even Matt Harvey. They could even go out and trade for a starter; Sonny Gray’s name has been linked to the Reds. A rotation of Keuchel, Castillo, DeSclafani, Gray, and Mahle looks infinitely better than anything the Reds have thrown out there in five years.

From there, all the Reds need to do is sign an inexpensive reliever to a multi-year deal, much like they did with the wildly successful Jared Hughes and David Hernandez last offseason. Adam Ottavino may be too costly, but someone like Tony Sipp or Justin Wilson could be an intriguing add. The Reds have declared their intention to do what it takes to bring quality pitchers onto the team. It’s time to see them do that.

Chicago Cubs

By Duncan Wallis

2018 Record: 95-68 (2nd in NL Central)

2018 Payroll: $194,259,933 (4th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

Look, here’s the deal: the 2018 Cubs had a really good season. Winning 95 games is no small task. Yet, no one is satisfied. Clearly, the players are not, the front office is not, ownership is not, and fans are definitely not satisfied.

Epstein and Co. will not remain silent this offseason despite a pretty quiet, mysterious start other than picking up Cole Hamel’s $20 million option. I’d watch for Epstein to start rumbling next week at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. The reality is, they probably could go back into 2019 with a lineup of:

  1. Albort Almora Jr./Ian Happ
  2. Javier Baez
  3. Kris Bryant
  4. Anthony Rizzo
  5. Willson Contreras
  6. Kyle Schwarber
  7. Zobrist/Addison Russell
  8. Jason Heyward
  9. Pitcher

And their greatest two concerns would be how Addison Russell’s return would be received and why they are paying their #8 hitter $181 million dollars. Yet, you know Epstein, Hoyer and everyone else involved won’t do that… right? We know that, right?

Biggest Needs:

If the Cubs could have their way, they would get another elite starter by trading away Ian Happ, David Bote, and a couple prospects. In fact, they’ve probably already talked to the Cleveland Indians about that. Maybe since Brodie Van Wagenen has gone all full-rebuild over in Queens we can land deGrom or Syndergaard right? Oh wait…

The funny part is, the Cubs don’t need starting pitching all that badly. Really, their biggest need is Jason Heyward’s contract off the books so they can make a serious run at one of Harper or Machado. Clearly the story of the offseason is control on payroll. Yet, how do the Cubs expect to inject another veteran voice in the clubhouse, sure up the back end of the bullpen, and fix a broken offense without spending any money? Ironically, Epstein might look to Dipoto for a little inspiration and pull-off a Schwarber/Heyward swap for a SP.

Suggested Moves:

The previous section of the article was part rant and part hot-take. Let’s roll it back, cool down a second, and look at this objectively. If I were truly looking out how to better this team in 2019, I would look to offload Heyward’s contract. But you don’t do it by pairing him with Schwarber. However, maybe those Phillies who have been talking about stupidly spending money, would think about that as a Harper replacement in right field. Maybe the Braves decide not to bring back Markakis and would like a reunion with their old stud right fielder?

I think the harsh reality is that no one will take Heyward and therefore I wouldn’t do anything other than a minor deal to get some pitching. Happ/Almora and Bote plus prospects for a solid or better SP. The rest of the offseason, I would remain quiet. Look internal for some Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood solutions. Help Kris Bryant rehab to his usual self. Mark my words, Cubs fans: 2019 will be better than 2018 due to regression, if nothing else.

Milwaukee Brewers

By Sahil Shah

2018 Record: 96-67 (1st in NL Central)

2018 Payroll: $108,982,016 (22nd in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

If you would have told me at the beginning of the season the team with the best record in the National League would be the Milwaukee Brewers, I would have laughed at you. They won 96 games, including a pivotal Game 163 against the Cubs to win the NL Central, and came one game short of a World Series appearance. The strength of the Brewers is their offense and bullpen. The offseason acquisitions of NL MVP Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain completely transformed the Brewers lineup. Yelich and Cain both finished with top-10 on-base percentages, affording sluggers Ryan Braun, Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, and Jesus Aguilar plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. In the bullpen, Josh Hader emerged as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, posting the second highest K/9 rate in baseball (15.82) as the fireman of the Brewers bullpen. Hader combined with Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel to form one of the most feared bullpen trios in baseball. Although they were far from elite, Brewers rotation quartet of Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez managed to post decent enough performances to get to their elite bullpen.

