As the baseball calendar flipped to 2019, you didn’t have to look hard to find a veritable hype machine for the depth of the National League’s Central Division.
The Chicago Cubs seemed eager for another chance for their emerging core to add to their 2016 success, the Milwaukee Brewers boasted the best player in the league and were poised for a second consecutive playoff run, and the St. Louis Cardinals had just landed Paul Goldschmidt in an attempt to end their minor postseason drought. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the Pittsburgh Pirates, but even they looked poised to rally around their underdog image for one more season, as the Chris Archer deal from the previous summer suggested.
Then, there were the Cincinnati Reds, who after five years in the doldrums had swung big for the likes of Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray, and others in an attempt to give their overhauled dugout staff enough potency to again compete. And while the Reds ultimately fell flat in their attempts to take the division by storm, the division itself largely lived up to its reputation in the regular season, as a trio of teams made for a competitive race down the stretch.
As things stand this very moment, there’s a much different mood hanging over the Central than there was just a half-year ago.
On Monday, the Pirates announced they’d fired longtime GM Neal Huntington, who joined manager Clint Hurdle in being dismissed after what turned out to be an incredibly unlucky and unprofessional 5th place finish in 2019. That’s on the heels of Chicago parting ways with high profile manager Joe Maddon and turning to David Ross in the ever-popular ‘turn back the clock and cross your fingers it simply works out’ move seen by front offices across the game - and that doesn’t even get to the soon-to-be public spat between the club and superstar Kris Bryant over his service time manipulation, something that will play out in the coming weeks. That’s 40% of the division going through major overhaul.
The Beers and Cardinals do boast much more stable frames at the moment, but that doesn’t exactly mean they’re on rock-solid foundations at the moment, either. Milwaukee is set to lose Yasmani Grandal to free agency, where he’ll perhaps be the most sought-after free agent position player on the market. Mike Moustakas is set for free agency, too, while Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain head for the 2020 season at ages 36 and 34, respectively. Meanwhile, St. Louis has each of Marcell Ozuna, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha headed for free agency, while their established trio of Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Carlos Martinez all looked like shells of their former selves for much of the 2019 season.
What I’m getting at here, I think, is that while the Cincinnati Reds currently have handfuls of very large questions to answer this winter in their own right, it’s not a landscape that is at all similar to how things stood this time last year when they eschewed the fact that the division appeared to be a juggernaut and gave themselves a puncher’s chance with their moves anyway. They still need to find offense in a big, big way. They still need to revamp a bullpen that was worn thin by season’s end. They still need to sort out who is going to play where given a versatile but still largely undefined position-player pool. And yes, they still need to spend some of that money they keep talking about to fix those problems, since their farm system isn’t as strong as it was a year ago.
But unlike last year, perhaps that all seems to be more of a rational thing to commit to, as they hill they need to climb doesn’t seem quite so steep. If anything, the Reds may even be entering the hot stove season with footing as sound as each of their division peers, and are doing so in the wake of committing publicly to getting the kinds of players that will make the 2020 season a successful one.
The Reds still have several teams they’ll need to pass, to be sure, and it’s certainly not like those clubs are going to simply remain idle all winter while the Reds make moves. Still, it certainly feels like this winter is shaping up much better timing-wise for the Reds to make some major win-now moves than at any other point in the team’s recent history, and that’s a good thing considering it sure appears like they’re planning to do just that.