Before the free-agent shopping begins and trade talks get serious, it’s a good time to take an overview of each NL Central team. Where do the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Reds and Pirates stand? What are their priorities for improving the roster? This isn’t a prediction piece. I just wanted to present a quick outlook on the NL Central residents as they go into the buying-trading-selling period.
In alphabetical order:
State of the Team: Confident contender. The Cubs haven’t qualified for the playoffs in a full season since 2019. But a moderate rebuild is nearing completion, and the Cubs are well positioned to find the missing pieces before spring training opens.
Exciting: The Cubs pulled off a stealth move by hiring free-agent manager Craig Counsell away from the Brewers. He’s an excellent leader and a great fit for a Cubs team that’s ready to win.
Depressing: I can’t imagine why any Cubs fan would feel bummed out these days. Counsell is in place, owner Tom Ricketts is ready to spend to fill needs, and the front office has strengthened a farm system that has prospects for trade pieces.
Needs: A starting pitcher for the front end of the rotation, especially with right-hander Marcus Stroman opting out of his contract. There must be an aggressive overhaul of the bullpen. Both corner infield spots must be addressed. And there’s a general need for a left–handed bat or two. Expect the Cubs to land one of the top starters on the market. Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com says the Cubs will pursue Shohei Ohtani. They were a finalist for his services before he signed with the Angels.
The Outlook: After stalling in September the Cubs fell one game short of making the playoffs, the restless Cubs are ready to take a giant leap forward. Counsell is a plus, but the roster still needs work, and the lineup is missing a power-hitting element for the middle of the lineup. Cody Bellinger is a free agent after giving the Cubs 26 homers and 97 RBI last season, but the team has a chance to re-sign him. If the Cubs attack the offseason and come away with a No. 2 starter, a renovated bullpen and a big bat, their fans will be delirious – and the Cubs will be the clear choice to win NL Central.
State of the Team: Hyped up and hopeful. After losing 100 games in 2022, the Reds loaded their roster with young and developing talent that energized the franchise and improved to 82-80 last season. The young position-player talent is abundant, but the Reds won’t emerge as a rising power unless the front office does something to significantly improve a rotation that ranked 28th last season with a 5.34 starting-pitching ERA.
Exciting: In 2023 the Reds topped the majors with 7.6 WAR from rookie position players. Rookie hitters – led by Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Elly De La Cruz and Christian Encarnacion-Strand – combined for 68 homers, 92 doubles, 75 stolen bases and 238 runs batted in. That’s a heckuva foundation to build on.
Depressing: The Reds ranked 28th in payroll last season with a 26-man roster payout of $83 million. Despite having an abundance of prospects available to deal for must-have starting pitching, president of baseball operations Nick Krall pretty much sat out the 2023 trading deadline. The Reds can’t win big unless they think big.
Needs: A high-end starting pitcher, a back-end starting pitcher, and a strong high-leverage reliever to transition a lead to closer Alexis Diaz. (Cincinnati had a 4.89 ERA in the eighth inning last season – the fifth-worst in the majors.) The Reds have talented young starting pitchers in Andrew Abbott, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. And Graham Ashcraft isn’t bad, either. But injury liability is a problem. Lodolo has been limited to 26 starts over the last two seasons. In his two seasons Greene has an imposing 31 percent strikeout rate but has averaged only 23 starts per year. And his two-season ERA is 4.62.
The Outlook: The Reds haven’t appeared in the playoffs in a full season since 2013. And they haven’t won a postseason round since 1995. They were a surprising and highly entertaining team in 2023 and are seemingly building momentum. They have the look of an up-and-coming team that can be awfully dangerous in 2024. But the front office is the X factor. Krall must take advantage of the opportunity to turn the Reds into a rising force.
State of the Team: Transition or rebuild? That’s the overriding question as the franchise pivots from the Counsell Era. The Crew may not go into a full-teardown project, but there will be pain. GM Matt Arnold has a decision to make: does Milwaukee trade ace starting pitcher Corbin Burnes and shortstop Willy Adames before they become free agents after the 2024 season? And will the Brewers consider trading supreme closer Devin Williams? He can’t become a free agent until 2026 – but that’s why he has peak trade value right now.
Exciting: In 2022, MLB Pipeline rated the Brewers at No. 25 in the MLB farm system rankings. They were 15th headed into 2023. By August of last season, MLB Pipeline rated Milwaukee No. 3 for their collection of prospects. Outfielder Jackson Chourio is the No. 2 prospect overall heading into 2024.
