This is the second of a six-part preview of the impending off-season; we have crossed the Chicago River and will be covering the NL Central today. You can read the first part, covering the AL Central, here.

Chicago Cubs
2007 Record: 85-77, first place
2007 Attendance: 3.3 million, fourth in NL
2007 Payroll: $100 million, eighth in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): C-R Jason Kendall, RHP Kerry Wood, LHP Scott Eyre (club option), OF-L Cliff Floyd (mutual option)
Key Free Agents (2008): OF-L Jacque Jones, RHPs Ryan Dempster, Mark Prior, and Bob Howry
Key Long-Term Commitments: RHP Carlos Zambrano, $18.3M/season through 2012 plus 2013 player option; LF-R Alfonso Soriano, $17M/season through 2014; 3B-R Aramis Ramirez, $15M/season through 2011 plus 2012 club option; 1B-R Derrek Lee, $13M/season through 2010; LHP Ted Lilly, $10.3m/season through 2010; RHP Jason Marquis, $8.1M/season through 2009; 2B-R Mark DeRosa, $5.1M/season through 2009
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: C-R Geovany Soto, CF-L Felix Pie, OF-R Matt Murton, 2B-L Eric Patterson, LHP Sean Marshall, RHP Sean Gallagher
Needs: 1. SS; 2. #4 starter
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Cubs are in an odd spot because they have made long-term commitments at a large number of positions, and yet do not quite have a championship-caliber core. What that means is that they have to make the right decisions at those slots where they don’t already have money tied up. At catcher, the decision is obvious: go with Geovany Soto, and part ways with Jason Kendall. Similarly, there is no need to sign an outfielder; some combination of Jacque Jones, Felix Pie, Matt Murton, and possibly Cliff Floyd will be perfectly adequate to cover center and right. Finally, it means not sticking with Ryan Theriot at shortstop, who is a second-division starter, and thus really more of a liability for a playoff team. Trading for someone like Edgar Renteria would be reasonable; this is a case where you have to improve, but someone at a league average level of performance would go a long way. But if those permutations are not feasible, then Alex Rodriguez becomes intriguing.
What They Will Do: Hold. The Cubs do not have to do much to field an 85-win team again next season, and that–coupled with the uncertain disposition of the sale of the club–will likely keep them pretty hands-off this winter.

Milwaukee Brewers
2007 Record: 83-79, second place
2007 Attendance: 2.9 million, eighth in NL
2007 Payroll: $70 million, 19th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007) : RHPs Francisco Cordero and Scott Linebrink, OF-L Geoff Jenkins (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008) : RHPs Ben Sheets and Claudio Vargas, C-S Johnny Estrada, OF-R Kevin Mench
Key Long-Term Commitments: RHP Jeff Suppan, $11M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; CF-R Bill Hall, $6.7M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: RHP Yovani Gallardo, LHP Manny Parra, OF Matt LaPorta
Needs: 1. A defensively adequate 3B; 2. An alpha-dog reliever; 3. LF
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. Although the Brewers should get better if left to their own devices, the marginal gain between having an 86-win team and a 90-win team is quite high right now given the present structure of the National League. There was a lot of goodwill generated in Milwaukee this year, but if the team underperforms, some of the stench of the Selig-Prieb years–a lot of Brewers fans felt like the Seligs reneged on their promise to make a financial commitment to the franchise after Miller Park was built–will resurface. Recognizing that Ryan Braun is an intolerable defensive liability at third and moving him to left, and then signing someone like Mike Lowell to take his place, is the right idea. The Brewers also need to re-sign Cordero, or find some other way to shore up their bullpen.
What They Will Do: Hold. My hunch is that the Brewers will splurge on their bullpen after their adventures in the second half of the season, but will not be willing to pull the plug on Braun at the hot corner, which renders most of the more interesting options moot. If they don’t move Braun then they might as well keep the spot warm for Matt LaPorta rather than reaching for Jenkins or a free agent.

St. Louis Cardinals
2007 Record: 78-84, third place
2007 Attendance: 3.6 million, third in NL
2007 Payroll: $90 million, 10th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007) : SS-R David Eckstein, RHPs Kip Wells, Troy Percival, and Joel Piniero (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008) : CF-L Jim Edmonds, RHPs Jason Isringhausen, Braden Looper, OF-R Juan Encarnacion, LHP Mark Mulder (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: 1B-R Albert Pujols, $16M/year through 2010, plus 2010 club option; 3B-R Scott Rolen, $12M/year through 2010; RHP Chris Carpenter, $13.5M/year trough 2011, plus 2012 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-L Rick Ankiel, CF-L Colby Rasmus
Needs: 1. One or preferably two quality starting pitchers; 2. SS, assuming that Eckstein departs; 3. 2B
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Cardinals are going to need to get better if they want to reach the playoffs. What once was a “stars-and-scrubs” team is now down to a one-man show, with Albert Pujols’s greatness unmatched by an aging Jim Edmonds, a gimpy Scott Rolen, and an injured Chris Carpenter. But they don’t need to get that much better. The good news is that the Cardinals have a number of places that they could gain simply by adding league average talent, particularly in the middle infield and on the pitching staff.

Grabbing that kind of middle-tier free agent was once a Cardinal specialty. Think ‘broken’ pitchers that Dave Duncan could work well with, like Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, or Dontrelle Willis. The middle infield might be trickier, but players like Juan Uribe could be attractive. The Cardinals can probably avoid spending money on their outfield for the time being, hoping to get better production out of some combination of Edmonds, Chris Duncan, Ankiel, Rasmus, and possibly Encarnacion.

