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June 29, 2012

What the Contenders Need

NL Central

by R.J. Anderson, Jeff Euston and Kevin Goldstein

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With a little over a month to go until the non-waiver trading deadline, talks between teams are heating up. In a seven-part series appearing over the coming week, several BP authors will be covering the needs, potential fits, and more for the contenders in each division, as well as a rundown of the top 10 player trade targets. Today, we take a look at the NL Central.

Cincinnati Reds

Playoff Odds
Opening Day: 53%
High: 82% (6/17)
Low: 35% (4/14)
Current: 70%

Payroll picture
Walt Jocketty made a nine-figure bet this spring when he signed Joey Votto to a record $225 million extension running through 2023. A week later, Brandon Phillips signed for $72.5 million, and suddenly the Reds had leapfrogged to the top of the NL Central with $255 million in payroll commitments for 2013-17.

The Reds opened 2012 with a franchise-record $87 million payroll, but Cincinnati’s financial situation is not unmanageable. Jocketty has 10 players signed for 2013 at a cost of about $70 million, with his current roster intact except for Scott Rolen, whose deal expires this season. —Jeff Euston

General manager’s track record
Jocketty has as much experience with blockbuster July trades as any general manager in the division. When Jocketty ran point in St. Louis, he consummated July trades that netted superstars like Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and Mark McGwire. Since joining Cincinnati, Jocketty’s deadline deals have been less eventful, but his penchant for the big deal was again on display during the winter when he acquired Mat Latos.

Biggest positional needs
Well-built teams build depth, not cores at the deadline. The Reds are in a position where the marginal upgrade of acquiring a new starting pitcher or shortstop might not be worth the cost. As a result, expect the Reds to shop around for some reserve pieces, perhaps a new right-handed reliever or another bench bat.

Potential fits
Generally, finding a trade partner for a bench or bullpen piece is no more difficult than sorting through what the non-contenders have to offer. Jocketty could look at the Athletics, Mariners, and Astros and make a run at one of their veteran arms, such as Grant Balfour, Brandon League, or Brett Myers. Bear in mind that Jocketty doesn’t need to make a move in order to secure the Reds’ standing as one of the league’s better teams. —R.J. Anderson

Top trade chips
The Reds don't have the kind of system to produce a blockbuster trade, as Billy Hamilton isn't going anywhere. That said, the Reds do have some depth at shortstop and Didi Gegorious is Double-A proven in terms of defense, and a solid line drive bat. As crazy as it might sound, don't be surprised if Paul Janish is used as a throw-in based solely on his defensive chops. Oft-injured Kyle Lotzker remains a big-bodied right-hander with plus velocity, and some scouts would like to see what he can do out of the bullpen. —Kevin Goldstein

Milwaukee Brewers

Playoff Odds
Opening Day: 72%
High: 78% (4/1)
Low: 11% (6/25)
Current: 13%

Payroll picture
The Brewers watched Prince Fielder leave for free agency last winter without so much as making an offer to their homegrown star. Fielder’s $200 million asking price was simply too high for Milwaukee. Nevertheless, the Brewers followed up their 2011 NL Central title by bumping their payroll to a club-record $98 million this season. But that decision hasn’t paid off in the standings.

Milwaukee’s window of opportunity could be closing soon. Starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum will become free agents after the World Series. With the $10 million 2013 option on Randy Wolf’s contract not looking like particularly attractive idea right now, the Brewers face the prospect of rebuilding their starting rotation for 2013. But with seven players under contract at about $51 million next season, Doug Melvin does enjoy some financial flexibility. —Jeff Euston

General manager’s track record
Adding CC Sabathia in 2008 is Doug Melvin’s most significant deadline acquisition. In recent years, Melvin’s strategy has been to buttress his core. A good example of this is last July, when Melvin was able to snag Francisco Rodriguez and Jerry Hairston, Jr. without further gouging an already weak farm system.

Biggest positional needs
Milwaukee’s decision to shift Corey Hart to first base and allow Norichika Aoki to play right field looks like a good one. That leaves the Brewers’ greatest needs at shortstop and on the mound. Alex Gonzalez is on the 60-day disabled list, meaning the Brewers are using Cesar Izutris and Cody Ransom to tag-team at short. Meanwhile, the Brewers rotation is dealing with numerous injuries of its own. Add in John Axford’s struggles, as he is presently doing his best Derrick Turnbow impersonation, and pitching could be Melvin’s priority.

