The Cincinnati Reds captured the National League Central in 2012, but …
Editor’s Note: Baseball News Source provided a division-by-division series that address what teams might do this off-season in the American League and in the National League East. Here is our outlook on the National League Central.
For the second time in three years, the Cincinnati Reds captured the National League Central crown in 2012, but for the second consecutive season, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team from the NL Central that has seized the spotlight in the postseason.
The Reds and Cardinals appear poised to contend once more in 2013, yet the schedule for both clubs will be more competitive since the last place Houston Astros will move to the American League West next year so there will be one less rebuilding club in the division to kick around.
Milwaukee and Pittsburgh feature promising young core players, and with improved pitching both teams could become more formidable in 2013. Likely, the Chicago Cubs will replace Houston in the NL Central cellar since president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer continue to shed veterans, bolster the farm system and build around younger, high-ceiling names like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija.
Here is an analysis of what each team in the NL Central might do this offseason:
Yet again, the Cardinals edged their way into the playoffs – this time with the second wild card. It appears that St. Louis will not re-sign right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, but there is no reason to believe the rotation will not be deep and talented with the return of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter along with Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and promising young arms like Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller.
It is uncertain if 26-year-old left-hander Jaime Garcia will need surgery to repair his injured throwing shoulder, or if rehab will allow him to return to full strength. Garcia has a rotator cuff and inflammation, and Dr. James Andrews suggested he opt for the rehab route instead of going under the knife. If the sholder does not show progress in a few weeks, Garcia could undergo surgery, which would cause him to miss a portion of the 2013 campaign.
St. Louis is in the enviable position of having core veteran players like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina under contract next season and featuring a lineup that includes productive young players like David Freese, Peter Kozma, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig, John Jay, Skip Schumacher and Matt Carpenter who are under long-term team control.
Free agent to be Lohse is a National League Cy Young Award candidate, and Lance Berkman is a free agent as well, but the Cardinals have the depth to withstand their losses and have the payroll flexibility to add a key bat and/or starting pitcher this offseason.
At 97-65, the Reds finished one game behind Washington for the best record in the National League. yet, for the second team in three years, they lost in the NLDS. They were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010 and this October they took a 2-0 lead against San Francisco back to Cincinnati and saw the Giants win all three games at the Great American Ballpark.
Despite the disappointing performance in the NLDS, the Reds signed manager Dusty Baker to an extension. Like the Cardinals, Cincinnati has key core players under contract, including first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips, each of whom are signed to long-term deals.
Four key members of a solid starting rotation – Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey – are under contract in 2013 as is most of the bullpen, which was a strength for the Reds this season.
The Reds will have to decide if they want to retain free agent Jonathan Broxton. Ryan Madson, who was signed last offseason to serve as the closer but missed the year when he underwent Tommy John surgery, has an $11 million mutual option and a 2.5 million buyout. Since Aroldis Chapman emerged as a quality closer and the Reds also have left-hander Sean Marshall, they could decide to bring back Broxton and exercise the buyout on Madson.
Scott Rolen‘s contract will fall off the books and the veteran third baseman will reportedly retire, opening the hot corner for Todd Frazier, who was one of the key reasons why the Reds lineup remained productive even with Votto and Rolen missing long stretches of the season.
Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who hit .275 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI, will likely decline his part of a $5 million mutual option for 2013 and seek a multi-year deal with the Reds or another club.
It appeared that the Brewers were building for the future when they saw Prince Fielder depart for a megadeal with Detroit last offseason and then shipped right-handed starting pitcher Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels at the non-waiver trade deadline. The pesky team remained in the hunt for a second wild card into late September, though, giving Milwaukee fans reason for optimism in 2013.
Reliever Francisco Rodriguez and starting pitcher Shaun Marcum are key free agents, but core players like Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Corey Hart, Jonathan Lucroy, Norichika Aoki, and Rickie Weeks remain under contract as does ace Yovani Gallardo and closer John Axford.
The Brewers will seek rotation depth this offseason, though they have promising young arms like top prospects John Hellweg (who the Brewers obtained in the Greinke deal), Tyler Thornburg and Wily Peralta as well as Mike Fiers.
The club could decide to land a first baseman with just one year remaining on Hart’s contract, or they cold give 24-year-old Hunter Morris a chance. Morris, a first baseman, hit .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBI at Double-A Huntsville this season.
Jean Segura, who was the key player Milwaukee received in the package for Greinke, appears to be the long-term solution at shortstop.
After contending in the first half, the Pirates posted yet another sub-.500 season in 2012. Yet there is reason for optimism because of core players like 2012 NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, first baseman Garrett Jones, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Starling Marte.
The Pirates could use an upgrade in right field, unless they prefer to play Jones there instead of 24-year-old Travis Snider (who was long considered a top prospect by Toronto but has yet to realize his potential and was traded to Pittsburgh over the summer). The Pirates also have two former top prospects in other organizations – Gaby Sanchez and Jeff Clement – who could play first base if the Pirates trade Jones or move him to right field.
As early as 2013, Pittsburgh is a club that could be rich in starting pitching. Veterans A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are under contract, and promising young names like Jeff Locke and uber prospects such as Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon give Pirates fans hope for a rotation that can rival St. Louis.
As long as the Pirates can craft a reliable bullpen and keep core position players under contract for the long term, they could be a contender as soon as the young pitching develops.
The Cubs unloaded veterans like Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Geovany Soto this season and Epstein and Hoyer would undoubtedly like to find takers for Alfonso Soriano, Bryan Lahair and perhaps even Matt Garza if he is healthy.
The future of the Cubs centers around Castro, Rizzo, Samardzija, second baseman Darwin Barney and top prospects like infielder Javier Baez, outfileders Jorge Soler and Matt Szczur, right-hander Arodys Vizcaino and third baseman Christian Villaneuva.
Hoyer did tell reporters that the team will look to upgrade the rotation this offseason, and that could signal they plan to keep Garza and build around him and Samardzija.