The National League Central was the best division in the National League in 2013, and the only division in baseball to send three teams to the postseason. But what can we expect of the Cubs’ divisional rivals in 2014?
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals look to remain the class of the NL Central in 2014, with the only significant likely free agent departure being Carlos Beltran. Some think they could try to bring back Beltran, but with high ranking outfield prospect Oscar Taveras waiting in Triple A, Beltran apparently looking for a longer term deal (he rejected the Cardinals’ 1 year/$14 million qualifying offer), and Beltran better suited for a an AL team where he can be a part time outfielder/part time designated hitter, my feeling is that Beltran won’t be a Cardinal in 2014.
The only massive hole on the Cardinals’ roster is shortstop. Pete Kozma can’t hit at all, Daniel Descalso can barely hit any better and certainly can’t play shortstop, and none of the Cardinals’ players who can handle second base (Matt Carpenter, Kolton Wong) would be serviceable shortstops.
One of the top rumors on the early off season hot stove has been the Cardinals’ search for a better shortstop, with their top target being the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki. Tulowitzki has long been viewed as the most talented shortstop in baseball, but he’s had problems staying on the field for the last few seasons and has a very expensive extension starting up soon. Of course, if the Cardinals trade for him, he’ll probably never miss a game again. Reportedly, the Cardinals are willing to part with some of their young pitching for a shortstop, but I kind of doubt that this sort of match will actually happen. The Rockies would likely demand a king’s ransom in young pitching and other prospects for Tulowitzki, and it just would not fit the Cardinal M.O. to trade two of Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Oscar Taveras for a guy with a contract the size of Tulowitzki’s.
Rumors popped up regarding Starlin Castro as someone the Cardinals could target if they can’t get Tulowitzki. I would suggest just ignoring those. The Cubs would not sell low on Castro to the Cardinals, and the Cardinals aren’t giving Miller or Wacha for Castro. My bet, along with many others, is that the Cardinals will trade someone like Lance Lynn for someone like the Angels’ Erick Aybar.
Without a large amount of turnover, a very solid core, great young pitching, and a strong farm system, unfortunately the Cardinals are likely to stay atop their perch as the best team in the Central in 2014.
The Pirates finally delivered on their promise of “up and coming team” in 2013, not only breaking their two decade long streak of finishing under .500, but making the playoffs and bringing eventual NL pennant winner St. Louis to the brink of elimination in the NLDS. The Pirates have one of the best players in baseball in NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, and some nice players around him in Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. They also have one of the most promising young starting pitchers in the Majors in former number one pick Gerrit Cole, along with one of the best farm systems in baseball. Jameson Taillon, a great starting pitching prospect and the number two pick from the 2010 draft, headlines the system.
With that said, I doubt the Pirates will match their 94 win season in 2014. This is not because I question whether the Pirates are actually greatly improved, but instead because so much of their success was due to a phenomenal bullpen performance. Just ask the Orioles how predictable that is from one year to the next.
The Pirates do have some holes, with the most glaring being first base and right field. I would o’t be surprised to see the Pirates try to platoon in right field, but there are not that many great options at first base. Mike Napoli would be the best option, as a good player who will not get crazy money. However, the Pirates would lose their first round pick if they signed Napoli.
The Pirates should still compete for a Wild Card at the least, and should continue to improve over the next few years as more of their prospects reach the Majors, and more of their young talent moves into their career peaks. The Pirates’ question in the short term is if they can continue plugging the holes in their lineup without breaking the bank. The question in the long term is if they will be able to retain enough talent as their young players get older and more expensive. But the Pirates are for real and, for the next few years at least, should be a consistent contender.
Following the 2010 season, the Reds filled a similar position to the current Pirates. They overachieved in winning the NL Central, but had some great young players with upside, headlined by Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, and a still strong farm system continuing to feed the Major League team. But the Reds show the limitations of most smaller market clubs. With Votto, Bruce, and Brandon Phillips all signed to long term deals for big money, the Reds’ ability to add payroll is limited.
This is a problem because the Reds have a lot of players approaching free agency. Shin-Soo Choo is gone, and unless Billy Hamilton can reach base they have no in house replacement. Homer Bailey hits free agency after 2014. Aroldis Chapman likely will as well, as the Cuban flame thrower will likely reject his $5 million player option for 2015. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake are all set to hit free agency after 2015. In other words, in the next 24 months the Reds will have five of their best pitchers hit free agency, have no one internally who can replace them, and will be lucky to be able to retain more than two of them in the free agent market.
A relatively barren farm system amplifies the Reds’ problems. The Reds built their current team off a previously great farm system, but that well has now run dry. The Reds’ window is closing, and over the next two years they will have to make a hard decision: continue trying to make a run before these players hit free agency, or try to turn some of those soon to be free agents into young, cost controlled players and prospects.
Barring injuries, the Reds should be competitive again in 2014. Beyond that, the decline is likely to begin soon.
It has not been easy being a Cubs’ fan the past two years. Our Major League team has been awful, but at least we could dream on a strong, and improving, farm system. The Brewers do not even have that.
Now, I’ll admit that I think the 2014 Brewers have at least an even shot at being better than the 2014 Cubs. Ryan Braun will be done with his suspension and should be healthy. On its own , that should bring at least four or five wins to the Brew Crew.
The Brewers’s problem is that they lack much help for Braun, who they have a huge amount of money devoted to for a long, long time. Rickie Weeks has been a shell of his former self over the last two seasons. Aramis Ramirez just went through an injury filled season. Yovani Gallardo disappointed last season, and has never reached that true number one status.
The Brewers are the epitome of the logic that a team is not better off winning 75 games than 65 games. There are exceptions to this statement, but an aging team with a bad farm system does not fit any exception.
The Brewers are also hurt by Braun’s status as wholly untradeable due to the aforementioned suspension and contract. The Brewers had a nice little run from 2008 to 2011, but that window closed once the Brewers got off to a slow start in 2012, and it will likely be a fairly long and bumpy ride back to contention for our neighbors to the north.
Semi-Shameless Non-Baseball Related Plug
My father recently wrote and self-published a children’s book, Journey to Galumphagos. I could tell you how much I enjoyed, but you’d understandably say I’m biased. Instead, I’d like to let you know that Kirkus Reviews, a leading American book review for more than 80 years, called it an “entertaining, fantastical adventure” and a “well-paced, delightful children’s book with a moral that’s clear without being heavy-handed.” Kirkus liked it so much that it selected Journey to Galumphagos for publication in its print magazine, which is sent to more than 5,000 industry professionals.
If you have little kids like me, it’s probably a bit too advanced for them yet (it’s a chapter book). But it’s right in the wheelhouse of kids aged 7-12 or so. It is available on paperback and via a host of e-readers, including Kindle. Click on this link to reach the Amazon page for the paperback version.