MLB 2015 Offseason Grades: National League Central

Getty Images - The Reds have failed to pen a long term deal for Johnny Cueto
Getty Images – The Reds have failed to pen a long term deal for Johnny Cueto

By Darren Helley

First Workouts and Position Player reports are beginning to get under way in the 2015 MLB Spring Training. As the major sprees of the off-season are behind us, and arbitration settlements slowly shrinking within every clubhouse, now is the time we recap the big moves and questionable calls that have etched the foundations of an exciting 2015 regular season. Edward Overend wrote a stellar piece recently upon the Top 20 moves of the baseball off-season; I follow up this write up with an outlook of all 30 teams’ individual off-season performances.

Big contract signings, key arbitration agreements, crushing departures via free agency and monumental trades shall all be summarised within a single grade. Who do I think struck gold and orchestrated the A-grade winter; who succumbed to the pressure and withered in the corner for a D-grade disaster; we break down each team by division, offering an early look at the state of each division heading into Spring training. (Note: statistics in brackets denotes 2014 regular season; batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage; pitching win-loss record, earned run average)

Chicago Cubs: A+

Theo Epstein has clearly found his groove. The winter in Wrigley Field saw complete turmoil of departures and arrivals, where a gust of contender personnel finally swept into the Cubs’ clubhouse after being long overdue. But just as important as the player personnel about to the dissected and broken down from a long, spectacular winter in Chicago, is the skipper who will be leading them to greater prospers.

In arguably the move of the offseason entirely, former Rays manager Joe Maddon was introduced as the skipper of the Chicago Cubs on a 5-year deal in November, immediately setting fire to the offseason. Maddon’s resume includes two AL manager of the Year awards (2008, 2011), a World Series ring as Bench Coach under the reign of Mike Scioscia with the Angels (2002), a World Series appearance in 2008 and a 754-705 record in his nine years in Tampa. Nine, cash-strapped years in Tampa.

The departure of Andrew Friedman- the mastermind of the Rays’ low-budget, farm-based philosophy- from Tampa to the Los Angeles Dodgers, made Maddon’s exit imminent. He now inherits a Cubs’ clubhouse that already has a tonne of young, prosperous stardom through the likes of current majors Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, as well as the inevitable surge of prospects such as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. And this is without all the personnel coming into the organization shortly after Maddon’s arrival.

It’s difficult to start on a player that isn’t called Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 ERA). In what would eventually turn out to be a bargain signing (thanks to the Nationals and Max Scherzer’s $210 million deal in mid-January), the ace left-hander SP signed a six-year, $155 million deal in December. Lester, after coming off an incredible 2014 campaign  automatically drives the rotation up a gear and becomes one of the more formidable pitching staffs in the National League. Producing a career-low 1.10 WHIP and notching 220 strikeouts (highest since 2010), Lester certainly knew how to be aggressive and controlled on the mound in 2014, and kept a lot of men off base.

Lester will be joined by another signing in the offseason, although be it this pitcher is familiar with both Lester and the Cubs from the 2014 season. SP Jason Hammel (10-11, 3.47 ERA) returns to Wrigley Field on a two-year, $20 million deal, after being traded to the Athletics last summer (joining Lester in the process). It is worth noting that Hammel pitched at a much higher level during the first 4 months of last season with Chicago (2.98 ERA). He was prone to the long ball (13 HR in 67 innings) and walking batters (21 BB) in Oakland, which were surprisingly he strengths with the Cubs (10 HR in 108 innings; 23 BB). Hammel will sit well in the #3 starting role behind 2014 stand-out Jake Arrieta (10-5, 2.53 ERA). Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.46 ERA) will no doubt pitch in the #4 slot, with the #5 spot being more open than one would first expect.

SP Travis Wood (8-13, 5.03 ERA) had a down year in 2014. Epstein was smart to bring in young talent to compete with Wood for a spot on the rotation. 2015 will see proper introductions to Jacob Turner, a former high prospect SP from the Marlins, and Felix Doubront, who both arrived to Wrigley via trades last summer. But while Wood’s starting role is in jeopardy, another starter’s role is essentially lost. By Edwin Jackson’s standards, Wood turned in a decent season. Jackson (6-15, 6.33 ERA) turned in a horrid 2014 campaign, which included a bloated 1.64 WHIP, that eventually saw his starting role stripped of him after struggling to stay on the mound (140 innings in 27 starts; 5.1 innings average). The only route to significance in 2015 for Edwin Jackson will be through the bullpen, but that could be just as difficult as edging his way into a bolstered rotation.

Despite their rough spots in 2014, particularly in September, the Cubs’ bullpen began to take some long-term shape. Hector Rondon as their closer and Pedro Strop as a late-innings reliever were just as fundamental to the bullpen as unsung contributors Justin Grimm (5-2, 3.78 ERA) and Neil Ramirez (3-3, 1.44 ERA). The re-signing of left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada from 2014, on a one-year, $4 million deal back in November, was an important addition. Originally a starter last year, Wada will join the bullpen in 2015 as their go-to left-handed reliever. At Triple AAA Iowa last year, Wada notched 120 strikeouts in just 113 2/3 innings, and will hope to continue his impressive ratio in a reliever role.

