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November 18, 2008

Hot Stove Preview

NL Central

by Christina Kahrl

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What Do They Need? This is a team that lacks lineup balance. Last year's matchup with the Dodgers in the NLDS exposed a Cubs lineup that leans so far right that even Jesse Helms would have encouraged them to scoot over to the left a bit. Given that they were in on Jacob Peavy and bidding aggressively on Ryan Dempster while also kicking the tires on Randy Johnson before settling on retaining Dempster (reportedly for four years and $52 million), they're obviously looking beyond the back end of their own rotation for support for the unit's front end, which makes sense since they have reason to fear Rich Harden's fragility and Carlos Zambrano's past workloads.

What Do They Have? There is right-handed power in the lineup, depth in the infield (especially with Ronny Cedeno qualified to start at short somewhere for somebody), a surplus of thoroughly adequate fourth starter types, a group of regulars a bit older than you might think at first blush (this winter, Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto's turning 26 and shortstop Ryan Theriot 29, for example), and a farm system thinner than a crème brulee's crust. They also have commitments they've reason to regret, perhaps most notably to briefly flashy phenomenon Kosuke Fukudome; with three years and $38 million to go on a contract weighted down by a no-trade clause and enough comfort-minded riders to poison any team's yen to add him, the chances that he'll be dealt seem relatively remote.

What Are They Likely To Do? Like it or loathe it, acquiring Kevin Gregg is a win-now move that was also intended to trim salary commitments years into the future-which is another suggestion that they were shifting things around to afford a big-ticket player, Dempster. That won't be the end of their activities this winter. Packaging pitchers like Jason Marquis, Chad Gaudin, Sean Marshall, and/or Rich Hill might be poorly timed in terms of their value in trade, but with pitching priced as sky-high as ever, plausible rotation regulars who are under contractual control for a couple of seasons to come (like those last three) should have value in trade, however spotty their track records might be. That pitching depth as well as that in the infield will be dealt from, either to acquire that balance in the lineup and/or to shore up the outfield should they decide against bringing back Jim Edmonds to man center.

What Should They Do? Because of so many no-trade clauses (not just Fukudome, but also with declining Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano), there are only a few spots where they can really leverage their depth and add value. That's part of the reason why the Brian Roberts rumors seem to simmer endlessly-Mark DeRosa's movable, around the diamond, and also in a deal. Unfortunately, this isn't an organization gifted with a ton of low-level talent on the rise, so a swap to get the switch-hitting Roberts' last year under contract is going to cost the Cubs Cedeno plus pitching. After re-signing Dempster instead of making a deal for Peavy, they should make that deal if the Orioles will bite. To address the lineup balance issue and keep costs under control, pulling the Rangers into a three-way deal that sends Texas a couple of hurlers from the starting pitcher surplus, sends a third party someone from among the Rangers' quartet of catching prospects, and brings the Cubs a quality lefty bat for center or right makes better sense than signing one of the old outfielders knocking around on the market.

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What Do They Need? They need pitching, especially starting pitching. Despite pushing their way into the playoff picture the last two seasons, the Brewers' bid on future contention is highly contingent on their ability to retain or replace at least one of their free-agent aces, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. The despair creeping into GM Doug Melvin's public pronouncements on the subject of Sabathia betray a sense of how fragile their immediate odds on keeping up with the Cubs are.

What Do They Have? Even if last year's decision to go for broke didn't engender some fondness for Beertown in Sabathia, there's enough good stuff in-house or on the way up to nevertheless leave Brewers fans relatively optimistic about the picture over the next several seasons, if not so much over 2009. With shortstop Alcides Escobar, catcher Angel Salome, and slugger Mat Gamel all nearly ready, an outstanding young core in the lineup is about to become better still.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll offer every cent they can to try and keep Sabathia, because Sheets won't fill the bill, nor will any of the other realistic alternatives on the market. Failing that, 2009 becomes a bit of a re-gearing year for the the franchise. Either way, they'll dangle Escobar because they already have a slick-fielding shortstop with some sock in J.J. Hardy, and offering either around would be their best tack in trade talks. Whatever the outcome on Sabathia, they'll wind up taking their chances on the lead-gloved Gamel as their third baseman, and await the arrival of Salome to provide an upgrade on Jason Kendall behind the plate.

