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What needs and assets do the NL Central teams have at the trade deadline?

In a season where every NL Central team remained competitive for several months, the division now appears to feature three clear buyers and two clear sellers.

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds Photo byAaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

If each of the five teams play their cards right, there could be movement throughout the NL Central at next week’s trade deadline. Though the Pirates and Reds at least gave off the appearance of being NL Wild Card contenders for most of the first half and into mid-July, both teams are now way under .500 and don’t have a whole lot of motivation to keep the band together — never mind make additions — before the deadline. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s quite possible that the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers will be battling for first place the rest of the way, with the two runners-up very much in the wild-card picture, so all three of those teams will almost surely be part of the buyers’ market over the next week. Here are the needs and assets that the NL Central teams have heading towards the deadline:

Chicago Cubs (55-47), T-first place

Needs: Though the Cubs added Craig Kimbrel earlier this summer, they could still probably use another quality arm in a bullpen that owns a 4.12 ERA to this point. Pedro Strop hasn’t been very good in a setup role and Brad Brach has been a bust of a free-agent signing. While Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler have been good and Kyle Ryan has surprisingly rebuilt himself, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to get a really dependable setup man for Kimbrel.

The Cubs don’t necessarily need a starter, but their rotation depth isn’t the greatest in the world, and they showed last year when they acquired Cole Hamels and put Tyler Chatwood in the bullpen that they’re not afraid to bump an expensive starter from the rotation in the name of winning, so it’d be interesting to see if they’re willing to do so with José Quintana (or, much more improbably, Yu Darvish) this summer.

Chicago could probably stand to make upgrades to its outfield mix or middle-infield depth, but considering ownership’s offseason assertion that they “don’t have any more” money to spend and that they only went after Kimbrel after saving money from Ben Zobrist’s decision to leave the team, it seems somewhat doubtful that the front office will go out and make such a significant splash that it’ll be a surefire upgrade over what they already have.

Assets: Since they dealt guys like Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jiménez, Dylan Cease, and Jeimer Candelario while their window was widest-open earlier this decade, the Cubs’ minor-league depth has dried out, and they now have only two prospects (Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya) among MLB Pipeline’s top 100, and both of them are among the latter 50. The Cubs still have enough intriguing mid-level prospects to make a depth-oriented move in the bullpen or on the bench, but it feels safe to say their system alone isn’t going to bring them any contributors as valuable as Quintana, Aroldis Chapman, or even the package of Justin Wilson and Alex Avila this summer.

After spending almost all of the 2017 season and the entire 2018 campaign in the big leagues — and experiencing quite a bit of success along the way — utility man Ian Happ has spent the entirety of the 2019 season at Triple-A Iowa in a move that was seen as an attempt at a wake-up call for the 24-year-old. He seemed to react negatively to the demotion out of the gates and struggled for the first three months of the season, but after posting a 1.059 OPS in July (which, to be honest, is about par for the course this season in the Pacific Coast League), he’ll return to the majors Friday. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s finally out of the doghouse or if this is just some type of attempt at a showcase, because Happ should be one of Chicago’s best trade chips heading into the deadline.

For three years now, there have been whispers from various circles that the Cubs are willing to trade position players off their major-league roster, and those rumors will continue to surround guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Victor Caratini, and Addison Russell (who, to be fair, is now in Triple-A and technically not part of the major-league roster at the moment). But those rumors have swirled around for so long with nothing happening that it’s pointless to put too much thought into them unless and until the front office finally pulls the trigger on a move of that magnitude. With the Cubs in pretty good position right now, tied for first place heading into deadline week, it seems rather unlikely that they’ll make that type of deal. None of those players is going to headline a package that brings a transformative talent back to Chicago, and that type of move would be an unnecessary “statement” toward a team that’s performing pretty well as things stand now.

Unless the Cubs are concerned about Willson Contreras’ recent foot injury lingering, third catcher Martín Maldonado seems like a potentially unnecessary luxury at this point and would probably be of greater use elsewhere. Maldonado brought back a major-league player (Mike Montgomery) when Chicago acquired him from the Royals just a couple weeks ago, so it figures that they’d be able to get a semi-intriguing player back for him if another contender is in need of an extra catcher for the stretch run.

Cincinnati Reds (46-54), fourth place

Needs: While the Reds seem to be close enough to contention that it’d make sense for them to creatively buy for the future at the deadline, they’re for the most part going to be sellers this year and will be looking to improve a farm system that has just three prospects within MLB Pipeline’s top 100 — solid without context, but rather disappointing for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. Not that the Reds have been particularly good at developing pitching prospects anyway, but if possible, it’d make sense for them to add some young arms — particularly at the upper levels of the minors — to help supplement a vastly-improved but largely veteran-led major-league staff.

