MLB Trade Deadline: Breaking Down the NL Central

Ross Zelen@@RZelenCorrespondent IIJuly 19, 2011

MLB Trade Deadline: Breaking Down the NL Central

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    The National Central Division is home to the hottest race in the Major Leagues. Four teams separated by only 3.5 games, all with very legitimate chances at taking the division crown. The first place Milwaukee Brewers, led by slugging outfielder Ryan Braun (pictured here), see the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates right behind them, only a half game out. 

    The Pirates are currently tied with the St. Louis Cardinals, the perennial powerhouse who have struggled at times this season. The defending NL Central champions, the Cincinnati Reds, stand 3.5 games back, mired in 4th place and in need of some help. 

    Our bottom dwellers, the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, are in the market to sell some of their top players. The Cubs have the option of shopping all stars such as Alfonso Soriano while the Astros could potentially move valuable players such as Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence

    In fact, all six of the teams in the league are looking to make some moves in the next two weeks before the deadline. Let’s see what all six teams are looking for and who their respective General Managers are calling about. 

The Milwaukee Brewers: Already Making Moves

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    The Brewers, who have already picked up closer Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets to help shore up the bullpen, are continuing to look for more valuable pieces to add.

    Last week I wrote about how the Brewers would be wise to pick up Rafael Furcal and Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers to bolster their offense and their starting pitching.

    However, many around the Brewers organization believe it is the Dodgers' super-utility man Jamey Carroll that they are after.

    Carroll has had a far superior season to Furcal, who has been riddled by injuries, and is much more of a bargain at only 2.5 million dollars. Even if the Brewers offered to pay the rest of Carroll's salary, it would only be around 1.25 million dollars since the season is more than half over.

    Carroll, batting .289 with a .359 on base percentage, would come as a stand-in for current Brew Crew shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

    Carroll's tenacity, work ethic, and sportsmanship even when not in the lineup make him a player that would be a great fit on any team.

    Another option is the Kansas City Royals' Wilson Betemit, who is not playing very much anymore after the promotion of Mike Moustakas. Betemit was batting .285 with a .345 on base percentage before losing out on his starting role. 

    In terms of starting pitching, the Brewers would love to add someone to provide depth to the inconsistent Chris Narveson and the fragile Randy Wolf. However, unless a pitcher like the Dodgers' Kuroda or the Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie become widely available at a reasonable price, I do not see the Brewers making a move for a pitcher. 

The Pittsburgh Pirates: Buyers for the First Time in a Decade

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates, at 49-44, have shocked the baseball world thus far this season.

    The 2011 Pirates are a dominant pitching team, led by all star closer Joel Hanrahan. A youthful starting pitching staff filled with efficient yet unknown pitchers has left the Pirates right in the thick of the race for the first time in the 21st century.

    Not since 1992 when Barry Bonds was mashing doubles (not home runs) and stealing bases have the Pirates been to the playoffs.  With some added help this season they could break that drought. 

    The Pirates are in the market for a slugger who can bolster their weak lineup. They are batting .247 as a team, and they are scouting impact hitters for the playoff push.

    The Houston Astros’ Hunter Pence is high on the Pirates list, along with the Athletics’ sluggers Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson. Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay is only hitting .240 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs, forcing General Manager Neal Huntington to look elsewhere. 

    However, the Pirates have not showed interest in the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman Carlos Pena, who has a bloated contract and has not produced thus far this season. Pena could become more enticing however if the other options fall through or if Pence is too expensive. The Astros Carlos Lee could be another alternative, giving the Pirates a major home run threat in the lineup.

    Don’t expect the Pirates to be active in the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes, but do expect them to make a move if Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton becomes available. Although not known as the best clubhouse man, Upton possesses the athleticism that the Pirates value

    What the Pirates do in the next couple weeks will show the city of Pittsburgh where the front office stands in terms of believing in their team. A major trade or pickup of a veteran hitter will give the city hope and the belief that it can and will succeed, but inaction could lead to a long winter for Pirates fans wondering “what if...”

The St. Louis Cardinals: Trying to Find the Pieces for Pujols' Last Chance?

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    The St. Louis Cardinals, at 50-45, stand only a half game behind the Brewers and are currently tied for second place. The Cardinals have been fighting injuries all season whether it be Albert Pujols or Matt Holiday, and the bullpen has been a patchwork production all season. 

    The Cards have made news in last couple days by stating that they would be willing to trade outfielder Colby Rasmus in hopes of getting a dynamite starting pitcher or reliever. Rasmus, the starting center fielder, has had a down year batting only .241 with 9 home runs and 36 RBIs but at 24 has a long career ahead of him. 

    But pitching is the Cardinals goal. According to, the Cardinals are aggressively pursuing relievers from the Toronto Blue Jays such as Jason Frasor, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel and Frank Francisco. Dotel, the most well-known and highest paid of the bunch, may actually be the weakest option for the Cardinals just because Dotel has not been effective in the National League recently. 

    My personal bet is either Jason Frasor, who holds a solid 3.23 ERA with 9 Holds, or on Jon Rauch who might come as more of a bargain considering he has struggled a bit this year posting a 4.23 ERA.

    The Cardinals are being money conscious not because of ownership issues or anything shocking, but rather because they are trying to save money to resign Albert Pujols this offseason. 

    In terms of starting pitching, look for the Cards to throw their hat into the ring for the Orioles’ Jeremy Guthrie or even the Padres’ starter Aaron Harang, who is back from injury and pitching well for a team that is looking to sell. 

