Forecasting the Immediate Futures in the NL Central: AKA, Know Your Enemies

7/19/22 – By Gary Morgan @garymo2007 on Twitter and Corey R. Shrader @CoreyShrader on Twitter

I asked on Twitter if any of you would have interest in seeing how the NL Central is going to take shape over the next several seasons. A whole bunch of you said yes, so here it is. This was a whole lot of work so my friend Corey Shrader was kind enough to step in and help me out with some research and writing.

This is a forecast, obviously this could be altered by injury, poor performances, spending, and the like, but as the Pirates actively work their way toward being competitive, to me the missing piece of the conversation is always what the division foes are doing.

That’s what we’re trying to provide today, a bit of a window into the immediate futures of our rivals.

Instead of telling you what years the Pirates will be at their peak, I’ll leave that to your judgement as you’ve seen me give you my estimates for years now and I’m not convinced they’re attempting to just open a window as much as create a factory. Succeed or fail, I believe that to be the goal.

Enjoy, and again, special thanks to Corey, really helped me flesh this out and put in some tough hours building out data and piling through scouting reports.

The Brewers

Gary – The Brewers exist in a smaller market than Pittsburgh but operate on the edge of their ability to spend. They’ve rebuilt and opened a window for themselves with incredible pitching and a penchant for hitting homeruns but their time as a group is coming to an end. At least for this stretch.

2022 Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers will battle the Cardinals all season for the division title, and their pitching gives them the edge, but slightly. Unfortunately, injury has again bitten Christian Yelich, and at this point it’s become chronic. Aging outfield options aside are propping the offense, but not the way they used to.

Key Players: Position Players

Christian Yelich – He’s obviously the most talented offensive player on the team, when healthy. Playing in his year 30 season and locked up through the 2029 season the Brewers are committed to having Yelich on the team, I don’t think his back feels the same. As I sit here, I can’t imagine him playing until he’s 37, and more, I can’t fathom him being productive for the vast majority of that contract. They probably expected the back end of this contract to be the cost of doing business, but this early back stuff could hang this payroll around their necks.

Willy Adames – Traded from the Rays, Willy is playing under Arb 1 this season meaning he has two years left before he costs them. I’m sure retaining him would be something they’d love to do, but it might not make sense if they can’t retain some other pieces around him.

Rowdy Tellez – Another Arb 1 warrior, Rowdy has found a home in Milwaukee. He’s good enough to want to keep, not good enough to command more than they can afford. Could easily see them trying to retain him.

Omar Narvaez – The Brewers starting catcher and currently injured player is in his walk year. He’s really come on since being acquired by the Brewers and he’ll enter a thin catching market as a free agent next season. Going to be tough to hold onto this one.

Key Players Pitchers

Corbin Burnes – Cy Young winner, total stud, what more do you need to know? Oh, yeah, he has two more years of arbitration, and he’ll price himself out of Milwaukee if I had my guess.

Devin Williams – If Josh Hader didn’t exist, Devin would be their closer. He has 3 more years of arbitration, and they’ll try like hell to keep him around. Kinda surprised they haven’t already done so.

Josh Hader – Last year of arbitration and arguably the most accomplished closer in the league. Zero chance they pony up, if they weren’t in the division race, I’d bet they’d trade him.

Brandon Woodruff – 2 more years of arbitration for Woodruff, and he along with Burnes ensure the Brewers can’t just let this whole thing die. As long as they have those two, this rotation is partially there.

Freddy Peralta – Freddy is locked up through 2024 for a reasonable contract, and they have two option years beyond that. He’s easily a rotation piece if they want him to be but could just as easily slide to the pen if needed. Not unlike Brent Suter.

Brent Suter – Speaking of Brent, he’s the ultimate swing man. Can give you leverage in the back end or start in a pinch. Mop up, sure thing coach. Swiss army knife and highly effective. His last year of arb is 2023, and I think he’ll get a lot of interest outside Milwaukee.

What Do They Have Coming?

The short answer, not much quickly. This is a very young system. In fact, they only have one player in Baseball America’s top 100 list and Aaron Ashby is already in Milwaukee’s rotation.

