Now in its last-ever season as Bud Selig’s six-team division, the NL Central gave us the league’s pennant contenders, and figures to give us one of the most interesting offseasons of any division in baseball. Not least because the challenges confronting the Brewers and Cardinals are so very similar.
1. First base: Open. (Prince Fielder, free agent)
Losing a batter of Fielder's quality and stature really shouldn't be the way the Brewers send off their 2011 season, but it remains to be seen whether they can afford to go dollar for dollar with the other teams that want him. If they fail to bring him back, they'll be hoping that the sporadically touted Mat Gamel finally breaks through. Gamel has spent most of the past three years at Triple-A Nashville, hitting .301/.374/.512 as a lefty power source -- or what figures to be a drop at the big league level from Fielder.
Likely solution: It's fairly straightforward. If they lose Fielder, they'll probably bank on Gamel, because he's a better choice than hauling in one of the second-tier free agents.
2. Shortstop: Open. (Yuniesky Betancourt, free agent)
The Brewers' situation is much like the Cardinals' in that if they don't keep their All-Star slugger at first, their highest priority won't be signing another first baseman, it'll be getting a shortstop. They've flirted with the best budget option, Rafael Furcal, but there's also been talk that they'd settle for bringing back Betancourt.
Likely solution: After Fielder signs elsewhere, it won't be surprising if getting a deal with Furcal done happens in short order. If they somehow manage to re-sign Fielder, bringing back Betancourt for much less than Furcal would cost becomes fairly likely.
3. Bullpen depth.
With Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins both on the move as free agents, finding adequate set-up help for closer John Axford becomes a significant item on GM Doug Melvin's shopping list. While you can hope that power lefty Zach Braddock will be back in the mix, after last season's problems they might also be interested in adding a veteran lefty.
Likely solution: They'll sign at least two veterans, but it won't be for huge money or longer for two years or year-plus-option deals.
1. First base: Open. (Albert Pujols, free agent)
The blowback if the Cards fail to sign Pujols will be significant but survivable -- they did just win a World Series, after all. And if Pujols does leave, they're set to replace him on the field with Lance Berkman and in the lineup with Allen Craig (taking Berkman's place in right). If they keep Pujols, they'd certainly have a bargaining chip in Craig, which they might use to address their other issues, but it's likely they'd nevertheless keep him.
Likely solution: If they don't sign Pujols, they won't sign a first baseman.
2. Shortstop: Open. (Rafael Furcal, free agent)
Just like their division rivals in Milwaukee, the Cards' top priority if they don't land their superstar is to find a shortstop. While you might expect that a team throwing around the kind of money it will cost to keep Pujols could easily re-employ it to sign Jose Reyes, that doesn't seem likely, as the Cards really only seem committed to opening the wallet to keep their homegrown franchise player.
Likely solution: They beat the Brewers' bid for Furcal if they want to, or make Jimmy Rollins a happy man if they decide to make a longer-term commitment.
The Schumaker-Theriot platoon down the stretch was nice, but Schumaker still plays second base like a converted outfielder, while Theriot's last year before free agency might be an arbitration-inflated expense that GM John Mozeliak decides he'd rather not afford. Add in Descalso's line-drive pop and plus defense at the hot corner, and you've got a number of useful alternatives.
Likely solution: It depends how comfortable new manager Mike Matheny is with the fluid roster situations that Tony La Russa exploited with relish. Theriot can serve as the backup shortstop, Schumaker the chief reserve in center, while Descalso can be David Freese's defensive replacement and spotter at third. If Matheny's adaptive enough to exploit all of that, second base isn't a problem.
1. Sorting out the rotation.
After not really resolving the situation over 2011, the Reds are still confronted with tough choices from among six plausible alternatives for four rotation slots. (Thanks to still owing Bronson Arroyo $28.5 million, they're stuck with him in the other slot for two more years.) However, GM Walt Jocketty's choice seems to involve a lot of “none of the above,” given rumors that his offseason interests are focused on even more young starters, with Jair Jurrjens of the Braves or John Danks or Gavin Floyd of the White Sox getting mentioned.
Probable solution: Assuming that where there's smoke there's fire, expect the Reds to deal from offensive depth to land a starting pitcher, with some of the overflow splashing over into the bullpen.
2. Closer: Open (Francisco Cordero, free agent)
With the market already overstocked with closers, Jocketty sensibly ditched Cordero's $12 million option for 2012 to explore his alternatives. Then the early-acting Phillies prompted a small run on that market segment with their signing of Jonathan Papelbon, and with Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton already signed, the best fit for the Reds' homer-happy park might be ... Cordero, because Heath Bell is out of their price range, while Brad Lidge or Matt Capps would be a bit combustible.
Probable solution: Getting Cordero to come back for a multiyear deal for a lower average annual value on the deal ought to work for the two parties, but if cost is still an object, Jocketty could reach for a mid-market right-hander like Octavio Dotel or Frank Francisco as a placeholder, and groom Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman for the role of save generator.
3. Lineup choices.
The fun challenge for the Reds will be seeing how they integrate the talent they have coming up. Devin Mesoraco should win a share of the catching duties, while Zack Cozart will give them a solid two-way player at short. Juan Francisco and Yonder Alonso could both slug their way into taking playing time from Chris Heisey in left, but Francisco could also start nabbing starts from Scott Rolen at third base.
Probable solution: Dusty Baker has built job-sharing set-ups in the past, so this mini youth movement won't get nipped in the bud. However, Alonso is getting dangled in trade talks; if he's dealt for a starting pitcher, that would at least kill those Joey Votto trade rumors deader than Elvis.
