The cardinals went out and finally did. After a winter of relative inactivity, aside from the unpopular attempt to reject Kolten Wong’s option, they brought back Adam Wainwright, appear to be bringing back Yadier Molina, and stunned the baseball world by acquiring Nolan Arenado of the Rockies for … well,. We don’t want to say “almost nothing” but they haven’t given up on players they will clearly miss in 2021.
Given the total and total transaction loss in NL Central, a division that had an absolute talent bloodline all winter up to this week, the Cardinals, who finished 30-28 and missed three games in 2020, must be favorites due to the Arenado trade alone . Law? When we talk about “winning the winter”, well, sure. When we talk about ’21 projection? Maybe not.
If it feels like this is the only big step that has been taken at headquarters so far this winter, trust your feelings. We looked at the 2019-20 combined wins over the FanGraphs off-season transaction tracker replacement and found these shocking numbers:
talent leaving NL Central: 44.2 WAR
talent accession NL Central: 6.6 WAR
Do you think that’s a big loophole? Note that even in 2019-20, Arenado had a 6.9 WAR. Before it was acquired the grand total was … -0.3 WAR. And even The seemed a lot less just a few days ago before the Cubs signed Joc Pederson, who was the only other 1+ WAR player to sign at 2.9 WAR.
Looking back is not always looking back, we grant you; These numbers are not 2021 projections. Perhaps Molina, Wong, Trevor Bauer, or other unsigned free agents will find their way back to headquarters. But how does it look now? Until then, Wong, Yu Darvish, Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, José Quintana, Kyle Schwarber and others. Hello … Arenado and Pederson.
That’s why the cardinals have the most helium right now, because they did what no one else wanted or could. But is it that hard to stand up for one of the four best teams from last year? Not really. (Yes, only four – the pirates are clearly rebuilding themselves and aren’t expected to be competitive.)
After all, the 2021 NL Central looks like this. (We’ve created the planned leaderboard here, which doesn’t include Arenado yet, and gave the Cardinals a win of five, which roughly means how much it would improve their chances.)
It’s tight. We didn’t say the Cardinals weren’t the favorites because, according to that assessment, they are. But it’s not a slam dunk either. (Here’s another projection system that puts the Cardinals in fourth place with Arenado, and while we think this is more than a bit too pessimistic, there is a system that does exist.) Let’s go for each of that four contenders put forward an argument.
The case for … the cardinals
Now, you did Just swap for Arenado. His striking line is likely to take a small step back, and we’ll argue year round whether he’s leaving Coors Field (it’s not what you think) or just that Busch Stadium is one of the least hitter-friendly parks in baseball or the wonder about the health of his shoulder, but it probably won’t matter. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a star. It’s also nice to see Matt Carpenter benching because St. Louis had the worst banking performance in the majors in 2020.
The question, however, is whether the 2020 Cardinals were an arenado that lacked size. We would both argue that “no, they weren’t because the offense wasn’t as good in 2019” and that “it’s incredible to judge a St. Louis performance in their COVID-punctured season is difficult.” The case here is easy to see anyway; Jack Flaherty plays like 2019, Dylan Carlson has the breakout anyone is capable of, Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt anchor the middle of the lineup, and Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks can each be healthy and contributing.
None of this is so unreasonable. It’s just a lot if happens, and not much depth, should something go wrong. Arenado makes them better, a more complete list. It just can’t be about him.
The case for … the brewers
Milwaukee has been so quiet this winter it’s easy to forget how dominant the top half of its pitching staff can be. Take the group of starters Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes and helpers Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta, Eric Yardley and Brent Suter. They combined 263 2/3 innings, or just over half of all Brewers innings in 2020, which equates to an ERA of 2.59 and a strike rate of 35%. That’s a lot of elite pitching from pitchers who are still around, and that doesn’t explain the higher hopes of Josh Lindblom or Adrian Houser.
Half of a 60-game season is obviously different from half of a full one, and the bigger problem here is that they have done almost nothing to improve their offensive, although Lorenzo Cain, who eliminated almost all of them, should likely return in 2020 help. But really, a large part of it falls on Christian Yelich, the NL MVP of 2018, on the shoulders to recover after a 20s year that has sunk by his standards. When we investigated this in December, we didn’t really find much to worry about, other than a strangely passive approach on the plate. Another great 2018-19 vintage season from Yelich, a solid year from Cain, and this top pitching will get you pretty far. Will someone show up from the infield to help?
The case for … the Cubs
Put aside all of the disappointing feelings of this off-season and realize that the Cubs are the defending champions of the division – despite the terribly poor season of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez among others – and that they may be a minor upgrade for the Left have made the power department on the way from Schwarber to Pederson. There’s still a lot of talent here, and at least one projection system really likes their insult:
PECOTA for Cubs Hitter from DRC +:
Anthony Rizzo: 140
Kris Bryant: 127
Joc Pederson: 124
Willson Contreras: 116
Ian Happ: 115
Jason Heyward: 105
David Bote: 104
Javy Báez: 97
Nico Hoerner: 91
– FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) February 1, 2021
We’re not as naive as if they are better positioned to fight without Darvish in 2021 because they clearly aren’t. But Ian Happ had a breakout himself in 2020 and Kyle Hendricks is quietly one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. The rotation depth is is missing, to say the least, and yet “a top 20 starter and a bunch of good track record bats that we believe in” is a good place to start in a division without a Dodgers / Padres / Yankees-like giant.
The case for … the reds
We understand that there have been a lot of rumors about the starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, but right now they’re still Red, and in all honesty, it seems like they still are, as Bauer will likely sign elsewhere, and Anthony DeSclafani has already gone to the Giants. There’s still a lot to like when the Cincinnati stand behind their two best starters as Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Tyler Mahle, and Tejay Antone bring their own interesting tools to the table.
The question really is, can the very disappointing offense we saw in 2020 look more like the team we expected when they took big strides last winter. Mike Moustakas’ 108 OPS + is about where you’d expect him to be, but it hardly seems unfair to have more from Nick Senzel (57 OPS +), Nick Castellanos (102 OPS +), Shogo Akiyama (76 OPS +) and Eugenio Suarez (102 OPS +) expected. Combine that with Jesse Winker’s outburst and the likely rise of Tyler Stephenson for some real catcher game time soon, and you really could have something here. Now: how about a shortstop? Any shortstop?