It's mostly been quiet everywhere on the front of Major League Baseball's 2020-21 offseason, but nowhere more so than in the National League Central.
Though the division sent four teams into last year's expanded playoff field, the NL Central's winter dealings have amounted to a shrug at the notion of further contention in 2021. The result is, for now, the most pathetic quintet of clubs in MLB.
Though there's still time for the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates to change the narrative, the reasons not to count on it are many.
An Extraordinary Imbalance Between Talent Lost and Talent Gained
More than two months have passed since the Los Angeles Dodgers ended the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a win in Game 6 of the World Series, but the free-agent market has yet to heat up.
Though the lack of free-agent spending is a leaguewide problem, it's especially noticeable in the NL Central. The division's five clubs have agreed to just three free-agent deals, all of which have been for less than $1 million.
Otherwise, some of the NL Central's key players from 2020 are absent from the division:
- Traded: SP Yu Darvish (CHC), RHP Raisel Iglesias (CIN), RHP Corey Knebel (MIL), 1B Josh Bell (PIT) and RHP Joe Musgrove (PIT)
- Declined Options: SP Jon Lester (CHC), OF Ryan Braun (MIL), INF Jedd Gyorko (MIL) and 2B Kolten Wong (STL)
- Non-Tendered: LF Kyle Schwarber (CHC), CF Albert Almora Jr. (CHC), RHP Archie Bradley (CIN), OF Brian Goodwin (CIN), OF Ben Gamel (MIL) and LHP Alex Claudio (MIL)
- Key Free Agents: SP Jose Quintana (CHC), SP Tyler Chatwood (CHC), RHP Jeremy Jeffress (CHC), SP Trevor Bauer (CIN), SS Freddy Galvis (CIN), SP Anthony DeSclafani (CIN), C Kurt Casali (CIN), SP Brett Anderson (MIL), RHP Keone Kela (PIT), C Yadier Molina (STL), SP Adam Wainwright (STL) and INF Brad Miller (STL)
*Already signed elsewhere.
To be fair, some good players did join the NL Central by way of the five trades. The best is Zach Davies, who posted a 2.73 ERA in 12 starts for the San Diego Padres in 2020 before arriving in Chicago via the Darvish trade.
Yet the overall talent drain is undeniable, and the outlook for the NL Central in 2021 is grim. According to FanGraphs, all five of the division's clubs rank in the bottom half of projected WAR for the coming season:
This is a graphical depiction of a power vacuum. It should lead to a question of which team might try to take advantage of it, but there are no easy answers.
While the Cubs Rebuild, Everyone Else Pinches Pennies
The Cubs were the best team the NL Central had in 2020, winning the division for the third time in five years on the strength of a 34-26 record.
Yet they peaked early before slipping into a stretch of disappointment, going 21-23 to finish the regular season and then getting swept in the Wild Card Series by the Miami Marlins. It all marked the latest in a series of diminishing returns since the club's long-awaited triumph in the 2016 World Series.
The Cubs have therefore pivoted to the long game. If Theo Epstein's stepping down or Schwarber's non-tender weren't enough, the club's trade of Darvish—who was the NL Cy Young Award runner-up in 2020—in December made it clear: The rebuild is on.
Of course, it didn't help that the Cubs weren't spared as the coronavirus pandemic punched a $3 billion hole in the league's revenue. Nor were the division's other contenders from last season.
It's hard to say for sure how much money the Reds, Brewers and Cardinals lost in 2020, but each is acting like it was enough to necessitate a payroll decrease in 2021. Indeed, the baseball operations heads for all three clubs (here, here and here) have all but said so publicly.
It's possible, then, that the belt-tightening will only continue.
The Reds are reportedly willing to listen to offers for aces Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, per MLB Network's Jon Heyman. Other potential trade chips within the NL Central include Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, Brewers closer Josh Hader and, well, nearly everyone on the Pirates—who, to be fair, are exempt from a finger-wagging after going 19-41 in 2020.
It's also hardly a given that the division's top free agents will re-sign anytime soon. Bauer least of all, as the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner is reportedly beyond Cincinnati's budget:
If this all seems too bad to be true, well, it really isn't.
The Elephants in the Room
This is oversimplifying it just a tad, but teams generally tailor their payrolls to how much revenue they project to generate in a given year through things such as television deals and stadium attendance.
Regarding the former, the NL Central isn't exactly a hotbed for TV dollars. The Cubs are slated to get an estimated $100 million per year through their local TV arrangement, but the Cardinals, Reds, Pirates and Brewers are at just $65 million, $48 million, $44 million and $28 million, respectively.
Those clubs therefore need as much money as they can get at the gate and, if possible, from making the playoffs. To these ends, there's an obvious problem: how many, if any, fans will be allowed to attend games and the size of the the postseason field are but two of many unknowns about the 2021 season.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has informed teams to expect the 2021 season to start on time. Yet the league's owners have floated the possibility of delaying it to allow players time to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. That's out of the league's hands for now, and the same is doubly true of the attendance question while America's vaccine rollout remains sluggish.
If the season is delayed, it stands to reason MLB would be in for yet another truncated schedule in 2021. And if that's the case, the playoff field would presumably be expanded again so the owners and players could recoup as much lost revenue as possible.
But while all this might paint a picture of baseball executives who simply can't commit to spending, there's also another aspect at play. As one agent told Nightengale:
"We all lost money in the pandemic, but they're all reading from the same script. They say, 'I have no idea what my budget is.' Every single GM is telling me that. It's all B.S. They don't know what the budget is until they sign the player they want. They're trying to manufacture a depressed market."
The general sense here is that teams are playing the same card as they were last summer, in which the owners and Manfred eventually imposed a 60-game season that forced players to accept just 37 percent of their salaries.
As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs and super-agent Scott Boras agreed, this was a case of teams spreading the losses to players after years and years of privatizing gains. Indeed, MLB pulled in a record $10.7 billion just in 2019.
This is to say that MLB's slow offseason could be as much a deliberate choice as it is an unfortunate circumstance, and that the NL Central is complicit. Pity it, but don't weep for it.