One Free Agent Target for Each NL Central Team
In years past the National League Central was a three-pony race with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals commanding the lead and the Chicago Cubs somewhere behind them. 2023 marked a change in the tides heading into the 2024 season. The Brewers are dealing with matters off the field and were dealt a blow with the loss of their manager Craig Counsell. They are open to trading anyone on the roster while the Cubs are looking to take their spot at the top of the division. The Cardinals fell to the bottom of the heap while both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds took tremendous steps forward with their young talent. Each team has needs in a division that is up for grabs, so here is one free agent for each organization to consider.
Milwaukee Brewers: Lance Lynn
The Brew Crew has found sustained success thanks to a quality starting rotation and bullpen, and while the bullpen will mostly stay intact, the rotation is up in the air. Trades are likely to come to relieve payroll and bring in talent, but they may look to add a veteran on a short-term deal to provide stability.
Wade Miley filled that role previously but chose to become a free agent, forcing the team to consider alternative options. Such a solution could come in the form of Lance Lynn. Lynn, 36, had an off year in 2023 despite being solid for the majority of his MLB career. He made 32 starts between his time with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers and pitched to a 5.73 ERA in 183 2/3 innings. He totaled 191 strikeouts to 67 walks, but his biggest struggle was the 44 home runs he coughed up. Still, his track record sets him up for a convenient short-term deal that could range in the $7 million AAV range and he does have the capability to lead a rotation should it come to that as the Brewers mull decisions on Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser, and Brandon Woodruff.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jordan Montgomery
The Cardinals need starting pitching, it was one of their biggest weaknesses in 2023. Since being traded to the Cardinals last season, Montgomery has arguably been their best pitcher but with the Cardinals’ struggles in 2023, he was shipped off and able to showcase his talents even more with the World Series Champion Texas Rangers. While there is certainly interest in the Rangers retaining his services, a mutual feeling for Montgomery, but the Cardinals could come back with a force to spend big on a familiar talent to lead their rotation.
Over 21 starts with the Cardinals this season, Montgomery tossed 121 innings to the tune of a 3.42 ERA. His 108 strikeouts were second on the team, while his 1.248 WHIP was lowest among starters. At 30 years old he is set up for at least a quality five-year deal worth a $25 million AAV which is something the Cardinals could pull off if they wanted to. There is a slight chance the team looks to restructure its roster and payroll after a disastrous season, but the chance is there to replenish their starting rotation first before addressing other areas of need. Montgomery has the top-of-the-rotation stuff that compliments any rotation beautifully.
Chicago Cubs: Shohei Ohtani
The Cubs have a lot of work to do in an effort to take hold of the NL Central and while they are likely to make a strong bid to retain the services of Cody Bellinger, there is a case to be made for the team to draw in Shohei Ohtani. The two-way star is likely to sign an unprecedented free-agent contract this offseason. Not only is a team signing a top-of-the-line pitcher but they are also signing a top-of-the-line offensive player.
The Cubs will need starting pitching in the future, which Ohtani won’t be able to provide until 2025 due to elbow surgery in September. Still, it’s a tempting signing to make for the prospect of getting a few years out of Ohtani’s arm as long as he is able to be an effective pitcher. He wracks up strikeouts, tosses gems, and has a wicked arsenal that any regular pitcher could dream of having. The Cubs will need that going forward, but his bat is what’s attractive right now. The assumption is that Ohtani will be ready to hit come spring training. He has belted 30+ home runs and driven in 90+ RBI in each of the last three seasons. Take away the pitching and he has been one the most consistent offensive players in the league and is getting better. 2023 marked the first time that Ohtani had a batting average of over .300 while he posted an OPS of 1.066. Any team would love to have that production out of their designated hitter. The Cubs have the space and means to sign Ohtani and if they want to deal a big blow to the NL Central, signing the modern-day Babe Ruth would do the trick.
Cincinnati Reds: Eduardo Rodriguez
The Reds were one of the most surprising teams in 2023 thanks to a parade of young stars that emerged. The team is set up quite well in the position player area, leaving them to focus more on the need for bolstering their starting rotation. The team relied heavily on pitchers in their first or second year to mixed results. They all produced solid results but a veteran leader with established success would go a long way in providing stability. Eduardo Rodriguez has been one of the game’s best pitchers and after opting out of his contract with Detroit is now a free agent willing to sign anywhere.
This is good news for a Reds team that should have some extra cash lying around after they declined Joey Votto’s club option and have other obligations off the books. Rodriguez could command a new four-year contract with a $20 million AAV, putting him in a prime spot to help the Reds through their next couple of years of contention. In 2023 he recorded a 3.30 ERA in 26 starts with 148 strikeouts to just 48 walks. He allowed 15 home runs on the season which could see a slight uptick at Great American Ballpark, but a 40% groundball rate should dispel further fears. The Reds need a leader and a splash in the starting pitching market could do the trick.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jack Flaherty
The Pirates have the potential to be on the rise after a solid start to the 2023 season but fell off as the team ran out of steam. The team could be great if they actually spent on free agents rather than relying on old veterans. They have the makings of a good team across the roster and the starting rotation is an area that could use continued improvement. Mitch Keller had a breakout year but the staff needs more arms. Enter, Jack Flaherty.
The last few years haven’t gone well for Flaherty. Since 2020, Flaherty has pitched just 299 innings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his own injuries. 2023 was Flaherty’s first mainly full season since 2019 as he posted a 4.99 ERA over 144 1/3 innings between the Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles. Flaherty wasn’t the ace-level pitcher this season but was solid in St. Louis before struggling with the Orioles down the stretch. His fastball has suffered in the past but he has had success with his slider in the past, a pitcher that the Pirates have utilized quite effectively. The Pirates have a solid, albeit young, rotation at the moment but a boost from a prospective bounceback year from Flaherty could at the very least net the team a prospect or two at the trade deadline.