2023-24 Offseason Preview: NL Central

Counsell joining Cubs just start of big moves among division rivals.

The World Series is over and the winter meetings are coming up, which means big trades and even bigger free-agent signings. Front offices have already been churning through the data and making plans that will impact the product each team puts on the field. Here at Pitcher List, we take a look at each division as teams get ready for the 2024 season.

If 2023 taught us anything about the future of the National League Central, it was that this division is about to become more than a two-team race for the next several years. In the three 162-game seasons before 2023, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers finished in the top two spots.

While the Brewers held up their end of the bargain by winning the Central for the third time since 2018, the Cardinals were shockingly bad and finished last, 20 games below .500. (More on that later.) But the real headline was the other three teams being much better than anticipated — and not in a fluky way.

No longer will the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates be afterthoughts in the division, while the Chicago Cubs showed signs of being more than a middle-of-the-pack team. And that is where the offseason gets fun and the fortunes of the division could change.


Chicago Cubs


2023 record: 83-79 (second place, 9 games behind)

Overview: The Cubs were expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Central and played like that for the first half of the season. But something clicked, especially offensively, and the Cubs pounced on the opportunity to make a run at the division title. While that effort fell short with a September swoon, they did finish just a game out of an NL wild-card spot.

But there is work to do this offseason. And that started with a surprising bang just a week ago. The Cubs poached Craig Counsell from the Brewers to be manager, firing club icon David Ross after finalizing the deal with the former Milwaukee bench boss. Yes, Counsell was a free agent when the Cubs reportedly began their pursuit of one of the best, if not the best, managers in MLB, but Ross was not considered on the hot seat following the 2023 season going into 2024.

Cody Bellinger, the focal point of the second-half offense, is hitting free agency after receiving a qualifying offer and could command a salary out of the Cubs’ budget. But as in “Moneyball,” the Cubs could supplant Bellinger’s production with upgrades at the corner infield spots, then make moves in the rotation to give that offense more support.

With the improvement of Reds and Pirates, the expected bounce back of the Cardinals and the potential vulnerability of the Brewers, the Cubs can ill afford to not make significant moves this offseason.

Free agents: CF-1B Cody Bellinger, 3B-1B Jeimer Candelario, RP Michael Fulmer, C Tucker Barnhart, RP Shane Greene, 1B Eric Hosmer, 1B-OF Trey Mancini

Position player outlook: Signing SS Dansby Swanson last offseason allowed Nico Hoerner to slide over to second base and the versatility of Christopher Morel and Nick Madrigal to come into play around the infield and, for Morel, the outfield and designated hitter. Candelario came over at the trade deadline to bolster the corner infield spots, which is where the Cubs need to focus on this offseason. Without an obvious prospect to jump into those spots — 1B Matt Mervis struggled mightily in 90 at-bats and 3B Patrick Wisdom has proven to be at best a platoon player — the Cubs will need to look to free agents or trades. 3B Matt Chapman will be among the most highly sought after free agents.

The outfield is a more settled with LF Ian Happ and RF Seiya Suzuki. The big question is in center, where Bellinger could return after having a superb season (.307/.356/.525, 26 HRs, 97 RBIs, 133 OPS+). But that will only come through a big payday and Bellinger will be pursued heavily. Top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong got the call for his MLB debut late in the season and would presumably be in line to be on the Opening Day roster if not the starter in center, which would move Bellinger to first base if the Cubs meet his price tag.

Behind the plate, Miguel Amaya appears to be in line to take over a bulk of the catching duties, with Yan Gomes transitioning to a backup role. Amaya has the potential to his 15-20 homers based on his five long balls in 131 at-bats in his MLB debut season.

The Cubs had one of the better offenses in MLB, particularly in the second half, with 5.06 runs per game, so maintaining or improving that output will make this unit formidable in 2024.

Starting rotation outlook: With RHP Marcus Stroman holding an opt-out clause on the final year of a three-year, $71 million deal and unlikely to return despite late-season health issues, the Cubs could need more help at the top of the rotation than anticipated. After showing glimpses in his first two seasons, LHP Justin Steele proved he belongs in the front of the rotation with a 16-5, 3.06 ERA showing. But he would look better as a No. 2 should the Cubs decide to go for a tried-and-true ace. RHP Kyle Hendricks is likely to be back on a club option following a strong 2023 after a pair of injury-riddled seasons, with RHPs Jameson Taillon and Jordan Wicks likely rounding out the starters, with Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski battling for the fifth spot. One key addition would be expected, but two would provide the depth needed to navigate a 162-game season.

