NL Central Hot Stove Preview: Assessing offseason plans for Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Cubs
This week, SI.com is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013:
St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Results: 97-65, 1st place in NL Central, lost World Series
Run Differential: +187, 2nd inMLB
Pending Free Agents: OF Carlos Beltran, SS Rafael Furcal, RHP Jake Westbrook, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Chris Carpenter
The Cardinals are so flush with young, high-end pitching talent, much of it on display in the just completed postseason, that they won’t miss the three pitchers listed above. Carpenter, who didn’t pitch in 2013 due to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, may move into a front-office or coaching position. Westbrook made only 21 starts because of injury, none after Aug. 21, and was left off the postseason roster. Mujica was an All-Star in 2013 but lost his job as closer late in the year to Trevor Rosenthal and made just two appearances in October.
Among the hitters, Beltran, who will be highly sought-after this offseason, will be replaced in-house by moving Allen Craig to right field (he has 139 major-league starts in the outfield corners, including the postseason) and letting Matt Adams take over full-time at first base.
Furcal didn’t play an inning in 2013 due to Tommy John surgery. As a 36-year-old who hit .251/.314/.347 in his last two healthy seasons (a performance that greatly resembles Daniel Descalso’s career line), he may no longer be much more than a replacement-level player. However, after a season in which St. Louis’ shortstops (primarily Descalso and Pete Kozma) hit a combined .222/.280/.303, Furcal is the player the Cardinals will most need to replace.
Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Oscar Taveras
Taveras ranked second on Baseball Prospectus’s midseason prospects list in late June and is widely considered the top hitting prospect in the game. He was expected to make his major-league debut this past season, but he injured his right ankle on a hard slide into second base in May and, after trying to play through the injury, had season-ending surgery in August. The Cardinals hope Taveras will be completely healed by spring training. If so, we could see him in the majors before his 22nd birthday (June 19), and he might force Jon Jay to the bench soon thereafter.
Targets: Shortstop, bench
Shortstop has been a perennial problem for St. Louis. It was by far the team’s weakest position in 2013 and is one hole its farm system is not prepared to fill. It should, therefore, be the club’s primary focus this offseason. Of course, the reason shortstop has been such a problem for the Cardinals is that there just aren’t that many impact players at the position. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta are by far the best of this year’s crop of free-agent shortstops, and there will be ample competition for their services. Of the two, Drew is slightly younger and better in the field and was given a qualifying offer by the Red Sox, which adds a lost draft pick to his price tag. Peralta is the more dangerous hitter and a better defender than his reputation suggests, but his recent Biogenesis-related drug suspension is a red flag.
The Redbirds’ only other obvious weakness is their bench, which will be even weaker in 2014 if Adams and Kolten Wong find themselves in the starting lineup. Almost any veteran with a reliable bat would be an upgrade there.
Bottom line: The Cardinals could let all of their free agents sign elsewhere and non-tender David Freese and still return to the postseason in 2014 with Adams at first base, Craig in right, Matt Carpenter moving to third and Wong taking over at second base. Meanwhile, their pitching staff is so well-stocked with young arms that starter Jaime Garcia and reliever Jason Motte will have to fight to get their old jobs back upon their returns from arm surgery in 2014.
2013 Results: 94-68, 2nd place in NL Central, lost Division Series
Run Differential: +57, 10th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: RF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, SS Clint Barmes, C John Buck, RHP A.J. Burnett, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kyle Farnsworth
The first three men on the above list will leave holes in Pittsburgh’s lineup that will need to be filled, but Jordy Mercer could take over at shortstop from within, and the Pirates should be able to upgrade on August acquisitions Byrd (who is 36 and coming off a career year) and Morneau (who never did homer for the Pirates). That would leave Burnett, who has said he will either retire or return to the Bucs, as the lone free agent the team should re-sign.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Jameson Taillon
The second-overall pick in the 2010 draft and a top-20 prospect heading into the 2013 season, the 6-foot-6-inch Taillon was considered the Pirates’ 1A pitching prospect behind Gerrit Cole, but his performance in Double and Triple-A in 2013 was a bit underwhelming (combined 5-10, 3.73 ERA, 2.75 K/BB). Still, he’ll only be 22 next season and has a potentially dominant fastball/curve combination, so there’s time for him to get sorted out at Triple-A and join Cole in Pittsburgh’s rotation in the middle of next season.