There is a secondary question about whether it’s revenue-maximizing for the Cardinals to spend additional money. Their fans are extremely loyal, they won the World Series in 2006, and their stadium is shiny and new. In an ironic way, they have taken over the archetypal role of the Chicago Cubs, in which the fans are so inclined to turn out rain or shine that it reduces the marginal benefit from winning ballgames. If the Cardinals had a little bit more minor league talent, in fact, you could make a case for trading that goodwill in for a rebuilding year. But in practice, the farm system is going to take another year or two to get turned around, and failing to add talent now could leave the club with a losing record for the next few seasons, which will begin to erode that patience.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. You don’t usually boot a GM like Walt Jocketty to the curb without planning on shaking things up a little.

Houston Astros
2007 Record: 73-89, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 3.0 million, seventh in NL
2007 Payroll: $88 million, 14th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007) : 2B-R Mark Loretta, C-R Brad Ausmus, RHP Jason Jennings (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008) : SS-R Adam Everett, RHPs Brad Lidge and Woody Williams
Key Long-Term Commitments: LF-R Carlos Lee, $17.2M/year through 2012; RHP Roy Oswalt, $14.5M/year through 2011, plus 2012 club option; 1B/OF-S Lance Berkman, $14.5M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: LHP Troy Patton, C-R J.R. Towles, RHP Matt Albers
Needs: 1. #2 starter; 2. 2B; 3. 3B
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. This case is highly parallel to that of the Cardinals. First, you have a veteran club that isn’t getting much help from the farm system and doesn’t have all that much of a window remaining. Second, you have some places, like catcher and second base–we don’t list catcher as a “need” because J.R. Towles should be adequate–where you’re going to gain something via addition by subtraction. Third, you have a fan base that should be supportive in the near-term but might not be in the long term.

The Astros’ central problem is that their most obvious need is for a #2 starter, but there are few of those in the free agent market, and the team does not have any depth from its minor league system to part with in trade. It’s really quite tempting to suggest that they blow everything up, trade Oswalt, Lidge, and Everett, and see if they can’t do a relatively quick rebuild. In any other division, that would be the suggestion, but no division rival is likely to build up this winter to the point where they’re fielding a 90-win club, and between dumping Ausmus and Craig Biggio, integrating Hunter Pence and Luke Scott on a full-time basis, and probably getting a better year out of Berkman, the Astros at least ought to have a division-winning offense. So I think they have to gamble and see if they can’t sign a pitcher up to an Andy Pettitte-type contract.
What They Will Do: Hold. Ed Wade has not been the most aggressive general manager in the past, and I look for them to shuffle the deck chairs without accomplishing much.

Cincinnati Reds
2007 Record : 72-90, fifth place
2007 Attendance : 2.1 million, 13th in NL
2007 Payroll : $69 million, 20th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007) : LHP Eric Milton, 1B/LF-L Adam Dunn (club option), 1B-L Scott Hatteberg (club option), C-S Javier Valentin (club option), LHP Eddie Guardado (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008) : RHP David Weathers, CF-L Ken Griffey Jr. (club option)
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-L Jay Bruce, 1B-L Joey Votto, CF-L Josh Hamilton, RHPs Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto
Key Long-Term Commitments : RHP Aaron Harang, $10.1M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; RHP Bronson Arroyo, $8.1M/year through 2010, plus 2011
club option; SS-R Alex Gonzalez, $5M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option;
UT-R Ryan Freel, $3.5M/year through 2009
Needs : 1. Bullpen, from top to bottom; 2. C; 3. #3 starter
What They Should Do : Weak Buy. This might be the kind of club that could surprise some people and win 90 games next year. The offense should be at least league-average, and could be one of the two or three best in the
league with some breakouts from people like Edwin Encarnacion. A starting
rotation of Arroyo/Harang/Bailey/Cueto/Matt Belisle would hold its own. The
keys are picking up Dunn’s option, letting Joey Votto displace Hatteberg at first base, and buying a real bullpen.
What They Will Do : Weak Sell. I’ll bet that Wayne Krivsky lets Dunn walk. Why? Because he’ll think he has his third outfielder in Norris Hopper.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2007 Record: 68-94, sixth place
2007 Attendance: 1.7 million, 15th in NL
2007 Payroll: $39 million, 27th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007) : RHPs Shawn Chacon and Tony Armas (mutual option)
Key Free Agents (2008) : LHP Damaso Marte (club option), RHP Matt Morris (club option), RHP Salomon Torres (club option)
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: 1B/OF-R Steven Pearce, 3B-S Neil Walker, C/OF-S Ryan Doumit, OF-L Nate McLouth
Key Long-Term Commitments: SS-R Jack Wilson, $6.9M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; OF-R Jason Bay, $6.6M/year through 2009.
Needs: 1. Star-quality talent; 2. #3 starter; 3. 3B
What They Should Do: Hold. This is a frustrating group to analyze, because the Pirates have a lot of redundant assets that have value in theory but not in practice. Should Pearce, Walker, and Doumit take their respective places in the lineup? Certainly, but nobody’s going to trade much of value for Xavier Nady, Jose Bautista, or Ronny Paulino. So you might instead need to be willing to trade the guys who could fetch something, like Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, and even Jason Bay. The reason I list this as “hold” rather than a “sell” is because two of those guys have their value at a low-water mark right now; Bay is coming off a terrible season, and Sanchez just had shoulder surgery. So I’d want to see how things play out, and have Neil Huntington buy one of those cellphone plans with some rollover minutes. If someone starts the year hot, you move him in June–unless a bunch of people get hot, in which case you shift gears and play to win. That’s not as far-fetched as it might sound in the NL Central.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. New management, new ownership. You’d expect the Pirates to make some work for themselves this winter. Spending a few million for one of those high-risk starters that we identified in the Cardinals blurb would not be the worst idea.

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