PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Patience due with Hoerner?

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have a well publicized offseason objective of getting below the $208 million luxury tax threshold. They’ve made plenty of progress towards that goal, freeing up about $51 million due to the departure of a number of free agents.

Even so, more moves may be on the horizon. Star pieces such as Kris Bryant (3B/OF, CHC), Willson Contreras (C, CHC), and Javier Baez (SS, CHC) are all projected for pay raises through arbitration. If the results of those decisions match the projections of MLB Trade Rumors, the team is still on pace to check in about $2.5 million over the luxury tax. As a result, Bryant has been moved in hypothetical trades all offseason, with Willson Contreras’ name also appearing in plenty of imagined transactions. While other possibilities exist—back-loading a contract extension for Baez is one example—how the team decides to solve their remaining financial woes could dictate opportunity for both Ian Happ (2B/OF, CHC) and Nico Hoerner (2B, CHC) this season.

As the roster is currently constructed, both Hoerner and Happ would likely be regulars in the lineup—Hoerner at second and Happ in center field. Depending on the return for any traded star, one of the two could find themselves out of regular duties in short order. Hoerner recorded only 294 at-bats at Double-A Tennessee prior to his promotion to Chicago last season. While he managed a respectable 43 BPV in his first stint in the major leagues, Hoerner’s lack of experience could mean a steeper learning curve is on the way. His high contact (86 ct%) approach could lessen any fall in production, but success in his first full MLB season is hardly a given. Meanwhile, Happ endured a disappointing 2019 season, spending the majority of his time at Triple-A Iowa. While he’s struggled to make contact (career 62 ct%) consistently, Happ has displayed an above-average ability to hit for power (112 xPX) and closed 2019 in strong fashion with the Cubs (158 PX, 72 ct%).

 

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have had an active offseason in an effort to build on their improvement in the 2019 season. While they missed out on the biggest free agent names on the market, the additions of Mike Moustakas (2B, CIN) and Wade Miley (SP, CIN) serve to reinforce the lineup and rotation.

However, questions remain. Most specifically, it’s difficult to imagine the team will be content to start Freddy Galvis (SS, CIN) at shortstop for the entire season. Not only was he subpar defensively (-1.7 UZR last season), but he also produced poor overall value with the bat (-1.6 RAR, 14 BPV).

On the other hand, the Reds rotation isn’t likely to undergo significant change. With the addition of Miley, the Reds now have a strong starting five that consists of Luis Castillo (RHP, CIN), Sonny Gray (RHP, CIN), Trevor Bauer (RHP, CIN), Anthony DeSclafani (RHP, CIN), and Miley. A notable name missing is Tyler Mahle (RHP, CIN), the team’s promising 25-year-old starting pitcher. While his skills (4.08 xERA, 3.8 Cmd, 9.0 Dom) surpass that of DeSclafani (4.30 xERA, 3.4 Cmd, 9.0 Dom), Mahle has two minor-league options remaining as opposed to DeSclafani’s zero. While injuries will almost certainly give Mahle the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues at some point in 2020, don’t expect his contributions to be immediate.  

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates turned the page from a disappointing 2019 season by overhauling their front office and coaching staff. On the other hand, little has been done in terms of remaking their roster. Though there’s been no significant transactions yet, it’s widely expected that the team is prepared to sell off its remaining pieces to enter another rebuilding phase.

Given that, it’s a near forgone conclusion that Starling Marte (OF, PIT) won’t be in Pittsburgh when the first pitch of the season is thrown. Both where he lands and the return for the Pirates remain unknown, yet recent reports have suggested that the team would surpass a promising veteran player such as Brandon Nimmo (OF, NYM) to land a package of prospects.

