We’re nearly halfway through what has been a vastly more active offseason than we saw in either of the past two winters. We’ve already checked in on the NL East, AL West, and AL Central. Next up: the National League Central.
Welp … it’s hard to know what to say here. If the baseball operations department is as hard up for cash as reports indicate, then it’s difficult to pinpoint opportunities that ought to be pursued. To this point, the Cubs have made only the cheapest of additions — Hernan Perez, Ryan Tepera, Brandon Morrow, Trevor Megill — while exploring significant trades — Kyle Schwarber? Willson Contreras? Yu Darvish? Kris Bryant?! Anthony Rizzo?!?! — that could set the stage for greater roster maneuverability. We don’t know where talks stand, but there’s no indication that a blockbuster is close to happening.
If and when the Cubs are able to free some resources, then they’ve certainly got holes to be filled. The team ought to bolster the back of the rotation, add one or more pieces to a highly uncertain bullpen mix, improve in center field, and figure out a way to put another big bat in the lineup. No doubt such a swap would accomplish one or more of those goals. Trouble is, any deal involving a highly paid, core player would create another opening — or, at least, inject some new uncertainty. It’s a tight balancing act that will put president of baseball ops Theo Epstein and co. to the test.
Sensing some vulnerability at the top of the division and tired of bringing up the rear, the Reds are pressing hard to win now. The club has done all it can in the rotation and filled its second base opening by signing Mike Moustakas. But it rather clearly hasn’t reached a stopping point if it really wants to maximize its chances at a 2020 postseason bid.
The Reds have irons in quite a few fires. They’ve already shown they can pull off a significant swap, having added Trevor Bauer at over the summer. But that cost a top prospect in Taylor Trammell, so it may be hard for the club to give up more significant young talent in trades. Trouble is, what’s left in free agency may not perfectly suit the Reds’ needs. Adding Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, or Corey Dickerson could make some sense, but the club has options in the corner outfield mix and may not see enough marginal gain to justify the cost.
What this team needs most is star-level performers up the middle. Nick Senzel is a valuable asset but may be mis-cast as a center fielder. Tucker Barnhart has a sterling defensive reputation behind the dish but doesn’t do much with the bat. And shortstop Freddy Galvis is better suited to utility work for a team with designs on winning a division. It’s possible to imagine marginal improvements in these areas through the addition of quality, semi-regular players — Shogo Akiyama, Jason Castro, Jose Iglesias — but that will also mean pushing other useful players off of the roster. Swinging a blockbuster may prove tricky, but will surely be the focus of the rest of the winter. It also wouldn’t hurt to add a veteran setup arm.
Roster churn is all part of the plan for GM David Stearns. The value-hunting Milwaukee baseball operations department didn’t chase the market on several departing free agents, preferring instead to seek the next buy-low opportunities while also swinging a pair of notable asset-shifting trades. The initial additions look solid from a value perspective. And they’ve been so voluminous that it’s fair to wonder how much work is really left to be done.
The Brewers aren’t overly focused on pitching roles, but could probably still stand to add arms. Hurlers such as Corbin Burnes, Brent Suter, Eric Lauer, Freddy Peralta, and Jake Faria could operate as short-outing starters, long-inning relievers, or as typical one-inning bullpen arms. That’s a fine strategy, but it’s one that depends upon digging up as many cost-efficient assets as possible. And it’s arguable the club ought to punctuate the unit by finding a way to add another premium pitcher to go with top starter Brandon Woodruff and ace reliever Josh Hader.
The Brewers currently project to come in well under last year’s $120MM+ payroll level. But you can bet they won’t spend money just to use up their budget. Stearns may at this point largely sit back, building out trade scenarios and scanning the bargain bin for finds.
Incoming GM Ben Cherington finds himself in a position not so different from the one that Stearns inherited a few years ago in Milwaukee. The Bucs don’t spend much, but they do have legitimate talent at the MLB level and in the upper levels of the pipeline, much like the pre-2016 Brew Crew. Cherington may follow the paths of Stearns and (former Cherington understudy) Mike Hazen of the Diamondbacks, both of whom have to this point found success — if not postseason glory — by eschewing both dramatic rebuilding and wild spending phases in favor of diligent, value-oriented roster maneuvering.
Presuming that sort of conceptual approach … well, we still don’t know what to expect. Cherington may not blow things up, per se, but he also surely won’t hesitate to move high-quality veteran players when it makes sense. Center fielder Starling Marte, reliever Kone Kela, and starter Chris Archer are the most obvious candidates; utilityman Adam Frazier and righty Joe Musgrove have reportedly drawn interest. If the trade offers meet or exceed the prices being paid in free agency, maybe Cherington will unleash an early-2020 onslaught of deals. But he really doesn’t have any veterans that he absolutely must move this winter.
As for additions, the team needs a long-term catcher first and foremost. It hasn’t settled on players at the 4-5-6 positions, but has plenty of internal options at or near the majors. Improving the rotation and bolstering the bullpen are theoretically desirable, but the focus will be on achieving value coming off of a rough 2019 campaign. Other buy-low desires will be dictated by which (if any) players are moved out via trade.
St. Louis Cardinals
At the moment, the Cards look exactly as they did when the 2019 season wrapped up, except without outfielder Marcell Ozuna and with lefty Kwang-Hyun Kim stepping into the shoes of Michael Wacha. There are, as always, a dozen or so outfield possibilities on hand. Perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect some number of them — including, eventually, top prospect Dylan Carlson — to fill in adequately for Ozuna. This mix worked to the tune of a division title in 2019, so there’s no particular reason to think it can’t succeed again.
It’s a bit difficult to pick out a remaining free agent (Josh Donaldson aside, anyway) and say that the St. Louis roster would be improved drastically through that player’s addition. Sure, the team would rather have Nicholas Castellanos than not, but at what price would it make sense over the existing pieces? If there’s a specific position that feels unresolved, it’s probably center field and its questionable combination of Harrison Bader, Randy Arozarena, and Lane Thomas. But that’s precisely the wrong area to add this winter, with the aforementioned Marte leading a meager list of good possibilities.
What the Cards could use more than anything, it seems, is something we’ve mentioned previously with regard to this roster: to consolidate some of their solid MLB assets into really good ones. As it stands, only Paul DeJong finished the 2019 season with 4 or more fWAR (in his case, driven by glovework). Getting quality for volume is a tricky thing to pull off; it’s more or less what the team attempted, with still-questionable results, in last year’s Paul Goldschmidt deal. But it’s what president of baseball ops John Mozeliak ought to be seeking to swing — at more or less any area of the roster — over the next two months.