Pitchers and catchers have done reported, y’all. Real baseball is just around the corner, so it’s that time where we take a look and proudly declare who won or lost the offseason before actual baseball does its thing and makes us all realize how naive and foolish we once were. For teams that appear to be attempting to contend, we’ll be looking at whether the moves they made should help them do so. For rebuilding teams, we’ll be looking at whether they are getting enough for the players they are trading away. And then there are the teams that don’t seem to know what they’re doing or otherwise don’t fit into either of those categories, but don’t worry, we’ll address them, too. Today we’re covering the NL Central, but, in case you missed it: here are the articles on the NL West and the AL West.
The Cubs may have broken the curse and won it all last year, but that doesn’t mean you get to sit the offseason out. Nope, you have to get right back to work on winning the world series next year (unless you’re the Marlins, of course). The Cubs had some notable departures, both through free agency (Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman) and through non-exercise of options (Jason Hammel), so how did they fare in terms of setting themselves up for a run at back-to-back titles?
The first move of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and company’s victory-lap offseason was to sign Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million deal. With the departure of Fowler for their division rival Cardinals (to be discussed below), they lost their everyday center fielder, leadoff hitter and one of their most valuable players, who hit .276/.393/.447 (for a 126 OPS+) and graded out averagely defensively to be worth 4.2 bWAR/4.7 fWAR. You have to add up the last four seasons of Jay’s WAR to get to that level, so this is obviously a downgrade on the part of the Cubs. After a very down 2015 (.210/.306/.257, 56 OPS+ and a wrist surgery), Jay rebounded somewhat in 2016 prior to suffering a HBP and ended up hitting .291/.339/.389 over 374 PAs. That was, however, with a .371 BABIP and, while Jay has always run out higher than normal BABIPs, that was his highest to date and an upward trend is unlikely to continue as he starts his 32-year old season.
The real upside of adding Jay to the lineup was that the Cubs now had an abundance of outfielders, which they used to turn Jorge Soler into Wade Davis later in the offseason in a trade with the Royals. With Chapman off the books, Chicago was losing their closer and, given the way that last season played out, probably didn’t want to fall behind in the burgeoning relievers arm race. Instead of handing out a ridiculous contract for Chapman, Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon, though, they flipped an outfielder who was a highly touted prospect but had failed to produce above an average level in MLB that they didn’t really have a use for anymore in Soler. In return, they received the most dominant relievers in baseball, albeit one who comes with some health concerns, in Davis. Whether you think the trade was a pure win for the Cubs or the kind that potentially works for both sides, it certainly wasn’t anything but a smart move by the Cubs given the cost of acquiring elite closers these days.
The Cubs also signed Koji Uehara to a one-year, $6 million deal just a week later, further shoring up their bullpen for 2017. While Uehara will celebrate his 42nd birthday on the day of the Cubs’ season opener, he was still a valuable arm for the the Red Sox in 2016, despite some unpleasant trends (especially a velocity decrease and home run increase), and is a smart gamble to continue being relatively effective at that price point given the going rate for proven relievers today, even if his days as a closer are behind him. In lesser moves, the Cubs also signed Brian Duensing and traded outfield prospect Donald Dewees Jr. to the Royals for Alec Mills to provide some other potential relief options.
While the relief changes certainly strengthened the bullpen, which was the Cubs’ lone Achilles heel until the arrival of Chapman midseason in 2016, the starting pitching changes aren’t as clearly stacked in their favor. After failing to exercise Hammel’s option this offseason (purportedly due to clubhouse concerns related to Hammel’s relationship with manager Joe Maddon), the Cubs had less depth than they did last year. While the Cubs’ rotation was unquestionably one of the best in baseball, it was also unquestionably the most healthy, as as all but six starts came from the rotation they had penciled in at the start of the season (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Hammel).
While Hammel was the least effective member of that group, he was still an excellent candidate for a fifth starter. He was ostensibly replaced by some combination of (1) the promotion of Mike Montgomery from the bullpen (who has been excellent in relief but is a converted starter for a reason), (2) the signing of Brett Anderson (who has been excellent at times, but has always had health issues throughout his career) and (3) the trade of prospect James Farris to the Rockies in exchange for Eddie Butler (in the hopes that a change of scenery away from the hellscape of Coors Field will allow him to find his first-round pedigree which has yet to manifest). While Hammel will certainly be missed, the Cubs were also probably wise not to overpay for starting pitching when we’re talking about a fifth starter and they’ll just hope that they figure something out with the ragtag group they have and that their other starters stay healthy.
