Spring training is upon us and almost all the free agents have finally found homes. After so much waiting, we can finally get down to our annual tradition of declaring who won and lost the offseason. As always, 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’re going to spend some quality time with them as well. Today we’re covering the NL Central, and in case you missed it, here are the NL West and the AL West.
While the Cubs were heavy favorites heading into the 2018 season, thanks in no small part to all the moves they made to improve their pitching situation, basically every single move they made last year didn’t work out. They added more than $210 million on Yu Darvish (0.2), Tyler Chatwood (-0.5), Brandon Morrow (0.6), Steve Cishek (0.8), Brian Duensing (-0.9) and Drew Smyly (didn’t pitch), bringing the total return on that investment in 2018 to 0.2 fWAR.
So, yes, it wasn’t particularly surprising that last season ended with them stuck playing in and losing a Wild Card Game, especially given the fact that the offense also struggled throughout the second half. While there’s certainly some room for regression on both fronts, as we’ll get to soon, other teams in their division did improve, and improve quite a bit. The Cubs, on the other hand, look basically the same.
Theo Epstein and company did exercise the options of Cole Hamels and José Quintana, but I’m not sure if we should really discuss those as true offseason moves. They’re clearly just going to hope that Darvish bounces back, as he seems to much more likely to do so than Chatwood.
One of the few moves worth mentioning was the signing of Brad Brach to a fairly complicated deal involving an option for next year. Depending on where you look, the value of the deal for this year from $1.65 million to closer to $5 million, but even at the higher end, it could still be a net positive for Chicago. Brach may not have been operating on the same level in 2018 (3.59 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 8.62 K.9, 4.02 BB/9, 0.72 HR/9) as he was during his excellent 2016 (2.05 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 10.48 K/9, 2.85 BB/9, 0.80 HR/9), when he and Zach Britton did their damnedest to will the Orioles intoto the postseason. There are some worries with Brach, notably velocity loss and strikeouts trending in the wrong direction, but he was rather excellent down the stretch for the Braves after they traded for him, and he’s a worthwhile gamble at such a modest cost.
In one of the more disappointing (from an off-the-field standpoint) moves of the offseason, the Cubs opted not to cut ties with Addison Russell, despite the troubling domestic abuse allegations and the suspension that he’s currently serving. Between Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs and Yankees, and Roberto Osuna with the Astros, I guess we’re at a point now where these things shouldn’t surprise us anymore, but that doesn’t mean that we should just ignore them.
But even discounting any questions of ethics, it’s hard to look at the Cubs’ offseason and declare it a success. Clearly, they’re feeling the financial pressure of the commitments they’ve made over the last several offseasons and which have pushed them into the upper echelons of the sport. At least there’s every reason to think that at least some of the players that performed badly in 2018 are going to improve. They’re still the favorites to win the division, but not by much, and it’s hard to reward them for basically standing pat.
St. Louis Cardinals
Where the Cubs were more or less content to just pray for improvement throughout the roster, the Cardinals made some pretty big moves in order to challenge them for the division crown. Clearly, any discussion of St. Louis’s offseason has to start with their acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt is a perennial MVP candidate (coming in 2nd twice and 3rd once) and arguably the best hitter in the NL since his first full year in 2012. Since 2013, he’s only failed to top 5 fWAR once (with 4.3 in 2015) and had a wRC+ between 133 and 163 in each of those years. He’s good for around 30 home runs and a plus base runner. But already probably knew Goldschmidt was pretty good.
When we discussed it from the Diamondbacks’ perspective, it was easy enough to argue that it made sense from their perspective if they felt they had to maximize their return for Goldschmidt. But it makes even more sense from the Cards’, since they dealt from positions of strength in order to obtain Goldy’s services. Luke Weaver (4.95 ERA, 4.45 FIP, 7.99 K/9, 3.56 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9 in 2018) showed promise previously and has potential for Arizona, but the Cardinals have a lot of quality arms in their rotation. Yadier Molina made the presence of Kelly (.154/.227/.188 over 131 PAs) unnecessary and the Cardinals filled the void by signing Matt Wieters to a $1.5 million minor league deal to serve as a Molina’s backup anyway.
Sure, St. Louis might miss those players in the future, but Goldschmidt is absolutely a known commodity at this point, and he’s one of the best players in baseball. That move alone was a coup for St. Louis’s front office.