Biggest Needs:

The Brewers starting pitching is very much a question mark heading into the offseason. Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin, and Chase Anderson posted solid seasons atop the rotation, yet they all outperformed their xFIP significantly and have a history of inconsistent play. Gio Gonzalez was effective for the Brewers after being acquired in September but he is now a free agent (as is Miley). Corbin Burnes, their top pitching prospect who debuted in the bullpen last season and had a solid year as a swingman, is likely to move into the 2019 rotation and could help solve some of the issues. The Brewers still need to improve their rotation, however, if they are to be serious World Series contenders. It would be wise for the Brewers to make a strong push towards acquiring an elite talent to anchor their rotation.

Second base is also a place of need for the Brewers. The team thought they had resolved the issue by acquiring Jonathan Schoop from the Orioles at the trade deadline, but a poor showing by Schoop down the stretch led the Brewers to non-tender him. With top prospect Keston Hiura close to the major leagues, the Brewers do not need to allocate significant resources at second base; however, finding a veteran stopgap would be an immense boon for their team

Suggested Moves:

Many big pitchers have been linked to the Brewers in rumors, however, I believe there are two that they should specifically target – Corey Kluber and J.A. Happ. Kluber is coming off another fantastic season atop the Indians rotation but they are shopping him to cut payroll. His team contract is very team friendly over the next 3 years, and the Brewers have organizational depth at the position (outfield) that the Indians need the most. Happ, on the other hand, would slot in more as a mid-rotation starter. He has been one of the more consistent arms in baseball over the past half-decade and would provide the team with a much needed stabilizing presence.

As for second base, there are a lot of different possible ways for the Brewers to address this hole. If the Brewers are willing to splurge a bit, Daniel Murphy posted a fantastic batting line in an abbreviated season and has some positional flexibility, yet his poor defense and his likely desire for a multi-year contract does not help his cause. On the cheaper side, I believe Jed Lowrie could be a great fit for the team. He posted another solid offensive season for the Athletics in 2018 and could easily slot as the team’s starting second baseman while waiting for Hiura. His age (34) means he probably won’t require a substantial commitment, and his defensive flexibility would give the Brewers some key insurance throughout the season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

By Anthony Brown

2018 Record: 82-79 (4th in NL Central)

2018 Payroll: $91,025,861 (27th in MLB)

Current 2019 Outlook:

Despite trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen last offseason, the Pirates finished above .500, defying most predictions. Now, the Pirates appear to be in better shape than they were last season. Their rotation is pretty young, with the exception of Ivan Nova, and has shown to have great potential. Jameson Taillon showed his ace potential, while Trevor Williams had a huge breakout year. Trading for Chris Archer at the trade deadline may turn out to hurt them in the future, but it showed that the Pirates are willing to add what’s necessary in order to win now. The bullpen was also surprisingly successful last season, with Felipe Vazquez once again showing he’s a top closer in the league, and the breakout of Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez, and Edgar Santana. The addition of Keone Kela at the trade deadline bolstered an already strong bullpen for years to come.

While the pitching took a step forward last season, the offense, unfortunately, did not. Josh Bell lost a lot a power after a solid rookie season, and Colin Moran did not provide as much as hoped when he came over in the Gerrit Cole trade. The outfield of Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson, and Gregory Polanco all performed well, and the catching duo of Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz led all catchers in fWAR. Other than that, the infield, minus Adam Frazier, underperformed, causing their biggest problem for this coming season.

Trading away Austin Meadows and Shane Baz in the Chris Archer deal definitely hurt their farm system, but there are still a few interesting prospects. Starter Mitch Keller is a top-20 prospect who will likely make his debut at some point this season, and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is a top-50 prospect who could be a September call-up. Other than that, there are a lot of average prospects and lottery tickets that could help the team some day. With a tough division this year, unless the Pirates make a big splash in free agency or on the trade market, they could be looking at another .500 season where they miss the playoffs.

Biggest Needs:

As mentioned earlier, neither the rotation nor the bullpen need much help. It wouldn’t hurt to add another middle reliever while Edgar Santana recovers from Tommy John surgery, but they have plenty of depth if they choose not to. Unfortunately, their offense needs some help, especially since Gregory Polanco is out until possibly the All-Star Break, and Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer leaving in free agency. They plugged the hole in right field by signing Lonnie Chisenhall to a one year deal, and that’s likely the extent of their moves in the outfield. The Pirates plan on having Adam Frazier and likely Jung Ho Kang play second base for the time being, but they will likely be looking for a shortstop for this season. A power bat would be a nice addition as well, seeing as Polanco and Marte were their only players to hit more than 15 home runs.

