I've got to say, even given the expected slowdown of the Hot Stove League in mid-December I'm still impressed with how long the Brewers' surprise return to the NL Central's upper-middle-echelon is sticking with me. It was just a gutsy move; if the Cardinals' problem this offseason had been an excess of guts I might not appreciate it so much—it might just be another reminder that the Cardinals, say, traded their top seven prospects for Matt Kemp and Dan Uggla—but boldness had been in short supply in the NL Central at the time.
Their quick-change leads me to wonder just how much would have to be done in Pittsburgh or Chicago to give the NL Central a four-way race for 88 wins. The Brewers clearly had a terrible rotation and have clearly done something about it; here are the easily definable holes in Pittsburgh and Chicago:
1. An even worse rotation. The Brewers' rotation was mostly terrible relative to their offense; the effect was to make an afternoon at Miller Park a five hour affair, punctuated by Trevor Hoffman-related crying. The Pirates' rotation is bad in an absolute, final way. Ross Ohlendorf had a rotation-low ERA of 4.07 and was rewarded with a 1-11 record. Paul Maholm and Zach Duke were awful reminders of the last youth movement.
Maholm will continue to have the most thankless job in baseball, although he might be traded; Ohlendorf will eat innings if he's healthy; Scott Olsen and Brad Lincoln figure as options in the rotation as well. James McDonald, stolen from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel, is the most promising figure of the group after a nice stint in Pittsburgh.
There are very few rotations that can't be fixed by Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. This might be one of them.
2. Question marks everywhere. The Brewers know what they'll get out of most of their players; the Pirates know what they'll get out of Andrew McCutchen, maybe. Neil Walker had a great year playing a position he'd never really played before after sitting stagnant in the minors for years; he was their second-best player in 2010. Jose Tabata hit .299/.346/.400 as a 21-year-old, but the Pirates seem coy about whether or not he's actually 21. Ryan Doumit probably isn't a real catcher anymore, and no longer hits enough to do anything else. Pedro Alvarez was never a third baseman but is still standing there.
3. A prospect dead-zone. It seems like I'm always saying things like that—that Pittsburgh has robbed some team, or that Neal Huntington is finally getting things done right for the Pirates. But it seems like the team's bounty never comes through. They got Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan in a high-upside play, and then Milledge proceeded to show off some stunningly bad defensive numbers and replacement level hitting; he's gone. They traded Freddy Sanchez for a top prospect rather than the usual set of average ones, and now Tim Alderson is getting crushed in AAA. They grabbed Andy LaRoche in the Jason Bay deal but it turned out the wrist problem really was permanent.
Combined with some subpar drafting it's seemed, at times, like the Pirates develop not only 70-win teams but 70-win players out of some kind of unconscious reflex. Pedro Alvarez was a welcome change of pace last year, and even prototypical undeveloped-Pirates-prospect Neil Walker contributed something in 2010, so things might be changing.
The Brewers' top prospects, even when slightly used, have a solid reputation for actually developing; taking on a package of Pirates prospects now would be like buying a Korean car in 1994. It might work out, but nobody's going to let up on you until it does.
The simplest way to get the Pirates to 85 wins involves trading Andrew McCutchen to an 82-win team and renaming them the Pirates. Aside from that it involves waiting—for Alvarez to develop, for the questions around their other interesting youngsters to clear up. Drafting Bryce Harper would have been nice, but they weren't bad enough yet.
2011 is a weird, transitional year for the Cubs—the major non-Soriano contracts come off the books afterward, but until then the team necessarily looks a lot like it did while winning 75 games in 2010. Even their major offseason move—signing Carlos Pena—leaves them with a first baseman who's basically in the same position Derrek Lee would be.
In 2011 they're paying a lot for a lot of players who look basically average—Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, and Alfonso Soriano are all earning at least $10 million. Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster aren't cheap but are valuable. Geovany Soto is an excellent player, and Starlin Castro is a really exciting one.
Finding a useful second baseman (I mean, who goes into a season starting Ryan Theriot?) and hoping for a really stirring offensive return to form from Soriano, Ramirez, or Carlos Pena is the easiest way for the Cubs to look competitive in 2011, but they have a harder job than the Brewers simply because so much money is tied up in players who aren't that bad but aren't very good, either.
How's this for not having any easily upgraded spots: The Cubs, last year, had exactly six starts from a pitcher whose ERA+ didn't end up over 100—three each from Thomas Diamond and Jeff Samardzija. The Brewers, who finished two games better last season, had 120. The Cubs had one regular finish with an OPS+ over 70—their offensive crisis was caused by a lot of terrible play from bench guys and replacements. The Brewers, who scored 65 more runs than the Cubs, had three such regulars.
The Cubs are average and expensive; after 2011 they'll get a little less average and much less expensive, whereupon it seems like they'll need to open the wallet for some kind of offensive focal point. Like Alfonso Soriano, only not him.