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NL Central Hot Stove Preview: Assessing offseason plans for Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Cubs

Marlon Byrd helped the Pirates to their first playoff berth in 21 years but might not be back in Pittsburgh. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Marlon Byrd, Pirates

This week, is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013:

More Hot Stove previews:AL East | NL East | AL Central | AL West | NL West

St. Louis Cardinals

2013 Results: 97-65, 1st place in NL Central, lost World Series

Run Differential: +187, 2nd inMLB

Pending Free Agents: OF Carlos Beltran, SS Rafael Furcal, RHP Jake Westbrook, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Chris Carpenter

The Cardinals are so flush with young, high-end pitching talent, much of it on display in the just completed postseason, that they won't miss the three pitchers listed above. Carpenter, who didn't pitch in 2013 due to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, may move into a front-office or coaching position. Westbrook made only 21 starts because of injury, none after Aug. 21, and was left off the postseason roster. Mujica was an All-Star in 2013 but lost his job as closer late in the year to Trevor Rosenthal and made just two appearances in October.

Among the hitters, Beltran, who will be highly sought-after this offseason, will be replaced in-house by moving Allen Craig to right field (he has 139 major-league starts in the outfield corners, including the postseason) and letting Matt Adams take over full-time at first base.

Furcal didn't play an inning in 2013 due to Tommy John surgery. As a 36-year-old who hit .251/.314/.347 in his last two healthy seasons (a performance  that greatly resembles Daniel Descalso's career line), he may no longer be much more than a replacement-level player. However, after a season in which St. Louis' shortstops (primarily Descalso and Pete Kozma) hit a combined .222/.280/.303, Furcal is the player the Cardinals will most need to replace.

Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Oscar Taveras

Taveras ranked second on Baseball Prospectus's midseason prospects list in late June and is widely considered the top hitting prospect in the game. He was expected to make his major-league debut this past season, but he injured his right ankle on a hard slide into second base in May and, after trying to play through the injury, had season-ending surgery in August. The Cardinals hope Taveras will be completely healed by spring training. If so, we could see him in the majors before his 22nd birthday (June 19), and he might force Jon Jay to the bench soon thereafter.

Targets: Shortstop, bench

Shortstop has been a perennial problem for St. Louis. It was by far the team's weakest position in 2013 and is one hole its farm system is not prepared to fill. It should, therefore, be the club's primary focus this offseason. Of course, the reason shortstop has been such a problem for the Cardinals is that there just aren't that many impact players at the position. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta are by far the best of this year's crop of free-agent shortstops, and there will be ample competition for their services. Of the two, Drew is slightly younger and better in the field and was given a qualifying offer by the Red Sox, which adds a lost draft pick to his price tag. Peralta is the more dangerous hitter and a better defender than his reputation suggests, but his recent Biogenesis-related drug suspension is a red flag.

The Redbirds' only other obvious weakness is their bench, which will be even weaker in 2014 if Adams and Kolten Wong find themselves in the starting lineup. Almost any veteran with a reliable bat would be an upgrade there.

Bottom line: The Cardinals could let all of their free agents sign elsewhere and non-tender David Freese and still return to the postseason in 2014 with Adams at first base, Craig in right, Matt Carpenter moving to third and Wong taking over at second base. Meanwhile, their pitching staff is so well-stocked with young arms that starter Jaime Garcia and reliever Jason Motte will have to fight to get their old jobs back upon their returns from arm surgery in 2014.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 Results: 94-68, 2nd place in NL Central, lost Division Series

Run Differential: +57, 10th in MLB

Pending Free Agents:RF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, SS Clint Barmes, C John Buck, RHP A.J. Burnett, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kyle Farnsworth

The first three men on the above list will leave holes in Pittsburgh's lineup that will need to be filled, but Jordy Mercer could take over at shortstop from within, and the Pirates should be able to upgrade on August acquisitions Byrd (who is 36 and coming off a career year) and Morneau (who never did homer for the Pirates). That would leave Burnett, who has said he will either retire or return to the Bucs, as the lone free agent the team should re-sign.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Jameson Taillon

