Russell Martin of the Pirates

2014 free agent primer: NL Central

A three-team race in the NL Central scuffled to the finish, with the Cardinals once again claiming the division crown. However, this is going to be a winter of change in the NL Central, and maybe another team can knock St. Louis off of their lofty perch.

Chicago Cubs
Free agents: Kyuji Fujikawa, Carlos Villanueva
Needs: Starting pitching, catcher
And here we go – the Chicago Cubs are going to be the most-watched team this winter. They’re players for Russell Martin. They’re players for Jon Lester and other top-tier starting pitching. Their bounty of prospects could result in trades, possibly for someone like Cole Hamels. The Cubs are going to have their toes in quite a few different ponds this winter, and they’re aiming to make a splash to solidify their young team as contenders in 2015.

What happens if they can’t sign Martin, though? Wellington Casillo is a fine enough option behind the plate, and Chicago will probably go into the year with him as their primary backstop once again. At the end of the winter, that might be the best option, though – paying a catcher like Martin upwards of $15 million a year is a disaster waiting to happen.

Cincinnati Reds
Free agents: Jack Hannahan, Ryan Ludwick, Ramon Santiago
Needs: Corner outfield, bench
The Reds are in a terrible position right now, because they’re tapped out financially and locked into a roster that helped the team win just 76 games a year ago. They need to replace the departed Ryan Ludwick in left field, and I don’t think Chris Heisey (whose offensive numbers have declined each year since peaking in 2011) is the answer. They need to do something about Jay Bruce, who was a complete disaster, in right field. They need to upgrade their bench, which was pitiful in 2014.

Unfortunately for the Reds, they might need to blow up their excellent, and expensive, starting rotation to improve the offense. Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey will both make eight figures this season, and Mike Leake and Mat Latos could join them near that total through arbitration. Throw in another high arbitration salary in Aroldis Chapman, painful amounts of money owed to Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Joey Votto, and Cincinnati is faced with the depressing prospect of moving one of their best players simply to keep their heads above water. That’s not good.

Milwaukee Brewers
Free agents: Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, Francisco Rodriguez, Rickie Weeks
Needs: bullpen, bench
Milwaukee has already taken care of their two biggest priorities this winter – getting a first baseman (Adam Lind) and a third baseman (retaining Aramis Ramirez). The offensive appears set now, though Lind needs a caddy that can hit lefties at first base. The rotation also looks set after Yovani Gallardo’s option was exercised for 2015, and the only real frontier remaining for Milwaukee is the bullpen.

But really, the Brewers don’t need to do much here. Re-signing Francisco Rodriguez, who was great in the first half before becoming homer-prone in the second, could be a possibility. I doubt the Brewers will be looking at high-end relievers like David Robertston or Andrew Miller. Their eyes will probably be aimed at players in the Joba Chamberlain/Luke Gregerson/Craig Breslow tier, and that’s not a bad thing.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Free agents: Clint Barmes, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez
Needs: catcher, rotation, bullpen, bench
This is going to be a very important winter for the Pirates. They could potentially lose two of their most valuable players over their playoff runs in both 2013 and 2014, Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. 11 players are due arb raises, including key cogs Mark Melancon and Neil Walker. They seem likely to roll the dice with the erratic Pedro Alvarez at first base with both Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez already on the roster. Their rotation is one big deep breath past Gerrit Cole. Their third-best reliever is a guy unknown to anyone other than his family before September.

Needless to say, the Pirates have some work to do. Buying low on a veteran like they did last year with Edinson Volquez seems likely – maybe a presumably healthy Chad Billingsley or Kyle Kendrick and his hunger for innings could be fits. I doubt the Pirates spend much money on their bullpen – they never really have in recent years. More than likely, they’ll go with internal options, and that could be just fine.

As for catcher, I doubt the Pirates will be able to retain Martin. Given how gross the free agent market is behind the plate this year, a Chris Stewart/Tony Sanchez combo is looking more and more likely. Will all of those moves be enough to bring the Pirates 85 wins again? I really don’t know.

St. Louis Cardinals
Free agents: Mark Ellis, Justin Masterson, Jason Motte, Pat Neshek, A.J. Pierzynski
Needs: bench? Bullpen?
The reigning NL Central champions don’t have much they can improve upon this winter. Their rotation is solid, with the perennially injured Jaime Garcia and 2013 first round pick Marco Gonzales also in the picture. Their starting lineup seems set, though the tragic passing of Oscar Taveras raises some questions in right field. That leaves the bench and the bullpen, but let’s be honest here – which teams CAN’T improve in those areas?

St. Louis could use some extra depth near the bottom of the 25-man roster, but aside from that, this team looks ready to roll towards contention once again in 2015. I don’t think they’re going to shake the boat all that much.

About Joe Lucia

I hate your favorite team. I also sort of hate most of my favorite teams.