PHOENIX • Already one of baseball’s most tightly contested divisions, the National League Central is about to change as the most active club this winter could be the club, a hibernating financial bear, that has lagged behind the longest.
The Chicago Cubs, who haven’t had a winning season since 2009, are coming to the end of their reboot and are set to make a series of aggressive moves. The Cubs signed new manager Joe Maddon to a five-year, $25 million contract, they intend to pursue some of the market’s top free agents, they are in the mood to deal for a starter, and they are the most buzzed-about team by far at the general managers’ meetings this week at the Arizona Biltmore.
Club president Theo Epstein told reporters that the Cubs are “no longer the runt of the litter, I guess.” They have young talent ready to emerge. They have money to spend. And that leaves division rivals with one response.
“Well,” deadpanned Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty on Tuesday, “we’re all going to have to work harder. They’ve done a good job of developing young talent. I think they’re going to be in position to acquire pitching, which makes them stronger and much more competitive. … It’s going to be a very, very competitive division next year.
“It’s going to be harder to win.”
The Cubs, who own the division’s largest media market, have been dormant for several years as Epstein & Co. reshaped the roster around younger, cost-controlled prospects. While the Cardinals have won the division the past two seasons, the archrival Cubs have finished last. All that’s kept them from a longer stretch of last-place finishes was Houston. Just two years ago, in 2012, the NL Central had two 100-loss teams as the Cubs and Houston purposefully stripped their rosters for extreme makeovers. Much changed in the two years since, even if the Cubs’ results didn’t.
At the All-Star break this past summer, the NL Central had four teams within 3½ games of first place. No other division had more than two that closely bunched. The NL Central was the only team in the league with three winning teams, topped by the Cardinals’ 90-72 record. The Reds faded in the second half. But Milwaukee, which led the division for 150 days, didn’t even make the playoffs as the Cardinals and Pirates surpassed the Brewers in September.
All four have established cores returning.
The Cubs’ core is emerging, and fast.
“It is a competitive division,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said Tuesday at the Arizona Biltmore. “There are no doormats. Everybody is sort of on the uptick in terms of how they’re putting their teams together, how they’re looking at investing in their clubs. Look at the success and the direction the Cubs are going. Cincinnati gets healthy and you can imagine them winning a lot of games. Same thing with Milwaukee putting themselves back on the map last year. I can tell you this: Any time you go play within this division you take nothing lightly.”
The jockeying for position within the division is not limited to the standings, as there are already overlaps in the offseason. Jocketty identified outfielders Nori Aoki and Mike Morse as two of the free agents on his shopping list this winter. The Reds are looking for an offensive upgrade and everyday option in left field.
The Cardinals are also in the market for an outfielder – a right fielder who could also play first base. Both teams had interest in a player like Michael Cuddyer, who signed with the Mets on Monday. The Reds want durability for left field to go with production. The Cardinals are shopping for power, more of a Morse type than Aoki. Jocketty and Mozeliak have both described an interest in exploring the trade market for an outfielder in the coming month. Jocketty said those conversations are “in the early stages.”
The Cardinals’ preference remains a short-term boost for the lineup, a player who offers protection as much as production if the younger players the Cardinals intend to use – Matt Adams and Randal Grichuk, to name two – falter.
The Cardinals are also in the market for a pitcher who would reshape the look of the bullpen. Mozeliak met with the agents for lefty Andrew Miller on Tuesday evening. The market for Miller is active with teams like the Tigers and Yankees also expected to be interested. The Cardinals are just one of many teams that have the standard meeting with the agents long before a market crystallizes for a free agent like Miller.
The Cubs expect to have many meetings.
Having banked money over the past two last-place years, the Cubs enter this winter with the ability to pursue a top-tier pitcher, like lefty Jon Lester. They intend to woo catcher Russell Martin, the top available free agent at his position. Cardinals sinkerballer Justin Masterson is also a target for the Cubs.
Focused on developing young players like first baseman Anthony Rizzo and power-potentials Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, the Cubs saw many of them take strides toward the majors this past year, and that accelerated their calendar for contention. The chance to hire Maddon was the opening volley in what officials have described as an aggressive approach to the next 15 months.
“I think Anthony started it and deserves a lot of credit for that,” Epstein said. “And I echoed it a couple days later, and Joe saw us and raised us with the World Series (expectation) in his press conference. But I think it’s good. When you have young players and you’re transitioning to a phase when you’re being competitive, it’s important to identify winning as the only objective. We’re probably going to be the youngest team in the league again next year. And we’re going to be trying to win. Trying to win the division. Trying to do some damage.”
Epstein recently used the Cardinals as the reference point for the Cubs’ rehab. He said what he and general manager Jed Hoyer have attempted is to build “something that has a chance to go toe to toe with (the Cardinals) and surpass them.”
Since the Cubs last won the division, in 2008, the Cardinals have finished first or second in the NL Central every year. Only once in that stretch did the Cardinals not reach the playoffs. Three times they’ve finished second, twice behind the Reds and once behind the Brewers. The year they finished second to the Brewers, in 2011, they won the World Series. Rivals within the division have long viewed the Cubs as a sleeping pocketbook – a team that could flex more financial might than any other club in the division because of the market size and television-related benefits. The Cubs are counting on a new television deal and refurbished, updated Wrigley Field to fund spending that could start this winter.
As Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Tuesday: “Well-run clubs with huge budgets are tough to beat.”
The Cubs are coming.
The others intend to stay.
“I think we have a pretty good team,” Mozeliak said. “So being reactionary to what is happening in the neighborhood is something we’re certainly cognizant of, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to make a bad business decision to say we did something.”