Divergence: Two Paths Through the NL Central

The Cubs added free agents like Ben Zobrist to an already stacked roster. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

The Cubs added free agents like Ben Zobrist to an already stacked roster. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

In an upcoming year where every division in baseball has engaging competition at the top, the National League Central’s is probably the most compelling. It’s coming off a season where it produced the three best records in the game—by the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs—and may again send three teams to the playoffs. (The NL Central is the only division ever to do this, both last year and in 2013.)

But it is a division of extremes, not just of excellence. The other two teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, had two of the worst records in baseball last season, and have few prospects of changing that this year. Their front offices, sensibly daunted by the powerhouses above them, are settling in for a rebuilding process, conceding this year at the very least.

It’s certainly not unheard of for a division (or league) to be stratified into contenders and pretenders. A division this stark, however, is something rather historic. Before moving on to a preview of what we may expect from the teams in 2016, I want to spend a bit of time looking at just how unusual this division, in both senses, was last year.

The Great Divide

It’s been a long time since a division had three teams as successful as the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs were in 2015, with 100, 98 and 97 wins respectively. The last time three teams in a division all had at least 97 wins was in 1977, in the American League East. The Yankees won the division, with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles tied for second at 97-64.

(The one game the Sox and O’s missed was against each other. Had it been played to a conclusion, the top of the division would have exactly matched the NL Central in 2015: the champ at 100-62, the runner-up at 98-64, and third place at 97-65.)

There were two factors that made the 1977 top-heavy division less impressive than that in 2015. One was its size: seven teams in the AL East, against just five for the NL Central. Another was that 1977 was an expansion year: AL East teams got to play 15 games against the brand-new Toronto Blue Jays (54-107) and 10 or 11 more against the infant Seattle Mariners (64-98).

Rarer still was the chasm separating the top three teams from the bottom two. The distance between Chicago’s 97-65 record and fourth-place Milwaukee’s 68-94 was an immense 29 games. Yes, the Brewers were a month out of third.

The last time there has been such a gap between adjacent teams in a division was 1969. Houston was fifth in the National League West at 81-81, with the last-place San Diego Padres at 52-110, 29 games back. The Padres were a debuting expansion team, so finishing a month deep in the cellar wasn’t quite as impressive.

For a truly impressive gap, we step back to the 1916 American League. The Philadelphia A’s, in the second year of Connie Mack’s great teardown, finished an appalling 36-117. They were so dreadful that they nearly drove the entire rest of the American League above .500 by themselves. The team above them, the seventh-place Washington Senators, finished at 76-77, an even 40 games better. That’s what it took to beat the 2015 NL Central’s gap.

If you’re wondering about the 1962 Mets, they were merely 19 games worse than the ninth-place Cubs. As for first-place teams, nobody gets that far ahead of the rest of the league or division. The closest may be the 1902 Pirates, winning the NL by 27.5 games. It’s easier to be much worse than the rest of your league or division than much better. Even the 2001 Mariners were only 14 games better than the second-place A’s that season.

What all these historic examples share, though, is a team at the very bottom, or top. The split in the NL Central is unique in taking place in the middle, multiple teams on either side. It wasn’t one team creating the tremendous split, it was all of them.

For a final way of looking at the extremes in the NL Central, we can tally up how far the teams diverge from .500 records, compared with the rest of baseball. Doing it by standard deviations, we’d see every NL Central squad more than one SD from .500. Two-thirds of all teams should be within one SD of even, but there it’s zero of five. The closest is Milwaukee, 1.24 SDs away, with St. Louis the most distant at 1.82.

The table below shows the combined standard deviations in each division. Since adding SDs is not quite statistically kosher, I’ll also show it in combined winning percentages away from .500. It says much, about not just the NL Central but the clustered American League last year, that the NL Central teams’ total distance from .500 almost equals that of the AL’s 15 teams.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
Method AL East AL Cen. AL West NL East NL Cen. NL West
StDev 2.107 2.685 3.256 5.075 7.852 3.447
Win Pct. 0.136 0.173 0.210 0.327 0.506 0.222

Decision 2016 (the one without politicians)

But 2015, fascinating as it was, is past. This is a new season, with three teams fighting again for the playoffs and two others trying to look respectable while setting up future returns to contention. I’ll look at them all through the lens of offseason (and a few other recent) moves, to see how their current and future fortunes have changed.

As close as the race on top was last year, prognosticators are not expecting a repeat. There is a clear consensus choice, not only to take the division, but to capture its first pennant in 71 years and its first World Series title in 108. Giving hope to Reds and Brewers fans, it’s the team that just broke a string of five fifth-place, sub-.450 finishes in the division: the Chicago Cubs.

After Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project led to an earlier than expected leap to excellence in 2015, the Cubs followed with offseason moves committed to making the team a powerhouse. Though they could be burned by their actions a few years down the road, they’ve probably succeeded in setting themselves up for a multi-year run as a National League force.

Their marquee move was the signing of Jason Heyward. This not only gave Chicago an athletic star in the outfield, but took him out of the hands of the Cardinals. That’s a practical satisfaction against a chief divisional rival, and a personal satisfaction for Chicago fans seeking to raise Cubs-Cards rivalry to the level of Yankees-Red Sox—or think it’s already there, or even more bitter.

There are worrisome undertones to the Heyward signing. One is the structure of his contract, letting him opt out after three or maybe four years (dependent on plate appearances), or stick Chicago for his full eight-year/$184 million price if his play collapses. With his youth, athleticism and skill set, nothing but serious injury should really destroy his playing value that soon. Thus, Chicago eating an albatross contract is less likely than watching him leave in a few years. A tough blow, but one Epstein is willing to worry about when the time comes.

Another was that he was ticketed to center field, which he’s seldom played before. Defensive metrics rate him a great right fielder, so he’d be expected to convert to at least average in center, but equations don’t always convert to on-field play.

There was a plan, though, hinging around the signing of Ben Zobrist, for four years at $56 million. They cleared second base for Zobrist by trading talented but erratic Starlin Castro to the Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren (a back-end starter or stout reliever). Zobrist’s been a very good and versatile player, though paying well for his age 35-38 seasons looks chancy.

Giving Zobrist second base blocked the most natural spot for young Javier Baez. Baez, however, is flexible enough to play third or short (held by Kris Bryant and Addison Russell), or the outfield—and he was training in the winter leagues to handle center field. He has even played two games at first base in spring training.

This provided Chicago lots of shuffling opportunities. If Zobrist struggled at second base, Baez could spell him, letting Ben move to right field or elsewhere. If Heyward didn’t adjust well to center, Baez was available to let Jason slide back to right. If they both settled in well, Baez became a fill-in for several players’ days off. Having two players in Zobrist and Baez who can field several positions produced valuable synergy for the Cubs.

But then they re-signed Dexter Fowler for the year to play center, letting Heyward move over to right again. So now the Cubs are just stacked.

Add to those signings the fine young core Chicago is returning in the field, plus the pickup of John Lackey for the veteran rotation. The Cubs have soft spots, such as Addison Russell’s strikeout rate, but no outright holes, and their strengths (Bryant, Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo and more) are substantial. The Cubs have earned their preseason accolades, and their role as division and league favorites.

The St. Louis Cardinals have been accustomed to that role as favorites. They’ve won the last three division crowns, and made the playoffs the last five seasons. It would seemingly take a long drop for 2015’s only 100-game winners to miss the postseason this year, but it might happen.

Two early blows were the losses of Heyward and Lackey via free agency, and to the rival Cubs. The Cardinals’ offseason moves have not obviously recouped those losses. Indeed, in the outfield it seems like St. Louis didn’t much try at all. The Cardinals were content to clear out a logjam of bench outfielders, letting Peter Bourjos depart to Philadelphia on waivers, and trading one year of Jon Jay to San Diego for four years of once-promising infielder Jedd Gyorko.

This committed them to an outfield of aging Matt Holliday, up-and-coming Randal Grichuk, and sophomore Stephen Piscotty, backed up by Tommy Pham. If their knack for getting prospects to overachieve holds up, the latter two starters could do quite well for them. If.

The departure of Lackey combines with the loss of Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery for 2016 to knock two holes in the Cardinals’ rotation. The return of Adam Wainwright after Achilles surgery last year will fill one hole, though with risk that he won’t be what he was. St. Louis filled the second by signing Mike Leake for five years and $80 million (including the 2021 option buyout). This feels like an overpay for someone who produced 9 WAR his last five years.

The Cardinals’ rotation may have taken a step backward, though there’s an intriguing opportunity late in the season. Two pitching prospects, Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, are likely to be called up in the latter half. Both are southpaws, which only Jaime Garcia in the projected rotation is. St. Louis will have nine games in August and September against the Cubs, whose lineup is lefty-heavy. If manager Mike Matheny feels like playing the match-up game, he could send those young lefties out multiple times to try to baffle Chicago, and maybe give St. Louis an edge in a close-fought race.

