With the Brewers and Cubs poised to make a run at the Cardinals and Pirates, will the balance of power in the NL Central be shifted this off-season?
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2014.
St. Louis Cardinals
Results: 90-72 (.556), lost NLCS to Giants
Third-Order Record: 84-78 (.516)
Of the Cardinals' five free agents, the only one who had a significant impact in 2014 was Neshek. The 33-year-old submariner delivered a 1.87 ERA with an eye-opening 68/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a performance that earned All-Star honors. While he expressed a desire to stay and would seem to be worth keeping around, it's been suggested that he's already priced his way out of the Cardinals' range. Somebody will pay him, though.
Of the rest, the 29-year-old Masterson did more to harm his market than just about any player in 2014. After agreeing to a $9.7625 million deal for the season, he and the Indians engaged in talks on a three- or four-year deal; he was said to be seeking something in the $40-60 million range. The two sides couldn't come to an agreement, and after he was rocked for a 5.51 ERA in 19 starts, he was dealt to the Cardinals, for whom he pitched his way into irrelevance: 30 2/3 innings with a 7.04 ERA.
The 32-year-old Motte, who saved 42 games for the team in 2012, was limited to 25 innings with a 4.68 ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery; a month missed due to a lower back strain didn't help. The 37-year-old Ellis hit just .180/.253/.213 in 202 plate appearances off the bench, while the 37-year-old Pierzynski hit a combined .251/.288/.337 in 362 PA for the Red Sox and Cardinals; designated for assignment by the former in early July, he was picked up after Yadier Molina was lost to a thumb injury.
Targets: Bullpen, bench
The Cardinals won 90 games and advanced to the NL Championship Series, and despite the tragic loss of Oscar Taveras, they're in good shape going into the winter. They do need help around the margins, particularly with a bullpen that ranked just 10th in the league in ERA (3.62). For all of their live arms — Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales, Trevor Rosenthal — didn't seem to have manager Mike Matheny's full trust in the postseason. It's particularly odd, then, that they'd turn their nose up at Neshek, who made just $1 million and was one of the few relievers who did have Matheny's trust (his eight postseason appearances led the team).
St. Louis will need somebody to replace his innings, even if Martinez takes over as the so-called "eighth-inning guy." They'll also need a matchup lefty to replace the out-of-favor Randy Choate, who's owed $3 million and targeted for trade. The bench could use a better righty-swinging complement to Kolten Wong than Ellis, and a better backup to Molina than either Pierzynski or Tony Cruz wouldn't hurt.
General manager John Mozeliak does have surpluses to deal from. Even with the loss of Taveras, he's got four outfielders — Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk and going-on-24-year-old prospect Stephen Piscotty (.288/.355/.406 with nine homers at Triple-A) — for two spots. He's also got rotation alternatives beyond the apparent starting five (Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha) in Gonzales, Martinez (who could get another spring look in the rotation) and Jaime Garcia, assuming he's able to recover from July surgery to correct his thoracic outlet syndrome.
Bottom line: After winning the pennant in 2013, the Cardinals appeared as though they would at least match that in 2014 via full seasons from so many of their key young players, but they spent much of the season underachieving and eventually fell short. They don't need a major makeover to contend again, but neither can they afford to sit still.
Results: 88-74 (.543), lost NL Wild Card to Giants
Third-Order Record: 90-72 (.557)
The Pirates were one of two teams to issue $15.3 million qualifying offers to multiple players, doing so for both Liriano and Martin. Liriano was as enigmatic as ever in 2014; the 31-year-old lefty struggled with his control and pitched to a 4.72 ERA in the first half, missing a month due to an oblique strain, but delivered 2.20 ERA in 86 second-half innings, finishing the year with a 3.38 mark and 9.7 strikeouts per nine across 162 1/3 innings. Martin put up a career year, batting .290/.402/.430 with 11 homers and 5.5 WAR; he also ranked sixth in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' pitch-framing metric, 19.3 runs above average. The Pirates would dearly love to retain him due to his impact on the field and in the clubhouse — he's a key figure in breaking the team's 20-year playoff drought — but they may not have a stomach for the price tag.