What Should They Do? Signing Kerry Wood to make the rivalry with Wrigleyville's nine that much more of a grudge match would make things interesting. With the surplus of young talent in the organization, sneaking into the Peavy negotiations might be plausible, if only because the Padres need young talent. As far as additional action items, they need to make Mike Cameron a Yankee before the Bombers think the better of it. If they settle for young pitching and Melky Cabrera, they're still left to deal with the question of whether and when Rickie Weeks is ever going to settle in; if they put together a package to get Robinson Cano, they can solve that by making Weeks their center fielder. Whether they keep Sabathia or not, they need to take a risk on a journeyman starter from among Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, or Jon Lieber to help round out a rotation otherwise stocked with question marks.

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What Do They Need? They could use more baling wire, because keeping their ramshackle bid on contention going will require extra work, and GM Ed "Never Surrender" Wade was brought in to keep the Astros relevant in the standings. To keep that bid going, they need a mid-rotation starter, a catcher worth starting in 90-110 games, and someone better equipped to challenge Michael Bourn for the starting job in center.

What Do They Have? The general perception is that it's a stars-and-scrubs roster that will go as far as Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee carries it, and depth is definitely an issue, but complementary players like Ty Wigginton and Kaz Matsui earn their keep. Hunter Pence was counted on to give them additional fire- and star power, but his sophomore season left a lot to be desired. Better poised to join the "star" ranks is power-curve fiend Wandy Rodriguez after an injury-shortened '08 that showed his solid 2007 season wasn't a fluke.

What Are They Likely To Do? They were hoping to lock up Randy Wolf early this winter, but that didn't happen. They're stuck in terms of seeing m/any returns on the overdue effort to revamp the farm system anytime soon, so this team will go as far as Drayton McLane's checkbook will take them. As seen in their failure to bring Barry Bonds in to spot for Carlos Lee after the latter's season-ending injury, their ambitions (and capital) apparently have limits. There's talk they've been shopping closer Jose Valverde (arbitration eligible) and shortstop Miguel Tejada (in the last year of his contract), but having overpaid for the pair in deals last winter, they'll find the rewards from such transactions-however much financial flexibility they might create-a bit bitter.

What Should They Do? Just like last year, suggesting that they tear down would be the easy, lazy, rational analysis, but this is Texas, and however much sense it might seem to make on paper, they aren't going to convert Oswalt into a package of blue-chip goodies. The problem is that the farm system's been bored out already, so there's no foundation to blast down to-yet. If the Astros want to walk the walk as well as talk the talk where contention's concerned, deficit spending should be the order of the day. Assuming that McLane's still liquid, for this team as with few others a big package thrown towards Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett makes sense, and signing a veteran center fielder like Jim Edmonds or Mark Kotsay makes sense. Then sign Josh Bard to hold down catcher, because while he's not a star, he does get on base well enough to be an important part of a fully-functioning offense; failing that, settle for Gregg Zaun. A shallow pen should encourage Wade to get in on mid-market middle men like Juan Cruz or Brandon Lyon, which becomes imperative if he flips Valverde.

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What Do They Need? The Cardinals won't be in on this winter's big-name players, but they have the potential to sneak up on people with a few mid-market moves. They could use one or two starting middle infielders, with a shortstop being the more obvious need, but nobody in-house is really all that reliable an option at second. A starting pitcher would be good, because even if they have semi-useful utility pitchers like Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro, and even after re-inking Kyle Lohse, they need a hedge against the constant concern over Chris Carpenter's elbow.

What Do They Have? They've got the best hitter and arguably the best player in baseball in Albert Pujols. There are some individually brilliant or remarkable talents here: Adam Wainwright doing anything they ask of him on the mound, catcher Yadier Molina's brilliant defensive work, and the surprising Rick Ankiel. The management team of Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan have an excellent track record for getting mileage out of veterans that other people see as used up (witness Troy Glaus' big comeback). Some feel that they have a surplus of talent in the outfield, but Chris Duncan's career is still in doubt because of his neck injury, Skip Schumaker's really only a good placeholder, and top prospect Colby Rasmus needs to get back on track. They have a good group of underheralded relievers in addition to talented closer candidate Chris Perez.

What Are They Likely To Do? Never underestimate the power of familiarity: the Cardinals need a shortstop, and Edgar Renteria needs a job. If the Birds can't get someone like Jack Wilson from the Bucs for little or nothing, signing Renteria to a one-year plus option deal will do. While the outfield's far from a given, testing the trade interest in arbitration-eligible Ryan Ludwick while his value is huge makes sense. There's speculation that they can count on John Mozeliak giving Tony La Russa a veteran lefty, all the better to indulge his skipper's pen-fancying machinations; whether that's Arthur Rhodes, Alan Embree, or Will Ohman remains to be seen, but they're all well-aged. More significantly, look for the Cards to inspire a veteran like Brad Penny to come in and enjoy the benefits of working with pitching coach Dave Duncan.

