'Twas the morning of Christmas, and all through the National League Central not a team had the standings stirring, except maybe the Reds.
The Brewers have been busy and the Cubs have been chatty, but both are still ghosts of their division titles past. The Pirates, tired from treading water and weighted down by the chains of poor decisions, appear ready to take the plunge. Cincinnati, surfacing from a rebuild, is plundering rival rosters and rattling the offseason as a specter of the division’s future. The reigning NL Central champion Cardinals were the last of the 30 teams to make an outside addition to their 40-man roster, and presently still are haunted by a lack of offense.
In the spirit of the offseason and the start of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve made a list, and checked it thrice, of the gifts the Cardinals and their rivals need to make 2020 merry and bright. Leave the piping to the pipers, the drumming to the drummers, and the egg-laying to the NL West.
Here’s how each of the NL Central teams goes a-leaping into a New Year:
… SEVEN SEASONS O’ SLUGGER …
The Cubs, cash-strapped but still talent rich, are awaiting an arbitration decision on whether they unfairly manipulated Kris Bryant’s service time to secure a seventh season of control. If they win, Bryant won’t be a free agent until after 2021. A loss means this summer could be their last with the former MVP.
Either way, the Cubs have been open to trading Bryant in order to free up as much as $18 million and supercharge a depleted farm system. Two more years of control make Bryant more appealing to interested teams who then would pay a premium price in prospects, which would be a boon for the Cubs. One more year shifts the urgency to the Cubs to get something before they’re possibly left with nothing more than a draft pick.
All of this happens as the Cubs are ready to welcome a new manager (former catcher David Ross), launch a new television network (Marquee Sports Network), and wonder whatever happened to their dynasty.
For now, they are in the same situation regarding the division as they are with Bryant – in limbo.
… FOUR STALLING YEARS …
After a four-year absence from the postseason from an organization that seems to have whiffed on its window to win, Pittsburgh ownership saw a listing, rotted ship and threw almost everybody overboard. Now it must ask its fans, who once had visions of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole dancing on their field, for a few more years of patience.
Team president Travis Williams, general manager Ben Cherington, and rookie manager Derek Shelton were hired this winter to be three wiser men when it comes to competing despite having one of the lower payrolls in the league and also refreshing a club’s culture. They inherit a pitching staff that had the worst ERA of an NL team outside of Denver and a lineup that slugged a miserly 163 homers.
Outfielder Starling Marte is an appealing trade piece if the Bucs can time the move right and maximize the return. At least that move, some move, will show that the Pirates, the first team in the division to tank in awhile, have a rudder – and a course heading.
… THREE FRESH ARMS …
When the Brewers arrived at the winter meetings, they had nine open spots on their 40-man roster, far more than any other team, and they watched free agents Yasmani Grandal, Jordan Lyles, and Mike Moustakas leave as free agents for deals totaling $143 million.
A makeover was mandatory. They signed six free agents in the span of a week, adding several infielders they needed and sleeper slugger Avisail Garcia. But they also quietly did something more dramatic — reshape their rotation. Through creativity and the wizardry of manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers have reached the playoffs the past two seasons without a robust starting staff.
Of the seven pitchers with at least 10 starts in 2019, five are gone, subtracting 65 percent of last summer’s 162 starts. Into those openings, Milwaukee has added Josh Lindblom (from Korea) and two lefties, Eric Lauer (from the Padres) and Brett Anderson (free agent). The Brewers have made a lot of moves, but it’s unclear if they’ve improved. This trio will tell us.
… TWO OUTFIELD GLOVES …
Really, the gloves are optional. The Reds need a few sockin’ stuffers. Despite calling home to one of the game’s coziest ballparks, Cincinnati scored the fewest runs in the division this year. The Reds’ on-base percentage plummeted and former MVP Joey Votto had a career-low .768 OPS.
The frost-bit offense undercut the revolution of Reds’ pitching, which should be superb again. The Reds advertised a spending spree this winter and started by borrowing from Milwaukee’s approach to grab a bat and find a place for the glove — literally. Former Brewer Moustakas signed a four-year, $64-million deal to play somewhere and hit everywhere for the Reds.
And they may not be done poaching from rivals. Cincinnati has courted free agent and former Cardinal Marcell Ozuna to do some wall-banging in left — against it as a fielder, over it as a hitter. That second outfielder, perhaps someone to go thump in right, could come from within, such as Nick Senzel or Jesse Winker. That will add some needed lineup jingle to a team that already has the Bells, manager David and exec Buddy.
… AND, SOME DAMAGE BEHIND GOLDY …
What do you get the team that says it already has everything? The Cardinals’ patient, practical, scrupulous approach to the offseason has been a Grinch on the holiday hopes of a fan base that saw a talented free-agent supermarket and a clear hole in the sock of their team’s lineup.
The Cardinals scored the fewest runs of the 10 playoff teams this year and needed their arms to carry the club to a division title. Not one of the top four spots in the batting order had an OPS greater than the league average. The one that came closest belonged to cleanup hitter Ozuna. The Cardinals remain in talks with Ozuna about a reunion, but without an obvious replacement his departure could leave the lineup two sizes too small.
The Cardinals have been intrigued by Nolan Arenado before, but Colorado’s asking price has been exorbitant — and now so too is Arenado’s contract. Trades already have proven tricky. The free-agent pool has Ozuna and options such as Corey Dickerson. The question is, Who? Like Pujols celebrating Holliday, No. 3 hitter Paul Goldschmidt benefits from a slugger who has his back. A force multiplier would help the Cardinals discover the true meaning of middle-order production and see their offense grow three sizes.
With the pitching they have and have added, it might even be enough to push them beyond a second consecutive division title to their true love.
Go ahead, sing along.
A 12th golden ring.