The outfield looks like it could replenish by 2024 with their top 4 prospects all being outfielders, specifically Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, Jackson Chourio and Garrett Mitchell.

Close to the majors you’re looking at Ethan Small a lefty who could easily arrive this season.

Aside from that, it’s just so hard to say. Dylan File is another pitcher who should be close, but for perspective, their number 29 and 28 prospects are both set with ETAs of 2028.

The Brewers system is currently ranked 25th out of 30 and since they’ll likely not be moving players being in a race, this ranking isn’t likely to change much. Well, maybe down since Ashby minimally will graduate this year.

Diagnosis & Forecast

The Brewers are going to spend what they can. I won’t sit here and assume a blow up is coming, but financial reality will still hurt this team.

1 more season of directly competing for the division. 2 or 3 more of being a tough out from the wild card race. After that, I think we’ll see a bit of a retool. There just isn’t much coming and again, I think that Yelich contract really hurts them. Even if I’d have cried like a baby if the Pirates did the same thing.

The Cardinals

Corey – With 10 NL Central titles and just one losing record since 2000, the Cardinals are one of the model franchises in all Major League Baseball. As of writing this the Cardinals once again find themselves sitting atop the division in a tie with Milwaukee. However, as the 2022 season marches along, similarly we find the Cards marching toward the end of an era for some franchise legends. This begs the question; what exactly does the future look like in the Gateway City?

2022 St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis is very much playing to win in 2022. The Cardinals find themselves in what should be a very tight race. With both Milwaukee and St. Louis currently projecting for 95 wins (fangraphs), it is reasonable to expect them to push some chips in at the trade deadline, but not an absolute necessity.

Key Players: Position Players

The team boasts a strong offensive group led by current NL MVP odds leader, Paul Goldschimidt. We are seeing near vintage Goldy in 2022. While he does not boast the same athleticism as his peak in Arizona, he is a force at the dish and can outright carry a lineup to the tune of the best wOBA & wRC+ in all of baseball to this point in time. This isn’t a one man show, though. As a unit the Cardinals sit 5th in team WAR, 7th in team wRC+, and 8th in team wOBA.

So, we know about Goldy, but who else do they have? Nolan Arenado is having his typical very strong season on the hot corner both with the bat and glove ranking 2nd in DRS, 3rd in OAA, 4th in wOBA, and 4th in wRC+ among all third baseman. Second baseman Tommy Edman has been nearly as impressive in 2022, taking his game to the next level posting 3.2 WAR in 65 games behind an improved offensive profile and solid defensive play ranking 6th among second basemen in wOBA, 7th in wRC+, 1st in DRS, and 3rd in OAA.

In addition to Goldschimdt, Arenado, and Edman, I would be remiss not to mention the 2021 breakout Tyler O’Neill (Arb 1). Off to a disappointing start in 2022 he found himself on the IL with a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for just under a month. Coming into the year some expressed concerns that his breakout was not to be trusted given his plate discipline (or lack thereof boasting a 31.3% k%). Since his return he has been looking much closer to the 2021 version of himself posting a triple slash of .315/.354/.477 with a .360 wOBA and 135 wRC+ across 44 at bats. Just to note here that O’Neill did exit the game early today with an injury, the extent of which is unknown.

Rounding out the lineup we have Harrison Bader (Arb 2), a tremendous athlete with 95th percentile sprint speed at 29.2 ft/sec with strong defense ranking 11th in OAA among all outfielders. His offensive game leaves some to be desired, but the speed and hit tool are effective enough to make him a valuable piece.  Given that he is heading into his Arb 3 season for 2023, it would not surprise me to see him wearing another uniform after that. He does offer top tier athleticism & good defense, so I won’t rule out a deal to keep him around longer as they do not have a clear CF option to usurp him.

They also have a greatly diminished offensive version of Yadier Molina, but Yadi still puts forth strong defensive ratings and remaining one of the game’s premier framing catchers. On the flipside of Molina we see several up & coming Redbird bats we will discuss some more later; Dylan Carlson, Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, Brenden Donovan, & Ivan Herrera.

Key Players: Pitchers

If there is a current weakness on this club it is most certainly pitching.