The Cincinnati Reds: In Need of a Major Boost

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    The Cincinnati Reds, last season’s surprise NL Central champions, are in need of both some offensive and pitching help.

    The Reds are 3.5 games out going into play tonight, and need to leap over three teams to get to the top spot.

    Last season’s offensive juggernauts are only batting .258 as a team this season and could use a bat to replace Jonny Gomes’s subpar play. Even though both Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, pictured here, have been on fire this season, the offense has lacked the production it had last season. 

    Gomes, the left fielder, is batting only .218, prompting General Manager Walt Jocketty to put in a call to the San Diego Padres about slugger Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick, having a down season himself, seems to be the big target for the Reds who could try to get a package deal with Padres’ relievers to bolster their club in a big way. Mike Adams, the Padres’ set up man with a 1.26 ERA would solidify a shaky Reds’ bullpen.

    If the Reds offer some incredible prospects, like catcher Devin Mesoraco and first baseman Yonder Alonso, along with a pitching prospect, the Reds could even acquire Heath Bell, the Padres’ standout closer. Getting Bell and Ludwick, or even one of them, would be a huge boost to a team who some believe are the team fading out of contention.

    Another top name target for the Reds is Rockies’ starter Ubaldo Jimenez, whose name has been floated around on the market for quite some time. Publicly, Jimenez is not being shopped but with the Rockies out of contention it appears as though they would entertain some offers. 

    Since Jimenez is only one year removed from being one of the most dominant pitchers in the league and is having a pretty good season, the price for his arm will be very high. It all depends on what the Reds want or are willing to part with. They might be regretting making a hasty move come if they don’t make the playoffs, making for a very blue, and certainly not a Red October. 

The Chicago Cubs: Drowning In Bad Contracts

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    The disappointing Cubbies are out of contention before August again, continuing their world series drought another year. Another year of futility for the Cubs has led General Manager Jim Hendry to entertain contending teams’ phone calls.

    As the Cubs look to sell some of their highest paid players, they are looking to receive highly touted prospects in return. Pitchers such as Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster have been coveted by numerous teams, but two big bats have been especially talked about in recent days.  

    Two of the Cubs’ sluggers that might be on the move include former perennial all stars outfielder Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, pictured here hitting a majestic home run.

    Soriano is batting .255 with 14 home runs and could be useful for a team in need of power like the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Detroit Tigers. The only issue is his very large contract, as Soriano is earning 19 million dollars this season. 

    Ramirez has been rumored to be a target of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels could use a big bat to overcome the first place Texas Rangers, and Ramirez’s .300 batting average with 17 home runs and 58 RBIs would be a huge boost.

    However, Ramirez’s full no-trade clause is a hurdle that might be too large to overcome, and Ramirez’s chance at being traded is marginal.  

    The New York Yankees have been scouting the Cubs pitchers and could be attempting to get a package deal with both Dempster and Soriano.

    Zambrano, owed 28 million dollars only had a 4.50 ERA with numbers that reflect a decline in his embattled career.

    Zambrano will be tough to move, whereas Kerry Wood has about 10 teams that have inquired about his services. The Arizona Diamondbacks have made serious offers to the Cubs about Wood, who would also have to waive a full no trade clause. 

    In the end, the Cubs truly need to cut some bloated contracts if they want the ability to sign free agents in the offseason. Another year of disappointment will not be acceptable to the Wrigley faithful, and everyone in the organization knows it. 

The Houston Astros: Looking to Slash Budget More Than the U.S. Government

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    The Astros, bottom dwellers in the NL Central, have been suffering through a rebuilding phase that is taking multiple years.

    To finish the rebuilding process, Astros General Manager Ed Wade is looking at getting rid of slugger Carlos Lee (pictured here), as long as he can find someone to take on Lee’s contract.

    Lee, batting .271 with 7 home runs and 49 RBIs, is a three time all star and has over 30 home runs and 100 RBIs many years in a row. He would be a great fill-in at Designated Hitter or in left field, where his defense is decent for a big guy. 

    Lee, along with starting pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, are the three players that make up a large portion of the Astros salary. Lee makes 19 million dollars this year, discouraging many teams. They are also the three players that are being shopped around the most, with Rodriguez getting a lot of attention.

    Wandy Rodriguez is 6-6 with a 3.67 ERA. He is a solid left handed pitcher who can reliably give a team a quality start. His salary is much more manageable at over 5 million dollars this year. 

    Myers is making 10 million dollars and is only 3-10 this season, which will make him a tough sell.

    The real question mark is whether Hunter Pence will be dealt, as the big, homegrown talent is the current face of the franchise and a perennial all star. Pence has been coveted by the Pittsburgh Pirates amongst other teams, but according to Ed Wade it would take a heart-stopping offer to entertain trading him.

    Pence could be a Astros slugger for another decade, so most understand the hesitancy to place Pence on the market. 

    A sleeper that could be a nice acquisition for a contending team is utility-man Jeff Keppinger.

    Keppinger is batting .307 in limited time, and many teams in need of a little bit of help are in the fold. Keppinger can play all the positions in the infield and has outfield experience, making him enticing to teams like the Detroit Tigers, the San Francisco Giants, the Cleveland Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

    Going forward, it is a necessary evil for the Astros to get rid of talented players in order to cut spending and free up money to sign young, up-and-coming players to multi-year extensions.