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NL Central Pre-Winter Roundup

December 22, 2010

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for many NL Central teams, and while some teams (Pirates, Astros) remain committed to the bottom of the Central, others are making moves that they think can pay off.

The Brewers made the biggest splash of the offseason of the four remaining Central teams by trading for Royals’ ace Zack Greinke. After hearing of the trade Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said, “You can actually acquire good players in the offseason? I didn’t know that.” Greinke will stabilize a Brewers’ rotation that finished 14th in ERA, batting average against and quality starts among NL teams last year. For three straight years Greinke provided the Royals with a top-of-the-line starter who pitched over 200 innings each year, capped off by a Cy Young award in 2009.

Greinke has two years left on his deal, but the Brewers are in a win-now mode. They had the fourth-best run-scoring offense in the NL last year and feature Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup surrounded by other high-powered hitters Corey Hart (31 homers, 102 RBIs), Casey McGehee (23, 104) and Rickie Weeks (29, 83). That’s definitely more potent of a lineup than the three-man lineup in St. Louis.

Shaun Marcum could be the key to a bolstered Brewers' rotation (SI/AP).

To add even more depth to their rotation, the Brewers also traded for former Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum. He’ll fit in nicely behind Greinke and Yovani Gallardo (404 strikeouts the past two years) and should battle the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia for best third pitcher in the Central. When you factor in Marcum’s stats against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays in the AL East the past two years, you can see just how good he is. Unfortunately, the Brewers are my pick to win the NL Central next year.

The Cubs have only made one significant move this offseason, and while it wasn’t that big of an acquisition, it could have a severe consequence in the future. Chicago signed former Rays first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract. Pena hit 144 home runs in four years in Tampa Bay, and he should be able to put up 35 or so homers in the Friendly Confines. But with those 35 home runs comes a .241 career average that has dropped each of the past three years, all the way to a measly .196 last year.

Pena won’t help the Cubs win the Central or the wild card, but he could help them do something even more monumental: sign Albert Pujols. By signing a one-year contract the Cubs will have a hole at first base after next season, and if the Cardinals don’t re-sign Pujols within the next 10 months, let the bidding begin. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez can be a free agent after next season, and Kosuke Fukudome’s four-year contract is also done with after next season. So the Cubs will have money to spend even more so than what they do now, and if the Cardinals jack around and get cute with Pujols I wouldn’t doubt one bit to see the Cubs come in with a monster offer.

The Reds haven’t made any big free agent signings, but they did lock up one of their top young players, Jay Bruce. Bruce signed a six-year, $51 million contract, and the Reds will have one of the top young outfielders in the majors on their team until at least 2017. The Reds will owe Bruce less than $16 million over the next three seasons, so this was a steal for the Reds.

And while the Reds were busy actually improving their future, the Cardinals were busy destroying theirs, or trying to at least. The Tony Rasmus-Tony LaRussa-Colby Rasmus feud continued to linger into early December, and several reports have stated that multiple teams have shown interest in trading for Rasmus.

If the Cardinals would happen to trade Rasmus, who at 23 improved in every statistical category in his second season, and give into the dictator-like demands of LaRussa once again, then I would seriously consider giving up on them, at least until they get new ownership and a GM who isn’t a puppet for the front office and manager.

But let’s look at what’s actually happened for the Cardinals this offseason, and it’s not much prettier. The Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to a one-year deal, and if you happened to be living in a cave the past two years, you might think this is a good deal. But it’s not. Berkman hit one home run in his last 37 games last year after being traded to the Yankees. He’s going to play a corner outfield spot for the Cardinals, which doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal until you consider these things: He’s old; he’s slow; and he hasn’t played a corner outfield spot since 2007. For a pitching staff/coach that put a lot of emphasis on getting outs by pitching to contact, having an outfielder with cinder blocks for feet isn’t that good of a thing.

Neither is trading the best defensive shortstop in the majors. That’s what the Cardinals did by getting rid of Brendan Ryan for a single-A pitcher with a 6+ ERA. The Cardinals traded for Ryan Theriot who is supposed to be an upgrade at the shortstop position, or at least that’s what Mozeliak and TLR will tell you. But Theriot’s .704 OPS isn’t much better than Ryan’s .658. Almost all Theriot’s percentage stats have fallen over the past three years, and there’s not much upside here: Theriot just turned 31 and has been traded twice in the last year by teams who lack middle infield depth.

I don’t know what will make LaRussa finally leave, whether it’s another World Series championship or a losing season. But if it’s a championship that will finally let him retire he might be here for a lot longer because the Cardinals aren’t doing anything to get close to the World Series.

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