Leading the charge for his 17th professional season is Adam Wainwright. Waino can be a workhorse and anchor a staff after all these years, a definite calming presence and mentor in the clubhouse. In 2021, Wainwright was one of only 4 starting pitchers to toss 200+ innings. Perhaps most impressive, as a 39-year-old it was near vintage Wainwright. The 2022 version is looking a little less strong running a 3.04 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 18.5/7.4 K%/BB%. It is important to note that his xERA is 4.16, so there could be a few bumps ahead for the St. Louis elder statesman, but in his career, Wainwright has consistently outpitched his xERA, so the fall should not be cataclysmic barring worst case scenario stuff.

The biggest question mark for the Cardinals pitching staff is what is the deal with Jack Flaherty? Over the 2018-2019 seasons Flaherty looked like he was on the fast track to being the next Cardinals ace. Since that time, results have been mixed. The evaluation is difficult for a few reasons. First being the COVID shortened 2020 is borderline impossible to evaluate for most players. If you want to take a pessimistic view, you could see the markers for some decline – giving up harder contact, BB rate ticked up, and the xStats and estimators really disliked his season. Second, he has been battling injuries on and off during the last two years. In 2021 he missed two months with an oblique injury, and in 2022 he was shut down with shoulder bursitis that kept him out of action until 6/15/22. The positive here is that he has not had any elbow issues. The shoulder issue is concerning, but Flaherty & the team are committed to the idea that it was a result of his mechanics being altered by his oblique injury. All in all, this is a tough case to decide on. You cannot assume health for pitchers, especially one that hasn’t been fully healthy in almost 2 seasons. Flaherty may just be the most important pitcher in the organization. The remainder of 2022 will be of great importance in determining that. Worth noting that Flaherty is currently in Arb 2.

Miles Mikolas is a bit of a mystery himself. After a 3 years stint in Japan, The Lizard King remerged in the majors in 2018 where he translated his overseas success immediately posting a 4.2 WAR season. In 2019 the league seemed to have got more information on Mikolas and he could not replicate his success of 2018. He was still very good though, finishing with a 2.4 WAR. Now the trouble begins. Mikolas missed all of 2020 with a flexor tendon injury in his throwing arm. In 2021 he was not particularly effective, but he was still dealing with his forearm injury, including being shut down to receive a stem cell injection the same forearm that shelved him in 2020. Thus far in 2022 the injury seems to be behind him. In fact, he appears to be a bit closer to the 2018 version of the Lizard King than we’ve seen since. He is not the same pitcher as he was in 2018, but he appears to be back to being an above-average to good starting pitcher.  With only 603 major league innings & 445 innings in Japan, that is about 500 less innings than his counterpart Adam Wainwright had tossed through his age 33 season. Much like the case with Flaherty, it is difficult to fully bank on sustained health when injury history to the throwing arm/shoulder is present. Mikolas is perhaps the second most important starter going forward on the current staff, and I would suggest, that is sort of scary.

Rounding out the current rotation are Dakota Hudson & Andre Pallante. Dakota Hudson is not particularly interesting. He is having a good deal of success in 2022, but looking a little closer under the hood, not a lot to point towards a big breakout coming any time soon. He relies mostly on a sinker/slider approach. The sinker, his favorite offering, is not great yielding a .308 BA/.344 xBA and a .368 wOBA/.422 xwOBA. The slider appears to be more effective, posting .173 BA/.231 xBA with a .204 wOBA/.277 xwOBA. His other offerings are not used very heavily, but Hudson may benefit from an arsenal and/or approach tweak. Pallante has pitched a total of 42.2 innings and made just 3 starts so far in 2022. His last start on 6/15/22 was successful racking up 10 whiffs on 75 pitches and a 29% CSW all while limiting hard contact to the tune of an 84.8 average exit velocity across all offerings at Boston. As of writing, small sample size at work, but he is someone to monitor as he gets more major league exposure, but the Cardinals have been deploying him as more of a swingman right now.

