This year, the NL Central sent three teams to the playoffs and two to the top ten of next June's draft board. While a few of those fortunes could change in 2014 -- yes, Pittsburgh, we're talking about you -- they likely won't do it during this offseason. Both St. Louis and Cincinnati have no reason to make any major moves considering their team strengths, and Pittsburgh is looking to bring back the majority of its departing free agents in the hopes that with the same players, the 2014 team will enjoy the same success. The Cubs' farm system is swelling to the point that there's hardly a position on the field they could sign a player long-term without him blocking some prospect or another that Cubs fans have fallen head-over-heels in love with. Only Milwaukee has the absolute lack of a future to make them truly dangerous on the open market, and history teaches us that in situations such as these, the Brewers will sign Jake Westbrook to a multi-year deal and otherwise stand pat.
St Louis Cardinals
Needs: SS, CF
The Cardinals weren't able to stop the Boston Red Sox from their third World Series victory in ten years, but the team isn't exactly hurting moving forward. St. Louis remains one of the strongest organizations in the game from top to bottom and from the pro level down to rookie ball, so there's no reason not to expect them to be right back at the head of the contending pack ten or eleven months from now.
That said, there are places where the roster could use some improvement, although the pitching staff is more or less good to go. Really, if there's a problem it's that the team has too many good pitchers to squeeze onto the roster. (Carlos Martinez, for example, could find himself the odd man out of the bullpen next spring if the Cards don't think he can convert into a starter.) Generally speaking, that's the sort of problem you want to have.
Still, the Pete Kozma Experience can't be allowed to happen again. The shortstop market isn't exactly strong and the player that best fits the Cardinals, Boston's Stephen Drew, might quickly become unpalatable were the Red Sox to put a qualifying offer on him, as some outlets are reporting that they will. That still leaves the Cardinals with the choice of seeing whether Rafael Furcal will be able to come back from Tommy John surgery at age 37 with any reasonable chance of success (recovery time for players is usually less than the 18 months or so that pitchers require), reuniting with ex-Cardinal Brendan Ryan, whose bat is just as poor as Kozma's but who might legitimately be the best defensive shortstop in baseball, or making a trade for someone using some combination of Matt Adams, Lance Lynn, Martinez, and other prospects from their system.
The shortstop they get back doesn't have to be a world-beater, and the ideal situation would be to pry J.J. Hardy free from the Baltimore Orioles, but Manny Machado's knee injury likely ended whatever scant hope there was that would come to pass. More realistic might be Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians, who have Cabrera's eventual replacement, Francisco Lindor, and short-term fill-in, Mike Aviles, already squared away. The White Sox should also be looking to move Alexei Ramirez for young, major league ready talent. Both would represent adding about $10 million in payroll, but if the Cardinals don't want add that kind of money or those players are prohibitively expensive to acquire or unavailable for some reason, the New York Mets have made it clear they've had just about enough of Ruben Tejada and would be amenable to someone taking him off their hands.
Carlos Beltran hits the market again this offseason, and he could return to St. Louis. Should he depart, his place in right field would likely be taken over by Allen Craig on a more permanent basis, with Adams becoming the incumbent first baseman. If that's the case, the Cardinals will be on the lookout for a platoon partner for him -- someone like Gaby Sanchez, for instance, if the Pittsburgh Pirates opt to non-tender him, because Adams is helpless against left-handed pitching. Regardless of the Beltran question, the outfield position the Cards are in the best position to address is center field. Jon Jay's production took a marked step backwards this season at the plate, and coupled with his lackluster-to-poor defense -- some of which was on display this postseason -- that should be enough for the Cardinals to at least explore other options. The Jacoby Ellsbury market is a trap, due to expected cost, so the guy who really should spark St. Louis' interest is Curtis Granderson.
It's yet to be seen whether or not the Yankees will give Granderson a qualifying offer and risk him saying yes. There have been reports out of the organization that the Yankees are leaning in that direction, and they have until November 2nd to make their final decision. Of course, a draft pick stipulation would scare away the majority of non-protected teams, which along with the loss of most of last season to injury could also drive down Granderson's asking price the way it did with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn last offseason. If that's the case and the Cardinals can get Granderson on something like the contract Beltran signed with them in the 2011 offseason -- 2 years, $26 million -- then they should do it even if it does cost them the 31st overall pick. Of course, if that's Granderson's asking price, one would expect a lot more teams with nothing going on in center field -- the White Sox, Phillies, Rangers, Nationals, even the Kansas City Royals fall into this category -- to get interested even with the pick compensation.
