By Dustin Parkes
There are few characters in all of television more beloved than Norm Peterson from the sitcom Cheers. It's a minor triumph that the writers of the series and George Wendt, the actor who portrayed Norm, were able to make an alcoholic so endearing.
I was a bit too young when Cheers originally aired to properly appreciate the humor, but I specifically remember a joke on the show that I could understand, even as a child. It occurred in an episode in which children were roaming the bar, and one had the audacity to sit in Norm's regular spot. The lovable drunk handled the situation well, merely picking the child up off of the seat and placing him somewhere else. He then remarked to his buddies sitting around the bar that he wished someone had done that for him when he was the child's age.
Baseball fans should be able to understand this dark humor and incapacity to change. One need look no further than the term we use to describe this time of year: hot stove. The term evokes a mental image of fans so desperate for their favorite sport that they're willing to gather in the cold around whatever source of warmth they can find to talk about baseball. This, despite being months away from actual games being played.
While the modern fan's source of warmth during the winter months is more likely to come from a computer than an actual stove, it's the same principle. In this specific instance, we gather in front of the hot glow of our monitors to discuss the National League Central, a division that not too long ago ranked among the league's worst, but has redeemed itself through the intelligence of its respective front offices to become one of baseball's best.
If the NL Central was a collection of competitive siblings, the Cincinnati Reds would be the highly successful middle child in a constant pursuit of attention from the parents, whose focus would seem to always drift toward the oldest: the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2012, the Reds locked up their two best players to multi-year contracts, and saw candidates emerge from its roster for both the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards, all while winning their division by nine games. And yet two weeks after the end of the regular season, all anyone was talking about was the Cardinals.
What They Have: The right side of the Reds infield boasts both the best hitter and the best-fielding second baseman in all of baseball. Even without Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati still wouldn't have trouble winning baseball games with Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier in the lineup, assuming they continue to benefit from what Ryan Hanigan and Zack Cozart are able to offer defensively.
The rotation took a major step forward in 2012, with the addition of Mat Latos combined with the emergence of Johnny Cueto as an ace. Such luxuries allow Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake to be used as innings eaters who can occasionally offer more. If Homer Bailey can continue his progression into a top-of-the-rotation starter, the Reds will have one of the steadiest groups of starters in the league.
As for the bullpen, we can likely expect a bit of a regression, if only in the relievers' collective ability to remain healthy through all of 2012. Oh, and there's some guy named Aroldis Chapman pitching in there as well.
What They'll Lose: Aside from Ryan Ludwick, Cincinnati doesn't appear to be at risk of losing much this offseason. The departures of Scott Rolen's rotting remains, Miguel Cairo's dusty bones, Ryan Madson's rended ligaments and Jonathan Broxton's XXXL pants shouldn't cause a whole lot of concern.
However, the loss of Ludwick, who provided almost three wins above replacement (WAR) for only $2 million last season, is the type of value that will be hard to replace, especially if Drew Stubbs continues his downward slide since a promising rookie campaign in 2010.
Key Targets: With so much money locked up in Arroyo, Phillips and Votto next season, it's hard to imagine the Reds making a major free-agent acquisition. There's also not enough wrong with the team as it currently stands to suggest that a major trade is necessary. What is needed is the type of addition that Ludwick provided last year as a low cost/high value outfielder.
If every team in baseball pursues Melky Cabrera with this idea in mind, his anticipated low cost isn't likely to stay low for very long. I'd like to see the Reds go after Cody Ross, who isn't likely to cost as much as Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan or Shane Victorino. However, with the Oakland A's flush with outfielders, a deal involving Coco Crisp could provide good value and offer the team a viable leadoff threat. Crisp, who has a club option for the 2014 season, would act as an excellent stop-gap in the lineup until speedy prospect Billy Hamilton is ready to be unleashed.
Dark Horse Addition: The Reds will acquire an accountant who can make sense of the fact that in 2017, Cincinnati will have $36 million tied up in two players whose combined age will be 70. Obviously, payrolls will be heading upwards, and in five years' time that might not seem to be as much of a hindrance as it appears now. But even if the team's payroll increases by 15 percent between now and then, $36 million would represent almost 40 percent of Cincinnati's salary expenses. The message is clear: win now or forever hold your peace.
St. Louis Cardinals
True story: When members of the St. Louis Cardinals' front office read hot stove previews and see what other teams will be targeting during the off season, they laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh some more. Then, they pause to wonder if there's even any point in attending the Winter Meetings this year, because their team is already in such an ideal state. John Mozeliak and company can go to Nashville not to try to swing any deals, but merely to gloat over their roster as it already stands.
