I had a lot of fun breaking down the AL Central, and our division is supposed to be bad. How about taking a look at its fiercely competitive counterpart in the senior circuit, the NL Central? The first team that I can recall is the Reds, so let’s see if they have any new Nasty Boys™
The Reds, like the White Sox, won the off season™*. Historically, that seems to never matter, in fact, teams that do well on paper and in pundits eyes in the off season, tend to not meet expectations come April. This could result from a number of factors, namely that the teams that go out and spend a lot in the off season had a reason to spend a lot in the off season. Also there may be some issue with team chemistry or something.
*How many times can I place a trademark on a useless baseball idiom? Find out as I continue to write about a sport infested with bro-poets.
Anyway, the Reds were not particularly good last year. They won 75 games behind some excellent pitching, but their lineup was surprisingly bad despite their ballpark, in reality, being a little red shoe. Eugenio Suarez had his third breakout year in a row, this time hitting 49 home runs, but no one else contributed much offensively. The troubling thing was that there wasn’t a lot of underperformance to be found, especially with their young players- OF Jesse Winker, long one of their prized prospects, got some real playing time and had an OPS+ of 111, Nick Senzel was a top 10 prospect debuting with a respectable .742 OPS, and OF Aristedes Aquino came on the scene in August and hit 19 home runs in 225 PA’s. SS Jose Iglesias pumped out a .288 average, C Tucker Barnhart put up a .328 OBP from the catcher spot with good defense, and they got something from Derek Dietrich (19 HR in 306 PA’s) and Phil Ervin (102 OPS+). The only underperformer was Joey Votto, who at age 35 has lost most of his power—but you knew going into the season that Votto wasn’t going to be the guy the team relied on anymore. Or maybe they didn’t know that; they’ve made calculation errors in the past.
So to rectify this low ceiling offense (Suarez ain’t hitting 49 HR again), GM Dick Williams (not that Dick Williams) went out and got a Moose and a Douche. Wait, why is Nick Castellanos a douche? Well, he checks all the boxes:
1. Doesn’t get the most out of his talent (113 career OPS+)
3. Doesn’t concern himself with defense
4. Or baserunning
Notice I didn’t throw “ask for a trade” in there because plenty of non-douches ask for trades*. It’s their right and it’s why we don’t have the reserve clause anymore.
*But if you think asking for a trade is douchey, well, Castellanos has asked for ‘em.
Setting aside the fact that Moustakas is a nice player and he deserved his $64 million after being left out in the cold his first two tries at free agency, Castellanos doesn’t appreciably help the Reds. For one, they had five outfielders, and all five of them could play a part in the future of the Reds not being terrible. I mentioned the 4 young guys who held their own last year in Ervin, Aquino, Senzel and Winker, but they also signed a guy from Japan in Shogo Akiyama to play outfield, and he’s projected to be pretty good. Now, do Japanese players always pan out? No, but that’s why you have four other good outfielders!
Castellanos clogs up whatever position he plays with disinterested fielding, is blocking guys who are cheaper and can provide more total production, and I can’t imagine he’s a good guy to have in the clubhouse. Oh, and he costs $16 million against the payroll for a small market team that is going to have competitive windows it needs to allocate its resources into. The Reds were like me buying a pair of $1.99 socks at Marshalls- they look nice and are a good deal, but they do nothing to shield the stench of my feet and I’ll want to throw them out well before 2024.
The Reds just don’t seem to get it. After this season Trevor Bauer will be gone, but Taylor Trammell is never coming back. They haven’t won a championship since 1990, they’re likely maxed out on payroll for this year and the foreseeable future, and they are not guaranteed to win in 2020 (though they certainly could if things break right for them). Their farm system is ok, but can you name anyone from it? I could only think of Jonathan India and Hunter Greene off the top of my head and the former slugged .402 at double-A, while the latter hasn’t pitched in two years due to injury.
They strike me as a team that could do well in 2005, when you could ride Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia into the sunset with a decent couple of guys in your lineup and like, Bobby Jenks. But this is 2020, and they don’t have rotation depth (what happens if one of their top three gets hurt?), they don’t have bullpen depth and the only lineup depth they have is in the outfield where guys who need to, and deserve to, show what they can do as an encore are going to be riding the bench. And now they have their fans’ hopes up.