The biggest addition to the bullpen this winter was former-Cardinals’ World Series Closer Jason Motte (1-0, 4.68 ERA). After missing the entire 2013 season because of Tommy John surgery, Motte returned to the mound on May 21st. Looking at his very brief 2014 campaign, signing him for $4.5 million for one year does raise some concern. It’s difficult to evaluate a pitcher within a small number of innings (25 in 2014), but Motte struggled a lot compared to his former self. In 2012 and 2013, his WHIP was under 1.0, and bloated to 1.52 last year. Perhaps the most concerning evaluation of Motte, post-Tommy John surgery, is his sudden prone to the long-ball. 7 Home runs were allowed in his 25 innings last season; only 9 were allowed in 2013 in his 72 innings of work. His slump cut short his 2014; was left off the postseason roster for the Cardinals’ postseason run and became a free agent immediately after their crushing loss to the Giants in the ALCS. If he can force more ground-balls in the infield (.121 BA) and avoid keeping pitches up that get in the outfield (.510 BA), then Motte can rectify himself as a stellar relief pitcher.

Aiding the influx of pitching wealth that has arrived this offseason will be the signings of C Miguel Montero (243/329/370) and David Ross (184/260/380), bolster depth and compete for playing time from current starter Welington Castillo. Zack Godley and Jeferson Meija- two prospect pitchers- were the selling price for Montero as he was traded from the Diamondbacks. Coming off an All-Star berth in 2014, the lefty-batting Montero provides a very solid option for the middle of the batting order, shown by his 72 RBI’s despite his adequate batting average (.243). His arrival gives the Cubs a solid bat against right-handed pitchers (.256), which is where Castillo struggled last year (.216).

However, with Montero being a left-handed batter, he will give up days behind the plate when an opponent’s left-handed starter starts on the mound. Castillo has a .301 average on left-handed pitchers, and will undoubtedly retain starting duties for those dates. It’s also worth pointing out that Castillo’s and Montero’s fielding statistics from 2014 are almost identical (both have 8.61 Range Factor). Two solid defenders behind the plate; both opposite handed to one another at the plate; the Cubs hit this move right on the button in establishing an all-round juggernaut at the Catcher position. David Ross will compliment these two batters, most likely in pinch hitting duties amid pitching personnel. 2014 was an off year for Ross. As his at-bats reached 152 from 102 in 2013, his batting average dropped (.184), Ross struck out more (58) and struggled to generate a solid walk rate (16 BB). Power hitting is the key tool for Ross, hitting 7 home runs on top of an additional 7 extra base hits, which is solid considering the amount of at-bats. Look for his playing time to dip due to the red-hot competition for the starting role behind the plate, but a step down in at-bats will more likely lead to more production out of Ross at the plate.

The Cubs were smart not to perform a complete overhaul of their starting line-up. Whilst the power-hitting 3B Luis Valbuena and the speedy duo of UT Emilio Bonifacio and CF Justin Ruggiano are no longer at Wrigley, Theo Epstein made two key trades in the winter to acquire stellar personnel in the line-up. The biggest of which came from a trade with the Astros to acquire CF Dexter Fowler (276/375/399), with Valbuena and SP Dan Straily sent the other way in the process. Fowler was arguably the best free agent option in regards to being a lead-off hitter; his .375 OBP ranks in the top 15 of major league players last season. At 29 years old, he is still blessed with great athleticism and speed, both in the Outfield and running between the bases. He instantly adds life to the top of the batting order.

OF Chris Denorfia (230/284/318) signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal in early January to bolster a solid veteran presence in the outfield alongside current starting LF Chris Coghlan (283/352/452). While there is exciting, prosperous talent in the form of OF’s Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler, it was very smart to fill each starting OF position with an experienced veteran on a short-term basis. Denorfia in particularly will most likely lead a platoon in RF behind such youngsters, especially since his contact hitting against left-handed pitchers (a former speciality; .292 career BA) has faded within the last year (.220 BA in 2014). Denorfia’s role as a starter won’t last for the remainder of 2014, as young talent edges ever closer to being starter-ready. Coghlan is coming off a strong year in 2014 as the full-time LF, showcasing underrated power with a career-high slugging percentage of .804, and will no doubt hold his starting role for a far longer period than his counterpart.

While the personnel changes happened in extravagant bunches within pitching, catching and the outfield, the infield only saw one notable change from the 2014 season. The Cubs needed a versatile infielder to replace the big void opened by the trading of former Gold Glove 2B Darwin Barney last summer to the Dodgers. After seeing little progress in injury-prone reliever prospect Arodys Vizcaino, Chicago were able to ship the young pitcher back to his original team in the Braves in exchange for 2B Tommy La Stella. It can be argued that La Stella can compete for either the 2B or 3B position (no depth behind starter Mike Olt), but either way he presents a steady bat and a solid OBP that can be really effective either at the very top or the very bottom of the batting order. Even though he showcases little-to-no power and is no threat to hit the long ball (1 HR, 0.66 power ISO), La Stella can still utilise solid contact and his speed to generate more bases for his clubhouse, evident by his 16 doubles in 2014. 2B Javier Baez, the Cubs top-prospect infielder, could be the difference maker in where La Stella plays, or if he rotates between various infield positions throughout the season. Within either approach, the Cubs landed a very key contributor in the infield through La Stella.

