Our 3 Remaining Needs series slides west to the NL Central, another lively offseason division with a surprise player moving to the fore. Though heavy lifting may have concluded in many of the NL’s charter cities, others still have piles of work at hand. Let’s get to the most pressing needs for each of the five teams in the NL’s staunchest division last season (teams listed in order of 2018 standings) . . .
[Previous installment: NL East]
- Address second base. The keystone was a black hole for an otherwise prodigious lineup last year, with midseason acquisition Jonathan Schoop performing so badly at times that 6’4, 230 pound Travis Shaw was asked to learn the position. With the likely impending departure of 3B Mike Moustakas, Shaw will slide back across the diamond, leaving a gaping hole at second. Top prospect Keston Hiura is on the way, but may still be a year or so off, and the options at hand are, in the interim, woefully insufficient. The club has been connected to free agent Jed Lowrie, but may prefer a short-term stopgap to keep Hiura’s spot warm.
- Add a proven arm to the rotation. Milwaukee’s rotation consists, at current, of three number-five starters, three rookies vying for the fourth and fifth spots, and a rehabbing Jimmy Nelson set to make his return at some point early in the season. Ideally, the club would be a perfect fit for a top-end hurler, but seems to have neither the financial nor the prospect capital to make such a deal happen. Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta all had promising debuts last season, but the Crew would do well to somehow slot a proven commodity into the mix.
- Find a legitimate backup shortstop. Former top prospect Orlando Arcia’s 2018 season was, to put it mildly, not a good one. The purported defensive wiz was anything but magical on that side of the ball last season, to say nothing of his league-worst 54 wRC+. If he again slumps out of the gate, the club can’t exactly look to Tyler Saladino or Hernan Perez to hold down the fort, especially given its question marks at second. A veteran backup capable of handling the bat against both sides (and, perhaps, handling second-base duties in a pinch as well) would be a perfect fit for the reigning division champs.
- Solidify the back end of the bullpen. An aging Cubs pen that struggled with the free pass last season faces further uncertainty at present, what with the loss of Jesse Chavez and the hazy future of closer Brandon Morrow, who’s found it nearly impossible to stay healthy for a full major-league season. Upper-minors reinforcements are scarce, so the club will likely have to dip into what little reserves it has or scour the fringes of the market for a bargain pickup.
- See if Jason Heyward’s albatross can be moved (with cash incentive). This is speculative, at best, but the Cubs have as few holes as any team in baseball, and still lurk at the edges of the Bryce Harper market. Finding a team willing to take on at least some of the $118.5MM still owed to Heyward could be just enough to lift the free-spending Cubbies to the Harper Sweepstakes’ fore; the club, after all, would still boast a number of capable right-field options for the upcoming campaign even if they were to deal Heyward and miss on the 26-year-old superstar.
- Add depth in the upper minors. Star-caliber graduations from 2015-17 have decimated a farm that was once the jewel of the National League. At current, the system offers little in the way of high-impact talent, which could be a major impediment to a big mid-season acquisition, should the Cubs be hit by injuries and/or ineffectiveness. Both Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber could be leveraged in this way – with multiple years of team control remaining for each, the prospect capital acquired could be, come July, the lone bullet(s) in the Cubbies’ gun.
St. Louis Cardinals
- Find a taker for Jose Martinez. Martinez has raked to the tune of a 130 wRC+ after years of uneven performance in the minors since debuting for the club in late 2016. The acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt, however, and the 30-year-old’s frightening defense in an outfield corner, make him a much better fit elsewhere, ideally on an AL club. Though the return might be insubstantial, even with his four years of team control remaining, it’ll likely add more value to the club than Martinez will as a part-time fill-in and occasional pinch-hitter.
- Continue to add to the bullpen. Despite possessing a hothouse of flame-throwers in the pen, the 2018 unit was arguably the NL’s worst (4.50 xFIP, 4.34 BB/9). The club took a major step to address the issue with last week’s signing of Andrew Miller, but it’s still a unit light on track record and heavy on control issues. The Giants’ Will Smith and Tony Watson, former Central stalwarts both, have each been linked with the Redbirds this month, and either could catapult the club to a place very near the projected top of the division.
- Add a lefty bat. In addition to the perennially-awesome Matt Carpenter, the Cards’ only other left-handed regulars are the mercurial Kolten Wong and the will-be 33-year-old Dexter Fowler, who often struggled to hit the ball out of the infield last season. The bench, too, is stacked mostly with solid right-handed hitters of all types – there is, it seems, scarcely a club out there in more dire need of left-handed infusion, and this one might need a couple.
- Add to the rotation. The unit, though possessing of four proven MLB arms, is arguably the division’s thinnest – after the 3-4 of Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams, the latter of whom has posted consecutive shaky-peripheral (4.54 xFIP, 6.64 K/9 in ’18) seasons, the club has little on which it can depend. Chad Kuhl, dreadful anyway in ’18, had Tommy John in September, and youngsters Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes showed little in their scattered opportunities. Top prospect Mitch Keller is close, but the team would be well-served to add a couple proven, back-end arms (in addition to the newly-signed Jordan Lyles, who’s spent much of the last three seasons as a reliever) to cover their backs.
- Find a shortstop. Following the departure of longtime Pirate Jordy Mercer, the club is left with just a combination of Kevin Newman and newly-acquired Erik Gonzalez at the position, neither of whom inspire much confidence on the offensive side. The Buccos have long prized defense at the position, and may indeed be content with a combination of the two, but a sub-70 wRC+ anywhere on the diamond is a gaping hole, regardless of defensive prowess.
- Assemble more depth on the bench. Gregory Polanco will already miss the first two months of the season, at the very least. If Starling Marte or Corey Dickerson incurs an injury, the club’s outfield mix will look exceptionally weak. Positional versatility, a hallmark of the successful Pirate teams of the mid-decade, is in short supply on the current version, and the club will need to bolster its depth if it harbors any real hope of contending in an increasingly difficult division.
- Make another impact move. The club, which for years has been an absentee on the free-agent market, and hadn’t made an industry-shaking acquisition since 2011’s trade for Mat Latos, has already announced its intention to contend this offseason, jettisoning far-away talent for short-term impact in a pair of December trades to acquire Tanner Roark, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp. But, given the quality of the Central, the returns aren’t nearly enough; the Reds are still at least seven, and perhaps closer to ten or twelve, wins away from seriously challenging for a playoff spot. Landing an elite-level talent via trade – which the club, with a throng of upper-level projected regulars on the farm, is certainly capable of doing – could catapult them squarely into the mix.
- Shore up center field. Following last week’s procurement of Kemp and Puig, the Reds are flush with outfield thump from both sides, but are still left without a true center fielder in their midst. It’s true that Great American Ballpark has less space in the outfield than most, and that the club has been successful with a decaying Shin-Soo Choo manning the position for much of a season, but the rotation is a contact-heavy one that will undoubtedly suffer with a subpar defender left free to roam. Top prospect Nick Senzel could be an option, but the club will likely be best-served to pluck its feast from outside the organization.
- Add depth to the bench/pen. Both units here are severely undernourished – an infusion would require perhaps three 85 FIP- or lower bullpen arms, and bench bats capable of handling multiple positions and offering adequate output at the plate. It’ll be a tall task to imbue the club with this much reinforcement, but a necessary one if Dick Williams, Nick Krall, and Co. hope to contend next season.