Position player WAR leader: Suarez
Pitching WAR leader: Luis Castillo
The Cubs, on the other hand, have no expectations from their fans after adding nothing in the off season and entertaining trades for one of their most popular and productive players in Kris Bryant. This belies the fact that their starting pitching is still pretty good, with Kyle Hendricks a consistently excellent commodity along with still capable Jose Quintana and Jon Lester, and whatever you get out of Yu Darvish this week. They have (maybe?) the best hitting catcher in baseball in Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Bryant are as good as any corner tandem, they have an all-world shortstop in the electrifying Javier Baez, plus whatever Jason Heyward is, 30 home runs from Kyle Schwarber one way or another, etc. They are definitely an above .500 team, and as you will see in the ensuing paragraphs, that’s pretty competitive in this division.
Their variance lies in the performance and health of their rotation- they could get lucky and have 4 above average starters make 30 starts, and two of them are playoff tested. In my diagnosis of the Twins, what I always come back to is their need for one more starter better than Jake Odorizzi. Not that Odorizzi is bad, just that to move the needle on the Twins playoff prospects, they need someone better than him, as a rule of thumb. The Cubs may have four guys like that when you factor in Lester’s playoff prowess (3 if you factor in Darvish’s playoff success).
Their bullpen will likely be a weakness, and they don’t have a ton of prospect capital to pull off a trade for help in July, either. Is Craig Kimbrel toast? History says, yeah probably. Then you’re relying on getting big outs from Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress. But you could see them going deep in games with Hendricks, Quintana and Lester, which would allow them to mask such weaknesses in the playoffs. Nobody has ever done that.
The Cubs probably still have the most talent in the division, but my question is, when are they going to develop a pitcher? I get that I’m a Twins fan and I shouldn’t throw rocks, but Jesus, get a good bullpen arm from triple-A or something. They got Hendricks for Ryan Dempster in 2012- I thought that was the one guy they drafted and developed. Nope, Texas! Was Alec Mills a product of the Cubs system? Nope! Rowan Wick? Nope! Even Carl Edwards wasn’t drafted by the Cubs. I’m really searching here. It took me scrolling until the pitcher with the 19th most innings on the 2019 team to find somebody the Cubs drafted, Adbert Alzolay. He pitched 12.1 innings and is actually their 5th best prospect, so they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.
Position player WAR: Baez
Pitching WAR: Big bounce back for Quintana, why not?
Never underestimate the Cardinals (Don’t overestimate them, either). They have a tradition of playing above expectations, especially when nobody is quite sure how they are going to win with the glaring deficiency they have that week. But they always seem to scrounge up the players they need to win just enough. Remember when they called up Billy Grimble and he had that crazy half season where he had an OPS+ of 160 while playing all over the diamond? Or how about back in the day when Johnny Mudwater played out of his mind a couple of months when Ozzie Smith got hurt?
The Cardinals have this infuriating way of producing these little Nick Punto clones who hit better and have cuter names. Do we ever hear about them coming up through the minor leagues? Of course not, we just look at the box score one day and Robbie Tolliver pops up going 2 for 5 with a double and the game winning run.
Last year it was Tommy Edman who somehow ended up 4th on the team in WAR after posting a 120 OPS+ in 350 PA’s. The good news is that Tommy Edman will hit .190 in April, get a nagging injury and we’ll never hear of him again, until of course he resurfaces with the Rays in 2027 and hits the chopper to win the ALCS.
