NL Central offseason preview — Can Cubs add arms to stay on top?

MLB


With free agency about to get underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?

Chicago Cubs: Who will the Cubs turn to for much-needed pitching help?

2017 record: 92-70
2018 World Series odds: 10-1
Vote: What should the Cubs do this offseason?

Back-to-back division titles have the Cubs in a good position. But the front office has known for a couple of years that this offseason would be all about finding more arms. They need quality and quantity: Two holes have opened in the starting staff, and a bunch of question marks surround the bullpen, which imploded in October.

The team went a long way toward filling out its rotation in trading for Jose Quintana, but that still leaves openings where free-agent starters John Lackey and Jake Arrieta used to pitch. It’s why re-signing Arrieta makes a lot of sense — at least until the Cubs see the price tag. They won’t give out a max-type deal, and Arrieta hasn’t shown any indication he’d take a hometown discount, so the organization will have to look elsewhere. Alex Cobb would be a nice fit as a free-agent addition, having played for manager Joe Maddon (and pitching coach Jim Hickey) in Tampa Bay. Trading a major league position player for a pitcher is a possibility as well, considering the Cubs have gutted their farm system in previous deals. — Jesse Rogers

Milwaukee Brewers: How do the Brewers take things to the next level?

2017 record: 86-76
2018 World Series odds: 30-1
Vote: What should the Brewers do this offseason?

Milwaukee knocked on the postseason door for most of the season only to fall short in September. But it was a huge step forward for a rebuilding organization. In fact, the next step might be adding some veterans who have been there, done that.

Milwaukee has a strong farm system it can trade from — something it refused to do midseason. It might be time to at least consider flipping some prospects for pitching. Or the Brewers can simply spend money. Arrieta would be a nice addition while subtracting from the Cubs. But that would come at a high cost.

Same with Yu Darvish.

Both Arrieta and Darvish would bring pennant-race experience. Beyond high-end free agents, look for the Brewers to add experience to their depth as well. A front-line player who has been to the postseason is great, but a role player who knows how to get it done can have a big impact as well. Milwaukee isn’t far off; it just has to round out the roster. — Rogers

St. Louis Cardinals: Will they acquire a difference-maker at the plate?

2017 record: 83-79
2018 World Series odds: 20-1
Vote: What should the Cardinals do this offseason?

The Cardinals have tumbled from 100 wins to 86 and now 83, missing the postseason in back-to-back years for just the second time since 2000. It’s easy to identify what’s missing: that one big guy with a bat, at a time when so many teams — including the Cubs — have one or more.

Just review whom they’re counting on: Matt Carpenter lost 50 points of OPS from his career-best 2016 season, and he’ll be 32 next year. Stephen Piscotty lost almost 100 OPS points, including 90 points of slugging, and he’s supposed to be in the middle of his prime after signing a team-friendly deal through 2022. Randal Grichuk has struggled to make consistent contact since his 2015 breakout. Yadier Molina‘s offensive peak (2011-13) is now four years into his career’s rearview mirror. Unless you’re GM John Mozeliak and you put all of your eggs in the “Tommy Pham can totally do that again” basket after the longtime farmhand produced an unexpected .931 OPS and 6.4 WAR, or unless you’re willing to wait on Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader, the Cardinals need a hitter to help get them back into the postseason picture.

Waiting for the kids to resolve their present difficulties or grow into outfield regulars would be the classic Cardinal Way move, but why not try to bundle a bunch of them in a trade for — dare we say it — Giancarlo Stanton? They won’t be players in the Bryce Harper/Manny Machado sweepstakes next winter, so why not try to get their top-shelf slugger right now? — Christina Kahrl

2017 record: 75-87
2018 World Series odds: 80-1
Vote: What should the Pirates do this offseason?

You can respect GM Neal Huntington’s dilemma — after he brought the organization out of its 20-year, generational losing streak, the Pirates are on the backslope of their rebuild. Fans might be wondering about their second act now that they’ve missed the postseason in back-to-back years.

As far as their commitments — and potential bargaining chips, if they decide to tear down and start over — they have Andrew McCutchen for only one more year but Starling Marte for two (plus an option) and Gregory Polanco for four more. There’s reason for regret in all three cases, but now they have to ask whether their once-famed outfield has one last big season together left in the trio. And what about Gerrit Cole — with just two years of club control left, do they bet on his regaining ace status or risk selling low after last season’s 4.26 ERA?

That’s essentially the problem with all of the Pirates’ movable parts — their value is down, and they won’t be converted into difference-making prospects. So should they gun for one last hurrah, hope to find another Ivan Nova-like pitcher to resurrect, and make a run at a wild card? — Kahrl

Cincinnati Reds: The Reds can hit, but can they pitch?

2017 record: 68-94
2018 World Series odds: 80-1
Vote: What should the Reds do this offseason?

Ask any NL Central Division foe and they’ll tell you that the Cincinnati Reds were a dangerous team in 2017, especially if they had a well-pitched game from their starter. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen often, so a good lineup was left to fend for itself. The Reds have some good youth on the mound, but they need to add more pitching via trade or free agency.

Although power is at an all-time high throughout the league, moving one of their six players who hit 24 or more home runs might net the Reds a good pitcher in return. After all, 2017 was a career year for several players, including Scooter Gennett, who hit 27 home runs. His previous career high was 14.

After wasting an MVP-type year out of Joey Votto, it would be almost criminal if the Reds didn’t improve on the mound and give themselves at least a little better chance to compete for the postseason. — Rogers



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