St. Louis also signed Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal that would have been an absolute steal a season ago. That was before Miller struggled with numerous injuries in 2018, and watched his strikeout rate “plummet” to 11.9 K/9 (from the 14.5 K/9 he notched from 2013 to 2017) and his walk rate balloon to 4.24 BB/9 en route to a 4.24 ERA/3.51 FIP over 34 innings of work. Given that Miller will turn 34 in in May, and his propensity for hitting the DL (as he’s done every season since 2014), there might be some cause for concern. But the Cardinals’ bullpen was truly a problem last year, ranking 11th in the NL by FIP (4.27), 12th by ERA (4.38) and WAR (0.5), and in the bottom of the barrel by both strikeout rate (20.8%, 13th) and walk rate (10.9%, 13th). Something needed to be done and taking a chance on one of the best relievers around before last year seems as decent a bet as any.
And that’s basically it for the Cardinals, other than extending 2018 breakout Miles Mikolas on a perfectly reasonable 4-year, $68 million deal. Thanks to the addition of Goldschmidt, the heart of the order looks to be one of the scariest in baseball and the Cardinals look like a serious threat in 2019.
After only missing the World Series in 2018 by a single loss to the Dodgers, the Brewers were another team that made some impact moves to their roster this offseason. And while the Cardinals did well to procures the services of Goldschmidt for a year, there were talent costs involved. The Brewers’ signature move, on the other hand, cost them nothing but cash.
The Brewers’ one-year, $18.5 million deal to catcher Yasmani Grandal may be a troubling sign of things to come on the labor front, but you can’t argue that it’s not a great deal for Milwaukee., who were quite bad at catcher last year, getting a .238/.294/.363 slashline (75 wRC+) and 1.1 fWAR from the position. is The 29-year old Grandal’s .241/.349/.466 (125 wRC+) and 3.6 fWAR in 2018 figures to be a serious improvement.
Grandal is an elite framer and, even if Brewers’ fans weren’t impressed with his torrid (and small sample size) NLCS performance (.182/.182/.273 with a trio of passed balls), they should probably focus on the fact that he’s been one of the best hitting catchers of the past few seasons and the move from Dodger Stadium to Miller Park is only going to pad those numbers. He’s hit .240/.341/.441 for a 117 wRC+ since getting called up in 2012, and it’s a steal for the Brewers to get him on a one-year contract and absolutely shocking that he couldn’t do any better.
While Grandal was one of the players who, relative to expectations, suffered the most in free agency this offseason, the Brewers also re-signed one of last offseason’s casualties in Mike Moustakas on a one-year, $10 million deal. To be fair, Moustakas’ skill set is a bit different from Grandal’s. The Moose is coming off a 251/.315/.459 (108 OPS+) season in which he notched 28 dingers and improved his defense en route to 2.5 bWAR. He doesn’t strike out that much for a power hitter (career 15.6 K%) but he doesn’t walk that much either (career 6.7 BB%).
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Moustakas’ return is that the Brewers have, after hinting at the possibility at the time of the signing, officially confirmed that he’ll be their starting second baseman. Travis Shaw had primarily handled that position after Moustakas came over midseason, but we’ll have to wait and see how Moustakas handles the position defensively. His bat plays very well there, but if he can’t field it well, it’s going to offset much of his value. The fact that he hasn’t played a single inning there in his major league career certainly raises some questions, at least.
But while those signings, when taken along with the fact that the Brewers have reigning MVP Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, along with Shaw coming off a breakout season, give Milwaukee an offense to rival either of the teams ahead of them on the list, their pitching situation is far from perfect. Having lost Wade Miley and Joakim Soria in free agency, they appear to be mainly looking to internal solutions.
While they did trade a competitive balance pick to the Rangers for LHP Alex Claudio (who had a 3.42 FIP last year) to help out in the bullpen, they are hoping that 2017 breakout Jimmy Nelson can return at some point this season and that Zach Davies is healthier as well. That’s not to say that this can’t work, as they made some creative moves and used Brandon Woodruff as an opener last year and rode their bullpen all the way to one game short of a World Series.
They’re certainly far from a lock, given the couple of teams ahead of them on this list, but they are a hell of a lot closer than you think. While they might not have improved as much as they could have, the moves they made certainly keep in the mix and they didn’t give up much of anything in terms of prospects or monetary commitments after this season.
The Reds might have had the most interesting offseason in all of baseball, at least in terms of expectations. After finishing up 2018 in 5th place in the division, with a 67-95 record, we might have expected them to take things slowly, wait for their prospects in their top-ten farm to develop and play it safe. In light of the division they play in, that might have been the smart move. Instead, they actually made a whole bunch of moves to improve the team immediately.
Cincinnati's pitchers were not exactly the cream of the crop last year, as their starters collectively put up a 5.02 ERA and 4.5 fWAR that were both good for 14th in the NL. Add to that the fact that their second most valuable starter was Matt Harvey, who is now on the Angels, and it’s not pretty. But they immediately took to doing what they could to fix it.