The second-overall pick in the 2010 draft and a top-20 prospect heading into the 2013 season, the 6-foot-6-inch Taillon was considered the Pirates' 1A pitching prospect behind Gerrit Cole, but his performance in Double and Triple-A in 2013 was a bit underwhelming (combined 5-10, 3.73 ERA, 2.75 K/BB). Still, he'll only be 22 next season and has a potentially dominant fastball/curve combination, so there's time for him to get sorted out at Triple-A and join Cole in Pittsburgh's rotation in the middle of next season.

Targets: First base, right field, shortstop

Mercer is already 27 and was not a top prospect at any point, so the Pirates should at least inquire about Drew and Peralta, but they'd be better off spending their money on a big bopper for right field, first base or both. And the Pirates will be spending money this offseason. As they proved with the additions of Byrd, Morneau and Russell Martin, and the March 2012 extension for Andrew McCutchen, the organization is willing to expand payroll to get and remain in contention. Its fans have then rewarded those decisions with increased attendance, which has thus increased revenues. It's a very positive cycle, but it's now the organization's turn to keep that wheel spinning by adding the bats necessary to keep Pittsburgh in contention in 2014. That means reaching out to Mike Napoli, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, Kendrys Morales, Curtis Granderson and Corey Hart and making competitive offers to bring at least one of those men to the Steel City.

Bottom line: The Pirates were the best story in baseball in 2013. They not only broke their 20-year streak of losing seasons, but also made the playoffs, won the NL Wild Card Game and pushed the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals to a decisive Game 5 in the Division Series, all backed by a passionate fanbase that made a packed PNC Park one of the most electric playoff environments in recent memory. The Pirates are a good young team, but they also play in a very tough division, the only one that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2013, and a return to the postseason in 2014 is not guaranteed.

There is significant pressure, then, on general manager Neal Huntington to capitalize on this opportunity with significant additions for next season. Huntington hit several home runs last winter with the additions of Martin, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon and the decision to re-sign Jason Grilli and promote him to closer. This winter, however, the Pirates and their fans will require a higher-profile addition. Fortunately, Pittsburgh is no longer a tough sell to prospective free agents.

Cincinnati Reds

2013 Results: 90-72, 3rd place in NL Central, lost Wild Card Game

Run Differential: +109, 6th in MLB

Pending Free Agents: OF Shin-Soo Choo, SS Cesar Izturis, C Corky Miller, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Greg Reynolds, LHP Manny Parra, LHP Zach Duke, RHP Nick Masset

Choo will be one of the top players on the market this offseason. The Reds have Billy Hamilton ready to take over in center field, where Choo's defense undermined his production at the plate last year, but Choo would be a nice upgrade in left field over 35-year-old Ryan Ludwick, who has one year and a mutual option left on his contract and would make a good bench bat or trade bait. Parra had a solid year as a match-up lefty in 2013 and would be worth retaining, though righties continued to hit him hard. Cincinnati needn't bother with the rest of the above, however; Tony Cingrani and Johnny Cueto (if healthy) are ready to coexist in the starting rotation, taking the place of Arroyo, who will be 37 in February.

Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Billy Hamilton

Hamilton's game-changing speed was on ample display during his September call-up. He stole 13 bases in 14 attempts in just 13 games, including a successful steal in all seven of his pinch-running appearances, when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going, and four steals in four attempts in his first major-league start. That speed translates to center field, where he has shown outstanding range.

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The only question is whether or not he can hit major-league pitching. Hamilton had small-sample success in September (7-for-19 with two doubles and a pair of walks), but in a proper sample in Triple-A, he hit a mere .256/.308/.343 across 547 plate appearances. Is that a hitter the Reds are ready to put in their starting lineup in place of one of Choo, one of the most productive hitters in baseball this past season? Hamilton may be a case of the genie being out of the bottle, but real concerns about the 23-year-old's bat remain.