This year the Cardinals have no offense to speak of. They have the husk of Matt Carpenter, a declining Paul Goldschmidt, a 90 year old Yadier Molina who will probably still catch 30% of base stealers, and the streaky Paul Dejong. Kolten Wong is still around, but he’ll probably retire before he has his long awaited breakout season. Harrison Bader was the Tommy Edman of 2018, so as you can imagine, he now cannot hit. Tyler O’Neil at one time looked like a great power hitting prospect, and may have some value as a post-hype sleeper. The only reinforcement they have is what the Cards are banking on, OF Dylan Carlson, who has followed the trajectory you like to see- average for a few years and then the breakout year in the high minors with power and strike zone control, slashing .292/.372/.542 . If he’s as great as advertised, the Cardinals can ride their good pitching staff featuring bona fide ace Jack Flaherty, up and comer Dakota Hudson, and their underrated no name relief corps (the Twins bullpen of the NL) to 90 wins. Or they could play .500 ball that includes more infuriating games against the Cubs where nobody hits anything (although the Cubs hit 17 lineouts) and then Jimmy Dingleberry hits a game winning double to win 2-1.
Position player WAR: DeJong
Pitching WAR: Flaherty
The Brewers are fun on the surface. They outsmart other teams with more talent and more money and end up in the playoffs. I’m not sold on them crying poor as justification, though. They trimmed payroll this off season following their run to game 7 of the NLCS in 2018 and a heartbreaking wild card loss to the eventual champs in 2019. My suspicion is that they are doing this because they can, and they are seeing just how far they can stretch it. But this isn’t a poor family pouring water into milk, this is a rich asshole who made his money in buying bad debt and in telecommunications trying to pull wool over people’s eyes. He is also wasting the best year of Christian Yelich’s career by putting together a team that can make the playoffs in a rough division, and nothing more. Because as an owner he can just say, “Hey the playoffs are a crapshoot, at least I got us there, ya never know,” while never addressing the fact that he has 1 starter on his team (albeit a good one in Brandon Woodruff (who is better than Jake Odorizzi at least)). Smart teams use the opener as a necessity, not because its cute, but Mark Attansio is using something he probably enjoyed in business, the concept of artificial scarcity, to make it a necessity. GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell are smart enough to work with the scraps they’re given, but it is a sad situation.
*And now they’ve signed Yelich to a 6 year extension, which is nice but doesn’t improve their prospects of adding any pitching. Now they can use Yelich’s extension to say that they do spend money and won’t sign a free agent pitcher until 2029.
They found some good pieces on the scrap heap, though. Justin Smoak could flourish with a little more platooning and rest, Omar Narvaez has shown he’s a top 5 offensive catcher, and Avisail Garcia is an above average hitter. Luis Urias may break out once he finally gets a decent amount of healthy at bats, or maybe there’s a reason the Padres gave up on him. Brock Holt is fun and always seems to perform above his perceived talent level, and Jedd Gyorko could slug .500 in an unexposed capacity. Keston Hiura looks like an impact bat for exactly 5 more years, when he is traded, and you have maybe the 2nd best hitter in baseball in the middle. They could score some runs, but the problem is fairly obvious:
I don’t know where the pitching is going to come from. I guess Corbin Burnes could reemerge and Adrian Houser could develop before our very eyes. Maybe Eric Lauer is an average starter and Brett Anderson has that 1 in 5 season where he’s healthy. The only reason I’m even hand-wringing about their ability to perform is because of this coaching staff’s ability to squeeze just enough pitching to get to Josh Hader every year. They didn’t have much pitching last year, either, you may remember, but at least they had Chase Anderson and Zach Davies soaking up above average innings. They traded away 105 of the starts made for them last year, and of those 105, only 19 belonged to a below average contributor, Jhoulys Chacin, who will of course rebound with the Twins. But how do you justify only getting Eric Lauer back from all of that, in terms of pitching? I think the Brewers flew too close to the sun this time.
Did I mention they have the worst farm system in the game?
Position player WAR: Yelich
Pitching WAR: Woodruff
One trade was all it took for it all to crumble away. All the good will built by the teams in the early 2010’s, wasted, replaced only by a faraway look in Chris Archer’s eyes, a look that says, “I wish I was playing with LEGOs.”
Maybe it’s reductive to place it all on that one day, July 31st, 2018. The team was playing surprisingly well at that point, above .500 even after it had traded its franchise savior, Andrew McCutchen, in the off season. The Brewers and Cubs hadn’t run away with anything yet at that point, so Neil Huntington made the fatal error so many GMs make, and he called the Tampa Bay Rays.