Any activity on the Granderson front might be a decent barometer on how the Cardinals feel about Oscar Taveras as he comes back from an ankle injury that ended his 2013 season. Before he got hurt, St. Louis had been trying to get him as much time as possible in center in the minors to see if he could take over the position to spell or even replace Jay late this season and in the playoffs. Taveras profiles best as a right fielder at the professional level, but if the Cardinals still think that he can make center work for at least a year or two and Granderson does turn down a qualifying offer, they might decline pursuing him in favor of another short term deal with Beltran. They should also kick the tires on Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, whose stock took something of a tumble due to his injury woes this season, but it likely hasn't dropped far enough that they could get their hands on him without including Taveras as part of the deal.
Other than that, St. Louis has a couple guys to pay in arbitration and they're ready for next year.
Needs: 1B, SS, RF
The Pirates are in the same position that the Baltimore Orioles were in last year, where they know that they played ridiculously over their heads for large portions of the season, and now they have to figure out which parts were sustainable and which ones are about to blow up. After they do that, they have to figure out what to do about it. The Orioles ultimately did nothing and gave what was otherwise the same roster another go in 2013, which let them know exactly what was about to blow up (the pitching). The Pirates would do well to learn from that. Outside of Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, the baseline talent level on the Pirates' staff isn't that much higher than it is on the Orioles', and Liriano is famous for how spectacularly his fortunes on the mound can swing from year to year.
That said, the Pirates also shouldn't -- and can't -- just shoot guys like Jeff Locke, Vin Mazzaro and Charlie Morton off into the sun for the crime of all having their career years in the same year. Speaking of Burnett, his return is up in the air. If the Pirates have the payroll and desire to bring him back, they should extend him a qualifying offer, since $14.1 million is about what he's going to command on an annual basis in free agency anyway and if he ends up going somewhere else, Pittsburgh might as well get something out of it. If Burnett doesn't come back, the team still has four of next year's starters already under contract and can either pursue a fifth in free agency, give Jeanmar Gomez another shot at the back of the rotation, or otherwise stall for time until Jameson Taillon is ready to join Cole in the majors. It's a bit misleading to say the Pirates only have to worry about their fifth starter -- they also have to worry about whether starters 1 through 4 are going to pitch like it -- but it's still the current strongest area of the club.
The right field/first base carousel is where the Pirates could make some moves. Garrett Jones is an easy non-tender candidate as he's basically a platoon hitter now, Travis Snider lost his spot on the 25-man roster and Gaby Sanchez could follow Jones off the 40-man as a non-tender casualty. The Pirates were so underwhelmed with how this group played as a unit that they went out and traded actual prospects after the deadline to get Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd from the Twins and Mets respectively, and then essentially made both men full-time players.
Jose Tabata is pretty much the only in-house option Pittsburgh has for right field, and Tabata wasn't terrible there in 2013 -- .282/.342/.429 in 341 PA -- but if the Pirates thought that kind of performance was enough for him to play an everyday role on their team, they wouldn't have played Byrd over him. The Pirates are interested in bringing Byrd back for 2013, though Byrd will find a lot more competitors for his services on the open market this time around than when he signed with the Mets last February. Pittsburgh doesn't need a long term solution there -- prospect Gregory Polanco is being groomed for that role -- but if Byrd gets offered more money or years than the Pirates want to give, they might take a look at a guy most Pittsburgh fans are doubtless pretty tired of right now: Carlos Beltran. They'll soon realize it feels a lot better when he's doing it for their team. Outside of Beltran the market is fairly thin on right fielders -- Mike Morse could be worth a look to see if he has anything left, but is unlikely to represent a major upgrade over bringing back Jones, and at that point it's probably best to let Tabata see what he can do with the right field job to himself.
First base is another quandary, especially if the team drops Sanchez. James Loney will find a home somewhere this offseason, and given that the Pirates are working within a budget (their $66m team salary was the highest in club history) and are focusing most of their efforts on Burnett and Byrd at the moment he could be the most affordable option on the market who actually played significant amounts of baseball in 2013. Still, Tampa's first base rehab clinic has produced enough guys who immediately regressed back to their old selves after leaving the team that Loney should still be a bench candidate for most teams. The best option might be to trade for an everyday first baseman. The Mets' Ike Davis has already been linked to Pittsburgh a couple times in the rumor mill, and that might not be the worst fit. The Pirates have already stated that they're willing to make some stupid trades to keep their success going in the short-term. The elephant in the room, of course, is that the Pirates already have their first baseman on the roster. Unfortunately, Pedro Alvarez ist playing third at the moment. That's an unrealistic move to expect this offseason for a number of reasons, though, not least of which is that the third base market is maybe even less inspiring than the one for first.
Shortstop was a position of need for the Pirates in 2013, and will likely continue to be such in 2014 since the Pirates have indicated that they want Clint Barmes to come back too. Barmes was paid $5.5 million this year to be essentially the same player as Pete Kozma, except the Pirates had Jordy Mercer hanging around to bail them out at the plate.