Depressing: Counsell is gone – to a hated division rival, no less – after leading the Crew to five postseasons in the last six years. Under Counsell the Brewers were successful during the regular season because of Counsell’s reliable formula of starting pitching, bullpen maneuvering, and defense. But co-ace Brandon Woodruff was viewed as a potential trade piece, but that option is no longer available. He will miss all of 2024 after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Brewers may flip Burnes to maximize his trade value. And Counsell won’t be around to help the Brewers with his smart handling of the bullpen.
Needs: Starting pitching; maybe two back-end starters. The Brewers will be looking for a first baseman and third baseman and a way to bolster the DH spot in the lineup. But the team payroll will likely drop for a third consecutive season, and spending will be limited.
The Outlook: Hold on tight, Brewers fans. The franchise is entering a hazy zone – stuck between the desire to contend, but not wanting to go into a full rebuild. But the reality will make it difficult for the Brewers to sustain their recent success. And their once formidable rotation has taken multiple hits, which reduces the impact of the team’s No. 1 strength over the last several seasons.
State of the Team: Making progress. After losing 201 games over two seasons (2021, 2022) the Pirates appear to be moving in the right direction. And it’s about time; this franchise has a .438 winning percentage since the start of 2016 and only the Royals and Tigers have been worse over that time. After a fast start the Pirates finished 76-86 last season, but that record came with some optimism.
Exciting: In August the Pirates were ranked No. 2 in MLB Pipeline’s assessment of all 30 farm systems. And at that time the Pirates had six prospects on the Top 100 list. The Bucs have some good pieces at the major-league level and there’s a flow of young talent on the way.
Depressing: The franchise is still owned by Bob Nutting. The Pirates ranked 20th in payroll back in 2016, and it was their highest point since being ranked 19th overall in 2001. Over the past six seasons Pittsburgh has an average payroll ranking of 27.7 among the 30 franchises.
Needs: Starting pitching. The Pirates were 24th in starting-pitching ERA last season. They definitely need an increased dosage of power in the lineup after finishing 24th in slugging percentage. First base should be addressed.
The Outlook: Starting Mitch Keller finally found his groove over the last two seasons and gives the Pirates someone to build around on the pitching side. And the Pirates have a special talent in shortstop Oneil Cruz, but he played in only nine games last season before breaking his leg. He’s expected to be ready to go by spring training. Outfielders Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and infielder Jared Triolo form a decent core. The Pirates have some exciting starting pitching in development – led by last year’s first overall draft choice, Paul Skenes. There’s still a lot of work to do but the future’s looking brighter.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
State of the Team: Caught in an unfamiliar, distressing and disturbing place. Anxious. Embarrassed. Trying to scramble back into contention. Shaken by a 71-91 season that was the team’s worst record since 1990. Fearing a drop in revenue because of a potential decrease in ticket sales. Fretting over the uncertainty of their local TV contract with the financially fallen Diamond Sports Group.
Exciting: The offense is good and has potential to be intimidating. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are holding down the corner infield spots. There’s a young cast of positional talent topped by Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, and Masyn Winn. Brendan Donovan is nearly 27 – not a kid – but he’s a helluva player. Lars Nootbar hasn’t had that golly-gee breakout season, but he’s close. And he’s valuable. The Redbirds have one of the best hitting catchers in the majors in Willson Contreras, but his pitch-calling acumen needs substantial work.
Depressing: Just thinking about the distinct possibility of the Cardinals being overly conservative (again) and staying out of the most expensive section of available free-agent starting pitchers … and not doing enough to restore the pitching staff to at least an average level. And “average” shouldn’t be the goal. That’s too low.
Needs: Starting pitching, starting pitching, starting pitching, bullpen, bullpen, bullpen. To sum it up, the Cardinals need quality – and volume – to construct a solid pitching staff that can get the job done from the first inning through the end of the game.
The Outlook: It’s complicated. The Cardinals insist that they’re striving to be a playoff contender in 2024. But unless the Cardinals spend what it takes to strengthen their rotation in a substantial way, the more realistic option for contending could be 2025. And if the Cardinals must trade a couple of young hitters as part of a trade package to land a front-end starting pitcher, they could weaken their offensive capability. But then again, they have to take risks, right? And the fans will hope that they don’t trade the wrong dudes. If the Cardinals make Arenado available for trade – with his approval – could that be a short-cut solution to building a better rotation? Will franchise icon Yadier Molina come out of a one-year retirement to become the team’s bench coach? So many questions. Not enough answers. Not yet, anyway. But if the ownership-management declines to take bold steps, then the outlook will be like a Springsteen song: Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.