NL Central Hot Stove preview: Brewers, Cards have similar issues

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2011 Results: 96-66, NL Central champs, lost NLCS

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 721/638

Pythagorean Record: 90-72

Pending Free Agents: 1B Prince Fielder, UT Jerry Hairston Jr., IF Craig Counsel, OF Mark Kotsay, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Takashi Saito, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RP Francisco Rodriguez

Prospects on the Verge: CF Logan Schafer, RF Caleb Gindl, SP Amaury Rivas, SP Wily Peralta

Building For: Surviving Prince Fielder's departure

Strengths: Starting rotation, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart

Biggest Holes: First base, shortstop

Targets: Fielder, 1B Carlos Peña, SS Jimmy Rollins, SS Rafael Furcal, SS Ramon Santiago, SP Roy Oswalt

The plan: The Brewers head into the offseason in a similar position to the rival Cardinals, whom they bested in the regular season only to lose to in the National League Championship Series. Both teams face the free agency of their superstar first baseman. Both teams need to fill a hole at shortstop after declining their incumbent's option. Both teams still look strong for the coming season thanks to strong starting rotations, home-grown bullpens and a handful of remaining big bats. The difference is that the Cardinals seem likely to re-sign their superstar slugger, while the Brewers, in all likelihood, will have to forge ahead without Price Fielder, something Fielder himself hinted at repeatedly as the season and postseason drew to a close. The Brewers will certainly make their best offer to Fielder, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to out-bid his other suitors.

Replacing Fielder will be no easy task. Carlos Peña can do a fair Fielder imitation in the three true outcome categories (homers, walks and strikeouts) and is an upgrade in the field, but his complete inability to hit for average (.216 over the last three seasons) undermines the rest of his value. Still, he's the best of the non-superstar free agent first basemen. The Brewers could also try to make up for Fielder's loss by spending big to land a star shortstop, but Jose Reyes will be looking for Fielder money, and Jimmy Rollins, who turns 33 at the end of November, is likely a bad investment. Both would be a huge upgrade on Yuniesky Betancourt, but then again, so would almost anyone else, including Rafael Furcal, whom the Cardinals may want to resign, or even longtime Tiger Ramon Santiago, my pet sleeper shortstop solution (as you'll see below).

An upgrade at third base or in centerfield could also help cover for the loss of Fielder, but the market at those positions is far thinner, such that the Brewers may be best off hoping that Casey McGehee returns to his 2010 form and Nyjer Morgan doesn't, as unlikely as that might be. That the Brewers traded quality prospects at those positions in Brett Lawrie and Lorenzo Cain to load up for 2011 makes it all the more imperative for ownership and the front office to make some sort of splash for 2012 in the wake of the loss of Fielder. The Brewers will have the pitchers they received in those trades, Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, respectively, for one more season before they both become free agents. For that reason, a big upgrade at shortstop or even a one-year deal for a high-impact veteran like Roy Oswalt could be in order as the Brewers try to flip the script on St. Louis.

2011 Results: 90-72, NL wild card, won World Series

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 762/692

Pythagorean Record: 88-74

Pending Free Agents: 1B Albert Pujols, IF Nick Punto, C Gerald Laird, SP Edwin Jackson, SS Rafael Furcal, OR Corey Patterson, RP Octavio Dotel, RP Arthur Rhodes

Prospects on the Verge: SP Brandon Dickson, SP Shelby Miller, RP Jordan Swagerty, 1B Matt Adams, 3B Matt Carpenter, OF Adron Chambers

Building For: An easier path to the playoffs

Strengths: Top three starting pitchers, heart of batting order, even without Pujols

Biggest Holes: Shortstop, manager

Targets: Pujols, Furcal, SS Ramon Santiago, SS Jose Reyes, SS Jimmy Rollins

The plan: The Cardinals' off-season to-do list grew longer when Tony La Russa retired. Now they have to re-sign Albert Pujols, find a shortstop and hire a manager. The Cardinals' World Series championship has already increased the likelihood of Pujols' return, both by infusing the team with revenue from the games, merchandise and a likely increases in both attendance and ticket prices for 2012, and by proving to Pujols that this team is built to win. Indeed, expectations are that Pujols will return to St. Louis, though the size of his new contract may take a while to negotiate.