With so many personnel changes flowing through Wrigley Field you wouldn’t be mistaken at first to call the Cubs offseason a complete overhaul. And yet, with so many prized prospects still in-house and familiar faces returning to the friendly confines, the winter on the North side doesn’t seem that drastic of a makeover whatsoever. Top stars still remain, pioneered by Castro and Rizzo, as well as a solid amount of the supporting cast from last season. Epstein has done a great job this offseason to ship in a mass of talent and potential to be an instant contender in the NL Central, without running the risk of tampering with current team chemistry.

Cincinnati Reds: D+

It’s not that Cincinnati had a terrible offseason. But considering their current strategy of converting pitching for bats, the outcome of the Reds’ offseason didn’t seem complete when it was all said and done.

The departures from Cincinnati hurt this team more than the arrivals that will attempt to heal them. In attempts to inject more budget into the line-up and offensive production, GM Walt Jocketty had a tough decision to make regarding his starting rotation. He couldn’t keep all of his starters for 2015, especially since Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake are expected to become free agents- and require big contracts- after the 2015 season. Jocketty traded Mat Latos to the Miami Marlins as part of a three-team deal, that saw young SP Anthony DeSclafani come into the organization. SP Alfredo Simon, another starter due for a pay rise after a stellar 2014 season, was traded to the Tigers in exchange for SS Eugenio Suarez and young minor-league SP Jonathon Crawford.

The inclusion of Suarez (242/316/366) in the infield will provide skipper Brian Price with a valuable bench player, who can fill in at either third-base or shortstop. While Zack Cosart is currently the weakest offensive contributor within the starting infield (.221 BA), his strong defensive ability makes his spot at SS a little too far of a reach for Suarez as of now. However, do look for Suarez to fill in predominantly at SS in his bench role. And if you throw UT Kristopher Negron into the mix, who really excelled in Triple A Louisville as a starting infielder and rotational outfielder, the Reds now have a prosperous bench squad behind their starting infield.

Gaps remain in the starting rotation however, now that two of their strongest pitchers have moved on. The top of the rotation is still stellar; Cueto, Leake and Homer Bailey will hold their own against any other pitching trio in the NL Central. But it is worth reminding everyone that Bailey underwent season-ending surgery in early September last year, and is currently behind schedule heading into Spring Training  Left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani, despite his slight slump in 2014 (4.55 ERA, 1.53 WHIP), will likely be the #4 starter, with a wide-open competition set for the #5 spot. 25-year old Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias signed a seven-year $27 million deal back in late June, and this Spring will be our first proper look at what the young pitcher can bring towards the current pitching staff. Other candidates for a starting role are left-handed SP David Holmberg (4.80 ERA), recently acquired prospect Anthony DeSclafani and 30-year old veteran Dylan Axelrod, who found his groove with the Reds in a brief 2014 campaign (2.95 ERA, 18 innings). While there is a lot of potential within these candidates, a lack of a developed, constant starting pitcher in the fray for their final starters’ spot will eventually hit the Reds during the 2015 season.

The Reds bullpen will be missing one of their full-time contributors from last year; Logan Ondrusek (5.49 ERA) was non-tendered by the Reds in December and was signed shortly after by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. The only significant addition to the bullpen will be former-Red Sox RP Burke Badenhop (0-3, 2.29 ERA), who was traded from Boston in exchange for left-handed pitching prospect Luis Ortega. Badenhop is coming off his most productive year in his entire professional career including the minor leagues, and will look to fill the large shoes in the form of the set-up role that Jonathan Broxton left when he was dealt to Milwaukee last August. A key point to look at in Badenhop is his knack of producing the ground ball last year (2.22 ground-out/fly-out ratio, 1 HR allowed in 70 innings), which is will be very important to maintain in the home-run hitting Great American Ball Park.

Jocketty’s sole impact signing towards bolstering the bats within the starting line-up was the addition of OF Marlon Byrd (264/312/445). Byrd, now 37 years old, was traded by the Phillies on the heels of slugging 25 home runs and driving in 85 RBI last season, and has resurrected his career since being acquired by the Mets in 2013 (89 HR, 173 RBI in two seasons). An extremely effective, power-hitting option for the Reds; Byrd will most likely edge ahead of 3B Todd Frazier and bat in the clean-up spot at #4 in the batting order. But a very big red light on Byrd is his 185 strikeouts last year, that ranked 2nd amongst all players in MLB. Who was #1 may you ask? Former Phillies team-mate 1B Ryan Howard (190). Byrd’s singing was good on the part of Jocketty, but the fact that it was their only notable change in the line-up from last year leaves room for concern regarding their intent to add more offense to the line-up.