That could lead to a new outfield alignment, led by Bryan Reynolds (OF, PIT) in centerfield. Gregory Polanco (OF, PIT) will also have the opportunity for an everyday role, assuming he can prove his health. However, his “F” health grade suggests that's far from a certainty, and could leave the Pirates in search of two starting outfielders. One option would be to add a veteran outfielder on a league-minimum deal similar to what Melky Cabrera (OF, FA) received last season, though there are also internal options that could inherit significant playing time.     

Jason Martin (OF, PIT) made his brief MLB debut last season, though it’s difficult to draw much from his 40 plate appearances. Adding additional murkiness to his situation is the fact that Martin had offseason shoulder surgery to repair a labral tear, making it unclear whether he’ll be ready to start the season.  Meanwhile, Will Craig (1B/3B/OF, PIT) has added the outfield to his defensive repertoire, but hasn’t proven he’s ready major league action after posting just a 92 wRC+ in his first stint with Triple-A Indianapolis. Other names to keep in mind for any potential outfield competition include Socartes Brito (OF, PIT), Pablo Reyes (INF/OF, PIT), and Jose Osuna (1B/3B/OF, PIT), though each profiles more as a utility player or fourth outfielder rather than a regular.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have a deeper and more finalized roster than most others within the division, and aren’t particularly likely to add significantly through free agency. However, they did manage to improve their pitching depth with the signing of Gwang-Hyun Kim (LHP, STL). Kim reportedly placed greater importance on remaining on a major league roster than his specific role as starter versus reliever. Accordingly, his contract contains protection against being sent to the minors.

Therefore, the question is not if Kim will contribute to the 2020 Cardinals, but rather how. The same can be said of Carlos Martinez (RHP, STL), who was unhappy with his demotion to the bullpen last season. Martinez has reportedly spent his offseason focused on making a return to the rotation, receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection while also working closely with team officials in Jupiter, Florida.

Given these circumstances, it seems that Kim and Martinez are destined to square off for the final spot in the Cardinals’ rotation during spring training. However, recent history suggests that neither should be relied on for a full season. After pitching no fewer than 180 innings from the 2015-17 seasons, Martinez has combined to throw only 167 innings across the past two seasons combined. While Kim is coming off a 190 inning 2019 season in the KBO, he has had health problems in the past, most notably undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017 as well as suffering a stroke in 2010. While his stats are strong – he has a 3.27 ERA across 1673.2 innings – he has 1673.2 innings on his arm, nearly double that of Martinez.  

 

Milwaukee Brewers

As has come to be expected, the Brewers have had a busy offseason, turning over nearly half of their lineup and rotation. While the team has the potential for an elite young core up the middle of their infield, their corner infield spots remain in flux.

Justin Smoak (1B, MIL) figures to earn the majority of playing time at first base, though his profile is hardly ironclad. Of late, he has shown susceptibility to left-handed pitching and has also slipped to become a below-average defender at the position. The Brewers have shown no hesitation to pull playing time from underperforming starters, making Smoak a risk to lose playing time if his performance continues to lag.    

Things are even murkier at the hot corner. Eric Sogard (2B/3B, MIL) had a career year as a 33-year-old in 2019, a high-point that certainly seems juiced-ball aided. Even if his skills and statistical output regress towards career norms, Sogard’s high contact profile (84% in 2019; 85% for his career) could play up in the notoriously left-handed hitter friendly Miller Park. His ability to provide above-average defense could serve to keep him in the lineup regularly as well.

Two dark horses for playing include Ryon Healy (1B/3B, MIL) and Orlando Arcia (SS, MIL). Arcia once appeared to be the future at shortstop in Milwaukee, though he likely finds himself out of regular playing time with the team’s offseason addition of Luis Urias (2B/SS MIL). While Arcia getting regular reps at third base would require a position change and a potential sacrifice of offensive output, it’s possible Milwaukee isn’t ready to dismiss him as an everyday player. Alternatively, Healy has shown an ability to hit at a league-average level against pitchers of both handedness. However, he has also proven to be a negative defender at the hot corner, with only slightly better results at first base.  


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.