Finally for the rotation, perhaps one of the most disappointing free agent pitcher signings of 2022, Stephen Matz finds himself on the IL nursing a sore throwing shoulder currently. Signed for 4 years/$44 million this offseason, Matz had an uneven career for the Mets prior to being dealt to Toronto. His 2021 season was strong, pitching to the tune of 3.82 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 22.3/6.6 K%/BB%, and a 2.8 WAR while pitching in a solid hitter’s park. This season got Matz a pretty good FA deal, but the results in St. Louis have been middling. Peripheral numbers and estimators do still like him more than the back of the baseball card numbers, but, again, we have a throwing arm injury here. If he can get back to the mound regularly, he should be a solid middle/backend of the rotation arm.

Two notable names to revisit later: a pair of near MLB ready lefties, Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson. Rival fans should expect to see a good deal more of this pair down the road.

Bullpens are sort of difficult to pin down beyond the current term given they tend to both turn over more regularly and performance can swing wildly month to month and season to season. Headlining the group is Ryan Helsley. Helsley may just be the best relief pitcher in the National League to this point of 2022, posting gaudy numbers, 0.36 ERA/1.25 xERA, 40.2 K%, .130 wOBA, .122 xBA against. It is reasonable to expect some regression, but it should still be videogame stuff.  Giovanny Gallegos has been overshadowed by the wild season of Helsley, but he has also been very good. These two are both under team control until 2025 and 2026 respectively, so they’re here for a long while. The Cards pen also features some players that have had some success in the past, but appear to be just guys: Genesis Cabrera, Nick Wittgren, lefty specialist T.J. McFarland. Three names to note: Jordan Hicks, Johan Oviedo, Zack Thompson. The oft injured flamethrower Hicks has bounced between opener and bullpen, he is also back on the IL. His future is undetermined to this point, but the bullpen would make most sense. I believe the Cards view Thompson as an starter still, they have used him in bulk relief and let him start one game so far. Oviedo appears to have some solid stuff posting some encouraging minor league strikeout numbers, but his control is poor. He is someone to monitor but he may never figure it out due to wild tendencies.

Changing of the Guard

At the conclusion of the 2022 season, we will almost certainly see the departure of 3 all-time great Cardinals. Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Albert Pujols are all set to ride off into the sunset ending an era of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. When these three walk away it will yield $30 million of salary relief for the team. The other impending free agents being Corey Dickerson ($5 million), T.J. McFarland ($2.5 million), and Nick Wittgren ($1.2 million). I could see all of them being left to the market. One exception being Dickerson if he were to come back for less money and pending other signings, he has however, been quite poor in 2022.

Now here is where we get weird. We need to talk about Nolan Arenado.

In 2019 the Colorado Rockies paid Arenado, rightfully, to the tune of 9yr/$275 million. The crucial point being that he was given two player option that would allow him to opt out after 2021 or after 2022. I personally believe that Arenado will opt in, but the crucial question is what if he doesn’t? Well, this would leave St. Louis with a significant hole in their lineup. Theoretically the Cardinals could fill this spot with a stop gap to cover them until their top prospect, Jordan Walker, gets the nod, but Arenado really holds all the cards here.

Historically, the Cardinals team payroll trends above league average, so I am sure they would love for Arenado to stay in the fold. But one must wonder, would they equally be open to him moving on? He is still among the best third basemen in baseball, but he is due to make $144 million more dollars through the remainder of his contract and their top prospect is an incredibly high ceiling third baseman. Would the team be bullish enough on Walker to hope for Arenado to let them off the hook for being responsible for paying him as he begins to decline?

My prediction would be that Arenado stays and the Cardinals are happy that he does. This is a team that highly values veteran presence. Look no further than the departing names. Of course, Pujols left, but he got a pretty ludicrous contract from the Angels and it was wise of the Cards to pass on that.

We are looking at a solid core group here led by strong vets like Goldschmidt & Arenado. Supplemented by up & coming slugger Tyler O’Neill, the dynamic breakout Tommy Edman, and a cadre of youth highlighted by Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez, Brenden Donovan, Ivan Herrera, Matthew Liberatore.

System Outlook

Already Arrived

Dylan Carlson – Carlson arrive with much ballyhoo as the system’s number 1 prospect in 2021. Hailed as a power/speed combo with above average hit, Carlson has yet to see that all click, but he is a pretty solid regular. Has a good plate approach, but the speed & thump have not really been there yet. Cannot handle CF & looks to be a corner OF only.

