NL Central Hot Stove Preview

2007 Record: 85-77, first place 2007 Attendance: 3.3 million, fourth in NL 2007 Payroll: $100 million, eighth in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) C-R Jason Kendall RHP Kerry Wood LHP Scott Eyre (club option) OF-L Cliff Floyd (mutual option) Key Free Agents (2008) OF-L Jacque Jones RHP Ryan Dempster RHP Mark Prior RHP Bob Howry Key Long-Term Commitments RHP Carlos Zambrano, $18.3M/season through 2012 plus 2013 player option LF-R Alfonso Soriano, $17M/season through 2014 3B-R Aramis Ramirez, $15M/season through 2011 plus 2012 club option 1B-R Derrek Lee, $13M/season through 2010 LHP Ted Lilly, $10.3m/season through 2010 RHP Jason Marquis, $8.1M/season through 2009 2B-R Mark DeRosa, $5.1M/season through 2009 Key Ready-Now Youngsters C-R Geovany Soto CF-L Felix Pie OF-R Matt Murton 2B-L Eric Patterson LHP Sean Marshall RHP Sean Gallagher Needs: 1. SS; 2. Fourth starter

What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Cubs are in an odd spot because they have made long-term commitments at a large number of positions, and yet do not quite have a championship-caliber core. What that means is that they have to make the right decisions at those slots where they don't already have money tied up. At catcher the decision is obvious: go with Geovany Soto and part ways with Jason Kendall. Similarly there is no need to sign an outfielder; some combination of Jacque Jones, Felix Pie, Matt Murton and possibly Cliff Floyd will be perfectly adequate to cover center and right. Finally, it means not sticking with Ryan Theriot at shortstop, who is a second-division starter, and thus really more of a liability for a playoff team. This is a case where you have to improve, and even someone at a league average level of performance would go a long way. If the Cubs can't find a shortstop on the trade market then Alex Rodriguez becomes intriguing.

What They Will Do: Hold. The Cubs do not have to do much to field an 85-win team again next season, and that -- coupled with the uncertain disposition of the sale of the club -- will likely keep them pretty hands-off this winter.

2007 Record: 83-79, second place 2007 Attendance: 2.9 million, eighth in NL 2007 Payroll: $70 million, 19th in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) RHP Francisco Cordero RHP Scott Linebrink OF-L Geoff Jenkins (club option declined) Key Free Agents (2008) RHP Ben Sheets RHP Claudio Vargas C-S Johnny Estrada OF-R Kevin Mench Key Long-Term Commitments RHP Jeff Suppan, $11M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option CF-R Bill Hall, $6.7M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option Key Ready-Now Youngsters RHP Yovani Gallardo LHP Manny Parra OF Matt LaPorta Needs: 1. A defensively adequate 3B; 2. An alpha-dog reliever; 3. LF

What They Should Do: Weak Buy. Although the Brewers should get better if left to their own devices, the marginal gain between having an 86-win team and a 90-win team is quite high right now given the present structure of the National League. There was a lot of goodwill generated in Milwaukee this year, but if the team underperforms, some of the stench of the Selig-Prieb years -- a lot of Brewers fans felt that the Seligs reneged on their promise to make a financial commitment to the franchise after Miller Park was built -- will resurface. Recognizing that Ryan Braun is an intolerable defensive liability at third and moving him to left, and then signing someone like Mike Lowell to take his place is the right idea. The Brewers also need to re-sign Cordero, or find some other way to shore up their bullpen.

What They Will Do: Hold. My hunch is that the Brewers will splurge on their bullpen after their adventures in the second half of the season, but will not be willing to pull the plug on Braun at the hot corner, which renders most of the more interesting options moot. If they don't move Braun then they might as well keep the spot warm for Matt LaPorta rather than reaching for a free agent.

2007 Record: 78-84, third place 2007 Attendance: 3.6 million, third in NL 2007 Payroll: $90 million, 10th in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) SS-R David Eckstein RHP Kip Wells RHP Troy Percival Key Free Agents (2008) CF-L Jim Edmonds RHP Jason Isringhausen RHP Braden Looper OF-R Juan Encarnacion LHP Mark Mulder (club option) Key Long-Term Commitments 1B-R Albert Pujols, $16M/year through 2010, plus 2010 club option 3B-R Scott Rolen, $12M/year through 2010 RHP Chris Carpenter, $13.5M/year trough 2011, plus 2012 club option Key Ready-Now Youngsters OF-L Rick Ankiel CF-L Colby Rasmus Needs: 1. One or preferably two quality starting pitchers; 2. SS, assuming that Eckstein departs; 3. 2B

What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Cardinals are going to need to get better if they want to reach the playoffs. What once was a "stars-and-scrubs" team is now down to a one-man show, with Pujols's greatness unmatched by an aging Edmonds, a gimpy Rolen, and an injured Carpenter. But they don't need to get that much better. The good news is that the Cardinals have a number of places that they could gain simply by adding league average talent, particularly in the middle infield and on the pitching staff.

Grabbing that kind of middle-tier free agent was once a Cardinal specialty. Think "broken" pitchers that Dave Duncan could work well with, such as Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon or Dontrelle Willis. The middle infield might be trickier, but a player like Juan Uribe could be attractive. The Cardinals can probably avoid spending money on their outfield for the time being, hoping to get better production out of some combination of Edmonds, Chris Duncan, Ankiel, Rasmus and possibly Encarnacion.