Speaking of enigmas, the 30-year-old Volquez was this year's Liriano, a player who testified to the strong work of pitching coach Ray Searage and company by bouncing back from a dreadful season to deliver a 3.04 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. Volquez struck out just 6.5 per nine and posted a 4.15 FIP, but it was nonetheless his best season since his 2008 breakout with the Reds. As for Barmes, the 35-year-old spent the year in a utility role, hitting .245/.328/.294 in 116 PA.
Targets: Catcher, first base, rotation
While the Pirates clearly would like to retain Martin and have declared a willingness to stretch their payroll to do so, GM Neal Huntington's commitment to a rationally-run organization means that they'll go only so far, particularly given the risks that a heavily used 31-year-old backstop presents. If Martin is truly seeking a five-year deal, they likely can't compete with the dollars that the Cubs, Blue Jays or other teams can offer, so they'll need a Plan B.
Of the free-agent catchers available, Pierzynski is the anti-Martin, a lousy pitch framer with poor on-base skills and a clubhouse comportment that saw him run out of town in half a season in Boston. Gerald Laird and David Ross are backup solutions who are older but no better than Chris Stewart, whose work with the Yankees in 2013 — solid behind the plate, terrible at it — illustrates the dangers of standing pat, post-Martin. Geovany Soto is a career .248/.334/.436 hitter who's an above-average pitch framer — +3.4 runs per "season" (7,000 pitches) via Baseball Prospectus — but he's also going on 32, has avoided the disabled list in just one season since his 2008 rookie campaign, and has played just 78 games over the past two years while battling knee, groin and back issues. Moving on from Martin could take a trade, with the Yankees (Francisco Cervelli and prospects John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine), Astros (Jason Castro) and Blue Jays (Dioner Navarro) offering potential partners, particularly if the latter lures Martin.
First base has been a problem for the Pirates for so long that it seems like Willie Stargell was their last producer at the position. Over the last five seasons, Pirates first basemen have hit a combined .239/.309/.392 for the majors' second-lowest OPS. Neither lefty Ike Davis nor righty Gaby Sanchez offers a great reason to be kept around; both are in their third year of arbitration eligibility and will take up more payroll than the $5.8 million they made in 2014. If Josh Harrison is the regular third baseman, then Pedro Alvarez — whose throwing woes basically cost him that job — is an option, but he'll have to improve substantially with his offense to be worth the bother or the raise he's due in his second arb year (he made $4.25 million in 2014). Adam LaRoche is an alternative, particularly if the team needs to offset the loss of Martin's offense.
As for the rotation, it's unclear whom the Pirates can count on beyond Gerrit Cole given that both Liriano and Volquez are free agents, that Charlie Morton underwent hip labrum surgery, and that the three other pitchers who saw substantial time in the starting five — Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton — accounted for a combined 48 starts. They're not going to land a Scherzer, Lester or Shields, but they could look to a midpriced pitcher such as Brandon McCarthy or Jake Peavy, or a reclamation project such as Gavin Floyd or Masterson. A reunion with A.J. Burnett, who pitched well for the team in 2012-13, could appeal as well.
Bottom line: With back-to-back playoff appearances, the Pirates have raised the level of expectations, but they're at a critical crossroads with two key figures from that run in Liriano and Martin, and have areas of glaring need. They'll have to increase payroll well beyond this year's $71.9 million; while they have just $23.7 million committed to three players, a dozen arbitration-driven raises could push that to an estimated $65.1 million, leaving a whole lot less room to fill those needs. Finding the next Liriano or Volquez will be the key.
Results: 82-80 (.506)
Third-Order Record: 81-81 (.498)
Of that group, the longest-tenured is Weeks, who's been in the organization since being drafted with the No. 2 pick back in 2003. Though he can still hit when healthy, his health has always been fleeting. Now 32, he's been supplanted by Scooter Gennett and resistant to a much-needed position change given a whopping -52 DRS (-34 UZR) over the last three years; he'll hit the market after having an $11.5 million option declined.
