We watched them all season, probably with even more attention than usual because there were no West Coast trips or requisite swings to the North-East. The NL Central wasn’t an impressive place, but they still managed four playoff spots, today let’s look at how the division is trending and try to get our arms around the environment the Pirates will be playing in next season.
We must start at the beginning, the very mediocrity of the division contributed directly to the playoff spots. Nobody was good enough to juggernaut the division. Even the Pirates gave the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals issues this season. For comparison, the West was dominated by the Padres and Dodgers. The East enjoyed the Braves who themselves are a flawed team. The Cubs led the division from stem to stern and finished 8 games over .500 but if you watched them, even against the pitching deficient Pirates, the bats slept all season long.
So where are they headed? Let’s take each team in the division and discuss the decisions they have to make, keeping in mind someone pegged to be a free agent isn’t the automatic farewell it tends to be for the Pirates.
The starting pitchers carried the Cubs to the Division championship in 2020, highlighted by the best version of Hu Darvish we’ve seen since he was tossing darts for the Rangers. The top of the rotation is locked up and set to return in 2021, with Darvish, Hendricks and Lester. Lester still has it, he’s changed over time, no longer is he going to blow anyone away but he’ll bulldog through a lineup and get more outs than a whole lot of guys with better stuff. Jose Quintana is out and so is Tyler Chatwood most likely. It stands to reason the Cubs will be on the market. It’s a fairly weak SP market in 2021, in fact you might call it Bauer and everyone else. They will pick up someone and hope Hu has back to back strong seasons, which hasn’t happened often for him in his career. The bullpen is an issue for the Cubbies too and they’ve suffered greatly from Craig Kimbrel turning from a lights out closer to a guy with a gimmicky pitching stance who can’t get outs.
On the offense side of the coin they have decisions to make, as 2021 is the end of the road for a bunch of their players. Some they’ll sign and others they’d be wise to deal. It’s a formidable list featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. I can’t see Bryant staying, partially because he very publicly felt mistreated with service time manipulation and partly because he has had a heck of a time staying on the field.
The need to keep some of these guys, and pay through the nose, might hinder the Cubs being able to get in on the top starters in free agency, and truth be told, it might be time to embrace at least a partial rebuild. 2021 is a fork in the road for Chicago, they can hold on and go for it one more year or pull the rip cord and try to get to the next window faster. Interesting to see how they go.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cards probably aren’t going to change much, and that is most likely not happy news for the rabid fan base. The biggest decision they have to make, and it’s not theirs alone is whether Yadier Molina returns or not. From the Cardinals perspective, he’s not just the face of the franchise he’s the heart and soul. He’ll be 39 years old and since his backup Matt Wieters is also up for free agency they really need to lock up two. The Cards always have pitching and while they could be ready to say goodbye to Adam Wainwright at any time, they also survived the loss of Miles Mikolas to forearm surgery and Carlos Martinez. Discoveries like Mikolas and this season Kwang-hyun Kim add to the near constant flow of youngsters who step into the spotlight like Jack Flaherty.
If the NL does away with the DH the Cards will be forced to find a place for Matt Carpenter again in the field. Not that he’s a bad fielder but he’s not elite either but he likely slots in at second base should they decide to let Kolten Wong walk after 2021 or move him before he reaches free agency.
Moral of the story, the Cardinals have a capable team but it won’t run and hide with anything in 2021 either. I can’t see them going into next season without at least trying to add another option to provide DeJong and Goldschmidt some help. Marcel Ozuna who the Cards were upset to lose in the first place might be in play.
The biggest loss on the horizon for the pitching challenged Brewers is quite possibly Brett Anderson. Far and away their best starter, Anderson should command a pretty penny on the market, and the Brewers have few options internally. Perhaps that’s why they actively shopped Josh Hader before the deadline in 2020 even though he isn’t due to reach free agency until 2024. The Brew Crew have eaten their system alive to open the window they’re just coming out of and while every Pirates fan would love to see their club spend the way the Brewers have, it comes with a price.
That price is being stuck with a player like Ryan Braun who if the NL casts aside the DH will become little more than a $10,000 chandelier in a mobile home. Christian Yelich is the centerpiece now, just like Braun was supposed to be back when he signed his extension, but at some point they’ll need to pitch. That’s going to take moves and they have precious little capital to use toward that effort.
I’m not saying the cupboard is bare, this team can hit but the starting rotation without Anderson, should they swing and miss, will become Freddy Peralta and everyone else. Look for Hader to be one of the hottest names on the trade market, he can net a nice return and they need it badly.
Ahh, the paper champions of 2020. Nobody made a bigger splash acquiring talent last off season and given an entire season it’s hard to fathom the hitting wouldn’t eventually catch up to the pitching. We’ll never know for sure because the season was what it was, but they sure looked like they had more answers than questions heading into it.
The Reds biggest potential loss far and away is Trevor Bauer. He’ll be arguably the top available free agent in the league so seeing Cincinnati come up with the funds to lock him down doesn’t strike me as likely. That said, most of the team is under control for quite some time, at least through 2024, if there ever was a time to go for it, we’re there.
Even without Bauer it’s hard to find many holes, but they’ll need to get rebound efforts from players they’ve committed to like Suarez, Moustakas and Castellanos. If Joey Votto and Jesse Winker are their best hitters again in 2021 this team will underwhelm again. It would be almost criminal to have this many pieces on offense and let it fail because they couldn’t lock down a rotation. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are certainly not peanuts but without Bauer they’ll have to hit their way into contention more often than not.
Look for Cincy to put a solid offer together for Bauer or go after one of the other tier one starters, of which there are few.
Keep an eye on the Pirates division mates this off season, because no matter how you look at it, the power is shifting in the NL Central. Should be a fun off season to watch.