The National League Central division race has unexpectedly become one of the closer contests in baseball. This is readily apparent in two charts - the first is Fangraphs’ “expected playoff odds at the deadline” and the second is a graphic representation of the actual race by Erik Berg.
One of these things is a lot closer than the other...
While you might take some solace in that much needed uptick after the All Star Break in the Fangraphs chart (and trust me, I took a lot of solace when I saw that) the actual race is still looking like it could to down to the wire with a lot of baseball left to play.
Rather than running away with the Central in 2017, the Cubs have barely been able to open a 2.5 game lead over the Brewers as of today. That’s after taking two out of three games in Milwaukee over the weekend. The always dangerous Cardinals are looming 4½ games back and the Pirates, bolstered by the return of Starling Marte after his 80 game PED suspension are also still within striking distance 5½ games back. It’s looking like it could be an August and September to remember in the Central, so it is definitely the right time to take a look at the moves teams in the Central made (or didn’t make) and what that tells us about their chances in 2017.
Go big or go home: The Chicago Cubs
The front office has answered any question about where the Cubs saw themselves this year, even after hovering around .500 for most of the season. After Miguel Montero was Designated for Assignment on June 28th the Cubs had three overarching needs: 1) a veteran, backup catcher to give Willson Contreras a break from squatting for 90 minutes almost every day, and 2) a controllable starting pitcher to bolster a rotation that was substantially under performing their 2015-16 numbers and 3) more bullpen help.
Starting with what I consider the marquee trade of the deadline (the blockbuster that sent Jose Quintana to Wrigley) the Cubs have answered each of these questions, and answered them emphatically. I’ve already argued that Quintana was the best starter available. However, I think it’s equally important that the Cubs acted early and decisively. By making a deal for Quintana they ensured that the best arm available didn’t wind up in Milwaukee (or Los Angeles, or DC, for that matter). Fansided summed this up nicely:
The best thing the Cubs did was make the first move. Instead of waiting to see what the competition was going to do, the Cubs’ front office made the opening play. And in turn have put a lot of pressure on the division, especially the Brewers. The second half of this season already looks more promising than the first. I can deal with that.
Last night’s additions of Alex Avila (stopgap, veteran, backup, lefty catcher who can hit) and Justin Wilson (super intriguing lefty bullpen piece who is with the Cubs through 2018, more on that in this Fangraphs piece that does comparisons between Wilson, Andrew Miller and Felipe Rivero, not bad company at all) wrapped up what can only be called a resoundingly successful trade season for Theo & Co.
It was a pricey statement. Top prospects Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Jeimar Candelario and Isaac Parades are no longer with the Cubs, but farm systems can be rebuilt and the fact that the Cubs have eight players on their 25-man roster who are 25 years old or younger certainly cushions that blow. The fact that neither Wilson nor Quintana are 2017 rentals also helps tremendously.
Talk a big game: The Brewers
The Brewers made a lot of noise in July that they were going to be buyers at the deadline. They were rumored to be in on the Quintana talks with the White Sox and doubled down on those rumors when he went to the Cubs. To be clear, they have been buyers, but not nearly in the same range as the Cubs. After a mid-summer swoon that has seen their pitching depth take a hit, including Chase Anderson being placed on the DL with a dreaded strained oblique and Opening Day starter Junior Guerra being optioned to Triple-A, the Brewers needed starting pitching, and they aren’t going to get it.
Instead they made a modest deal with the White Sox to rent bullpen arm Anthony Swarzak. Now Swarzak is an intriguing pitcher, and he didn’t cost the Brew Crew very much. But he doesn’t fix their starting pitching needs.
To be fair to the Brewers, this wasn’t supposed to be their year. They’ve gotten remarkable production from Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana. Eric Thames’ torrid start to the year was unreal. While their offense has been a force to be reckoned with this year, there are good reasons to question whether it was wise to rush the rebuild, even with a 5½-game lead in the division at the All-Star break. After seeing that lead completely evaporate over the course of 16 games, I’m sure a lot of Brewers fans are relieved that they didn’t go big at the deadline.
Should I sell or should I buy?
Mathematically, the Cardinals and Pirates look like contenders in the NL Central, but neither seems willing to push all in this year, particularly at the price the Cubs set with their early moves.
The Cardinals appear to be selling with Lance Lynn being the most obvious piece they are willing to move. There have been deals rumored with Trevor Rosenthal and Tommy Pham heading to the Nationals, and given the bullpen woes there, that would make a good deal of sense. However, Viva el Birdos has a good write-up of just how ambivalent the team seems to be about the trade deadline this year, and frankly that captures the silent frustration that seems to be coming out of St. Louis as the deadline wraps up. I’ve learned my lesson too many times to count out the Redbirds, but it does feel like they are throwing their hands up in the air a bit this year.
The Pirates are always an interesting team to watch at the deadline. As a smaller market club, their moves don’t tend to be blockbusters, but they often times have a sneaky smartness to them that just makes me want to tip my hat off to the Bucs. Take last year’s “are we selling or buying?” acquisition of Ivan Nova, days after dealing away Mark Melancon, for example. I also thought there was a chance they may be looking to add considering how close the division stayed while they played without Marte.
It was mostly quiet on the Allegheny River. There were some rumors involving Josh Harrison that never really seemed to materialize. At the 11th hour they seem to have settled on selling this year, trading a nice bullpen piece in Tony Watson to the Dodgers. That’s a move that weakens, but doesn’t cripple their bullpen. The Pirates are going to play the hand they started the season with and see where it takes them.
We were rebuilding in December and we’re still rebuilding now
...and can we interest you in a shortstop, perhaps?
The Reds were never really in this race and they still aren’t. But as opposed to the fire sale the White Sox conducted as they gathered gems from farm systems all over the majors, the Reds have been relatively passive this season. They seemed willing to move Zack Cozart for the right price, but not particularly inclined to do so if the package wasn’t correct. Basically, their rebuild is on pace, and they seem happy to sit this one out unless the exact right offer came along.
Just under the wire, the Reds made a deal with the Dodgers, sending Tony Cingrani to LA. This move doesn’t change much about the Red’s position for 2017, but it is interesting to note that the Dodgers seem to be acquiring solid relievers who have a lot of experience facing the Cubs.
Baseball is a weird game and any number of things could happen in the next few weeks that could radically change my outlook as of today, so these concluding thoughts should be viewed more as an analysis of the NL Central race as of today than as an accurate predictive tool going forward.
That said, while the NL Central race appears very close, the moves each club made at the deadline provide fans with some pretty good insight as to how far apart it may be in reality. The only team that seemed willing or able to push all in with a big hand was the Cubs. Every other team looks like they are going to more or less stay put and take their chances. This is good news for baseball on the North Side of Chicago, where the Quintana trades seems to have lit a fire under the defending World Champions. The Cubs are playing their best baseball of the season and just received exactly the reinforcements they needed.
Bring on August.