Potential fits
Veteran shortstop options like Marco Scutaro and Jason Bartlett could catch the Brewers’ eyes (particularly if Bartlett is released). The usual array of pitchers will come up, too, though there is one potential catch: Melvin may opt against buying, and instead test the market to determine Zack Greinke’s worth. —R.J. Anderson

Top trade chips:
The Brewers still have a farm system with few talents beyond their 2011 and 2012 draft picks. There is some scouting interest in Low-A shortstop Yadiel Rivera, a big, athletic, slick-fielding shortstop with some raw power, though he has never put up numbers. On the flip side is Scooter Gennett, one of those little second basemen who just flat out hits. —Kevin Goldstein

Pittsburgh Pirates

Playoff Odds
Opening Day: 3%
High: 10% (6/24)
Low: 0% (4/14)
Current: 7%

Payroll picture
The Pirates positioned themselves as buyers at the trade deadline a year ago, then found themselves 10 games out of first place after the first week of August. It would seem the Bucs remained aggressive in the off-season, judging by the widely reported Opening Day payroll figure of $63 million, a 50-percent increase from their 2011 mark of $42 million. But with the Yankees paying $11.5 million of A.J. Burnett’s 2012 salary, Pittsburgh actually is spending just $51.9 million, last in baseball.

It’s certainly not as if the Pirates are hamstrung by dead money. Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen are signed affordably through 2016 and 2017, respectively. And Burnett and Clint Barmes are the only other players signed for 2013. However, Pittsburgh could have as many as 10 players file for arbitration in the off-season, including key contributors James McDonald and Neil Walker. —Jeff Euston

General manager’s track record
Neal Huntington entered July 2011 as an unlikely and first-time buyer. He resisted the temptation of emptying his farm system to chase the postseason, instead settling on low-cost alternatives like Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. Expect Huntington to take a similar approach this season.

Biggest positional needs
The struggles of Casey McGehee and Alex Presley leave the Pirates yearning to acquire a better player at one of three positions: first base, corner outfield, or third base (the Pirates could then shift Pedro Alvarez to the cold corner). It seems doubtful that Pittsburgh would quit on Clint Barmes already, though his offensive performance to date certainly justifies it.

Potential fits
One wonders if the Pirates might pursue a Carlos Quentin or Carlos Lee trade. A player like Lee is not ideal, but the Pirates are receiving such poor production from their incumbents that, like last season, they could acquire unexcitable upgrades and still come out better for it.  – R.J. Anderson

Top trade chips
The Pirates are not going to completely sacrifice their future by trading one of many high-ceiling pitching prospects, but every team in baseball has enough prospects to pull off a lesser deal. While he's certainly crashed as a prospect, Gorkys Hernandez remains a plus-plus defensive center fielder who should have value off the bench, and he's pretty much big-league ready. While his ceiling is that of a No. 4 or 5 starter, lefty Rudy Owens is nearly big-league ready, and could generate interest. —Kevin Goldstein

St. Louis Cardinals

Playoff Odds
Opening Day: 63%
High: 92% (5/11)
Low: 55% (6/19)
Current: 72%

Payroll picture
John Mozeliak lost out on the bidding for Albert Pujols in December as the asking price rocketed well past the $200 million mark. But the St. Louis GM countered by spending a cool $127 million to bring back Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal, sign free agent Carlos Beltran and lock up Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals’ Opening Day payroll of $110 million is close to their 2011 mark, and Mozeliak has eight players under contract for 2013 at a cost of $83 million. The eight-figure salaries for Berkman and Kyle Lohse come off the books this winter, so the Cardinals have some room to maneuver if the right opportunity presents itself. —Jeff Euston

General manager’s track record
Mozeliak, like his predecessor Jocketty, is willing to make a bold move when the opportunity presents itself. Last July, Mozeliak executed a much-maligned three-way trade that sent Colby Rasmus to Toronto for what amounted to Edwin Jackson and some relief pitchers. Mozeliak then acquired Rafael Furcal in a later deal. Thanks to the two trades, the Cardinals not only made the postseason, but also won the tournament.

Biggest positional needs
Lance Berkman’s inability to stay healthy has the St. Louis resorting to a three-headed monster (Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, and Allen Craig). Suggesting the Cardinals hedge their bets on Berkman’s return sounds smart, but it doesn’t seem to work logistically, at least not as the roster is currently constructed. More likely is that St. Louis will troll for pitchers, be it starters or relievers. The Cardinals do have Chris Carpenter returning soon, and a strong comeback could limit their interest in adding another rotation piece.

Potential fits
As is the case with the Reds, the Cardinals may pursue arms similar to Balfour, League, and Myers. —R.J. Anderson

Top trade chips
The Cardinals certainly have the resources to pull off a blockbuster if they so desire, but in a system will plenty of Top 100 prospects, it's hard seeing them putting Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong or Shelby Miller on the table under any circumstances. More realistic targets could be pitching prospects John Gast and Trevor Rosenthal, both of whom are close to ready to be middle or back-of-the-rotation starters. In terms of throw-ins, Adron Chambers could be attractive as an extra outfielder, and third baseman Tyler Rahmatulia has shown some impressive hitting ability at the lower levels. —Kevin Goldstein


R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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