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November 11, 2013

One Move

National League Central

by Craig Goldstein

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This is the fourth installment in the One Move series. If you'd like to check out any of the previous editions in this series, you can find them here: AL Central, NL West, AL East.

Chicago Cubs
The Move: Trade for David Price
Originally, there was a detailed trade offer above. Upon further review, however, I don’t want this to be about whether the offer was good enough. The Cubs have the pieces to make the move, and while the Rays asking price might be too expensive for it to be a worthwhile move, there seems to be a middle ground that could work for both teams. I’m advising the Cubs to make this trade under the condition that it would fall in that middle ground. This means no, it will not consist of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Albert Almora. It also means that, no, it will not consist of Christian Villanueva, Kyle Hendricks, and Mike Olt. Instead, imagine a scenario that makes it hard for either team to pull the trigger immediately but in the end makes both organizations better.

The rationale for such a move from the Cubs perspective is layered. It’s unlikely that they’ll compete with the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds in their division for 2014, which makes the move less effective as you lose a year of Price’s prime, and you’re absolutely paying for that year. The reason you make this move though, is the increasingly rare opportunity to acquire elite pitching on the open market. It’s reasonable to suggest that whichever team does trade for Price will also work hard to extend him, meaning you acquire him now or you acquire him never. The Cubs are Mariana Trench level deep in hitting prospects, with multiple elite bats to boot. What they lack are impact arms, and while acquiring C.J. Edwards in the Matt Garza deal was a step in that direction, they still need more.

Price gives Chicago a front-end option for their rotation and would allow them to field a competitive team in 2015, depending on the progress of some of their remaining prospects. It’s certainly an aggressive move, but one that would represent to the league and fans both that ownership and management is ready for this team to compete in the near term. While this might not seem like the best reasoning, this is an ownership group that has been criticized for their lack of spending in one of the country’s largest markets. With a new TV deal on the horizon though, the front office has the chance to acquire an impact arm who isn’t yet on the wrong side of 30. Finding pitchers that have established themselves as elite rightfully costs a pretty penny. Even getting the chance to acquire such arms is rare and for a team that could be competitive in the next few years, acquiring (and extending) such an arm would be a coup.

Cincinnati Reds
The Move: Re-sign Shin-Soo Choo
It’s not exciting and it’s not necessarily the first move you think of for one of the smaller markets in baseball, especially in wake of Choo’s contract demands. He fits the Reds current plan perfectly though, and given how quickly windows of contention shut it’s a move they should make. Billy Hamilton is one of the most exciting prospects in baseball, but a top-of-the-order option he is not. His presence could shift Choo to a corner outfield spot, which is more befitting of his defensive abilities. Hamilton could likely use more minor league seasoning, and in the meantime Choo can fake it in center field while Ryan Ludwick mans left.

The money is obviously a concern here, but as mentioned in my previous article, every team in baseball is seeing a boost thanks to new national television contracts. Also helping here is the likely departure of Bronson Arroyo, who was not tendered a qualifying offer. The Reds payroll currently sits at $79.35 million before taking into account arbitration cases. Last year it sat at $106.855 million, so there should be room to add a contract in the general range that Choo is seeking. While there are plenty of concerns about Choo’s inability to hit left-handed pitching, this would be a move with the short term in mind, giving the Reds another crack at St. Louis—a team they actually bested in third-order wins last season.

Milwaukee Brewers
The Move: Trade Aramis Ramirez to LAD for Zach Lee
Milwaukee has a long road to contention, that much is clear. The best thing they can do, given the present construct of their team is to take a step back, shed some salary and add some talent that will help the team beyond 2014. This move does exactly that. The Dodgers have a hole the size of Cameron Diaz’s mouth at third base, and this represents an alternative to paying free agent dollars for Juan Uribe. Despite Ramirez’s present frailty, he put together an impressive .283/.370/.461 slash line including 12 home runs in 92 games. That’s a drastic upgrade from what Uribe offered in one of his better offensive seasons. The flipside of course is the utter lack of range that Ramirez provides, but another big bat might entice Dodgers management here.

