The winter meetings are over, and the Cubs' only move was swapping disappointing young outfielder Tyler Colvin for disappointing young third baseman Ian Stewart, the sort of trade only a fantasy baseball nerd could love. (And they do. As Michael Barr points out on Fangraphs, Ian Stewart is a "a perennial sleeper on [fantasy] draft lists due to his singular ability to hit the ball out of the park." So at the very least, the Cubs have added some novelty in replacing Colvin with Stewart. I calculate that I'm five percent more interested in the Cubs thanks to the Stewart trade.)
That's not necessarily a bad thing; the big moves were Pujols (too expensive, too old for a rebuilding team) and Jose Reyes (whom the Cubs have a younger, healthier version of in Starlin Castro). And the Cubs have arguably come out ahead through their inaction, not because of what they've done but what's happened to their National League Central opponents.
Hope is a thing without feathers: the Cubs' rivals lost the best player in baseball over the past decade, Albert Pujols. Joe Posnanski makes a case for the Angels' signing of Pujols as the most illustrious move in baseball history. As a Cardinals fan, I'm at peace with it. As great as Pujols is, and as beloved as he's been in St. Louis, he's getting older and a case can be made that he's already in decline, and I think Cardinals nation would rather see him go than be tied to his enormous contract for ten years. But in the short term, that's a 5.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) player out of the Cubs' way, more if he's healthy in 2012.
Over at Viva El Birdos, one Cardinals fan makes a case for the "aggregate Pujols": the idea that the Cardinals could replace Pujols's WAR with health and luck. It's a sensible argument: moving Lance Berkman to first is an improvement, since it gets him out of the outfield; they'll get a full season or something like it out of Rafael Furcal, still above average at his age; they'll hopefully get a whole season out of fragile World Series hero David Freese; ace Adam Wainwright, gone all of last season, will mercifully replace Kyle McClelland; and not signing Pujols gives them room for a prominent free agent, perhaps Carlos Beltran. (Yu Darvish, author of Yu Darvish's Breaking Pitch Bible—now available on iTunes?!?—in my wildest dreams.) If you trust in WAR, it adds up. But still, it's Pujols, and if things don't break the Cardinals way, that's five or six losses on the year.
The big news in baseball this week isn't a trade or a signing: it's NL MVP Ryan Braun's positive test for synthetic testosterone, "likely the highest that has been recorded in Major League Baseball." The situation is still fluid, and Braun's camp is claiming innocence. But if it holds, Braun faces a 50-game suspension. Braun's WAR was 7.7 last year, and at 28, he's in his prime. At 50 games, knock off about two wins for the Brewers.
27-year-old Prince Fielder hasn't left yet, but no one seems to think he'll return to the Brewers, and the only NL Central team in the mix so far has been the Cubs (he doesn't make sense for the Cardinals, who have Berkman, or the Reds, with Joey Votto). Fielder was a 5.2 WAR player last year, a good ballpark for what he'll be next year. They did land the Cubs' best hitter, Aramis Ramirez, a 3.6 WAR player. But Ramirez is 33, Miller Park is arguably less suited to his skills, and Ramirez won't make up for the loss of Fielder and 50 games without Ryan Braun.
The Astros lost 106 games last year. Could they possibly be worse? Actually, yes; they're currently at the Superfund stage of their rebuilding process. For starters, they traded their best young hitter and only watchable player, Hunter Pence, 100 games into last season. And there are rumors that their best starter in 2011, Wandy Rodriguez, is on the market. The Astros will be in the American League in 2013, but the Cubs get another year against the worst team in baseball at their nadir.
The 72-90 Pirates made two medium-risk, high-reward acquisitions. They added Eric Bedard, an excellent pitcher when he's healthy, to an underrated rotation. They also added former Cubs farmhand Casey McGehee, who went from 3.0 WAR in 2010 to -1.0 in 2011. The bad news is that McGehee is insurance for Derek Lee, whom they might lose, and Pedro Alvarez, a talented 24-year-old third baseman who hit .191 in 74 games. If Bedard stays healthy, if they retain Lee, if Alvarez becomes the player everyone thinks he can be, the Pirates will actually be better, but it's hardly a sure thing.
They haven't done anything after finishing below .500 last year. They'll probably be better next year, since they're a young team with the best hitter in the division in Joey Votto, who's just entering his prime years. On the other hand, their young pitching staff is unreliable, and they probably won't resign closer Francisco Cordero, a 2.3 WAR pitcher.
So out of every team in the NL Central, only the Pirates have been active in improving their team. The Brewers have a young team, so their remaining players might improve over 2011, but they have to offset the likely losses of Braun and Fielder, seven or eight wins between their two best players. The Reds will likely also improve by aging and attrition, but they haven't taken an active step forward. The Cardinals will probably be better than everyone expects after the loss of Pujols, but the best player in the division is gone. And the Astros will definitely keep the Cubs out of the cellar.
Which is not to say the Cubs aren't still terrible, but even in standing still they stand to improve their situation, if not the team itself. With more parity in the NL Central, it's not so much "wait 'til next year" as "wait 'til the year after that (when there are more playoff spots and some decent free agent pitchers)," but it's something sort of like hope.
Photograph: hibino (CC by 2.0)