Bullpen outlook: RHP Adbert Alzolay is the closer and RHP Julian Merryweather emerged as a dependable setup man after being an offseason waiver claim. RHP Mark Leiter Jr. is also one of the few reliable arms here, especially with Fulmer being a free agent, so there is a need to add more quality to the relief corps. Using someone such as Assad and/or Wesneski out of the ‘pen would improve the depth and have an emergency starter around.


Cincinnati Reds


2023 record: 82-80 (third place, 10 games behind)

Overview: The team many picked last in the NL Central for 2023 shocked everyone by perhaps establishing itself as the most dynamic team in the division by the end of the year. That the Reds contended for a playoff spot until the final days of the season, finishing two games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks, says a lot about the talent that came up during the season.

Led by infielder Elly De La Cruz and a solid starting rotation, the Reds were among the most exciting teams in all of MLB once De La Cruz was promoted for his MLB debut in early June. Shortly thereafter, the Reds went on a 12-game winning streak, with comeback wins and walk-offs becoming a regular part of their identity.

But that only goes so far in preparing for next season. In 2024, the Reds will no longer be a surprise team after finishing third in the Central. A few shrewd moves could put Cincy in the favorite’s role come spring training. Those moves will need to be more on the pitching side as there are plenty of position players to go around.

Free agents: 1B Joey Votto, CF Harrison Bader, OF Hunter Renfroe, RP Buck Farmer, C Luke Maile, SP Luis Cessa, RP Chasen Shreve, IF Kevin Newman, 1B-OF Wil Myers

Position player outlook: First, let’s begin with the legend. At 40 years old, Votto is not returning to the only club he has ever played for. Not unexpected, but his clubhouse presence will be missed. Who will step up in that role?

Otherwise, the picture heading into the offseason is much different than it was on Opening Day. And you have to start with De La Cruz. The 6-foot-5 shortstop and third baseman was one of the most electrifying players of the season in all of MLB with not only his enthusiasm, but his power-speed combination. The biggest thing for De La Cruz to truly becoming a star is to cut down on his strikeouts (he K’d 33.7% of his plate appearances), which would help him improve his .235/.300/.410 slash line. The other piece of his puzzle is where he fits in defensively. De La Cruz split time between short and third and was a below-average defender (minus-5 defensive runs saved at short, minus-1 at third).

Another of the Reds’ rookies, Matt McLain, looks to be the top choice at short, especially with his offensive production (.290/.357/.507). With a logjam of position players, the Reds could be active on the trade market and a different spot opens up for De La Cruz, hopefully one that still allows his athleticism to be front and center. Noelvi Marte, the headliner when acquired in the Luis Castillo trade with the Seattle Mariners, had a late-season call-up and showed he is ready to stick. Combine that with Opening Day third baseman Spencer Steer and first baseman-third baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand and there is plenty of infield talent. That is not even considering what the future is with second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year who is the old man of the youngsters at age 27 on Opening Day 2024. Infielder-outfielder Nick Senzel appears to be the odd man out and figures to be in a different uniform next year.

Tyler Stephenson is set behind the plate, but finding a quality backup will be on the to-do list.

With the glut of corner infielders, Steer found himself playing a lot of left field once De La Cruz was promoted in June. TJ Friedl has been a find in center field after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2016, while Will Benson was solid in his first season with the Reds following a trade from the Cleveland Guardians.

The offense was one of the better units in MLB, ranking ninth in runs at 4.83 per game, while also striking out the fifth-most times (1,500). There are no other top prospects ready to make an impact in 2024, but what the Reds do have is quality and depth. The question will be is how this group takes the next step.

Starting rotation outlook: This is the group that should be the biggest focus of the Reds this offseason. Young RHP Hunter Greene has unprecedented heat as a starter, but also missed a couple months in 2023 due to a hip injury. He has yet to harness his repertoire, walking 9.6% of the batters he faced while having the fourth-best fastball velocity (98.3 mph) and the 15th-best whiff percentage (15.1%) which is where he needs to improve to become the ace the Reds envisioned when he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft.