Offense in general is a major need for the Pirates going into this winter. Outside of McCutchen, Pittsburgh doesn't really have an offensive core -- even Alvarez, with his 36 home runs, only managed a .770 OPS due to his complete inability to hit for average. To find their way back into the postseason, they'll need at least one more big impact bat in addition to everyone else not regressing. I doubt they'll find it on the open market. Pittsburgh remains the most likely final destination for the aforementioned Giancarlo Stanton. They lobbied heavily to get a deal done near the end of the 2013 regular season, and with Stanton unlikely to sign an extension in Miami -- and perhaps unwilling even to avoid arbitration with a franchise he's been vocally dissatisfied with since the Toronto megatrade last offseason -- this could be the winter he moves north.
The Reds are another team like St. Louis that's mostly set, or at least as set as they want to be. The only departing player of note is center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who will get a qualifying offer from the Reds on his way out the door that he'll promptly decline. Otherwise, Cincinnati is returning starters at every position. Even the center field job might not really be open, because prospect Billy Hamilton burst onto the major league scene with oversized fanfare at the end of the season. He'll likely be given every opportunity to make the squad starting in center despite a disappointing 2013 at the Triple-A level.
Letting Choo walk will free up about $7 million, which should cover the team's arbitration raises for Homer Bailey, Ryan Hanigan and others but won't stretch much farther than that. Bidding farewell to veteran starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, however, gives the team $16.5 million to play with assuming ownership doesn't cut back on spending, and since Tony Cingrani's strong performance following the Johnny Cueto injury more or less settled the question of who the Reds' new fifth starter will be, Cincinnati can put that money towards signing either Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson.
Granderson is the better fit for the Reds for the same reasons as he is for the Cardinals, though Billy Hamilton is barely a shadow of the prospect that Taveras is. The same caveat about draft picks applies, because if the Yankees extend Granderson a qualifying offer, the Reds' interest would likely become far more muted.
Still, considering the disappointment of the last few seasons for Cincinnati, they might bite the bullet and give up the pick regardless. Or if the rumors about them shopping Brandon Phillips around are true -- Phillips is signed to a big contract for the next few years but is a league-average hitting second baseman with a good glove, so there should be a market for him somewhere -- then that could free them up to dive into the Robinson Cano bidding, at which point if the Reds have the money they should just sign Granderson as well since they're already giving up their first rounder. Barring that unlikeliness, however, it should be a fairly quiet offseason in Cincinnati.
Needs: 1B, SP, RP
The Brewers have a protected first round pick due to how poorly they fared in the standings in 2013, which means that they should have an inside track on the premier free agents of the offseason. The Brewers could take advantage of this and try to quickly reload at the major league level the same way the Cleveland Indians did. I'm just not sure the Brewers front office is savvy enough to effectively do so.
First base is the easy(ish) part -- after getting a sense from Napoli's people how substantial his desire is to remain a member of the Red Sox (pretty certain we already know what the answer's going to be there), the Brewers should look to bring Corey Hart back, hopefully on a one-year make-good contract but perhaps on a short multi-year deal if necessary. Hart's health should lower his price tag, and the Brewers have their own Khris Davis who can fill in for him there if Hart is injured or doesn't perform. Davis spent the end of last season filling in for Ryan Braun in left field and had an OPS of .949 in 153 PA; Hes not that good, but he's a solid bench bat.
At second base, Rickie Weeks lost his job to rookie Scooter Gennett, but Weeks may yet get a chance to win it back, because he's under contract for another year at $11 million, along with a 2015 option that will certainly not be picked up. If the Brewers can find a way to move his contract before that, they certainly will. Jean Segura should be the Milwaukee shortstop for the next few years and Aramis Ramirez has one more year left on his contract over at third, though acquiring a good backup for him should also be a priority.
Two pieces of the outfield are set -- Ryan Braun in left has finished his suspension and should find his way back into Milwaukee's good graces so long as he says the right things and keeps hitting, while Carlos Gomez has finally broken out as an MVP candidate and will be looking to build on that next season. The Brewers have Norichika Aoki under contract to play right field for 2014, but might want to think about upgrading there by at least testing the waters on Shin-Soo Choo.
