NL Central offseason preview

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks takes a look at what the teams in the National League Central might be doing this winter as the Hot Stove League heats up in a few weeks with the Winter Meetings.

ST. LOUIS - The Cardinals are among the masses romancing A.J. Burnett. They seem to want to replace the departing Matt Morris with the former Marlins' right-hander. But they also want to trade Jason Marquis and make room for Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright.

They'll need to have some trade pieces, as the team is in desperate need of some outfield help. Reggie Sanders is a free agent, and it looks like Larry Walker is set to retire. They could be a favorite to sign Brian Giles, unless the Yankees overpay for him. The team also needs a second baseman, as Mark Grudzielanek is now a free agent. The Cardinals could have a pretty good turnover and could be active.

HOUSTON - Well here we are once again wondering what in the world Roger Clemens is going to do. Until the Astros find out, it's going to be difficult to make concrete plans for next season. Chances are he'll come back, but he'll probably drag it out until January. Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt still make a pretty good duo at the top of the rotation, but without Clemens they'll still have a huge hole to fill. They may have to wonder whether or not Brad Lidge will remain a top closer.

Houston still has questions at first base, where Jeff Bagwell all of a sudden looks like Boog Powell. If he can't continue as a regular, they'll have to find a replacement. And if they put Lance Berkmann at first base, they'll have to go find another outfielder. Brad Ausmus is a free agent, so they may have to find a catcher. The team might decide to trade Adam Everett and put Eric Bruntlett at shortstop.

CHICAGO - They first have to see if Rafael Furcal will accept their offer to be their leadoff man and shortstop. They want him badly, and at this point have to be considered the favorites. The Cubs have money to spend, and they are prepared to offer Furcal the $10 million per year he will be seeking. The Cubs also need help in the outfield, as Corey Patterson has proven he's not the answer. He'll probably be traded, perhaps in a swap of outfielders. The team could use a good lefty power bat to compliment Aramis Ramirez and Derrick Lee.

The Cubs have already signed Scott Eyre, and that helps their bullpen a lot. They might want to make a decision on who will be in their rotation, which could make a starter or two expendable. The Cubs have depth, which should give them flexibility in improving their team.

CINCINNATI - Will the Reds finally trade one of their extra outfielders? Well they better. They need pitching worse than Dan Kolb needs a strike. The tried last year by signing Eric Milton, but that just proved to be a mistake. The Reds need to use their excess to improve their pitching staff. Expect teams to call for Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena, since they are cheaper than Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr.

With new ownership preparing to take over, this will be an interesting offseason. Dan O'Brien might be given a little latitude to make some bold moves, but it will all start with the trade of one of their extra outfielders for some pitching. The Reds are making progress in developing a solid farm system, but they have to make some improvements to their major league roster to keep the solid fans in Cincinnati interested. If they improve the pitching staff, they should be on their way. This team could make several big moves.

MILWAUKEE - We are about to see what depth can do to help a ball club. The Brewers have a huge trade piece in Lyle Overbay, and with Prince Fielder ready to take over at first base, Overbay is expendable. He should bring in a solid pitcher, which is exactly what the Brewers need. They have Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, and several other decent pitchers. But if they can acquire another top-of-the-rotation type starting pitcher, the Brewers could easily go from a .500 team to one that might battle for a wildcard spot.

The team needs to work hard to get Carlos Lee under a long-term contract. He was a main reason they enjoyed success last season. The team also needs to decide on the situation at third base. The farm system has provided options over the last few years, and now the excess will provide the flexibility for GM Doug Melvin to improve the team even more. Expect them to sign a free agent starting pitcher (Matt Morris?) and get another one for Overbay. It will be fun to watch what the Brewers do this winter.

PITTSBURGH - Ditto the Pirates, who have the excess that all teams crave: pitching. They have to make decisions on Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Mark Redman, and Dave Williams. They might use some of those veteran arms to improve their lineup. The young pitchers, Zach Duke, Oliver Perez, Paul Maholm, and Bryan Bullington, are the future. But the team might use one in a major trade.

The lineup is just full of holes, except for Jason Bay, recently signed to a long-term contract. The Pirates are in the same position the Braves were in back in the early 90s. They have an abundance of pitching, and many needs in the field. Expect GM Dave Littlefield to use that excess to drastically improve his lineup.

The National League Central will be fun to watch this winter. Each of the teams have specific needs, and either the funds or the excess to make changes. With the Cardinals and Astros getting a little older, now is the time for the teams that have filled the bottom of the division to make their moves. And with significant players to trade, the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates could quickly bring a bit more parody to the division.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at

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