NL Central Hot Stove Preview: Top free agents, targets for each team
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams, including top free agents, targets and winter needs. Below is Jay Jaffe's breakdown of the National League Central; you can find Cliff Corcoran's take on the American League Central's off-season here. On Wednesday, Jaffe and Corcoran examined the AL and NL East teams, and they will wrap up their Hot Stove previews with the AL and NL West clubs on Monday.
Teams are presented in order of finish from 2015. Free agents are listed in order of Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version). Age is their 2016 playing age. The listed salaries and bWAR totals are those for their final 2015 team only. Players with undecided options for 2016 are listed with the free agents and denoted by an asterisk.
St. Louis Cardinals
Results: 100–62 (.617), lost Division Series to Cubs
Pythagorean Record: 96–66 (.592)
Heyward's offense (.293/.359/.439 with 13 homers and 23 steals) won't blow anyone away, but his age and defensive skill (+24 DRS in 2015 and an average of +20 for his career) make him a desirable commodity, one who could draw a long-term deal upwards of $150 million. It remains to be seen how serious the Cards are about retaining him, though it wouldn't be a surprise given the Matt Holliday precedent (seven years and $120 million in January 2010 after trading for him the previous summer) and the little money they have committed beyond 2017. He'll draw a qualifying offer to assure St. Louis of a draft pick if he departs.
The question is whether Lackey will get an offer as well. Pitching for a major league-minimum base salary (plus incentives), he continued his post Tommy John surgery renaissance, leading the staff in innings (218) and placing fifth in the league in WAR and seventh in ERA (2.77). Adam Wainwright is due back from his torn Achillies, Jaime Garcia had his $11.5 million option picked up, and Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales and prospect Alex Reyes are among the possible reinforcements behind Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, so there may not be space for Lackey with the Cardinals, but he'll get a multi-year deal somewhere.
Broxton had far more success in St. Louis (2.66 ERA in 23 2/3 innings) than in Milwaukee (5.89 ERA in 36 2/3 innings); he also struck out more than a batter per inning for the first time since 2010, so he won't lack for work, though the Cardinals declined their end of his $10 million mutual option. Villanueva (2.95 ERA in 61 innings) was solid in low-leverage work and could return. Belisle (2.67 ERA but 4.0 BB/9) was limited to 33 2/3 innings due to elbow inflammation. Choate made 71 appearances totaling just 27 1/3 innings; he wasn't all that effective against lefties (.265/.333/.361 in 94 PA) even while facing righties in just 23 plate appearances. Reynolds hit 13 homers but batted just .230/.315/.398 in trying to offset the loss of Matt Adams to injury; he's best confined to a bench role.
Targets: Bullpen, backup C, RF
With Broxton, Belisle and Choate on their way out—and likely Steve Cishek as well, via a nontender in December—St. Louis will have to rebuild its bullpen in front of closer Trevor Rosenthal. Some of the aforementioned rotation surplus could wind up as part of that solution, but the Cards are still likely to go outside the organization to bolster the unit further.
Given Yadier Molina's injuries over the past two seasons, the team could certainly use a more effective backup than Tony Cruz, a career .220/.262/.310 hitter who was even worse than that in 2015 and who has been slightly below average defensively as well. It won't be easy finding a catcher willing to sign for such a relatively minimal slice of playing time, though the chance to play for a perennial contender should be appealing, particularly if St. Louis offers a two-year deal. Alex Avila is one name that comes to mind; he’s battled injuries that sapped his effectiveness in Detroit, but he has much higher upside than Cruz
If Heyward departs, the Cardinals still have considerable outfield depth in the form of Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Jon Jay, Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty for two positions (plus Holliday's absences), with Brandon Moss also arbitration eligible. It's possible they could continue their experiment with Piscotty at first base and make Adams available, though his value took a hit after missing three and a half months with a quadriceps tear and struggling at the plate (.240/.280/.377).
Though they didn't make it past the Division Series, the Cardinals have been to the postseason six times in the past seven years and 13 in the past 16. They expect to be there again in 2016, but they have work to do to shore up the roster to increase their chances of a longer October run, even given their enviable depth.
