The NL Central is up for grabs in 2020

The NL Central is up for grabs in 2020

The National League Central is open for business. 

The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers have each taken a turn atop the division over the last three seasons and now the Reds are hot on everybody's heels.

Right now, there is no clear favorite for the 2020 division crown, even with the Cardinals advancing all the way to the NLCS this fall and the Brewers making the playoffs for a second straight season. There's a realistic scenario where the Reds might emerge as the team with the best roster entering spring training as they're likely to go all-in on 2020 following the big Trevor Bauer trade last summer (Bauer is a free agent after this season).

There's also a scenario where the Cubs could continue their freefall and finish in fourth place in 2020 (and, in fact, PECOTA may even project that) given the rise of the Reds in the division.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are an absolute mess right now and will have a new manager and GM next season while potentially unloading pieces like Starling Marte in trades this winter. Oh yeah and their ace, Jameson Taillon, is recovering from a second Tommy John surgery while their All-Star closer, Felipe Vazquez, is currently in jail and his career is likely over.

It's easy enough to forecast the Pirates for last place in the NL Central next season and wave them off as being nonfactors this winter (unless they trade Marte to somebody else within the division). 

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have come out and said they don't anticipate a major bump in payroll this winter, so what you see on their roster might be what you get apart from any minor moves at the outskirts or trades that free up salary. They seem to be in a similar spot the Cubs were in last winter.

Yes, this is a Cardinals roster that made it just a few games shy of the World Series last year, but they're losing their cleanup hitter (Marcell Ozuna), 40 percent of their rotation (Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright) and backup catcher (Matt Wieters) to free agency. 

Beyond that, they face major question marks on the roster from aging veteran — Yadier Molina will be 38 in July, Andrew Miller will be 35 in May and Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Paul Goldschmidt are now officially entering their mid-30s. Plus, there's the injury issues (Carlos Martinez has pitched only 167 innings the last two seasons due to shoulder issues and young flamethrower Jordan Hicks will miss the 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery) and concerning performances from core players (Goldschmidt and Carpenter are coming off the worst seasons of their respective careers).

This will still be a good team, thanks to the emergence of Jack Flaherty as a legit Cy Young contender and the arrival of some young players who played a big role in 2019 (infielder/outfielder Tommy Edman and pitchers Dakota Hudson, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley), but they have clear holes on the roster and apparently won't be spending much money to address the issues.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers won't have the advantage of exploiting the 40-man roster in September with extreme bullpenning anymore, but they will have the opportunity for an extra arm all year long now with the addition of the 26th man on the roster.

They're in a very curious spot this winter, as they are losing a host of impact and role players from the 2019 squad that lost to the Nationals in the NL Wild-Card Game:

C Yasmani Grandal
INF Mike Moustakas
1B/OF Eric Thames
LHP Drew Pomeranz
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Matt Albers
INF Cory Spangenberg
INF Hernan Perez
RHP Jordan Lyles
RHP Jay Jackson

Some of those free agents may wind up back in Milwaukee, but that's a big group of players currently creating a lot of holes on the roster. They also already traded away pitcher Chase Anderson to the Toronto Blue Jays for salary relief. Meanwhile, Ryan Braun is about to turn 36 and Lorenzo Cain will be 34 in April and both players struggled to stay healthy and provide a consistent impact in 2019.

The same pitching questions linger around this Brewers team and now they'll also have to pay Josh Hader more than a pre-arbitration rate (he's slated for an estimated $4.6 million in 2020), which greatly impacts the resources available for the rest of the staff.

Christian Yelich is still incredible, Brandon Woodruff looks like a legit ace and Cain is one of the best defenders in the game when healthy. Young guys like Keston Hiura and Trent Grisham look to be ascending, but there are still so many question marks that it's hard to project the Brewers as a favorite for anything when they don't appear to be on the cusp of handing out big money in free agency.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are the most fascinating team in the division, and they return almost the exact team they had last year when they went 11-8 against the Cubs (including taking two out of three on the final homestand of the season).

Cincinnati's rotation — led by Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray — is probably the best in the division and might be the best starting staff in the NL. The bullpen still has Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Amir Garrett and the offense still boasts an under-the-radar superstar (Eugenio Suarez), the ghost of Joey Votto and a group of intriguing young players who could emerge as budding stars this season (Aristedes Aquino, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Josh VanMeter, Phillip Ervin).

If they can add another big hitter and see some ascension from the young guys, the Reds honestly could become the favorite for the division. As it stands right now with the offseason beginning in earnest, they're right up there in terms of talent on paper.

So where do the Cubs fit in?

The Cubs are going to be hamstrung by the budget once again this winter, they have a new manager/coaching staff and some major pitching concerns, but they also still have a solid core of position players and plenty of talent on paper.

Theo Epstein's front office will probably have to cut some salary on the payroll and there will certainly be more change to the roster than we saw last offseason, but the Cubs have a prime opportunity to take advantage in a division with no clear powerhouse. Given the financial limitations of the other three contending teams, that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon, either, so the NL Central will very much be winnable next season from the Cubs' perspective.