LHP Nick Lodolo emerged as a quality front-end starter, with LHP Andrew Abbott and RHP Graham Ashcroft giving the Reds four dependable arms in the rotation. Bringing in a veteran arm at the top of the rotation to guide this young group would have the double impact of on-field production and off-field teaching. More help is on the way. While RHP Brandon Williamson made 23 starts with solid results, RHP Connor Phillips had five starts this season and probably needs a little more seasoning before becoming a full-time rotation member.

Bullpen outlook: With the Reds not expected to be a contender in 2023, it can be difficult to piece a bullpen together. The relievers were OK, posting a 4.11 ERA that ranked 16th in MLB. RHP Alexis Díaz has become one of the better closers in MLB, while RHPs Lucas Sims, Ian Gibaut and Derek Law and LHP Sam Moll had nice seasons and give the Reds a base to work with, especially with Farmer a free agent. Nothing brings down a pitching staff like a bullpen that coughs up leads late, so adding quality here makes sense with the greater expectations heading into 2024. Phillips, due to his quality stuff, could be an option here if the Reds don’t strike on the free-agent or trade markets.


Milwaukee Brewers


2023 record: 92-70 (first place, 9 games ahead)

Overview: Counsell leaving the Brewers is likely to change the path the team takes this offseason. Or maybe Counsell knew a sell-off was coming and didn’t want to be part of that. Whatever the reason, it will definitely be a new chapter for the Brew Crew. But there will be continuity as bench coach Pat Murphy has reportedly been promoted to replace Counsell. The rest of the coaching staff had already signed contracts for 2024.

The Brewers do have 12 players who are arbitration-eligible, including three key players entering their final season of club control in Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Willy Adames. Already, the Brewers have shown they are watching their wallet, trading outfielder-first baseman Mark Canha to the Detroit Tigers for prospect reliever Blake Holub. Canha had provided a nice spark to the offense after coming over from the New York Mets at the deadline, but had an $11.5 million club option for 2024, apparently too rich for the Brewers. Canha would likely have been relegated to first base and DH duties due to the Brewers having a stockpile of outfielders.

Canha only figures of a handful of trades the Brewers will make this offseason. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was the first to report that the Brewers were listening on all players on their roster, which could look a lot different from the end of the regular season once Opening Day 2024 hits. After being one of the last teams to sign a major-league free agent last offseason, RHP Colin Rea inked a one-year, $4.5 million deal just hours into free agency this offseason.

Free agents: 1B Carlos Santana, C Victor Caratini, SP Colin Rea, 3B-RF Brian Anderson, SP Julio Teheran, 3B Josh Donaldson, 1B Darin Ruf, 1B Luke Voit, OF Jesse Winker

Position player outlook: The biggest question here is whether the Brewers will move Adames, who is due a raise to $12.4 million through arbitration, per MLB Trade Rumors. A good defender who hits for power and is a clubhouse leader, Adames slashed just .217/,310/.407 but still cranked out 24 homers with 80 RBIs. Even though he has been in Milwaukee for less than three seasons, he is arguably their most popular player and dealing him would signal a retooling. But Brice Turang, a superb defender as a rookie, would slide over from second base to his natural shortstop position should that happen. Turang was demoted briefly this season so he could focus on improving his offense.

Catcher William Contreras proved to be better than advertised when he came over in a three-way trade with Atlanta and the Oakland A’s that also netted reliever Joel Payamps while the Brewers only surrendered outfielder Esteury Ruiz in the Sean Murphy deal. All Contreras did was win a Silver Slugger after slashing .289/.367/.457 with 17 homers and 78 RBIs. He has the potential to hit for more power while maintaining a decent average.

If the Brewers do a significant sell-off, will left fielder Christian Yelich be part of that? The 2018 NL MVP was productive at the top of the Brewers’ lineup, slashing .278/.370/.447 with 19 homers, 76 RBIs and 28 steals. The biggest obstacle to dealing Yelich is he is due just more than $24 million annually through 2028 with a mutual option for 2029. Outfield is very deep for the Brewers, with Garrett Mitchell healthy after missing most all of the season and joined by Sal Frelick and Joey Wiemer, who showed potential as rookies. Tyrone Taylor is another outfield option, with top MLB prospect Jackson Chourio waiting in the wings, possibly making his MLB debut in 2024.

