At the start of the 2017 season, it looked like there were only going to be two real contenders for the division- the Cubs and the Cardinals. However, a hot start by the Brewers quickly turned it into a three-team race. By the end of the season, the Cubs pulled away, and the Brewers and Cardinals narrowly missed out on a wild-card spot. With some of the right moves, this division has the potential to become the best in baseball next year.
Chicago Cubs: 92-70
The Cubs are only one year removed from ending a 108-year World Series drought, so their window is still open. However, Jake Arrieta is now a free agent, and there are reports that say he is unlikely to re-sign with the Cubs over disputes in the proposed contract. Therefore, they should focus on finding someone to replace him. It does not have to be a big-time arm either, as the Cubs have a strong top three with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Veteran pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Francisco Liriano could both satisfy Chicago's needs, acting as a strong fourth or fifth starter. Alex Cobb is also intriguing, as he has a relationship with manager Joe Maddon from back when they were both in Tampa Bay. However, the Cubs’ pitching problems do not end with the starting rotation, as they extend out to the bullpen.
The Cubs had the sixth-best bullpen ERA last season, but their productivity could drop off significantly with Wade Davis and Koji Uehara both currently sitting on the free agent market. They should try to bring back at least one of these arms, preferably Davis, who served as their closer last season. They should also sign one or two more bullpen arms, perhaps Addison Reed or Fernando Abad, who both had good 2017 campaigns. One other need for the Cubs is outfield depth, particularly in center field. Jon Jay is a free agent, which means they need a backup for Albert Almora Jr. The best option is actually to bring Jay back, due to a short list of free agent center fielders. If the Cubs can make these moves, they have enough talent already on the roster to make another serious run at a World Series title.
Milwaukee Brewers: 83-79
The Brewers had a top-10 pitching staff last season, and with Matt Garza now on the way out, it’s the perfect time for Milwaukee to make a major upgrade. That’s right, I’m talking about Arrieta. He is the best starting pitcher on the market, and while he might be expensive, the hefty price tag is well worth it if the Brewers want to build on their success from last season. Arrieta is one of the best pitchers in baseball when he is pitching to his full potential, and even when he is not he is still well above-average. If the Brewers can plug him into the top spot in their rotation, they could be poised for their first postseason appearance since 2011.
The Brewers also have a small hole at second base. Eric Sogard could serve as the starter if need be, but they should try to sign someone who has proven they can produce as a starter all season long. I believe they found the solution last season when they acquired Neil Walker from the New York Mets. Walker hit for the best OPS of his career once he arrived in Milwaukee, and even though it is a small sample size of only 38 games, I could easily see Walker maintaining that production for a whole season. Throughout his whole career, he has proven to be a strong, consistent starting second baseman. He is a veteran player with a good track record, and that is just what the Brewers need to push for a playoff spot.
St. Louis Cardinals: 83-79
If the Cardinals want to compete next year, they are going to have to seriously revamp their bullpen. Seung-Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal and Juan Nicasio accounted for 37 of the Cardinals’ 43 saves last season and they are all currently free agents. This means that the Cardinals will have to sign numerous quality relief pitchers to fulfill their needs at the back end of the bullpen. One of the easiest options would be to re-sign Oh and Nicasio, who were both solid in their time in St. Louis. They could re-sign Rosenthal, but he will miss the entire 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery. This means they would still most likely need at least one more reliever.
The name that sticks out to me is Steve Cishek, who pitched to a 2.01 ERA in 49 games last year. Cishek spent part of the 2015 season with the Cardinals, where he did enjoy some success, which means he already has a relationship with the front office. The side-armer has a 2.79 ERA and 121 saves over his career, and would be a perfect fit for the Cardinals. One other minor issue is the likely departure of starting pitcher Lance Lynn, so it would be prudent for the Cardinals to find a replacement. To fill this spot, I would sign another former Cardinal, John Lackey. Lackey had perhaps his best season of his career with the Cardinals in 2015, pitching to a 2.77 ERA in a league-high 33 starts. His production has dropped off in recent years, but he still is a legitimate major league starting pitcher. The Cardinals are a good enough team to be a postseason contender with a few moves.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 75-87
The Pirates are in an unfortunate situation going into the 2018 season. They are not good enough to be a real postseason contender, and there are really no realistic moves that they can make to significantly increase their chances. However, they are not bad enough where they are going to end up with a top draft pick for next season. They are just simply mired in a sea of mediocrity. When it comes to their offseason agenda, I see only one viable option: tank mode. The Pirates have a below average farm system, which means that, if they want to build for their future they will need to improve the system with trades.
Andrew McCutchen will be a free agent at the end of the 2018 season, which makes him an obvious piece to trade away. The former MVP could potentially bring back a haul of prospects. One potential landing spot is the Los Angeles Dodgers, who could use an outfielder if they fail to land Giancarlo Stanton. They also have enough prospects to make the trade worth it for the Pirates. Two other possible players to trade away are fellow outfielder Starling Marte and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. Both Marte and Cole are All-Stars when playing well, and like McCutchen, could bring back a sizeable package in return. This might not be what Pirates fans want to hear, but it is inevitable.
Cincinnati Reds: 68-94
The Reds had a horrendous pitching staff last year, from top to bottom. They were second-to-last in the MLB with a 5.17 ERA, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers. The only bright spot was closer Raisel Iglesias who had a 2.49 ERA last year in 63 games. The Reds were a decent hitting team, raking in the middle third of most offensive categories. The lineup is not that bad on paper, led by one of the best players in baseball, Joey Votto, as well as Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Scooter Gennett. However, they do lose one of their best starters going into 2018 with Zack Cozart, who had a breakout year last season hitting .297 with 24 home runs, becoming a free agent. He will most likely demand a contract that is more than the Reds are willing to spend, so the Reds will have to make other arrangements at shortstop. Whoever they bring in, if anyone at all, will most likely just be a temporary fix. Low end shortstops like Ryan Goins and Chase D’Arnaud could do the trick, though neither are too exciting an option.
Fortunately for the Reds, they have a top-10 farm system. Unfortunately for the Reds, most of their top prospects are in no higher than AA. This means that it will most likely be a couple of years before the Reds can seriously compete in their division. Therefore, there have been rumors of trading players like Billy Hamilton and Scooter Gennett, who only have a few years left on their contract. If the Reds do trade them away, they could continue to bolster their farm system. There is also the option of trading away Joey Votto, who could definitely bring back multiple prospects. However, the Reds have Votto signed through the 2023 season, with a club option for the 2024 season, so they probably hope they’ll be a contender before then. If you are a Reds fan, prepare for a disappointing 2018, but have hope for the future.
Jorge Eckardt is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.