How This Winter Could Impact the NL Central Logjam

In the final 2019 standings, fourth-place teams in their respective divisions finished an average of 30 games behind the first-place team. In 2018, that number was about 22, and in 2017, it was about 25. The distance between your average fourth-place team and their division’s first-place team fluctuates a bit year-to-year depending upon how super that season’s super-teams are, but it’s never close. The worse team will sneak in a few victories against the superior team over the course of 18 or so matchups throughout the season, but the two really aren’t supposed to be on the same level. One of these teams has a good chance of hosting a playoff series, and the other is having trouble selling tickets in September.

Our preseason playoff projections tend to reflect that space. Before the season was postponed and the schedule still ran 162 games, our projected fourth-place finishers in four of the six divisions were given a 1% chance or less at finishing first. The Phillies, the presumed fourth-place finishers in the NL East, were given less than a 5% chance of winning their division. Then there was the NL Central, where the Cardinals were pegged for fourth but given a 17% chance to finish on top, with a projected record that was within four games of the first-place Cubs. That would have been the tightest grouping of the top four teams in any division since the AL East in 1988.

When the new 60-game season was done, just five games wound up separating the top four teams in the NL Central, and from the looks of our Depth Charts projections, the race figures to be incredibly tight again in 2021. While the Pirates lag far behind the pack, the top four teams in the division stand incredibly close in talent level.

NL Central Depth Charts 2021 Projections
Team Batting WAR Pitching WAR Total WAR MLB rank
Cubs 20.5 12.4 32.9 15th
Brewers 13.6 15.4 29 17th
Cardinals 15.2 11.2 26.4 18th
Reds 10.4 15.8 26.1 19th

The order here makes sense: The Cubs are the defending division winners; the Brewers have a prime bounce-back candidate in outfielder Christian Yelich; and the Reds’ 2020 Cy Young winner is no longer on the roster. But the gap between first and fourth isn’t large, and if speculation is to be believed, it should narrow going forward, as the Reds appear to be interested in adding talent while the Cubs seem likely to sell. The non-tender deadline on Wednesday could make this division even tighter, so now is a good time to ponder the potential impact all four of these teams can make on their respective playoff chances in 2021.

We’ll start with the Cubs, the defending division champs and the team in a position to alter its roster the most dramatically. Chicago faces a number of difficult decisions this winter, as a daunting list of key players to their latest run of contention are reaching their final year of team control at the same time: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Kyle Schwarber. Many contending teams would spend the winter trying to extend one or two of those players while adding complementary parts around them to make one last run. The Cubs, however, are owned by the Ricketts family, who were crying poor long before the pandemic threw every team’s finances for a loop. When ownership looks at those players entering their final years of control, this is what it sees:

Cost of Cubs’ Core in 2021
Name 2021 Salary
Anthony Rizzo $16.5 million
Kris Bryant $18.6 million*
Javier Báez $10.7 million*
Kyle Schwarber $7.9 million*
Total $53.7 million
*MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimates

When you read the rumors that the Cubs are open to trading any and all of their veteran players this winter, this is why. Schwarber may be gone as soon as this week’s non-tender deadline, but those who stick around past that point won’t be safe yet. Bryant has been connected to the Nationals in trade talks. Teams on the lookout for a stopgap solution at shortstop could look to Báez. Rizzo’s market could expand once NL teams have more certainty about what the DH rule will be in 2021. Chicago could unload all four of these players and plunge into a rebuild, something that would be impossible to sell to fans as anything other than a cost-cutting venture. It could also attempt to have it both ways, cutting loose one or two of those players to trim payroll while still retaining enough talent to make a run at what looks to be a weak division.

The ease with which the Cubs could actually chase a division title without putting their best foot forward will depend on how the rest of the division behaves this winter, and at least one team is showing early signs of going on the offensive. At the same time that Chicago is communicating intentions to sell, Cincinnati appears to be aiming high in addressing its largest hole. From Jon Morosi:

Many of those names would add star ceiling to a lineup sorely lacking it and would step into a lineup spot that could be below replacement level if left unaddressed. Jose Garcia, a well-regarded prospect who struggled mightily with an aggressive promotion this year, is in line to start at shortstop, where Dan Szymborski’s latest ZiPS calculations project him to cost the team nearly a full win. Giving that spot to Lindor or Story could amount to a five-or-six-win swing — nearly enough to vault the Reds into the position of division favorites with a single move.

It sounds like a no-brainer of a decision, but the desire to complete a move and actually succeeding at it are two different things. Cincinnati has been connected to Lindor in trade rumors for a long while but hasn’t been able to get anything done. The Reds aren’t armed with a robust farm system at the moment, which means cutting into it for the kind of prospects needed to land Lindor or Story would hurt. There is also an issue of finances: Cincinnati only recently stopped behaving as the smallest of small-market operations, signing Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas to major deals last winter. Adding the free-agent or arbitration costs of any of the aforementioned shortstops could mean running a payroll around $60 million higher than the team had as recently as 2018 — a jump you don’t see very often. Perhaps that’s why The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has reported the Reds are willing to ship away Sonny Gray and his $10 million salary even as they look to add to the roster.

Should it turn out that Cincinnati doesn’t possess the means to take a necessary step forward this winter, could St. Louis or Milwaukee do it? It’s difficult to say. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt recently told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his budget for 2021 was “fluid.” As such, rumors surrounding the team over the first month of the offseason have been quiet, but it isn’t as though the team is without holes.

Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ longtime staple behind the plate, is testing free agency, leaving an open vacancy at his position. As it happens, a much younger generational catching talent also happens to be on the market in J.T. Realmuto, albeit for a considerable price. St. Louis has also been connected in the past to Nolan Arenado, who should be available again this winter but whose looming option makes any sort of trade difficult to navigate. There is ample pitching talent available for the Cardinals to bolster their rotation and bullpen, and from the looks of past payrolls, they should have money to spend. You’ll forgive fans for being pessimistic, however, after St. Louis began the offseason by declining a reasonable club option for Kolten Wong.

Things have been similarly quiet on the Brewers’ front, though as is the case with St. Louis, there are a few obvious spots for the team to improve. Any one of the shortstops linked to the Reds would look good replacing Orlando Arcia in Milwaukee. Like Cincinnati, the Brewers’ farm system is lacking the kind of impact prospects needed to land someone like Lindor or Story, but there’s no real reason to suspect there wouldn’t be enough money in the budget for a free-agent signing.

According to Fansided’s Robert Murray, though, the Brewers are most interested in upgrading their corner infield spots. The team is justified in that mission — our Depth Charts project Milwaukee to have the 22nd-most valuable first base position and rank 28th at third base — but if they’re going to make those improvements in free agency, they’d better get moving fast. Carlos Santana and Justin Turner are good options, but after them, the drop-off is steep. Murray reports that the Brewers are willing to be creative to make offensive acquisitions — even if it means parting with Josh Hader in a trade — but finding a team willing to part with worthwhile corner infielders could be challenging. In fact, far and away the best fit for such a deal is the team least likely to hand a star player to Milwaukee: the Cubs.

Any one of these teams could seize control of this division in the coming months if it wanted to. That should be tremendously exciting, which is what makes it so disheartening that none of these teams have shown they are willing to. Maybe the Cubs will hold onto their veterans, or the Cardinals will sign Realmuto and trade for Arenado, or the Brewers and Reds will both decide to acquire a shortstop who could reshape their franchises for years to come. But the more bleak and, as usual, more likely outcome is that the large markets in this division will continue to behave like small markets, keeping the threshold for contention so low that putting together a roster that plays meaningful games in September requires less money than it does anywhere else. The NL Central is anyone’s to take, but it really shouldn’t be.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Last offseason, the three best teams didn’t seem to really want to win the division and so the Reds stepping up made a huge difference. I don’t really think it’s going to cost that much to land Lindor, and he would be an absolutely perfect fit for the roster, but I’m skeptical a deal is going to happen. I think basically every team in this group wants to either stay in the same spot or cut payroll, not add.