The NL Central is looking like it’s Chicago and then everyone else

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Picking up our tour through the winter plans for all MLB teams, and today we land in the NL Central, where the only monster within might actually be starting to act like it.

Kyle Schwarber did something that’s only been done 11 other times in MLB history | Stats That Will Blow Your Mind

Chicago Cubs

Owner cheapness index: Before last week it was among the higher in the league, happy to rake in the cash from their faceless, colorless village for recent Big 10 grads around the park. But after poaching Craig Counsell, maybe not?

Outlook: Blowing up the manager pay scale to punt the eternally wayward and lost David Ross into a landfill to bring in Craig Counsell signals . . . something. On the one hand, it wouldn’t make any sense to bring in one of the best managers in the game for such a price and then just hand him the talent of an 84-win team to turn into an 87 or 88-win one, while wishing that a prospect or two might add just a touch more. On the other hand, it would make complete Ricketts-Cubs sense.

It makes even more sense when the division has come back to, and even sank below, the Cubs already. The Brewers just lost their manager, have one of their top starters out for the year and the other likely traded before the season. The Reds and Pirates are unlikely to augment their young cores with the signings they need. The Cardinals . . . whatever. The Cubs can easily just tinker, if that, from here and be Central favorites in 2024.

Should they have more ambition, there are obvious holes. First and third base, DH and a starting pitcher or two. A bullpen arm or two wouldn’t hurt either. They will claim that Christopher Morel will fill one of those lineup gaps, but their GM already seems to be ringing the dinner bell for other teams to make him part of a trade package. Morel might have the biggest boom-or-bust bat anywhere and the threat of being a bust far more might make him best used as a trade chip. There also isn’t a position open for the Cubs where Morel wouldn’t be better off having a glove on his head instead of his left hand.

The Cubs could use any of the big names. Shohei Ohtani solves two of their problems, though not until 2025 for both. Bringing back Cody Bellinger solves first base and is insurance in case hot young thing Pete Crow-Armstrong can’t hit a fastball above his waist in center. Matt Chapman would give them the best defensive infield in the league while also hitting the ball out of the infield occasionally, which Nick Madrigal can’t.

They don’t necessarily need Blake Snell or Aaron Nola, but Sonny Gray or Eduardo Rodriguez would fit very snugly behind Justin Steele. The Cubs also have a highly regarded system that should make them a player in any of the rumored big trades on offer, be it Juan Soto, Pete Alonso, Tyler Glasnow or whoever else. They’re rumored to be the leader in the clubhouse to offer Rhys Hoskins a pillow contract to prove he’s back to normal after his ACL went poof, which should save them money to go after something else.

It feels like the Cubs are getting ready to lord over the NL Central again, given their resources advantage, in a way they should have never really stopped doing. But there’s also a heavy don’t-believe-it-until-you-see-it element, because it’s still the Ricketts family at work here.

Ohtani Meter: 7. The Cubs will probably make more noise about chasing Ohtani than they do actually chasing him, but it makes all the sense in the world. He fills a need, he makes them an NL contender with just his bat, given the state of the division the Cubs provide him with games that matter from Year One on. And they also have their own network which everyone hates to sell.

Cincinnati Reds

Owner cheapness index: Galactic and assholic

Outlook: For as much excitement as the Reds generated there for a minute or two with the wealth of kids who came through and at least flashed, they are hardly a sure thing in 2024. Elly De La Cruz struck out all the time and turned into something of a sucking sound at the plate. He won’t stay that way, but when he becomes Alex Rodriguez 2.0 isn’t exactly known or automatic either. Christian Encarnacion-Strand’s K/BB rate is still itchy. Jonathan India actually has middling defensive or offensive value anymore, which is why the Reds aren’t exactly couth about how much they’d like to trade him. An upgrade at DH wouldn’t be remiss.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be worth watching, and it’s hardly farfetched that every player under 25 here becomes good and the Great American Ballpark looks like a pinball machine again. So it would be heartening to see Bob Castellini and his dickhead son actually get their thumbs out of their ass and augment that lineup with something more than a rotation that still hinges on the health of Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, the very definition of a castle in the sand. If they did stay healthy, along with Andrew Abbot, this would be a scary rotation for a while. But if your aunt had balls and such.

The Reds should absolutely be hot on Gray or Rodriguez or Nola or trading for Glasnow (his health problems would fit right in). The free-agent pitchers above at least would take the ball regularly and having more than one starter that could at least get five innings without causing a Three Mile island redux would have seen the Reds hang in the playoff chase a lot longer last year. The Central and National League as a whole is hardly a gauntlet, and it wouldn’t take much for the Reds to put themselves at the business end of it. But they won’t.

Ohtani Meter: 1. It’s not hard to see where Ohtani would get the competitive team he wants for years out of the Reds, and they certainly have more than enough money, with some $150 million projected available under the tax threshold. But a $50 million (at least) yearly paycheck would cause the Castellinis to have five simultaneous brain bubbles.