As it stands, the Cardinals are built to survive Pujols' departure. In September, GM John Mozeliak re-signed Lance Berkman for the coming season, so if Pujols does depart, Berkman can move to first base and post-season hero Allen Craig can take over in rightfield. That alignment wouldn't compensate for the loss of Pujols, who is an utterly irreplaceable player, but a heart-of-the order of Holliday, Berkman postseason MVP David Freese and Craig should be plenty competitive provided all four can stay healthy and hit up to their capabilities.

The return of Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery (he was throwing off a mound during the postseason) would also help maintain the team's run differential (Chris Carpenter also re-signed in September and pitching coach Dave Duncan has indicated that he will return as well),

With or without Pujols, the team needs a shortstop as Mozeliak declined the $12 million option on fragile 34-year-old Rafael Furcal, who was acquired at the trading deadline to keep the Cardinals above replacement level at the position for the stretch run. If the team does bring back Pujols, they'll likely make a similarly modest move. Longtime Tiger Ramon Santiago is one compelling and underrated option, as is bringing back Furcal at a reduced price. If they fail to re-sign Pujols, however, they could take some of that money and aim it at Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, both of whom have their flaws (injury for the former and age for the latter), but either of whom would rank among the most productive shortstops in team history.

2011 Results: 79-83, 3rd place

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 735/720

Pythagorean Record: 83-79

Pending Free Agents: SS Edgar Renteria, C Ramon Hernandez, SP Dontrelle Willis

Prospects on the Verge: SS Zack Cozart, LF Yonder Alonso, UT/3B Todd Frazier, C Devin Mesoraco, C Yasmani Grandal, RP Brad Boxberger, RP Francisco Cordero

Building For: To prove 2011 was the fluke, not 2010

Strengths: Heart of the batting order, major league-ready prospects

Biggest Holes: Front of the rotation

Targets: SP James Shields, SP Roy Oswalt, SP C.J. Wilson, SP Jon Danks, SP Scott Baker

The Plan: The Reds won 78 games in 2009 and 79 in 2011 but 91 -- and the NL Central title -- in the season in between. That makes 2010 look like a fluke, but there's reason to believe that 2011 was more of a transition year than a return to mediocrity.

Start with the fact that only the world champion Cardinals scored more runs than the Reds in the National League this season. Then consider that Cincinnati has several hitting prospects ready to take over full-time jobs in the major leagues in 2012, and there's reason to expect the Reds to again be among the NL leaders in runs scored next year. They have a trio of hard-hitting major-league ready catching prospects, with one, Yonder Alonso, already having been converted to fill the team's hole in leftfield, another, Devin Mesoraco, expected to take over departing free agent Ramon Hernandez's share of the catching duties, and the third, Yasmani Grandal, available as a valuable trade chip. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Zack Cozart is expected to solidify shortstop after a season in which the Reds got just a .238/.281/.317 hitting line from that position. At third base, utilityman Todd Frazier will serve as a caddy to Scott Rolen, whom the Reds hope will have a strong walk year after undergoing season-ending surgery in August to clean up his chronically ailing left shoulder.

With those players helping to flesh out the lineup around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips (whose option was picked up), and third-year centerfielder Drew Stubbs, and Cuban Missile Aroldis Chapman ready to replace closer Francisco Cordero, whose option was declined, Reds GM Walt Jocketty can focus on the team's real area of need: the front of the rotation. The Reds have considerable rotation depth, but with Edinson Volquez having struggled since his return from Tommy John surgery, they lack a rotation anchor and, as a group, their starters had the fourth-worst rotation ERA in the NL this year. Johnny Cueto will be just 26 next season, but seems likely to top out as a No. 2. Homer Bailey continues to show improvement, but he'll be 26 in May and no longer projects as a star.

Looking outside of the organization, C.J. Wilson will likely price himself out of the Reds' plans, but in Grandal they have the perfect chip to cash in via trade for a rotation anchor such as James Shields, who could be expendable in Tampa Bay due to the arrival of Matt Moore. Failing that, Cincinnati could target an underappreciated American League pitcher entering his walk year -- such as the White Sox' Jon Danks or the Twins' Scott Baker -- who could make the leap to stardom in the weaker league. A one-year deal for a quality veteran free agent like Roy Oswalt might also do the trick.