So even if the Cubs don't go all-in on maximizing their roster this winter and make a run at Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon, this is still a team with enough talent to challenge for its first division title since 2017. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

Christian Yelich to Yu Darvish on Twitter, 'Nobody needs help facing you'

In the wake of the cheating allegations surrounding the Houston Astros, multiple parties have weighed in with their takes on the situation, and this includes Cubs starter Yu Darvish. He stated that this past season, he had noticed "weird behavior" from batters. Bleacher Nation then tweeted out a video showing Darvish stepping off the mound in a matchup against Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers, stating that he stepped off the mound because Yelich's "eyes move first...I'm not sure what he is trying to do."

Darvish then went on to elaborate that he wasn't trying to accuse the Brewers of stealing signs, rather that he was just stating what he had noticed in terms of batter behavior. Darvish made a minor grammar mistake, saying "your" instead of "you're" and when he responded to try to clarify that, it may have accidentally caused more confusion, as some mistakenly thought he was saying that Yelich indeed was stealing signs, but this was not the case.

That didn't stop Yelich from sounding off on Darvish with quite a harsh response, a response that was so harsh that some were shocked at the nature of it.

MLB free agent Josh Donaldson chimed in, humorously stating that he could definitely  use some help hitting off of Darvish and jokingly asked for what tips Yelich might have. 

Darvish then retweeted a few tweets that illustrated the point he was trying to make. 

Darvish also responded to Donaldson, saying that he doesn't think the third baseman needs any help hitting off of him either. 

At the end of the Darvish seems to be in a good place, and from his Twitter interactions, it is clear that he was not as upset or offended over the situation as Yelich was. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

How the Cubs can get a Javier Báez deal done now


How the Cubs can get a Javier Báez deal done now

With the MLB GM Meetings now over, the Cubs will turn their attention to seeing how their fact-finding mission will influence their offseason makeover of the entire organization.

As Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported on Friday, the Cubs and Báez’s camp have begun negotiating a long-term contract extension. While many have speculated that Báez could command a massive salary that would rank among the top of MLB in terms of the total value, the Cubs do have some leverage. Báez still has two more years of club control, which should help to suppress the contract’s total value.

Put yourself in Báez’s shoes. If the Cubs offered you a six-year deal, would you do it? If you say yes, you have lifetime security for you and generations of the Báez family. However, you could be leaving money on the table because you would never reach free agency in the prime of your career.

Rejecting an offer of that size means you would have to perform at a level among the best players in all of baseball for two more seasons, and you would have to avoid serious injury as well. Báez plays with a flair and a passion that also puts his body in harm’s way on a daily basis.

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, 27, is two months older than Báez and the highest paid shortstop in baseball at $20 million per season. He signed a six-year, $120 million contract in 2019, which runs through the 2026 season.

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor — who was selected No. 8 overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, one spot before Báez — will also be a free agent after the 2021 season. He made $10.55 million in 2019 and is projected to make $16.7 million in 2020.

Báez is projected to make $9.3 million.

So, would Báez accept a deal that would protect him against injury and set him up with lifetime security, knowing that with two more seasons before free agency he would potentially leave significant money on the table?

There could be three elite shortstops on the free agent market after the 2021 season: Báez, Lindor and Trevor Story of the Rockies. This may affect what each guy could make on the open market and what they might be willing to accept in a deal now. 

Add in the fact that there will be a new MLB collective bargaining agreement by the time those three stars hit the market, and there should be some impetus for them to get a deal done now. Multiple MLB front office sources expect Lindor to be dealt before he reaches free agency and some of those same sources believe Story could be traded before then as well.

What about a deal that helps the Cubs achieve payroll flexibility in 2020 and 2021 and locks Báez in long-term?

A former high-ranking MLB executive suggested a deal structure that pays Báez $10 million in 2020, $16 million in 2021, plus six additional years at an average annual value of $23 million. That would bring the total value of the contract to $164 million.

Add in two club options for an additional two seasons at $30 million each and it allows Báez to have the largest contract of all active shortstops in MLB. Total value of the deal: $224 million; guaranteed value of the deal: $164 million.

A deal structured like that gives the Cubs certainty with one of their most talented and marketable players and protects Báez from serious injury for the rest of his career.

Would he sign a deal structured like that? I know I would. There is no greater feeling in the world than long-term financial security. A deal structured like this is a win-win for both sides.

If the Cubs won’t give Báez a deal in this ballpark, then they have to think about moving him now. You can’t allow a player of his magnitude to reach free agency and you absolutely cannot lose him to another team. He is on a potential Hall of Fame track and he is one of the most charismatic players in all of professional sports.

This deal has to get done.

If the Cubs can sign Báez for less than the aforementioned deal, then they should consider themselves very lucky.

Either way, get a deal done. Javy Báez has to be priority No. 1.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.