Why Cubs might take step back, win NL Central again anyway


The Cubs dumped their best pitcher from 2020 in a trade heavy on salary relief, non-tendered their only hitter with 100 homers over the past four seasons at age 27 to save money and don’t have any big-shot targets in their sights this winter.But newly promoted team president Jed Hoyer insists: “As far as our direction, I think we’re going to have a really competitive team next year. …“I really believe that we will compete in this division.”Why? Hoyer pointed to the fact that even after shipping out ace Yu Darvish and slugger Kyle Schwarber that the Cubs have All-Star talent in Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and good starting pitchers in Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies.What he conspicuously leaves out in his public calculus as he keeps “one eye on the future” in targeting moves this winter is that the National League Central looks like baseball’s equivalent of the NFC East as the calendar flips to 2021.Maybe that will change if the next couple months produce some significant upgrades to the top teams in a division. But so far the top four teams have taken a collective step in the direction of the bottom-feeding Pirates than the NL contenders on the coasts since sending four teams to an expanded playoff field in 2020.“I think there’s too many players available to know exactly what every team is doing right now,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Teams can change dramatically, and I expect some of our teams in our division to change dramatically between now and Opening Day.”With all due respect to Counsell, the division’s only big-revenue team, the Cubs, already is in payroll-cutting mode coming off another high-priced disappointment (first-round playoff elimination).The small-market Brewers and Reds aren’t usually big spenders even in more predictable economic times than during this pandemic-influenced downturn.And the Cardinals are playing their usual offseason game of financial possum with the division, feigning small-market status and laying as low as the rest during a slow-moving winter piled as deep in austerity policies as snow right now in the Midwest. “Teams always go through cycles, for sure,” Counsell said. “That’s always going to be part of it. But what last year and really the previous years have taught us is it has never been two teams. It’s been at least three teams competing for the division.“I feel it’s always been a strong division, and probably more than anything it’s been a competitive division. Balanced, and for a couple of years now, there hasn’t been a runaway winner. It’s been decided kind of late.”Hard to imagine anything approaching “strong” the way things look and project the first week of January.But competitive? Sure. That’s definitely one way to look at it.Even the NFC East went down to the last game of the season.The NL Central in 2021? Take a look at the major league sports division that has the Eagles and Cowboys green with envy (or is that nausea):

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2020: 19-41 (fifth)

2021 projected payroll for current 26-man roster (11 players): $39.3 million (includes current contracts, projected arbitration salaries and 2021 commitments for players no longer on roster; does not include unsigned pre-arbitration player under club control). Source: spotrac.com.

The Pirates already had the inside track to a third consecutive last-place finish in the division before declining former All-Star pitcher Chris Archer’s 2021 option and trading their best hitter in recent years, Josh Bell, to the Nationals for pitching prospects.

GM Ben Cherington said he didn’t expect that to be the last trade of a veteran as the low-budget Pirates retool. And rumors that 28-year-old starter Joe Musgrave is being shopped are swirling.

It could be a while before the Pirates resemble anything close to the the group that emerged from a decades-long slumber to make the playoffs 2013-15.


2020: 29-31 (fourth, lost in wild-card round)

2021 projected payroll for current roster (12): $68.9 million.

The Brewers only made the playoffs because of the expanded field in 2020, then lost Ryan Braun to free agency (barring a discount-deal return) and traded former All-Star closer Corey Knebel to the Dodgers at the non-tender deadline for a player to be named later or cash.

The Brewers also reportedly are “open” to trading relief ace Josh Hader — the lefty who has been the linchpin of their playoff-contending pitching staff in recent years.

They might ultimately keep Hader, but they’re in anything but buy mode this winter as their competitive window narrows again into 2021.


2020: 31-29 (tied third, lost in wild-card round)

2021 projected payroll current roster (15): $109.1 million

After losing Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to free agency and trading All-Star closer Raisel Iglesias, Reds manager David Bell said: “Certainly the goal is not to take a step back; it’s to take a step forward.”

Tell that to the front office. Or the teams on the coasts that are adding talent and getting better.

Since Bell uttered those words, reports have surfaced that the small-market Reds are feeling out the league for interest in such players as All-Star Mike Moustakas and rotation frontmen Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Eugenio Suarez, the 2018 All-Star, has even popped up in trade rumors.


2020: 30-28 (tied third, lost in wild-card round)

2021 projected payroll current roster (13): $117.8 million.

The NL Central should be the Cardinals’ oyster in 2021. But ownership, led by the man (Bill DeWitt Jr.) who claimed running an MLB team “isn’t very profitable,” appears to be hiding behind pandemic economics for its latest excuse to not spend according to its means.

With the rest of the division cutting payroll and stepping back (Bell’s “goal” notwithstanding), the Cardinals are wringing hands and tugging fan heartstrings by flirting with old pals (emphasis on “old”) Yadi Molina and Adam Wainwright for possible returns as free agents.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals kicked Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong, 30, to the curb by declining his $12.5 million option for 2021 as they eye January — or what Cards baseball boss John Mozeliak calls “the new December” on the baseball calendar.


2020: 34-26 (first, lost in wild-card round)

2021 projected payroll current roster (14): $122 million

With all due respect to the Reds, nobody has taken a bigger step backward in the National League since the season ended than the Cubs — who had curse-busting team president Theo Epstein resign a year before his contract expired, declined Jon Lester’s 2021 contract option, non-tendered Schwarber and last week week traded Cy Young runner-up Darvish and personal catcher Victor Caratini to the Padres.

“I don’t think anybody’s tearing anything down,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Nov. 23 — about a week before the first pass of the wrecking ball through the roster.

The Cubs have shown no signs of pulling the For Sale sign off the roster anytime soon. But Hoyer also said the Cubs have some free agent targets in mind to shore up catching, pitching and lineup holes (presumably in the short-term, lesser salaried end of the market).

Either way, he’s keeping an eye on defending the Cubs’ division title even as he focuses on the longer-range goal of being a bona fide World Series contender again.

“I do feel like it’s a nice secondary goal,” Hoyer said, adding, “I do want to get back to a place where we can enter the playoffs and know that either we’re the favorite or we’re a team that can absolutely win the World Series if things go right.

“I also think every season’s sacred, and we’re going to compete this year.”

Let the NL Central pillow fight begin.

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