The NL Central should be renamed.

My suggestion: The Bill DeWitt Division.

Why would I say such a ridiculous thing? Well, I’m trying to be cute. That’s one reason. It’s annoying. Forgive me.

The other factor is more serious and based on payroll pugnacity. From a financial standpoint, are NL Central owners committed to spend whatever is necessary to win it all?

The answer is a clear “No.”

The St. Louis rivals are doing it the DeWitt Jr. Way: spend what’s necessary to make the playoffs, then take your swings in the October postseason tournament.

The Chicago Cubs are borrowing from DeWitt’s playbook. The franchise is among the wealthiest and valuable in professional sports – valued at $4.1 billion by Forbes last season – but Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is holding the line on payroll.

To this point the Cubs are having a relatively quiet offseason. And that’s fine with Ricketts, who pointed to the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks – the surprise team that won only 84 regular-season games before erasing Milwaukee, the LA Dodgers and the Phillies to win the National League pennant.

“That’s the beauty of baseball,” Ricketts told ESPN. “You don’t have to have the highest payroll or the biggest stars. If you’re playing well, anybody can beat anybody. I was happy for the Diamondbacks.”

Ricketts is keeping his distance from Scott Boras, the power agent who reps four prominent free agents that are still waiting for him to make a deal. We’re referring to starting pitchers Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, third baseman Matt Chapman, center fielder (or first baseman) Cody Bellinger, and designated hitter J.D. Martinez.

The Cubs are a natural spot for Bellinger, who had an outstanding 2023 season for the team on a one-year, prove-it deal. But Ricketts and president of baseball operations aren’t playing in annual Boras Invitational. At least not yet. And Ricketts insists he won’t get involved.

“I don’t talk to Scott,” Ricketts told ESPN. “One of his signature moves is to go talk to the owner. When you do that, you undermine the credibility of your GM. Inserting yourself into that negotiation, I don’t think that helps. I don’t talk to him.”

Ricketts is unfazed by Boras’ slow-play tactics that have worked wonderfully for past free-agent clients such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and Martinez.

“We let Jed (Hoyer) make all the decisions on where he’s going to allocate his resources,” Ricketts told the Athletic. “With respect to Bellinger, I’m like everyone else. We’re just waiting. We’re waiting for whenever he and his agent are going to engage. It could be anytime now or it could be a few weeks. We’re just going to wait until they get serious.”

Sure, there’s still a chance we’ll see Bellinger back at Wrigley Field as a Cub. But either way, Ricketts doesn’t seem stressed. Either that, or he’s used some of his fortune to take acting lessons.

“We’re right there at CBT (Competitive Balance Tax) levels,” he told ESPN. “It’s kind of our natural place for us. That should be enough to win our division and be consistent every year.”

Let’s repeat the end of that statement.

“That should be enough to win our division and be consistent every year.”

Ricketts also said, “We’ve added some parts that are going to be beneficial to the whole. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be favored for our division this year.”

And: “We’re trying to be consistent. The goal is to be one of the teams that’s always trying to win and every year has that opportunity.”

My gosh. The Rickett talking points could have been scripted by DeWitt.

The Cardinals have invested $105.74 million in free-agent contracts in a proactive response to their 2023 failure. The Cubs obviously can make a splashy move to change the math, but so far they’ve signed only two notable free agents: reliever Hector Nerris and Japanese starting pitcher Shota Imanaga.

The combined cost of the two contracts is $62 million, with $53 million of that going to Imanaga over the next four seasons. The Cubs also made a trade with the Dodgers for rookie corner infielder Michael Busch, a power-hitting prospect that has potential and a high strikeout rate. The Cubs need a left-handed hitter to weaponize their offense.

As of Tuesday morning, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Cubs had a 40-man CBT payroll of $205 million. If Cot’s is accurate the Cubs aren’t pressing up against the CBT tax threshold.

Perhaps Ricketts is including the exceptional manager Counsell, who was signed away from the division-rival Brewers for a cost of $40 million on a five-year contract that runs through 2028. Managerial contracts don’t apply to MLB’s payroll tabulations, but Ricketts could be keeping the Counsell pact in mind when he discusses payroll matters.

Here’s the kicker: as of today, the Cardinals have a larger 40-man CBT payroll than the Cubs. DeWitt’s franchise ranks 10th in the majors at $211.6 million. The Cubs ($205 million) are 12th in the 40-man accounting.

Imagine that. And all we hear locally is how DeWitt is cheap and lacks commitment to winning. Either that or he’s really smart, and his overall record as owner reaffirms that. In DeWitt’s 28 seasons as the chairman, the Cardinals have had an average annual payroll ranking of 10.6 and have never been worse than 11.2 in the average ranking over a seven-year period.

