NL Central Hot Stove forecast: Reds poised to dominate division
The Reds weren't all that good this year. Possibly excepting the American League Central, there isn't another division in baseball in which they would have even finished in second place, and if the Cardinals had gotten better luck and used slightly better role players the Reds likely wouldn't have made the playoffs at all.
That said, this is a talented team that right now probably rates as division favorites for next year. A second consecutive division title, and perhaps a run of several years near the top of the division if some young players develop well, isn't out of the question. First baseman Joey Votto is one of the best players in the majors, and 23-year-old rightfielder Jay Bruce has the talent to match him. The Reds also have several good young pitchers, such as Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and, of course, hard-throwing phenom Aroldis Chapman. Other than third baseman Scott Rolen, all of their important players are young, and they can expect to get more out of starters Volquez and Homer Bailey in 2011 than they did in 2010 as they gain experience and stay healthy.
The Reds need a catcher, a shortstop and a durable starting pitcher, and their bullpen is a bit light. The free agent market is thin at the Reds' positions of need, but one can imagine them pursuing second-tier players. The key to their winter may be the disposition of 23-year-old prospect Yonder Alonso, who profiles as perhaps a Sean Casey-type hitter and happens to be blocked by the even better Joey Votto. General manager Walt Jocketty would do very well to move him for a reliable pitcher or shortstop, and if he can do so he might be able to fill one of the club's big holes without adding much salary.
Also on the agenda will be determining whether phenom Aroldis Chapman should move to the rotation -- his iffy control and the stress that might place on his arm argue against it -- and signing a veteran catcher who can be shunted aside if Devin Mesoraco, who hit .302/.377/.587 across three levels this year, forces his way to the majors.
The big question, though, is whether Jocketty wants to make a major play. He has the talent on hand to, for example, bid honestly for New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. If he can pull off a move like that -- and in St. Louis he did so many times, landing players like Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire -- and if players like Bailey mature, the Reds could quickly evolve into a truly elite team.
The Cardinals are, as ever and always, the Cardinals, and will run out some number of All-Stars and candidates for major postseason awards along with an even larger number of the unknown and unloved. They will probably win somewhere between 85 and 90 games, and people in Missouri and Illinois will wonder in great numbers why they don't just get some more good players.
Of course the problem isn't that the team doesn't want good players, it's that the stars cost a lot of money, leaving only so much left over. One can thus expect the traditional dumpster-diving for pitchers out of whose mangled arms virtuoso coach Dave Duncan might be able to extract some good innings, and the equally traditional acquisition of feisty, scrappy and/or grizzled utilitymen whose main talents are in the line of making Tony La Russa weep in admiration.
Anything really notable will probably involve a trade of 24-year-old centerfielder Colby Rasmus, a potential franchise player whom La Russa seems truly unable to abide. Such players rarely hit the market and are even more rarely dealt, but it's just possible to envision a talent-rich club like the Tampa Bay Rays assembling an offer good enough to make it worth moving a player who will, before he hits free agency, likely be worth tens of millions of dollars more than he's paid.
Given how much money they have tied up in their stars the team likely won't make a major signing, but Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb and Kerry Wood are the kinds of pitchers coach Dave Duncan has made a career of salvaging.
Led by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers have half a championship-caliber lineup whose lesser half comprises young players with real talent but beyond Yovani Gallardo they have virtually no decent pitching. Fielder will be a free agent after this coming season, and one cannot imagine even the beautiful Milwaukee Art Museum keeping him in town. Clearly, this will dominate the Brewers' winter agenda.
This is no cause for wailing and lamentations among their fans. Fielder helped the team return to relevance, but other than in 2009, he's never been a true star, and he's certainly not the sort of player to whom a team in a genuinely small market should be making a pricey commitment.
Because the Brewers have a lot of young and talented position players, a Fielder trade, now or in summer, will likely be about picking up pitching talent with an eye toward a run in 2012. To that end, the team shouldn't be expected to sign a lot of relievers -- they have young pitchers who can take those roles, perhaps as preparation for future rotation jobs -- or make other strictly short-term moves.
