NL Central Hot Stove Preview: Assessing offseason plans for Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Cubs
Targets: Second base, outfield
With Choo a free agent and Ludwick coming off a down season that included a shoulder injury, the Reds could use another bat in the outfield. They could retain Choo or find an upgrade over Ludwick or Hamilton. Curtis Granderson leaps to mind as player who could fill center or, at worst, be the strong side of a platoon with Ludwick.
Beyond that, according to multiple reports, Cincinnati is interested in trading second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose bat made fewer headlines than his mouth after a .261/.310/.396 season in which he groused about his $72.5 million contract and cursed out a beat writer in front of television cameras. It remains to be seen if there will be much of a market for a player who will be 33 in June, is owed $50 million over the next four seasons and has seen his production decline each of the last two years. Phillips is a perennial All-Star, Gold Glove winner and fan favorite, but he’s not a good investment for another team.
What’s more, trading Phillips would require the Reds to replace him at second base, something they can’t do in-house. There are plenty of other questions a Phillips trade would create: Could dealing him put them in the market for Robinson Cano? Could it take the form of a challenge trade for a another aging second baseman with a bad contract like Dan Uggla? Would the Reds consider moving Hamilton, a former shortstop, to second base despite the fact that it would be a waste of his speed afield, a danger to his legs and compound his struggles to adjust to the majors? Would they spend the savings on Choo and let low-level prospect Henry Rodriguez, who hit .274/.319/.335 in Triple A this past season, take over second?
The guess here is that, barring the Uggla scenario, Phillips will remain in Cincinnati in 2014, though he has already confronted the team about the rumors, receiving what sounds like a dodge from general manager Walt Jocketty. One wonders if the relationship between player and team will become fractured beyond repair if the Reds try and fail to trade him this winter.
Bottom line: Cincinnati is a good team without a lot to do to remain so in 2014. It is also, however, in a very tough division and is facing the potential loss of Choo, who along with perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto was one of the team’s two best hitters from this past season. The Reds’ primary focus this offseason should be on retaining Choo or adequately replacing his production.
2013 Results: 74-88, 4th place
Run Differential: -47, 19th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: 1B/OF Corey Hart, IF Yuniesky Betancourt, LHP Mike Gonzalez
Among the many things that went wrong for Milwaukee in 2013, Corey Hart missing the entire season due to a pair of surgeries on his right knee ranked behind only the Ryan Braun fiasco. Hart’s injury left a hole at first base that the team never adequately filled, but if his knees are sound, re-signing him would make a fair amount of sense. Desperate for relief help, the Brewers could do worse than to re-sign Gonzalez, but they could also do better. Betancourt need not apply, here or anywhere else for that matter.
Top Prospect on the Verge: 1B Hunter Morris
Tyler Thornburg and Scooter Gennett have lost their rookie (and thus prospect) status in 2013, and Johnny Hellweg’s control problems reached epic proportions in his first MLB season (26 walks in 30 2/3 innings!). That means the Brewers’ top prospect on the verge is Morris, who is a borderline prospect, but one at a position of need for the team heading into the offseason.
Morris, who turned 25 in October, has 20-homer power and, well, that’s about it. It says all you need to know about his prospect status that he spent all of 2013 at Triple-A without once being called up while the team’s first basemen hit a collective .206/.259/.370. It also tells you all you need to know about the quality of the Brewers’ farm system that he is the choice in this category.
Targets: First base, bullpen
Milwaukee’s need at first base is glaring and will deservedly be their top priority this winter, but the bullpen is also in need of an overhaul. The team lost Jose Veras and Manny Parra to free agency last offseason and then traded John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez during the year. With more closers on the market than teams that need one, the Brewers should be able to land an ace set-up man from that bunch to slot in front of closer Jim Henderson. Veras, Parra and K-Rod are all back on the market, should Milwaukee want to put the band back together, as is the ageless LaTroy Hawkins, another former Brewers set-up man of recent vintage. The options are plentiful, which is good because the team needs to land several of them. It should choose wisely, though, as not every pitcher can thrive in hitter-friendly Miller Park.
