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Ranking the NL Central’s five frugal franchises

With only a month left until pitchers and catchers report, where do they stand?

In this photo illustration US dollar bills are seen... Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Game Theory is a good way to sell very heavy textbooks for hundreds of dollars and make you ponder your very existence within the world. It features a number of scenarios in which core critical thinking is, in theory, employed for the betterment of rational economic individuals, attaching numeric values to outcomes in search of taking the largely subjective world and making it, in theory, more objective.

Principle among those scenarios is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic theoretical scenario in which multiple parties involved actually end up benefiting the most by making a decision that, in a vacuum, would seem to counter their best interests. Without going too much deeper into the explanation for that conundrum without an example, allow me to introduce you to the National League’s Central Division.

Some team is going to win the 2021 NL Central, assuming baseball is actually played this year. One of the five clubs will get a banner, a flag that will park itself somewhat prominently within a Midwestern stadium for years to come, and the playoff appearance that comes with it. For the most part in the history of sport, it has largely been true that you have to be good at what you do to be rewarded with a post-season opportunity, but that’s only if you assume that your opponents have the same methodology in mind, too.

The reality is, though, that to make the playoffs in Major League Baseball’s current setup, all you really have to do is be better than your closest peers. And in the NL Central, what we’ve seen so far this winter is a very pristine example of just that, played out in the form of a prisoner’s dilemma. While it would seem, in theory, that the best way to be good enough to make the playoffs is to get better players to actually be better, that requires the important input of ‘spending.’ So, what we’ve seen from these NL Central actors this winter is not a goal of ‘getting better than their peers,’ it’s instead been a goal to ‘get slightly less worse.’

Frustrating as hell, the lot of it. Anyway, here’s a quick and dirty ranking of the five frugal franchises that occupy an entire division of the pinnacle of sporting baseball on the planet based on the moves they’ve made so far in preparation for 2021, from worst to absolute worstiest.

Worst - St. Louis Cardinals

If ever there were to be a franchise that would find a way to rise to the cream of the crop amidst chaos, it’s the Cardinals, whose devil magic has long aided them in pulling rabbits out of hats despite the cards stacked against them.

So far, their winter has featured the departures of franchise icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright without replacement, while they let Kolten Wong walk away because he was going to cost to much. Not too bad, in the division scheme of things, especially when you factor in that their only other major moves in the last two years have been to let Marcell Ozuna go and watch Matt Carpenter get old in a hurry.

That’s got the makings of an 88 win team in this division, which is decidedly the least-worst of the group.

Worster - Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have countered the Cardinals get-a-bit-worse methods with some savvy moves of their own, as they’ve decided to decimate a pitching staff that was the belle of their ball in 2020. Gone is Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, while Archie Bradley wasn’t even doled a contract despite team control. Anthony DeSclafani walked his talents to San Francisco, while Raisel Iglesias shortly followed him to the west coast, too.

They have no shortstop, but then again, they didn’t really have one last year, either, and still made the ‘playoffs’ without the need. They’re also planning to give extended run to a rookie catcher, something that my instincts tell me has long been a rock-solid approach towards winning lots of baseball games.

It’s been bold, but not quite as emboldened as St. Louis just yet. This team screams 84 wins.

Worstier - Milwaukee Brewers

I envy David Stearns. He was told to take the entire winter off, and that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s got Christian Yelich, which makes me envious each and every time I think about it, and he got Lorenzo Cain back after the latter opted out of the bulk of the 2020 season.

In fact, Cain’s return might be the single biggest move this entire division has made this winter.

Perhaps I’ve ranked them too low, I say to myself while trying to name more than six players currently on their roster. 80 wins.

Almost-Worstest - Chicago Cubs

I thought it must have sucked to be a Cubs fan twenty years ago, and now...this.

The Cubs, despite a rock solid roster, division title in-hand, and a market size that suggests they should Thanos this division whenever they so snapped, have decided to rip their own arms off and beat themselves with them.

Gone are Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Schwarber, and Vince Caratini so far, with Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and any other human form they still employ set to depart as soon as they find a taker. No, of course they haven’t signed any replacements, why the living hell would they do that?

This team has purged talent by the pound, and morale has to be getting thinner by the minute. 76 wins, max.

Worstest - Pittsburgh Pirates

If I were Ke’Bryan Hayes, I would bat myself leadoff, smack a double down the LF line, put a ghost-runner on 2B, sprint back to the batter’s box and punch whoever the hell was penciled into the 2nd spot in the order, take his bat, sock a 2-run dinger, and tell whoever was on-deck to scoot on back to Indianapolis.

I’d probably try to learn to pitch, too, because...

Well. 64 wins.