By: Chris Larson
Welcome to another edition of the "Remaining Pieces" series - a series focused on analyzing all 30 teams in baseball and identifying that one last need the team or organization might need prior to Opening Day. While the recommendation for every team from this series, isn't a guarantee to happen, this series serves as a basic guide for all of the General Managers out there who might be wondering what their next move should be.
Last season, the NL Central ended up causing both the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs to tie for first place, which caused a Game 163 to have to be played. Milwaukee ended out coming out on top with the Cubs finishing right on their heels. After starting the season hot, the St. Louis Cardinals struggled throughout the year, causing them to occupy third place in the division with a 88-74 record. Meanwhile, after surprising everyone at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Chris Archer, the Pittsburgh Pirates came in fourth, 13 games behind the Brewers, while the Cincinnati Reds once again rounded out the division, for the fourth consecutive season, well below 500 with a 67-95 record.
How will the division look this coming season? That has yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain - all five teams still have a need to fill out their roster - all of which will be discussed in length below.
1. Milwaukee Brewers (Top of the Rotation Guy) - The Brewers have had a somewhat of a quiet offseason thus far, but don't let that trick you, because last year the same thing happened, yet the Brewers traded for Christian Yelich on January 25th and signed free agent outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, to his five-year, $80 million dollar deal the following day. Therefore, there is probably some sort of big splash that General Manager, David Stearns, has tucked away up his sleeve and it shouldn't come as a surprise if that were in the form of someone who Milwaukee could slot at the top of their starting rotation. Sure, the plan the Brewers had from a pitching standpoint worked for the team last year and ultimately helped them to make it all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS, but there's certainly no guarantee that plan is going to work again this season or that one or two of the arms, that had notable seasons last year, won't face a bit of regression. So far this winter, Milwaukee has been predominantly linked to two big names that would fit the bill in Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians. Both the Giants and Indians are looking for big returns for both guys, which is something that David Stearns and Company have been hesitant to do in the past, but again this is a front office regime that paid a huge price for Christian Yelich and witnessed it work out tremendously right before their very eyes. Therefore, the Brewers front office might end up coming through again and add a valuable name to the Brew Crew, just in time for Opening Day. Who knows, the Brewers ace for 2019, might not even be wearing a Brewers uniform just yet!
2. Chicago Cubs (Find a Suitor for Ben Zobrist) - It wasn't until just last week that Ben Zobrist name was leaked into the rumor mill, but it certainly makes sense for a Chicago Cubs team that continues to prove just how strapped for cash they are this winter. Even though Zobrist provides an extraordinary amount of value on the field to the Cubs, thanks in part to his ability to play multiple different positions, the Cubs seem pretty set from a position player standpoint and might be able to trade him, in an effort to clear an additional $12.5 million dollars off the books. After all, this would likely be Zobrist final season in Cubbie blue and the Cubs could sure use the cash, considering that right now all estimations point to them having about $2.5 million dollars left to use towards an additional upgrade or two. Whether or not the Cubs are actually strapped for cash and aren't just using that as deflection (because they're really in on Machado and/or Harper) cannot be proven, but it sure seems that way given the behavior of the organization thus far. So far this winter, the biggest transactions the Cubs have made include: trading Drew Smyly to the Texas Rangers, inking free agent utility guy Daniel Descalso, and signing RHP, Kendall Graveman, for additional starting rotation depth. Certainly uncharacteristic behavior for a team that has spent nearly $600 million dollars on free agents over the past few offseasons, but it could illustrate the actual financial state of the organization and might just simply be an offseason where the Cubs sit out of doing anything big. While that might be the case, they should continue to shop Ben Zobrist as much as they can, in an effort to clear that salary though.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (Catching Depth) - For the sake of this report, we'll say that the St. Louis Cardinals aren't a mystery team in the Manny Machado or Bryce Harper sweepstakes, even though it sure seems like the team could use another bat, as both would fit nicely on the Cardinals 25-man roster. Assuming that St. Louis is out of both derbies, their next biggest need would be in the form of someone who can backup All-Star catcher, Yadier Molina, especially given Molina's age and growing injury risk. Molina has been more than durable over the span of his entire big league career, but right now, he's the only catcher listed on the Cardinals depth chart, which could spell major trouble for the team if Molina goes down with an injury. Luckily, there are still some great options left on the catching market for St. Louis to purge from and sign for additional depth. As previously mentioned during Monday's report, there are guys like Devin Mesoraco, Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera, and Nick Hundley, who all remain unsigned on the open market. All four of those names would slot in nicely behind Yadier Molina and could give the Cardinals an adequate replacement, in the event that Molina, goes down with an injury. One name that would be particularly interesting to monitor on the trade market would be Francisco Mejia, who the San Diego Padres received in a trade, at last summer's trade deadline. Mejia, who some see ultimately being a third baseman, could play catcher this season, which would allow St. Louis to see how he does behind the plate, and then transition to third base next season, once current third baseman, Matt Carpenter, is a free agent. Many believe Mejia's ultimate position will be at third base. The only problem is the price will be steep, which might be something, that causes the Cardinals to look elsewhere.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (Find a Suitor for Francisco Cervelli) - Francisco Cervelli is one of the remaining beloved Pirates players that remains on their roster, but is poised to hit free agency next offseason and could bring back a nice return for Pittsburgh. While Cervelli is a beloved icon in Pittsburgh and a great clubhouse guy, now is the time for the Pirates to hand the catching job to 28-year old, Elias Diaz. The Pirates organization views Diaz in a high regard and he ranked higher than Cervelli in, almost every defensive catching metric, last season. For a payroll conscious organization like the Pirates, it might be time to cut ties with Cervelli and hand the keys over to Diaz, who will come at a cheaper rate (pre-arbitration eligible vs. $11.5 million dollars), and someone who can be just as strong, if not a better defender, than Cervelli himself. In addition, the Pirates are sort of in another transitional year, albeit one that should have them at least contending once again. As mentioned above, after acquiring Chris Archer in a surprise move at last year's trade deadline, the Pirates starting rotation seems set and their bullpen is stacked with some nice arms, which means that now could be the right time to transition over to, Elias Diaz, being the full-time backstop. As for the backup to Diaz, the Pirates have two different options in Jacob Stallings and Steven Baron. Both Stallings and Baron will likely go into camp competing for the backup job, but those chances will only increase for, both guys if Cervelli ends up finding a new home, prior to Opening Day.
5. Cincinnati Reds (Centerfield) - This has been a terrific offseason for the Cincinnati Reds, as they have added Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and now Sonny Gray to their starting rotation, and Matt Kemp, along with Yasiel Puig, to their outfield mix. There was probably no one that would have predicted the Reds being this active at the start of this offseason, but it's great to see them trying to be competitive again, rather than just settling with the same team they had last season and finishing in the cellar once again. Now that the Reds have made those upgrades, they still have a glaring hole in centerfield, which needs to be addressed sooner than later. According to the Reds depth chart, if the season started today, Scott Schebler, would be the Reds Opening Day centerfielder, a secondary position for him, given that he fits best over in right field. Therefore, the argument can be made that someone, such as free agent AJ Pollock, would fit nicely in Cincinnati and would be someone who could further lengthen out the Reds lineup and provide the team with another offensive threat, especially when healthy. If Pollock is deemed to be out of the Reds price range, then the team could turn it's attention to another current free agent, Austin Jackson, although, Jackson would be lesser of an upgrade than Pollock would be. On the trade market, there are a few other names to potentially watch including: Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kevin Pillar of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Manuel Margot of the San Diego Padres. All three guys could slot immediately into Cincinnati's outfield arrangement and have high offensive capability.