In Lee, the Brewers would be receiving a long term rotation option. He’s not the top of the rotation type that he looked to be, or at least was perceived to be, when he signed a $5.25 million out of high school. What he is though is a high probability mid-rotation type, who works with a four-pitch mix and has a slider that can miss bats. Six years of control might seem like a lot for LA to give up in this scenario, especially when Ramirez only has one more year left on his contract. There is a mutual option for 2015 however, for $14 million, meaning that the Dodgers would pay $30 million over the course of two seasons for a third baseman that hits extremely well. In return, they’d be giving up a high-floor pitcher who they seem intent on not giving a chance in the major leagues, as they’re tied to every available pitching option on the market. Milwaukee gets another option for their rotation, as well as clearing $16 million from this year’s payroll that they can use to address their first base deficiency.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Move: Don’t Let A.J. Burnett Retire
Like Cincinnati, there just isn’t a lot of flash here. That said, bringing back key pieces is a worthwhile endeavor. Burnett is reportedly not interested in playing elsewhere, and would have to come back at something of a reduced cost, as Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington recently indicated that the $14.1 million qualifying offer was not within Pittsburgh’s budget. The Pirates will return most everyone else from their most successful season in the last couple decades, though starting shortstop Clint Barmes is a free agent. Burnett’s 191 innings of 107 ERA+ work might not seem so urgent to replace, but with the going rate (Ervin Santana seeking $100M, and Ricky Nolasco seeking $80M) only escalating, any chance the Pirates can capitalize on Burnett’s appreciation of their team and environment, they need to take. Add in that it’s either Pittsburgh or retirement, and there’s a good chance Pittsburgh can keep the deal relatively short, increasing their flexibility.

St. Louis Cardinals
The Move: Stand Pat
Talk about excitement. Fresh on the heels of a recent report that the Cardinals are planning on talking to the Rockies about Troy Tulowitzki, and could follow that with talks with the Rangers about Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar, this might not be what anyone wants to hear. Let me explain though.

The Cardinals were the best team in the National League when it comes to run differential, and second in the majors trailing the Boston Red Sox. They did all this with working with a shortstop who may well have been hitting with a broom. This issue was amplified in the playoffs, as flaws tend to be, and have many calling for St. Louis to consummate one of the above trades or sign the likes of Stephen Drew. My contention is that, as bad as Pete Kozma is (and yes, he’s bad), a lower key move is called for here. Perhaps reaching once more into their system and instead turning to Ryan Jackson or signing a veteran like Brendan Ryan who can hit just as little but will field his heart out. A big factor in the NL-leading run differential was their relentless ability to hit with runners in scoring position. That’s unlikely to continue heading into next season of course, but with their closest rivals facing key departures, St. Louis is likely to be the best team in the NL Central whether they upgrade at shortstop or not.

The beauty of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the reason we all hate-admire them is their depth. Their ability to develop and retain their talent. To reload when one of their starters goes down. The best way for them to retain that advantage is to not trade it away. Yes, this means they might be overloaded at certain positions but as we’ve all seen teams with eight starting pitchers can be looking for help by June. That’s why depth is so important. I’m not advocating never cashing in on that depth, but giving Stephen Drew eight figures per year on a multi-year deal and losing a first round draft pick in the process doesn’t seem like the St. Louis way. Making a smaller move (perhaps a trade for Alexei Ramirez?) allows them to still keep their eyes on a big move down the line. As long as they can address the position by July 31st (or really, by the time playoff eligible players need to be set), St. Louis shouldn’t have any issues. Thanks to St. Louis’ ability to shift Allen Craig to the outfield to offset the loss of Beltran, and the inability of Cincinnati to do the same for the likely departure of Choo, St. Louis has time on it’s side in determining how to address their shortstop deficiency. There’s no reason to commit long term this Winter when the benefit of the upgrade won’t be season until next postseason.

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

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