There is a secondary question about whether it's revenue-maximizing for the Cardinals to spend additional money. Their fans are extremely loyal, the team won the World Series in 2006, and their stadium is shiny and new. In an ironic way, they have taken over the archetypal role of the Chicago Cubs, in which the fans are so inclined to turn out rain or shine that it reduces the marginal benefit from winning ballgames. If the Cardinals had a little bit more minor league talent, in fact, you could make a case for trading that goodwill in for a rebuilding year. But the farm system is going to take another year or two to get turned around, and failing to add talent now could leave the club with a losing record for the next few seasons, which will begin to erode that patience.

What They Will Do: Weak Buy. You don't usually boot a GM like Walt Jocketty to the curb without planning on shaking things up a little.

2007 Record: 73-89, fourth place 2007 Attendance: 3.0 million, seventh in NL 2007 Payroll: $88 million, 14th in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) 2B-R Mark Loretta RHP Jason Jennings (club option) Key Free Agents (2008) SS-R Adam Everett RHP Brad Lidge RHP Woody Williams Key Long-Term Commitments LF-R Carlos Lee, $17.2M/year through 2012 RHP Roy Oswalt, $14.5M/year through 2011, plus 2012 club option 1B/OF-S Lance Berkman, $14.5M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option Key Ready-Now Youngsters LHP Troy Patton C-R J.R. Towles RHP Matt Albers Needs: 1. Second starter; 2. 2B; 3. 3B

What They Should Do: Weak Buy. This case is highly parallel to that of the Cardinals. First, you have a veteran club that isn't getting much help from the farm system and doesn't have all that much of a window remaining. Second, you have some places, such as second base, where you're going to gain something via addition by subtraction. Third, you have a fan base that should be supportive in the near-term but might not be in the long term.

The Astros' central problem is that their most obvious need is for a No. 2 starter, but there are few of those in the free-agent market, and the team does not have any depth from its minor league system to part with in trade. It's really quite tempting to suggest that they blow everything up, trade Oswalt, Lidge and Everett, and see if they can't do a relatively quick rebuild. In any other division, that would be the suggestion, but no division rival is likely to build up this winter to the point where they're fielding a 90-plus-win club, and between dumping Craig Biggio, integrating Hunter Pence and Luke Scott on a full-time basis, and probably getting a better year out of Berkman, the Astros at least ought to have a division-winning offense. So I think they have to gamble and see if they can't sign a pitcher to an Andy Pettitte-type contract.

What They Will Do: Hold. Ed Wade has not been the most aggressive general manager in the past, and I look for them to shuffle the deck chairs without accomplishing much.

2007 Record: 72-90, fifth place 2007 Attendance: 2.1 million, 13th in NL 2007 Payroll: $69 million, 20th in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) LHP Eric Milton 1B/LF-L Adam Dunn (club option exercised) 1B-L Scott Hatteberg (club option exercised) C-S Javier Valentin (club option) LHP Eddie Guardado (club option) Key Free Agents (2008) RHP David Weathers CF-L Ken Griffey Jr. (club option) Key Ready-Now Youngsters OF-L Jay Bruce 1B-L Joey Votto CF-L Josh Hamilton RHP Homer Bailey RHP Johnny Cueto Key Long-Term Commitments RHP Aaron Harang, $10.1M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option RHP Bronson Arroyo, $8.1M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option SS-R Alex Gonzalez, $5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option UT-R Ryan Freel, $3.5M/year through 2009

What They Should Do: Weak Buy. This might be the kind of club that could surprise some people and win 90 games next year. The offense should be at least league-average, and could be one of the two or three best in the league with some breakouts from the likes of Edwin Encarnacion. A starting rotation of Arroyo/Harang/Bailey/Cueto/Matt Belisle would hold its own. Now that they did the right thing and picked up Dunn's option, the other keys are letting Joey Votto displace Hatteberg at first base and buying a real bullpen.

What They Will Do: Hold. They just picked up the options for Dunn and Hatteberg, and it looks like the winter's plan will be oriented around the status quo.

2007 Record: 68-94, sixth place 2007 Attendance: 1.7 million, 15th in NL 2007 Payroll: $39 million, 27th in baseball Key Free Agents (2007) RHP Shawn Chacon RHP Tony Armas (mutual option) Key Free Agents (2008) LHP Damaso Marte (club option) RHP Matt Morris (club option) RHP Salomon Torres (club option) Key Ready-Now Youngsters 1B/OF-R Steven Pearce 3B-S Neil Walker C/OF-S Ryan Doumit OF-L Nate McLouth Key Long-Term Commitments SS-R Jack Wilson, $6.9M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option OF-R Jason Bay, $6.6M/year through 2009. Needs: 1. Star-quality talent; 2. Third starter; 3. 3B

What They Should Do: Hold. This is a frustrating group to analyze, because the Pirates have a lot of redundant assets that have value in theory but not in practice. Should Pearce, Walker and Doumit take their respective places in the lineup? Certainly, but nobody's going to trade much of value for Xavier Nady, Jose Bautista or Ronny Paulino. So you might instead need to be willing to trade the guys who could fetch something, such as Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and even Jason Bay. The reason I list this as "hold" rather than a "sell" is because two of those guys have their value at a low-water mark right now; Bay is coming off a terrible season, and Sanchez just had shoulder surgery. So I'd want to see how things play out, and have Neil Huntington buy one of those cellphone plans with some rollover minutes. If someone starts the year hot, you move him in June -- unless a bunch of people get hot, in which case you shift gears and play to win. That's not as far-fetched as it might sound in the NL Central.

What They Will Do: Weak Buy. New management, new ownership. You'd expect the Pirates to make some work for themselves this winter. Spending a few million for one of those high-risk starters that we identified in the Cardinals blurb would not be the worst idea.

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