While the rest of the NL made minor moves, the defending division champion Cardinals made a 1-2 punch to fortify their rotation. That doesn't make them the favorites on MLB odds but it does get them closer to the L.A. Dodgers.
Cardinals Are Big Winners
With the loss of Jaime Garcia for the season and an uncertain return for 2013 postseason star Michael Wacha, who has been out since mid-June and isn't a sure thing to return this season, the defending NL champion Cardinals knew they had to do something with their rotation. They were tied to big-name pitchers such as Jon Lester and David Price, but either of those two would have cost a few of the Cardinals' top prospects. St. Louis likes to hoard its stellar young players -- it's why the franchise is always competitive.
So instead the Cardinals acquired Justin Masterson from Cleveland and John Lackey from Boston. To get Masterson, the Cards gave up a minor-league outfielder who wasn't one of the crown jewels of the farm system. For Lackey, the Cardinals gave up two major-league players it really didn't need any more: pitcher Joe Kelly and outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig. Kelly wouldn't have stayed in the rotation with the two additions. Craig was excellent last year, leading the majors in hitting with runners in scoring position, but he was hitting only .237 overall this year. He lost his first-base job to Matt Adams, and dealing Craig opens up right field for top overall prospect Oscar Taveras to play every day there. Taveras would have had to be included in any deal for Price, for sure. Maybe Lester too.
Masterson (4-6, 5.51) has struggled in Cleveland and is actually on the disabled list, but he will debut Saturday. He was a very good 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA last year and has pitched much better against the weaker NL lineups in his career. He also will become a free agent so that's additional motivation. Lackey, who likely debuts Tuesday, has one year left on his deal at $500,000, which is ridiculously cheap. He was 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA in Boston and his numbers should only improve in the NL as well. In his one start vs. an NL team this season, Lackey blanked Atlanta over 6.1 innings.
Best of the Rest
The Milwaukee Brewers had to have their collective jaws drop when they saw what NL Central rival St. Louis did in fortifying its rotation. The Brewers also were in on Lester and Price, but their only major move was acquiring Arizona outfielder Gerardo Parra. He is batting just .259 but is a two-time Gold Glove winner who can play every outfield position. He and Khris Davis will likely split at-bats or Parra will come in for defensive purposes at the end of games.
With the Washington Nationals likely to be without Ryan Zimmermann the rest of the regular season due to a serious hamstring injury, they added some infield help with Cleveland shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. He will likely play second with the Nats. Usual second baseman Anthony Rendon is playing third with Zimmerman out and Danny Espinosa is at second. Cabrera (.246, 9 HRs, 40 RBIs) is a major offensive upgrade over Espinosa (.217, 6 HRs, 21 RBIs).
Atlanta acquired super utility-man Emilio Bonifacio and specialist lefty reliever James Russell from the Cubs. Not splashy moves but they fill two holes. .... The Marlins got pitcher Jarred Cosart from Houston. They might be a threat if Jose Fernandez was healthy. Next year, look out.
What Does It All Mean?
The Cardinals are +110 favorites on MLB odds to win the NL Central and that seems like a sure thing now. Milwaukee (+140) didn't do enough to hold off St. Louis. The Nationals were already -350 NL East favorites, and I expected them to win that without making any deal. Cabrera will help. Atlanta (+140) didn't do enough but should be a wild-card lock because the Pirates and Reds did squat. The Dodgers remain +160 NL favorites and nothing has changed to take them out of that role despite L.A. standing pat. The Dodgers still have Clayton Kershaw, and he can beat anyone at any time.