2021 MLB Offseason Grades: NL Central Edition
After a long but exciting offseason, Spring Training is wrapping up for all 30 Major League Baseball clubs. Although this year’s Spring Training felt slightly different, Opening Day is only two days away where MLB returns to a full 162-game schedule and fan attendance in ballparks across the country.
While many teams had tighter budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the offseason was not without its big contracts, surprising trades and teams looking to make a push for a World Series title in 2021.
While the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams stockpiled star players in hopes of playoff runs, other clubs made solid acquisitions towards rebuilding or rebounding after a tough 2020 season.
The fifth installment of this series takes a look at the NL Central, a division that is up for grabs for four of the five teams in its division.
Chicago Cubs: D+
Additions: RP Dan Winkler, RP Kyle Ryan, RP Robert Stock, RP Jonathan Holder, 3B Matt Duffy, RP Adam Morgan, SP Shelby Miller, C Austin Romine, SP Kohl Stewart, RP Joe Biagini, RP Rex Brothers, SP Trevor Williams, OF Joc Pederson, RP Andrew Chafin, C Jose Lobaton, SP Jake Arrieta, RP Pedro Strop, RP Brandon Workman, OF Jake Marisnick, OF Cameron Maybin, RP Ryan Tepera, INF Eric Sogard
None of the Cubs additions this offseason seemed incredibly significant. The NL Central is getting weaker, and the Cubs only added to that story with an underwhelming offseason. Chicago non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, chose not to re-sign Jon Lester and traded Yu Darvish to San Diego in an effort to cut payroll and rid themselves of diminishing talent. However, the Cubs chose to put their faith in rebound seasons from Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo rather than try to make any big transactions to make the team younger and/or more competitive. The signing of Joc Pederson to a one-year $7 million contract was the biggest addition to the Cubs roster this offseason. Pederson spent his entire career with the Dodgers before signing with Chicago, where he began his career as a power-hitting starter in left field before transitioning to a platoon role due to his inability to hit left-handed pitching and defensive shortcomings. Pederson, who claimed that he felt “restricted” by the Dodgers analytics, will finally have another shot at an everyday left-field role, where he can provide home run numbers similar to Schwarber at a lower cost. Jake Marisnick will likely serve as the fourth outfielder in Chicago. Marisnick has always been an excellent defender, but his offensive skills have improved over the past few seasons. Marisnick posted good numbers before suffering an injury last season with the Mets. As long as he remains healthy, he should be a big bench bat this season. After battling injuries for much of his Phillies tenure, the Cubs brought back Jake Arrieta, who won a Cy Young Award with Chicago in 2015 and helped anchor its 2016 World Series rotation. Although Arrieta is getting older, the Cubs value his veteran presence and determination to once again prove himself. After enduring back-to-back rocky seasons in Pittsburgh, Trevor Williams took a chance on a fresh start in Chicago. Williams has looked good this spring for the Cubbies and could return to his 2018 form (14 wins, 3.11 ERA) if he can avoid the home run ball and lower his WHIP. Chicago re-signed relievers Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera and Kyle Ryan to compete for bullpen spots. Winkler and Tepera were solid options for the Cubs last season, though Ryan struggled in 2020 and will need a strong spring to land a bullpen gig. Relievers Brandon Workman, Adam Morgan, Andrew Chafin and Pedro Strop were also brought in to join the Cubs’ relief corps. All relievers have had their share of success at the big league level, but it is Strop who stands out among the group as he returns to Chicago, where he was another member of its World Series championship team in 2016. The Cubs have the talent to win the division in 2021, but if the team starts slow, they could be headed towards a rebuild soon.
