Tell me if you have heard this one before.
The Milwaukee Brewers wait, pounce, then prosper.
The title of the story is the 2018 National League Central.
Is a sequel in the works?
The division’s defending champion just grabbed a free agent catcher with power in his bat and pitch-framing magic in his mitt.
Former Dodgers backstop Yasmani Grandal had reportedly rebuffed the Mets’ offer of four years and $60 million before he realized he had overplayed his hand.
He back-picked an offer big on dollars ($18-plus million) and short on seasons (one).
And now the Brewers are reportedly targeting an infielder in a free-agent market full of solid options who must be feeling increasingly anxious as the start of spring training nears.
This should sound familiar.
Last January, the Brewers patiently waited for the Marlins to clear their outfield until the one they desired, Christian Yelich, was on the trade block. They made their move. On the same day, they shocked a stagnant free-agent pool by signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal.
We spent the season pointing to Milwaukee’s lack of quality starting pitching.
The Brewers spent their season clinching their first first-place finish since 2011.
A whole bunch of talent from Milwaukee’s NLCS team returns. Reigning NL MVP Yelich, Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw are back in a lineup that averaged 1.34 homers per game, trailing only the Dodgers among NL teams. Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader and Corey Knebel are again looming in the bullpen. And now the Brewers have added a catcher who will help whomever Craig Counsell starts while adding the offensive upside of three consecutive 20-plus home run seasons. Grandal, by the way, loves hitting at Miller Park. His career batting line there reads .296/.367/.556.
The Brewers again found a way to use a sluggish free-agent market to their advantage. Cain was a significant risk on a five-year deal. Grandal on a one-year deal is not. No one-year deal is a significant risk.
The Cardinals can and should take note. A division rival they have fallen behind just got better. They can do the same by simply following Milwaukee’s lead. Take advantage of the free-agent freeze.
This is not meant to overlook the moves the Cardinals have made. They made their biggest decisions early and efficiently. They traded for Paul Goldschmidt, one of the NL’s most respected and established hitters. They traded for bench option Drew Robinson. They signed Andrew Miller as an answer to the desperate need for effective lefthanded relief. They wisely put themselves in position to sit back and wait.
A big question remains.
Are they waiting for spring training, or are they waiting to pounce on a potential difference maker?
The free-agent market is begging teams that want to win (like the Cardinals) and teams with cash to spend (like the Cardinals) to buy both insurance and upside, to eliminate risk, to sharpen edges.
The Brewers just did it. They could have entered spring training without a change at catcher. Manny Pina and Erik Kratz shared those duties last season. But the switch-hitting Grandal, while he struggled against the Brewers in the NLCS, remains one of the best hitters and most effective pitch framers at the position. This was an example of strengthening a non-glaring weakness. It’s the kind of move you probably don’t make if your division isn’t so good.
Let’s look around that division.
The Cubs have made incremental changes, the biggest so far being the decision to exercise Cole Hamels’ option and sign former Cardinals utility man Daniel Descalso. But history warns against believing the North Siders when they say they can’t or won’t spend big. And even if they do sit tight, they still have a loaded lineup, a healthy Kris Bryant and a manager motivated to keep his job.
A threatening Reds lineup is even more dangerous now that Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig — and his career .558 slugging percentage against the Cardinals — have been plugged into the Cincinnati outfield.
The Pirates have a chance to be sneaky competitive, and they continue to be mentioned as a potential suitor for free agent shortstop Manny Machado.
For an organization with an unofficial slogan of “2019 matters,” the Cardinals remain flush with cash in a landscape that seems to be steering legitimate roster upgrades, like Grandal, toward shorter-term deals.
Free agent utility man Marwin Gonzalez, a switch-hitter, played seven positions last season. He is allergic to the disabled list. He has a better OPS than Jedd Gyorko since 2017. Remember, the versatile Robinson has an option and can toggle back and forth between Class AAA, meaning an upgrade to that role is relatively easy to work around.
What if pitchers like starter Dallas Keuchel, or relievers Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino, follow in the Grandal footsteps that led from stiff-arming an offer to scrambling for one. The Cardinals could, and should, race to catch one of these names if he falls.
Lefthanded free agent reliever Justin Wilson would have led the Cardinals in strikeouts per nine innings (11.36) last season. He held opponents to a .192 average outside of Wrigley Field.
Lefthanded free agent starter Gio Gonzalez would have ranked first or second among Cardinals in starts made (32), innings pitched (171) and quality starts (11).
There are other names out there that make you wonder.
The Cardinals spent player control, not cash, on the Goldschmidt trade. They flipped Patrick Wisdom for Robinson. Their backup catcher need was answered with the affordable Francisco Pena. They have dollars to spend.
On whatever they feel can transition their team from good to great.
Opportunities, so many more opportunities, exist to raise the ceiling of an improved club that says it is tired of looking up from the middle of its improving division.
@Ben_Fred on Twitter