All in all, it’s tough to really say the Cubs improved this offseason, other than coming into the season with a stronger bullpen compared to how they started 2016. Then again, they won 103 games and the World Series, so they could probably afford to lose Fowler and strengthen the bullpen in less expensive ways while giving them room to be more flexible financially in the future. The core is here for a while and while, it was probably a better move long-term to hold off on any big contracts until a better crop of free agents hits the market. The moves that the Cubs made this offseason don’t really make them look much better, but they don’t really look that much worse either.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have had a relatively quiet offseason. They literally had zero transactions in the month of January. Zero. The biggest news was the aforementioned Fowler signing, the penalties imposed on them by MLB for the Astros hacking scandal and, just this week, the unfortunate news that Alex Reyes will miss the entirety of the 2017 season as he will undergo Tommy John surgery. The loss of their top pitching prospect before Spring Training games even start is brutal for the organization (and for fans of baseball in general). That being said, let’s move on to see how they did with the few moves they did make.
With Matt Holliday’s seven-plus seasons in St. Louis coming to an end after two down years, there was an obvious hole to fill in the outfield. A year after the Cubs signed Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals, St. Louis decided to return the favor by stealing Fowler away from Chicago. Fowler is coming off if the best season of his nine-year career, thanks in part to a better-than-average year at the plate, but mainly to a large uptick in his defensive ratings that came as a result of repositioning him further back in centerfield.
The 30-year old Fowler secured a five-year deal worth $82.5 million with full no-trade protection. Fowler has been a remarkably consistent hitter throughout his career, never straying too far from his career .268/.366/.422 line. His skillset as a hitter is likely to age well, so the real question is whether his defensive value will determine how much value St. Louis gets out of the contract.
In discussing the signing, we would be remiss not to point out the good ol’ Cardinal Devil Magic at play. At the time of the signing, he cost the Cardinals their first draft pick, the 19th pick overall, but it turned out they would have lost that pick anyway. MLB’s punishment meted out for the Cardinals’ hacking of the Astros cost them their first two draft picks, so they lose picks numbers 56 and 75 instead of 19 and 56.
Literally the only other moves of import were the signing of lefty reliever Brett Cecil and the trade with the Braves that sent Jaime Garcia to Atlanta in exchange for prospects RHP Chris Ellis, RHP John Gant and 2B Luke Dykstra. In a testament to how insane the price of relief pitching has gotten this offseason, the Cardinals had to give Cecil a four-year, $30.5 million deal to procure his services. While Cecil has been dominant over the last four years in Toronto (141 ERA+, 11.5 K/9), the fact that a 30-year old setup man who missed a month and half is getting this kind of contract speaks for itself.
Lastly, the Cardinals dealt Garcia. While Garcia struggled last year (4.67 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 88 ERA+), he’s only a year removed from being a remarkably consistent fixture in St. Louis’s rotation. Of course, at the time the made the trade, they were dealing from a position of strength, which is a little more tenuous after the loss of Reyes. Don’t worry though, the Cardinals turn prospects into MLB players the way Melisandre creates shadow demons, so we’ll probably see at least two of these players in this the NLCS soon.
It’s certainly not easy to say what the endgame is if you’re the Cardinals or the Pirates in the NL Central. It would take an epic collapse on the part of the Cubs to allow for the anyone else in the division to have what it takes to make a run at them. If that were to happen, then the Cards wouldn’t even need to be that aggressive and, as a mid-market team in a down year for free agents, that seems like a wise move. The Fowler signing seems like a reasonable move and, while it’s tough to see the Redbirds winning the division, they look like they’re in a position to make a run at a play-in game, which seems to be the name of the game for the not-Cubs in the NL Central right now.
