While much of the success that a team has comes from its own preparation, what goes on around them also plays a huge factor. The Cardinals have been among the most successful clubs at concisely addressing their needs this winter, but how has the rest of the National League Central done?
What is for certain is that the margin for error was slim-to-none last summer in the heart of the National League. While the Cardinals succeeded in winning the division, they finished only three games ahead of the Pirates, and seven in front the third-place Reds. And this feat was achieved only by a September surge that pulled them out of a three-way race that was separated by less than a two games entering the season’s final frame.
Even below the upper tier of the division, the Brewers and the Cubs are both looking to develop a new phase for their respective fortunes. Amid the Ryan Braun Biogenesis fallout and the continued resurfacing in Chicago, both teams finished well outside of the race, but continue to look for ways to tweak the approach.
However, the NL Central has not been a division that has made a sweeping amount of substantial additions. In fact, many faces from each team have departed and the action to replace them has not been as loud as it has been in, say the American League East or West. Thus far, only the Cardinals have made any major additions of note, and when combined with what’s in place already, potential the NL Central gauntlet could be a thing of the past potentially.
Here is how the winter has gone for the Cardinals’ divisional neighbors thus far, and what could be to come before the winter turns to spring…
Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68 in 2013)
Gains: Clint Barmes (resigned), Chris Stewart, Edison Volquez
Losses: Marlon Byrd (Phillies), Garrett Jones (Marlins), Justin Morneau (Rockies)
The detail: The Pirates have let both of the main parts they added for the stretch run last year walk, which should come as no surprise. While the presence of Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez makes this bearable, the loss of Jones as well leaves a substantial loss in power potential. Add in the pending free agent status of AJ Burnett, and this is a team that has more than a few questions currently. The addition of Volquez is both an attempt to pad this looming issue, as well as to catch the same type of former All-Star lightning in a bottle they did with Liriano last summer.
What’s Looming: Burnett will either resign or retire most likely, and it is a decision that could linger into the spring. Pittsburgh is armed with a young core and could look to add some value priced veterans, but they are likely to take a step back in everyday potency as long as their first base situation is up in the air.
Cincinnati Reds (90-72 in 2013)
Additions: Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker
Subtractions: Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers), Ryan Hanigan (Rays), Xavier Paul (Orioles), Dusty Baker (Fired)
The detail: The Reds have probably seen the most change of any team in the division, which started with the firing of manager Dusty Baker a day after their loss in the NL Wild Card Game. On the field, the expected loss of Choo came, and they flirted with the idea of moving Brandon Phillips as well, but were scoffed by the Yankees before it could go through. Their operation has been based in promoting from within (trading Hanigan to open up a full-time role for Devin Mesoraco), and rounding out the bench this offseason, with additions such as the former Cardinal Schumaker. They are very much a team that is not quite rebuilding, but is definitely retooling their approach on the run.
What’s Looming: As it stands today, the Reds are a wild card, and very much the definition of a third place-level club. They will return the majority of the top half of their staff and every day lineup, but the future of Bronson Arroyo and where he lands next year potentially removes a vital safety valve in their rotation. Billy Hamilton will take over the reins in the center field, and will be asked to slide into the leadoff spot that Choo masterfully performed in last year.
Milwaukee Brewers (74-88 in 2013)
Subtractions: Corey Hart (Mariners)
The Story: 2013 stunk for Milwaukee. They couldn’t get a steady effort on the mound, injuries and suspensions killed their offensive potential and they could never crack into the competitive mix in the division. On the heels of it all, they’ve been the quietest team in the division, without much coming or going. This is either a sign that they feel they can compete with a return to full strength, or that they are simply hamstrung by what is available in the market—and what fits their needs.
What’s Looming: The loss of Hart hurts, as they struggled to find a replacement for him last season, and now don’t have a clear successor for him now that he has officially moved on. They have had interest in Mets first baseman Ike Davis, but have been reluctant to depart with any of their young arms to do so. However, with either Sean Halton or Juan Francisco as their only viable replacements, their hand could be forced eventually.
Chicago Cubs (66-96 in 2013)
Additions: Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Roberts, George Kottaras, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright
Subtractions: Dioner Navarro (Blue Jays)
The Story: The Cubs have once again been mostly quiet, having their name thrown into the rumor mill before they quickly pull it back out themselves. However, they have steadily gone along adding parts to their shed, rebuilding their bench completely and adding a new closer in Jose Veras as well.
What’s Looming: In the end, they could potentially make the biggest name splash of any team in the division, as they are said to be major suitors for newly available Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. If the franchise decides to go all in to add him (and he agrees to come to the lowly Cubs over the bigger names on the market), they would have a legitimate ace-caliber arm for the first time in years. Jeff Samardzija’s name has been often floated, but at this juncture, the club’s likely opening day starter as things stand now will likely stay in tow for a bit longer.