Pitchers and catchers are reporting and actual baseball is looming, which means the offseason is nearing an end. Now, we can take a look and proudly declare who won or lost the offseason before actual baseball does it’s thing and makes us realize how foolish we 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’s the NL WestAL West and AL East.

Chicago Cubs

While the Cubs lost to the Mets in the NLCS last year, no one (who isn’t crazy) thinks that this team was one and done in the playoffs. Rather, the Cubs look like a team set up for success, both in the long and short-term. That being said, there is never a team that can’t improve, and the Cubs were no exception, so let’s take a look at what they did.

The Cubs’ offseason started off in earnest in November, signing minor league free agent reliever Andury Acevedo (2.59 ERA with 7.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 in 59 innings) to a major league deal and trading a prospect to Texas for depth-reliever Spencer Patton and a prospect to Colorado for reliever Rex Brothers who has struggled as of late despite showing promise earlier in his career. Getting some depth for the bullpen is great, but the Cubs were just getting started.

On the same day in early December, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer got busy and the Cubs signed John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal, signed Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal and traded Starlin Castro to New York. The Lackey signing certainly isn’t without risk, as he’s 37, but he was the Cardinals’ best pitcher last year. If he puts up just one season like he did last year (5.7 WAR, 2.77 ERA and 143 ERA+ in 218 innings), it would be a coup for the Cubs, but it wouldn’t be prudent to expect it. That being said, the Cubs are a large market team and it’s not like they can’t afford to take a chance on Lackey with so many cheap players currently on their roster.

I already gave my thoughts on the Zobrist signing and Castro trade, but, to summarize, this was a solid move by the Cubs. Grabbing value where you can find it is always smart and the flexibility that Zobrist’s ability to play multiple positions should pay dividends in terms of the Cubs’ ability to move some of their players around and play matchups. Re-signing Trevor Cahill, who had been excellent for the Cubs in relief since he joined the team mid-season, to a one-year $4.25 million deal, was another smart bullpen move, but the final big move of the Cubs’ offseason stole the show.  

With Dexter Fowler gone, the Cubs needed a new centerfielder. Jason Heyward was, by far, the biggest name on the free agent market for position players this offseason, and it was speculated that he might get as much as $300 million this offseason. So, when he signed with the Cubs for only $184 million over eight years, with opt-outs after the 2018 and 2019 seasons, it seemed like the Cubs had gotten a major deal. Of course, so did Heyward, who, barring injury or his performance falling off a cliff, gets to become a free agent again as a 29-year old, so this contract was a win-win for both sides, with the added bonus that Heyward gets to play for a serious contender.

While it might have been nice to see the Cubs go after a premium starter, they bolstered the bullpen and the Lackey signing, while not exciting, isn’t a huge risk, either. The Heyward signing was likely the best signing for both sides of the entire offseason. When your offense is already pretty much top-two in the MLB and then you sign the best position player available to a great deal? That’s winning the offseason.  

Grade: A

St. Louis Cardinals

The aforementioned Cubs’ biggest additions, Heyward and Lackey, were the two best players on the Cardinals last year. For most mid-payroll teams, losing a 6.5 WAR position player and a 5.7 WAR pitcher to a division rival would spell certain doom. St. Louis, however, is not “most mid-payroll teams.”

While they may have lost their best pitcher from last year, they are effectively replacing him immediately with the return of their ace, Adam Wainwright, who missed almost all of last year with an Achilles injury. That last bit is important because, while Wainwright is 34 years old, his missed time wasn’t related to his arm and he has been consistently been one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s not unreasonable to expect a 5-to-6 WAR season out of him.

While they may have gotten Wainwright back, they also lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery early in the offseason, so they still needed some starter depth despite the rise of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez (who missed the end of the season due to back problems but did not undergo surgery). The need for starting depth led St. Louis to their biggest free agent signing, RHP Mike Leake, who was signed to a five-year, $80 million contract. While it might seem like this is an overpay for basically an innings-eater, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out, this was a smart move based on Leake’s age, health record and the value added through Leake’s defense and batting relative to his pitching peers. Leake’s not flashy, but he is reliable and he’s been healthy, which is definitely something that the Cardinals need in their rotation.

