After the dust has settled

The MLB non-waiver trade deadline came and went at 4 p.m. eastern time yesterday afternoon. It seemed like every contender added pieces from non-contenders as they attempted to solidify their position on top, or as a challenger of, a division. After the dust has settled and the moves have had a chance to percolate, who made the best moves in the NL Central? Certainly the Cardinals were active, but so were the other teams in the NL Central. Each one making a trade over the last week. Let’s take a look at their moves and determine who was the big winner. We’ll start at the bottom, just to build up the suspense.

Houston Astros (24.5 games back)

The Astros were one of the busiest teams on deadline day, but they weren’t buyers. The NL Central’s cellar dwellars made big moves, dealing both Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn over the last three days. The Astros made out like an arms dealer selling to both sides, sending Pence to NL East leading Philadelphia and Bourn to NL East runner-up Atlanta. The two trades will bring the Astros a total of eight prospects, seven of them named and one other that will be named later.

They were even very close to dealing their #1 starter, Wandy Rodriguez, to the Indians at the deadline before that deal fell apart. However, many expect that Rodriguez could still be moved during the waiver trade deadline. However, with that contract, I’m thinking he will have a hard time reaching a division leader. He has a very club friendly contract and may not be heading anywhere this year because of that. A pitcher with his history, talent, and contract will be very attractive to a handful of clubs, some of which may not even be in contention.

For the Astros, this won’t help them this year, but there is hope that it will help them in the years to come. Houston is clearly rebuilding right now and 3 years down the road, this trade could pay off big time. The question will be, will Ed Wade and Brad Mills be around to reap the benefits?

Chicago Cubs (16.5 games back)

The Cubs were one of the teams that did not capitalize as much as they could have at the deadline. They have plenty of solid, veteran talent that could have been dealt away and brought them back prospects to contend in the future, but Jim Hendry sat on his hands. The only deal that the Cubs completed was moving Kosuke Fukudome to the Indians.

I’d read earlier in the month that many teams weren’t interested in the Cubs’ players because of their performance and their contracts. Though I’m surprised there wasn’t more action on Aramis Ramirez, but Ramirez said he wanted to stay in Chicago and is a 10-5 player with no-trade rights. For now, the Cubs look like they will continue to wallow mid-pack in the NL Central. They don’t have a glut of promising young players coming up from their minor league system, and they will have a bunch of money tied up in expensive, underperforming free agents through at least next year.

Cincinnati Reds (6.5 games back)

The Reds made one move, trading one of their major league starters to make room for a top prospect to make his appearance at the major league level. Johnny Gomes, who found his way to Washington, was dealt for a pair of minor leaguers. To take his place, one of the Reds’ top prospects Yonder Alonso got the call.

Outside of that move, the Reds were oddly quiet. They could have used an upgrade in the rotation and at short stop. Jocketty’s history of big trades at the deadline, while the league had big pieces available, should have played in their favor. However, it was the rest of the division who got new toys to play with.

This has to heavily hurt the morale of the Reds in comparison to the other NL Central teams. While the Brewers, Cardinals, and Pirates all welcome new members to the club that should solve their current shortcomings, the Reds are standing pat. Psychologically, the Reds players have to be wondering how they will continue to compete for the division when it seems that management has already raised the white flag.

Pittsburgh Pirates (4.5 games back)

The Pirates are new to the whole “being buyers” at the deadline, thing. They added two guys who are already very familiar to NL Central fans, Derrick Lee and Ryan Ludwick. Lee previously played for the Cubs while Ludwick had a breakout season in 2008 as an all star outfielder for the Cardinals. It is a big move for the Pirates that shows both their fanbase and their players that they are trying to win now and shore up what problems they can without completely destroying their future.

While neither Lee nor Ludwick have been anywhere near their best this season, both should be able to provide a boost to the offense. Lee was struggling for Baltimore in his first ever stint in the American League. That could be some of the issue there, and I expect his performance to jump for the Pirates and his return to the NL. Ludwick on the other hand should see some improvement by playing in a much more favorable hitter’s park. Ludwick is a top notch defensive outfielder as well as bringing a capable bat to the lineup. He should greatly improve the team’s outfield offensive performance.