Nolan Gorman – The organization’s number two prospect coming in to 2022. Gorman came here to do two things: slug & strikeout. And it looks like he is going to do just that carrying a respectable .186 ISO/.341 wOBA/4 homers/4 doubles/31.3% K-rate in just under 100 PAs. Under the hood his hit tool looks respectable. Should be a slugging fixture in St. Louis.

Juan Yepez – Called up in 2022, an all hit, no field player. The biggest challenge here is finding playing time. If he gets at bats, should hit for power and decent average. Looks like a DH only as of now.

Brenden Donovan – Off to a torrid start in the majors sporting a .382 wOBA/150 wRC+. This kind of production is most likely not to be the norm for Donovan, but he should be an on-base maven that hits for average, and scores runs. A nice player.

Ivan Herrera – One of the more underrated catching prospects. Recently got the call after a successful stay at AAA slashing .291/.388/.436 with a .371 wOBA/125 wRC+. He is young, just 22 years old, but might just be the heir apparent to Yadi.

Matthew Liberatore – Made his MLB debut in 2022 with modest success. Struggled some in the upper minors, his development was stunted some with the lost COVID year. Has very good curveball and a fastball that plays well enough. Will be a work in progress but should be a major league pitcher.

Zack Thompson – Similar background to Liberatore. Had some success in AAA in 2022, pitched with varying success in the majors. Solid in relief and poorly in one game started. I assume he will be tried as a starter until he proves he can’t.

Still On The Farm –

Jordan Walker – The organization’s top prospect. The hulking third baseman is truly among the elite prospects now after an aggressive assignment to AA that saw him start by proving it warranted right away. Walker’s calling card is his 80 grade raw power, rivaled in the prospect world only by Oneil Cruz. Very possible that the big man makes his debut in late 2023, but I’d bet more on 2024 for a full time gig.

Alec Burleson – The outfielder is having a tremendous year at AAA and might not be far off from a call in 2022 should they need an OF. Currently sitting at 14 homers, 10 doubles, 50 rbi while hitting .328/.367/563.

Masyn Winn – A favorite of mine, was a two-way player briefly, but has not pitched since 2021. A very gifted defensive shortstop that looks to be finding his offensive game some at AA. Establishing himself as one of the most underrated prospects at the position in all of baseball.

Tink Hence – Very far away but has big time K stuff. In his 15 innings thrown in 2022 he has posted a 43/9.1 K%/BB%. Not particularly close, but one to check in on now and again.

Michael McGreevy – Has struggled at AA this year, but is regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in the system. Should start to adjust as the year wears on.

Gordon Graceffo – Much lesser known, experienced an early breakout in A+, absolutely dominating. Has moved up to AA where he is having success, but not nearly the same as his A+ run.

Moises Gomez – Had to mention Gomez as he ranks among the top of most AA production categories. Currently has an otherworldly .383 ISO.

Diagnosis & Forecast

The Cardinals are the class of the NL Central. I fully expect them to remain in the role but will face challengers. This team is lacking in reliable pitching depth, and it is what is keeping them from being truly elite. They do have a higher floor than most teams. It is my full expectation that they are the favorites to win the division for several more years given the quality of the system & development combined with their willingness to spend on the product. They cannot be a lock to win unless they address pitching issues, but should be a safe bet to be a steady presence at the top.

The Reds

Gary – There are plenty of candidates to be the Pirates main rival, but to me it’ll always be the Reds. If you go all the way back to the Big Red Machine, or you think back to the Early 90’s playoff loss, maybe you just remember Chapman beaning Cutch, no matter what, the Reds are at least up there. The Reds will spend some money, but they don’t often do it wisely, and that leads to volatile swings in their roster but we’ll get into that more as we move on. The Reds in my mind tried to push the chips in a couple years early because they legitimately have some very good young core players. Waiting for them to develop a bit more first and they might just now be entering their window. Instead they tried early and are now in full dismantle territory.

