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Perrotto: It’s Shaping Up as a Tankless NL Central

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Three franchises in the National League Central have already tanked in the first half of this decade.

Now, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs will never admit that they tanked. They won’t say they tried to intentionally lose to secure higher draft picks and more signing bonus pool for international amateur free agents.

The Pirates had the worst record in the major leagues during the pandemic-affected 2020 season followed by 101 losses in 2021 and 100 more defeats in 2022. The Pirates probably should have had Pittsburgh Baseball Now prospect guru Cody “The Tank” Potanko replace the Pirate Parrot as their mascot.

The Reds also lost 100 games in 2022 and the Cubs dropped 91 games in 2021 and 89 in 2022. That, too, certainly seemed like tanking.

However, all five teams in the NL Central insist their goal is to contend in 2024. So far, those teams seem to be living up to the promise.

An argument can be made that the Pirates haven’t done much to bolster their roster this winter, but general manager Ben Cherington can only do so much under owner Bob Nutting’s payroll restraints.

The Pirates have traded for left-hander Marco Gonzales and have a deal in place with free agent lefty Martin Perez that is pending a physical examination. They have also signed first baseman Rowdy Tellez in free agency and brought back outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

Granted, that’s not quite like the Los Angeles Dodgers signing Shohei Ohtani for $700 million. And the Pirates will be hoping to get bounce-back seasons from Gonzales, Perez and Tellez, which will be a difficult trifecta ticket to cash.

However, when you’re forced to shop at the Dollar Tree – or to be precise the Dollar and a Quarter Tree – you take your shots on some potentially undervalued players and hope for the best.

The Reds are showing that they are serious about winning in 2023 after almost being a surprise entrant in last year’s playoffs. They have spent over $100 million on free agents.

Cincinnati’s biggest expenditure so far is the three-year, $45-million contract given to corner infielder Jeimer Candelario. They have also signed right-handers Nick Martinez (two years, $26 million), Frankie Montas (one year, $16 million) and Emilio Pagan (two years, $16 million).

Following their first last-place finish since 1990, the St. Louis Cardinals are showing they want out of the cellar in 2024. They have signed three free-agent right-handers to deals totaling $99 million – Sonny Gray (three years, $75 million), Kyle Gibson (one year, $13 million) and Lance Lynn (one year, $11 million).

The Cubs haven’t made many player moves. However, after getting above .500 last season, Chicago lured manager Craig Counsell away from the Milwaukee Brewers with a five-year, $40-million deal. It is the largest managerial contract in baseball history.

Despite Counsell’s departure, the Brewers insist they want to try to make at least one more run at the World Series after winning the division last year and reaching the postseason in five of the last six years. President of baseball operations Matt Arnold says he won’t trade Corbin Burnes despite rampant speculation the ace right-hander will be dealt this offseason ahead of him becoming eligible for free agency at the end of next season.

All five teams also have intriguing young players, which could make for an interesting 2024 in the NL Central.

“It’s going to be more fun. It really is,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “I think everybody in the division is taking steps forward. The division’s getting stronger, the young players have now accumulated at-bats, they have accumulated innings. There’s nothing that can replicate major-league at-bats, major-league innings, so the division just continues to get stronger. What you’re going to see is a lot of young players, ages 27 down, that are going to start to make significant improvements.”

And everyone is seemingly trying to win, which is a welcome change of pace.

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