NL Central Hot Stove preview: Brewers, Cards have similar issues
Milwaukee (Prince Fielder) and St. Louis (Albert Pujols) could lose their star 1B
The Cincinnati Reds will be tying to prove that last year's performance was a fluke
The Pirates, Cubs and Astros are all a long way from being serious contenders
This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Wednesday will preview the National League and Thursday the American League. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.
2011 Results: 96-66, NL Central champs, lost NLCS
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 721/638
Pythagorean Record: 90-72
Pending Free Agents: 1B Prince Fielder, UT Jerry Hairston Jr., IF Craig Counsel, OF Mark Kotsay, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Takashi Saito, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RP Francisco Rodriguez
Prospects on the Verge: CF Logan Schafer, RF Caleb Gindl, SP Amaury Rivas, SP Wily Peralta
Building For: Surviving Prince Fielder's departure
Strengths: Starting rotation, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart
Biggest Holes: First base, shortstop
Targets: Fielder, 1B Carlos Peņa, SS Jimmy Rollins, SS Rafael Furcal, SS Ramon Santiago, SP Roy Oswalt
The plan: The Brewers head into the offseason in a similar position to the rival Cardinals, whom they bested in the regular season only to lose to in the National League Championship Series. Both teams face the free agency of their superstar first baseman. Both teams need to fill a hole at shortstop after declining their incumbent's option. Both teams still look strong for the coming season thanks to strong starting rotations, home-grown bullpens and a handful of remaining big bats. The difference is that the Cardinals seem likely to re-sign their superstar slugger, while the Brewers, in all likelihood, will have to forge ahead without Price Fielder, something Fielder himself hinted at repeatedly as the season and postseason drew to a close. The Brewers will certainly make their best offer to Fielder, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to out-bid his other suitors.
Replacing Fielder will be no easy task. Carlos Peņa can do a fair Fielder imitation in the three true outcome categories (homers, walks and strikeouts) and is an upgrade in the field, but his complete inability to hit for average (.216 over the last three seasons) undermines the rest of his value. Still, he's the best of the non-superstar free agent first basemen. The Brewers could also try to make up for Fielder's loss by spending big to land a star shortstop, but Jose Reyes will be looking for Fielder money, and Jimmy Rollins, who turns 33 at the end of November, is likely a bad investment. Both would be a huge upgrade on Yuniesky Betancourt, but then again, so would almost anyone else, including Rafael Furcal, whom the Cardinals may want to resign, or even longtime Tiger Ramon Santiago, my pet sleeper shortstop solution (as you'll see below).
An upgrade at third base or in centerfield could also help cover for the loss of Fielder, but the market at those positions is far thinner, such that the Brewers may be best off hoping that Casey McGehee returns to his 2010 form and Nyjer Morgan doesn't, as unlikely as that might be. That the Brewers traded quality prospects at those positions in Brett Lawrie and Lorenzo Cain to load up for 2011 makes it all the more imperative for ownership and the front office to make some sort of splash for 2012 in the wake of the loss of Fielder. The Brewers will have the pitchers they received in those trades, Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, respectively, for one more season before they both become free agents. For that reason, a big upgrade at shortstop or even a one-year deal for a high-impact veteran like Roy Oswalt could be in order as the Brewers try to flip the script on St. Louis.
2011 Results: 90-72, NL wild card, won World Series
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 762/692
Pythagorean Record: 88-74
Pending Free Agents: 1B Albert Pujols, IF Nick Punto, C Gerald Laird, SP Edwin Jackson, SS Rafael Furcal, OR Corey Patterson, RP Octavio Dotel, RP Arthur Rhodes
Prospects on the Verge: SP Brandon Dickson, SP Shelby Miller, RP Jordan Swagerty, 1B Matt Adams, 3B Matt Carpenter, OF Adron Chambers
Building For: An easier path to the playoffs
Strengths: Top three starting pitchers, heart of batting order, even without Pujols
Biggest Holes: Shortstop, manager
Targets: Pujols, Furcal, SS Ramon Santiago, SS Jose Reyes, SS Jimmy Rollins
The plan: The Cardinals' off-season to-do list grew longer when Tony La Russa retired. Now they have to re-sign Albert Pujols, find a shortstop and hire a manager. The Cardinals' World Series championship has already increased the likelihood of Pujols' return, both by infusing the team with revenue from the games, merchandise and a likely increases in both attendance and ticket prices for 2012, and by proving to Pujols that this team is built to win. Indeed, expectations are that Pujols will return to St. Louis, though the size of his new contract may take a while to negotiate.
