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The Central Question: A closer look at what’s driving the lack of spending and competition in the NL Central

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Can a division collude with itself?

The L flies over the scoreboard after the Cubs are swept in the Wild Card series against the Marlins
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The slow offseasons of the past few years have put a serious damper on the hot stove. Lately the offseason seems more like a lukewarm stove, or sometimes a downright frigid one. I really didn’t think it could get any worse, but nothing prepared me for the way the NL Central has behaved this offseason.

The entire division appears to be selling, notwithstanding the Cubs’ signing of Joc Pederson earlier Friday. Affordable contracts for productive players like Kyle Schwarber and Kolten Wong were cut loose early in the offseason and replaced with nothing. Big contracts like Yu Darvish were traded for lottery tickets that may or may not hit in four years. Starters with multiple years of control like Jameson Taillon were traded for the hope that the Pirates may eventually have a competitive window again someday. If you look at a list of available free agents and where they might land, one division is notably absent from almost every conversation.

It’s an unprecedented situation that demands we take a closer look at some numbers. Before I dive into those I want to be really clear that I don’t have interviews with any front office types and I don’t have an inside source feeding me information. I just have my eyes and it seems remarkably unlikely that an entire division would just stop competing by random chance after one of the worst revenue seasons in recent baseball history.

Michael Canter at Cubs Insider asserted yesterday that you cannot have collusion within a single division, I am not entirely sure that is true. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be collusion in the 1987-88 offseason sense of keeping every contract down across the league while allowing teams to retain whatever talent they wanted cheaply, but if you are in a division where no one has a shot at winning the World Series. an agreement to hit pause on spending allows four of the five teams to claim they are still trying to compete, even as they field teams without enough starting pitching.

Projected fWAR by division

The first hint of trouble came in December shortly after the Cubs traded three years of Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini for one year of Zach Davies, some salary relief and four prospects who barely have any at-bats above instructional league. While I was rage-typing my reaction to what can only be called a fire sale, this tweet caught my eye:

That is as of December 28 and the NL Central is basically a full mediocre team behind the next lowest division and closer to two mediocre rosters behind the AL East. This number has only gotten worse since then, as you can see from the chart below which I compiled from Fangraphs ZiPS data Thursday (full disclosure, there were a handful of free agents signed in recent days not updated with a team in the raw data. I only updated the top 50 free agents according to MLB Trade Rumors for purpose of this table, so it could vary from other people’s calculations slightly):

ZiPS Projected fWAR by Divsion

Division WAR
Division WAR
AL East 208.7
AL Central 164.8
NL East 164.5
AL West 151.4
NL West 148.7
NL Central 117.4
Compiled from Fangraphs ZiPS data by Sara Sanchez

With the exception of the Pirates and their abysmal projected 11.5 fWAR, most of the teams in the NL Central just look kinda meh, not awful. You can see each teams’ current projected fWAR below:

Teams sorted by ZiPS projected fWAR

Team WAR Division
Team WAR Division
Yankees 54.1 AL East
Blue Jays 52.2 AL East
Rays 50.8 AL East
Dodgers 50.1 NL West
Twins 47.5 AL Central
Phillies 45.7 NL East
White Sox 44.9 AL Central
Padres 41.5 NL West
Astros 40.5 AL West
Angels 37.6 AL West
Braves 37.4 NL East
Mets 37.4 NL East
Nationals 34.3 NL East
Brewers 33.4 NL Central
Athletics 31.9 AL West
Indians 31.8 AL Central
Red Sox 31.4 AL East
Cardinals 30.4 NL Central
Diamondbacks 26.8 NL West
Mariners 24.7 AL West
Cubs 21.8 NL Central
Tigers 20.7 AL Central
Reds 20.3 NL Central
Orioles 20.2 AL East
Royals 19.9 AL Central
Rangers 16.7 AL West
Giants 16.6 NL West
Rockies 13.7 NL West
Pirates 11.5 NL Central
Marlins 9.7 NL East
ZiPS projections per Fangraphs compiled by Sara Sanchez

Only the Pirates are in the bottom five, but not a single team from the NL Central cracks the top third of the league. The Brewers are barely in the top half of all MLB teams. It is an entire division mired in mediocrity. Since Major League Baseball is still a competitive entity the last time I checked one would think someone, anyone, in the division would spend a small amount of money to easily get to the top of the division.

As of January 29, a person making that bet would be wrong.

Offseason spending by division

As I was mulling over the fWAR data that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for weeks I kept waiting for some team in the NL Central to move and it just felt like every time there was a notification of a trade in our SBNation teams’ site slack it was a) for some other team or b) talent leaving the NL Central.

That anecdotal data was confirmed when I saw this tweet a couple of days ago:

Admittedly, that was before the Cubs signed Kohl Stewart and Joc Pederson and the Cardinals signed Adam Wainwright, but both of those signings barely bump the Central over $16 million. The Pederson deal almost doubled the divisions’ spending this offseason. In terms of offseason spending the NL Central is less than one-fifth of the AL West (it was one-eighth before the Pederson signing).

Free Agent spending by team and division 2019-21

Team Divsion 2019 2020 2021
Team Divsion 2019 2020 2021
Indians AL Central $ 2,500,000 $ 7,750,000 $ 5,000,000
Royals AL Central $ 15,700,000 $ 7,550,000 $ 40,000,000
Tigers AL Central $ 15,500,000 $ 20,850,000 $ 15,250,000
Twins AL Central $ 48,600,000 $ 134,000,000 $ 20,500,000
White Sox AL Central $ 24,500,000 $ 151,500,000 $ 62,000,000
Blue Jays AL East $ 14,000,000 $ 109,000,000 $ 184,500,000
Orioles AL East $ 800,000 $ 3,800,000 $ 1,500,000
Rays AL East $ 33,500,000 $ 4,500,000 $ 6,000,000
Red Sox AL East $ 74,250,000 $ 19,100,000 $ 34,200,000
Yankees AL East $ 124,555,000 $ 336,500,000 $ 103,450,000
Angels AL West $ 34,350,000 $ 260,850,000 $ 10,625,000
Astros AL West $ 42,250,000 $ 15,650,000 $ 52,600,000
Athletics AL West $ 37,600,000 $ 7,500,000 $ -
Mariners AL West $ 5,060,000 $ 6,550,000 $ 5,550,000
Rangers AL West $ 53,500,000 $ 61,250,000 $ 4,565,500
Brewers NL Central $ 30,350,000 $ 53,125,000 $ 1,725,000
Cardinals NL Central $ 25,000,000 $ 9,000,000 $ 5,000,000
Cubs NL Central $ 9,325,000 $ 3,500,000 $ 2,950,000
Pirates NL Central $ 4,800,000 $ 3,900,000 $ -
Reds NL Central $ 2,000,000 $ 144,825,000 $ -
Braves NL East $ 31,000,000 $ 117,750,000 $ 27,250,000
Marlins NL East $ 4,500,000 $ 25,350,000 $ 5,850,000
Mets NL East $ 79,000,000 $ 26,300,000 $ 56,850,000
Nationals NL East $ 184,550,000 $ 316,750,000 $ 27,075,000
Phillies NL East $ 403,000,000 $ 134,350,000 $ 121,500,000
Diamondbacks NL West $ 17,100,000 $ 109,650,000 $ 1,000,000
Dodgers NL West $ 85,000,000 $ 15,813,500 $ 22,750,000
Giants NL West $ 9,085,000 $ 24,025,000 $ 12,450,000
Padres NL West $ 327,400,000 $ 48,000,000 $ 21,650,000
Rockies NL West $ 24,000,000 $ 563,500 $ -
Sportrac

Allow me to repeat myself here for emphasis: the entire NL Central has spent about 10 percent as much as the next lowest division combined. I can sense one of you is ready to fire up a really smart comment about media markets, so let me head that right off, because while it’s true that the NL Central is made up of a lot of mid- or small-market teams outside of Chicago, this is absolutely an anomalous drop in spending relative to historic norms and relative to other divisions in the league, as you can see from the above chart. With approximately two weeks until pitchers and catchers report, this is the first year in recent memory where some teams have just not signed any free agents at all.

Current starting rotations

There is not a single team in the NL Central that currently employs five starting pitchers.

The Cubs are looking to roll out the following rotation: Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, and some person to be determined in the next 18 days, I guess. Only Hendricks and Davies have thrown more than 140 innings in a single season. While it seems probable that Mills can do that, we actually have no idea what a full season of Mills starting looks like. The question marks are even bigger for Alzolay, who hasn’t thrown more than 100 innings since he was in A ball in 2016.

But don’t worry too much, the Cubs are not alone here. According to the Fangraphs depth chart for the Brewers they will roll with: Brandon Woodruff, Josh Lindblom, Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer. Woodruff peaked at 121⅔ innings in 2019, he’s never hit 100 in another season. Lindblom has thrown a number of 150 plus inning seasons in the KBO. Burnes threw his career high 59⅔ innings in 2020. Houser has a career high 111⅓ innings in 2019. While Lauer threw 149⅔ innings in 2019 in San Diego he only threw 11 innings in 2020.

After signing Wainwright the Cardinals are clearly in the best position in the league if only because they can actually cover the innings they will need to with starting pitchers. They’ll roll with Jack Flaherty, Kwang Hyun Kim, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas. Martinez is the big question mark here due to injuries, he hasn’t thrown more than 120 innings since 2017, and if he needs to return to the bullpen the next men up are Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon, neither of whom has thrown a starters’ load in the last three seasons.

The Reds fielded a fierce starting rotation in 2020 but have done basically nothing to replace Cy Young Award Winner Trevor Bauer. While Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are still a powerful one-two punch at the top of the lineup, Tyler Mahle represents a pretty steep drop off in the three spot. After that they’ll look to Wade Miley and long-time reliever Michael Lorenzen to round out their rotation.

And then there are the Pirates. What am I even supposed to say about this rotation that is currently anchored by Steven Brault, who Andi Cruz Vanecek and I wanted the Cubs to acquire as a bullpen arm/opener last season? After Brault they’ll look to Mitch Keller, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker and Wil Crowe to round out their rotation. There are six total 100-plus inning seasons across the Pirates’ entire rotation since 2016. Only two of those seasons weren’t in the minor leagues.

Takeaways

Something is not right in the NL Central. The division is just sitting there, waiting for someone to move, and the entire division seems content to try for 85 wins and a division title before a quick exit from the playoffs in October. Maybe they are all just biding their time. Maybe they all suffered “biblical losses” in 2020. Maybe they just all decided to pocket some cash ahead of the CBA negotiations next offseason.

As I type this there is a late night rumor from Ken Rosenthal that the Cardinals are trying to make a deal for Nolan Arenado. If that happens, as much as it would suck for the Cubs, it would certainly quell my fears of collusion. However, absent that deal (or really, any substantive move from someone) I think the offseason situation in the NL Central demands a closer look.