What had been a team strength, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, became a weakness when he tore a thumb ligament in spring training, taking him off the field for half the season. The Cardinals made no immediate moves, raising the threat that Gyorko might be slotted in at short, which would be adventurous enough for Indiana Jones. With their patience, though, the market came to them with the Mets’ waiving of Ruben Tejada. They scooped him up as a cheap $1.5 million stopgap. A good transaction, but still a step downward from Peralta for half a season.

The Cardinals retain strengths, like Matt Carpenter at third and Peralta when he’s healthy. They’re also weakening in places. Yadier Molina sagged last year from thumb troubles that ended in surgery over the winter, and even if he’s ready for Opening Day his years as a first-rank catcher may be past.

It’s dangerous to discount an organization as capable as St. Louis, but this is a team that looks stronger nowhere (save maybe with the return of Wainwright) and weaker in several areas. I don’t expect the Cardinals to take a fourth straight division title, and claiming a wild card is likely to be a struggle.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have followed two decades of futility with three years of mixed joy and frustration. They have hosted three consecutive Wild Card games, but couldn’t advance past St. Louis the time they won and suffered shutout defeats in the last two. Much like the Washington Nationals, they have missed opportunities, and now arises the threat that their window may be closing.

The offseason cost Pittsburgh two starting pitchers: A.J. Burnett to retirement and trade-deadline acquisition J.A. Happ to free agency. The Pirates filled one slot by trading second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets for Jon Niese, who’ll slide in as a No. 3 starter. The other void got filled by the signing of Ryan Vogelsong from San Francisco.

This last move embodies Pirates’ fans disquiet about the offseason. Replacing a stalwart like Burnett or a breakout like Happ with an aging retread who ended last year in the bullpen is tough to sell as anything but a big downgrade. Hopes are pinned on the magic that could be woven by Ray Searage, a pitching coach regarded with Mazzone or Sain-like awe by many, especially on reclamation projects. Beware: When you believe your miracle worker can fix anything is when you’re liable to hand him a job too big.

Vogelsong may also be just a stopgap until Pittsburgh brings up a touted arm from Triple-A. Tyler Glasnow is the favorite, though oft-injured Jameson Taillon could also see action this year. It’s a reasonable strategy, especially with Super-Two in mind, but risky. Or the Searage magic could just work elsewhere: Dodgers non-tender Juan Nicasio is reportedly looking very good in camp, and could end up an alternative to Vogelsong in the rotation.

The Walker trade left a gap at second, at least until Jung-ho Kang’s return from his 2015-ending injury. Kang’s rookie year vindicated the front office’s savvy in taking a chance on a Korean, unproven as position players in major league baseball. His nasty injury from Chris Coghlan’s high-legged slide, though, is just the type that could permanently diminish him as a player. Pittsburgh may not get back the man they lost.

Kang’s replacement looked like it could be rookie keystoner Alen Hanson, until the Bucs picked up David Freese for one year and $3 million. Freese can hold down third while Josh Harrison takes second base. Once Kang is healthy, he’ll take the hot corner, while Freese becomes insurance for another problem spot: first base.

The Pirates non-tendered Pedro Alvarez, a former home-run crown winner whose defense became just too brutal to endure. Their chosen replacement, for two years and $8 million, was John Jaso, who has played two games at first base in his career. Pittsburgh hopes this former catcher makes the transition like Scott Hatteberg, not Mike Piazza. (Ask Mets fans about the Piazza experiment. Or don’t, if they still look haunted.)

If he and backup/possible platoon mate Michael Morse struggle, Freese could cross the diamond to work first. The Pirates’ previous Plan B in this situation was switch-hitting prospect Josh Bell, who now looks likely to receive a year of Triple-A seasoning.

Pittsburgh isn’t quite the Swiss cheese I’ve been portraying. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano should still be a potent one-two in the rotation; Mark Melancon and Tony Watson make a fine one-two in the bullpen; the trio of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco may be the best outfield in baseball except for Mike Trout and two warm bodies. (The Angels may not be able to fulfill this in left.)

But Pittsburgh fans, as I observed before, worry that the club’s moves have been too small to restock the team in a very competitive division. Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, Neftali Feliz: these names haven’t inspired confidence. The Pirates’ limited resources make big splashes unlikely, and it’s tough to maintain the punishing pace this division is forcing with just prospects and bargain moves.

Looking Ahead

Those are the contenders, but that is not the end of interesting questions in the division. Whether the Brewers or Reds escape the cellar this year matters little, except in some salved pride. What’s more important is which team advances further along the road of rebuilding, setting itself up for a return to respectability and contention.