The Reds’ offseason saw plenty of moves that signified the shift from pitching to batting within the major-league organization, as well as opening up holes for potential young talent, not to mention saving a mass of budgeting space through trades. Their identity heading into 2015 is somewhat murky, for there wasn’t enough done to truly bolster their offensive weaponry to equalize how much they lost on the mound. As we head deeper into Spring Training, there remains a bitter sense that the Reds’ offseason was left half-done.

Milwaukee Brewers: D-

After suffering a major collapse from late August last season (11-24 from August 20), the Brewers spectacularly missed out on what once seemed like a sure playoff berth in 2014. Their offseason, barring a few under-the-radar additions, was close to being a similar collapse.

Solid talent left the Brewers’ clubhouse throughout the winter, led by once-ace SP Yovani Gallardo (8-11, 3.51 ERA) who fled to a home-bound nostalgia scene in the Texas Rangers. While Gallardo has been outshone in recent seasons by stellar veteran Kyle Lohse and future ace Willy Peralta, he still held tremendous value as a top-end starting pitcher. Milwaukee were right to trade Gallardo at this point in his career. Once renown for his ability to tally strikeouts (over 9.0 SO/9 between 2009-2012), Gallardo has shown a sharp decline in the last two years (under 7.2 in last two seasons). Having said that, his 1.29 WHIP and 2.5 walk rate are signs of progress from recent seasons, signalling a more subtle and accurate Yovani Gallardo over the more aggressive, attacking former self that earned him All-Star status in 2010. Regardless, his presence will be sorely missed in the Brewers’ clubhouse after spending his entire major-league career with the organization (2007). Another notable departure from the rotation this offseason was Marco Estrada (7-6, 4.36 ERA); the struggling back-end starter was traded to Toronto in exchange for DH/1B Adam Lind.

Milwaukee decided to stay in house and bring in no legitimate replacement for Gallardo in the rotation, which was somewhat of a head-scratcher considering that it was their pitching that kick-started their horrific finish to last season. Both veteran leaders Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza were a step or two off their usual selves in 2014, and failed to regain their peaks to pioneer to Brewers to the postseason. Not a single starting pitcher was able to turn in an ERA total of under 3.5, with the exception of sporadic SP Mike Friers (2.13 ERA, 10 starts). There is an opening for potential starters such as Friers, Jimmy Nelson and minor league prospect Taylor Jungmann to climb up the rotation and become a greater contributor to the Brewer’s pitching staff, but the Brewers take a step backwards compared to rival pitching staffs in St Louis and Chicago.

As if the starting rotation wasn’t bad enough, the winter in Milwaukee saw resurging closer Francisco Rodriguez (3.04 ERA, 44 SV) exit the club as a free agent, and solid left-handed reliever Zach Duke (5-1, 2.45 ERA) depart to the White Sox. Duke’s eventual 3-year, $15 million price tag would have been a big reason for Milwaukee to avoid extending the 31-year old, especially with fellow left-hander Will Smith (25 years old, 3.70 ERA) being in pre-arbitration until 2016. On the cusps of a major slump from last season, it’s too early to figure out whether Milwaukee are fully intent on contending this season. Thus, the Brewers saved themselves a lot of money, instead of cashing in too soon for their own good.

K-Rod’s departure opens the door for a former All-Star closer in Johnathan Broxton taking over the reigns in the 9th inning. Broxton has not been a full-time closer since 2012 with the Kansas City Royals, and arrived in Milwaukee in the late summer via trade from the Reds. Despite an off-year 2013 (4.11 ERA), the Big Brox has established himself as a stellar relief pitcher in recent years in Cincinnati, shown by his 1.86 ERA in 2014 before his trade to the Brewers. Broxton enters Spring Training as the only legitimate option as the Brewers’ closer, with 2013 closer Jim Henderson (7.15 ERA, 11 innings) coming off a horrid 2014 season, in which injuries tampered with his performance and severely hindered his time on the mound. Henderson is also coming off shoulder surgery from August, so his status and place in the bullpen will be a very notable storyline to follow, considering that Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress are pencilled in as the current set-up men.

It is worth noting that there are still high-profile bullpen arms still available on the free agent market ths close to Opening Day, including their former closer K-Rod, set-up man Mike Adams and former All-Star closer Brian Wilson. It’s not too late for the Brewers to take the plunge and acquire a veteran arm to help bolster their bullpen, whether it be now or closer to the All-Star break this Summer.

The Brewers’ only significant addition to their starting line-up is former Blue Jays’ DH and 1B Adam Lind (321/381/479), who will take the reigns of first-base following the departure of slugger Mark Reynolds (Giants). Lind, who was plagued by a broken foot in 2014 that limited him to 96 games, has established himself as one of the top designated hitting options in the American League. While 2014 saw his power numbers plummet (6 HR in 2014), Lind established highs in OBP (.381) and OPS (.860) since 2010. His departure was pending due to the ever-inflating influx of talent growing in Toronto, as well as the preference of home-run hitter Edwin Encarnacion playing in DH.Lind’s fielding at first-base is very solid; his 9.29 RF (range factor) from last season is a good amount higher than league average (8.97), and is in line with the league average in fielding percentage (.992). In a winter where Milwaukee really struggled to bring in quantity, they were able to pull of a great trade with the Blue Jays and acquire a lot of quality within a dark-horse addition.