Cincinnati Reds: C-
Additions: RP Brandon Bailey, SP Jeff Hoffman, SS Kyle Farmer, OF Dwight Smith Jr., RP Noe Ramirez, 3B Cheslor Cuthbert, RP Jesse Biddle, OF Scott Heineman, RP Josh Osich, OF Nicky Delmonico, RP Sean Doolittle, INF Dee Gordon, RP Shane Carle, RP Cam Bedrosian, OF Tyler Naquin, 3B Mike Freeman, RP Carson Fulmer
The Reds used a late-season surge to land themselves in the 2020 postseason where they suffered a two-game shutout sweep by the Braves in the Wild Card round. Despite the moves Cincinnati made last offseason to improve its offense, it was the pitching staff that got them to the playoffs, led by Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. Bauer, however, departed in the offseason, and the Reds attempt to go “all-in” last season already looks disappointing. The Bauer-less rotation still has Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo but questions remain with Tyler Mahle and Wade Miley. The only addition the Reds made to their rotation was a trade of Robert Stephenson for Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman was once a top prospect in the Rockies system but has seen very little success at the major league level and was even moved to the bullpen in Colorado and found little success. At 28, Hoffman still has exceptional spin-rate on his pitches and may finally be able to settle down in Cincy now that he isn’t captive to the Coors Field-effect. One of Cincinnati's primary needs was at shortstop though they failed to sign Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons. As it stands it appears that Kyle Farmer should open the season as the club’s shortstop. While Farmer produced a .266 average with the Reds in 2020, he only has nine career home runs and is not known for usually producing a high on-base percentage. Tyler Naquin broke out for the Cleveland Indians in 2016 but has since struggled with injuries and was unable to secure a spot as an outfielder of the future for the Indians. With good health, however, Naquin has all the talent to be a serviceable fourth outfielder for the Reds so long as he draws more walks and cuts down on strikeouts. With Raisel Iglesias traded to the Angels, the Reds signed Sean Doolittle to a one-year contract to compete with Amir Garrett for the closer’s role. Doolittle endured his worst statistical season in 2020 as he had a 5.87 ERA across 11 appearances with the Nationals. Whether he starts the season as closer or not, Doolittle should be a much-needed lefty in the Reds’ bullpen. Cam Bedrosian should also be a productive newcomer in the 'pen as he carved himself a consistent role in the Angels' bullpen from 2016-2020. The Reds are in a strange place competitively at the moment and although they are a dark horse to win the NL Central this season, a title would most definitely help the team focus on the future direction of the team.
Milwaukee Brewers: C+
Additions: C Luke Maile, RP Hoby Milner, RP Luis Perdomo, INF Jace Peterson, SS Daniel Robertson, RP Blaine Hardy, 2B Kolten Wong, SP Jordan Zimmermann, RP Brad Boxberger, OF Derek Fisher, 3B Travis Shaw, SP Brett Anderson, CF Jackie Bradley Jr., SP Zack Godley
The Brewers have been to the playoffs each of the past three seasons. However, 2020 was a step back as the Brewers 29-31 and in fourth place, which was still good enough to earn them the last seed in the postseason. The Brewers’ weakness over this stretch of time has been their rotation yet haven’t made any significant acquisitions to improve their starting five. Milwaukee retained the services of starting pitcher Brett Anderson who has finally found a way to stay healthy since the 2019 season began. While questions still linger on whether he can withstand a 162-game season, Anderson is a functional back-end starter with a healthy mix of pitch types in his arsenal. Though Jordan Zimmermann never lived up to his Detroit Tigers contract, there’s a possibility the Brewers plug him into the rotation at some point in the season if one of their starters goes down with an injury. Though Zimmermann’s numbers have consistently declined in his career, this could be one of the final opportunities he gets to sustain his major league playing career. It is more likely that Zack Godley gets a rotation shot before Zimmermann, due to his age. Godley once looked like a mainstay in the Diamondbacks’ rotation, but control issues ended his tenure in the desert. The Brew Crew inked second baseman Kolten Wong to a two-year $18 million contract. The two-time Gold Glove winner Wong is a huge upgrade for the Crew defensively and may see an uptick in home runs and his overall production playing half his games in American Family Field. After being non-tendered by the Brewers after the 2019 season, Travis Shaw has another opportunity to supplant himself at third base this season. Shaw posted back-to-back 30 home run seasons in 2017 and 2018 before experiencing a decline in slugging and on-base percentage. Shaw had moments with the Blue Jays last year that proved he may be headed back in the right direction in 2021 and try to increase the power in Milwaukee’s lineup. This will be the first season since 2006 where the Brewers will be without Ryan Braun. With Milwaukee unsure of the Avisail Garcia’s production headed into the season, they signed Jackie Bradley Jr. to a two-year deal to play right field. Bradley won two World Series as the Red Sox’ center fielder since his debut in 2013 and has plenty of postseason experience, an All-Star game appearance and a Gold Glove Award to his name. While many have questioned his bat since 2017, Bradley batted .283 with seven home runs and a .814 OPS in 2020 and was second on the Red Sox in WAR. Even if he reverts back to his old offensive numbers, Bradley is capable of hitting anywhere from 14-24 home runs and is a highlight-reel defender even as he transitions to right field. Daniel Robertson and Derek Fisher are two small signings who have seen limited success in the majors, but it appears there may not be room for either on the Brewers’ Opening Day roster. Brad Boxberger was one of the most consistent arms to come out of the Marlins’ struggling bullpen last season and will likely see action with the Brewers at some point this season. Should Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff all post excellent seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers should find themselves in the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Pittsburgh Pirates: F