Results: 98–64 (.605), lost NL wild-card game to Cubs
Pythagorean Record: 93–69 (.574)
Whether or not they've made it official, Burnett and Ramirez are both planning to retire, ending lengthy and impressive careers. The former leaves a substantial void in the rotation, as does Happ, the latest successful reclamation project of pitching coach Ray Searage; the lefty was so impressive (11 starts, 1.85 ERA, 9.8 K/9) down the stretch that Pittsburgh could make an effort to retain him. Soria was healthy enough to throw 67 2/3 innings—his highest total since 2008 and his first time above 50 since '11—with a 2.53 ERA for the Tigers and Pirates; he's likely to seek a deal as a closer. Blanton enjoyed a good year as a reliever, posting a 2.84 ERA with 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 76 innings for the Royals and Bucs. Bastardo (2.98 ERA, 10.0 strikeouts per nine in 57 1/3 innings) was also solid.
On offense, Rodriguez batted just .246/.281/.362, so you can understand the hubbub caused by his solid contact with a water cooler during the wild-card game. Hart hit just .222/.246/.352 in 57 plate appearances, missing most of the season due to a left shoulder injury; he's played just 103 games over the last three years.
Targets: Pitching, IF
With Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh has a strong 1–2 punch to front its rotation, but it will need higher upside arms than Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke to support that pair, even with prospect Tyler Glasnow likely to provide help at some point in 2016. The big question is whether the team will continue to have such great success with reclamation projects given the departure of pitching coordinator Jim Benedict, who was Searage's partner in turning around the careers of Burnett, Happ, Liriano, Edinson Volquez and others in recent years. One way or another, the PIrates will have to scare up options for the rotation and the bullpen—from both the left side and the right—given the possible departures. One option: retaining Soria and trading closer Mark Melancon, who's probably headed toward a $10 million salary in his third year of arbitration eligibility.
With Jung Ho Kang's season-ending knee injury likely to keep him out past Opening Day, the Bucs have to sort out what they want to do with their infield. Neil Walker is getting pricey, heading toward a salary or around $11 million in his fourth year of arbitration eligibility, but with Kang sidelined, Pittsburgh may be more wary of moving him. It's definitely time to move on from Pedro Alvarez, who rebounded with the bat (.243/.318/.469 with 27 homers) but was dreadful in his transition to first base (-14 Defensive Runs Saved). The late-season pickup of Michael Morse gives the Pirates a fallback, but he hit just .231/.313/.336 with five homers in 256 plate appearances split between Miami and Pittsburgh. That said, the team is paying him only the minimum (the Dodgers are covering the rest as part of the three-way deal that brought them Mat Latos and Alex Wood), so he's disposable.
Contending on a shoestring budget is a tricky business, but the Pirates have pulled it off, earning wild card berths in three straight years despite spending less than $230 million on payroll over that span. Still, they have to be careful about every penny they spend, which could mean parting with popular players as they revamp for another run.
Results: 97–65 (.599), lost NLCS to Mets
Pythagorean Record: 90–72 (.555)
Fowler is coming off a strong season in which he hit .250/.346/.411, setting career highs for playing time (690 plate appearances) and home runs (17) and stealing more bases (20) than any year since his 2009 rookie campaign. The defensive metrics don't think much of him (-12 DRS and -2 UZR), but he's put himself in line for a multi-year deal, though he could have a qualifying offer attached. Jackson, traded in midseason for the second straight year, hit just .267/.311/.385 with nine homers, 17 steals and 1.6 WAR, though he should find someplace to return to regular centerfield duty—perhaps even Chicago, as he'll come cheaper than Fowler. Denorfia, once a renowned lefty-masher, has fallen off on that front and hit just .269/.319/.373 with three homers in 231 PA.