Bottom line: Health and a lack of scandal would go a long way toward improving the Brewers’ outlook in 2014. Full and productive seasons from both Braun, who will be back from his 65-game Biogenesis suspension, and Aramis Ramirez would be like adding a major bat to the heart of the order; those two combined for just 604 plate appearances last year. Filling first base with a healthy Hart or a viable alternative such as Kendrys Morales would add another. Letting Gennett start at second base might be a better bet that going back to the well with Rickie Weeks in his walk year and could represent another upgrade. A rebound by Yovani Gallardo, a healthy season from Marco Estrada and growth from sophomores Wily Peralta and Thornburg could upgrade the rotation without changing the identity of the pitchers in it.
That’s a lot of wishing and hoping, but with a legitimate first baseman and a little help in the bullpen, Milwaukee should be no worse than a .500 team. If everything goes right, it might even challenge for the wild card.
2013 Results: 66-96, 5th place
Run Differential: -87, 24th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: C Dioner Navarro, RHPs Scott Baker, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier
None of these players, if re-signed, would last until the next contending Cubs team, so there’s little reason for the team to bother keeping any of them.
Top Prospect on the Verge: 3B Kris Bryant
Chicago has four major hitting prospects — Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler — in the minor leagues, all of whom could open 2014 in Double-A. Of the four, Baez, a shortstop, is the only one to have played at that level already, hitting .294/.346/.638 in 54 games there this past season.
However, Bryant, the team’s top draft pick in 2013, may actually pass Baez on the way up, in part because his position isn’t filled with a significant player at the major-league level. Bryant, who turns 22 in January, is the oldest of the quartet and was drafted second overall last June. He hit .336/.390/.688 with nine home runs in 146 plate appearances over three levels in his professional debut late last year, wrapping up with five home runs in 16 games (and a .719 slugging percentage) for High-A Daytona. He’s a big (6-foot-5), right-handed-hitting third baseman with major power, and by 2014, he’ll have made everyone forget about Josh Vitters.
Targets: Pitching, backup catcher
With Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo and Junior Lake in the major-league lineup already and the aforementioned prospects on the way, the Cubs don’t have to worry too much about acquiring hitters. Rather, to accelerate their rebuild and complement that crop of young bats, they need pitching. Their four-year deal for Edwin Jackson last winter was supposed to help with that, but year one was a complete bust (8-18, 4.98 ERA) that only emphasized that need. Jeff Samardzija has exceeded some projections, but he’ll be 29 in January and may serve the team better as trade bait than as a long-term starter. Ditto lefty Travis Wood, who will be 27 in February and combines a high fly ball rate with a low strikeout rate.
It may come to pass that Chicago decides to flip the 23-year-old Castro for pitching, with Baez taking over at shortstop, but my guess is the front office will give the new manager (whoever that may be) and his coaching staff a chance to break through to the two-time All-Star before cutting bait. Perhaps that means this is the winter that Samardzija gets dealt for pitching prospects or that the Cubs cash in on Wood’s All-Star season. Maybe they make a big splash by winning the rights to 25-year-old Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka, hoping he can be an ace to balance all of those bats, or maybe they think small by taking a flier on the live arm of someone like Phil Hughes, who is just 27 and might benefit from a move to the league in which pitchers hit.
Also, Castillo is the only catcher on their 40-man roster and their best backstop at Triple-A last year was J.C. Boscan, who was dropped from the roster last month. They literally need a backup catcher.
Bottom line: The Cubs continue to look ahead to 2016, the final year of team president Theo Epstein’s contract (as well as Jackson’s), when Almora, Baez, Bryant and Soler should all be in the Opening Day lineup. The primary job of Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer between now and then is to make sure that 2016 team has a pitching staff that will help that potentially excellent lineup contend.