Milwaukee acquires a big bat in their line-up in Adam Lind, who will bat between the #4-#6 spots in the order depending on how much power he can resurrect from 2013 (23 HR). What’s more, they finally acquire a left-handed bat, which was severely lacking in 2014 in the starting line-up. Only 2B Scooter Gennett (289/320/434) was the Brewers’ sole starting left-handed batter last season, with bench players 1B Lyle Overbay (.233), OF Logan Schafer (.181) and Gerardo Parra (.268) providing some support in limited play. Even with UT Elvin Herrera (.274) being a switch-hitter, a small number of rotational players can’t provide the constant production against right-handed pitchers that a full-time starter can bring.

Overbay, who featured as the starting 1B during spells of last year, is no longer with the Brewers after announcing that he was “99.9 percent” sure of his retirement this offseason, but no official address has been made. While Lind offers a staggering .354 batting average against right-handed pitching from last season, the only grey cloud on his presence in the Brewers’ batting order is his ugly .061 average on left-handed pitching. Martin Maldonado will most likely split between catching behind stellar-hitting Jonathon Lucroy and backing up Lind on first-base, seeing a he is the only notable right-handed batter who can fill in at the position.

Once a home-run wrecking ball of a starting line-up, Milwaukee’s power slugging players are slowly heading to the exit door. 1B Mark Reynolds, who hit 22 HR for the Brewers in 2014, has moved on to the divisional rival St Louis Cardinals. Long-time 2B Rickie Weeks signed with the Mariners in early February. This was a move that was inevitable ever since his decision to reject playing in the outfield spread across the media last summer, following the move to name Scooter Gennett as the Brewers’ full-time starting second-baseman. He was one of the top-five Brewers’ in slugging last season (.452 in 252 AB), and tallied an OPS+ of 124 that ranked 3rd within the team.

The Brewers were able to find some form of a replacement for Weeks in terms of infield depth, when they acquired IF Luis Sardinas (261/303/313) from the Rangers as part of the Yovani Gallardo trade. Sardinas can cover 2B, 3B and SS, making him a versatile infielder. He plays best defensively at shortstop (79 innings), where his range factor clocks in at 4.9, which is above the 3.98 league average. Sardinas has tallied nearly twice as many innings at second-base (141), and maintained a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, although the advanced fielding stats do not compare to his performance at shortstop. Sardinas brings a good contact-hitting contributor off the bench. But in order to generate himself into a candidate for a starting role, he must generate some form of a walk rate (5 BB in 115 AB) to increase his OBP (.303).

To see so many contributors that helped position the Brewers’ to the brink of the postseason depart in the winter would have made the Wisconsin-air extra cold. Adam Lind brings a lifeline to a batting order that was in need of a refreshing twist, and his left-handed bat will do just that. Beyond the prosperous glove of Sardinas and the attempts of reviving Broxton as the former All-Star closer, the Brewers’ saw a big decline in the amount of talent remaining in their clubhouse. There are spaces for opportunity, however, for those breaking through the roster, such as Mike Friers in the rotation or Elvin Hererra as the key bench player for the starting line-up. Unfortunately, with the breakthrough offseason in Chicago, as well as the solid winters in Pittsburgh and St Louis, this was not the time for Milwaukee to take their foot off the pedal.

Pittsburgh Pirates: A-

As with their rival Milwaukee Brewers, the Pittsburgh Pirates saw notable contributors from 2014 depart this past offseason. But unlike their divisional counterparts from Wisconsin, the Pirates were able to fill their major needs throughout the winter proceedings, as well as bolster their talent to some extent in the process. And unlike the Brewers, the Pirates did not collapse in September; a handful of prosperous youth solidified themselves as key members of this ball-club (notably James Harrison and Gregory Polanco), and were the difference-makers in their 23-12 record to close out the season, earning Pittsburgh a Wild-Card berth in the process.

The biggest loss, hands down, was back-stop Russell Martin (290/402/430), who will be a tough act to replicate both behind the plate and in the dugout. An exceptional leader, Martin was one of the figureheads that pushed the Pirates to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. He was able to transform himself into an exceptionally talented player at the plate to compliment his proven ability behind it; shades of his sophmore season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007, Martin rediscovered his power with a career-high OPS+ of 127, and also achieved a career-high in OBP (.402) in 2014. Pittsburgh’s attempts to replicate the value of Russell Martin is in the form of acquiring another former Yankees Catcher, Francisco Cervelli (301/370/432). Cervelli has never been a full-time back-stop in his injury-stricken career with the Yankees.

Arriving in Pittsburgh, Cervelli lands himself in a dream scenario for 2015. Despite having only 146 at-bats in 2014, the Venezuelan back-stop showcased solid hitting and excelled in turning in extra-base hits (11). His OBP was at a good level (.370), but could soar to the next level that Martin has produced in recent years if he were to draw more walks (11 BB in 2014). Cervelli’s main asset is his defense behind the plate. His range factor of 9.18 last year was exceptional compared to the league average (8.24), which will go towards solidifying himself as the go-to guy behind the plate. This was a great signing on the part of the Priates, and almost too coincidental in that they bought in another former-Yankee to replicate the footprints of their former starter in Russell Martin.

