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Where the Cubs fit in a strange 2021 NL Central race

5 days agoTony Andracki

With Major League Baseball’s current plan to start spring training on time in mid-February, that means there’s only a month left of the offseason.

It was expected to be a strange winter and it’s lived up to that billing, with several impactful trades and a huge list of free agents still waiting to sign. 

Through it all, one thing has remained consistent: The National League Central is still ripe for the Cubs’ taking.

Yes, even after trading away Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini last month and the departures of Kyle Schwarber and Theo Epstein, among others.

To be sure, it will be more difficult for the Cubs to defend their division crown in 2021 without the NL Cy Young runner-up and valuable backup catcher, but it’s not like any other team in the NL Central has stepped up to the plate. In fact, the other four squads have all gotten notably worse over the last couple months.

We’ll see how the next month plays out but it doesn’t appear as if the Cardinals, Reds or Brewers have World Series aspirations in 2021 while the Pirates are in the midst of a major rebuild.

New Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has said the division’s quiet offseason does not play a distinct role in how his front office approaches the winter.

“You’re always going to follow your own division closer than probably any other,” Hoyer said last month. “But you have to run your own plays and do the things you feel comfortable with rather than try to chase someone or trying to use their moves to determine what you’re going to do. Doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Hoyer also said he expects the Cubs to contend in 2021 even after the Darvish trade and the state of the division is undoubtedly a factor there. 

Potential trades of Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras or others could further muddy the waters, but there’s still a lot of talent on this Cubs roster plus a Manager of the Year finalist in David Ross to steer the ship. Even with the offseason losses to date, there is still a clear avenue to contention in the game’s weakest division in 2021. 

The Cubs might not enter the season as World Series favorites, but they could give themselves at least an opportunity at another championship by earning a spot into the postseason tournament via another division title.

Let’s run it down:

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals will be without starting pitcher Dakota Hudson (Tommy John) all year and as of this writing, have not re-signed key veterans Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. They did not pick up Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option, making the Gold Glove second baseman and leadoff hitter a free agent.

They’ve also lost Brad Miller, as the utility player is currently a free agent after serving as the team’s cleanup hitter for a large chunk of 2020.

To date, the only additions the Cardinals have made to their roster is in the form of minor league free agents — namely catcher Tyler Heineman who has all of 20 MLB games under his belt.

They will, however, get pitchers Miles Mikolas (elbow) and Jordan Hicks (opted out) back after both right-handers missed the 2020 campaign.

From the outset of the offseason, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak indicated they will be slashing payroll in 2021:

https://twitter.com/markasaxon/status/1321583007791198211

All of this is not to say the Cardinals should be counted out, as this team proved last year it has remarkable resilience in the face of adversity.

While they have a solid core in place, you’d be hard-pressed to include the Cardinals among the powerhouse NL teams like the Dodgers, Padres and Braves.

11 Darvish And Caratini Pre

Cincinnati Reds

The big move from the division during last month’s Winter Meetings week was the Reds trading away closer Raisel Iglesias. 

Iglesias, 30, had 106 saves, a 2.85 ERA and 10.7 K/9 over the last five seasons (20 of those saves came against the Cubs), but will now be closing games for Joe Maddon’s Angels in Anaheim. 

Cincinnati’s return was Noe Ramirez, a 30-year-old middle reliever who has been solid the last couple years but doesn’t have anywhere near the track record Iglesias has. The Reds will also get a player to be named later and salary relief (Iglesias was owed $9.125 million in 2021).

Between that trade, Trevor Bauer hitting free agency and non-tendering Archie Bradley, the Reds have lost three of their best pitchers from a season ago. They also may wind up dealing another top arm (Sonny Gray) or one of their big hitters (Eugenio Suárez, Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos) this winter as trade rumors swirl. 

Beyond Ramirez, the main offseason additions for Cincinnati this winter have come in the form of pitcher Jeff Hoffman and outfielder Scott Heineman — both acquired in minor trades. 

Hoffman was the 9th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft but has never lived up to that pedigree with a 6.40 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 230.2 career big-league innings. Scott Heineman is the younger brother of the Cardinals’ top winter addition and has about as much experience (49 MLB games). 

A year ago, this Reds team was a popular pick to ascend into contention after an aggressive offseason, but this winter has seen an exodus of talent. If the season started tomorrow, it’s impossible to make the argument that the 2021 Reds have a better roster than the 2020 version that finished in third place in the division.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers are in a really interesting spot. They’re just a couple years away from sniffing a World Series berth when they took the Dodgers to Game 7 in the 2018 NLCS.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs three straight years, but they finished in fourth place in 2020 with a 29-31 record and only clinched a spot in the postseason due to the expanded format.

This offseason, the Brewers declined the options on Ryan Braun, Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard — all of whom filled major roles in the 2020 offense. They also non-tendered utility player Ben Gamel and reliever Alex Claudio.

They’ve spent the winter shopping mostly on waiver wires and at the low end of the free agent market, adding players like catcher Luke Maile and outfielders Tim Lopes and Pablo Reyes. They also reached an agreement this week with infielder Daniel Robertson (pending a physical), who has a career .694 OPS with the Giants and Rays.  

The Brewers’ best move of the winter — signing free agent pitcher Luis Perdomo — won’t even pay dividends in 2021 as the 27-year-old right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in October and will miss the season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The biggest addition the Pirates have made this winter is tabbing former Cubs mental skills coach John Baker as the organization’s new farm director. 

Beyond that, they’ve continued down the path of a major rebuild, trading 2019 All-Star Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals and declining the 2021 option on Chris Archer. 

The Pirates turned in the worst record in the league in 2020 and secured the No. 1 overall pick as a result. The tough times in Pittsburgh figure to continue for at least the next couple of seasons and this team won’t be a contender in 2021.

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