1. Third base: Pedro Alvarez.
Because the Pirates have already signed Rod Barajas to catch and Clint Barmes to play shortstop, their best hope for significant offensive improvement from baseball's worst in 2011, according to Baseball Prospectus' True Average, is going to be for Alvarez to turn into the guy they thought they were getting when they made him the second overall selection of the 2008 draft. A .561 OPS with bad defense simply isn't going to fly, but the danger for the Bucs is that they'll quit on Alvarez too soon -- he's already approaching club options for 2013 and 2014.
Likely solution: Other than working with Alvarez, there isn't one. If he continues to struggle, they can use Josh Harrison for singles and steals.
2. Offense from the corners.
They've already offered Derrek Lee arbitration, which would staff first base while keeping Garrett Jones in right field. But they also have Jose Tabata and Alex Presley to employ in the outfield corners. That doesn't really add up to great power from these three power slots, even if they keep Lee. A Jones-Lee platoon might sound great in the abstract, but you can bet that Lee wouldn't care for it, while Tabata's power is still mostly a matter of anticipation that he'll eventually have some. If Lee walks, platooning Jones with the recently signed Nick Evans is a cheap solution -- but still leaves the Bucs light on power.
Likely solution: Again, there isn't one. The farm system doesn't have the next Willie Stargell on tap.
3. Take stock.
For a team whose upside might scrape 80 wins, the Pirates already have a fairly settled lineup, rotation and bullpen. Shopping closer Joel Hanrahan might have made sense most winters, but with the closer market overstocked with options, there are few guarantees that GM Neal Huntington could add the kind of prospects to make it worthwhile. Gunning for ending the 19-season losing streak might be worthwhile, but if that's this team's upside, how excited about that should anyone really be?
Not trying to be Zen-like about this, but the Cubs' issues transcend single positions and demand expansive solutions ...
1. Achieve closure. (Carlos Zambrano)
Before moving on to new business, the Cubs' new brain trust needs to be sure that it's finished up with the most noisome bit of old business. To get even a middling prospect, the Cubs would need to eat just about all of the $18 million that Zambrano's due and get him to waive his no-trade clause.
As tense as Big Z's relationship with his employers has been, you can understand some of his frustration -- moving him to the bullpen in 2010 was genuinely stupid, and who wouldn't get exasperated with being a Cub? Whether the choice is to clean the slate or make a deal, it's worthwhile to choose and move on.
Likely outcome: Unless the Marlins' idea of getting him to defer salary goes anywhere, get used to the idea that Zambrano will be with the Cubs in camp when pitchers and catchers report.
2. Acquire patience and power (6.9 percent walk rate, 29th in MLB)
This isn't just the fault of veterans Alfonso Soriano (5.3 percent walk rate in 2011) and Marlon Byrd (5.2); kids like Starlin Castro (4.9) and Darwin Barney (3.9) don't work their way aboard either. It's hard to sustain any kind of offense without baserunners, and right now the only regular with a walk rate better than league average is Geovany Soto. And with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez vacating the infield corners, the Cubs are losing two of their best power sources.
Likely outcome: Top prospect Brett Jackson (73 walks in 512 PAs in the minors) will make the team at some point, likely replacing Byrd in center (if he's dealt). The Cubs just signed David DeJesus for right field, but short of re-signing Pena or landing either Pujols or Fielder to man first base, it's going to take some pretty creative wheeling and dealing to significantly improve matters in Year 1 of the Theo Epstein era.
3. Improve the defense (.699 Defensive Efficiency, 26th in MLB)
The new crew in charge talks about defense a bit, and it's easy to understand why, given the weak performance afield of the group it's inheriting. In particular, it's no secret that Castro's brand of shortstop play didn't do the Cubs any favors, as he ranked last among big league shortstops in Total Zone and BIS' Defensive Runs Saved.
Likely outcome: The upside of having a young star at short will mean a lot of extra infield practice for Castro in February, and Jackson will improve the outfield once he's up. But if Castro's footwork doesn't improve, moving him to third and the much more slick Barney to short (where his bat would profile better) could eventually be part of the solution.
1. Picking a GM.
This is it, the wellspring from which everything else will flow, and hiring Ed Wade for the pointless kamikaze run of 2008 represents what you get when you choose the bitter dregs. The good news is that Jim Crane's gang certainly seems to have the right names on its short list, with GM Andrew Friedman of the Rays and Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine at the top. Guys like AGM Rick Hahn of the White Sox, DeJon Watson or Logan White from the Dodgers, former Royals GM Allard Baird or former D-backs AGM Peter Woodfork might also turn up. As many people as opted out of the Orioles' front-office gig may want in on Houston's.
Likely solution: It's entirely dependent on who gets interviewed and who makes the right impression, but it already looks like they've got the right people in mind. If they were only picking between Friedman and Levine, there wouldn't be a wrong answer.
2. Shortstop: Open (Barmes, departed to Pittsburgh as a free agent)
Barmes provided plus defense and modest offense, but cashed in on that already, leaving Houston with Angel Sanchez atop the depth chart. Sanchez's poor range translates into ugly defensive numbers. With the rotation representing one of the few assets the Astros can brag about, they'd do well to provide the men on the mound with an assist afield with a defensive upgrade.
Likely solution: The interim until they pick a GM could hamstring their efforts to get someone like Alex Gonzalez signed to help maintain the starting pitchers' value and hold the fort until Jon Villar or Jiovanni Mier is ready.
3. Outfield: Open.
“Open” not in the sense that the Astros are losing anybody of note, but in that the new GM is going to have to decide if some combination of Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, Jason Bourgeois and Jordan Schafer is really what he wants out there, with Carlos Lee to plant in left whenever he isn't at first base.
Likely solution: Don't be surprised if a cheap veteran who can play all three slots -- say, a guy like Fred Lewis -- gets added to the mix.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.