Additions: C Michael Perez, RP Clay Holmes, SP Wil Crowe, 2B Wilmer Difo, RP David Bednar, RP Chasen Shreve, C Tony Wolters, OF Brian Goodwin, SP Tyler Anderson, 1B/3B Todd Frazier, OF Dustin Fowler, RP Duane Underwood, SP Trevor Cahill, SP Steven Wright
The Pirates were the worst team in the majors in 2020. On the bright side, they hold the number one pick in this year’s draft and have the pleasure of choosing between drafting what will likely be Jack Leiter or Kumar Rocker, both attending Vanderbilt, first overall. However, the Pirates receive an F because they didn’t seem to make any moves that make their team better than they were last year. Pittsburgh unloaded Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove this offseason but didn’t acquire any prospects that are in MLB.com’s Top 10 Pirates prospects. After spending time as a backup catcher in parts of three seasons for the Rays, Michael Perez was claimed off waivers to back up Jacob Stallings in Pittsburgh. Perez is a very good defensive catcher with only one passed ball in his career and though he is not much of an offensive threat, he has a league-average hard-hit rate that could serve him well. In the case that Perez does not earn the backup catcher’s role, Tony Wolters would likely be the other option for the Pirates. Wolters is another light-hitting catcher but has the advantage of being a left-handed batter if the Pirates need another on their bench. Brian Goodwin was brought in by the Pirates to compete for an outfield spot, however, he will have his work cut out for him as he took a big step back with the Angels and Reds in 2020. If Goodwin returns to his 2018-19 numbers, he will surely find his way on the Pirates’ roster at some point in the season with his blend of speed and occasional power. Todd Frazier signed a minor league deal with the Pirates this offseason, but despite his resume, it appears he will not make the Pirates’ roster with Colin Moran and Ke’Bryan Hayes at first and third. Tyler Anderson joins the Pirates rotation after spending a season by the bay in San Francisco. Anderson recorded a 4.37 ERA across 59.2 innings last year and should make the rotation solely because he is left-handed. Trevor Cahill, who was also a Giant last season, will also be competing for a rotation spot with Wil Crowe, who debuted with the Nationals last season. Despite his age, Cahill likely has the upper hand as he posted a 3.24 ERA in 6 starts last season and could help teach some of Pittsburgh’s young starters. Even veteran knuckleballer Steven Wright may don the black and gold for the Pirates at some point this season. Chasen Shreve and Duane Underwood are solid additions to the Pirates’ bullpen and should see time with the Pirates given their weak ‘pen. The Pirates are looking forward to hopefully building the franchise around the aforementioned Hayes and developing pitching for the future, but this is going to be another year where fans of the Bucs will need to stay strong.
St. Louis Cardinals: B
Additions: C Tyler Heineman, SP Adam Wainwright, 3B Nolan Arenado, C Yadier Molina, OF Matt Szczur
Personally, I’m not as high on the Cardinals as many others have been. The Cardinals made very few moves this offseason, but the moves were nonetheless significant. The Cardinals trade for Nolan Arenado was possibly the biggest trade of the entire offseason. Arenado is a five-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glove winner and was top five in NL MVP voting for three straight years from 2016-18. The most impressive thing about the Cardinals trade for Arenado would be what little they had to give up to acquire him. While Arenado saw decreased power in 2020 and posted the lowest batting average (.253) of his career thus far, he is one of the most popular picks to have a rebound season in 2021. And even though he will no longer be in Coors Field anymore, Arenado should still have plenty of pop in his bat to knock 30 or more home runs for a Cardinals team that finished in last place in team home runs in 2020. While Cardinals fans had to deal with rumors that Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina could find other homes in Atlanta or New York, the Cardinals couldn’t resist bringing one of the most iconic batteries in team history for another season. At this point in Molina’s career, he is a below-average hitter, but the leadership he brings to the team and its pitching staff cannot be overlooked. Experts were quick to write off Adam Wainwright after his 2017 and 2018 seasons, but the veteran righty anchored the Cardinals’ rotation in 2020, throwing 2 complete games in 10 starts. While it is not reasonable to believe that he will duplicate his 3.15 ERA last season in 2021, Wainwright should still be an excellent middle-of-the-rotation arm who will serve as another great leader and mentor for St. Louis. Tyler Heineman joined the Cardinals this offseason on a minor league contract, but it will take an injury to Molina or backup catcher Andrew Knizer for Heineman to get a shot with the Cards. St. Louis has some great players in Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Jack Flaherty and the up-and-coming Dylan Carlson. If the Cardinals get seasons typical of their star players, they should run away with the NL Central this season and look to play spoiler to the Dodgers, Padres and Braves in the postseason.