Milwaukee Brewers

Owner Cheapness index: Cheapness index is kind of high, though weighted for the market, but his overall Tool Index is very high as he just whined and pouted the state and city giving him hundreds of millions for improvements to a ballpark over whatever actual things Wisconsin and Milwaukee might actually need.

Outlook: Hard to parse, as we’ll have to wait for them to stop whinging about losing Counsell to “that team 80 miles south.” That might not come until June, when the Cubs have sufficiently dunked on whatever’s left here.

Because the Brewers are pretty much already screwed. Brandon Woodruff is going to miss the season with shoulder surgery. Corbin Burnes is almost certain to be traded a year out from free agency. That’s their two best starters gone, leaving Freddy Peralta, Adrien Houser and three guys kidnapped from the Mars Cheese Castle.

And the offense isn’t coming to help them. Christian Yelich was able to locate the ball again (or have the pitch signal from center field active again) and produced a level below his MVP-form from a couple years ago. Which was better than the six levels below it that he had been playing at. William Contreras was also a plus-hitter, but that’s it. Sal Frelick came up and walked a lot but no more. The Crew will have a lot riding on Frelick and other kids like Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang, but none of them are sure things. Jackson Chuorio and Seth Rollins Tyler Black may join during the season. But any team relying on all that . . . is the 2023 Reds.

But now that Mark Attanasio has gotten his ballpark deal, and now that Burnes and Woodruff have set this team out from a path it will be hard to deviate from, one doesn’t need to squint to see the club taking all of that as an excuse to reset and aim for the seasons beyond 2025. Maybe they look for an upgrade at first, get into the Hoskins rehab derby and sign a pitcher or two that they think will remain standing for most of the year while ducking the paychecks the top of the market would require.

They’ll be rooting hard for Giannis and Dame Time to keep eyes focused elsewhere as long as possible in Cream City.

Ohtani Meter: -2

Pittsburgh Pirates

Owner Cheapness index: The worst there is.

Outlook: The Bucs seems like they’re a half or full step behind the Reds in where they are, as there’s less certainty about what their prospects who cracked the lineup are. Oneill Cruz might be able to throw a baseball through three live cows lengthwise, but he still barely has a half season of MLB experience thanks to turning his ankle into putty at the beginning of last year. His offensive numbers in those 90+ games are just barely average. Jared Triolo isn’t going to carry a .440 BABIP through his career. Endy Rodriguez didn’t hit a lick. Neither did Henry Davis. Time is on all their sides here, but taking the time to figure out what they have just might preclude them from taking the splash the Reds should in the offseason.

The rotation isn’t much different. Mitch Keller is probably a really good No. 2 but is the ace here. Johan Oviedo or Luis Ortiz didn’t really show the control to get around the strikeouts they don’t get, at least not yet. Roansy Contreras flashed strikeout stuff in the minors, but didn’t in his cameo in the Bigs, but did flash a penchant for providing fans with a home run ball in their beer.

In a perfect world, the Pirates could use a fixture in the outfield and in the rotation behind or in front of Keller. In Bob Nutting’s world, they’ll let the kids fend for themselves for at least another season.

Ohtani Meter: -1,000

St. Louis Cardinals

Owner cheapness index: Extremely high for a team and fanbase that considers itself the center of the baseball world.

Outlook: Man is this a mess. The Cardinals season started with them huffing the paint of Jordan Walker’s irrelevant spring training numbers, jamming him into an overcrowded outfield and then it only got worse. They had one good starter, whom they had to flog to the World Series champs (Jordan Montgomery). Paul Goldschmidt started his decline at 36. Nolan Arenado traded in fly balls for grounders and he’ll be 33 next year. Willson Contreras actually hit for them, but the entire place hated his guts the minute he walked in the clubhouse because he wasn’t Yadier Molina.

There’s probably still a good offense to be excavated from this steaming husk, as even if they’re old, Goldschmidt and Arenado are still useful, and Contreras, Nootbar, Gorman and Donovan were all plus-hitters last year, even if they finished 19th in runs. But the Cards wouldn’t be out of place in bringing in three starters, because otherwise they’re going to lose a lot of 8-7 games. The rotation is spearheaded by Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz, and after that it’s the Matthew Liberatore Experience again, only this time with like three guys (Liberatore is baseball Oliver Wahlstrom).

The Cards could go nuts and sign two of the top starters around, say Nola plus Rodriguez or something, hope the lineup does better than the .247 they managed last year with runners in scoring position, and goof 85 wins. But when have they ever done that? They shouldn’t have lost 91 games last year, but that doesn’t mean they should win 91 in 2024. The Cubs could easily make the buy-in to win the division at 92 or 93 wins, and the bar to get into the wild-card spots may never be lower than it was last season. Cardinals fans may spend another summer sweating while they eat for nothing.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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