2022 Cincinnati Reds

The Reds will likely finish this season competing for the NL Central basement with the Cubbies, and they’ll be moving on from some big names, well at least the names they aren’t paying a prohibitive amount to.

Key Players: Position Players

Joey Votto– He’s been a Reds Fixture since 2007, and with a contract that stretches to next season at 25 mil per, he’ll remain one. Joey isn’t what he used to be and I don’t say that to diminish what he’s done. A career .299 hitter, with 337 homeruns, the Reds may be stuck with an undesirable contract now, but they sure got their money’s worth. He’s led the league in OBP 7 times. Hell he has a career OPS of .929. Respect where due, he may be a liability now, but he’s been an incredible baseball player for the Reds, and indeed the National League.

Jonathan India – Drafted in the 5th round back in 2018, India burst on the scene last year and almost helped the Reds make the playoffs, but his arrival was a year too late as India represented the first of the train of talent the Reds had coming. India will likely be a fixture for years to come in Cincy.

Tyler Stephenson – Drafted in the first round back in 2015, Stephenson has become a fine two way catcher. The bat has really gotten him noticed, but don’t slouch on the defense either, he learned quite a bit playing under Tucker Barnhart and he’s poised to become a real star behind the plate for the Reds.

Mike Moustakas – The Moose has been terrorizing the NL Central since being moved to the Brewers back in 2018. When he became a free agent in 2020 the Reds who had chosen to pounce and really try to go for it one more time with Joey Votto were ready, and they paid him. He’s having an awful season and I’m sure the Reds would love to move him, but they owe him 18 million dollars in 2023, so they’d likely have to package him with prospects to dump the salary. A luxury they really don’t have.

Kyle Farmer – Kyle has been a relatively consistent performer at short stop for the Reds, but he’s entering Arb 2 next year, and they’ll have a tough decision to make. He’s not done enough to warrant a huge contract, but he’ll likely get 4+ in arbitration so moving him could also be on the table.

Key Players Pitchers

Luis Castillo – Luis is a good pitcher, easily just about anyone’s top 2. The Reds will almost definitely move him at this deadline. Entering Arb 3 next year and sure to clear 10 mil as an award, the Reds aren’t just going to let him walk for nothing. What the Reds get in return for Castillo could really tell the story of how quickly they bounce back.

Hunter Greene – The young flame thrower who famously lost a no hitter to the Pirates is one hell of a talent. He’s part of what the next Reds team will be built around. Now, he’s a rookie, but even so, 23 homeruns in 90 innings, even in that launch pad of a ball park has to scare the hell out of everyone on the club. Still, the talent is real, and I expect him to help anchor the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Nick Lodolo– Nick was actually picked by the Pirates with the 41st pick in 2016 but he chose to go to school and was picked again in 2019 by the Reds. He’s barely pitched this year, but he much like Greene will be expected to carry the load in the rotation. The long ball has touched him up too, giving up 5 in only 26 innings. Again, he’s a rookie, and the talent is really very much so apparent.

What Do They Have Coming?

It’s not a very exciting group honestly. Brandon Williamson is a LHP and could reach MLB as early as this season. The overall picture of the Reds top 30 is flooded with ETAs of 2023 and 2024. You all know how I feel about ETAs to begin with, but suffice to say, they aren’t close. In my mind the best prospect in their system is Elly De La Cruz, a 3B/SS with an ETA of 2024 currently in High A ball. He’s exciting, but so far away it’s hard to say. Another MLB pipeline top 100 player is Matt McLain a SS for their AA affiliate, he could be here as early as next year but I don’t see it as likely.

Diagnosis & Forecast

The Reds farm system really took a hit. As late as this February I saw them ranked as high as 7th and now they’re typically seen between 19 and 22. Much of that has to do with graduation, but performance also plays a role.

Now, the Reds are a bit of a wildcard. They could very well see a core of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, India, and Stephenson as enough to add to and go out this off season with an open wallet. If they do, the Reds could get themselves right back in the Wild Card conversation as early as 2023 or 2024. If they don’t, they might just be able to work their way into a much easier to manage window that starts in 2024.

