PITTSBURGH -- Two weeks past the All-Star break, the National League Central race is still tight at the top.
The Cubs have pulled ahead, followed closely by the Cardinals. The Brewers have fallen back a bit, but they’re still within striking distance. The Reds are still too interesting to ignore. The Pirates, unlikely big buyers a year ago, have probably fallen out of it with a brutal skid to start the second half.
By 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, executives around the NL Central must decide whether they’re in or out, buyers or sellers, pushing in or pulling back.
In a week, we will know where each front office believes its club stands. For now, let’s check in with evaluators from around the league to see how they view the NL Central leading up to the Trade Deadline.
What they need: An American League scout laid it out well. “Lots of pitching, if you ask me. They had a lot more faith in their young starters than I did, but it didn’t work out and now they look light on pitching, period,” the scout said. “I don’t know that they can plug everything at one Deadline. If they want to get there and advance [in the playoffs], they need a guy to give them good innings with [Brandon] Woodruff out. And I think they need someone at the end of the bullpen to take some of the pressure off [Josh] Hader. He’s great, but he can’t pitch all the time.”
Who they might move: An AL scout suggested there was a drop-off in the Brewers’ system after rookie Keston Hiura, but he noted that some club might be willing to look past Corbin Burnes’ numbers this season and take a shot on his potential. “I like the stuff a lot,” the scout said, suggesting they could potentially upgrade the team by doing “something more creative” like moving Mike Moustakas. “But now what have you done to the lineup?”
St. Louis Cardinals
What they need: During a recent podcast appearance with broadcaster Dan McLaughlin, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said they are “exploring” the market for “an upgrade on the left side of the bullpen to complement” Andrew Miller. An NL executive agreed that should be the Cards’ focus, noting that they could use bullpen help, in general, with Jordan Hicks sidelined -- but specifically on the left side. Offensively, an NL scout said the Cardinals may be best served hoping for good health and strong finishes from players like Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter.
Who they might move: One NL executive said he didn’t expect the Cardinals to be too active at the Deadline, but the executive noted that they could clear a spot in their bullpen (and provide some salary space) for an acquisition by trading Michael Wacha to a club looking for a starter.
What they can get: An NL scout pointed out that there could be a number of lefty relievers traded over the next week, from high-end options like Brad Hand and Will Smith to reliable setup types like Tony Watson, Jake Diekman and Francisco Liriano. It seems more likely the Cardinals would be in on the latter three, given the presumably high asking price for Hand and Smith -- not to mention their importance to their contending clubs.
What they need: The Cubs’ needs are no secret. One NL scout said they could use a left-handed reliever, “better than just a matchup type,” as well as another right-handed reliever. The scout said they would benefit from adding another quality bat, whether it’s at second base or in the outfield. One scout also suggested the Cubs could bolster their depth by making a smaller deal for a bench player -- a “utility infielder or reserve outfielder.”
What they can get: On the left-handed relief front, one NL scout said the Cubs could pursue anyone from Hand and Smith to Diekman and Roenis Elias. The scout pointed to Shane Greene as a potential right-handed relief target. If they’re pursuing better-known names to improve their lineup, one scout pointed to Whit Merrifield (second base) as well as Nicholas Castellanos and David Peralta (outfield). Eric Sogard and Jarrod Dyson would fit the profile of bench upgrades, the NL scout said.
What they need: It’s unlikely that the Pirates will make a dramatic move in either direction, but one NL scout said their best move for the long haul might be dealing All-Star closer Felipe Vázquez to reload their roster. The scout said the Pirates have some interesting, controllable hitters like Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and prospects Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker, but the scout believes Pittsburgh needs more “impact talent” offensively and on the mound to have a chance in the division next season. “I liked their pitching back in April,” the scout said, “but they clearly need more.”
Who they might move: An NL scout suggested Pittsburgh is willing to part with players on expiring contracts, as expected, particularly Corey Dickerson, Jordan Lyles and Liriano. Multiple evaluators wondered if they would consider moving Opening Day setup man Keone Kela after his recent suspension, but one wondered if it’s too late, considering he just returned Wednesday from a shoulder injury. One NL scout doubted anybody will convince them to part with Vazquez, although an AL scout noted that he is “by far” their best asset considering his talent and team-friendly contract.
What they can get: An NL scout suggested some of their pending free agents -- Dickerson, Liriano, Lyles and Melky Cabrera -- might net the Pirates “some decent prospects to add to a solid farm system” as long as they play well heading into the Deadline. One scout pointed to the deal they swung with the Dodgers in 2017, when they traded lefty reliever Watson in a deal headlined by intriguing shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz. “You could do a whole lot worse than that,” the scout said.
What they need: This might depend on which direction they take. The Reds enter Thursday’s action in fourth place, eight games below .500, but they aren’t looking to dismantle this year’s team. They’re willing to “sell” parts of the current roster if it makes sense, however, and they’re more focused on acquiring players who can contribute for multiple years, as opposed to rentals. With that in mind, an NL scout suggested the team should look to acquire pitching prospects if they sell and a quality bat (ideally in the outfield) if they add.
Who they might move: Since they’re not looking for rentals, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to listen on any pending free agents. One NL scout listed Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig, Scooter Gennett and José Iglesias among those options. The scout also suggested that Cincinnati could move Raisel Iglesias, Jared Hughes, Phillip Ervin or Derek Dietrich.
What they can get: It depends on what they’re willing to move, an NL scout said. They likely could get an MLB-ready player for Raisel Iglesias; a mid-level prospect for Roark, Puig or Wood; and a lower-level “lottery ticket” for someone like Hughes, Gennett, Ervin, Dietrich or Jose Iglesias.