MLB On The Record: NL Central GMs field the tough questions about an underwhelming division

Hannah Keyser
·21-min read

Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.

But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.

All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.

Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich (22) runs to the dugout during a spring training baseball game Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich (22) runs to the dugout during a spring training baseball game Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

With Matt Arnold, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Brewers?

Arnold: “Our goal is to make the playoffs and try to go deep in the playoffs, and I think we've set a pretty good standard here for what we've been able to accomplish I think for the last couple years. Making the playoffs three years in a row is something I think we're all pretty proud of. I think we've certainly tried to put ourselves in a position to succeed this year. …

“I think our guys did a great job last year, weathering all the different protocols and challenges — just being able to get there last year over so many different hurdles throughout the season is certainly a credit to our coaching staff, our front office, our players. I feel like us getting back there and then doing what we can to compete deeper into the playoffs is certainly our hope and our goal in 2021.”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA projects a deep and flexible pitching staff to carry Milwaukee to 90 wins and a division title — the weakest champion for the weakest division. It was a bit of a surprise when the calculation was originally released but other systems agree, at least on the order of the division. FanGraphs also projects the Brewers to take the crown, if by a slimmer margin.

What won’t the team tell you?

That three-year postseason appearance streak? They have a weak division and an expanded field to thank for keeping that alive after finishing the 60-game 2020 season below .500. They’re back atop the projections because Christian Yelich isn’t actually as bad as he looked last year, Lorenzo Cain opted back in, they added Jackie Bradley Jr., and the arms are an oft gif-worthy strength enhanced by a renewed focus on defense. Unfortunately, a team that struggled offensively last year despite giving productive DH at-bats to Daniel Vogelbach is now going to have to face a (likely) final season of finding a spot in the field for their beefy dinger dudes, and really really really wanting Christian Yelich to return to All-Star form is not the same thing as knowing he will. While the other National League divisions will be headlined by heavyweights in 2021, the Central remains the proverbial shallow end. So even if the Brewers beat up on the other mediocre teams for a few months, they’ll likely have a hard time holding their own in October.

How do you see the pandemic circumstances affecting on field performance again in 2021?

Arnold: “I think the biggest thing — actually, I was talking to Christian Yelich about this the other day. I think the biggest thing is going to be fans. Honestly, I think having fans in the ballpark was huge — for veterans and for young guys. I mean some of these young guys have struck out and they've never really heard boos before when they walk off the field. In some ways that's kind of a nice thing for some of those guys, and at the same time you have some veteran guys that are actually used to that and they thrive on it in some ways. It is unique when you see a closer come out of the bullpen, and there's not a lot of excitement, right, cause there’s nobody really around. And so I think that having the fans there will make a big difference and I'm excited about that. I hope we have the opportunity to get fans in the ballpark this year.”

What was Yelich’s take? Do you think he missed the fans?

Arnold: “Yeah, I really do. I think that made a big difference for him and for a lot of guys that have had that — they thrive in that type of environment. ...

"But not having any of that last year was challenging on both sides, really. So yeah, I think he and all of us are looking forward to having fans back in the ballpark.”

Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez (9) bats during a spring training baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Javier Baez is one of several members of the Cubs core entering the final year of his contract. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

CHICAGO CUBS

With Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Cubs?

Hoyer: “I've always said that obviously the goal going in every season is to win a World Series, but if that's your only goal, then this can be a thankless job. To me, the most important thing for the 2021 Cubs is, we won the division last year and we want to defend that title, and I think we have a team that can do that.

“Will it be the ultimate success if we just do that? No, but that’s an important thing, to defend that title. And right now with no expanded postseason, that gives you a chance to get to the dance and do some damage. I think it would be a successful season if we can do that.”

What do the projections say?

None of the major projection systems foresee a division title, but PECOTA does think the Cubs can contend for a wild card and win 85 games, second in the division. FanGraphs has a decidedly darker view, pegging Chicago for third place and its first sub-.500 finish since 2014.

Beyond wins, what is something else that would contribute to a successful season?

