NL Central Hot Stove forecast: Reds poised to dominate division
Reds weren't great in '10 despite finishing first but could be very good in 2011
Cardinals have top-heavy core of stars but need to find talent to support them
The Cubs are doing the right thing by staying out of the free-agent market
This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for the teams in each of MLB's six divisions. Teams are listed by 2010 order of finish.
2010 Results: 91-71, first place, lost to Phillies in NLDS
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 790/685
Pythagorean Record: 92-70
Pending Free Agents: OF Willie Bloomquist, SS Orlando Cabrera (declined option), 3B Miguel Cairo, OF Jim Edmonds, SP Aaron Harang (declined option), C Ramon J. Hernandez, RP Michael Lincoln, RP Arthur Rhodes, RP Russ Springer
Players with Options: None
Prospects on the Verge: 1B Yonder Alonso, P Aroldis Chapman, C Devin Mesoraco
Building For: A second consecutive division title, and perhaps a run of several years near the top of the division if some young players develop well.
Strengths: Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, young pitchers
Biggest Holes: Catcher, shortstop, durable starting pitcher, bullpen
Targets: C Yorvit Torrealba, SP Jake Westbrook, RP Joaquin Benoit.
The Reds weren't all that good this year. Possibly excepting the American League Central, there isn't another division in baseball in which they would have even finished in second place, and if the Cardinals had gotten better luck and used slightly better role players the Reds likely wouldn't have made the playoffs at all.
That said, this is a talented team that right now probably rates as division favorites for next year. A second consecutive division title, and perhaps a run of several years near the top of the division if some young players develop well, isn't out of the question. First baseman Joey Votto is one of the best players in the majors, and 23-year-old rightfielder Jay Bruce has the talent to match him. The Reds also have several good young pitchers, such as Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and, of course, hard-throwing phenom Aroldis Chapman. Other than third baseman Scott Rolen, all of their important players are young, and they can expect to get more out of starters Volquez and Homer Bailey in 2011 than they did in 2010 as they gain experience and stay healthy.
The Reds need a catcher, a shortstop and a durable starting pitcher, and their bullpen is a bit light. The free agent market is thin at the Reds' positions of need, but one can imagine them pursuing second-tier players. The key to their winter may be the disposition of 23-year-old prospect Yonder Alonso, who profiles as perhaps a Sean Casey-type hitter and happens to be blocked by the even better Joey Votto. General manager Walt Jocketty would do very well to move him for a reliable pitcher or shortstop, and if he can do so he might be able to fill one of the club's big holes without adding much salary.
Also on the agenda will be determining whether phenom Aroldis Chapman should move to the rotation -- his iffy control and the stress that might place on his arm argue against it -- and signing a veteran catcher who can be shunted aside if Devin Mesoraco, who hit .302/.377/.587 across three levels this year, forces his way to the majors.
The big question, though, is whether Jocketty wants to make a major play. He has the talent on hand to, for example, bid honestly for New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. If he can pull off a move like that -- and in St. Louis he did so many times, landing players like Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire -- and if players like Bailey mature, the Reds could quickly evolve into a truly elite team.
2010 Results: 86-76, second place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 736/641
Pythagorean Record: 90-72
Pending Free Agents: 3B Pedro Feliz, C Jason LaRue, RP Mike MacDougal, 2B Aaron Miles, SP Brad Penny, RP Dennys Reyes, RP Jeff Suppan, SP Jake Westbrook, OF Randy Winn
Players with Options: None
Prospects on the Verge: P Lance Lynn
Building For: A World Series victory in what could be legendary manager Tony La Russa's final season.
Strengths: Core players Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols and Colby Rasmus and starters Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright
Biggest Holes: Supporting cast for stars, infield
Targets: SP Ben Sheets, SP Brandon Webb, RP Kerry Wood
The Cardinals are, as ever and always, the Cardinals, and will run out some number of All-Stars and candidates for major postseason awards along with an even larger number of the unknown and unloved. They will probably win somewhere between 85 and 90 games, and people in Missouri and Illinois will wonder in great numbers why they don't just get some more good players.
Of course the problem isn't that the team doesn't want good players, it's that the stars cost a lot of money, leaving only so much left over. One can thus expect the traditional dumpster-diving for pitchers out of whose mangled arms virtuoso coach Dave Duncan might be able to extract some good innings, and the equally traditional acquisition of feisty, scrappy and/or grizzled utilitymen whose main talents are in the line of making Tony La Russa weep in admiration.
Anything really notable will probably involve a trade of 24-year-old centerfielder Colby Rasmus, a potential franchise player whom La Russa seems truly unable to abide. Such players rarely hit the market and are even more rarely dealt, but it's just possible to envision a talent-rich club like the Tampa Bay Rays assembling an offer good enough to make it worth moving a player who will, before he hits free agency, likely be worth tens of millions of dollars more than he's paid.
Given how much money they have tied up in their stars the team likely won't make a major signing, but Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb and Kerry Wood are the kinds of pitchers coach Dave Duncan has made a career of salvaging.
2010 Results: 77-85, third place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 750/804
Pythagorean Record: 75-87
Pending Free Agents: SP David Bush, SP Chris Capuano, SS Craig Counsell, SP Doug Davis (declined option), RP Trevor Hoffman (declined option), C Gregg Zaun (declined option)
Players with Options: None
Prospects on the Verge: P Zach Braddock, P Jeremy Jeffress, 2B Brett Lawrie
Building For: A respectable finish and, just maybe, a half-hearted run at the wild card.
Biggest Holes: Pitching, both in rotation and bullpen
Targets: Veteran starting pitchers such as Javier Vazquez or Jon Garland
Led by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers have half a championship-caliber lineup whose lesser half comprises young players with real talent but beyond Yovani Gallardo they have virtually no decent pitching. Fielder will be a free agent after this coming season, and one cannot imagine even the beautiful Milwaukee Art Museum keeping him in town. Clearly, this will dominate the Brewers' winter agenda.
This is no cause for wailing and lamentations among their fans. Fielder helped the team return to relevance, but other than in 2009, he's never been a true star, and he's certainly not the sort of player to whom a team in a genuinely small market should be making a pricey commitment.
Because the Brewers have a lot of young and talented position players, a Fielder trade, now or in summer, will likely be about picking up pitching talent with an eye toward a run in 2012. To that end, the team shouldn't be expected to sign a lot of relievers -- they have young pitchers who can take those roles, perhaps as preparation for future rotation jobs -- or make other strictly short-term moves.
It's worth noting, though, that the Brewers would have contended this year with tolerable starting pitching because their offense was the second-best in the National League. In Gallardo and perhaps Randy Wolf, they have two pitchers who could semi-plausibly start the first two games of a playoff series. For that reason, the smart ploy might be to chase potentially useful veteran starters like Javier Vazquez and only make a decision on Fielder once it's clear how the pursuit is going.