What They Have: The Cardinals have it all. They were a win away from back-to-back World Series appearances, and they accomplished this feat with a starting lineup consisting of five players who had yet to even reach arbitration. That's not even accounting for the value that Matt Carpenter provided off the bench and filling in for the injured Carlos Beltran during the playoffs. It's also not considering what the team has on the farm in the form of Oscar Tavares, roundly praised as the best hitting prospect in baseball.
Their pitching staff is even more impressive than their position players. With a starting four good enough to compete with any other team already locked down, St. Louis will add either Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller or Trevor Rosenthal to the rotation. The other two might get a chance to work out of the bullpen despite all projecting as starters, or join what's probably their best pitching prospect, Carlos Martinez, in the farm system to start the year.
What They'll Lose: The Cardinals wave farewell to the good but replaceable Kyle Lohse and the good but old and injured Lance Berkman.
Key Targets: Any major acquisition made by St. Louis would likely corrupt the integrity of the league, as it would make playing out the 162-game regular season, the three rounds of playoffs and the World Series ultimately futile.
Dark Horse Addition: The Cardinals organization will acquire a mafia-like Omerta that forbids the current members of the team's front office from sharing its ideas on drafting and development with other organizations, or leaving the franchise for another. This is in direct response to Jeff Luhnow taking over the general manager duties for the Houston Astros after serving as the VP of player development for years in St. Louis. Look out, AL West. Look out.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the rock concert that you go to on a work night. You have a good time, the band is tight, the show is well put-together and you see some friends, but it isn't anything special. Or so you think. As the days go by, your mind keeps wandering back to the band you saw and the music you heard and suddenly, you can't stop thinking about it. Something about the show resonated with you, even if you didn't recognize it at first. This is the Brewers' 2012 season.
The team got off to a bad start, traded away its best pitcher, but witnessed the growth of other players in their system, and expectations being met by their intelligent free agent acquisitions from the previous offseason. All of this resulted in a team that was only five games behind the highly praised Cardinals. It wasn't enough to garner them a playoff spot, but it should be enough to keep Milwaukee in our minds as the NL Central continues to get better and better.
What They Have: The Brewers have one of the best offenses in the league, and it's led by Ryan Braun, whom Doug Melvin and the rest of Milwaukee's front office have quite smartly locked up until 2020. Going through the rest of the lineup reveals a number of names you half-recognize, but then when you look at their numbers, you're surprised at just how good they are.
The team had six regulars last season put up at least three wins above replacement: Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki and Corey Hart. All six of these players will be back in 2013.
What They'll Lose: These players will not be back: Francisco Rodriguez, Shaun Marcum and Alex Gonzalez. I'm not sure what song would be more appropriate for Milwaukee's front office to play: Green Day's "Good Riddance" or Steam's stadium rock anthem "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."
K-Rod's off-field issues, Marcum's health concerns and Gonzalez's replacement-level production are easy to watch walk away, and you could forgive the Brewers if they're a bit eager to better spend the $20 million that these departures free up.
Key Targets: The Brewers need pitching, and they need it badly. While 2012 offered springboards for the careers of Marco Estrada (or "Polo Erik" as he's become affectionately known to me) and Michael Fiers, next year's starting rotation has several gaping holes. Fortunately for Milwaukee, the free-agent market is full of the second tier starter types that the team is most likely to target, given its relatively small market.
Expect the Brewers to be attached to rumors surrounding Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse and Anibal Sanchez. (They've already been rumored to have interest in Josh Hamilton). My money would be on Sanchez to be the team's biggest target, given that he's the most likely to keep baseballs in the park while pitching at that bandbox stadium of theirs.
Dark Horse Addition: Milwaukee is going to land a new public relations firm that lets the rest of the baseball world know how good their team is. This, of course, will backfire when opponents realize the talents of Corey Hart, who is set to become a free agent following 2013.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates only had a more meme-friendly name, they would rival the Baltimore Orioles for the mocking pity of baseball fans. While Baltimore was able to transform itself from the OriLOLes to the YOLOrioles in 2012, the Pirates further cemented themselves as the Murphy's Law of Major League Baseball.
This is not only the by-product of twenty straight losing seasons, but also the torturous way in which they've managed to string together such an unbearable streak for their happiness-deprived fans.
What They Have: Andrew McCutchen was left on base so often last season, I took to referring to him as Strandrew McCutchen. Inspiring almost as much polite laughter as my awkward joke is the rest of the team's lineup and pitching staff.
It seems that sustained success in Pittsburgh is something of a myth. James McDonald looked like the pitcher everyone thought he'd become in the early part of the season -- but by the end of the year, the right-handed starter was out of the rotation. Neil Walker showed flashes of brilliance at certain points, but he couldn't offer the kind of value that he's capable of on a consistent basis. Pedro Alvarez was very much the same. Even A.J. Burnett, who proved to be one of the smartest acquisitions of the 2012 season, had a bad August when the team needed his pitching most.
