There's been some discussion in the comments to the Shin-Soo Choo thread about the Pirates' divisional competition in 2014. The good news, as Jeff Passan pointed out today, is that other than the Cardinals with Jhonny Peralta, the NL Central really hasn't spent any money; it's not just the Pirates. In fact, of MLBTR's top 50 free agents, only one (Peralta again) has signed with an NL Central team, and that includes many (Choo, Carlos Beltran, A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, Marlon Byrd, Scott Feldman, Edward Mujica, Justin Morneau) who spent all or part of last season playing in the division.
Cardinals (97 wins in 2013): Slightly better. The Cards have fixed a glaring weakness by signing Peralta to play shortstop, and they addressed another glaring weakness, outfield defense, by trading for Peter Bourjos. They did lose Beltran, but aging, no-defense sluggers are probably the most overrated class of players in baseball, perhaps even more than closers. And they'll be replacing him with some combination of Matt Adams and Oscar Taveras. The Cardinals are still going to be very good. I say only the Cardinals should be only slightly better above because improving on a 97-win season is very difficult, no matter how clever your offseason is.
Pirates (94): Worse. This could be its own post, but in brief: Burnett was one of the best pitchers in the National League last year, and the Pirates' defensive advantage is likely to shrink somewhat as other teams (like the Cardinals) get more aggressive with shifts. It's also worth noting that no one thought the Pirates were a playoff team heading into last season, and that, again, maintaining a 90-plus-win pace is tough. It wouldn't be a shock if the Bucs had a sort of consolidation year, especially if they don't add more talent by Opening Day -- someone I talked to at PirateFest compared them to the 2009 Rays, which makes a lot of sense. The Pirates will benefit, however, from having Gerrit Cole for a full season, and perhaps from midseason promotions of Gregory Polanco and/or Jameson Taillon. And if Burnett returns or the Pirates improbably do something else that's significant, all bets are off.
Reds (90): Worse. The Reds have lost Choo and are likely to lose Arroyo, and they haven't added anyone of consequence. They also lost Dusty Baker, although that might be addition by subtraction. Billy Hamilton should be a huge upgrade on the bases and a big one on defense, but losing Choo's OBP really hurts. Their Pythagorean record last year was actually 93-69, but I'd still expect a step backward from their 90-win 2013 total.
Brewers (74): Still not good. The Brewers lost Corey Hart, although he missed the entire year due to injury, and Norichika Aoki, who was rendered irrelevant with the emergence of Khris Davis. Their group of position players, led by Ryan Braun and defensive whizzes Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, is good. But their rotation is a bunch of fourth starters, and they have little talent on the way. (Seriously, look at some of these stat lines.) I'd still bet on a small improvement next year, since they underperformed their 3rd-order winning percentage and Braun should be back for the whole season.
Cubs (66): I mean, who knows. Quick, which Cubs position player produced the highest WAR this year? If you said Welington Castillo, you're either a Cubs fan or an even bigger nerd than me. Okay, let's try another one -- which three players project to be the Cubs' starting outfield this year? It's Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano and Nate Schierholtz. The Cubs have a very bright future, but most of their best young talents won't play for them next year. Much about their offseason remains unresolved -- they haven't yet traded Jeff Samardzija, and the Masahiro Tanaka situation still hasn't been resolved. It's safe to assume they'll be bad, however, particularly since they played much of last season with a group of key players (Garza, Feldman, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, etc.) who are no longer there. If they were to sign Tanaka, they still wouldn't resemble a playoff team, but they would probably win several more games.
So, of the other four teams in the division, only one has really gotten better, and I think even that is arguable, even though I've loved the Cardinals' offseason so far -- what they're doing will probably help them maintain their 97-win pace rather than taking them to another level. It's too bad for the Pirates that the one team to make proactive moves to get better was already the best one, but with Choo's departure and with the Brewers and Cubs probably continuing to struggle, there still should be plenty of opportunities for the Pirates to pick up wins.