NEXT: Reds' targets and breakdowns of the Brewers and Cubs

The fate of Brandon Phillips will have much to do with how busy the Reds are this offseason. (AP)

Brandon Phillips, Reds

Targets: Second base, outfield

With Choo a free agent and Ludwick coming off a down season that included a shoulder injury, the Reds could use another bat in the outfield. They could retain Choo or find an upgrade over Ludwick or Hamilton. Curtis Granderson leaps to mind as player who could fill center or, at worst, be the strong side of a platoon with Ludwick.

Beyond that, according to multiple reports, Cincinnati is interested in trading second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose bat made fewer headlines than his mouth after a .261/.310/.396 season in which he groused about his $72.5 million contract and cursed out a beat writer in front of television cameras. It remains to be seen if there will be much of a market for a player who will be 33 in June, is owed $50 million over the next four seasons and has seen his production decline each of the last two years. Phillips is a perennial All-Star, Gold Glove winner and fan favorite, but he's not a good investment for another team.

What's more, trading Phillips would require the Reds to replace him at second base, something they can't do in-house. There are plenty of other questions a Phillips trade would create: Could dealing him put them in the market for Robinson Cano? Could it take the form of a challenge trade for a another aging second baseman with a bad contract like Dan Uggla? Would the Reds consider moving Hamilton, a former shortstop, to second base despite the fact that it would be a waste of his speed afield, a danger to his legs and compound his struggles to adjust to the majors? Would they spend the savings on Choo and let low-level prospect Henry Rodriguez, who hit .274/.319/.335 in Triple A this past season, take over second?

The guess here is that, barring the Uggla scenario, Phillips will remain in Cincinnati in 2014, though he has already confronted the team about the rumors, receiving what sounds like a dodge from general manager Walt Jocketty. One wonders if the relationship between player and team will become fractured beyond repair if the Reds try and fail to trade him this winter.

Bottom line: Cincinnati is a good team without a lot to do to remain so in 2014. It is also, however, in a very tough division and is facing the potential loss of Choo, who along with perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto was one of the team's two best hitters from this past season. The Reds' primary focus this offseason should be on retaining Choo or adequately replacing his production.

Milwaukee Brewers

2013 Results: 74-88, 4th place

Run Differential:-47, 19th in MLB

Pending Free Agents: 1B/OF Corey Hart, IF Yuniesky Betancourt, LHP Mike Gonzalez

Among the many things that went wrong for Milwaukee in 2013, Corey Hart missing the entire season due to a pair of surgeries on his right knee ranked behind only the Ryan Braun fiasco. Hart's injury left a hole at first base that the team never adequately filled, but if his knees are sound, re-signing him would make a fair amount of sense. Desperate for relief help, the Brewers could do worse than to re-sign Gonzalez, but they could also do better. Betancourt need not apply, here or anywhere else for that matter.

Top Prospect on the Verge: 1B Hunter Morris

Tyler Thornburg and Scooter Gennett have lost their rookie (and thus prospect) status in 2013, and Johnny Hellweg's control problems reached epic proportions in his first MLB season (26 walks in 30 2/3 innings!). That means the Brewers' top prospect on the verge is Morris, who is a borderline prospect, but one at a position of need for the team heading into the offseason.

Morris, who turned 25 in October, has 20-homer power and, well, that's about it. It says all you need to know about his prospect status that he spent all of 2013 at Triple-A without once being called up while the team's first basemen hit a collective .206/.259/.370. It also tells you all you need to know about the quality of the Brewers' farm system that he is the choice in this category.

