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Is the NL Central still bad enough for the Cincinnati Reds to win it?

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Taking stock as the calendar turns to June.

Cincinnati Reds v Chicago Cubs
This is an old picture, obviously.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres entered the 2021 season with the two most potent, star-packed rosters in at least the National League, if not all of baseball. And, as we’ve reached June, neither is currently in first place in their own division, as the upstart San Francisco Giants and their veteran-laden roster currently claim ownership of the NL West.

With the MLB playoff format in 2021 reduced back to just 10 total teams, that means the trio of division winners in the NL and just a pair of wild card clubs will get postseason action this year. Right now, all signs point to the NL West providing both wild card clubs, barring a significant change of course, putting the onus on winning the division outright for all clubs in the NL East and NL Central.

None of that is really news for the Cincinnati Reds, of course. Being one of the 5 best National League clubs was never their M.O. when making cost-cut after cost-cut last winter. That would’ve required outlays of cash and bold acquisitions in a winter that had numerous top names on the market. Instead of prioritizing that, and going toe to toe with the western clubs who put their money behind attempts at being great, it seemed the Reds instead chose to focus instead on a more insular goal in the NL Central, a division devoid of any great teams, often devoid of ambitious front offices, and perhaps winnable if the right number of lucky things broke their way.

The St. Louis Cardinals did appear to be the cream of that thin crop prior to the start of the season, and had shown ample ambition with the fleecing of the Colorado Rockies for star 3B Nolan Arenado. Their pitching staff looked a bit threadbare, however, and the thought was that could hold them back if things clicked for the rest of their division rivals. So far, though, Arenado’s 140 OPS+ has been exactly as advertised in St. Louis, John Gant has emerged out of nowhere as a reliever-turned-ace to pair with Jack Flaherty, and they’re humming along just a half-game behind the division leading Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs, of course, lept to the division lead after taking 2 of 3 against the Reds over the weekend. Their offseason was less decisive than that of St. Louis, as they made the odd combination of dumping Yu Darvish to San Diego for a cache of far-off prospects only to later turn tail and sign Joc Pederson, Jake Arrieta, and Trevor Williams. While their pitching staff still seems to be less that imposing, their getting excellent work from their trio of free-agent-to-be lineup cogs this year, as each of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, and Anthony Rizzo are again powering their offense in their walk years. Much like the Cardinals, it’s a club that is seemingly barreling on about as well as expectations could have predicted so far.

The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, sit just 1.5 games back in the division, and still look like a club that probably has the highest upside of the group. Their rotation is positively intimidating, with each of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta at times looking like the single most filthy pitcher in all of baseball. The only thing holding them back so far has been hitting, and that’s largely been due to the likes of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain having been banged up and/or sidelined for much of the year and Jackie Bradley, Jr. struggling mightily. Still, this is a club that not only made significant moves late in the winter, but also continues to show ambition in attempts to get the most out of this particular year, as they just recently acquired Willy Adames from Tampa to address a shortstop issue that they’ve tried repeatedly to address over the last calendar year.

Over in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are one of the 30 Major League Baseball franchises, still.

That’s the division at the moment. It’s still one without a single club that looks poised to run away with it, although the three clubs that actually looked interested in being decent this year are the ones ahead of the Reds in the standings right now.

The Reds, as you’ve well noticed, were a club that trimmed away solid big league pieces over the winter without replacing any of them from outside the organization, and instead entered the 2021 season with fingers crossed that the shallower roster would still be able to navigate this season. Not only have they been hit by the injury bug like most every other club out there, but they’ve seen some of the pieces on whom they were doubly counting on this season fall almost completely flat. Losing Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani could have perhaps been palatable if Luis Castillo had continued to emerge as an ace and Michael Lorenzen triumphantly returned to the starting rotation, but instead we’ve yet to see a pitch from Lorenzen while Castillo has morphed into perhaps the least effective starting pitcher in all of baseball. On top of that, Eugenio Suarez went from being an out-of-the-box potential solution to the shortstop void to a hitter completely lost both at the plate and with the glove, a combination that’s helped sink the Reds to just about the lowest-end of our expectations for them this year so far.

The Reds right now are hoping for the quick return of Joey Votto, and that he’ll return to the good version of Joey Votto even quicker. They’re hoping for the return of Mike Moustakas, too, and that he’ll ever turn into the cornerstone piece they hoped they’d signed a year and a half ago. They’re hoping Nick Senzel is back in less than a month and that he, too, can somehow morph quickly into a player who can outperform projections this year. They’re also hoping Castillo and Suarez can somehow channel the players they were prior to this dismal year and turn things completely on their head.

The question is, though, whether that entire combination will be good enough for them to claw through a trio of teams within their division that not only look just as good (or better) on paper, but who also managed to actually get off to good starts through the season’s first two months. On top of that, the Reds will be trying to do so with trade season looming ever closer and an ownership group over their shoulder who’s shown ample willingness to cut costs as the priority over winning at any and all chances they see fit.

That means the clock is very much ticking on this group. If they’re still treading water just below the .500 mark in another three weeks, four weeks, just how hard will the teams owners really want to hold on to Wade Miley and the few millions owed his way if a team already in contention comes calling? Which contender out there wouldn’t want Nick Castellanos the way he’s mauling baseballs these days? Sonny Gray is the kind of rock solid rotation cog that would be appealing to any good club in any year, but especially in this season where simply eating enough innings to reach the finish line is paramount.

Maybe the rest of the Central will begin to crumble concurrently with a timely Reds charge now that summer is on the horizon. That needle-threading combination was the best case scenario this Reds club had during their winter of subtractions anyway. But the window for that to materialize is beginning to close already now that the calendar shows June, and the odds that we’ll see this group held together beyond July if things haven’t already begun to turn is slim.