If it’s tough to figure out the smartest way for the Cardinals to proceed right now, then it’s even tougher for the the team in Pittsburgh that is facing the same problems in terms of the Cubs, but has the additional issue of having way less payroll to play with than their rivals in St. Louis. The Pirates predictably spent less money this offseason than the other teams in the NL Central who are attempting to contend, but did they spend it well?
The biggest move of Pittsburgh’s offseason was re-signing Ivan Nova to a three-year deal that guarantees the right hander will receive $26 million and can earn up to $6 million in incentives. Nova was clearly one of the best starter options available on the market this offseason, which speaks to the quality of pitching available, as we’re talking about a career 98 ERA+ pitcher who has only reached 170 innings once in six seasons and has already undergone Tommy John surgery. That being said, Nova thrived after coming over to Pittsburgh via a trade last season. Pitching Coach Ray Searage sprinkled his pitcher pixie dust on Nova and he started throwing strikes instead of walking everybody and as result went from a 4.90 ERA/89 ERA+ to a 3.06 ERA/137 ERA+ after the move.
The normal state of affairs is that Searage fixes a pitcher and then said pitcher heads for greener pastures and more greenbacks elsewhere. In this instance, though, it seems that concerns about Nova’s durability allowed the Pirates to keep him at a very reasonable price. Considering what the going rate for league-average innings eaters these days, signing Nova for three years at this price is a steal, and probably one of the better moves of the offseason.
The only other real move Pittsburgh made to improve was signing free agent righty reliever Daniel Hudson to a two-year, $11 million deal. Hudson, like Nova, is also a Tommy John recoverer. His numbers on the year are fairly lackluster (5.22 ERA, 84 ERA+), but he was excellent down the stretch and a large percentage of that was due to one terrible stretch mid-summer. The fact that he sported a .577 BABIP in July during that stretch and that his FIP on the year was 3.81 suggests that he has much more upside and this, again, looks like a smart move on the part of the Pirates to shore up their bullpen.
And then there were only two other relatively minor moves: (1) Trading cash or a PTBNL to the Twins for a lottery ticket in the form of Pat Light, a hard throwing pitcher with serious control issues. (2) Trading Frank Duncan, a 25 year old RHP prospect who just reached AAA ball and doesn’t have top notch stuff, to the Diamondbacks for Phil Gosselin, a perfectly acceptable utility infielder.
There has been plenty of talk that Pittsburgh was shopping Andrew McCutchen this offseason, but didn’t happen because they didn’t get the return they were looking for. Selling low on a superstar after the first and only down year of his career probably wouldn’t be a good idea, so unless they were going to get blown away in a trade, there was no way that would be a smart move on GM Neal Huntington’s part. Hoping that Cutch has a better 2017, rebuilds some value and then trading him for a bigger haul at the deadline in the event that things don’t break the Pirates way this season seems like a much better bet if you’re going to get rid of your star. Also, cue sad face emoji for everything about this paragraph.
Again, as with the Cardinals, it’s tough to say that Pittsburgh really screwed up this offseason since they don’t have a lot of money to spend in the first place and there weren’t a lot of appealing options. The deals with Nova and Hudson both make sense, and they didn’t really make any bad moves. Things as they are, Pittsburgh certainly looks like a team that could be battling it out with the Cardinals for a Wild Card spot, which, unfortunately, is all you can really ask for at this juncture.
And now, on to the teams that have decided that they’re going to rebuild while the Cubs dominate, starting with the Reds. If you’re hoping for some truly positive news on the rebuild front, though, you’re going to have to wait a moment. The Reds had been mostly quiet this offseason, with most of their action limited to waiver-wire pickups. That all changed earlier this week when they were finally able to trade second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Braves.
Unfortunately, the minor league pitchers that Cincinnati received back in the deal, Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo, are 27 and 29 respectively and aren’t exactly the kind of players that the Reds need to be accumulating as they attempt to rebuild. They also only got $1 million of salary relief out of the deal, as they will pay $13 million of the $14 million that Phillips is owed. Phillips may have had the leverage with his no-trade clause, and he used it as much as he could, but it still stings that the Reds weren’t able to do better than that.