It’s also worth noting that Leake, who was traded to the Giants by the Reds mid-season, was not subject to a qualifying offer, and the Cardinals picked up two draft picks for the qualifying offers they extended to Heyward and Lackey. Because it’s the Cardinals, you can practically guarantee they will turn those three picks in the top forty-or-so into major leaguers.

With Yadier Molina recovering from a thumb injury last season and, well, just generally getting older, the Cardinals also decided to upgrade their backup catcher, signing Brayan Pena to a two-year, $5 million contract and trading their prior backup Tony Cruz to the Royals for an infield prospect. Brayan’s .263/.313/.339 line over the last two years with the Reds certainly looks like an upgrade over Cruz’s .202/.253/.285 over the same timeframe and will likely pay dividends in the event that Molina is gone for any significant amount of time.

With the 2015 seasons the Cardinals received from young outfielders Stephen Piscotty (305/.359/.494), Randal Grichuk (.276/.329/.548) and Tommy Pham (.268/.347/.477), St. Louis decided to stick with them and even traded Jon Jay to the Padres in exchange for Jedd Gyorko, who will presumably be used mainly as a platoon-mate for Kolten Wong and Matt Adams. While the loss of Heyward to a rival certainly stings, if those youngsters continue to develop (which, again, of course they will, because it’s the Cardinals), St. Louis should be fine.

In their final major move of the offseason, St. Louis added Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh (amazingly nicknamed “Final Boss”) to a one-year, $5 million contract with a team option for 2017 for $6 million. In his 11 seasons in Korea and Japan, Oh has pitched to the tune of 1.81 ERA, 10.7 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9 over 646 innings and his 2015 season in Japan he put up a 2.73 ERA with 8.6 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9. Oh will likely be the setup man for entrenched closer Trevor Rosenthal and this signing, along with the re-signing of Jonathan Broxton gives the Cardinals much-needed bullpen depth.

All in all, the Cardinals, as usual, didn’t sign any of the biggest names in free agency this offseason, but, as usual, it also appears they didn’t need to. They made some depth moves and continue to promote players internally and remain seemingly eternally competitive, even in the competitive (at the top, at least) NL Central. There are certainly some injury-related questions and aging going on with the roster and that keeps them from earning top marks, but, all in all, it was a very Cardinals offseason.

Grade: B+

Pittsburgh Pirates

While the Cardinals have to be viewed differently due to the magic hat that is their farm system, the Pirates require a special lense because, over the past few years, they have gone “full Moneyball” and have targeted undervalued assets and used them to repeatedly make the postseason. While the Cardinals have the advantage of falling just outside the top ten in payroll, the Pirates are repeatedly close to the bottom, and the fact that they have been able to remain is a credit to their front office.

That being said, beyond ace Gerrit Cole and a rejuvenated Francisco Liriano, who has thrived with the Bucs in and is the perfect example of the “Moneyball Pirates,” there wasn’t a great deal of clarity in the rotation entering in the offseason after A.J. Burnett retired and J.A. Happ left for Canada. The biggest move that Pittsburgh made to shore up the rotation was to trade second baseman Neil Walker, who will be a free agent after this year, to the mets for Jonathon Niese, who has three years of reasonably priced team control left on his contract.

The problem is that Niese has only had one year where he was much better than league average (112 ERA+ in 2012) and he’s had quite a few seasons where he was much worse. Pitching coach Ray Searage has a worthy reputation for helping pitchers turn their stuff around (see: Liriano, et al.), so we shouldn’t write this move off as a net loss for the Pirates just yet, but it’s certainly no sure thing.

