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):