Assets: Now that he’s finally turned things on offensively after an ice-cold start to the season, Yasiel Puig seems to be the Reds’ most prominent trade chip heading into the deadline. With an .801 OPS, 22 homers, and a cannon of an arm, Puig definitely has the potential to improve a contender if front offices aren’t for some reason turned off by his eccentric personality. While he’s cooled off quite a bit since the first two months of the season, utility man Derek Dietrich is still having a very good offensive season overall (.213/.350/.528 with 19 homers in 264 plate appearances) and with his ability to play at first, second, third, and in the outfield, he should be a serviceable bench option for a contender if the Reds are willing to accept an underwhelming return for him. Second baseman Scooter Gennett has had a disastrous return from a groin strain that cost him the first three months of the season, hitting .200/.226/.240 in 53 plate appearances, so the Reds would be selling low in the most major of ways if they moved the free-agent-to-be before the deadline. As long as they believe he’s capable of getting back to the over-.800 OPS, 20-plus homer performances he put up over the last two seasons, it’d make more sense for the Reds to enjoy the leverage that his 2019 struggles will provide them and sign the Cincinnati native to an extension.

While they have a club option on him for next season, it’s possible that the Reds could elect to sell high on 34-year-old reliever Jared Hughes, who has been one of the best bullpen arms in baseball this season with a 2.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 41 appearances. The fact that the right-hander has another potential year of control (with a cheap buyout) should make him even more attractive in the eyes of a contender.

Though he hasn’t really been talked about as a trade candidate, free-agent-to-be Tanner Roark should be of interest to contenders as a back-of-the-rotation option after posting a 3.95 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP over 20 starts this season. Depending on how he fares in his Reds debut Sunday after missing the entire season to date with a back injury, lefty Alex Wood (also a pending free agent) could also be a candidate to be flipped by Wednesday. With that said, both are definitely candidates to be re-signed by the Reds this offseason.

Milwaukee Brewers (54-50), third place

Needs: It wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see the Brewers add a first baseman, but otherwise their focus should be enitrely on upgrading their pitching staff, which has posted a 4.66 ERA that ranks 13th — ahead of only the Pirates and Rockies — in the NL. In particular, it’d make sense to add a starter to complement Zach Davies, especially with both Jhoulys Chacin and Brandon Woodruff currently on the injured list, though the rotation has been a glaring need ever since the team became competitive again in 2017, and yet GM David Stearns — who seems to be fundamentally against traditional pitching roles, as evidenced by the team’s extensive use of openers and bullpen games during last year’s playoffs — has continually neglected to address it. They’d also be well-served to patch up a bullpen that has begun to leak after over a year-and-a-half of overuse. Former Brewer Will Smith is reportedly a reliever that they’ve expressed interest in, though it’s perhaps less likely that he’ll be dealt now that the Giants have worked themselves back into wild-card contention.

Assets: The most notable Brewers player who has openly been discussed as a trade candidate is first baseman and 2018 All-Star Jesús Aguilar —’s Mark Feinsand reported earlier this week that the Rays have interest in acquiring the 29-year-old, who has a disappointing .707 OPS this season and has settled into the short end of a first-base platoon with Eric Thames. 29-year-old Travis Shaw is also an obvious candidate to be traded; he is finally set to be recalled to the big leagues on Friday after posting a ridiculous 1.039 OPS with nine homers in 91 at-bats at Triple-A San Antonio, but he has no obvious place in Milwaukee’s lineup going forward with rookie Keston Hiura having established himself as the starting second baseman and Mike Moustakas now settled in at third.

The Brewers’ system isn’t nearly as good as it was a couple years ago now that they’ve graduated several premium prospects and traded plenty of others in order to acquire guys like Moustakas and Christian Yelich. 2018 first-rounder Brice Turang is their only prospect on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 list. With that said, they could use some more advanced upper-level prospects who are blocked at the major-league level such as Mauricio Dubon, Lucas Erceg, Troy Stokes, Tyrone Taylor, and Trent Grisham to help make incremental additions.

Pittsburgh Pirates (46-56), fifth place

Needs: In terms of conducting a successful youth movement, the Pirates are actually in a pretty good spot, as they have four impactful starting position players age 26 or younger (Josh Bell, Colin Moran, Kevin Newman, and Bryan Reynolds) and four prospects ranked among MLB Pipeline’s top 100. Now they just need to match that infusion of youth on the pitching side, especially after making a shortsighted decision to deal top prospects Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz as part of a massive package for Chris Archer at the deadline last season. With Pittsburgh having conducted quite a few successful reclamation projects through minor-league deals and dumpster dives over the past couple seasons, they have a few major-league assets that they can deal without even slightly affecting their long-term plans, so they should be able to add some more depth to their minor-league system over the next week, even if it’s not the type of high-end talent (the type that they traded for Archer last year) that’s going to take them to the next level and help them compete for the NL Central title again.

Assets: With the Pirates sitting in last place and essentially stuck in neutral after failing to make the playoffs since 2015, it’s possible that virtually every veteran on the roster will be available on the trade market. Their most valuable asset is 28-year-old left-handed closer Felipe Vázquez, who has a 1.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with 21 saves over 40 appearances this season. He’s under club control through 2023, though, so it’s easy to see why they’d be interested in holding onto him and demand a massive return if they decide to move him.

