As Doug Melvin recently noted, only six National League teams finished the 2013 season above .500. Three of those teams were in the NL Central. Playing in the NL’s best and most competitive division will make it even more difficult for the Brewers to contend in 2014. Not only do they need to get better, they need one or more of the top NL Central teams to regress. Mix in a rebuilding Cubs organization with cash to spend and young, dynamic talent waiting in the wings and the Brewers could find themselves in quite the divisional dogfight next season.
Considering their current situation, don’t expect the Brewers to get a major facelift before spring training. Unless Doug Melvin decides to get creative on the trade front, the Brewers will roll into the 2014 season hoping they can right last season’s wrongs by staying healthier and avoiding anymore controversy. With a core group of players, and their contracts, locked in for the 2014 season, the Brewers lack the cash to draw top-tier, free agent talent. So fans should expect a familiar looking ball club in 2014, outside of some tinkering on the edges.
While there may be a lack of heat radiating off the Brewers’ hot stove, it’s important to keep abreast of the moves by their NL Central foes. For a great overview of what to expect from NL Central clubs this off-season, check out Chad Dodson’s excellent wrap up. In addition, I’ve kept an eye on some of the early NL Central action. Below are a few things that recently came to my attention –
As expected, the Brewers officially exercised their 2014 option on Norichika Aoki. No mystery here. The team expressed their desire to bring back Aoki before the end of the 2013 season and now it’s a done deal.
Aoki will make $1.9M next year. Though Aoki’s numbers dipped slightly compared to 2012, he still managed a .326 wOBA / 104 wRC+ / (+)1.7 fWAR in 2013. With that degree of production, Aoki’s contract is considered to be team friendly. How much so? Well, according to Fangraphs’ “Value” projections, Aoki’s 2013 production would be worth around $8.7M on the free agent market.
Aoki’s solid and steady production, and affordable contract, has made him an intriguing trade chip for the Brewers. With the emergence of Khris Davis, the Brewers have an abundance of talented outfielders and a lack of positions to play them. If the Brewers were to make a big trade this off-season, expect one of their outfielders to be a part of the deal.
Also, Blake Lalli has signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Lalli hit for a .125 AVG in 16 games for the Crew in 2013. Though he didn’t get much time at the major league level, Lalli’s first hit of the season was a memorable one – a pinch-hit, walk-off single against the San Francisco Giants on April 17th. Even with the Brewers season long struggles at first base, Lalli couldn’t secure any extended playing time. He spent the majority of the season in Nashville – where he hit for a .282 AVG with 11 home runs.
The Brewers designated Lalli for assignment on September 19th and, after the regular season, Lalli elected for free agency. It’s assumed that his minor league deal with the Diamondbacks includes an invite to spring training. Where he will again try to turn enough heads to earn a bench spot. Last year, Lalli landed on the radar of Brewers fans with his solid spring training performance. At the time, J.P Breen profiled Lalli but questioned his ability to stick at the major league level. Best of luck to Lalli in making that transition with the Diamondbacks.
The hunt for a manager continues on Chicago’s north side. At the end of last week, rumors swirled that Padres’ special assistant, and former Astros’ catcher, Brad Ausmus had interviewed for the job. But, by the end of the weekend, the Detroit Tigers announced that Ausmus would take over for Jim Leyland and skipper the perennial AL Central powerhouse.
Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times expects the Cubs to fill their managerial vacancy by the end of the week. The team has also interviewed Red Sox’ bench coach Torey Lovullo, former Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge, former Diamondbacks’ manager A.J. Hinch, and kicked the tires multiple times on Padres’ bench coach Rick Renteria.
Wandy Rodriguez will return to the Pirates next season after he exercised his $13M player option -$5.5M of which will still be paid by the Houston Astros. Last season, Rodriguez threw 62.2 inning for a 6-4 record with a 3.59 ERA / 99 ERA+ before being shut down due to left forearm discomfort.
Also, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lists Corey Hart as a potential free agent target of the Pirates. With the Pirates looking to upgrade production at both right field and first base, Brink thinks Corey Hart could fit the bill if offered an incentives laden contract.
There’s some good news for Brewers fans coming out of Cincinnati. After spending eight seasons with the Reds, Bronson Arroyo (aka Saturn Nuts) will most likely not be back with the team in 2014. In his career, Arroyo has beaten the Brewers 15 times, more than any other team.
I, for one, will welcome not having to watch Arroyo repeatedly baffle Brewers’ hitters with his BP fastball. After throwing 202 innings with a 3.79 ERA / 101 ERA+ last season, Arroyo will be seeking a multi-year deal and rumors out of New York suggest that the Mets may be interested. I fully endorse anything that gets Arroyo out of the NL Central and limits the number of times the Brewers have to face, and I have to watch, him pitch.
Of course, the pitcher filling Arroyo’s rotation vacancy may not treat the Brewers any better. In the past, new Reds manager, Bryan Price, has advocated that the team use Aroldis Chapman as a starting pitcher. No word yet on whether this plan will come into fruition, but it is another storyline that Brewers fans should keep an eye on in the off-season.
St. Louis Cardinals
Finally, following their World Series defeat, the St. Louis Cardinals are only starting to address their off-season issues. The big question for the Cardinals will be how aggressively they attempt to resign Carlos Beltran. If Beltran rejects a qualifying offer (one-year, $14M) from the Cardinals and signs elsewhere, the team will land an extra draft pick. Also, it appears that veteran bullpen arms John Axford and Edward Mujica will most likely not be back with the Red Birds next season.
Though they did come up short in the World Series, Cardinals fans do have something to hang their hats on. A recent article on Slate assigned each state a sport. No two states could represent the same sport, though different levels of a sport could be assigned to different states. For example, Texas’ state sport was high school football while Alabama was awarded college football. The prominence of the Cardinals organization, and the team’s influence on baseball and the region, landed Missouri the state sport of pro baseball. So, how did the other states in the NL Central fair?
Wisconsin got the honor of having pro football named its official sport. Illinois landed 16-inch softball. Pennsylvania was given field hockey. And Ohio… well, they got cornhole. Seriously. According to Slate, the beanbag-tossing game supposedly began in Cincinnati and the American Cornhole Organization calls Ohio home. So, the next time a sports fan from Ohio tries to talk trash, simply remind them of this distinguished honor. You’re welcome.