The National League Central saw one team break out and sent another to the World Series in 2013. It wasn’t the busiest division this offseason, but all five teams did bring in some fresh faces and some saw key pieces leave for greener pastures. It doesn’t appear that the divisional hierarchy will be changing much if at all in the upcoming year and the St. Louis Cardinals still stand out as the club to beat with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds not that far behind.
Let’s take a look at what each club did during the 2013-14 offseason.
|St. Louis Cardinals | 2013: 97-65
The Cardinals showed no signs of slowing down after the retirement of legendary manager Tony La Russa prior to the 2013 season. First year manager Mike Matheny helped lead the team to their second World Series appearance in three years, although they would lose to the Boston Red Sox in six games. Their 783 runs scored were the third most in baseball while their 596 runs allowed were the fifth fewest.
Jhonny Peralta, SS — 3.6 fWAR | Signed four-year, $53 million deal
Mark Ellis, 2B — 1.8 fWAR | Signed two-year, $5.25 million deal
Aledmys Diaz, IF — Played in Cuba | Signed four-year, $8 million deal
Pat Neshek, RP — -0.3 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
Peter Bourjos, OF — 1.1 fWAR | Acquired with OF Randal Grichuk via trade with Los Angeles Angels in exchange for 3B David Freese and RHP Fernando Salas
Carlos Beltran, OF — 2.0 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with New York Yankees
John Axford, RP — -0.5 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Cleveland Indians
Edward Mujica, RP — 0.0 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Boston Red Sox
Chris Carpenter, SP — 4.5 fWAR (2011) | Retired
Rafael Furcal, SS — 0.7 fWAR (2012) | Signed free-agent contract with Miami Marlins
Jake Westbrook, SP — -0.2 fWAR | Retired
One of the few constants in baseball the last several seasons has been the success of the St. Louis Cardinals and that’ll be no different in the upcoming season. They filled their only real hole at shortstop with the signing of Peralta who also provides an offensive boost over Pete Kozma who manned the position last year. The departure of Freese allows the club to shift Matt Carpenter over to third and slot Kolten Wong in to the everyday second baseman role.
Defensively, the outfield is much improved with Bourjos in the fold and he’ll line up with the big bats of Matt Holliday and Allen Craig to his left and right. One can’t forget about the importance of backstop Yadier Molina who’s been one of the best all around players in baseball over the past several seasons. The Cuban infielder Diaz will begin his North American career at Double-A and has an outside chance of seeing some major league time before the end of the season.
The pitching depth owned by the Cardinals could make nearly every team envious. Lead by the always dependable Adam Wainwright, the young trio of Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Shelby Miller fill out a rotation that figures to once again be a key part of the Cards’ success this season. Lefty Jaime Garcia could also play an important role if he’s able to recover from a shoulder injury and pitch effectively once again. Adding fireballers Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez to the rotation was discussed this winter, but the pair will anchor the bullpen again in 2014.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more complete team on paper than the St. Louis Cardinals right now. They’ll still need some bounces to go their way, but there’s no reason not to think they’ll be partaking in October baseball once again this year.
|Pittsburgh Pirates | 2013: 94-68
The years of futility and rebuilding have finally paid off for the Pirates who produced their highest win total since the early 90’s. At 3.26, their team ERA was the third lowest in all of baseball and the 577 runs they allowed were the second fewest. Their offence was slightly below average however, and only managed to produce 634 runs in 2013.
Edinson Volquez, SP — 0.4 fWAR | Signed one-year, $5 million deal
Travis Ishikawa, 1B — -0.3 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
Chris Dickerson, OF — 0.5 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
Chris Stewart, C — 0.5 fWAR | Acquired via trade with New York Yankees in exchange for RHP Kyle Haynes
AJ Burnett, SP — 4.0 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Philadelphia Phillies
Justin Morneau, 1B — 0.8 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Colorado Rockies
Marlon Byrd, OF — 4.1 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Philadelphia Phillies
Michael McKenry, C — -0.3 fWAR | Signed minor league deal with Colorado Rockies
Garrett Jones, 1B/OF — -0.3 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Miami Marlins
The Pirates burst on to the scene in a big way last year and the challenge in 2014 will be proving they weren’t just a fluke. Burnett’s decision to sign with the Phillies will definitely hurt the Pirates’ rotation to some extent and they’ll miss his leadership, but the club has brought on another reclamation project of sorts with Volquez who could once again be a capable mid-rotation starter behind Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. Pitchers Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez figure to fill out the rest of the rotation that has plenty of options available including the young Jameson Taillon who could be available later this year.