Haren is taking his 88-mph fastball into retirement, but Rodney and Cahill have new leases on life after unexpectedly strong showings out of the bullpen upon being acquired by the Cubs, which could result in their return. Cahill posted a 2.12 ERA with 11.6 strikeouts per nine in all of 17 innings for Chicago after being pummeled for a 7.52 ERA in Atlanta. Rodney (0.75 ERA, 11.3 K/9 in 12 innings for Chicago, 5.68 ERA, 7.6 K/9 for Seattle) made a similar turnaround but is no longer likely to get closer money. Hunter, on the other hand, was hit hard after being acquired from the Orioles and finished the year with a 4.18 ERA and 3.83 FIP in 60 1/3 innings. Motte (3.91 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 6.3 K/9) worked his way into a brief stint as closer but ended the year on the DL due to a shoulder strain.
Targets: Pitching, CF
Awash in young position players, the Cubs don't have the same depth at either end of their staff, and many believe they'll spend big on a frontline pitcher to join Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta this winter, with David Price or Jordan Zimmermann the most likely candidates. They still have two years of club control over Arrieta and will approach him regarding an extension, though that could be a long shot given that he's a Scott Boras client. They might also consider a trade for an up-and-coming starter; the Padres' Tyson Ross and the Indians' Carlos Carrasco were two they inquired about at the deadline. Given the desire to make room for Javier Baez at second base, San Diego might be a good fit for a deal involving Starlin Castro, whose late-season rebound with his move to second has resuscitated some of his value.
As for the bullpen, the team's success in getting strong work out of scrapheap pickups (a group that also includes the arbitration-eligible Clayton Richard) could mean Chicago continues shopping in the bargain bin. Another arm or two to augment the late-game group of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm is needed, particularly from the left side.
As for centerfield, the team has interest in retaining Fowler, but his price may be too high, and signing him long-term is unlikely given that prospect Albert Almora spent the entire season in Double A and is likely to make his MLB debut in 2016. If Denard Span comes more cheaply after an injury-filled season, he could be an option, as could Colby Rasmus; the former would also fit the bill as an easy choice to replace Fowler in the leadoff spot.
Fresh off their first trip to the postseason since 2008, the Cubs look like a powerhouse in the making. They have plenty of cash to put the finishing touches on their roster and relatively few holes to fill, not to mention a surplus of middle infielders to sort though.
Results: 68–94 (.420)
Pythagorean Record: 72–90 (.444)
After solid performances in each of the previous four seasons—a combined 3.28 ERA with an average of 199 innings and 3.1 WAR—Lohse had a disastrous 2015, posting a 5.85 ERA in 152 1/3 innings, the last 28 1/3 of which came out of the bullpen. At best, he'll be some other team's fixer-upper project; at worst, he's reached the end of a 15-year major league career.
Targets: 3B, C, CF
With Doug Melvin moving to an advisory role and David Stearns on board as the new general manager, the Brewers are a team in transition, continuing down the path of the rebuilding effort Melvin began by dealing Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Gerardo Parra et al. in July. As such, it appears quite possible that they'll trade affordable assets such as Adam Lind (whose $8 million option was just picked up), Jean Segura, Francisco Rodriguez and perhaps even Jonathan Lucroy rather than keep them as part of an attempt to field a middle-of-the-pack team.
Lind hit .277/.360/.460 with 20 homers, but could be replaced by Jason Rogers (.296/.367/.441 in 169 plate appearances as a rookie). Segura experienced another down season (.257/.281/.336, 0.0 WAR) but is only heading into his first year of arbitration eligibility; sooner or later, he's going to be nudged aside by top prospect Orlando Arcia, who spent 2015 in Double A. Lucroy, just a year removed from an MVP-caliber performance, missed six weeks with a broken toe and two more due to a concussion, falling from a 131 OPS+ and 6.7 WAR to a 95 OPS+ and 1.0 WAR. Still, the 29-year-old backstop is owed just $9.5 million over the next two seasons, which makes him an attractive trade chip.