Hoyer: “One thing we’ve struggled with over the past nine years is developing pitching. And so we've made a lot of changes to our pitching infrastructure over the last couple years. I think last year, there was a level of frustration because of no minor-league season. We felt like we were able to make good progress with doing stuff remotely, but obviously with no games, it was hard to tell that. So I think that that's certainly an area that we're gonna be really focused on is sort of getting better results out of our minor-league pitchers and then seeing progress there. …

“We made Craig Breslow vice president of pitching. Last year he was director of pitching. He's hired some really good coordinators, hired some good coaches. And certainly we're doing a lot of things that other teams are doing, but you know, obviously some proprietary things that hopefully some aren't. But in general it's been an overhaul and a refocusing on pitching development, and I think Craig's done a terrific job.”

What won’t the team tell you?

The most interesting thing that happened to the Cubs this offseason is that Theo Epstein resigned ahead of schedule to go sit for the artist who will be etching his likeness into baseball’s Mount Rushmore. The architect of the 2016 champions barely concealed that he was leaving, at least in part, so as not to have to make the difficult decisions that go along with shepherding a storybook team into something more sustainable. In the offseason, that looked like trading more-recent arrival and second-place Cy Young finisher Yu Darvish for a bunch of lottery tickets, young talent too far from the majors to be much help anytime soon. Now, the remaining core — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez — will try to prove it deserves a final playoff push together while keeping one eye on the clock and fending off questions about extensions. One or two might get the opportunity to stay, but not all three.

It feels like the Cubs are in a position that shouldn’t be, but maybe is, unusual where the future will really be shaped by the immediate performance. I’m thinking both about extensions and also whether you buy or sell at the deadline and how those things could be determined by just what happens on the field in the first three months of 2021. Does that seem accurate?

Hoyer: “Yeah, I think it's reality. I think how we perform in the first half, it is going to be critically important. You can try to deny that, but the fact is when you have this many players that are in their contract year, it does make the first half critically important. My strong hope — and everyone's strong hope associated with the team — is that we perform as I think we can, and you want to be on the buy side of that transaction, where you're trying to supplement these guys in sort of that last year. But if we're not, for whatever reason, you have to be willing to pivot, and think about the future a little bit. So yeah, I think the first half is going to be really important towards kind of determining our future.”

And how do you, in your particular role, plan for those two different contingencies?

Hoyer: “Our job is to be prepared, right. And our job is to be able to pivot, if necessary. Now obviously this year, as we discussed, probably because of this many guys in the last year of their deal, probably becomes that much more important, but I think that's the job, is to make sure that you are prepared to make those kinds of decisions. People can ask the question, ‘Well what if you're in this spot?’ or ‘What if you’re in that spot?’ I'm like well, that's the difficult part of the job and that's the decision that I’ll have to talk to ownership about and I’ll have to make. There are hard decisions in this job and that’s a reality.”

JUPITER, FL - MARCH 20: St. Louis Cardinals infielder Nolan Arenado (28) in action during an MLB spring training game between the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium on March 20, 2021 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nolan Arenado gave the Cardinals the splashiest move of the offseason in the NL Central, but will he elevate them to the crown? (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

With John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Cardinals?

Mozeliak: “Well, I mean everybody always wants to answer that by saying winning a World Series, and as we think about how we build this roster and build this team our goal is always to get to October.”

What do the projections say?

Despite winning the offseason in the division by acquiring Nolan Arenado for peanuts from the doomed and disheveled Rockies, the Cardinals are not the favorites you might have thought. There are questions looming over every starting pitcher not named Jack Flaherty, and as Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon will tell you, two amazing hitters don’t get you much further than one if the entire rest of the lineup remains a drag. PECOTA projects they will finish third, and below .500.

Do you think the Cardinals should be higher in the projections?

Mozeliak: “Oh I don't worry about that. I mean, I love the game of baseball and I think that's why you play it. Otherwise, you could run a computer model and then not play the game, but it’s more fun this way.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Winning the offseason is a moral victory; winning the division is more of a numbers game. The Rockies’ abdication was the Cardinals’ gain, and fan service in the form of commitment to aging favorites like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright is so rare in sports these days that it ought to be commended. But the problem on the Cardinals is not so much the guys you’ve heard of as it is the rest of the roster. We tend to think that the sign of a bad team is when people outside the market can’t name anyone on it, but sustained success over 162 games comes down to depth and who pitches on the other three or four days. Both the outfield and the back end of the rotation are a liability in St. Louis. Hell, the middle of the rotation isn’t so hot either. In a season that will likely turn into a literal arms race to cover quality innings, the Cardinals’ lack of proven pitchers could keep the star-studded infield from getting to play in October.