In terms of signings, the first major league signing that Cincinatti made wasn’t until January, when they signed reliever Drew Storen to a one-year, $3 million deal. The former Nationals closer, who lost his job to Jonathan Papelbon and was traded to Toronto, had a rough start to his 2016. Dealing with lost velocity, he struggled (6.21 ERA, 5.01 FIP, 1.6 HR/9) and was DFA-ed and ultimately went to Seattle in a “change of scenery” trade for Joaquin Benoit. The change worked and Storen was better in Seattle (3.44 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 0.5 HR/9), but he missed some time near the end of the season with shoulder inflammation.
While there are certainly some red flags, he has the potential to turn into a trade chip prior to the deadline for a team in need of some bullpen help, assuming they are willing to look past Storen’s epic postseason collapse for the Nats in 2015. Regardless, though, the commitment was small enough that Cincinnati was smart to take a chance on Storen and they were certainly in need of some bullpen help, as they had some issues on that front last season.
Unfortunately, though, there really isn’t much else to talk about for the Reds’ offseason, so it’s hard to be too high on this particular hog. To be fair to the Reds’ new GM Dick Williams, the situation that he inherited with Phillips was out of his hands thanks to the aforementioned no-trade clause. While they’ve cleared a path for a young player at second, that’s really all they’ve done this offseason, and it’s hard to get too excited about it, even if they also haven’t really done any damage, either.
Lastly, we arrive at the other team in the NL Central that’s likely looking up in the standings for a bit. The Brewers are fully in the middle of their rebuild and already moved most of their assets (Ryan Braun excepted). Their offseason was just a bit more active than the Reds, with the result that they look like they’re moving more in the right direction.
GM David Stearns first big move of the offseason was to sign Eric Thames to take over at first base for the DFA-ed Chris Carter, who was going to be making a lot of money (over $8 million) in 2017 and who only managed to put up 0.9 bWAR/fWAR despite the fact that he was tied for the lead the NL in home runs. Carter’s issues as a player (lack of speed, defensive liability, high strikeout rate and low AVG and OBP) led the Brewers to decide to cut him loose and try out Thames on a three-year, $16 million contract. Thames hasn’t played in MLB since 2012, when he hit .232/.273/.399 for Toronto and Seattle. Since then, though, he has went to Korea and became a star, hitting .348/.450/.720 in his three seasons.
Now, the KBO is supremely hitter-friendly, so expectations have to be adjusted accordingly, but the projections think that his power and OBP improvements since he’s been there should translate well when comes home. Regardless, at the cost, it’s a tantalizing move by Stearns and company and makes sense given the cost and the success that players like Jung Ho Kang and Hyun Soo Kim have enjoyed. If it doesn’t work, the Brewers aren’t out that much money and, if it does, they either have a power-hitting first baseman around for three years if things move faster than expected or they have some tasty trade bait.
The big trade that Stearns made this year was with the Red Sox, as he kept on sweeping out the bullpen and sent Tyler Thornburg to Boston in exchange for third baseman Travis Shaw, shortstop prospect Mauricio Dubon and pitching prospect Josh Pennington. Thornburg had taken a big step forward in 2016 and his three remaining years of team control netted Milwaukee an MLB-ready third baseman, who while not star material looks like an average player with five years of control, as well as a couple of prospects, one of whom is very interesting in Dubon. There’s nothing to not like about this trade from the Brewers’ perspective, even if you can see why the Red Sox made the deal.
The final big move of the offseason was signing reliever Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $5.35 million deal (with incentives that can boost it by $1.5 million). Coming off of a down year in 2015 with the Rangers that resulted in his being released, the former Rookie of the Year looked more like his old self in Pittsburgh (under good old Searage, obviously), where he pitched over 53 innings to the tune of a 3.52 ERA and 10.2 K/9 and struck out 28% of the batters he faced. He was shut down in early December for an undisclosed arm injury, so this is no sure thing, obviously. But if Feliz is able to stay healthy and build on the success he had in 2016 and stay healthy, he would likely be one of the better bullpen options available at the deadline, which is the kind of chance you take if you’re looking to fill the prospect larder.
The Brewers were a bit more proactive than the Reds and look like they made some smarter moves to get things moving towards fielding a competitive team again. Now if they could just somehow get a monster haul for Braun, everything would be going perfectly...