In terms of what the Brewers need, an upgrade at third base, where Hernan Perez and Elian Herrera are the holdover options, is a clear one. If Lucroy is dealt, Milwaukee will obviously need a better catcher than Martin Maldonado. A true centerfielder, rather than just shoehorning cornerman Domingo Santana into the spot, would almost certainly improve the defense and open the Brewers up to trading power-hitting yet defensively-challenged Khris Davis (.247/.323/.505 with 27 homers but just 0.8 WAR), who's still a year away from arbitration eligibility.
Like every rebuilding team, Milwaukee also needs pitching, though at the moment, the starting five—Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann, Zach Davies—seems more clear than most rebuilders. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Brewers add a free agent who can absorb innings to give them some flexibility. If they trade K-Rod—who saved 38 games with a 2.21 ERA in 2015 and is owed $9.5 million including a buyout for '17—they'll have to sort out the ninth inning, but that can be done from within.
Milwaukee tried hard to remain competitive in the Central, but in a division where three teams won at least 97 games, it's got major work to do to be contenders.
Results: 64–98 (.395)
Pythagorean Record: 69–93 (.426)
Due to Devin Mesoraco's left hip injury, Pena served as the Reds' regular catcher, hitting a representative .273/.334/.324 with middling defense (including an 18% caught-stealing rate) en route to 0.4 WAR. While Mesoraco is expected to recover from season-ending surgery in time for spring training, the Reds could focus on a backup more capable of taking the reins if his progress is slowed. Schumaker, who hit .242/.306/.336 in 268 plate appearances, was paid a $500,000 buyout after his $2.5 million club option was declined.
More surprising was the club's rejection of its end of Badenhop's $4 million mutual option; the team instead chose to pay a $1.5 million buyout. Badenhop came to Cincinnati as one of the game's most prolific generators of ground balls, but his rate in that department regressed from 61% to 47%, with his strikeout, walk and homer rates moving in the wrong directions as well. Parra was solid in his 32 1/3 innings for the team but served three separate stints on the disabled list for neck, elbow and biceps injuries. Marshall never pitched for the big club in 2015 after undergoing his second shoulder surgery in as many years, this time to remove scar tissue.
Targets: Rotation, bullpen, corner outfield
The deadline trades of Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake left the Reds with an all-rookie rotation, one that set a record by starting the team's final 64 games. In Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias and some combination of Brandon Finnegan, David Holmberg, John Lamb, Michael Lorenzen and Josh Smith—not to mention top prospect Robert Stephenson, who finished the year at Triple A Louisville—the team doesn't lack for arms to round out a starting five. A veteran or two to provide some bulk innings would be welcome, however, particularly as Homer Bailey won't be back from Tommy John surgery until at least May.
Some of those arms could wind up in a bullpen that's due for an overhaul. Beyond losing Badenhop and Parra, president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty and new GM Dick Williams could trade Aroldis Chapman, who's coming off another outstanding season (1.63 ERA, 15.7 K/9, 33 saves) and likely to make upwards of $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, with an extension into his free-agent years unlikely. The Nationals, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays have been linked to him in the recent past, but the Reds' asking price at one point was described as "incredibly unrealistic" by one GM.
Among the position players, Cincinnati once again needs a leftfielder in the wake of the August trade of Marlon Byrd, as top prospect Jesse Winker is probably at least half a season away given that he spent all of 2015 in Double A and didn't blow anybody away with his power numbers. Williams may look to deal Jay Bruce, whose 26 homers look a whole lot better than his .226/.294/.434 line, which was dragged down by a .587 OPS over his final 48 games; he's due $12.5 million in 2016 with a $13 million option and $1 million buyout for '17. Todd Frazier, who bashed 35 homers and is under club control through 2017, could be dealt if the team desires to go into an even more extensive rebuilding program, as he’d bring back a bigger return than Bruce. Any way you slice it, the more offense the Reds trade, the more they will need, though it's not like they're going to sign Yoenis Cespedes with the savings. Somebody such as Span, Gerardo Parra or Will Venable seems more likely.
Cincinnati isn't expecting to contend in 2016, and its roster's inflexibility has long been an issue. Don't be surprised if the Reds attempt to further their rebuilding efforts by trading a high-priced veteran or two.