To Huntington’s credit, Chris Archer was seen as one tweak from reclaiming his status as a true ace, a guy who finished 5th in the CY voting in 2015, striking out 252. He had struck out 249 the year before, in 2017. Clearly he had plenty left at age 29, and was in the midst of a seemingly very team-friendly contract- 7 years, 33M. The private equity vipers of Tampa were looking for a good return on their asset for years and the Pirates needed a low cost ace. They traded their prized right hander Tyler Glasnow, then pitching decently out of the bullpen, and injury prone rookie outfielder Austin Meadows, who they weren’t sure would develop power, for 3 years of Archer.
They played .500 ball down the stretch in 2018 and were somewhat optimistic going into 2019. Archer hadn’t thrown great with the Pirates, but he had shown the potential that everybody wanted to see. They got off to an OK start until their ace, Jameson Taillon, went down for Tommy John surgery. 2018 breakout starter Trevor Williams never found it. Super reliever Felipe Vasquez was found to be a child predator. They started throwing at everybody that looked at them. Their 62 year old manager got in skirmishes. They had Amir Garrett wanting to fight the whole team (That link has everything, btw). Meadows broke out and became the centerpiece of the Ray’s offensive attack and Glasnow looked like the best pitcher in the AL the first two months of the season, then shut down the Astros in game 1 of the ALDS. The Pirates went 69-93.
The worst part is that wasn’t all. Shane Baz was picked 12th overall in the 2017 draft and is currently BaseballProspectus’ #30 overall prospect. He was thrown in the trade, too, and wouldn’t that be tragic if he develops into something. Here’s an excerpt from BP’s look at the Ray’s system (he is their #3).
The tall and slender righty has easy gas, pumping 96-98, and he locates the heat well in the upper half of the zone. Add a deceptive three-quarters arm slot and his fastball is a true swing-and-miss pitch. He does have a tendency to overthrow at times, which results in loss of command, but it doesn’t seem to be a mechanical issue. Baz also employs a sharp, plus slider, sitting mid-80s and touching 88, featuring excellent tilt. That’s a second out-pitch in his arsenal. A mid-80s changeup is a work in progress, but it shows some potential with solid arm-side fade. There is a lot to like in Baz’s profile. He has quick arm action, he’s athletic, and has already shown that he has an idea of how to pitch. The ceiling is quite high with his lethal fastball/slider combination alone.
OFP: 60 / Front line starter potential
They still have Josh Bell (143 OPS+), SS Kevin Newman somewhat busted out his rookie year (111 OPS+) and settled into the leadoff spot, and Bryan Reynolds looks like a good return for the last year of McCutcheon’s contract (131 OPS+). Pitching-wise, Joe Musgrove looked like a decent #3 starter. Oneil Cruz, their 6’7” SS prospect, is fun, can still play short, and will hit, and Ke-Bryan Hayes just needs to add a tiny sprinkle of power to become a Matt Chapman-level of impact 3B.
Position player WAR: Reynolds
Pitching WAR: Archer. God I hope its Archer.
This division, upon further reflection, is not great. All three of the top teams in the AL Central have better talent and roster construction than any their NL counterparts, they just have one fewer team that’s trying. And that’s if you consider the Brewers to be trying- they’re trying to make the playoffs, sure; the AL Central teams are trying to do something in the playoffs (whether that happens is another matter). I’m actually depressed writing about such a sad bunch of teams. The Reds are riding high now, but the slightest breeze could knock them out of contention for 5 years. The Cubs can’t spend any money, so they have to ride with the still talented, but bullpen-less husk of the 2016 team. The Brewers are the exact reason MLB shouldn’t expand the playoffs- they’ll just keep playing down to the level they need to. The Cardinals may actually have the best strategy, knowing how tenuous the other team’s chances of success are and just rolling with their strong pitching and Dylan Carlson. But as a fan of them, you can’t be too excited. And then the Pirates are a Greek tragedy, and soon they will accidentally marry their mother once Shane Baz takes the AL East by storm.
I’m trying to think of a more fun division to do next- here comes the AL West!