LAS VEGAS -- The sense was that the Cincinnati Reds would be aggressive this winter in adding Major League talent, but when they swung a trade with the Nationals on Wednesday for right-hander Tanner Roark, it was official: There's no rebuilding in the National League Central.
The defending division champion Brewers, the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Reds are all going for it, and the Pirates, despite trading away 2018 Opening Day starter Ivan Nova a day earlier, are coming off a season in which they made a major midseason trade for Chris Archer. When one looks at the division as a whole, the NL Central may be baseball's most complete in terms of competitiveness from top to bottom.
The Brewers' task is to remain on top.
"It probably is unique in the game right now, but it's not a bad thing," said Milwaukee GM David Stearns. "I've always thought of our division as a competitive division. … We have to do what we think is in the best interest of our team. We can't get preoccupied with what the rest of the teams in our division are doing.
"That's worked for us so far, and that's the way we'll continue to do business."
This winter, the plan for doing business is to remain patient. The Brewers are returning the core of a team that won 96 games during the regular season and fell one win shy of the World Series. So while teams like the Reds and Cardinals (who traded for D-backs star Paul Goldschmidt last week) have added pieces and plan to add more, the Brewers may wait to find value at second base and potentially at catcher and in the pitching staff.
Manager Craig Counsell departed the Winter Meetings late Wednesday, and Stearns was contemplating an earlier flight home on Thursday, so it appeared more likely than not that the Brewers will not make a significant move in Las Vegas.
That's fine, Counsell said. There is no extra credit for transactions turned in before the New Year.
"There are going to be newcomers, and it's going to be different, but we feel like we'll be in a position to certainly try to make a good run at it," Counsell said. "We're all excited about it, for sure. I think everybody knows the season finished [one round earlier than we hoped], and we have something left to do."
The Reds, meanwhile, have the first of what they have said they hope are multiple additions to the starting rotation. That market was moving on Wednesday, with free agents J.A. Happ (two years plus an option from the Yankees, financial terms not immediately clear), Charlie Morton (two years, $30 million from the Rays) and Lance Lynn (three years, $30 million from the Rangers) working to finalize agreements while the Reds and Nationals made the Roark trade.
"It does feel good to get one done here, just because the last few years, you get on that plane to go home and no matter how much progress you've made, if there's not something tangible, sometimes it can be discouraging," said Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams.
"It's going to be a great division. No question," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "Last year, the two best records in the National League were in our division. I think that the Cardinals obviously made a big move already with getting Goldschmidt. The Pirates made some big moves last year at the Deadline, and they were not a lot of fun to play with their pitching staff down the stretch. And the Reds are going to be aggressive, there's no question. They've been building and accumulating talent for a number of years now, and I think they feel it's sort of go time. We saw how impressive they were with their coaching staff, and I think that they're going to start making player moves also."
In every other division across baseball, there is at least one team in the midst of a rebuild like the one the Brewers embarked upon during the transition from GM Doug Melvin to Stearns during the second half of 2015. In the American League, those teams include at least Baltimore in the East, Kansas City in the Central and Seattle in the West. In the NL, the Marlins have been selling in the East and the Giants out West are beginning a transition under new boss Farhan Zaidi.
"Everyone [in the NL Central] is trying to get better, and that's a good thing for baseball," Stearns said.
Another chance to improve comes Thursday with the Rule 5 Draft. Pro scouting director Bryan Gale was slated to make a presentation to fellow club officials late Wednesday on potential players of interest to the Brewers, who have four openings on the 40-man roster.
Milwaukee has the 26th pick, but it's common for teams to move up via a cash trade if they want a particular player.
"For us to take a Rule 5 player, it's going to have to be a player who we think can really contribute on the team," Stearns said. "We're not going to have a roster spot devoted to a frozen player who we don't think can contribute."