Notable departures for the Bucs were OF Travis Snyder, who became expendable after the inevitable arrival of Gregory Polanco onto the major league scene, who eventually wound up in Baltimore in early February. 1B Gabby Sanchez followed to journeyman road that former team-mate and ex-Pirate Casey McGehee took back in 2013 and signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. Despite only being a starter for only part of the season, due to the recurring rotation of personnel- notably Josh Harrison and Pedro Alvarez- across the line-up, the departure of Sanchez does open up a hole within the Pirates’ offense. Not necessarily a sole position, but simply a high number of at-bats across more than one position. This is essentially because Josh Harrison is such a talented baseball player, who can provide a tonne of offense, whilst providing excellent, exciting defensive capabilities in the middle-infield, hot-corner and in the outfield. Don’t forget his speed around the bases also, which culminated in 18 stolen bases in 2014. It’s also worth noting that Harrison agreed to a one-year, $2.8 million deal over the winter. This was Harrison’s first offseason being eligible for arbitration, and was able to quintuple his 2014 salary of $523,000.

Harrison will more than likely be situated at third-base to start the season, which forces slugger Pedro Alvarez to move over to first-base. But as we saw more frequently as 2014 progressed, Josh Harrison can play in so many defensive roles for this ball-club, so don’t bet on him starting on the hot-corner day-in and day-out. The addition of Corey Hart (203/271/319), on a one-year, $2.5 million deal, was the ideal supply of a starter-calibre player being able to stretch his at-bats in multiple positions. Hart will split time at 1B and in the outfield to compliment to possible rotation of Harrison, as well as share some of the full-time duties at first-base with Alvarez. In both positions, Hart provides a strong right-handed bat in areas of the field that are slowly being crowded by left-handers, even though he is coming off a down year in 2014, after being sidelined for the entirety of 2013 due to knee surgery. Hart previously established himself as an All-Star calibre OF in Milwaukee prior to his surgery, and will look to regain his power-hitting that tallied 143 home runs in 6 full seasons at Miller Park (2007-2012).

GM Neal Huntington didn’t stop with providing solid depth behind an established offensive unit with the addition of Corey Hart. The Pirates went out and attained IF Sean Rodriguez (211/258/443) via trade with the Tampa Bay Rays in December. Rodriguez, like Harrison, is another versatile toy in which skipper Clint Hurdle can play with and really stretch the creativity spectrum in his starting line-ups. And just with Cervelli, Rodriguez is an outstanding defensive player. Combining his chances at first-base and in the outfield, he has yet to make a fielding error in nearly 400 tries. But what is most intriguing about Rodriguez is his numbers at the plate. It’s amazing how a player can bat for such little batting average (.211 in 2014), but attain such a high power ratio when making contact. 50 hits were made by Rodriguez last season, 13 of which were doubles, and another 12 of which were home runs, plus 3 triples. 28 of his 50 hits were not singles, which is a big reason why his slugging percentage (.443) is over double his batting average. Rodriguez nearly achieved more RBI’s last year (41) than hits (50). In more ways than one, this is an underrated, under-the-radar pick-up, that could explode into something equivalent to the rise of Josh Harrison in 2014.

Another pick-up for the middle infield is the international signing of South Korean sensation SS Jung Ho Kang. Kang signed a 4-year, $11 million deal in January after a monumental 2014 season with the Nexen Heroes in the Korean Baseball Organization, hitting .356 and 40 home runs. He attempts to be the very first position player to make the jump from the Korean leagues over to the major league scene in the United States. Don’t let the huge power numbers deceive you completely, however. Despite his home run count and his .503 slugging last year, the majority of ballparks in the Korean leagues are notably smaller than in MLB. Mokdong Baseball Stadium, home to the Heroes in South Korea, has both left and right field dimensions of just 322 ft, and a centre field dimension of only 387 ft. While there is much more room in the outfield in PNC Park in Pittsburgh (410 ft left-centre, 399 ft centre field), it does have similar measurements in the corner outfield (325 ft left-field, 320 ft right-field), so don’t count out the right-handed infielder providing a valuable power bat off the bench. Optimism and anticipation will surround Kang as he attempts to adjust to the MLB style of baseball this Spring.

Pittsburgh’s only downfall of the offseason came from the mound. Resurgent starter Edison Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA) was picked up by the Kansas City Royals after producing a career season with the Bucs. Obtaining his second-highest amount of innings pitched (192 2/3), Volquez’s 3.04 ERA is the lowest of his entire career, thanks largely to his ability to prevent much contact against his pitches (7.8 hits/9) and avoiding the long ball (0.7 HR/9). The exit of Volquez was made a little easier recently with the big news that SP Charlie Morton- coming off of hip surgery in August- is apparently on schedule to be ready for Opening Day.