The main thing with the Reds is they will spend, and that even when not well thought out can lead to unpredictable runs. I will say, they don’t have the prospect depth as currently constructed to do this quickly internally, nor do they have enough to trade for depth. That’s why moving players like Castillo will be so key. If they get a couple good prospects back from that it could really change the outlook for them.

They’d be in much better shape if they didn’t have to move players like Jessie Winker and Eugenio Suarez for a relatively small package. That’s a lot of talent out and not all that much in return.

I feel the Reds will be down for at least another year, but a starting rotation with Greene, Lodolo and potentially Williamson could be strong enough to build on and it’ll come right when Moose and Votto are moving on freeing up cash. I look for the Reds to spend big in the offseason following 2023.

The Cubs

Gary – the last time the Pirates got close the Cubs beat them to the punch and quite frankly that is the inspiration for wanting to do this deep dive.

2022 Chicago Cubs

Right in the mix for the worst team in the division, the Cubs are in the very beginning stages of a full rebuild. For as long as I can remember, the Cubs have been a team that could spend like the Dodgers but chose to play the small market game. Enter Theo Epstein and the complete remaking of the development system. It opened a window for the Cubs and paid off in a championship, but now they’re just moving off the last pieces of that machine.

Key Players: Position Players

Willson Contreras– He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and the Cubs already offered more than they ever will again to keep him around as someone to build on. He’s 30 years old so it’s not like a 10 year contract makes much sense either, but this was damn near written in stone when they moved on from Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber and Baez.

Ian Happ – Ian will also be a UFA after the season and could easily be a big chip for the Cubbies. His versatility is real and his productivity has been consistent.

Seiya Suzuki – The hottest name on the International FA board last year, Seiya started like a ball of fire, but the league pushed back and now he’s really struggling with strikeouts. Considering there was a decent stretch at the beginning of the season where he simply didn’t swing and miss, it’s obviously alarming. They have him through 2026, and next year he gets expensive.

Christopher Morel – I really like this kid. I think his approach is mature and he has a real chance to stick and become a fixture in Chi Town. The power is real, and if he reigns in his strikeouts he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

Patrick Wisdom –This might be the hardest player to evaluate. In 822 plate appearances he has 49 homeruns which is really good, but he also has 311 strikeouts. Next year he’ll still not have reached arbitration 1. This player will be hard to count on, and hard to move, but I’m not sure they have anyone who’s really prepared to make him not matter. He’s also 30 years old, he’ll be 35 when he reaches free agency. Hard to figure this is a long term plan guy.

Key Players Pitchers

Marcus Stroman – Part of the Cubs Bi-polar offseason. They sent off many of their core guys, and spent money on others like Marcus. He’s locked up through 2024 with a 71 million dollar price tag and at least this year, he hasn’t been a 25 million dollar pitcher. He does have an opt out built in after 2023 but if he continues on this track he’d be brain dead to exercise it which I won’t rule out, because well, I think he just might be.

Kyle Hendricks – A shell of himself already, and now injured, the prospect of moving Hendricks is not realistic. He’s owed 30 million dollars for 2023 and 2024 total.

Drew Smyly– He’s on a one year deal which means he’s a rental. Only pitching in 11 games so far due to injury actually might help his market as he has more pitches in his arm than many competitors. Either way, he gone.

Wade Miley– Wade isn’t a bad pitcher and I’m sure the Cubs would love to move him, but he’s been injured most of the season. Again, either way, he’s not part of their future.

What Do They Have Coming? (Corey S. Assist)