In the midst of the Randy Arozarena postseason breakout you said that his performance would cause you to re-evaluate how the Cardinals rank players internally. So, have you?

Mozeliak: “Yeah that got really taken out of context, huh. Really what it's about is about opportunity. OK, and so we have this group of outfielders, and Randy was certainly part of it, but we weren't able to create at-bats for them at the major-league level. And, so that's why we had to clean the playing field a little bit, and that's partially why we had to move Dexter [Fowler] off this club, because we just didn't want to get into another position or have another year go by where the [Tyler] O'Neills of the world, maybe a Lane Thomas or Justin Williams, don't get tested at this level, and then we don't know. And then, either we'd have to move the player because we're out of options, or we're left with just, we don't know, and move them. And so that's really what I was trying to articulate is, we don't want to have to make a mistake because we weren't able to create opportunity.”

ATLANTA, GA  OCTOBER 01:  Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Luis Castillo (58) during the National League Wild Card Series game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves on October 1st, 2020 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Trevor Bauer is gone, but Luis Castillo fronts a still-promising Reds rotation. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CINCINNATI REDS

With Nick Krall, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Reds?

Krall: “I think our division is wide open. So that's your goal, right? Your goal is to win every year. It's to be the best you can in that year. We've got a large core of our team from last year back and we've rebuilt some more, our bullpen. I think that we've got a solid, solid group of guys that can make a run at the division.”

What do the projections say?

The forecast is 79 wins and fourth place, by PECOTA. The downcast prognosis stems from a general lack of proven arms anywhere on the staff beyond Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.

Beyond wins, what is something else that would contribute to a successful season?

Krall: “I don't know if there's one specific thing that it's like, ‘Oh, hey, we got to do this’ or ‘Got to do that.’ I mean, I think offensively we underperformed last year, we had guys that didn't perform to the back of their baseball cards that we know they're capable of, and guys that started off slow but really took a step forward in the second month of the season last year. So I think continuing that progress is what we're looking for.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Heading into 2020, the Reds tried. Their pre-pandemic effort earned them a Cy Young season out of their top starter and a blink-and-you’ll-miss postseason appearance. The team was worse than it was supposed to be and tough to watch, in large part because they lacked the fundamental building block of a baseball win: the ability to make contact. This year, they’ll be without a newly decorated Trevor Bauer, without some of the best arms from last year’s bullpen, and with an offense that isn’t materially much different than the one that almost made people pay attention to batting average (or lack thereof) again. Bringing back the core of a sub-.500 team is not necessarily an achievement to tout for hungry fans and neither is a lack of specificity when it comes to improving a club that hasn’t won a single postseason game in close to a decade. He’s right that the division is wide open, though.

Do you think you can replace a Bauer-level pitcher in-house?

Krall: “I think that's what you're trying to do. I mean, look, as a small-market club, you're trying to always develop your own in-house talent, and you're trying to be the best you can. And I think that, you know, over the last probably two years, we've changed several of our development processes in terms of moving some guys around, putting different people in charge of different areas where they can take advantage of their skill set. We looked at two years ago, and we started revamping some things just to put staff members in the best position to succeed, then we brought in some new staff members that we think can really help guys take steps forward. We do think that our development staff is capable of really helping some guys take steps forward. And that's something where we're really excited about.”

Why didn’t you add a shortstop this offseason?

Krall: “It's something where just at the end of the day, it didn't work out. … It’s not something that we didn’t look for, but it just didn’t work out with where we were in the market.”

Pittsburgh Pirates' Bryan Reynolds (10) is greeted by Ke'Bryan Hayes after hitting a two-run home run off Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow during the third inning of a spring training exhibition baseball game in Bradenton, Fla., Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Outfielder Bryan Reynolds and breakout star third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes are two of the players who could be part of the next Pirates core. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

With Ben Cherington, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Pirates?

Cherington: “Improvement. We can measure that in different ways. We can measure it certainly on an individual player level, but probably more important for us is, are we seeing improvement in the areas that really matter to us?