The Pirates aren't so much a bad team as a team that's bad at offering consistent results. There's no easy method for fixing this, but it does seem as though we spend every off season wondering if this will be the year that things finally click for the roster. If you think that's maddening for the team's supporters, just imagine what it does to Neal Huntington and the rest of Pittsburgh's front office.
What They'll Lose: The Pirates will send Rod Barajas, Kevin Correia, Chad Qualls and Jason Grilli packing. The only courtesy expected to be extended to the departing players will be advice on not letting the door hit them on their way out. Barajas was terrible in 2012, Correia lost his rotation spot by the end of the year, Qualls was a mid-season acquisition when it looked as though Pittsbught might contend, and Grilli, the most likely to be missed, is a 36-year-old right-handed reliever who made more appearances last season than he had at any previous point in his career.
Key Targets: There aren't many positions on the Pirates roster that couldn't be improved upon with a free agent acquisition, but the most pressing need sticks out behind the plate. Free agents like Mike Napoli or even Russell Martin would represent a step forward and a massive improvement over what Barajas didn't offer this past year.
There are so many unknown commodities on the roster, though, that the team would likely be better served trying to find value as it did in trading for Burnett last year, rather than going after a big name free-agent position player. But using misfit toys as stop-gaps until the talent in their organization assumes roles at the major league level is easier said than done. It was done well with Burnett last year, but the odds of prepaid lightning striking twice aren't the greatest.
Dark Horse Addition: The Pirates will acquire coconut trees and tree boughs for each base at PNC Park, believing that it's cruel enough to constantly strand Andrew McCutchen -- leaving him with sustenance and shelter while he's there is the least they can do.
The Chicago Cubs are like an especially brutal portion of a road trip. For the most part, traveling long distances by car is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. However, occasionally, a tough stretch of road will have to be overcome in order to make the entire trip memorable.
This is where the Cubs find themselves right now. The team has gathered the maps that lead to success, but they're going to have to drive through some unpleasant terrain to get there. The way teams are locking up their talent to long-term contracts to avoid free agency since the introduction of the newest collective bargaining agreement likely means that Chicago isn't going to be able to bypass this period quickly or easily. They'll have to improve by drafting and developing talent, and through trades.
What They Have: At this stage in the team's plans, it's difficult to view the members of Chicago's major league roster as anything more than assets to be traded. For instance, the Cubs most likely wish that they didn't have Alfonso Soriano on this team for the next two seasons, for which the corner outfielder will earn $38 million, but they do. And the fact that Matt Garza is entering his final year of arbitration before free agency is more concerning because it limits the value the team would get in return if he were to be traded rather than the fact that this could be his last season in Chicago.
This is just where the team is at right now. They don't have a roster of baseball players so much as they have a listing of tradable assets. The pieces most likely to bring talent back to Chicago have to be Soriano and Garza, but also Jeff Samardzija, Darwin Barney and Travis Wood. The exception is shortstop Starlin Castro, who was locked up by the Cubs until 2019, and figures to be a key figure in the team's rebuild.
What They'll Lose: The only major player figuring to depart from Chicago's 101-loss season in 2012 is reliever Shawn Camp, who came to the Cubs after being released in March by the Seattle Mariners. Tears are unlikely to be shed, but there have been some rumblings that the team will try to bring him back.
Key Targets: Chicago's pursuit of Dan Haren, and then subsequent withdrawal, seems to indicate the Cubs are going after starting pitching this offseason. I tend to think that any sort of value to be had, no matter what position it comes from, will be sought after by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer ahead of the 2013 season.
The Cubs aren't averse to winning, though it may sometimes seem that way to their frustrated fans. They merely don't want to pay a high price for a few meaningless wins now that might cost them future wins -- wins they hope won't be so meaningless -- down the road.
This policy makes them a hard team to peg going into the offseason. They could sign Josh Hamilton because they recognize value not being appreciated by other teams, or they could focus all of their attention on acquiring international free agents that Baseball America barely knows about.
Personally, I see their money being best spent by trading Soriano while agreeing to pick up as much of his salary as it takes to net future talent in return. Of course, this isn't an easy task, as we saw this past summer when the well-paid outfielder, who is likely under-appreciated due to his outlandish salary, used his full no-trade clause to veto a trade to the San Francisco Giants.
Dark Horse Addition: The Cubs will acquire air-fresheners for every seat at Wrigley Field after it comes to management and ownership's attention that the odor of urine at a baseball stadium isn't charming, but rather repulsive.