First baseman Rowdy Tellez, due $5.9 million in arbitration, could be nontendered before Friday’s deadline, while Andruw Monasterio was a nice surprise at third base the second half of the season, but might be better off as a utility player.

Starting rotation outlook: Here is where things get sticky. Burnes, the 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, will be a name very popular on the trade market, especially considering the arbitration debacle between him and the Brewers over $750,000 last offseason. Burnes, projected to make $15.1 million in 2024, would bring the best haul of returning talent, even though he is coming off his worst performance in the last four years. But that is because of the high standard he has set. Burnes had a 3.35 ERA with 200 strikeouts and a league-best 1.069 WHIP.

Woodruff could see his tenure with the Brewers end this week as he is a nontender candidate due to the fact he is unlikely to pitch in 2024 following surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his right shoulder in October. It would be an unceremonious end to one of the better pitchers in club history, who is projected to earn $11.6 million in 2024.

That would leave RHP Freddy Peralta as the ace of the staff, with RHP Adrian Houser, LHP Aaron Ashby and Rea, with others such as LHP Ethan Small, RHP Janson Junk and valuable reliever RHP Bryse Wilson competing to round out the rotation. That also depends on what the Brewers get in return in any trades.

Bullpen outlook: One more name that could be moved is closer Devin Williams. In his first full season as closer, Williams, expected to make $6.5 million in arbitration, converted 36 of 40 save opportunities with a 1.53 ERA. He has two years of club control but would also be highly pursued in a Brewers teardown.

Payamps was a relative unknown (and still is nationally) but became the eighth-inning guy behind Williams. Flame-throwing rookie Abner Uribe made his debut in July and had a 1.76 ERA in 32 appearances. LHP Hoby Milner, RHP Elvis Peguero and RHP Trevor Megill also played key roles in the bullpen.


Pittsburgh Pirates


2023 record: 76-86 (fourth place, 16 games behind)

Overview: In a way, you could say the Pirates’ plan for the 2023 season worked out perfectly. Veterans Rich Hill, Carlos Santana, Ji Man Choi and Austin Hedges were acquired during the offseason, made noteworthy contributions and then were spun off at the trade deadline. That group helped the Pirates get off to a quick start, which included a seven-game winning streak in April.

But that was offset by what turned out to be a season-ending injury to star shortstop Oneil Cruz, who broke his left fibula in a play at the plate. Cruz will be at full strength come spring training. But after that strong beginning to the season, the Pirates reverted back to being the Pirates and finished fourth in the division.

There is a young core here, but in order to keep up with the rest of the division, there needs to be more impact players.

Prospects Henry Davis, Endy Rodríguez, Jared Triolo and Liover Peguero made their debuts, while Luis L. Ortiz and Roansy Contreras were rookies who saw significant action.

Free agents: OF Andrew McCutchen, SP Vince Velasquez

Position player outlook: This has to start with Cruz coming back healthy to open spring training. The 6-foot-7 left-handed hitter gets a lot of notoriety for being the tallest shortstop in MLB history. But he is also a game-changer with his power and speed, much in the same way of the Reds’ De La Cruz. Cruz gives the Pirates a plus player at a premium position.

One player who needs to find a position is Davis, who was drafted as a catcher and played the position throughout the minors. With Rodriguez the better defensive option than Davis at catcher, Davis played right field once he hit the majors. He did struggle at the plate (.213/.302/.351) with seven homers and 42 RBIs in 225 at-bats. Corner outfield or first base seems to be the best option for a position alternative. Speaking of which, finding another corner impact player, which might need to come via trade as there is not a prospect ready to come up. Center fielder Jack Suwinski possesses terrific power at a premium position, but his lack of consistency is exposed with the current lineup construction.

Second base is another spot that could use an upgrade, even with three solid options in Peguero, Ji Hwan Bae and Nick Gonzales. Ke’Bryan Hayes‘ defense at third base is extremely valuable, he just needs to be more of a threat at the plate.

