- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The Brewers and Cubs were dealing aces. The Pirates shopped at T.J. Maxx. The Reds and Astros barely shopped at all. And the Cardinals? That cloud hovering above their shopping spree this winter looked suspiciously like Albert Pujols. So while we wait for Albert-palooza to sort itself out, let's hand out our report cards to the cast of the NL Central:
When a team like this has a breakthrough year, then what? That's the question the Reds faced this winter.
And rather than make a bunch of changes just to say they did, they mostly spent their offseason locking up the nucleus they already had in place.
So out went Cabrera, and in came the World Series MVP, Renteria. Out went Nix and in came Lewis to platoon in left with Johnny Gomes.
And out went Rhodes, whom the Reds hoped to re-sign, to be replaced by a full season of Aroldis Chapman's 105 mph smoke-balling. So essentially, it's tough to see any net gain, but just as tough to see any net loss.
And that's fine.
But when all a team does is pretty much stand pat, its grade needs to reflect that.
How do you hand out a report card to this team when a situation as gargantuan as Pujols' contract -- and future -- continues to float in the breeze, unresolved? That's like annointing a valedictorian without waiting for those final exam scores. Locking up Sir Albert was the one thing the Cardinals absolutely had to do this winter. Wouldn't you say? So we reserve the right to change this grade in a week and a half.
In the meantime, the jury is out on the Cardinals' other moves as well. If Berkman gets healthy and puts the pieces back together, he's a great fit in this lineup. But remember, he hasn't even played 50 games in the outfield in SEVEN years. And it's not as if there's a vacancy at first base he can slide into.
And it's no sure thing that Theriot can be an everyday shortstop, either. As one NL exec observed, he "played himself into a second baseman" in Chicago.
On the other hand, the re-signing of Jake Westbrook gives this team a deep, October-ready rotation. And any team with Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina on the payroll should be able to hang in any race. But until we know the deal with Pujols, this is a tough team to assess.
The good news is, no team in this division improved itself more this winter than the Brewers. The bad news is, with Prince Fielder and possibly Rickie Weeks about to push that free-agent ejector button next fall, the window to win with this group expires on Halloween.
Nevertheless, GM Doug Melvin did what he had to do to renovate a rotation that had a worse ERA last year than every NL team not known as "the Pirates." Unfortunately, what he had to do was decimate his farm system. But a group headed by Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Marcum and Randy Wolf -- paired with one of the league's most productive offenses -- gives this team a chance to play deep into October. And that's the whole idea. Right?
We're into a whole different stage of Astros history now. No more Killer B's. (Does Barmes qualify?) No more Roy Oswalt. It's a time to rebuild the system, lop some payroll so somebody will buy the team, hope that 40-33 second half wasn't a mirage and pray this starting rotation was as good as it looked late in the season.
Bet you didn't know that, even in a season in which they traded away Oswalt, the Astros had as many quality starts last year (95) as the Giants. True story.
But now that we've got that preamble out of the way, it's hard to find any team in the NL that did less this winter than the Astros. Other than trading Paulino for Barmes, their only major target was Orlando Hudson, who decided he'd rather be a Padre. So the Astros wound up with a DP combination of Hall at second and Barmes at short. And let's just say nobody is going to confuse them with Alomar and Ripken. They also left themselves some pesky bullpen questions.
Well, the Cubs got better. We'll give them that. But how much better? That depends.
Depends on whether Garza can be No-Hit Matt instead of Give Up 19 Runs in Three Starts in September Matt. Depends on whether Pena hits .280 instead of .180. Depends on whether Wood makes 60 trips to the mound or spends 60 days on the DL.
But assuming Garza gets the bounce pitchers normally get when they escape the AL East for the NL Central, he was well worth trading for, with three years left before he hits free agency. And while $10 million was a little hefty for a guy who didn't cross the Mendoza Line, Pena was a decent one-year investment. And for $1.5 million, Wood might be the best buy any team made all winter.
Oh, and let's not forget the managerial change. The Cubs won 24 of their 37 games with Quade as the interim manager last year -- after winning 24 of their final 66 games under Piniella. So despite all the sexier managerial names the Cubs could have chased, Quade earned this gig.
Look, it's all relative. You don't evaluate a Pirates offseason by the same standards you use to evaluate, say, a Yankees offseason, just the way a good year for Joe's Computer Repair Shop isn't quite the same thing as a good year for, say, Microsoft. So judged against what the Pirates were attempting to do, they did OK.
Jorge De La Rosa and Carl Pavano -- both of whom they chased -- would have been better rotation upgrades than Correia and Olsen. But Overbay, while he's not exactly Adrian Gonzalez, should be an improvement over last year's first-base hodgepodge. Diaz is a career .301/.350/.456 hitter. And there are potential bargains in their nonroster free-agent crop (Beimel, Atkins, Jose Veras, Fernando Nieve, Josh Fields).
Then there's Hurdle, who will represent about as dramatic a change in the manager's office, when you compare him with the soft-spoken Russell, as this team could have hired. So while it would be a monumental upset if this turns into the year the Buccos climb above Mount .500, they at least inched northward.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Zack Greinke makes the Brewers a serious threat in the NL Central, but the Albert Pujols question still hangs over the division.