2011 Results: 72-90, 4th place

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 610/712

Pythagorean Record: 70-92

Pending Free Agents: 1B Derrek Lee, OF Ryan Ludwick, SS Rony Cedeño, C Chris Snyder, C Ryan Doumit, SP Paul Mahokm

Prospects on the Verge: CF Starling Marte, SP Jeff Locke

Building For: To prove the first-half of 2011 wasn't a fluke (even though it was)

Strengths: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez's potential, the element of surprise

Biggest Holes: Shortstop, catcher, run scoring, run prevention

Targets: SS Ramon Santiago, C Rod Barajas

On July 19, 95 games into their 2011 season, the Pirates had a .537 winning percentage and a half-game lead in the NL Central. From that point on, they went 21-46 (.313) and fell 24 games behind the eventual division champion Brewers. The difference between the two performances was run prevention. In those first 95 games, the Pirates allowed 3.8 runs per game. In the last 67, they allowed 5.3. So which performance was real? As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but the Pirates' pitching staff doesn't inspire much confidence in proving it was the former.

Their best starter in 2011 was Jeff Karstens, a 28-year-old righty with a strikeout rate of 5.3 men per nine innings and a career ERA entering the year of 5.07. Looking to 2012, their best starter is likely to be James McDonald, who was a nice pickup for the unnecessary Octavio Dotel at the 2010 trading deadline, but will be 27 in the coming season and would likely be no more than a mid-rotation starter on any other team. The Pirates' bullpen this year was overly reliant on veteran retreads such as Jose Veras, Chris Resop and Jason Grilli. Meanwhile, their offense, which showed some promise coming into the year with young talent such as third baseman Pedro Alvarez joining 2010 Rookie of the Year runners up Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and burgeoning star Andrew McCutchen, flatlined, outscoring only the inept Padres, Giants and Mariners despite a strong showing from McCutchen.

So, while the Pirates may have been buyers at last July's trading deadline, adding Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, both now free agents, an aggressive approach to this offseason is likely misguided, though certainly they should be able to do better than last year's "big" winter additions of Lyle Overbay and Kevin Correia. Ramon Santiago could be an asset on both sides of the ball at shortstop, while Rod Barajas could be a quality stop-gap behind the plate while the organization waits to see if prospect Tony Sanchez's bat is going to come back to life this season. Meanwhile, until someone other than McCutchen emerges as a meaningfully above-average player, there's not much sense in the Pirates trying to win-now with a team that's not ready to win now.

2011 Results: 71-91, 5th place

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 654/756

Pythagorean Record: 70-92

Pending Free Agents: 1B Carlos Peña, OF Reed Johnson, SP Rodrigo Lopez, RP Kerry Wood, RP John Grabow, RP Ramon Ortiz, 3B Aramis Ramirez

Prospects on the Verge: CF Brett Jackson, C Welington Castillo, 3B Marquez Smith

Building For: Their own "the 25."

Strengths: New front office, Matt Garza, bullpen

Biggest Holes: First and third base

Targets: 1B Albert Pujols, 1B Prince Fielder, Ramirez, UT Michael Cuddyer

The Plan: Theo Epstein's Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in his second-year as GM in Boston, but the team he took over in November 2002 had just won 93 games. Epstein, who was just named the Cubs' new President of Baseball Operations, and his new GM Jed Hoyer, pilfered from the Padres, have far more work to do in Chicago than they did in Boston. The 2011 Cubs had some legitimate major league assets, including ace Matt Garza, developing shortstop Starlin Castro, power-hitting catcher Geovany Sotto, and some live bullpen arms, but that can't compare to the core Epstein inherited in Boston. The Cubs are also burdened by some bad contracts, chief among them Alfonso Soriano's, which calls for him to earn $18 million in each of the next three seasons, and a lack of compelling prospects on the farm behind centerfielder Brett Jackson.