In addition to Morton’s anticipated return to the rotation, former-Pirates ace A.J. Burnett (8-18, 4.59 ERA) returns to PNC Park in 2015 after a season with the Phillies. Burnett suffered a down year in 2014, producing a career-high 18 losses, giving up a bloated 96 walks and a career-tying 109 earned runs within 213 2/3 innings (2nd highest in career). A.J. is clearly in need of a reduced role in the rotation now that he’s just turned 38 years old. Look for the veteran to fill the back-end in the #5 starting spot, with 6th starter Vance Warley continuing his solid work and getting the odd start, as well as filling in for injury and cold spells for the rest of the rotation. Youngster Brandon Cumpton will attempt to earn himself a spot on the pitching staff this Spring Training, most likely as a long-reliever out of the bullpen. And look out for former Baltimore Orioles’ top prospect pitcher; 31-year old Dominican starter Radhames Liz will compete for a spot on the major league roster after he was signed to a big-league contract back in November. After an ugly start to his career in Baltimore (7.50 ERA in 110 innings between 2007-2009), Liz took flight to the Korean Baseball Organization. Pitching at a solid 3.57 ERA within his three seasons out in the far-east, Liz has been pitching in the Blue Jays’ minor league system in 2014. A 2.95 ERA in 12 starts and 61 innings was enough for Huntington to offer Liz a shot at redeeming his major-league career, and has the makings of a great story in Spring Training to an extraordinary career for the Dominican.

Huntington also bolstered the bullpen during the winter by acquiring left-handed RP Antonio Bastardo (5-7, 3.94 ERA) from the Phillies via trade. With left-handed reliever Justin Wilson (Yankees) now gone this past offseason, Bastardo will fit right in as their second left-handed reliever behind the stellar Tony Watson. Bastardo is more of a late-innings reliever, finishing 17 games out of the 67 he appeared. He is renown for some vicious strikeout rates; last year saw a 11.4 strikeout rate, but it doesn’t compare to his brutal 14.0 rate set in 2012. With his workload increasing last season to 64 innings, Bastardo has done a great job at maintaining strikeouts and avoiding the big hits, but does struggle with finding the strike-zone at times (career-high 34 BB in 2014). Nonetheless, he presents an upgrade over the former reliever in Wilson, and will add another vicious arm to go alongside one of the best bullpen trios in all of baseball (Melancon, Hughes, Watson). Closer Mark Melancon and set-up man Jared Hughes signed one-year deals this past offseason, making sure that the Pirates’ lights-out bullpen stays intact for 2015.

The Pirates pulled off some incredible and intriguing moves this winter, bringing in a huge amount of potential and value in sombre fashion compared to other National League teams (i.e. Chicago Cubs and San Diego). Letting some key players go in the process was always going to be tough, but Pittsburgh not only broke even through the offseason, they added depth, as well as some potential x-factor additions to compliment the starting line-up. Not bad for a ball-club that was already in line to compete with the Cardinals for their NL Central crown before their new signings touched down in Pennsylvania.

St. Louis Cardinals: C+

Skipper Mike Matheny has established a very strong, farm-based major league squad since his appointment in 2012. Any major offseason splash made by the Cardinals’ organization in recent years have been few and far between, but are very accurate within their acquisitions . Take 2014 signing SS Jhonny Peralta, who went on to lead the team with 21 HR in the regular season. As per usual, the Cardinals’ offseason presented very little, but very intriguing transactions that essentially add blocks to the ever-strong, irreplaceable core of home-grown talent, like C Yadier Molina, 3B Matt Carpenter and 1B Matt Adams.

One move that St Louis desperately had to make was to fill their gap in right field, made in the worst way possible this fall. Top prospect OF Oscar Travaris, who was destined to be the next big star in the outfield at Busch Stadium, passed away on October 26th last year in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic. His passing was one the most shocking news stories to come out of the offseason in all of baseball, and a sad case of a future star gone too soon. GM John Mozeliak didn’t take much time to find a new starting right fielder, and he certainly found him with added exclamation. OF Jason Heyward was acquired by the Cardinals in November as part of a blockbuster trade that sent future ace SP Shelby Miller to the Atlanta Braves. St Louis also received notable RP Jordan Walden (0-2, 2.88 ERA), who fills a big hole following the departure of All-Star set-up man Pat Neshek (Astros).

Jason Heyward is on the cusp of being a star, but seriously needs to realize what kind of an offensive player he is to his respective ball-club. In the last three seasons, we have witnessed aggression and power in 2012 (27 HR, 30 2B, 152 SO, 21 SB), feeble and restrained yet patient in 2013 (.254 BA, 73 SO, 48 BB in 104 games), and a transition from power to contact hitting in 2014 (.271 BA, 11 HR, 67 BB and career-low .384 slugging). It’s difficult to determine how powerful Heyward can be in Busch Stadium, which is the big aspect of his game that we have witnessed elevate him to an elite level of play, but is currently holding him back through there being so little of it. But what does offer to the Cardinals is overall ablity. If you take the power potential of 1B Matt Adams (.457 slugging in 2014), and the speed and athleticism of breakout 2B Kolten Wong (20 SB in 2014), then you end up with a Jason Heyward; at 6ft 5 and 245 lbs is one of the top athletes in the game today. He enters the Cardinals’ line-up as the closest entity on the club to being a five-tool player in the major leagues, and only time will tell which of those five tools (i.e. power, contact, speed, glove, arm) will dictate his success as a Cardinal.

