The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best roster in baseball, arguably by a decent margin, but that didn’t stop the San Diego Padres from reportedly acquiring pitchers Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, along with Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim in the past two days.
The Washington Nationals are trying to catch the Atlanta Braves, so they swung a trade for switch-hitting slugger Josh Bell. The New York Mets, who already signed catcher James McCann, are expected to be one of the most active teams this winter.
Meanwhile, the moves that National League Central teams have made are putting up for sale signs. The Cincinnati Reds traded closer Raisel Iglesias for salary relief. The Chicago Cubs have apparently done the same thing with Darvish. The Pittsburgh Pirates parted ways with Bell as they continue their rebuild.
It’s the same division that sent four teams to the playoffs last season, though none advanced past the Wild Card Series. The St. Louis Cardinals, who released Kolten Wong and have Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright sitting in free agency, are probably the early favorites to win the division.
As the Dodgers and Padres race to win 95 games, it might be a race to 81 wins in the NL Central (the Cardinals won the division with 83 wins in 2006). Here’s a look at the movement with each NL Central team in the first two months of the offseason:
CINCINNATI REDS (31-29)
Out: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Anthony DeSclafani, SS Freddy Galvis, RHP Robert Stephenson, RHP Raisel Iglesias, RHP Archie Bradley, C Curt Casali, OF Brian Goodwin, OF Travis Jankowski.
In: RHP Jeff Hoffman, RHP Noé Ramirez, RHP Brandon Bailey, OF Scott Heineman, RHP Édgar García, C Deivy Grullon.
The Reds had the second-lowest ERA (3.84) in the NL last season, but now they’re without two starters (Bauer and DeSclafani) and two key arms in the back of their bullpen (Iglesias and Bradley). The potential rotation looks fine on paper with Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley and Michael Lorenzen, but they can’t afford many injuries after they lost a lot of depth.
They’re searching for a shortstop after their offense slumped throughout the 2020 season, but they’re considering whether to trade Gray or Eugenio Suárez to create more payroll flexibility. It wouldn’t be a salary dump like the Iglesias trade – Reds have a high asking price on either player – but the roster will be weaker than it was at the end of last season.
The biggest key for the Reds next season is whether the offense will improve. They’re counting on a lot of players who slumped last season. Since the pitching staff will take a step back without Bauer, the Reds need their offense, at a minimum, to produce league-average numbers.
CHICAGO CUBS (34-26)
Out: RHP Yu Darvish*, C Victor Caratini*, LHP José Quintana, RHP Tyler Chatwood, LF Kyle Schwarber, CF Albert Almora Jr., RHP Ryan Tepera, 2B Jason Kipnis, LHP Andrew Chafin, OF Cameron Maybin, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, CF Billy Hamilton.
In: RHP Zach Davies*, RHP Jonathan Holder, OF Phillip Ervin, RHP Robert Stock, 2B Max Schrock.
It’s strange to see the Cubs, one of the premier franchises in the sport and a team that just started their own TV company, to enter cost-cutting mode this offseason. Much of the core that won the 2016 World Series will enter free agency over the next two years, so Darvish may not be the only big name traded before the start of the 2021 season.
The Cubs won the division last season, but they have a lot of questions about their starting rotation. It’ll be a soft-throwing group with Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies and Alec Mills headlining the group while Adbert Alzolay and Colin Rea probably fill the remaining two spots.
They may have the best offense in the division but trading away Darvish signals they are willing to enter a rebuilding/retooling stage.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (30-28)
Out: 2B Kolten Wong, C Yadier Molina, RHP Adam Wainwright, 2B Brad Miller, C Matt Wieters, RHP John Brebbia, 1B Rangel Ravelo.
It’s been a quiet offseason for the Cardinals with no additions to their 40-man roster, but they’re viewed as the favorites to re-sign Molina and Wainwright. Losing Wong is a painful cut with his Gold Glove defense and solid offense, but they did have Tommy Edman as an internal replacement.
The Cardinals had an eventful 2020 season and they could return most of their roster. Their offense remains a big question mark, but it’s been good enough to propel them to the postseason in each of the last two years. They could add a bat this winter after releasing Wong.
“I think most of baseball is in this real predicament, and it is real,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said at the league’s virtual winter meetings. “You try to plan and budget coming off a year where you had no fans, there was clearly economic loss that took place and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s still a business. And you don’t know what it looks like.
“We’re optimistic going forward as a country and as an industry with some of the things that are taking place with the vaccine, but how do you know if you’re going to play with modified fans or if you can actually open the gates again and expect to get our 3.4 million wonderful Cardinal fans that support us and allow us to do what we do in large fashion.”
MILWAUKEE BREWERS (29-31)
Out: LF Ryan Braun, RHP Corey Knebel, LHP Brett Anderson, IF Jedd Gyorko, 2B Eric Sogard, LHP Alex Claudio, LF Ben Gamel, 3B Jace Peterson.
In: C Luke Maile, 2B Tim Lopes.
The Brewers had the most significant addition in the division this winter: Lorenzo Cain is expected to play in 2021 after he opted out of the 2020 season. They’ve been opportunistic in recent offseasons, signing players like Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas to one-year contracts, but it might be a quieter winter for them this year.
Trading Knebel, who would’ve drawn a lot of interest on the free-agent market if he was non-tendered, to save about $5 million probably signaled they aren’t looking to add much payroll. Their offense slumped during the 2020 season, but guys like Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura are better hitters than their numbers were.
“The thing I would always say – Trevor Bauer was a great pitcher this year and there’s no question when he leaves your team it’s going to hurt – but free agents leave teams all the time,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, when asked if the division was taking a collective step backward. “You have to regroup with other players. Younger players get better. Players bounce back and have better years, which is something we’re going to count on very heavily.
“I don’t see the division as going backward from that perspective. I think it’s going to be a very competitive division and we’re going to have some of the real good teams in the National League again.”
PITTSBURGH PIRATES (19-41)
Out: 1B Josh Bell, RHP Keone Kela, LHP Derek Holland, RHP Chris Archer, RHP Trevor Williams, 3B José Osuna.
In: RHP Luis Oviedo, RHP Wil Crowe.
The Pirates are still at least a couple of years from contending for a division title, so it wasn’t surprising that they were open to trading Bell. Starting pitcher Joe Musgrove is viewed as the next player on the trade block, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“In order to build that winning team that our fans deserve, it’s going to require making some decisions like this along the way to give ourselves a chance to build enough talent to do that,” Pirates GM Ben Cherington told reporters after the Bell trade. “This is one of them.”