Fortunately for Epstein and Hoyer, Jackson should be ready to man centerfield on the North Side in the coming season. That means the new administration's most urgent task is replacing their corner infielders and makes Chicago a prime landing spot for one of the two top free agents on the market, first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Signing either one would earn the new administration a lot of slack with the fan base, which can't have been happy with Epstein's recent mention of replacing the iconic Wrigley Field scoreboard with a "giant Jumbotron" as a way to improve team revenues, as well as weaken an intra-division rival.

As for third base, the master plan had been to have Ramirez hand the position directly to Josh Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, but after the club picked up Ramirez's $16 million option for 2012, Ramirez voided it, forgoing his $2 million buyout in the expectation of landing a multi-year deal. Vitters has disappointed and won't be ready next year, so the Cubs are left contemplating giving Ramirez what he wants. Ramirez will be 34 in June and has become increasingly brittle, but third base has become one of the thinnest positions in the majors, making Ramirez by far the best option at that position on the market. For proof, one need only consider that Wilson Betemit, a platoon player with an iron glove, and 38-year-old Casey Blake are among the few alternatives.

However, Epstein and Hoyer solve the Cubs immediate concerns, the tasks of fielding a competent team for 2012 and building a potential champion will unfold on two different timelines. There's a reason the Cubs gave Epstein a five-year contract: It may take at least that long to build a championship-level team.

2011 Results: 56-106, 6th place

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 615/796

Pythagorean Record: 62-100

Pending Free Agents: SS Clint Barmes, OF Jason Michaels

Players with Options: none

Arbitration Eligible Players: C Humberto Quintero, SP J.A. Happ

Prospects on the Verge: None immediately behind the wave that hit Houston this season

Building For: Rebuilding, in nearly every way.

Strengths: Bullpen, low expectations

Biggest Holes: The lineup, the farm system

Targets: Prospects via trade

The Astros are a team in transition. They are about to have a new owner, assuming the $680 million sale to Houston businessman Jim Crane can be finalized by the Nov. 30 deadline. One sticking point in those negotiations is the fact that Major League Baseball has asked the Astros to accept a potential move to the American League West as part of its revamped scheduling and playoff system, which could go into effect with the 2013 season. That move would give every division in baseball five teams, but would also require the Astros to employ a designated hitter, which is sort of like asking a stone for another drop of blood.

See, the Astros are at the nadir of a major rebuild. In July 2010 they traded first baseman Lance Berkman and ace Roy Oswalt, and this past July they dealt outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn and second baseman Jeff Keppinger. When they hosted the Cardinals in the last series of the season to help decide the NL wild card, they were effectively running out a Triple-A, if not Double-A lineup. With shortstop Clint Barmes likely to depart as a free agent this winter . . . well, it wouldn't be much different with or without the banjo-hitting Barmes, would it?

The Astros aren't planning to fill their lineup with veteran placeholders. Eleven players made their major league debuts Houston in 2011, and nine others who still qualified as rookies were on its active roster at one point or another. In 2012, the Astros are going to continue to let the kids play and try to trade their few remaining veterans -- outfielder/first baseman Carlos Lee, who is heading into the last year of his contract, right-handed starter Brett Myers, who is in the last guaranteed year of his, lefty starter Wandy Rodriguez, their most valuable major league property, and closer Brandon Lyon, a hard sell coming off labrum surgery -- for whatever prospects they're worth, which may not be much.

The catch is that the Astros don't have any particularly compelling prospects to play. They did well to add teenage slugger Jonathan Singleton and right-handed starter Jarred Cosart in the Pence trade with Philadelphia, but neither is likely to make an impact in 2012. Righty starter Jordan Lyles was the consensus top prospect in the organization prior to the 2011 season, but he already made 15 starts (and five relief appearances) in '11 with underwhelming results and profiles as a mid-rotation arm at best. The Astros do have some young, live arms in their bullpen, but none of the position players behind Lyles on last year's prospect lists -- led by pint-sized second baseman Jose Altuve, relocated second baseman Jimmy Paredes, and outfielder J.D. Martinez, nor catching prospect Jason Castro, who will return from a year lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee -- is guaranteed to develop into a legitimate major league starter. Of course, all three will start on 2012 Astros. Another 100-loss season seems almost guaranteed.