National League MVP Andrew McCutchen leads the offence once again with Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez within his supporting cast. Catcher Russell Martin proved to be an indispensable piece of the Pirates team last year both offensively and defensively and will be expected to do so once again in 2014. The departures of Morneau and Byrd will hurt the club but they are replaceable. Not that the club did much to bring in replacements, however.
It’s hard to see exactly how the Pirates will be better in 2014, but even if they’re able to maintain their 2013 output they should find themselves within reach of a playoff spot again. For Pittsburgh, their success will likely come down to whether or not the rotation can stay healthy and the always vulnerable Liriano can stay off the disabled list and on the mound.
|Cincinnati Reds | 2013: 90-72|
It was a disappointing end to Dusty Baker‘s managerial career as he retired following the 2013 campaign; pitching coach Bryan Price takes over as manager. The Reds did little to improve on the 698 runs they scored last season although the 589 runs they gave up were the fourth fewest in baseball. The club has made the playoffs in three of the past four year and still has a good chance of making noise in the year ahead.
Skip Schumaker, 2B/OF — -1.0 fWAR | Signed two-year, $5.5 million deal
Brayan Pena, C — 0.2 fWAR | Signed two-year, $2.275 million deal
Jeff Francis, SP/RP — 0.5 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
Chien-Ming Wang, SP — -0.1 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
Roger Bernadina, OF — -0.6 fWAR | Signed minor-league contract
David Holmberg, SP — minors | Acquired from Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-way trade that sent C Ryan Hanigan to the Tampa Bay Rays
Shin-Soo Choo, OF — 5.2 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Texas Rangers
Bronson Arroyo, SP — 0.8 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Arizona Diamondbacks
Cesar Izturis, SS — -0.3 fWAR | Signed minor-league deal with Houston Astros, opted-out to free agency
Ryan Hanigan, C — 0.0 fWAR
Zach Duke, RP — 0.0 fWAR | Signed minor-league deal with Milwaukee Brewers
The biggest move made by the Reds this winter was locking up their ace, Homer Bailey, to a six-year $105 million extension. Bailey will once again be joined by Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake in the rotation and the up-and-coming Tony Cingrani. Mat Latos will be the other regular member of the rotation but isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from a knee injury.
On paper the bullpen appeared to be a strong point heading into 2014, but now that Aroldis Chapman is sidelined for an extended period of time after taking a line drive to the face in a scary incident this past week, it suddenly appears ordinary considering Jonathan Broxton will also start the season on the disabled list while he recovers from an elbow-related injury. Guys like JJ Hoover and Manny Parra will have to bear the extra load in the pen until the others return.
Offensively the Reds will be lead by slugger Joey Votto who’s supporting cast includes outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Brandon Phillips. Todd Frazier has quietly become a key cog in the lineup as he enters his third season in the majors as well as his partner on the left side of the infield, Zack Cozart. Rookie outfielder Billy Hamilton could also play a big roll in the offence as he looks to wreck havoc on the base paths.
Although the team did little to improve and the loss of Choo will hurt, the club does have a decent chance at making a playoff run if everything goes right and their rotation is able to sustain their health.
|Milwaukee Brewers | 2013: 74-88
The Brewers have had their ups and downs over the past several seasons as their payroll limitations have resulted in the likes of CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder leaving town for bigger contracts. They’ve managed to find ways to stay competitive though and their 74 wins this past year was their lowest since 2006. The 640 runs they scored and the 687 runs they allowed in 2013 were both right around the league average marks.
