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The NL Central is crumbling, yet no team seems willing to pounce

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One of these teams is making the playoffs, whether they like it or not.

Pittsburgh Pirates v. Cincinnati Reds Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Assuming the Major League Baseball season actually begins in April or May, there will be a 35 year old outfielder taking part in it who posted an 81 OPS+ in 2019, played in just 5 games in 2020, and might well tilt the entire balance of one of the six divisions in the game.

That’s Lorenzo Cain, for the record. After opting-out of the COVID-ravaged 2020 season after just a handful of games played, he’s expected to return to the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2021 campaign, and while he’s clearly on the back-end of his brilliant career, that he’s actually going to be an addition of any accord makes him stand out at the moment.

To be quite clear, this is hardly an endorsement of Milwaukee being an ambitious club so far this offseason. They’ve already waived goodbye to the likes of Ryan Braun, Omar Narvaez, Jedd Gyorko, Ben Gamel, Brett Anderson, and Corey Knebel through various transactions, with catcher Luke Maile and his career .556 OPS the lone big league addition, to date. That’s hardly an outlandish pattern given the rest of the division, however, which is why I picked Cain’s return as the outlier here in the first place.

Last night’s news that the Chicago Cubs had moved ace Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres in a cash-dump that landed four prospects who are still years away was the latest salvo to the NL Central, a division that’s not too far removed from being one of the more potent in the game. That kind of cost-cutting has been rampant across the five clubs in the division so far, with the exodus of the previously mentioned stars being joined by Trevor Bauer, Raisel Iglesias, Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, and Kolten Wong already, with both Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright perhaps moving on for good, too.

That’s on top of the departures of Dick Williams and Theo Epstein from the helms of their respective franchises, too. Add-in the trade whispers we’ve heard repeatedly about Kris Bryant and Sonny Gray, among others, and it becomes evident there’s an exodus in the works that is drawing to a close the most recent era.

It’s certainly worth highlighting that one of these five clubs is going to still win the division. Well, one of four clubs is going to win it, at least. There is still a playoff spot guaranteed to a club that’s actively dismantling itself, a concept of which each and every owner in the division is keenly aware.

I mean, all it takes to win a division title is to be slightly better than your division peers, and if every peer does their best to guarantee that can be done in cheaper fashion than ever before, there’s a distinct lack of incentive to get significantly better. Or, at least there’s a lack of an incentive to pay to get better, that is.

It’s an alarming state of affairs from an unbiased ‘state of the game’ perspective, as it sure does seem that this ~17% of the entire monopoly of baseball is throwing their checkbooks in the fireplace. From a player perspective, that’s a distinct shrinking of the job market, something that will play out in a very, very ugly way as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations begin in earnest in 2021 before the old one expires. But from a biased, fan-of-one perspective, it’s frankly maddening to see the cold-hearted lack of ambition when the division seems as ripe as it’s been in some time.

If you’re a Cubs fan, well, you just watched the biggest beast in the division rip itself apart to save a few bucks just a few years removed from the first banner since Rasputin was whispering in the ear of Tsar Nicholas II. A huge market, a roster full of stars, and it’s become kaput. As for the St. Louis Cardinals, well, watching Molina and Wainwright join Marcell Ozuna out the door over the last year with no replacements brought in must be nostalgic, at least, and frustrating, at best, but at least they’ve won perennially enough to earn a modicum of leeway, even if their pause is still odd given the circumstances surrounding them.

For Reds fans, and Brewers fans, it’s simply gut punches. In Milwaukee, they only recently swung the biggest heist in franchise history to land Christian Yelich, only for him to reward them with back to back MVP-caliber seasons and his name on a team-friendly contract into the far future. The Reds, meanwhile, finally spent a dollar in free agency last winter, pairing a newfound spending power with the best rotation in modern club history in pursuit of postseason victories that have evaded them for a full quarter-century.

Yet here we are, watching a baseball manifestation of a ‘recession’ happening before all of our eyes. And while it would be a bit easier to palate if the entire game was tripping that same light fandango, we’re witnessing several clubs across the game scoop up these pieces with aplomb.

Chief among those has been San Diego, who have already paired their Darvish addition with former Rays ace Black Snell and star KBO infielder Ha-Seong Kim. They’re building an arsenal to go toe to toe with the World Series champions, a Dodgers club that looked the reduced-revenue of the 2020 season square in the face and smote its ruin upon the mountainside with a $350 million contract for Mookie Betts. Even in the Cubs own backyard, the White Sox have continued their climb out of rebuilding, landing Texas ace Lance Lynn via trade before bringing old friend Adam Eaton back into the fold, a pair of moves that further augment perhaps the most electric roster in the entire AL.

Usual caveats apply here, of course. The offseason does not end on December 29th, even if it’s quite clear the overarching premise each of the NL Central clubs is employing. Payrolls will shrink, year over year, but these clubs aren’t going put four players on the field and simply not play every fourth day. There will be signings, even if they aren’t the caliber you’d hope to see, and if you think they need three or four, there will probably be just one or two. And again, that’s all it’s going to take for one of these clubs to waltz into a playoff series next fall, even if that will pit them against a team that’s taken this winning idea seriously all along.