It's worth noting, though, that the Brewers would have contended this year with tolerable starting pitching because their offense was the second-best in the National League. In Gallardo and perhaps Randy Wolf, they have two pitchers who could semi-plausibly start the first two games of a playoff series. For that reason, the smart ploy might be to chase potentially useful veteran starters like Javier Vazquez and only make a decision on Fielder once it's clear how the pursuit is going.
The Astros are in bad shape, with little talent at the major league level and most of their better prospects, such as they are, still years away from Houston. Most of the team's players are not good enough to start in the major leagues, some right now and some not at all. The state of the franchise is perhaps best symbolized by the presence on the roster of leftfielder Carlos Lee, a sub-replacement level player owed $37 million over the next two years.
For all that, they're at least finally doing the right thing, fielding kids and seeing who pans out. Catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Brett Wallace and third baseman Chris Johnson are not quite reminiscent of the 1994 Montreal Expos, but they're cheap and they have potential.
The danger for the Astros is this: They have a long tradition of chasing after false hopes of contention, and their rotation, headed by Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, is just good enough that if you squint you can see it leading them to a reasonable first two months in a weak division, especially if Jordan Lyles, who could be ready for a rotation job before he turns 21, comes quickly. To that end, any moves they make that improve the team for the coming year could be rather counterproductive, and the best moves they could make would involve strengthening the defense in an attempt to make their veteran pitchers more attractive in trade. The only free agents who would serve any purpose on this team are glove men like shortstop Cesar Izturis.
It's to new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts' immense credit that the team's plan is seemingly to do more or less nothing this winter. No one really wants to be patient with a team that hasn't won a World Series in more than a century and holds an enormous financial advantage over their competition, but here it's unquestionably the right thing to do.
While the Cubs are seemingly permanently readying for some new group of kids to lead the way to a brave tomorrow, this time there's actually something to it. Starlin Castro is good enough that one could make a case for him as the one player out of this year's brilliant group of National League rookies you'd most like to have for the long term. Brett Jackson looks like a true five-tool centerfielder, and an unusually large number of flamethrowers with viable secondary pitches are making their way toward Wrigley Field. If the team can just avoid any more Alfonso Soriano-type anchor contracts, they could be on the verge of a dominant run by this time next year.
The main item on the winter agenda should be moving headcase starter Carlos Zambrano, who's owed nearly $36 million over the next two years and is, at this point, at best a No. 2 starter. Clubhouse chemistry generally isn't very important, but Zambrano's perpetual eruptions of temper, threats to retire and epic sulks are really not the sort of thing you want looming over new manager Mike Quade. A comic note: Soriano is owed $18 million over each of the next four years.
If baseball allowed for relegation, soccer-style, the Pirates would long ago have been playing in Triple-A. The club's culture, from the ownership suite to the player development staff at the lowest levels of the minors, was so thoroughly ineffectual for so long that the team just can't be judged by normal standards. Going into this winter, though, there's a slight bit of hope.
The Pirates have probably bottomed out. They don't have much pitching talent in the majors and there isn't a lot on the way, but nearly every roster spot is taken up by someone who deserves it, either because he has some potential or because he might fetch something back in a trade. If this seems like faint praise, consider that just two years ago the Pirates gave a full season's worth of at-bats to Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez.
There's no mystery as to what the Pirates will do: They'll fish for veteran rejects who might, with a good first few months, fetch a fringe prospect via trade, ideally ones with positive attitudes who might impart some secondhand notion of what it is to have a culture of winning.
A bad pitcher like Rodrigo Lopez or a veteran of Japanese baseball like Matt Murton might work, but obviously the Pirates aren't going to be serious players on the market. Which is good, because it means they won't bring in anyone who will block any player with a hint of promise, and they won't bring in anyone who makes too much money or requires too much commitment. Since this is exactly what they should be doing, it's fine.