Matt Garza, SP — 2.2 fWAR | Signed four-year, $50 million deal
Francisco Rodriguez, RP — 0.3 fWAR | Signed one-year, $3.25 million deal
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B — 0.4 fWAR Signed $2 million, minor league contract
Lyle Overbay, 1B — 0.0 fWAR | Signed $1.5 million, minor league contract
Will Smith, RP — 0.5 fWAR | Acquired via trade with Kansas City Royals in exchange for OF Norichika Aoki
Corey Hart, OF/DH — 2.1 fWAR (2012) | Signed free-agent contract with Seattle Mariners
Norichika Aoki, OF — 1.7 fWAR
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS — -1.8 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Orix Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League
Alex Gonzalez, SS — -1.1 fWAR | Signed minor league deal with Baltimore Orioles
Burke Badenhop, RP — 0.3 fWAR | Acquired via trade with Boston Red Sox in exchange for LHP Luis Ortega
Michael Gonzalez, RP — -0.6 fWAR | Signed minor league deal with Washington Nationals; Released
With most of the Ryan Braun drama now in the past, the Brewers can regain complete focus on making their way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Alongside outfielder Carlos Gomez, the pair will look to regain their place as one of the best one-two punches in any major league lineup. Although he’s been around for a while now, Aramis Ramirez can still hit and likely has enough left in the tank for a couple more productive seasons. The loss of Aoki will hurt, but Milwaukee is high on Khris Davis and they just might have something really good with him.
For the second year in a row the Brewers capitalized on a free agent starter who’s market was hindered due to the qualifying offer hanging over their heads. A year ago it was Kyle Lohse, this year it was Garza who comes to town on a four-year pact with an option for a fifth year. It’ll take Yovani Gallardo finding his old form and potentially big years out of Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta for the rotation to be playoff worthy once again.
If the NL Central wasn’t loaded with teams like the Pirates and Cardinals the Brewers would probably be a strong contender for a playoff spot, especially with their offseason improvements, but considering the teams ahead of them on paper, a Wild Card spot may be just out of reach in 2014.
|Chicago Cubs | 2013: 66-96
Chicago has found themselves in a complete rebuild so their poor record in 2013 wasn’t a shock, but management and fans were hoping that the corner would’ve been turning down a more positive route by now. Offensively the Cubs were third worst in the league with only 602 runs scored but did hit the ninth most home runs with 172. On the pitching side of things, the club allowed 689 runs which was just above what the average club allowed in 2013.
Jose Veras, RP — 0.7 fWAR | Signed one-year, $4 million deal
Jason Hammel, SP — 0.7 fWAR | Signed one-year, $6 million deal
Wesley Wright, RP — 0.0 fWAR | Signed one-year, $1.425 million deal
James McDonald, SP — 0.1 fWAR | Signed one-year, $1 million deal
Ryan Sweeney, OF — 1.1 fWAR | Signed two-year, $3.5 million deal
George Kottaras, C — 0.7 fWAR | Acquired via trade with Kansas City Royals in exchange for cash considerations
Emilio Bonifacio, 2B/OF — 0.6 fWAR | Signed minor league contract
Chris Coghlan, OF — -0.5 fWAR | Signed minor league contract
Justin Ruggiano, OF 0.9 fWAR | Acquired via trade with Miami Marlins in exchange for OF Brian Bogusevic
Jonathan Sanchez, SP — -0.7 fWAR | Signed minor league contract
Dioner Navarro, C — 1.7 fWAR | Signed free-agent contract with Toronto Blue Jays
Scott Baker, SP — 2.8 fWAR (2011) | Signed minor league deal with Seattle Mariners; Released
Brian Bogusevic, OF — 1.0 fWAR
Cubs fans don’t need to be reminded about how long it’s been since the club won a World Series title, and it looks like they’ll have to wait at least another year before that will change. Both Hammel and Veras represent low-risk veteran additions that will help to stabilize a young pitching staff. Hammel joins Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson in the rotation that will also feature a young Travis Wood who is coming off of somewhat of a breakout season in 2013. Veteran Carlos Villanueva rounds out the rest of a solid, but unspectacular rotation.
The middle infield duo of Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro hasn’t quite lived up to all the hype they had garnered previously and both are coming off down years in 2013. First baseman Anthony Rizzo now has a full year of major league experience under his belt and could be poised for a breakout season in the year ahead. Whether or not the trio of infielders can put it all together in 2014 could determine a lot of the success of the Cubs in 2014 and beyond. Castro is the only one signed to a long term deal, but the other two could be prime candidates for an extension in the near future.
It looks like 2014 will be another step in the direction towards contention for Chicago as their core players gain more experience and prospects like Mike Olt figure to make their debuts. Perhaps the biggest story to watch this year will be whether or not Samardzija is moved by this year’s July trade deadline or not until next winter, but either way, it looks like it’ll be another long year for the Cubbies.
*All player WAR’s shown are via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.