The Cardinals’ only other notable positional player acquisition this winter was the arrival of 1B/3B slugger Mark Reynolds. Reynolds offers a great back-up presence for both star infielders Matt Carpenter at 3rd, and Matt Adams at 1st. The 31-year old power hitter has experienced a severe drop-off in batting average last year (.196) whilst in Milwaukee, but was still able to capture lighting in a bottle as often as his hay-making days in Arizona, slugging out 22 home runs at Miller Park. A big reason for his decline in batting average is not, amazingly, because of his strikeouts; Reynolds’ strikeout rate to 28.2% in 2014, which is a huge decline since tallying a 35.4% rate in 2010. The bigger reason, however, is what is happening to those pitches that fail to strike him out. Reynolds has struggled in producing more ground balls in attempts to capture a greater amount of base hits. An air ball/strikeout ratio of 3.1, and a ground-out/air-out ratio of just 0.75 showcase his inability to keep the ball down in fair territory, and this is something that Reynolds needs to work on during limited game time this year.

Look for Reynolds to hover over the shoulder of Adams more so than Carpenter, essentially for reasons surrounding his defensive capabilities. Reynolds has a career range factor of 9.16 at first-base, but a mere 2.36 at third-base, which is well off the pace compared to the typical league average at the position. His career .992 fielding percentage at first-base is also an impressive defensive stat. Notable changes to the infield this winter were the departures of veteran 2B Mark Ellis (free agent) and struggling IF Daniel Descalso (Rockies), who open up key spots on the St Louis bench for youngster Ty Kelly, who will be expecting to make his big-league debut at the start of this season. It’s worth noting that Pete Kozma is the shoe-in back-up for the middle infield. But considering Yadier Molina’s recent injury woes last season, as well as the lack of offense shown in back-up C Tony Cruz, Kozma’s Catchers gear may need a little dusting as he enters Spring Training.

As mentioned prior, reliever Jordan Waldon will be a new face with a big role to play in the bullpen in 2015. Another new face to compliment the Cardinals’ solid bullpen is former-Rockies RP Matt Belisle (4-7, 4.87 ERA). A veteran with a wealth of experience (524 games in 11 seasons), as well as a notable example of durability in a relief pitcher (80 games appeared in 2012), Belisle has experienced a dip in production over the last couple seasons. The big source that reveals such decline is his WHIP, bloating from 1.08 in 2010 to 1.43 last year. Belisle, however, does continue in recent years to consistently prevent the long ball (under 0.7 HR/9 since 2010), which will result in more fly-outs at Busch Stadium than extra-base hits at the thin-aired Coors Field in Colorado.

The departure of star youngster Shelby Miller from the Cardinals’ rotation will undoubtedly promote rising talent Michael Wacha, as well as increase the role of 2014 summer-trade John Lackey for the 2015 season. The biggest ripple made by the Miller trade to Atlanta is the final starting spot on the rotation, which must be within the hands of a left-handed pitcher. Jaime Garcia’s injured right shoulder has derailed his once-promising major league career since 2012, after being the first Mexican-born starting pitcher in a World Series in 2011, as well as a starter in his rookie season in 2010. Upon his potential return to full health come Opening Day, Garcia will have to fend off a young, prosperous left-handed pitcher in the form of 23-year old minor leaguer Marco Gonzales (9-5, 2.43 ERA in minor leagues). Gonzales enters Spring Training after obtaining a very high 4.33 strikeout/walk ratio, as well as a 1.11 WHIP during last year’s rise through the minor league system. This is a competition that the Cardinals must take seriously on the part of Gonzales, for they don’t want to see the young lefty getting delayed and sidetracked by more injury drama surrounding the older, prone starter in Garcia. This is a Spring Training that Garcia must come out strong in, if he has any chance of being a cog in the future plans in St Louis.

Beyond the effective flash in the form of the Jason Heyward-Shelby Miller trade, much of the Cardinals’ personnel changes were low-key, although some (Reynolds and Belisle) offer risk-reward scenarios. GM John Monzeliak did make a big sacrifice in the form of Miller; losing a key figure in the rotation in order to restore some offense and balance towards the major league roster. Heyward brings a potential star at a point in his career where he may peak to that elite level at any given time; unpredictable, but still a valuable asset coming to Busch Stadium regardless. The additions in the bullpen were solid, but were a touch off completely refilling the set-up role behind dominant closer Trevor Rosenthal (45 SV) that Pat Neshek crafted in 2014. St Louis did enough to upgrade their essential needs, which weren’t many given that the team is filled with such a talented, high-chemistry group of players. Regardless of the splashes made across the division, this team will always compete for postseason baseball any given year.

Up Next: National League West

You can find Darren Helley on twitter @DarrenHelley and join in the conversation @CTBPod


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