DeWitt has been steady in his commitment to payroll. He doesn’t deviate much. The 17 DeWitt teams that competed in the postseason had an average MLB payroll ranking of 10.4. The four pennant-winning Cardinal teams had an average payroll ranking of 10.75. The two World Series champions had a payroll average of 11th.

Contrary to the factually incorrect assumptions, that’s in line with the overall MLB trend. The last 10 teams to compete in the World Series had an average payroll ranking of 10.6.

The Cubs haven’t shown much urgency since winning the 2016 World Series. They haven’t won an NL Central title in a full season since 2017. Over that time, Milwaukee (3) and St. Louis (2) have combined for five first-place finishes in a full season. And both teams have made the postseason more often than the Cubs over that time.

Since 2017 the Cubs rank 11th in the majors in regular-season winning percentage (.516). That’s behind Milwaukee (.555) and St. Louis (.530.)

Ricketts evidently keeps track of recent trends. In each of the last four full seasons of baseball, the NL’s worst seed won the league pennant after averaging 88 regular-season wins. That average win total was 86.3 wins for the last three NL champs.

That certainly must be the primary reason for the disciplined, need-focused spending by NL Central residents. But this doesn’t apply to all situations in real time.

This is a good time to recap the offseason actions taken by the five teams in the NL Central through Feb. 20:

— The Pirates are emerging from the latest in a series of massive rebuilding plans. They’re getting better. They even spent $10.5 million on a one-year contract for high-leverage reliever Aroldis Chapman. They brought back outfielder/DH Andrew McCutchen for another year, and took a free-agent flier on former Milwaukee first baseman Rowdy Tellez. But the Bucs currently rank 29th among the 30 franchises in payroll. Total free-agent dollars spent: $29.2 million.

— The Reds have stockpiled a treasure trove of elite prospects. They have a talented, charismatic young roster that’s capable of finishing first. Cincinnati ownership/management has gotten feisty. The Reds have spent some money this offseason. Total free-agent dollars spent as of Feb. 20: a division high $1.185 million. The Reds signed corner infielder Jeimer Candelario to a three-year, $45 million agreement. They invested $42 million in adding free-agent starting pitchers Frankie Montas and Nick Martinez. The bullpen was addressed by the signings of Emilio Pagan and Brent Sutter.

— The Brewers are in a regrouping, cost-cutting mode but should be fairly respectable in 2024. Milwaukee lost their exceptional manager Craig Counsell to the Cubs, and traded ace starter Corbin Burnes to Baltimore. The Crew’s big move was to add first baseman Rhys Hoskings on a two-year, $34 million contract. Total free-agent dollars spent so far: $63.75 million. That doesn’t include what should be a minimal 2024 salary for starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff. He’ll likely miss the ‘24 season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery but is under contract in 2025 and will be paid at a higher rate. The details haven’t been released, but Woodruff won’t make much in the coming season. The Brewers brought back starters Wade Miley and Colin Rea on one-year deals.

— The Cardinals worked to avoid a replay of their 2023 catastrophe. During an aggressive offseason – at least by their standards – the Cards made a bunch of moves to reconstruct their near-bankruptcy of pitching. The Redbirds upgraded by (A) signing free-agent starters Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson and (B) bringing in a cavalcade of relievers led by Andrew Kittredge and Keynan Middleton. Total payroll investment this offseason: $108.37 million. Most of that went to Gray, Gibson and Lynn. But the total also  includes $2.63 million for Kittredge, the reliever acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade. And $6 million on a one-year arrangement with free-agent reliever Keynan Middleton

The division is wide open. The Cardinals can make the climb from last place to first. Up north, no one should rule out a significant free-agent signing by the Cubs. But if they do nothing, Ricketts still has one of the best farm systems in the majors to funnel talent to Wrigley Field. And he knows the Cubs are capable of winning the NL Central. Having Counsell as manager gives the Cubs an edge over their division brethren. But Ricketts is taking some flak in Chicago.

“Ricketts, who already owns a World Series ring, isn’t trying to keep up with the Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies or Mets these days,” wrote Jon Greenberg, The  Athletic’s Chicago-based columnist. “He seems more comfortable competing financially with the Cardinals, not to mention the Brewers, Reds and Pirates.”

Greenberg compared Ricketts to Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the NBA Bulls and the MLB White Sox. And no, this this was not meant as a compliment.

After a 71-91 season crash in 2023, the Cardinals are the projected favorite to win the NL Central in ‘24. It’s easy to move up in this division and get the chance to spin the postseason roulette wheel. Even the big-market Cubs are doing it the DeWitt Way.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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 grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. There’s a fresh episode, recorded Feb. 19, available for you now.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.