If signing Niese was no sure thing, signing Ryan Vogelsong, who will be 39 in July, is even riskier. While his 2011 and 2012 with the Giants were flat-out amazing and pretty solid, respectively, he has not been the same pitcher since (60, 86 and 81 ERA+ in 2013 through 2015). If anyone can get another late-career renaissance out of Vogelsong, it would be Searage, but it’s hard to see the logic in this move. After the one-two punch of Cole and Liriano, Searage definitely has his work cut out for him.

While their homegrown outfield of McCutchen, Polanco and Marte is arguably the best starting trio in baseball and there aren’t any questions there, there were plenty to go around in the infield. The decision to move Walker for Niese may make sense if Niese turns things around, but Pittsburgh’s infield definitely raises some questions. Other than catcher Francisco Cervelli and Jung-ho Kang, who was enjoying an incredible breakout rookie year until it was cut short by a broken leg, no Pirate infielder is projected to break 2.0 WAR. Newly signed 32-year old ex-catcher John Jaso has played one inning at first base in his major league career and he will be splitting time there with Morse. With Walker gone, Josh Harrison will be at second, Kang will be at third (assuming that his health checks out OK) and Jordy Mercer will be at short.

If anyone goes down to injury, there isn’t much in the way of depth anywhere on Pittsburgh’s roster. Then again, RHP Tyler Glasnow (MLB.com’s #7 prospect) and first baseman Josh Bell (MLB.com’s #31 prospect) are both due to arrive this year, so maybe Pittsburgh will have internal reinforcements soon and the Bucs will be A-OK. It’s hard to be very high on their offseason though, as the moves they did make didn’t, on paper at least, seem to make the Pirates any better.

Grade: C

Cincinnati Reds

Now that we’ve covered the cream of the NL Central, we can move on to the other two teams, both of whom have earned the “tanking” label. The Reds, who were at .500 for the final time on May 15 en route to a 98-loss season, started their rebuild mid-season with the trades of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Marlon Byrd. They entered the offseason with some work to do, with Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier all presumably on the chopping block and recently promoted GM Dick Williams having a lot of work to do.

The first of those players to move was third baseman Todd Frazier to the White Sox, in part of a three-team, seven-player deal that also involved the Dodgers. For the Reds, the return from the Dodgers was a trio of prospects in infielders Jose Peraza and Brandon Dixon and outfielder Scott Schebler, while the Dodgers received RHP Frankie Montas, infielder Micah Johnson and outfielder Trayce Thompson from the Sox. The trade left many folks wondering whether Los Angeles actually got the better prospect haul and why Cincinatti didn’t do a straight trade for Frazier with Chicago.

Both Montas and Peraza appear on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list and part of the reason that people favored the Dodgers’ haul seemed to hinge on the notion that Peraza’s stock had fallen. Peraza, however, does not turn 22 until April, certainly has room to grow as a hitter and can play shortstop, second and the outfield. While Montas’s ceiling as a No. 2 starter might be higher, he has has had significant control issues and could end up as a reliever. He’s also just 23 and has time to put it together, as well, but it’s a bit much to say that the Dodgers overwhelmingly won this trade.

Instead of arguing over who “won the trade,” the bigger issue is whether either package was really an adequate return for two years of team control over Frazier. Even if he had a pretty terrible second half that eclipsed his amazing first half, he was still coming off back-to-back All Star seasons where he put up an average of 4.7 WAR. Whether you prefer Peraza or Montas, or want to argue over the lesser pieces involved in the deal, it’s certainly seems like Cincinnati could have gotten a better return for Frazier.

The Dodgers were involved in further trade talks with the Reds for super-closer Aroldis Chapman, but backed out when they learned of the domestic violence allegations involving Chapman. Now, as I wrote previously, you can’t really give the Reds too much guff in this instance as they needed to get what they could for Chapman given the circumstances, but you can certainly bet that they are wishing they had traded Chapman before the deadline last season.

As for the other pieces the Reds could swap out for prospects? Brandon Phillips has twice used his no-trade protection as a member of the 10-and-5 club to block trades, first to the Nationals and then to Arizona. While there have been no shortage of Jay Bruce trade rumors, it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps after getting less than ideal returns for Chapman and Frazier, they are going to wait and see if he can rebuild some trade value during his 2016.

