We're less than a month before spring training begins and as it stands right now, the National League Central is the only division in baseball where every team is truly "going for it."
Everybody knows the Cubs and Brewers are aiming to contend after playoff appearances last year and the Cardinals clearly are hoping to end their three-year October drought after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. The Pirates have been quiet this winter (as they are every offseason), but remember, they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela last July.
But the Reds? The Reds have low-key had the best offseason of any team in the division.
That's not to say Cincinnati will be contending for the division crown in 2019, but they've certainly addressed their biggest two weaknesses this winter — starting pitching and overall depth.
The Reds acquired Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to bolster their lineup and outfield, but the work they've done to the rotation could be a real game-changer.
Cincinnati acquired a trio of starting pitchers this winter in trades — Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. All three guys have varying levels of concerns based on past performance or health, but it's very clear they're all improvements over what the Reds had to work with as starters in 2018. Only five teams had a rotation with a worse ERA than the Reds last season (5.02).
Here's Cincinnati's 2018 Opening Day rotation:
Here's the 2019 projected rotation:
You don't have to be a baseball expert to know the latter rotation is a more desirable 1-through-5 and has the potential to be significantly better.
Castillo has flashed top-of-the-rotation potential but has struggled with consistency. DeSclafani went 18-18 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP from 2015-16 before missing all of 2017 with an elbow injury and working his way back in only 21 starts last year.
Wood has barely topped 150 innings the last two seasons with the Dodgers, but he went 25-10 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. Gray — the latest acquisition — has been an ace at various points in his career (2.88 ERA, 1.13 WHIP from 2013-15) despite a tough 2018. Roark was the most overlooked guy in the Nationals rotation the last few years and while he's certainly not a No. 1, he's 59-50 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.21 WHIP as a starting pitcher.
Who knows how the three new guys will perform in a hitter's environment like Great American Ballpark and in front of a new defense, but the improvement in talent and potential is undeniable. Plus, only Roark is over 30 and only he and Wood are free agents after 2019.
Everybody knows the Reds can swing it and Puig and Kemp are solid factors to supplement a lineup that already features one of the best hitters in the game (Joey Votto), two of the more underrated stars in baseball (Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett) and an up-and-coming speedster (Jose Peraza). Plus, young outfielder Jesse Winker is proving more and more that he's making the most of his time learning from Votto, as the 25-year-old has a .299 average and .397 on-base percentage in 136 games over his big-league career.
The Reds also feature an underrated bullpen that is returning every major piece that contributed to a No. 16 ranking in MLB in reliever ERA last year.
Oh yeah, and the Reds have the sixth-best farm system according to FanGraphs, so they have some impressive young talent coming up through the system that can either help augment the big-league club or be dangled as trade headliners.
Also consider this — from May 8-July 31 in 2018, here's how each team in the NL Central fared:
This was a stretch in time after the Reds made a managerial change and before the trade deadline. Sure, it's cherry-picking a point in the schedule, but this is nearly half a season's worth of recent data that shows the Reds can hang with the top of the division.
And they've very clearly improved this winter. That doesn't always translate to on-field wins, but the Reds can't win any games in December or January. All they can do is try to improve their roster and increase depth and they've certainly done that.
If nothing else, the Reds could loom as a serious spoiler down the stretch. They play the Cubs and Cardinals 7 times each from August to September and face off against the Brewers three times in the final two months.
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