Starting rotation outlook: There isn’t a hole in the rotation entering the offseason, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need, especially for a team that wants to contend. Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, Bailey Falter, Ortiz and Contreras fill up all five slots at the moment. RHP Jared Jones, LHP Jackson Wolf and RHP Braxton Ashcraft will all be in the mix for a call-up when injuries hit the rotation. Of course, there is RHP Paul Skenes, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 draft who could force his way into the rotation quickly in 2024. With all that said, there are trade chips to make an upgrade, too.

Bullpen outlook: While there were some positives here in 2023, improvements in the relief corps is another way to steal a few wins. The Pirates had the 19th-best bullpen ERA (4.27) and 19th-best WHIP (1.33), yet the eight-most strikeouts. Any of those young starter candidates could snag an Opening Day bullpen spot or bump one of the back-end starters to a relief role.


St. Louis Cardinals


2023 record: 71-91 (fifth place, 21 games behind)

Overview: There is only one word to describe the Cardinals’ 2023: disaster. A franchise the boasts about the “Cardinal Way” lost its direction in 2023, spending more time in last place than first place. Is there one aspect that shoulder’s the blame for that? While each aspect shares some responsibility, starting pitching is where the focus belongs. That group posted a 5.27 ERA, which ranked 26th in MLB, and ranked 28th in strikeouts.

Despite clamoring from the fan base, there were no major moves with the coaching staff. With issues all around, the pressure is on John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, to make bold moves to get St. Louis back to where it feels it belongs.

Free agents: RP Drew VerHagen, RP Ryan Tepera, SP Adam Wainwright, RP Wilking Rodríguez,

Position player outlook: You can pick your poison as to what went wrong, but it has to begin with the two offensive leaders, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado. Goldschmidt, the 2022 NL MVP, slashed .268/.363/.447 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs, a year after .317/.404/.578 with 35 homers and 115 RBIs. Arenado was at .266/.315/.459 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs, his average down 27 points from 2022 while his homers and RBIs were only slightly down. Infielder Nolan Gorman led the club with 27 homers in 406 at-bats.

Catcher Willson Contreras was the center of early-season controversy regarding how he was handling the staff, being benched for a brief time in the Cardinals’ first season since Yadier Molina retired. Contreras was solid offensively and his early issues could have been due to the Cardinals’ staff as his defensive numbers in 2023 are similar to his career numbers, many down just a tad.

One player the Cardinals need to figure out is Jordan Walker. A third baseman by trade but roadblocked by Arenado, he was shifted to right field to get his bat in the lineup. Despite a good start, he was demoted to refine his contact skill and then came back up. Walker finished with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 476 at-bats, with a slash line of .276/.342/.445. There are a wealth of outfielders that could be used in trades for starting pitching.

The Cardinals’ defense was noticeably poor this season. St. Louis ranked 20th with minus-7 defensive runs saved, per the Fielding Bible.

Starting rotation outlook: Here is where the work needs to be done. The Cardinals fell behind the MLB trend of getting starting pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff and paid the price in 2023. With Wainwright retired and Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty shipped out at the trade deadline, the Cardinals have RHP Miles Mikolas and LHP Steven Matz penciled into starting roles, with Matz’s place very tenuous. With a weak crop of free-agent pitchers that will certainly be heavily pursued by other teams, the Cardinals might have to get creative and address the three or four holes in the rotation via trades. Prospects Gordon Graceffo, Sem Robberse and Michael McGreevy, all right-handers, could be possibilities to fill out the rotation or snare a bullpen spot.

Bullpen outlook: Three of the four relievers who made the most appearances finished with an ERA north of 4.00, with VerHagen the only exception at 3.98 and he is a free agent. No. 5 on the appearances list, Jordan Hicks, was also traded away. The bullpen finished 23rd in MLB with a 4.47 ERA. Bullpens tend to be easier rebuilds. Ryan Helsley is an established closer who converted 14 of 19 save opportunities and had a 2.45 ERA in 33 appearances, while setup man Giovanny Gallegos had a shaky 4.42 ERA with 10 saves in 16 chances over 56 games.

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter and Threads @DrummerWrites.

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