The place where the most work to be done is the starting rotation, however. Right now the 2014 starting five looks something like Kyle Lohse, Yovanni Gallardo, Tyler Thornberg, Tom Gorzelanny, and Wily Peralta. Anyone who takes it for granted that Thornberg's great 2013 (2.03 ERA in 66.2 IP) means he's a lock for the top of rotation next year are reminded to remember Mike Fiers's 2012. He still stands a chance of being better than Gorzelanny or Peralta, however. Gorzelanny's real strength lies in the longman role and Peralta's first full season as a big leaguer was pretty much a disaster top to bottom. Due to his upside, Peralta will get every opportunity to work his issues out, but Milwaukee should take a more proactive approach to Gorzelanny's roster spot and aggressively pursue one of Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco, preferably in that order. As mentioned above, keeping in the proud tradition of Jeff Suppan and Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook is a more likely candidate than any of these men.
Needs: 2B, 3B, LF, CF, RF, SP, RP
The Cubs have a protected draft pick as well, and that combined with their money makes them amazingly dangerous and difficult to predict.
The only three spots that are anything remotely resembling safe on the Cubs starting nine at the moment are at catcher, first base, and shortstop. Of these three positions, only one -- catcher Welington Castillo -- had a legitimately good 2013. Anthony Rizzo started out hot at first base, but then fell apart, which had a lot to do with his crazy home run rate from the beginning of the season normalizing and his continued inability to hit left-handed pitching. The Cubs bought out the rest of his team control, arbitration, and a year of free agency, so for better or worse he'll be around through the end of the decade. Cubs fans will have to hope that in the future he won't look quite so much like James Loney. On the other hand, shortstop Starlin Castro was making a strong case for being the worst player in baseball in 2013 until showing signs of life in the second half of the season. He too is under contract forever and will not be replaced.
Having disposed of the Garza, Feldman, Marmol, DeJesus, Stewart and Baker contracts (they got rid of Alfonso Soriano too, but Chicago will still be paying most of his salary next year) and with only Jeff Samardzija, Luis Valbuena, Darwin Barney and Nate Schierholtz to pay in arbitration, the Cubs could be the biggest contender the Yankees have for Robinson Cano's services if that's where they want to throw their money. Chicago ran with a $106 million payroll this offseason and not only are they on the hook for less than half of that in 2014 (before the arbitration raises), but the Cubs have recently sustained payrolls up around $140 million. Ownership has changed since then, but there's no reason to believe that the payroll can't get back up into that range if the team's management can offer a persuasive argument for why. And while the Cubs are flush with middle infield prospects at the moment, they can serve the team just as well in a trade package for pitching as they can up the middle.
The Cubs are hoping that the man they've acquired to play third base, Mike Olt, will be the guy to hold down the position for the foreseeable future, or at least until Kris Bryant is ready; Olt has yet to play a game in a Cubs uniform, however, so it's more than reasonable to treat his spot in the lineup as less than set in stone. Olt's 2013 was derailed by a concussion inflicted by a very nasty pitch he took to the head late in 2012, which affected his vision and was still causing him aftereffects during Spring Training this year. One worries what effect another concussion might have on Olt, and one hopes that explains why he was absolutely terrible at the Triple-A level in 2013, but the Cubs will want to keep their eyes on both the free agent and trade markets for third base regardless. Bryant's presence in the organization doesn't pull the Cubs entirely out of the Chase Headley trade market, but it certainly doesn't make a move there any more likely.
Of the two big-ticket center fielders hitting free agency this offseason, the Cubs are more of an Ellsbury team than a Granderson team. They have a protected first rounder, a connection to Ellsbury from Hoyer and Epstein's time in Boston and more payroll flexibility than his other two most likely suitors, the Mariners and the Phillies. The real question is whether or not the Cubs are counting their Almora and Soler chickens before they hatch, considering this front office has a recent history of doing precisely that, and considering that Ellsbury himself is merely a good center fielder and not an elite one, Chicago will likely decide to spend their money elsewhere. If the Cubs are going to hand out a long-term deal to a position player, it should either be to Cano or no one.
Which brings us to the rotation. Returning from the 2013 group will be Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood. In the mix to join them are Jake Arrieta, who came over midseason from Baltimore, and perhaps Chris Rusin and Carlos Villanueva. Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese ace, should be the first priority to add as a reinforcement. If someone outbids the Cubs for his services that's the way it goes, but he should be their number one target for the rotation, although there's not many teams in baseball for which this isn't true. The Cubs can probably afford to throw the most money at NPB through the posting system of any reasonably interested team except perhaps the Dodgers, though don't count out the Yankees since the posting fee won't count against the luxury tax.
After that, the Cubs' options get a bit murkier. They can certainly compete with the Royals for Ervin Santana if they wish, but it might be best just to let Kansas City pay him and assume risks involved with that. Outside of Tanaka, there's not a pitcher that demands any real long-term commitment from a team in the Cubs' position, but then again neither did Edwin Jackson last offseason and the Cubs gave him four years. The best thing for the Cubs to do is to make sure it doesn't come to that by winning the bid for Tanaka.