Take the National League Central -- take it, please. Here are the notable talents that the teams of the NL Central have sloughed off during the current 2020-21 offseason:
- The Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish, runner-up in the 2020 NL Cy Young vote, to the Padres for four prospects, three of whom are teenagers, and Zach Davies.
- Slugger Josh Bell, who cracked 37 home runs in 2019, was dealt from the Pirates to the Nationals.
- The Cardinals declined their club option on Kolten Wong, a reliable on-base threat who's probably the best defensive second baseman in the game, and don't appear poised to re-sign him.
- The Cubs non-tendered power-hitting outfielder Kyle Schwarber.
- The Reds dealt closer Raisel Iglesias and his 137 career ERA+ to the Angels.
As well, 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer is a free agent, and any sensible reading of the tea leaves suggests he's not likely to re-up with Cincy. Trade rumors have swirled about Sonny Gray of the Reds, who along with Bauer formed perhaps the best one-two punch in the NL last season. The Pirates will likely trade Joe Musgrove, who's right now penciled in as their No. 1 starter. The Brewers' biggest offseason addition to date is … Luke Maile? Dylan Cozens? As well, Josh Hader is a strong candidate to be dealt out of Milwaukee, and they declined their option on franchise legend Ryan Braun, who was quite productive as recently as 2019. Our own Matt Snyder has detailed what the Cubs' bloodletting might look like if it continues beyond Darvish, and All-Star catcher Willson Contreras in particular seems likely to be moved.
In a general sense, such retrenchment isn't especially surprising. Most teams these days are loath to invest in the on-field product, and the financial challenges of the 2020 season -- however exaggerated those challenges might be -- give owners cover to continue behaving in such a manner. With a few notable exceptions, this is how things are in MLB right now. What's striking, though, is that the NL Central seems to be chock full of teams that don't seem to care about winning in 2021. The remaining five divisions each have at least one team that's trying to, you know, win baseball games or figures to make good-faith efforts to that end before Opening Day. The NL Central, though, seems to be nothing more than a conclave of austerity policies.
The well heeled Cubs appear to be the worst actors in all of this, but they've got company. The Cardinals appear poised to keep their powder dry for next offseason, when the contracts of Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller, and perhaps Matt Carpenter will come off the books. The Reds are showing strong signs of scaling back and being quite active the previous two winters, and the Brewers will likely have a 2021 payroll south of $100 million (i.e., not adequate for a team with designs on contention). The Pirates are, well, as rudderless and uncommitted as you would expect a team owned by Bob Nutting to be.
Last season, the NL Central yielded four playoff teams, but that was mostly a function of the expanded postseason. The Cubs had the worst record of any division winner, and the other three playoff teams of the NL Central combined to be two games above .500. Given that the Cubs subtracted perhaps the NL's best starting pitcher from the roster, there figures to be a great deal of compression in the division this season. However, a tight race is only compelling when there's underlying quality. The NL Central in 2021 as it stands right now looks like an insipid mosey toward the .500 mark.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. Any one of the top four teams could cement favorite status simply by breaking the informal non-aggression pact that presently defines the NL Central. The Cubs have already shown their hand with the Darvish trade, so we'll omit them from consideration. But elsewhere? The Cardinals badly need thump in the lineup, and that could come via an upgrade at third base, a signing of J.T. Realmuto (obviously in the absence of a Yadier Molina re-signing), or middle-of-the-order pop in the outfield. The Brewers have a similar suite of needs, and that's the case even after you assume the return of Lorenzo Cain and better outputs from Christian Yelich. The Reds should be undertaking a vigorous pursuit of Bauer and, failing that, looking to replace him elsewhere on the market while resisting any urge to trade Gray. That's not an exhaustive list of roster solutions for St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincy, but those are the necessary first steps toward NL Central favorite status.
Thanks to the general mood of disinvestment and apathy, the NL Central crown is there for the taking. Going against the divisional tides and improving the roster via free agency is what a smart organization that's behaving on the level would do right now, but, well, this is where we gesture broadly at the state of things in the NL Central. One would prefer a team move boldly to seize the division, but instead it appears that someone will just groggily fall into it.
Imagine a game of musical chairs, except the chairs are fetid toilets with the seats up. Is the player left without a seat when the music stops the winner or the loser? This dumb question captures the current state of the NL Central and will continue to do so until at least one team endeavors to make itself better, not worse. Fetid toilets!