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Is Anyone Trying to Win the NL Central?

It's been an awfully quiet winter so far for a select five teams.

Major League Baseball might not yet know when the 2021 season will begin, but all 30 teams have laid plans to compete for the imminent start of the new campaign. As February approaches, the biggest names in free agency are starting to come off the board, and we’ve already seen several blockbuster trades involving marquee players.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Is anybody actually trying to win the National League Central?

There’s plenty of evidence that indicates the answer is no. Entering Friday, NL Central clubs had spent less than $4 million combined on major league free agents, according to FanGraphs’ free-agent tracker, easily the lowest total of any division. That number is now near $20 million thanks to reported deals on Friday between the Cubs and Joc Pederson and Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals. Only three of the five teams have signed players to major league contracts: the Cubs lead with three (including Pederson), followed by the Brewers at two and the Cardinals at one. Chicago added catcher Austin Romine to the most lucrative deal of the bunch before Friday (one-year, $1.5 million). New Cubs relief pitcher Jonathan Holder—as well as Milwaukee signings Daniel Robertson and Luke Maile—signed a one-year deal worth less than $1 million. The Cardinals announced a deal with Wainwright, reportedly for $8 million.

Compare those additions with the mass exodus of talent the division has seen, and it’s fair to speculate just how many wins it will take to hoist the NL Central crown in 2021. The Cubs had the lowest winning percentage (.567) of any division winner in 2020, and arguably no team has lost more this offseason than Chicago.

Kris Bryant reacts after striking out against the Cardinals on Sept. 21, 2019.

Yu Darvish was shipped off to San Diego (along with backup catcher Victor Caratini), while Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood all signed elsewhere as free agents. That group represents half of the Cubs’ pitching starts in 2020, leaving Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills as the only pitchers who made more than four starts a season ago.

This series of decisions comes as Cubs owner Tom Ricketts invoked the Bible when describing the scale of MLB’s financial losses following the pandemic-shortened, mostly fanless 2020 season. Ricketts’s tales of financial woe appear to be ignored. Following the Darvish trade, he pushed back on the notion that the team was entering a rebuilding phase, but his team’s actions have indicated otherwise.

Of course, the Cubs are not the only team that has lost a lot without restocking. The Reds traded away closer Raisel Iglesias and let Archie Bradley, Anthony DeSclafani, Freddy Galvis and Curt Casali walk as free agents. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer appears unlikely to return to Cincinnati. The rebuilding Pirates—who had the worst record in the league last season—traded Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon to contenders. The Cardinals have officially lost only relief pitcher John Brebbia in free agency (who had three strong years before missing 2020 after having Tommy John surgery), though they have yet to re-sign free agents Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina and Brad Miller. St. Louis reportedly is once again working on a trade for star third baseman Nolan Arenado, according to The Athletic.

Add it all up, and the 2021 forecast is pretty grim. FanGraphs projects the Brewers to have the highest combined WAR (28.3) out of any NL Central team, a total that ranks just 17th in the majors. Milwaukee has carved out pole position by essentially doing nothing, with no major losses or additions as of yet. The Cardinals rank 19th in projected WAR (25.7), with the Cubs 22nd (23.4), Reds 23rd (23.3) and Pirates in dead last (12.9).

Josh Hader faces Cleveland in the ninth inning on Sept. 5, 2020.

If any stock is to be put in the ever-churning rumor mill, the departures could continue to stack up. The Cubs have reportedly engaged in trade talks for Kris Bryant, and they’ve also discussed pairing Bryant with Kyle Hendricks in a deal with the Blue Jays, per TSN’s Scott Mitchell. Willson Contreras is also frequently mentioned as a trade candidate, as is Reds ace Luis Castillo. Meanwhile, the Brewers are reportedly listening to offers for All-Star closer Josh Hader, according to FanSided’s Robert Murray.

The offseason behavior of these five clubs is a sad enough sight on its own, but the lack of competitiveness is only amplified when compared with the arms race happening in the NL East, or the stockpiling of talent going on between the Padres and Dodgers out West. Given the relative ease of the path to a guaranteed playoff spot in the form of a division title, the fact that none of the five NL Central teams has seized upon the opportunity to take advantage of their sad-sack peers remains confounding.

The clock has not yet run out on the ability for teams to make improvements before Opening Day, so it might be premature to label this divisional race TankFest 2021. But if it walks like a dog, barks like a dog and looks like a dog, then it’s probably a dog. When observing how each of these five teams have operated this winter, it doesn’t seem too bold to say that, among the division races to play out next season, the level of competitiveness we’re likely to see from the NL Central will be the runt of the litter.