As at the top of the division, there is a consensus here. Milwaukee not only has done better in gathering farm-system strength and young contributors, it has done so while retaining a better set of players to use as a nucleus or as trade chips.

Milwaukee’s good organizational position can be demonstrated with a table. I’ve gathered four sources that ranked major league teams by the strength of their farms: Baseball America, Keith Law of ESPN Insider, the KATOH ratings of Chris Mitchell at FanGraphs, and Jeff Zimmerman interpreting Baseball America’s 20-80 prospect grades through his Surplus WAR system (unveiled in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2016).

Source Chicago Cincinnati Milwaukee Pittsburgh St. Louis
Baseball America 20   12 9 11 14
ESPN Insider  4   12 5  9 17
KATOH 17   12 1 10 15
Surplus WAR 19 T-13 9 11 12

Three of the four sources think Milwaukee has the best farm system in the NL Central, with Law putting the Brewers one spot behind the Cubs (whom he rates anomalously high). The KATOH system puts the Brewers’ farm at tops in the majors, while nobody has them in double digits. If they’re not all wrong, the Brew Crew is set up nicely, at least compared with their divisional rivals.

Milwaukee’s best offseason move was likely with Arizona, the clearinghouse for questionable trades this winter. The Brewers sent over Jean Segura and Tyler Wagner for pitcher Chase Anderson, who will go right into the rotation, plus nice lower-level prospect Isan Diaz. They also took Aaron Hill, who probably won’t be worth his $12 million this season. That’s the price Milwaukee pays for the upgrade, and the Brewers can absorb it.

Another notable trade sent Khris Davis to Oakland for Double-A catcher Jacob Nottingham and Single-A pitcher Bowdien “Bubby” Derby. The pre-arb Davis has real value now, but the Brewers went strategic in stockpiling Nottingham. With this promising catcher high in their system, incumbent catcher Jonathan Lucroy becomes much easier to trade. That plus pitching depth makes this a good long-term move.

Other moves included swapping first baseman Adam Lind right after picking up his $8 million option, gathering three low-level starting pitchers from Seattle in a lottery-ticket buy. They filled Lind’s spot by signing Chris Carter for a low $2.5 million after Houston non-tendered him. If he bounces back from the 2015 crash that scared off the Astros, he could be a good value, At worst, he’s a cheap place-holder in a non-contending year.

Another place-holder is shortstop Jonathan Villar, acquired in a trade with Houston who, with Carlos Correa at short, weren’t holding Villar tight. He’s likely to start the year at short, and likely to be easily moved aside should Milwaukee bring up big-time prospect Orlando Arcia this year, as expected. But don’t expect it right away: there’s no urgency in starting Arcia’s arbitration clock to add one or two wins to a presumably lost season.

The Brewers used the offseason to augment an already promising farm, impressing observers with their moves. They retain a valuable trade asset in Lucroy, though injuries and a drop-off in his excellent framing last year has cost him some. They have the flexibility to move him once he’s rebuilt value, or even hold him for his option year in 2017 if they believe they can compete again then. (I wouldn’t count on it, but one should always be willing to be pleasantly surprised.)

Milwaukee has a couple rough years ahead, but is setting up well for a jump back into contention after that. Should the 2016-17 offseason proceed as well as this one, that schedule might even get moved up.

The Cincinnati Reds, for their part, may have been hurt by their own pride. Awarded the 2015 All-Star Game, they were thought in some quarters to have held the team together for the sake of keeping up appearances in a year that was supposed to be a showcase for Cincinnati baseball. By doing so, they may have waited too long to start the rebuild.

They traded away Johnny Cueto before the deadline, getting back starters Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb, but might have gotten more had they moved him before the season. They waited until the 2015 season was over before dealing Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman, and both those times they obviously waited too long.

Frazier opened 2015 red-hot, but went cold when the weather turned warm. His first-half wOBA of .389 collapsed to .285 in the second half, undercutting some of his trade value when the Reds moved him in December.

As for Chapman, a domestic violence accusation scuttled a trade to the Dodgers in December, and dissuaded the Red Sox from making a play for him. This allowed the Yankees to scoop him up for a lower price (except perhaps in self-respect). Cincinnati apparently had a chance to move Chapman to Arizona in July, but passed. If that deal was similar to others the D-Backs have made this offseason, the Reds really blew it by waiting.

One more trade the Reds intended misfired. They were going to send veteran Brandon Phillips to the Nationals after his moderate bounce-back in 2015, but Phillips needed to waive his no-trade rights as a 10/5 man. He did not, so Cincinnati looks to have him for two more years (and 27 million more dollars).

This may end up “clogging the bases” for the Reds. They acquired youngster Jose Peraza from the Dodgers in the Frazier trade, after nearly getting him in the aborted Chapman deal. But second base is Peraza’s primary position, and Phillips is now still there. Zack Cozart at shortstop and Billy Hamilton in center field occupy his other positions. This might end up a blessing in disguise, letting Cincy keep Peraza in Triple-A and fiddle his playing time for Super-Two purposes, but the whole affair seems like a cunning plan that got tripped up.

The moves Cincinnati was able to make didn’t fill the talent reservoir. The Reds are just above the league midpoint in farm-system rankings, third or fourth in a strong division. They don’t have a great deal more left to trade, either. Zack Cozart, with two years until free agency, will need to return strong from year-ending knee surgery to merit a good haul. Devin Mesoraco would also have to return strong from a hip injury that ruined 2015 and obscured his 2014 breakout. Jay Bruce has cratered after an early 2014 knee injury: That and his contractual cash (two years/$24.5 million) means suitors have offered little but their own injured players in prospective trades that keep falling through.

As for Joey Votto … the Reds could trade him, if they could get him to waive his no-trade clause, which he says he won’t. And if they could find someone willing to take on eight years and almost $200 million, and give them prospect value in return. And if they didn’t mind the mob of enraged Cincinnatians shoving Great American Ball Park into the Ohio River.

The Reds, frankly, are in rough shape. Mistimed teardown moves have brought them less in prospect talent than they needed. Their farm system isn’t that much better than the teams they’re chasing, and in some cases is worse. Their mid-market status doesn’t permit them to spend their way to on-field prosperity.

Final Word

Simply by the principle of regression, we would not expect results in the NL Central to be as starkly extreme this year as last. The top and bottom may be as widely separated, or even more, but the chasm in the middle will narrow, at least from above.

After my long observations, I should offer my prediction of how the division will shake out, if only to give readers the opportunity to laugh at me in October. I will shock few by predicting that the Cubs win the Central, and by a pretty good margin. Before the Peralta injury, I would have put St. Louis in second, claiming a Wild Card, with Pittsburgh a close third and just missing the postseason. Now, I’ll put them in a tie, making them play a one-and-done game to decide who gets to play the one-and-done game.

I’ll give Cincinnati fourth in a slight upset, which will be cold comfort when they find the basement in the following years. Milwaukee will be playing for the future, which if recent rebuild efforts by Houston and the Cubs are any indication, may get here faster than people suspect.

Indeed, the future will be here faster than we all suspect. We’re so close to Opening Day, when we can start replacing hot-stove analysis like mine with actual baseball. Won’t that be a pleasure?

References and Resources

  • FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference for performance and contract information
  • Roster Resource’s MLB Depth Chart pages
  • MLB Trade Rumors
  • SB Nation’s sub-sites for the NL Central teams were a help, especially Bleed Cubbie Blue and Bucs Dugout

  • A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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    8 years ago

    The Cardinals haven’t improved anywhere but the return of Wainwright?! What about their improved bullpen, or the fact that they now have healthy starters in left field, center field, and first base? Despite the losses of Heyward (whose production is likely mostly replaced with a full year of Piscotty) and two months of Peralta, the offense should be quite a bit better just with better health, and their vaunted pitching staff has only taken a small step back at worst. Will that be enough to hold off the Cubs? We’ll see.

    matt y t
    8 years ago
    Reply to  Lanidrac

    Was thinking the exact same thing. I greatly appreciate this write-up, but it seems overly impressed by paper championships.

    8 years ago
    Reply to  Lanidrac

    How is piscotty replacing Heyward? Projections have piscotty about at two WAR and Heyward at 5.

    8 years ago
    Reply to  Lanidrac

    You’re pretty obviously a Cardinals homer, but I’ll bite:

    1) Piscotty projects nowhere near as good as Heyward.
    2) Grichuk is projected for regression.
    3) Pham is projected for regression.
    4) Carpenter is projected for regression.
    5) You lost Lackey, which almost entirely negates the return of 34.5 year-old Wainwright.
    6) You lost Lynn.
    7) Garcia is projected for regression.
    8) The Cardinals were one of the luckiest teams in terms of LOB%/beating their FIP of all-time. This item alone would be reason enough to project major regression.

    8 years ago

    Speaking as one Cubs fan, I think Cubs and Cardinals fans are just fine with the rivalry as is: a wonderful regional rivalry, in which every game matters regardless of standings, free from the oppressive limelight of ESPN and the national media.

    I must be a cranky old man !