What's on shopping list for NL Central teams?
At times over the years, the National League Central has looked very much like a haves-and-have-nots division, but that appears to be less the case than ever heading into 2020. Pending the Pirates’ choice of direction, at least four of the five clubs have designs on contention, and as currently constructed, there’s not a single team that looks out-and-out bad.
However, there also isn’t that 100-win juggernaut, like both the Cubs and Cardinals have had in recent years. While every team has at least some hope, every team also has at least one major question as the Winter Meetings approach. Here’s a look at each team’s biggest need.
Brewers: Starting pitching
Milwaukee seemed to hold its rotation together with chewing gum and chicken wire last season, and it was enough to get by, but not enough to thrive. While Brewers starters were mid-pack in the NL in ERA, they were last in innings. That put a lot of strain on a bullpen that wasn’t as deep as it had been in 2018.
There’s talent here, to be clear, starting with Brandon Woodruff. But there are just so many questions that the Crew would do very well to add a dependable starter or two to ease the demands on its relief corps as well as perhaps make manager Craig Counsell’s job a smidge easier.
The Cards already didn’t get enough production from their outfield last year, and that was before Marcell Ozuna became a free agent. Dexter Fowler returns, and they have an intriguing mix of young players and prospects. But they urgently need at least one legitimate middle-of-the-order bat in their outfield, and as of now, that player is not on the roster.
The problem is that there’s not an especially deep group of free-agent outfielders this year -- Ozuna, who has expressed an interest in returning, may be the top option. So don’t be surprised if the Cardinals do what they’ve done the past two winters, and look instead to the trade market for an offensive upgrade.
It’s worth noting that Chicago’s bullpen was a bit better than it got credit for last year. The Cubs were fourth in the NL in relief ERA -- though fielding-independent measures were less kind, and the group had the highest walk rate of any NL team.
The thing is, a lot of those guys are on the way out. Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler are free agents. So even if the quality is better than the conventional wisdom might suggest, the depth is a significant question. This is not a case where one big signing solves the problem. The Cubs are likely to be active seeking relief help via free agency and trade.
There are questions all over the Pirates’ roster, but in most areas, there are at least potential answers. Could Pittsburgh use some reliable, dependable starting pitching? Sure, but you can also squint and see a scenario where Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Mitch Keller all have big years. Likewise in the bullpen and the infield -- you don’t know what they have necessarily, but there are interesting pieces.
Then there’s catcher, which really is one giant question mark. Jacob Stallings had a pretty good year, but he’s about to turn 30 and 2019 was the first time he played more than 14 games in a big league season. And behind him, it’s even less clear. The Pirates need quality and volume behind the plate --- possibly both a starter and a Quad-A type to provide depth.
Reds: Corner outfield
It seems clear that the Reds are far from done, so it wouldn’t be shocking if they made a trade or two to shore up one area that opened a hole somewhere else. But as of now, the most pressing need is a bat to play an outfield corner. They’re looking at shortstop, but Freddy Galvis is a pretty good player, and it’s not hard to make the case that they’re better off playing him at short and addressing other needs.
That brings us to the outfield, where Aristides Aquino hit like Frank Thomas in August and Andres Thomas in September. Nick Senzel is set in center, and Jesse Winker is a nice OBP source. But it still seems they’re a bat short out there, especially with Senzel and Winker coming off injury.