“So, for example, last year on the pitching side we wanted to improve just in how we’re using pitches, our pitch mix and attack plans, and related to that, trying to improve our swing and miss rate, our strikeouts. But we also walked too many guys. So now we’re trying to combine — continue to try to create misses, but cut down on walks. A lot of that comes down to continued development of the stuff and using the stuff appropriately and execution so we can measure that improvement over time.

“On the position player side, we’re looking for improvement in our defensive efficiency. Certainly there’s room to improve baserunning wise — that’s actually been a highlight of spring training so far. It’s been an emphasis and — obviously, tiny sample — but it’s shown up in games so far so that’s good to see. I would say at a high level, we could get on base more, but I think probably more specifically, player to player just continuing to improve their decision making and quality of contact and that will lead to better results. The emphasis is on improvement and we can measure that, so we’re very focused on that.”

What do the projections say?

A 100-loss season is in the offing for Pittsburgh, by PECOTA’s calculations. Of note, the system has not fully bought into the explosive power young third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes displayed in his brief 2020 debut, projecting just 13 homers and a .254/.327/.414 line. A more robust sample could change that.

Let’s talk a little bit about Ke’Bryan Hayes. How do you protect his development from overhype? Or from the disappointment of any early career struggles or the team’s struggles. How do you make sure you're not rushing him to meet that demand?

Cherington: "Well, I think he's pretty well equipped to manage whatever expectations. Obviously he grew up around the game. Walking into a major-league clubhouse is pretty comfortable for him, and has been probably for several years. I was around that in Toronto with Vladdy [Guerrero Jr.] and Bo Bichette and Cavan [Biggio], those guys. We used to get asked, ‘Is this intentional, to go after sons of major leaguers?’ And I think the answer honestly was no, it was just that those were players we liked and they were available in the draft or in Vladdy’s case international free agency. But what we did learn over time is that by virtue of just how much chance they had to observe the game at a high level as kids growing up — every time they watch their dad play, they're watching major league players, they're watching reps, they’re watching pitching, they’re watching at-bats. They’re just getting this incredible database in their mind of what major-league play looks like, so when they walk into that environment it’s just very comfortable. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but I do think there’s sort of less anxiety. Our job is to speed that process up for guys who didn’t have that benefit. But in Ke’s case, I don’t really worry about it that much because he seems pretty well-equipped to deal with whatever is gonna come his way.

“Probably it could go the opposite way: We’re going to continue to challenge him — back to the player development point. We’re going to challenge him to keep pushing his skill, because he’s obviously already a good player. He’s shown that. Why not just keep getting better?”

What won’t the team tell you?

No one associated with the Pirates is pretending that this year is anything other than hopefully the nadir of a painful rebuild. But less explicit is how the organization, prior to Cherington’s hire after the 2019 season, made that process slower than it had to be by squandering team-controlled talent that went on to succeed elsewhere. The Pirates need more than just patience and some top draft picks to get good again: They need to prove they can evaluate their own players accurately and develop them to their full potential. Pittsburgh fans are supposed to have faith that bottoming out will be worth it, and Cherington has promised honesty to earn back the loyalty of a market that’s been burned before. But it’s not totally clear yet what that honesty looks like in practice and whether there’s more than just promises for fans to hang their hopes on.

When you came into the organization, what processes or departments did you think really needed the most dramatic overhaul to change course, after a lot of really disappointing years in Pittsburgh?

Cherington: “We had no choice but to hire a new manager because there was none at the time so that led to a reorganization of the major-league coaching staff. That was something we just needed to do because it was in front of us. Other than that, it was my intention to take the year to learn as much as I could, then the pandemic hit. And it didn’t change that notion, but it did make it a little harder, I’ll be honest. Particularly in areas where we just couldn’t do the work in the same way, like player development, pro scouting, things like that. ...

“Really if I was going to capture what we’re trying to do there it’s simply to move player improvement in a direction where it’s much more player-centered. That is that we’re not deciding what a player is capable of doing and directing them toward that, but rather we are just guiding improvement continuously without really trying to decide what the player is capable of. And rather than that, actually just pushing the player to continue to challenge what they’re capable of, just keep pushing that upper edge of ability. So that sounds simple and obvious but I think it is a mindset shift — not just with the Pirates, that’s happening everywhere in baseball. It’s been moving away from a traditional view of player development.”

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