For the better part of the 2000s, the St. Louis Cardinals owned the National League Central. If another team were to win the division, they would have to go through the Cards.
Now in 2017, the dynamic of the division is much different. There’s a new team atop the NL Central for the first time in a long time. A team that used to be known as the “lovable losers,” but they aren’t losing anymore.
Since the Chicago Cubs knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs in 2015, the Cubs have owned the Central Division. They have won two straight division crowns, one World Series and made another NLCS appearance in the past two seasons.
The Cubs are the best team in the NL Central. They know it. Everyone else knows it. And the other teams in the central, they are treating this winter with one thing in mind: Catch the Cubs.
Chicago Cubs (92-70 in 2017)
It’s no secret that the are without a doubt the deepest organization in the NL Central. If baseball allowed 13 players on the field at a time, the Cubs would have the best team in the majors.
With this depth—which by the way is mostly young depth—the Cubs have options. They could hold onto their prospects and continue to develop, or they could trade away some of those prospects/bench players and add proven MLB talent.
With rumors of Manny Machado being shipped out of Baltimore, the Cubs are one of the few teams that could afford to go after him. And even if he doesn’t sign long term after the season, they will still have the depth where it won’t be sink the franchise.
Biggest need: Sign/trade for pitchers
The Cubs have a crowded roster, but with the likely departure of Jake Arrieta to free agency, they need another starting pitcher. While pitchers like Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are available, the Cubs best route could be to trade for a pitcher.
In the coming years, the Cubs will have to shell out to sign guys like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras to long-term deals if they choose to take that route. Instead of signing a free agent pitcher now to an expensive contract, they could trade for a pitcher like Chris Archer who has multiple years of control for a bargain price.
Archer will be expensive, more expensive than Machado. But the Cubs have a luxury other teams don’t, which is the ability to trade away top prospects and even young, big league players and still have proven guys to replace them.
Trade for a starting pitcher, then go out and sign some free agent relievers to replace Wade Davis.
Milwaukee Brewers (86-76 in 2017)
Certainly the surprise of the Central division in 2017 was the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that preseason looked to be a fourth or fifth place finisher. The Brewers silenced all of the critics and were playoff contenders until the final few days of the season.
Milwaukee benefitted from breakout years from Eric Thames, Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana, and there’s no reason that their success won’t continue in 2018. While a number of bats flourished last season, the Brewers found a stud closer in Corey Knebel. Knebel boasted a 1.78 ERA to go along with 39 saves for the Brewers last season.
Biggest need: Starting pitching
With the Brewers in the thick of the playoff race last season, ace pitcher Jimmy Nelson partially tore his labrum not from throwing but from sliding back to first base as a baserunner. Nelson is expected to miss a chunk of the beginning of his 2018 campaign.
Nelson’s uncertain return leaves the Brewers in a difficult situation. The ideal solution would be for Milwaukee to find a cheap starting pitcher on the free agent market to fill in the void for the first part of the season.
Jaime Garcia, Andrew Cashner and John Lackey are a few names that could help the Brewers make it through the first half of the year with playoff hopes until Nelson returns.
St. Louis Cardinals (83-79 in 2017)
After years of NL Central dominance, the past few seasons have been hard to swallow for the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only has the team gone two consecutive seasons without a division title, they have watched the control of the division go to their rivals from the North, the Chicago Cubs.
The primary struggle for the Cardinals the past few seasons has been consistency. The lineup, rotation and bullpen has shown no consistency the past few seasons. That is something that St. Louis is actively looking to change in 2018.
A team that usually drafts well, builds prospects and boasts that new talent every season, the Cardinals have gone a different route this year. Under-the-radar players like Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong will likely not make an appearance this season. Instead GM John Mozeliak made an uncharacteristic move in trading for Miami Marlins star outfielder Marcell Ozuna, a power hitter that the Cardinals desperately needed.
Ozuna is a good start, but the Cardinals need to keep making moves if they want to catch the Cubs.
Biggest need: Pitching/Corner infielder
The Cardinals are in a similar situation as the Brewers, that being Card’s ace prospect Alex Reyes will likely not be ready for to be in the starting rotation come April. The Cardinals need to fill that spot while simultaneously trying to keep back-end, inning-eating pitcher Lance Lynn.
While filling the rotation, St. Louis is also looking for a corner infielder. Third base is currently open, but if the team decides to sign a first baseman, Matt Carpenter can seamlessly move over to the hot corner.
Former Kansas City Royals Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer seem like the two most likely candidates. Hosmer, a first baseman, would be the best fit with his stellar defense on a team that needs to improve defensively.
Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87 in 2017)
A couple years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates were serious contenders for the division crown. Fast forward two years, the Pirates find themselves at a difficult crossroad, and there are two options for the team to have success now or in the future.
The Pirates have the core pieces, assuming that they produce, to again be contenders in the NL Central. The Pirates have one of the most athletic outfields in Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. They have ace-pitcher Gerrit Cole and potential aces Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl in the rotation to compliment new-found closer Felipe Rivero.
The team needs infield help, but with a solid core can make a few moves to leapfrog them into contention.
Biggest need: Either go all in or start selling
The worst thing that the Pirates can do right now is settle right in the middle of buying and selling. They can win with a few more additions, but if they sell off a couple pieces and not all of them, they will find themselves again in the middle of the NL Central with no future plan in sight.
With how strong Chicago is, the best course of action might be to sell. Trade away McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Gerrit Cole and get as many prospects as possible. That’s the same thing the Houston Astros did a few years ago and it’s the same thing the Chicago White Sox are doing right now. From this juncture, it looks to be working for both teams.
Cincinnati Reds (68-94 in 2017)
With as strong as the NL Central is in the current climate, the Cincinnati Reds have only one option: sell. How far they dive into selling remains to be seen.
With such a rich baseball history and fan base, selling won’t be easy for the organization, but it’s necessary. Other teams that were bad at one time and sold have had success (Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox, eventually).
The team has some good young pieces already in Raisel Iglesias, Brandon Finnegan and Eugenio Suarez. Now it’s time to add to the list.
Biggest need: Prospects
It will be tough to trade away their franchise player in Joey Votto, but players like Billy Hamilton and Adam Duvall should draw interest from other teams.
The Reds will likely wait until the trade deadline, but Billy Hamilton is currently drawing looks from the San Francisco Giants, and if the Giants make the right offer, the Reds should pounce on the opportunity.
(Main photo credit:Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports)