Offseason Shopping Lists: AL and NL Central

Last week, the FanGraphs staff and I previewed the top 50 free agents on this winter’s market. It takes two to tango, though (pending the development of my experimental one-person tango), which means the teams looking for players matter just as much. Over the course of this week, I’ll preview the needs of each team in baseball. Today, it’s time to preview the NL and AL Central. You can find the 10 teams in the East here.

As much as possible, I’ve tried to be realistic. Yes, the Orioles could sign Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Freddie Freeman, Starling Marte, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Marcus Stroman in pursuit of a playoff berth next year. They not going to sign even one of those players, though, and I’ve focused on what a team should do given real-world budgets. You won’t see the Rays listed as a landing spot for free agents in the market for $100 million contracts, or anything of that sort. As much as possible, this list is what teams might actually do. Let’s get to it.

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers
Primary: Outfield
Secondary: First Base, Rotation Depth

The Brewers had a bad offense, and their best hitter, Avisaíl García, is now a free agent. Lorenzo Cain is more solid than star at this point, Christian Yelich stopped hitting for power, and Tyrone Taylor and Jackie Bradley Jr. are just okay. I expect them to stick with Cain, as his glove still plays, and find a new right fielder. That might be Mark Canha, a reunion with García, or even Michael Conforto, which would be intriguing; he seems out of their price range at first glance, but there are rumors he’d take a short deal to rebuild his long-term value, a Brewers specialty in recent years.

One player can’t fix an entire offense, though. The Brewers should improve first base if a bargain drops to them. A Rowdy Tellez/Daniel Vogelbach duo might be one of the best offensive positions on the current team, but it’s below average league-wide. Mike Brosseau is a nice backup option who can handle the weak side of a platoon, but he has value even if he doesn’t play first. A big bat would be welcome anywhere in the infield, but particularly at first base, where it won’t interfere with the team’s defense.

Lastly, Milwaukee could use some pitching depth. The top of their rotation is the best in baseball, and if you’re as high on Adrian Houser as I am, it goes four deep. I’d still like a depth arm for safety, though; while the team has several minor leaguers who could fill out the rotation, I’d prefer to use many of them in the bullpen. Aaron Ashby, Ethan Small, and Alec Bettinger are a solid 6-8 trio, but adding even one mid-tier veteran would give Craig Counsell much greater leeway to use those electric arms in relief.

St. Louis Cardinals
Primary: Pitching
Secondary: Hitting

I don’t mean to make light of the Cardinals’ situation, but while they cobbled together an excellent run prevention season, it didn’t look sustainable. Jon Lester and J.A. Happ are no one’s idea of elite pitching, but the team needed them for their bulk. With those two and Kwang Hyun Kim gone, the pitching staff needs reinforcements.

Some of that will come internally. Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson should all pitch more innings in 2022 than they did this year. That’s worrisome, though: one of the best predictors of future pitching health is present pitching health. Even assuming health, that puts Jake Woodford in the rotation, and while he’s serviceable, he’d be better suited as a seventh option than someone you plan on giving 30 starts. Signing Marcus Stroman — a natural in front of a good defense — and another veteran pitcher would ease the pressure on the rotation.

Some batters would also do the team good, but only if they’re stars. There’s not much use to replacing Tommy Edman or the Edmundo Sosa/Paul DeJong tandem with an average player; I’d be okay with signing someone who can back up the outfield and DH, but the team seems to lean towards internal options there, and a Lars Nootbaar/Juan Yepez platoon seems more their speed. For the most part, they should just get some pitching.

Chicago Cubs
Primary: Shortstop, Outfield
Secondary: Corner Infield, Rotation

If the Cubs are planning on spending like a high-resource team going forward, they might be interested in snagging a long-term piece at shortstop while the getting is good. I don’t think this is particularly likely, but if the team wants to use Nico Hoerner as a utility player rather than a starting shortstop, this is the year to do it.

Past that, the outfield is ripe for a Giants-style makeover, where the team auditions a pile of mid-to-late-20s bats to see which sticks. Rafael Ortega and Jason Heyward aren’t long-term solutions, Ian Happ could DH, and let’s be honest: as currently constituted, this team is going to do a lot of losing, so they might as well learn something about new players while doing it.

That’s what already happened on the infield corners, where Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom turned in excellent seasons more or less out of nowhere. I’d plan on giving them both a heaping helping of playing time, but signing a corner type who can also DH would give the team insurance against injury or ineffectiveness, particularly if it’s a lefty bat for sweet platoon value. They should also sign some pitching, but I think that adding Wade Miley alleviated those needs somewhat.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Primary: Rotation
Secondary: Outfield

Pittsburgh isn’t trying to win this year, and it’s a good thing: their pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. The team’s plan of mixing high-upside youngsters with mid-level veterans will hopefully yield some long-term gems, but they’ll need more pitchers from a pure innings perspective. Doing that would also free them up to trade any short-control pitchers who pop, providing a welcome tailwind to their seemingly-unending rebuilding project.

The same goes for the outfield. If things work as planned, the Pittsburgh infield is full of long-term stars, but the outfield has only Bryan Reynolds as a clear keeper. I’d keep my eyes peeled for interesting players either there or at first base who might benefit from playing time, and the team seems to agree: they already claimed Greg Allen on waivers. Most of their bench also fits that general vibe. I’d be interested in doing more of the same, even if it means cutting Ben Gamel loose. When you’re running a low-budget operation, finding some players to deliver excess value is key, and trawling the free agency, trade, and waiver pool for players the team thinks it can help is a great way to find that excess value.

Cincinnati Reds
Primary: Pot of Gold, Prospects
Secondary: Rotation Replacements

This is my way of saying that the Reds are in the process of getting cheaper and worse. Finding a secret stash of hundreds of millions of dollars might allow the team to compete in its current iteration; sadly, I don’t think they’re likely to make this acquisition. If that’s out of the question, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are both likely on the way out, so the Reds should prioritize getting prospects that could join Jonathan India in the majors in the next few years.

Should they trade two of their top three starters, they’ll need more arms — Wade Miley types, amusingly enough. Since we know they’re not spending $10 million for that type of pitcher, I’d aim lower; grab three reclamation projects and hope Derek Johnson works his magic, more or less.

AL Central

Cleveland Guardians
Primary: Corner Outfield
Secondary: First Base, Second Base

The Guardians are all sorted on the name front after settling their lawsuit with a roller derby team. That just leaves — well, running out a successful outfield, something Cleveland has struggled with far longer than they’ve faced off against niche sports teams in court. Given their well-publicized budget crunch, I don’t think this is happening in free agency. That means trades, perhaps sending Amed Rosario to a shortstop-needy team with spare outfielders. It also means waiting for the shortstop dust to settle and then pouncing, which might make for a slow offseason in Cleveland.

If that comes to pass, the team will need a second baseman when Andrés Giménez slides over to shortstop. If I were them, I’d prefer to keep Rosario and trade from elsewhere, but it’s a problem of scarce resources: the team has a 40-man crunch and also won’t spend much money, so the lesser of two evils might be flipping Rosario and then finding someone to stand at second. First base could use an upgrade, but I think the team will choose to stand pat there. It’s simply another spot to look at should a good deal pop up.

Kansas City Royals
Primary: Outfield
Secondary: Pitching

The Royals are in a bind this offseason; they have decent players up and down the roster, but no true stars, and no real budget to acquire one in free agency. Bobby Witt Jr. might be that star, likely at third base given Nicky Lopez’s defensive prowess. I don’t think that the team will commit more resources to first base while Carlos Santana is around, which means the outfield might be their best bet at marginal improvement. If they want to find that player in free agency, that could mean Mark Canha, who can also DH or play first in a pinch.

I like Kansas City’s pitching staff, but I’d like it a lot more with one additional arm, both to enable a six-man rotation during busy stretches and to provide depth if one of the unproven arms gets hurt. The upper minors and major leagues combined feature plenty of pitching upside, so maybe someone like Michael Pineda would provide a steady complement. As a bonus, he’d have value in trade if (when?) Kansas City starts slow and wants to retool for 2023.

Detroit Tigers
Primary: Top-End Starter, Shortstop
Secondary: Catcher, Pitching Depth

The Tigers have already made two meaningful additions in Eduardo Rodriguez and Tucker Barnhart. Both address positions of need — Eric Haase needed a running mate, and the team badly needed some innings and stability to add to their exciting trio of young starters. As it stands today, the team already looks more complete than it did when the 2021 season ended.

A marquee shortstop would further the transformation. Detroit’s top two hitting prospects could arrive soon, but even with them up, the team will have a hole at short. Rumors have them in pursuit of Carlos Correa, and he’d be an incredible fit. Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Javier Báez would make sense as backup plans. They could angle for depth outfielders and depth pitching as well, but using payroll flexibility to add a superstar shortstop should be at the top of the team’s list.

Minnesota Twins
Primary: Rotation
Secondary: Left Field, Rotation

Should I have listed rotation twice? Maybe not, but I think it drives my point home. The Twins are desperately thin at starter. Three pitchers topped 100 innings for them in 2021, and none will be back next year. They’re gone for varying reasons — trade for José Berríos, free agency for Michael Pineda, and injury for Kenta Maeda — but that’s a heaping helping of innings to make up for a team whose lineup is built to compete now.

If they so desire, the team could fill several of those spots in free agency. I like the current top trio of Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, and Randy Dobnak, but to my eyes, only Ryan has top-of-rotation upside, and that’s certainly no lock — a fastball-only pitcher who sits 91 mph isn’t a traditional profile for an ace, to say the least. Signing Max Scherzer probably isn’t in the cards, but what about Marcus Stroman or Robbie Ray? I’m personally quite down on Kevin Gausman, but I’m certainly not in line with the consensus opinion on him; if the Twins like him, they could get in on the bidding.

Even if they’re not interested in that tier of pitcher, they need some arms. What about Jon Gray, Steven Matz, or Alex Cobb? Could Kwang Hyun Kim, Anthony DeSclafani, or a reunion with Michael Pineda be a cost-effective solution? The Twins are basically four deep in starters, and they need to be seven to eight deep. Left field would be a nice place to fix, but I’d likely ignore it unless there’s an incredible bargain to be had; otherwise, I’d spend every available resource this offseason on starting pitching.

Chicago White Sox
Primary: Second Base
Secondary: Rotation, Right Field

The primary/secondary naming convention isn’t a perfect way of describing Chicago’s needs. They don’t really need to fill any of these positions, though they’ll likely find someone other than Romy Gonzalez. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Gonzalez got some run — he’s done nothing but hit in the minors — but after trading away Nick Madrigal, finding some extra options at second would be nice. Me? I might re-sign Leury García to back up second and third, then roll the dice with Gonzalez.

I’d plow that savings into the rotation. The White Sox had a fearsome pitching staff last year, but losing Carlos Rodón takes it from league-topping to merely excellent. I thought that was a standout part of Chicago’s season, and I’d like to see them try to recreate it by signing a pitcher this offseason. They seem unlikely to bid on Rodón again, given that they didn’t extend him a Qualifying Offer, but I’d still like at least one more solid pitcher to make Dallas Keuchel less necessary.

Of course, free agency isn’t the only route available here. The team has already announced its intention to trade Craig Kimbrel. He’ll likely fetch some kind of prospect haul, but if the team really wants to, they could focus on getting back a pitcher who can contribute in 2022, either in the bullpen or via spot starts. This team is built both for now and the future — but a few more arms might help both sides of that equation.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Left of Centerfield
2 years ago

I think Cleveland needs to look at their bullpen as well. Right now they have Clase (dominant season), Karinchak (sometimes dominant, sometimes horrible). Sandlin (pitched well but coming off a shoulder strain injury). Gose (looked great but it was only 6.2 innings), and Stephan (Rule 5 draftee who was so-so).

It’s Cleveland so there’s a good chance they’ll go the cheap route again and target the Bryan Shaws and Blake Parkers of the world once again. But it seems like at some point they need to upgrade their bullpen and find some longer-term solutions. Particularly since the starting rotation isn’t quite as strong as it was a few years ago, meaning the bullpen will likely shoulder a bigger role.