Targets: First base, right field, shortstop
Mercer is already 27 and was not a top prospect at any point, so the Pirates should at least inquire about Drew and Peralta, but they’d be better off spending their money on a big bopper for right field, first base or both. And the Pirates will be spending money this offseason. As they proved with the additions of Byrd, Morneau and Russell Martin, and the March 2012 extension for Andrew McCutchen, the organization is willing to expand payroll to get and remain in contention. Its fans have then rewarded those decisions with increased attendance, which has thus increased revenues. It’s a very positive cycle, but it’s now the organization’s turn to keep that wheel spinning by adding the bats necessary to keep Pittsburgh in contention in 2014. That means reaching out to Mike Napoli, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, Kendrys Morales, Curtis Granderson and Corey Hart and making competitive offers to bring at least one of those men to the Steel City.
Bottom line: The Pirates were the best story in baseball in 2013. They not only broke their 20-year streak of losing seasons, but also made the playoffs, won the NL Wild Card Game and pushed the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals to a decisive Game 5 in the Division Series, all backed by a passionate fanbase that made a packed PNC Park one of the most electric playoff environments in recent memory. The Pirates are a good young team, but they also play in a very tough division, the only one that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2013, and a return to the postseason in 2014 is not guaranteed.
There is significant pressure, then, on general manager Neal Huntington to capitalize on this opportunity with significant additions for next season. Huntington hit several home runs last winter with the additions of Martin, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon and the decision to re-sign Jason Grilli and promote him to closer. This winter, however, the Pirates and their fans will require a higher-profile addition. Fortunately, Pittsburgh is no longer a tough sell to prospective free agents.
2013 Results: 90-72, 3rd place in NL Central, lost Wild Card Game
Run Differential: +109, 6th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: OF Shin-Soo Choo, SS Cesar Izturis, C Corky Miller, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Greg Reynolds, LHP Manny Parra, LHP Zach Duke, RHP Nick Masset
Choo will be one of the top players on the market this offseason. The Reds have Billy Hamilton ready to take over in center field, where Choo’s defense undermined his production at the plate last year, but Choo would be a nice upgrade in left field over 35-year-old Ryan Ludwick, who has one year and a mutual option left on his contract and would make a good bench bat or trade bait. Parra had a solid year as a match-up lefty in 2013 and would be worth retaining, though righties continued to hit him hard. Cincinnati needn’t bother with the rest of the above, however; Tony Cingrani and Johnny Cueto (if healthy) are ready to coexist in the starting rotation, taking the place of Arroyo, who will be 37 in February.
Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Billy Hamilton
Hamilton’s game-changing speed was on ample display during his September call-up. He stole 13 bases in 14 attempts in just 13 games, including a successful steal in all seven of his pinch-running appearances, when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going, and four steals in four attempts in his first major-league start. That speed translates to center field, where he has shown outstanding range.
The only question is whether or not he can hit major-league pitching. Hamilton had small-sample success in September (7-for-19 with two doubles and a pair of walks), but in a proper sample in Triple-A, he hit a mere .256/.308/.343 across 547 plate appearances. Is that a hitter the Reds are ready to put in their starting lineup in place of one of Choo, one of the most productive hitters in baseball this past season? Hamilton may be a case of the genie being out of the bottle, but real concerns about the 23-year-old’s bat remain.
NEXT: Reds’ targets and breakdowns of the Brewers and Cubs