If there were ever a division in which a team would be tempted to close up the blinds, batten down the hatches and reset the competitive window, it probably would be the National League Central. Every team in that division is going for it.
The Cubs have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons and are desperately trying to avoid the 1980s Bears fate of being a historically beloved all-time team that nonetheless won only one title. The Brewers just won the division, came within one game of their first World Series in 37 years and appear to be adding Yasmani Grandal. The Pirates added Chris Archer prior to last season's non-waiver Trade Deadline and might have the best rotation in the National League. And the Cardinals have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years, but they responded by bringing in Andrew Miller and Paul Goldschmidt. This is not a division for the weak of heart.
So you could hardly blame the Cincinnati Reds if they peeked their head up after a 95-loss season, said, "Uh, thanks, but no thanks," and went back to building toward 2024, or whenever. There's a ton of shrapnel exploding around this division; the Reds reasonably could decide to stay out of the way until the other four teams stop shelling each other. But that is not what the Reds have done.
The Reds, instead, have been as active as anyone in the division, bringing in Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and, most intriguingly, Yasiel Puig, immediately altering the face of their team and showing that they're tired of finishing in last place in this division, something they have done for four consecutive seasons. But have they done enough? Is there room in this division for them to move up? What's the plan here? The Reds are unquestionably better than they were last year. But are they better enough?
It is difficult to look at the Reds' lineup and not get excited. Check out the projected starters they could roll out every day:
C Tucker Barnhart
1B Joey Votto
2B Scooter Gennett
SS Jose Peraza
3B Eugenio Suarez
CF Scott Schebler/Puig
RF Puig/Jesse Winker
The Reds have too many corner outfielders and not enough center fielders; ironically enough, this looks like the year they could have maximized the use of Billy Hamilton in center field, to make up for any defensive deficiencies with all those corner outfielders. (Alas, they already released Hamilton.) The Reds reportedly are considering trading for a center fielder, but their best bet might be to muddle through for a month or two until they can call up top prospect Nick Senzel, a middle infielder who is blocked there in Cincinnati but could solve all sorts of issues in center. Senzel spent time in the outfield during instructional league play, and he could get a look there during Spring Training. If he is called up and is ready, the Reds have a potentially terrifying lineup. Imagine this:
That team would score a ton of runs in any stadium, let alone Great American Ball Park, a stadium so conducive to homers that Adam Dunn once hit a ball to Kentucky there. That is a nightmare for any opposing pitcher -- unrelenting, with a dangerous combination of speed, insane power and plate discipline. That'll wear a staff out for a whole week.
But, of course, the Reds rarely have an issue with their lineup, even if this is a particularly supercharged version. It's the rotation that always gets them. The Reds had the second-worst ERA in the National League in 2018, which was in fact an improvement over their last-place finish in '17. (They were next to last in '16, too.) It's a surprise that Kemp and Puig have been the headliner acquisitions this offseason, because the Reds had signaled that their major additions would be in the rotation. But they've made a couple there, of course, bringing in Wood and Roark, two pitchers who were key parts of winning teams' rotations just last season. The advantage the Reds have here is that a league-average pitcher would be a major improvement over what they had going. Their rotation now:
RHP Luis Castillo
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Tyler Mahle
The Reds could still add here: Derek Holland has said he has met with the team, and there is speculation surrounding Dallas Keuchel, a pitcher whose ground-ball tendencies would very much come in handy at that ballpark. It's safe to assume another pitcher or two is coming; if one of them is Keuchel, this could even be an above-average rotation, something the Reds haven't had in a half-decade. And remember, the Reds' bullpen was their strength last year; it certainly wasn't their rotation that kept them out of the National League basement in ERA.
So! This is all very exciting! Scary lineup, better rotation, solid bullpen. Go Reds, right? See you in October!
Well, the Reds did lose 95 games last year: It's a steep climb. And it's an open question whether they've still done enough. FanGraphs' Steamer projections have them as a 12-game improvement over last year's team, the largest jump in all of baseball; that even puts them, amazingly, tied with the defending division champion Brewers' projection (which probably merits its own column at some point). But that still puts them fourth in the division, a projected eight games behind the Cubs and Cardinals and a game behind the Pirates.
There's a lot of uncertainty in that lineup, too. Kemp, resurgence aside, is still quite old. There isn't a center fielder. Neither Peraza nor Barnhart have firmly established themselves as regular Major League hitters yet. And Puig, for all his joy and power, potentially could be an odd fit in Cincinnati. The lineup will be better, but everything has to fall perfectly for them to make up the ground they have to make up, and even then they might not get there. And that's still assuming Wood and Roark (and Castillo) can build off last year, and assuming they bring in another starter or two, and assuming the bullpen can maintain what it did in 2018.
That the Reds are trying to generate some excitement in Cincinnati in 2019 is an undeniable positive, but it's worth noting that history does not in fact end in '19. (Probably.) The team has a shocking number of free agents after this season: Kemp, Puig, Wood, Gennett and Roark. A team that trades for four guys whose contracts are up is usually a team that's going all-in for one particular season, but considering the Reds lost 95 games last year, and considering the strength of this division, that's quite a presumption on the Reds' part. They didn't give up any of their top-tier prospects in trades for those guys, but they gave up some. If the Reds don't win this year, was it worth it? Is getting out of last enough of a priority? It's always possible the Reds get something back if they fall out of the race and trade those players at the Deadline ... but doesn't that just put the Reds right back where they were?
The Reds still have a solid farm system, with Senzel coming this year and top prospects Taylor Trammell, Hunter Greene and Jonathan India right on his heels. But building for the future has gone on for a while now: Getting impatient about the future is the reason the Reds made all those trades in the first place. The Reds are going for it now. But what exactly are they going for?
Look, this is what you want out of a baseball team -- expending capital to make itself better and more enjoyable to watch. (And, with Puig and Kemp added to Votto, Suarez and the gang, the Reds instantly leap toward the top of any MLB.TV Premium must-watch rankings.) But the Reds sure do have a lot riding on 2019 all of a sudden. You want to make sure their eyes aren't bigger than their stomach. What the Reds are doing this offseason is exciting, and it's the type of activity you'd like to see more teams try. But if it goes wrong -- or even if it goes right, but just not right enough -- we may see why more teams don't. The Reds are interesting this year, again, at last. But interesting might only be good enough for fourth place in the NL Central. And maybe not even that.