Among the rest, the player who had the most positive impact on the Brewers' season was Rodriguez, who posted a 3.04 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine while notching 44 saves, his highest total since 2008. He'll get a raise on the $3.25 million base salary he earned in 2014, but it will likely come elsewhere given the late-season acquisition of Jonathan Broxton, who will make $9 million. At the other end of the impact scale was the first-base platoon of Reynolds and Overbay, who combined to hit .207/.287/.356, worst in the NL in all three categories. If Reynolds' price tag is low enough, he could possibly return as the platoon partner of the recently-acquired Adam Lind, who will help balance the game's most righty-tilting lineup, but Overbay is a goner.
Signed on a minor-league deal, the 31-year-old Duke reinvented himself as a lefty reliever by going sidearm, and he'll get paid by somebody to keep that experiment going. Gorzelanny made a promising comeback from offseason shoulder debridement, posting a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings.
Targets: Bullpen, platoon first baseman
With the Lind trade and the resolution of the options for Aramis Ramirez and Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have no glaring holes heading into 2015, which isn't to say that GM Doug Melvin should sit still. While Milwaukee led the NL Central for most of the season's first five months, they posted winning records in just March/April (20-8) and June (18-10) and were outscored on the year. Melvin traded a surplus starter (Marco Estrada) to fill the larger half of the first-base void, but Lind is unplayable against lefties and needs a complement; if not Reynolds or minor league masher Jason Rogers (.296/.365/.489 with 22 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A, albeit as a 26-year-old), then somebody else.
With Gallardo back in the fold, Melvin still has more candidates to start (Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson and Tyler Thornburg the others), so he could move one as part of an upgrade attempt. He's also got a fourth outfielder capable of starting in Gerardo Parra, who endured a down year at the plate (.261/.308/.369) but is an award-winning defender who's won't turn 28 until next May. He'll get a raise from $4.85 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, making him a pricey reserve on a budget-conscious team — though like Lind, he's among the roster's rare lefties, so he won't be unloaded except to fill another need.
With Broxton in and K-Rod out as far as closer, the team could use righty setup support, given that Brandon Kintzler (4.8 K/9) doesn't miss bats, Thornburg (6.4 BB/9) can't always find the plate, Jim Henderson (2.4 HR/9) can't keep the ball in the park and Jeremy Jeffress (32 IP) has never completed a full season in the majors. They'll also need another lefty if not Duke or Gorzelanny.
Bottom line: The Brewers appear to have the pieces necessary to contend for a playoff spot, particularly if Ryan Braun and Jean Segura can rebound, but they do need finishing touches and could stand to parlay another surplus into an upgrade at another position.
Results: 76-86 (.469)
Third-Order Record: 75-87 (.462)
The Reds picked up their $10 million option on Johnny Cueto, a no-brainer given his 2.25 ERA over an NL-high 243 2/3 innings, both career bests. They declined a $4 million option on Hannahan, paying him a $2 million buyout after a season in which the 34-year-old infielder was limited to 50 plate appearances due to offseason labrum surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder. They also declined their end of a $9.5 million mutual option on Ludwick, choosing to pay a $4.5 million buyout whose payment is deferred without interest. The far more useful Santiago earned $1.1 million while hitting .246/.343/.324 in 214 PA and spending considerable time at second base, shortstop and third base.
Targets: Payroll flexibility, leftfield
The Reds scored 103 fewer runs in 2014 than 2013, dropping from third in the league to third-to-last in the process. Some of that can be chalked up to injuries that cost Joey Votto and Jay Bruce both playing time and effectiveness, some to unwarranted optimism over how much production Ludwick, Brandon Phillips and the light-hitting Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton could provide. Ludwick is gone, and GM Walt Jocketty will have to seize the opportunity to add more offense at that spot, since Phillips is still owed $39 million over the next three seasons and both Cozart and Hamilton are young, inexpensive, and strong enough defenders to justify regular play — if not the latter's leadoff spot, given his .292 on-base percentage.