Targets: First base, bullpen

Milwaukee's need at first base is glaring and will deservedly be their top priority this winter, but the bullpen is also in need of an overhaul. The team lost Jose Veras and Manny Parra to free agency last offseason and then traded John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez during the year. With more closers on the market than teams that need one, the Brewers should be able to land an ace set-up man from that bunch to slot in front of closer Jim Henderson. Veras, Parra and K-Rod are all back on the market, should Milwaukee want to put the band back together, as is the ageless LaTroy Hawkins, another former Brewers set-up man of recent vintage. The options are plentiful, which is good because the team needs to land several of them. It should choose wisely, though, as not every pitcher can thrive in hitter-friendly Miller Park.

Bottom line: Health and a lack of scandal would go a long way toward improving the Brewers' outlook in 2014. Full and productive seasons from both Braun, who will be back from his 65-game Biogenesis suspension, and Aramis Ramirez would be like adding a major bat to the heart of the order; those two combined for just 604 plate appearances last year. Filling first base with a healthy Hart or a viable alternative such as Kendrys Morales would add another. Letting Gennett start at second base might be a better bet that going back to the well with Rickie Weeks in his walk year and could represent another upgrade. A rebound by Yovani Gallardo, a healthy season from Marco Estrada and growth from sophomores Wily Peralta and Thornburg could upgrade the rotation without changing the identity of the pitchers in it.

That's a lot of wishing and hoping, but with a legitimate first baseman and a little help in the bullpen, Milwaukee should be no worse than a .500 team. If everything goes right, it might even challenge for the wild card.

Chicago Cubs

2013 Results: 66-96, 5th place

Run Differential: -87, 24th in MLB

Pending Free Agents: C Dioner Navarro, RHPs Scott Baker, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier

None of these players, if re-signed, would last until the next contending Cubs team, so there's little reason for the team to bother keeping any of them.

Top Prospect on the Verge: 3B Kris Bryant

Chicago has four major hitting prospects -- Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler -- in the minor leagues, all of whom could open 2014 in Double-A. Of the four, Baez, a shortstop, is the only one to have played at that level already, hitting .294/.346/.638 in 54 games there this past season.

However, Bryant, the team's top draft pick in 2013, may actually pass Baez on the way up, in part because his position isn't filled with a significant player at the major-league level. Bryant, who turns 22 in January, is the oldest of the quartet and was drafted second overall last June. He hit .336/.390/.688 with nine home runs in 146 plate appearances over three levels in his professional debut late last year, wrapping up with five home runs in 16 games (and a .719 slugging percentage) for High-A Daytona. He's a big (6-foot-5), right-handed-hitting third baseman with major power, and by 2014, he'll have made everyone forget about Josh Vitters.

Targets: Pitching, backup catcher

With Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo and Junior Lake in the major-league lineup already and the aforementioned prospects on the way, the Cubs don't have to worry too much about acquiring hitters. Rather, to accelerate their rebuild and complement that crop of young bats, they need pitching. Their four-year deal for Edwin Jackson last winter was supposed to help with that, but year one was a complete bust (8-18, 4.98 ERA) that only emphasized that need. Jeff Samardzija has exceeded some projections, but he'll be 29 in January and may serve the team better as trade bait than as a long-term starter. Ditto lefty Travis Wood, who will be 27 in February and combines a high fly ball rate with a low strikeout rate.

It may come to pass that Chicago decides to flip the 23-year-old Castro for pitching, with Baez taking over at shortstop, but my guess is the front office will give the new manager (whoever that may be) and his coaching staff a chance to break through to the two-time All-Star before cutting bait.  Perhaps that means this is the winter that  Samardzija gets dealt for pitching prospects or that the Cubs cash in on Wood's All-Star season. Maybe they make a big splash by winning the rights to 25-year-old Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka, hoping he can be an ace to balance all of those bats, or maybe they think small by taking a flier on the live arm of someone like Phil Hughes, who is just 27 and might benefit from a move to the league in which pitchers hit.

Also, Castillo is the only catcher on their 40-man roster and their best backstop at Triple-A last year was J.C. Boscan, who was dropped from the roster last month. They literally need a backup catcher.

Bottom line: