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BtBS season in review: NL Central

Three teams in the National League Central made the playoffs, though none made it to the World Series. A look back at 2015 and what's in store for next season in the Midwest.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the winter meetings rapidly upon us and the hot stove heating up by the day, we decided to take a step back briefly to analyze offseason transactions and chart out a broad plan for all 30 MLB teams to move toward a World Series berth.

Yesterday we released our American League end of year reviews and plan forward for each team. Today we review the Senior Circuit.

This project is truly a site effort, with many of our writers involved in writing about one or more teams. These were all written prior to Monday, so activities from Monday onward are likely not included. Feel free to leave comments at the bottom or contact any of us on twitter.

Steven Martano, @SMartano

St. Louis Cardinals, 100-62, first in the NL Central. Lost in the NLDS

Nick Lampe

Offseason Moves

  • RHP Deck McGuire (minor league deal)

Despite coming off a 100-win season, the Cardinals have some major question marks going into the offseason. By fWAR, Jason Heyward was the Cardinals' most valuable position player and John Lackey was the Cardinals' most valuable pitcher, but both players could potentially leave the team via free agency. The Cardinals will also be without Lance Lynn for all of 2016, as he underwent Tommy John surgery last month.

The Cardinals still have a strong core of players, though, and they will hopefully have Adam Wainwright back in their rotation for the entire 2016 season. Yet some of their core players are entering their mid-30s, including Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Jhonny Peralta. The Cardinals' best chance to win a World Series in the near future might be next year, and all indications are that they will be making some win-now moves this offseason.

Future Outlook

Their top priority should be to add a key contributor on offense, whether that be at first base or in the outfield. The Cardinals would love to bring back Heyward, which would allow them to move Stephen Piscotty to first base, at least until Matt Holliday's contract expires. If they are unable to bring back Heyward or sign another top outfielder, they could keep Piscotty in the outfield and add a big bat at first base instead. They will also look for added depth in the middle infield to give adequate rest to Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong, who saw their performance drop due to fatigue late in the season.

On the pitching side of things, the Cardinals will look to complete a rotation that already includes Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha. They have quality internal options, including Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney, and Marco Gonzales, but they currently have their sights set much higher, as they were linked to David Price.

Signing Price (or another top starter) would fit with the Cardinals' current competitive window, and it would likely make them NL Central favorites over the Cubs and the Pirates in 2016. In addition to adding a starting pitcher, the Cardinals will likely be in the market for a serviceable reliever or two in order to bridge the gap between their starters and late inning relievers (Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal).

Any way you look at it, the Cardinals seem likely to make a big splash this offseason and give out the biggest contract in franchise history, eclipsing Matt Holliday's 7-year, $120 million dollar deal. This could be for a position player and/or a starting pitcher, as both are significant areas of need. The Cardinals have been successful over the last several years with a relatively low payroll due to the success of their cost-controlled young players, but they are now in a fierce competition with the Cubs and the Pirates where spending big in free agency may be necessary to stay atop the NL Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates, 98-64, second in the NL Central. Lost in the Wild Card Game

Steven Martano

Offseason Moves

  • The only Pirates transaction of note so far this offseason is the acquisition of Allen Webster from Arizona for cash; a good low-risk / high-reward move I highlighted last week

Despite another early playoff exit in the one-game-toss-up Wild Card, 2015 was another successful season for Pittsburgh. Baseball America bestowed upon them the 'Organization of the Year' award. The Pirates finished with the second-best record in the National League but unfortunately could not catch St. Louis and were forced to face pitching buzzsaw Jake Arrieta.

Future Outlook

The Pirates remain in a good position going into 2016, though they have a few holes to fill with the free agency elections of J.A. Happ, who recently signed by the Blue Jays, and  A.J. Burnett, who may elect to retire. The signing of Webster is a step in the right direction, though it should be complemented by another low-risk move to give the team some additional pitching depth.

Last season, the Pirates finished with -0.1 fWAR at first base, twelfth in the league ahead of only the hapless Rockies, Marlins, and Phillies. First base is the predominant area of need to fill out the roster, and a decent-hitting first baseman would be a huge help to complement the likes of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. The Pirates are not going to sign a player like Chris Davis, that much is a given, but spending a little more for a shorter contract free agent is a possible option.

Mike Napoli could be an intriguing option for the Pirates, but they typically aren't the type of team to pony up a $20m+ two-year deal. Even the Russell Martin contract topped out at $15 million over two years. There is however the potential for an in-house answer as one of the most exciting things going into next season is the potential major league debut of Josh Bell.

Bell previously spent some time working at first base, and with the crowded outfield of Gregory Polanco, Cutch, and Marte he could make for an interesting corner infield play.

On the other side of the diamond, Aramis Ramirez departed via free agency as well, though with the expected healthy return of Jung Ho Kang (the victim of a brutal takeout slide) and Josh Harrison, who played only 114 games, the lineup seems stable and solid for the next several years.

There is no reason to think the Pirates cannot contend for a World Championship in 2015, but so much depends on winning the division. Twice in two years, the Pirates played excellently over the course of 162 games only to run into one of the game's best and hottest starters (Madison Bumgarner in 2014 and Arrieta last year), prematurely ending their season.

Simply making into the Wild Card game no longer counts as a great success in the ‘burgh, but 2016 may present itself as a potential down year for the Cardinals (unless they spend big money - see above) meaning now is the time to strike. Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle created a perennial contender, and they should not look further than 2016 for a potential breakthrough toward a World Series berth.

Chicago Cubs, 97-65, third in the NL Central. Lost in the NLCS

Bryan Grosnick

After an emergent 2015 which paid off for the Cubs' rebuilding plans just a bit earlier than expected, Chicago is ready to take a long-term ride atop the National League standings. All they have to do is shore up their weak points and keep winning....if only it were that simple!

Offseason Moves

  • Claimed LHP Jack Leathersich off waivers from the New York Mets

A minor move, to be sure, but a good one. Over the past couple of years, The Leather Rocket has been the Mets' left-handed specialist in waiting, capable of striking out the world. His MiLB strikeout rate is 15.2 K/9. He even was pretty good in a cup of coffee with the Mets, but then Wally Backman happened, and now he'll need Tommy John surgery and will miss 2016. Just don't be surprised if by 2017 he's anchoring the Cubs' bullpen.

  • Traded LHP Wander Cabrera to Colorado for LHP Rex Brothers

I'm beginning to sense a pattern here. Brothers was great until 2014, striking out the planet despite iffy control. In 2015, he spent most of the season in Triple-A, where things got really scary (he walked about a quarter of the batters he faced, or around one per inning). He's a fixer-upper, a high-risk but very high upside play. It is equally as likely that he'll be an elite eighth inning man as he will be in Double-A this season.

Future Outlook

The Cubs are a team without major holes and stuffed to the brim with hitting prospect depth and young offensive talent. Oh, and they're rich enough to be players for any free agent they want. The big holes are one outfield spot (maybe two, depending on Kyle Schwarber's defense) and a slot or two in the rotation. With loads of cash and the second-most trade assets in baseball, they can fill those holes and then some.

The Cubs would do best to acquire a center fielder by trade (if one's available) and sign a top-five starting pitcher. But the simplest thing to do is make two sizable free-agent signings, and the best choices would be Dexter Fowler and David Price. Both of these free agents shouldn't cost the team anything beyond cash outflow, and while I don't love Fowler as a center fielder (his defense doesn't thrill anyone), there simply aren't a lot of free agent CFs who provide impact talent.

Price is an elite starter, something that this team certainly wants. While both he and Zack Greinke are good options, Price doesn't cost a draft pick ... and the way this team has drafted recently, keeping a draft pick is a pretty great deal. On the trade market ... maybe the Cubs could grab Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury away from the Yankees to man center field?

Here's my pie-in-the-sky move that I think could really help two teams: deal Schwarber (and another prospect or two) to Colorado for Nolan Arenado, then move Kris Bryant to the outfield. An Arenado-Russell-Baez middle infield would be one of the best defensive combos in ages, though it doesn't really address the center field issue unless the Cubs get really weird and put Bryant or Soler in the middle. It's a possibility only if the team really doesn't think Schwarber is a long-term fit in the outfield.

Really, the only way for the Cubs to go wrong this offseason is to commit loads of resources to middling players, something that the team hasn't really done in the past. If they bail on their young core in order to add overpriced veterans, they're making a mistake, but that is contrary to what we've seen recently. If they tie up resources on big contracts for average free agents, they'd also be making a mistake.

Zack Greinke. Jason Heyward. David Price ... so long as the Cubs add one or two top-end pieces to their already-terrifying team, they'll go into 2016 as the favorites to win not just the NL Central, but perhaps the World Series.

Milwaukee Brewers, 68-94, fourth in the NL Central

Ryan Romano

Offseason Moves

  • Traded for Ramon Flores from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Luis Sardinas.

  • Traded for Jonathan Villar from the Houston Astros in exchange for Cy Sneed.

  • Traded for Javier Betancourt from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Francisco Rodriguez.

After years of oscillation between mediocrity, poor play, and (occasional) excellence, the Brewers bottomed out in 2015.

Milwaukee fired manager Ron Roenicke and General Manager Doug Melvin en route to a 68-94 finish, the team's worst record since 2004. New GM David Stearns does have some talent to work with, but this team will have to wait until at least 2017 to make its push for a title.

The deals they've swung thus far have helped build depth. Flores hit well throughout the minors and has some defensive versatility; Villar can play as a backup, and he may have taken a step forward in 2015; and Betancourt is a 20-year-old infield prospect with the potential to become an average player. With that said, some legitimate starters will need to enter the picture.

Future Outlook

Stearns has identified the club's two most pressing needs (in terms of positional players, at least): a center fielder and a third baseman. To fill the former, they should trade for Michael Taylor from Washington in exchange for Domingo Santana. In Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, the Brewers have their two corner outfielders for the foreseeable future. Stuck behind those two, and with a limited offensive ceiling, Santana will fare better elsewhere. Taylor demonstrated this year that he can excel in center, and his bat should improve over its horrendous 2015 performance. After a year to develop, he could give the Brewers a full outfield for 2017.

For their third baseman, the team could trade for Jake Lamb from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Brett Phillips, although it could be tough to pry Lamb away. As a talented yet flawed corner outfielder like Santana, Phillips doesn't really have a place in Milwaukee. In the minors, Lamb demolished at the plate; given a little more seasoning, that output should translate to the majors. He's also a great defender at the hot corner, something the Brewers sorely need.

Lastly, to lock up the infield, Milwaukee should sign Adam Lind to a two-year, $25 million extension. The first baseman played phenomenally well in his first year with the club, but he can test the free-agent waters after 2016. Keeping him around beyond that gives them a 2017 infield of Lind, Jean Segura, Orlando Arcia, and Lamb — an interesting group of players.

The starting pitching, which struggled massively in 2015, will remain untouched. Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann, and Wily Peralta should progress further into respectable middle-of-the-rotation arms by 2017. At that point, Josh Hader and Adrian Houser will back them up. And Matt Garza (if he's still in the majors) will provide depth. All in all, it will make for a fairly formidable squad if the young guys take a step forward, which even in the stacked NL Central could contend for a title.

Cincinnati Reds, 64-98, fifth in the NL Central

Nick Lampe

Offseason Moves

  • None of note

Future Outlook

After going into 2015 still hoping to contend, the Reds endured a 98-loss season, and they have finally accepted the fact that they need to rebuild. They traded away Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake at the deadline, and they have made clear that they are open to dealing players like Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, and even Todd Frazier this offseason.

Brandon Phillips could also be traded if he is willing to waive his no-trade clause. Realistically, the Reds will probably not be competitive for the next two years, so it makes sense that they would be open to trading all of these players. If they hope to compete with the top teams in the NL Central in a few years, they will need to maximize their return for these players by trading them this offseason, when they still have a full year or two of team control.

The good news is that the Reds are starting to find players who create a core. Joey Votto will be the main holdover from the Reds' previous playoff teams as he is coming off his best season and possesses a skillset that tends to age well. The Reds also have the makings of a good rotation, with talented young arms like Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias, John Lamb, and Brandon Finnegan showing promise at the Major League level. They also have a minor league system stocked with more good young arms, including Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, and Keury Mella, who all figure to be in the Major Leagues at some point in the next two years.

The next stage of the Reds' rebuild would be for them to start finding the position players that they need long term. If Devin Mesoraco can bounce back from injury, the Reds may be set at catcher through 2018 (when Mesoraco could become a free agent), with 2015 first-round pick Tyler Stephenson potentially being ready to take over the position afterward. Besides catcher and first base, though, the Reds have major question marks everywhere else on the diamond, especially with Phillips, Frazier, and Bruce likely gone within the next year or two.

Top prospect Jesse Winker figures to be a starter in left field, and Billy Hamilton may turn into a dependable defense-first center fielder if he is able to improve on his 52 wRC+ in 2015. After that, the Reds may have to look outside the organization, which means they should probably prioritize position player prospects in their trades this offseason.

The Reds will probably not be very active in free agency, since they are a low payroll team in the middle of a rebuild. Any free agent they signed would move them only slightly closer to mediocrity, at least in the short term, so they might as well save their money for when they figure to be competitive in a few years. With that being said, they could potentially speed up their rebuild if they are able to hit on some low cost free agents who could be flipped at the deadline for young talent. The Cubs have done this masterfully over the last few years, turning Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel into Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell. If the Reds can use strategies like this to stockpile young talent, then they, too, can be a dangerous team in just a few years.