GM Nick Krall and company traded the Tanner in the bush for the Tanner in the hand when they sent 25-year-old right-handed relief prospect Tanner Rainey to Washington for Tanner Roark. Roark has been a fairly reliable innings eater in Washington for since 2014, pitching more than 180 innings every year except 2015 (when he was pitching out of the bullpen thanks to Washington’s acquisition of Scherzer). Since his first full season as a starter, he’s put up a 3.72 ERA, 4.00 FIP and 112 ERA+ that looks fine until you consider that Roark’s results have declined over the last couple of years. His home runs have also ticked up, something that pitching in the Great American Ballpark will probably not aide. But, still, the Reds needed reliable innings eaters, and Roark has done that, even if he’s a free agent after the coming season.
The next couple of trades that the Reds made were far more difficult than straight up Tanner-swaps, though. The first was the previously covered deal with the Dodgers that delivered the Reds Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer and $7 million in cash. In return Los Angeles received two prospects, Josiah Gray and Jeter Downs, and Homer Bailey, as as a salary-offsetting component of the deal.
As we discussed at the time, the deal made sense from Cincinnati's perspective, depending on other moves they made, given the fact that they got Homer Bailey off the roster and brought in useful players, even if those players are (again) all under contract for only a year. But Wood (assuming he recovers from some spring training back issues) improves the rotation and Puig improves the outfield.
The last big move to improve the rotation came via yet another trade, this one a three-way-er involving the Mariners and Yankees. The big get for the Reds was Sonny Gray, who (yet again) had only one year remaining on his contract. This time, though, the Reds immediately extended him and basically, he’s on a four-year, $38 million contract that has a team option for the 2023 season.
Gray was very, very bad in New York last season (6.98 ERA), but much better on the road (3.17 ERA). For whatever reason, this has been the case for Gray throughout his career (home ERA of 4.06, road ERA of 3.21), and he just really, really struggled in New York, despite not losing velocity or having any real indicators that it should be happening. The 29-year old Gray looked like an absolute ace in his first couple of seasons in Oakland, and he still clearly has the stuff to succeed, but it remains to see whether Gray just “couldn’t make it in New York” and he’ll bounce back on his new team.
Of course, the Reds were in this pitcher predicament precisely because they’ve been unable to develop arms internally. The rotation looks to be improved next year, but that wasn’t that hard, relatively speaking, and it’s still all too easy to see them finishing the season behind the teams ahead of them in this article. And, unlike with the Brewers, they gave up a bunch of prospect capital, even if it wasn’t their best pieces.
While I like what the Reds are doing in theory, I have mixed feelings about the amount of urgency they seem to be displaying, especially considering that most of their acquisitions aren’t going to be around after this season. But still, the Reds have a legitimately solid offense, with top infield prospect Nick Senzel expected to debut this season. They are better than they were and they didn’t give up their best prospects, so I’m inclined to give them a slightly better than average mark for their moves this offseason.
Unlike the three teams in the middle of this article, the Pirates took more of a Cubs-ian route this offseason, opting to make minimal moves and hope for the best. Unlike the Cubs, though, they aren’t starting from a position of strength. Having traded away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen last offseason, it appeared that they might be looking to rebuild, or at least truly retool, but then they were in the mix for a postseason spot and traded for Chris Archer at the deadline. All that left some big question marks about how they were going to handle this offseason. Which they answered by basically doing nothing.
Sure, they signed Lonnie Chisenhall, .321/.394/.452 (129 wRC+), to a one-year, $2.8 million deal that could turn out to be a steal if Chisenhall is able to remain healthy (he only appeared in 28 games in 2018). Given the fact that he’s more or less filling in for Gregory Polanco temporarily anyway, it seems like a smart enough move given the money involved.
But that’s basically it. They brought back Jung Ho Kang, despite his off-field issues and the fact that he’s had just 6 PAs in the last two seasons, on a one-year, $3 million deal. Jordan Lyles (career 5.28 ERA) was brought in for rotation depth on a one-year, $2 million deal. Their only trade of note brought back utility infielder Erik Gonzalez (.263/.292/.389, 79 OPS+) from the Indians.
Speaking of Cleveland, if the Pirates were, say, in their AL counterpart rather than the meat grinder that is the NL Central, I’d give them a reasonable shot to feast on the losses and possibly end up with some form of postseason appearance. But they look a bit listless and their division isn’t doing them any favors. Maybe Pittsburgh is right to do nothing and Cincinnati screwed up and is mortgaging their future. But one of these teams at least appears to have a plan and the other doesn't. It was a pretty boring offseason in Pittsburgh.