Suggested Moves:

While the Pirates usually tend to shy away from breaking the bank for free agents, their best move would be to sign Manny Machado. He would be a fixture at shortstop for years to come and provide the power bat they need. Seeing how little the Pirates like to spend on anyone, it’s much more likely that they decide to try to use a combination of in-house options such as Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, or sign a mediocre free agent like Jose Iglesias or Freddy Galvis. It wouldn’t hurt to field offers on Francisco Cervelli, given the market on catchers and the capability of Elias Diaz to handle the full-time job, but I wouldn’t give him away unless the price was right.

St. Louis Cardinals

by Yuki Mori

2018 Record: 88-74 (3rd in NL Central)

2018 Payroll: $163,784,311 (8th in MLB)

2019 Outlook:

Gah so close.

In a season full of “what ifs,” the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the third straight season for the first time since 1997-1999. In a hyper-competitive NL Central, the redbirds might’ve finished third, but were 2 ½ games from making the postseason and were in contention for it until the very end. Thanks to the surprising performance of Miles Mikolas, the Mike Shildt effect, and Matt Carpenter’s salsa, this season felt more promising than the other season where they missed the playoffs.

The decision regarding Adam Wainwright would be a hot topic throughout the offseason. He’s a franchise icon, but with a 4.46 ERA and struggling to stay healthy at age 37, perhaps it’s for the best that he retires. But I’m assuming they’re giving him another year as 2019 would be his final year until free agency. It is certainly plausible that 2019 would be his farewell tour.

On the bright side, they acquired 1B Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks in exchange for RHP Luke Weaver, C Carson Kelly, INF Andy Young, and a Compensation Round B pick in 2019 draft. Pretty good deal for a franchise player. Goldy has won Gold Glove three times, four-time Silver Slugger, consistently been in MVP conversations, and a consistent slash line (.297/.398/.532) with a solid WAR last season (5.4). With this, I’d assume they move Carpenter to third base to fill the hole there, and although the defense may be rough on the left side of the infield, they got a Gold-Glover and an impactful bat in the lineup, which they desperately needed.

Despite frustrations with Dexter Fowler and nagging injuries to key personnel, the future looks bright, with a potential outfield of Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez filling in the 4thoutfielder role. Bader leads the way, with a ROY-like campaign that saw him tally 3.8 fWAR. In the infield, Paul DeJong an Kolten Wong would be back, along with Carpenter’s salsa and Goldschmidt. The defense will continue to be the problem, as four players had 10+ errors, led by Yairo Munoz’s 18. On the pitching side, the Carlos Martinez problem will arise, and with trade rumors buzzing around, he might not be wearing the redbird’s uniform for long. However, they should keep him, as he’s still 27 and has the potential to be an ace and a weapon from the bullpen. Mikolas and Flaherty will anchor the rotation, battled by Martinez, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Dakota Hudson. Wainwright may be bidding as well, depending on his health. The young relievers will be coming back, and many of the starters could turn to the bullpen to give Mike Shildt multiple options.

Biggest Needs:

The bullpen. They managed a 4.38 ERA with .259 BAA, mostly from meltdowns by free agent-signed relievers like, Greg Holland. Adding another starter to complement the current core would be nice. Nothing luxurious.

Suggested Moves:

Figure out trade options for Dexter Fowler. With a .576 OPS, -1.4fWAR, and a negative Rdrs, he’s really in need for a scenery change. Since he still has three years and $49.5 million left on his contract, it’s most likely a salary dump. At this point, with many young prospects like Tyler O’Neill up and coming, it’s for the best to move on from him. Another player they could look into moving is Jose Martinez, as he is in a weird situation of having a starting job and not really having it.

The Cardinals should most definitely not be making a huge splash on another reliever, as that happened to fail so many times (i.e. Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris etc.). They have a lot of in-house options, from Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes (when he comes back from the injury), Dominic Leone, John Brebbia, and could potentially deploy Daniel Poncedeleon, Dakota Hudson, and Carlos Martinez from the bullpen if they’re not in the rotation. Luke Weaver can be a candidate as well. Maybe sign a low-risk reliever to see if it turns out well but again, despite them having some money, it’s better to stay put. Other than that, they can add another starter like Charlie Morton, Nathan Eovaldi, JA Happ, or perhaps Anibal Sanchez into their rotation. I don’t necessarily think they would get Bryce Harper, but because it’s the Cardinals (see: Dexter Fowler), anything can happen. With them acquiring the final year of Goldschmidt’s contract, it’s looking more like they are going all in next season. Stay tuned.

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