We looked yesterday at the silver linings for out-of-the-race clubs in the American League Central. Today, we’ll hop over to their National League counterparts. Given the successes of the team’s three best clubs, we’re only considering a pair of organizations this time around.
The most promising development to occur in these otherwise unsuccessful 2018 NL Central campaigns (with link to current depth chart):
Pirates: Rotation Core
It has been a rollercoaster year for the Bucs, who sprinted into the trade deadline but faded after doing some limited buying. Of course, the club’s mid-season acquisitions weren’t just aimed at the 2018 season, but they assuredly were designed to enhance the organization’s chances of contending over the next couple of seasons.
Given that the club has sought to consolidate its talent at the MLB level for the next few seasons, it seems fair to focus here on young major-league talent rather than further-off prospects. In that regard, the development of a new core of controllable starters is a notable turn of events that has perhaps gone unappreciated amidst the attention showered upon the acquisition of — and price paid for — Chris Archer.
By most measures, the Pirates had a middle-of-the-road rotation this year. But it achieved those results at a minimal cost. The 2019 staff looks to have plenty of talent and will again be dirt cheap. Archer and Ivan Nova are earning only $16MM, while a four-pack of young starters — Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and Nick Kingham — all remain shy of arbitration eligibility.
Taillon has entrenched himself as a top-of-the-rotation arm. Williams and Musgrove have each at least established that they are high-quality rotation pieces. (The former has outperformed his peripherals somewhat while the opposite is true of the latter.) And though he has struggled to keep the ball in the yard in his debut effort, Kingham has otherwise shown a MLB-worthy skillset. Plus, top-twenty leaguewide prospect Mitch Keller is knocking on the door, even if surgery for Chad Kuhl hurts the depth picture.
The case for the Pirates as a surprisingly strong 2019 contender begins with the idea that they’ll have a deep, capable, and affordable rotation. But it also relies upon some other recent developments. The bullpen has a similarly promising core unit in the works, with five controllable sub-3.00 ERA hurlers on board (including deadline addition Keone Kela). The resurgence of Francisco Cervelli, bounceback of Starling Marte, and arrival of Adam Frazier (who has thrived) and Kevin Newman (who has not) are all worthy of note. There have been less-than-encouraging developments as well, such as Gregory Polanco’s injury, but the Bucs could be an interesting team to watch, especially if they are able to make some strategic investments in areas of need this winter.
Reds: Middle-Infield Magic
There was a theory circulating in the middle of the season that the Reds were on the cusp of contention, having played roughly .500 ball since Jim Riggleman replaced Bryan Price in the managerial role. That concept has fallen out of favor. After all, since the calendar flipped to August, the Cincinnati club carries a 17-29 record.
Still, the organization does have some hope to carry with it out of 2018. In particular, it seems to have resolved some things in the middle infield. Scooter Gennett only has one season left before reaching free agency, but there’s ample indication he’ll engage with the team in offseason extension talks. Certainly, he has doubled down on a breakout 2017 campaign and proven worthy of everyday status — though his future value to the organization will certainly depend upon the price of a new deal, if it’s struck.
The shortstop position, meanwhile, had been in question since Zack Cozart departed, but the team now has a potential solution. Jose Peraza certainly hasn’t graded as a stellar defender there, but he has been within range of average with the glove. And his work at the plate has turned around after a worrisome 2017 campaign. Through 647 plate appearances in 2018, Peraza has hit at a roughly league-average .290/.329/.421 rate (99 wRC+) with 13 home runs and 23 steals. With his excellent baserunning added into the equation, he has been worth 2.5 fWAR and 2.1 rWAR.
If top prospect Nick Senzel gets healthy and comfortable in the corner outfield this fall, the Reds could have a strong position-player unit in place. Unfortunately, what this club really needed was a shinier silver lining from its pitching staff. Luis Castillo did bounce back from a rough opening to the season and Anthony DeSclafani is finally back on the bump. And there were some strong bullpen performances, even if the peripherals tell a much less promising tale. But the club also perhaps cast away the hidden gem it unearthed by trading Dylan Floro, who has thrived with the Dodgers. It got worrying news on top pitching prospect Hunter Greene. Several young starters failed to establish themselves (Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano) or were limited by injury (Brandon Finnegan), while Homer Bailey’s malaise continued. Robert Stephenson showed promise at Triple-A but then struggled in a brief MLB rotation stint, was bumped to the bullpen, and ended up on the DL with shoulder problems.
Needless to say, there’s still vast uncertainty in the staff in 2019 and beyond. Finding a way to a quality 2019 pitching unit remains a difficult, but critical, task for the Cinci front office.