What Should They Do? They can skip shopping for a closer, leave Adam Wainwright in the rotation, and give the job of logging saves to Perez. They'd do well to bring in Wilson instead of Renteria to solve the shortstop problem for defense, and then sign Ray Durham to an incentive-laden deal to man second base and lead off. Keep Ludwick, give La Russa his lefty, and sign Penny on the bet that Duncan's magic will work with him as well as it did with Lohse. If the suggestion that the D'backs want Adam Kennedy has any relation to reality, make sure to include a gift basket.

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What Do They Need? A shortstop who can remain in action and play the position for years to come would help; papering over it with an ill-considered contract to Alex Gonzalez or playing Jeff Keppinger out of position really didn't work. Perhaps they can find a temp-until Drew Stubbs is ready-to man center field and cover the space better than Corey Patterson did.

What Do They Have? There are a few relatively young veterans who might provide a solid foundation-second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, rookie runner-up Joey Votto at first, and Jay Bruce in right field, plus Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto in the rotation. They also have a pair of slightly older starting pitchers in Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang under team control for big chunks of change through 2011. There's been a lot of churn, starting in the front office as the Reds whipped through the Dan O'Brien and Wayne Krivksy eras before turning over the reins to Walt Jocketty; there's a lot of work to be done in terms of clearing away other people's projects and setting up a reliable player-development program.

What Are They Likely To Do? Of the two young veteran hurlers, they might shop Arroyo (because he had the better year) to the teams that lose out on the Sabathia sweepstakes and sensibly shrink from throwing big money at A.J. Burnett or Ben Sheets. Arroyo's signed through 2010 for $20.5 million, with a 2011 option for $11 million more, and while that's more than a few pretty pennies, it's not ridiculous as compensation packages go in the current market.

What Should They Do? While they could use an additional bat to play an outfield corner for them, most of the choices are too old and/or too expensive and/or too familiar (Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn) to make for good plays. So here's the suggestion that they sneak up on people by giving Milton Bradley a multi-year offer to play left field in a park he'll continue to thrive in. Skip the cautions over dealing in-division, and try to get Alcides Escobar and whatever else from the Brewers for Arroyo, resolving their shortstop problem and adding a hitter who, while he won't get on base a lot, will deliver more power than you expect because of his ability to make contact in a homer-happy park. It might be a bit of a change of pace for Jocketty and skipper Dusty Baker, but they need to take this slow.

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What Do They Need? This will take time, which they've got plenty of, but they also need to find suitors, ideally someone interested in merely adequate middle infielders Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, both under contract for one more year, and both with 2010 options.

What Do They Have? There is a crowd of starting pitchers to sort through, but nothing you'd call a surplus or something you might deal from to address other issues. A La Roche too many, but that's because they don't simply want to move Adam La Roche's contract, they understandably might like something of value for him. Unfortunately, as with Sanchez and Wilson, and as a reflection of what they had in Xavier Nady, thoroughgoing mediocrity can at times fetch you something, but the greater fool who put this team together isn't running some other club, leaving GM Neal Huntington stuck until he can promote from within-which he will get to do in center field with Andrew McCutchen, with Nate McLouth shuttling to a corner. Eventually, they'll get Vanberbilt star slugger Pedro Alvarez to take over at third, and the decision to leave Ryan Doumit at catcher yielded immediate dividends. Baby steps, people.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll evince plenty of sympathy for the teams that don't get the middle infielders they want from the market, and then ask them if they've reflected on the virtues of guys named Wilson or Sanchez, and whether or not they might have a nice rind of cheese or crust of bread to spare for the poor old Pirates.

What Should They Do? Exploiting the Rule 5 draft to the fullest and stocking the back end of the bullpen with other people's roster overflow might be beneficial, because this is an organization with space on the 40-man and not a ton of talent in the till. Ideally, put one of these two veteran infielders in somebody else's uniform, preferably Sanchez in order to give the pitching staff an assist by making space for a better fielder at second base. They could see about making Adam La Roche an Angel if Mark Teixeira doesn't decide to stay in Anaheim. While Doumit's durability is an issue, they should invite offers on Ronny Paulino, or potentially package him, as he makes a useful reserve catcher.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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