Left fielder Corey Dickerson, who has a .308/.370/.508 slash line over 135 PAs this season, would be a great rental option for a contender, and it’d make sense for the Pirates to move him and get a solid return unless they really believe they can re-sign him this offseason.

34-year-old outfielder Melky Cabrera has enjoyed a resurgence this season, hitting .305/.341/.438 through 271 plate appearances, and there’s no reason for Pittsburgh not to move him prior to the deadline and give a chance to win another World Series, no matter the return. Of course, seeing as he’s already played for eight teams, Cabrera would also be able to continue challenging Matt Stairs’ record for most teams played for by a position player (12).

Center fielder Starling Marte hasn’t been talked much about as a trade candidate this deadline season and is probably unlikely to be moved, but seeing as he’s nearly 31 years old and is in the midst of a career-best offensive season (.287/.328/.504 with 17 homers and 13 steals), it’d make sense for the Pirates to deal him now if the demand is there. He’s under club control for up to two more seasons after this — the Pirates have club options for 2020-21.

Lefty Francisco Liriano has found new life as a reliever this season, posting a 3.12 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 47 appearances this season. He’s a candidate to be moved at the deadline for the third time in four seasons, perhaps even within the division to a team like the Cardinals or Brewers that’s in need of bullpen help. Right-handed starter Jordan Lyles, a free agent after the season, has also been talked about as a trade candidate, but with MLB now having a hard July 31 trade deadline and teams having to juggle their veteran trade acquisitions on the 25-man roster for a month, it’s difficult to understand why a contender would want him — especially since he has a 15.00 ERA in July.

St. Louis Cardinals (55-47), T-first place

Needs: The Cardinals don’t have any glaring needs, but at the same time there aren’t too many areas in which it would be a surprise for them to try to upgrade. They could stand to upgrade their rotation, but it’s not clear who would be bumped from the rotation in order to facilitate that upgrade — Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Jack Flaherty have all had their ups and downs this season, but it’s difficult to see any of them being moved out of the starting five. Rookie Dakota Hudson may not be quite as good as his numbers this season suggest, but nevertheless he has the 26th-best ERA of any qualifying starter in baseball. And while he has been inefficient at times, rookie Daniel Ponce de Leon has arguably been their best starter. The Cardinals’ offense has posted a collective .728 OPS this season — certainly not a mark that’d make you think they’re a first-place team — but there’s not a player in the lineup who looms as a clear weak spot offensively and has a realistic chance of being bumped from the lineup for the rest of the season. It’s possible to envision the Cardinals bringing in a veteran third baseman to take at-bats from Matt Carpenter (who has a .215/.321/.372 slash line this season), but no one who’s so established that they’d push Carpenter — who is guaranteed $39 million of the next two seasons — out of the picture entirely.

The area where they are perhaps in greatest need of an upgrade — and most likely to make a move — is in the bullpen, where they are a bit shorthanded after losing closer Jordan Hicks to season-ending Tommy John surgery. While Carlos Martínez has been rather shaky in the ninth inning and it’s theoretically possible that they could consider right-handed closing options such as Mychal Givens, Kirby Yates, Ken Giles, and Shane Greene, it seems as if left-handed relief is the area that they’re most urgently trying to address — president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said so on broadcaster Dan McLaughlin’s podcast earlier this week. Andrew Miller hasn’t quite been his old self but nevertheless has generally been solid — and still, the Cardinals could use an upgrade over Tyler Webb for the second lefty role in their bullpen. Guys like Jake Diekman, Tony Watson, the recently-DFA’d Derek Holland, or even Will Smith — who would be the biggest lefty relief addition they could reasonably make — are pitchers they could consider.

Assets: While the Cardinals’ farm system doesn’t have nearly as much talent that is regarded as elite by the prospect publications as it did a few years ago, it’s still rather deep and should be able to net them an impact contributor or two if they so desire. Specifically, they have a wealth of talent at third base — where Nolan Gorman (High-A), Elehuris Montero (Double-A), and Malcom Nuñez (Rookie Advanced) are all under the age of 21 and loom as candidates to serve as Matt Carpenter’s long-term replacement — and in the outfield, where guys like Dylan Carlson, Lane Thomas, Adolis García, and Jhon Torres are highly-regarded but don’t necessarily have spots carved out in the team’s future plans.

While unlikely, it’d also be interesting to see if two players who have vastly outperformed their prospect projections, Ponce de Leon and infielder Tommy Edman, have any chance of getting moved prior to the deadline. Rival front offices may find comfort in the fact that they’ve already experienced success at the big-league level, while it’s possible that the Cardinals might still believe they’re not quite as good as they look right now.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal also reported recently that the Cardinals would be open to moving Martínez, who has dealt with a multitude of injuries and largely been a disappointment over the last two seasons, largely to get out from the $24.4 million remaining on his contract. However, it doesn’t seem like it’d make much sense for them to trade a pitcher who remains one of the most talented on their staff as they’re in the midst of a playoff race.