Free agents such as Melky Cabrera and Michael Morse could boost the offense, but the former is too pricey, and the latter no great shakes as a defender. Bounce-back free agents such as Colby Rasmus and Alex Rios are too light in the OBP department, and likewise for potential trade target Marlon Byrd, who hit .264/.312/.445 with 25 homers for the Phillies and will make just $8 million in 2015, with an $8 million vesting option for 2016.
A trade for a bigger bat may be the way to go, particularly given a surplus of starters (Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, Homer Bailey, Tony Cingrani and David Holmberg, not to mention Cuban import Rasiel Iglesias), of whom the first four have just one year remaining before free agency. The return for dealing Cueto — or for that matter Aroldis Chapman, two years away from free agency and due a big raise from last year's $5 million — could be particularly appealing.
A play for the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, who's coming off a dismal year due to finger and knee injuries and who's owed $53 million for the next three years, could make sense if the team can find payroll room. Having spent a team record $114.2 million last year, they're at $80.5 million for just 11 players, with Chapman, Latos, Leake and Simon set to increase their footprint substantially beyond $20 million via arbitration-driven raises and both Cozart and Todd Frazier eligible for arbitration for the first time as well.
One way or another, Jocketty will have to find flexibility in order to make upgrades. In addition to trading at least one of those starters, it's worth considering eating a significant chunk of Phillips' contract in hopes of dealing him to a team with a clear need at the keystone, such as the Yankees.
Bottom line: The Reds made the playoffs three times in four years from 2010-13, but given their finances and the strength of their division competitors, they're in a real bind now. Even if Votto and Bruce bounce back, it could be a challenge for this team to contend.
Results: 73-89 (.451)
Third-Order Record: 77-85 (.478)
Having dealt pending free agents Emilio Bonifacio and Jason Hammel in July trades headlined by more substantial contributors (James Russell and Jeff Samardzija, respectively), the Cubs were left with just two potential free agents whose two-year deals didn't pan out. At a price of $9.5 million, Fujikawa threw just 25 innings for them in stints that bookended his June 2013 Tommy John surgery; his $5.5 million option was declined. For $10 million, the team got two years and 206 1/3 innings of slightly-better-than-replacement work from Villanueva.
Targets: Starting pitching, catcher
By the end of the season, the Cubs had welcomed a wave of prospects — Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler — to Wrigley Field, illustrating the start of a new phase of the team's rebuilding effort. Other pieces such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Billy McKinney are still in the pipeline, some perhaps more than a year away, and while they'll arrive in due time, what's missing from the picture is starting pitching.
GM Jed Hoyer has spent the last two years trading away hurlers such as Scott Feldman, Garza, Hammel and Samardzija because they're not on the same timeline as the kids, but the reality is that the Cubs don't enjoy the same bounty of high-end prospects on the pitching side as they do on the position player side. A good chunk of the team's offseason spending, therefore, will go toward a frontline starter who can pitch ahead of Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada and Travis Wood.
Among the high-end options, Jon Lester's connection to team president Theo Epstein from their time in Boston and James Shields' history with new manager Joe Maddon from their time in Tampa Bay suggest that either could be a fit, and Max Scherzer isn't out of the question, though any of those pitchers signing would have to accept the idea that a playoff berth isn't imminent. If the Cubs can find a way to unload some of the salary of Edwin Jackson, who's coming off a 6.33 ERA and owed $22 million over the next two years, they could be players for a mid-priced starter as well; Jake Peavy is said to be interested in coming to the Windy City, particularly if Lester heads there.
Beyond that, the team is said to be interested in pursuing the aforementioned Martin, who would supplant Welington Castillo (.237/.296/.389 with 13 homers and questionable defense, including subpar pitch framing) as the regular, leaving the latter as trade bait. With so many young players, they could also use a steady veteran position player or two from outside the organization in a reserve role.
Bottom line: The Cubs just completed their fifth straight losing season, though their 73 wins represented a seven-win improvement on 2013 and a 12-win improvement on 2012, the Epstein/Hoyer tandem's first year. Particularly with Maddon onboard, they're much closer to contending, though it's asking a lot for one winter's good haul and a full season of the kids to return them to the playoff picture.