Pete Crow-Armstrong – PCA was acquired from the Mets in the summer of 2021 during the tear down in Wrigleyville. He opened 2022 by absolutely scorching A level posting 39 runs/7 homers/27 rbi/13 steals while slashing .354/.443/.557. Recently got the nod to A+ where that success has yet to translate, but he showed the dynamic 5-tool upside that led him to go 19 th overall in the 2020 draft.
Kevin Alcantara – Another newcomer at the 2021 deadline, Alcantara was shipped out of the Bronx to Chicago in the Rizzo trade. Simply put, the kid looks like a stud. He is young, but showing off his extremely generous tools in A ball this year. He will be one to watch closely and should rocket up prospect lists. If the development keeps tracking, this is what an “elite” prospect looks like.
Brennen Davis – The organization’s top prospect heading in to 2022. Scuffled early at AAA before succumbing to a back injury that required surgery leaving the young Cub without a timetable to return. In 2021 Davis rocked the upper minors and cemented himself as a top prospect league wide. He is a big, fast, strong kid with tools to spare. Assuming a return to health, the only thing keeping him from being a force will be K issues.
Owen Cassie – A big bodied outfielder that came over in the Darvish to San Diego trade. Big power tool, iffy hit tool and so far a good deal of swing & miss running a 28.5% k rate. His approach before 2022 was one with a high K and a solid BB rate, so, it appears his approach should trend toward that of a potential slugger or possibly on the lower end of the scale, more of a three outcome guy. He is young enough to believe in the tools though.
Alexander Canario – A common theme, but  Canario is another prospect that came over in trade. Part of the Kris Bryant to San Francisco deal in 2021. Another tantalizing tools prospect. Wholloped A+ early in 2022 and earned the call to AA. Displayed a very concerning amount of whiffing in A+, but the level was still not enough of a challenge. Currently struggling to adjust to AA, but showing off the power with a .240 ISO, 8 homers, and 9 doubles in 157 PAs. Boasts power/speed upside with iffy approach and hit tool.

Pitchers
DJ Herz – A funky delivery lefty. Should rack up strikeouts , but his ultimate ceiling as a pitcher will be capped by his ability to both control his arsenal and develop it around his ++ changeup. My gut says they try to keep him in the starter role until he proves he can’t do it. He is a personal favorite pitching prospect of mine, and I expect him to excel at the Major League level even if it is out of the bullpen.
Jordan Wicks – Drafted 21st overall out of Kansas State University in 2021, Wicks should be a fast mover. Another lefty that features a highly regarded changeup. Wicks is performing well at A+ this year and will very likely see time at AA by the end of the year. 

Far out:
Cristian Hernandez – The premier J2 signing of 2021. Hernandez just made his complex league debut. Big, fast, strong kid who performed up to expectations in the DSL in 2021. 

Reginald Preciado – Having a very poor run at A level so far, but Preciado is ultra-projectable. A physically imposing SS/3B that projects to have big power, showing a lot of strikeout issues in 2022.
James Triantos – A 2021 2nd round pick, Triantos is taking to A level well. Boasts a terrific hit tool with above-average to average tools across the board to complement.

Diagnosis & Forecast

Here’s the thing with the Cubs, they have the money to change their fortunes whenever they like. Now, even big spending outfits need to build something internal before adding typically, but they quite literally hold the cards.

With recent comments about spending from their owner, I’ll assume they have to at least look like things are trending in the right direction first so I’ll say 2 more years of being a bad club before they dive back in.

Now some services have the Cubs system as high as 6th and that figures to only strengthen as they move off more pieces. A path to building another really strong core is already there, if they’re patient enough to wait for it.

Conclusion

The Cardinals are going to likely continue to be a problem presuming the Pirates get their window opened up and the timing tells me the NL Central has a good chance of being 4 teams deep during the middle to late part of the decade.

I see the Brewers likely falling back after they ultimately can’t keep this staff together, but they’ve already surprised me more than once.

I simply don’t trust the Reds to handle this efficiently, so I’ll assume they again burn out their afterburners before they reached orbit.

The Cubs look to me at least like they have the highest ceiling system aside from Pittsburgh but they can always outspend everyone in the division including the Cards if they so choose.

Bottom line, The Pirates have as good a shot as any, but I think it’s foolish to think it’ll happen without at least scraping a top 15 payroll. Believing that will happen is really irrelevant, I think that’s what it would take.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Forecasting the Immediate Futures in the NL Central: AKA, Know Your Enemies

  1. The dang Cardinals never go away. The Cubs will be back not long after the Pirates. The Brewers will linger, and by the time they fade the Reds probably will be ready to supplant them, unless they’ve gone foolhardy.

    *sigh* Even in this division with three small markets (and one that kind of should be one but isn’t because Busches), chances are slim. If Cherington succeeds in building the factory and it’s still not enough, what then?

    Liked by 1 person

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