The biggest part of these trades for the Pirates is that it secures the now without mortgaging the future. They made two moves that should have positive effects on the ball club without touching their top minor league talent, getting Lee for pennies and Ludwick for a PTBNL. These are solid moves that will make the Pirates a little more dangerous. Having the veteran talent who has experience in pennant races should help some of the young guys on the team deal with the pressure. Their season relies on Pittsburgh’s superb pitching continuing into October, but if it does, the Pirates are a very dangerous team.

St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back)

The Cardinals are probably the big winners of the NL Central at the trade deadline. While they had to part with Colby Rasmus, in two trades they addressed every major issue the Cardinals have struggled with in the first four months of the season.

The acquisition of Edwin Jackson gives them a starter with potential. At best, Jackson is a top of the rotation arm. At worst, he’s a back of the rotation arm and no worse than the 5.55 ERA they got out of Kyle McClellan‘s 8 starts before the trade. The move allows them to shift McClellan back into the bullpen where he has posted a 3.23 ERA over the last 3 seasons. The deal also brought in Octavio Dotel to help secure the right handed relief and Marc Rzepczynski (spelt without checking this time, woo!) to secure the left handed relief. There is also talk that Rzepczynski could turn into a starter eventually. Also, the throw-in of the deal seems to be Corey Patterson, the former Cub who Rasmus got comparisons to after the trade. Patterson will provide the Cardinals with plus defense and a right handed bat that can play all three outfield positions, the definition of the 4th outfielder.

The second trade brought in Rafael Furcal, who hit .308 over the week before being traded. Furcal also solves the defense issue at short stop since the decline of Ryan Theriot‘s defensive numbers and bat. He also has the potential to be a true top of the order guy, which should work well with Jon Jay seemingly securing the #2 spot in the lineup in CF and Albert Pujols hitting right behind. The Cardinals dealt a talented outfielder in Alex Castellanos, but he projects as an accessory rather than a core player and the Cardinals have a surplus of outfield talent at the top of their minor league system.

I could go on for quite some time on the Rasmus trade, and I have and so have many other writers and bloggers. Ultimately, he was the biggest trade piece that wouldn’t mortgage the future and the move single-handedly solved our bullpen problems. With Allen Craig hopefully coming back inside of the week, that should put the Cardinals at 100% or as close to 100% as you can be without Adam Wainwright.

Milwaukee Brewers (Leader)

The Brewers were the first of the NL Central to fire their shot in the trade market, picking up Francisco Rodriguez over the All Star Break for two players to be named later. At the time, I expected the Brewers to be aggressive, but it seems that their lack of firepower from a farm system depleted from trades for two top pitchers over the offseason slowed their attempts.

After the injury to Rickie Weeks, a blow that really cripples the Brewers’ offense, they made deals for a pair of infielders. They picked up Jerry Hairston Jr for Erik Komatsu. It might have been overpaying since Komatsu was the Brewers’ minor league player of the year last year. They also acquired Felipe Lopez, a name familiar to Brewers’ fans, for cash from Tampa Bay.

Other than the moves to hopefully solidify second base, the Brewers weren’t nearly as aggressive as I expected them to be. Not enough young talent to deal away, I guess.

Overview

Ultimately the NL Central will be decided by whose pitching staff holds serve down the stretch. That puts Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the driver’s seat. Among potential NL playoff teams, the Pirates are #2 and the Cardinals are #3. Milwaukee comes in at #5. St. Louis is the team that has been there before, but they always seem to play tight in September and that could be their undoing.

It’s anyone’s race, but I expect that come September 19th, with 10 games left to play, it will be St. Louis and Pittsburgh fighting for a playoff spot. In that case, with 9 games against the Mets, Cubs, and Astros, that advantage might lie with the Cardinals.