As it stands, the Cardinals are built to survive Pujols' departure. In September, GM John Mozeliak re-signed Lance Berkman for the coming season, so if Pujols does depart, Berkman can move to first base and post-season hero Allen Craig can take over in rightfield. That alignment wouldn't compensate for the loss of Pujols, who is an utterly irreplaceable player, but a heart-of-the order of Holliday, Berkman postseason MVP David Freese and Craig should be plenty competitive provided all four can stay healthy and hit up to their capabilities.
The return of Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery (he was throwing off a mound during the postseason) would also help maintain the team's run differential (Chris Carpenter also re-signed in September and pitching coach Dave Duncan has indicated that he will return as well),
With or without Pujols, the team needs a shortstop as Mozeliak declined the $12 million option on fragile 34-year-old Rafael Furcal, who was acquired at the trading deadline to keep the Cardinals above replacement level at the position for the stretch run. If the team does bring back Pujols, they'll likely make a similarly modest move. Longtime Tiger Ramon Santiago is one compelling and underrated option, as is bringing back Furcal at a reduced price. If they fail to re-sign Pujols, however, they could take some of that money and aim it at Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, both of whom have their flaws (injury for the former and age for the latter), but either of whom would rank among the most productive shortstops in team history.
2011 Results: 79-83, 3rd place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 735/720
Pythagorean Record: 83-79
Pending Free Agents: SS Edgar Renteria, C Ramon Hernandez, SP Dontrelle Willis
Prospects on the Verge: SS Zack Cozart, LF Yonder Alonso, UT/3B Todd Frazier, C Devin Mesoraco, C Yasmani Grandal, RP Brad Boxberger, RP Francisco Cordero
Building For: To prove 2011 was the fluke, not 2010
Strengths: Heart of the batting order, major league-ready prospects
Biggest Holes: Front of the rotation
Targets: SP James Shields, SP Roy Oswalt, SP C.J. Wilson, SP Jon Danks, SP Scott Baker
The Plan: The Reds won 78 games in 2009 and 79 in 2011 but 91 -- and the NL Central title -- in the season in between. That makes 2010 look like a fluke, but there's reason to believe that 2011 was more of a transition year than a return to mediocrity.
Start with the fact that only the world champion Cardinals scored more runs than the Reds in the National League this season. Then consider that Cincinnati has several hitting prospects ready to take over full-time jobs in the major leagues in 2012, and there's reason to expect the Reds to again be among the NL leaders in runs scored next year. They have a trio of hard-hitting major-league ready catching prospects, with one, Yonder Alonso, already having been converted to fill the team's hole in leftfield, another, Devin Mesoraco, expected to take over departing free agent Ramon Hernandez's share of the catching duties, and the third, Yasmani Grandal, available as a valuable trade chip. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Zack Cozart is expected to solidify shortstop after a season in which the Reds got just a .238/.281/.317 hitting line from that position. At third base, utilityman Todd Frazier will serve as a caddy to Scott Rolen, whom the Reds hope will have a strong walk year after undergoing season-ending surgery in August to clean up his chronically ailing left shoulder.
With those players helping to flesh out the lineup around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips (whose option was picked up), and third-year centerfielder Drew Stubbs, and Cuban Missile Aroldis Chapman ready to replace closer Francisco Cordero, whose option was declined, Reds GM Walt Jocketty can focus on the team's real area of need: the front of the rotation. The Reds have considerable rotation depth, but with Edinson Volquez having struggled since his return from Tommy John surgery, they lack a rotation anchor and, as a group, their starters had the fourth-worst rotation ERA in the NL this year. Johnny Cueto will be just 26 next season, but seems likely to top out as a No. 2. Homer Bailey continues to show improvement, but he'll be 26 in May and no longer projects as a star.
Looking outside of the organization, C.J. Wilson will likely price himself out of the Reds' plans, but in Grandal they have the perfect chip to cash in via trade for a rotation anchor such as James Shields, who could be expendable in Tampa Bay due to the arrival of Matt Moore. Failing that, Cincinnati could target an underappreciated American League pitcher entering his walk year -- such as the White Sox' Jon Danks or the Twins' Scott Baker -- who could make the leap to stardom in the weaker league. A one-year deal for a quality veteran free agent like Roy Oswalt might also do the trick.