CARLSBAD, Calif. — The visitors clubhouse in Houston still stinks of champagne from the 2021 World Series clincher, and the Cubs already have helped make 2022 history in the National League Central.
That’s because almost two months before the start of the new year, the Cardinals and the Brewers are the only two teams left standing in the division race.
And executives in the division don’t even try hard to push back on that fact.
Neither Brewers president David Stearns nor Cardinals president John Mozeliak so much as flinched at the notion they were playing in baseball’s only “two-team division” next year and whether that changes the calculus for how they approach the winter.
“The mindset is not going to change just because we have a couple of teams taking a step back,” Mozeliak said.
“But I agree with you — what’s happening in our division is something that we do pay attention to, that we’re aware of.”
It’s difficult to see the division next year as anything but a two-team proposition with the rebuilding Pirates still years away from expecting to contend, the Cubs talking about “intelligent” and “targeted” spending after blowing up their championship core last July, and the Reds not only shedding veteran contracts but even sidestepping a $1 million contract-option buyout by exposing Wade Miley to the Cubs’ waiver claim the day before the buyout decision was due.
Add it all up — or in this case subtract it all — and the NL Central looks more like the Port of Los Angeles for all the tankers going nowhere anytime soon.
In fact, the defending division champs from Milwaukee might yet contribute to the collective step back of the Central if they sell high on the final two years of club control over Josh Hader and trade their bullpen ace.
“Josh is a really important part of our team. He has been really ever since he got to the big leagues,” Stearns said. “He’s also among the best at what he does in baseball. So it’s natural that there’s going to be some interest. And whenever there’s interest we’re going to listen to see if something pops up and makes sense.
“I will tell you nothing has popped up and made sense when we’ve listened in the past. So I don’t know if that will change.”
That doesn’t change just because he has only one projected threat in the division to his chance to repeat, even as he says he still believes the Brewers remain “firmly” in a competitive window with a chance at the World Series.
“We focus primarily on our team and our roster,” he said.
Stearns tried to downplay the idea that as many as three division opponents could be non-factors before the calendar year begins — even when early offseason behavior and apparent intent to tank are pointed out.
“Teams surprise you,” he said. “I don’t know how many people saw the Giants going and being the best team in baseball last year.”
Of course, that wouldn’t have been possible if the Giants had blown up their championship veteran core at the previous year’s deadline.
“That’s true,” Stearns said. “But I think we have some teams in our division with some financial might that I don’t know if they’re going to flex it this offseason or not.”
That would be Jed Hoyer’s cue.
If he were willing and able to flex.
But Hoyer signaled at this week’s GM meetings that long-term contracts and big investments are not in play for the Cubs, who likely will seek more short-term mercenary deals that look more like that Miley claim worth $10 million for a year.
And when asked specifically about how what’s suddenly a two-team division might incentivize him to actually flex the Cubs’ revenue muscles to raise the level of his mercenary plan.
“Obviously, we pay attention to the other teams in the division,” Hoyer said. “Cincinnati’s made some moves already. But both Milwaukee and St. Louis were really good teams last year, and obviously we’ll be watching what they do.”
But what about the more open highway to the top of the NL Central, the open road that could allow a wealthy team like the Cubs to accelerate toward October?
“It’s impossible to say right now,” Hoyer said of evaluating the rival strengths in the division. “Because I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
So never mind about the Cubs.
And buckle up for an NL Central race that amounts to a six-month, two-team Main Event of the Midway.