Everything else this offseason has been minor league signings, non-roster spring training invites and waiver claims, which is about what you’d expect for a rebuilding team. While they did get some decent returns for their mid-season trades, it’s definitely hard to be particularly excited about the Reds’ offseason, given the returns they got for the talent they parted with, especially Frazier.

Grade: C-

Milwaukee Brewers

Like the Reds, the Brewers got started on their rebuild last year, dealing Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, Jonathan Broxton, Mike Fiers, Aramis Ramirez and Neal Cotts, trimming quite a bit of payroll fat and pocketing some nice prospects. The Brewers’ new GM David Stearns has been busier than Williams over the offseason, though, so let’s see how the Brewers did.

The first offseason move was trading closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers. While the 34-year old K-Rod has seen his velocity decline as of late and certainly wasn’t going to bring back as big of a haul as some of the other relievers that have been moving around, if there’s one thing a rebuilding team doesn’t need, it’s a proven closer. In exchange, the Tigers sent over Javier Betancourt, an all-over-the-infield prospect who is most likely to cut it at second, and a PTBNL, who turned out to be Manny Pina, a 28-year old more-or-less career minor league catcher who could see playing time in the event that the Brewers end up trading Jonathon Lucroy.

The next move was trading lower-level pitching prospect Cy Sneed to the Astros for shortstop Jonathan Villar. From Houston’s perspective, they needed to make room for Carlos Correa, but the Brewers definitely got the better end of this deal, as Villar is ready to step into the Brewers lineup immediately in the event they traded incumbent shortstop Jean Segura (more on that below). The acquisition of Villar also likely made infield prospect Luis Sardinas expendable, so he was flipped to the Mariners for outfield prospect Ramon Flores, a minor move, but one that demonstrated some clear thinking from both sides.

Next up, Milwaukee traded with Dipoto and the Mariners again, sending first baseman Adam Lind over in exchange for three lower level pitching prospects, Carlos Herrera, Freddy Peralta and Daniel Missaki. While none of these pitchers are elite prospects, Lind is entering his walk year and isn’t exactly cheap, as he’s owed $8 million this year, so it’s not as if he was going to bring back major-ready talent. The Brewers also sent outfielder mid-level LHP prospect Trevor Seidenberger to the Padres in exchange for outfielder Rymer Liriano. Liriano has been a highly heralded prospect who struggled mightily in his 2014 callup, but this seemed to be another move with potential upside in the event that Khris Davis or Ryan Braun were traded in the future.

One of the more baffling trades this offseason was the trade that sent Jean Segura to Arizona along with pitching prospect Tyler Wagner in exchange for starting pitcher Chase Anderson, second baseman Aaron Hill, and prospect Isan Diaz. The trade was baffling from Arizona’s perspective, who already had a crowded infield situation and didn’t really seem to upgrade too much, but not from Milwaukee’s, as they received an innings-eater in Anderson and a higher-upside prospect in Diaz than the one they gave up, Wagner.

Finally, just last week, not content to call it an offseason, Milwaukee sent slugger Kris Davis to the A’s in exchange for a pair of prospects, catcher Jacob Nottingham and RHP Bowdien Derby, in a trade that made an astounding amount of sense for both sides. The big haul here for the Brewers was certainly Nottingham, who still needs a little time in the minors but could be an in-house replacement for Lucroy in the event he is traded or, if he doesn’t stick at catcher, looks like he has a bat that could cut it at first and take Lind’s place.

All in all, the Brewers seem to be doing what a rebuilding team should be doing, getting rid of everyone, taking some risks on high-upside players, filling out the roster with players who might be trade-bait come mid-season this year while making sure that they’re keeping the roster flexible for their top prospects. While there’s not much to be excited about in the coming season other than more trades and restocking the farm, Brewers fans can at least take comfort in the fact that the front office seems to be making smart decisions during the offseason.

Grade: A-