The Reds have come a long way in less than a year, all the way up to average for a big league ball club, though still running their sixth straight losing season because they just weren't tight enough to win those three or four that might have made them a little more interesting.
The Reds were plenty interesting anyway, changing ownership, bringing in a new general manager at the start of spring training, then setting about the work of trading bats for pitchers, improving the club on the fly and almost building a fall-back contender. Just one year ago a blunt instrument of a baseball club, the Reds now are a flat instrument of a baseball club, thoroughly average at every position except for the two guys in the front of the rotation.
After all the flurry of the regular season, an odd silence has settled over the winter, when we expect to see the most dealing. After shuffling their cards all summer while they had games to play, the Reds are taking their silent night while everyone else in the game is scrambling.
One wonders if General Manager Wayne Krivsky is playing the offseason as an extension of the regular season in the NL Central, where the glory of victory in St. Louis rewarded the Cardinals for not damaging themselves as much as the Reds and Houston Astros. While the Astros refused to hit and the Reds still kicked games away last summer, the Cardinals simply lost a little less. Ending this war of attrition, the Cardinals strode victorious with the handsome sum of 83 wins.
Since then, though, the losses have mounted. St. Louis is down starting pitchers Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, Jeff Weaver and Mark Mulder, all free agents. The Cardinals have barely lifted a finger in response, adding only free agent Kip Wells.
The Astros took heavy losses this winter, when Andy Pettitte signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent. The loss of Pettitte lessens the chance Roger Clemens will pitch another four months this summer, though the Astros shouldn't plan on it anyway.
Without Pettitte and Clemens to join Roy Oswalt, the Astros have tried to fill in, trading for Jason Jennings from Colorado and signing Woody Williams as a free agent. But Oswalt-Jennings-Williams doesn't have the same ring as Clemens-Pettitte-Oswalt.
Perhaps, by laying low, the Reds are improving by comparison. Arguably, their two best players are starting pitchers Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Maybe Eric Milton or someone throws in a good season and the Reds look right with the contenders as far as starting pitching. Arroyo and Harang is better than Carpenter and whoever, though Oswalt and Jennings should be a formidable duo.
A thoroughly average club might stand a chance in 2007 as the National League Central leaders in St. Louis and Houston appear to be in decline while the Chicago Cubs finally step up and spend, only to do it about how we'd expect the Cubs to do it. That is, we would expect the Cubs to spend for 100 wins and end up with 85. But 85 might be a winner.
Clearly, the Cubs and new manager Lou Piniella had an understanding, because Piniella probably wouldn't have been attracted to the typical Cubs approach. In the past, the Cubs have spent enough on major league talent to look respectable, though not how one would expect of a big city ball club.
Piniella isn't the kind of manager to consider himself a genius, especially not after his unfortunate efforts in Tampa Bay. He's a firm believer in having major league players on his club, good players who are worth the money.
The Cubs won the bidding for Alfonso Soriano, never mind that they've already got a going concern in left field and really need a center fielder. If Soriano plays left, where he's better suited, then the Cubs don't find out about Matt Murton, who is going to become somebody this year if it's ever going to happen.
But they've got Soriano, and they'll put him at the top of the order. Add in Derek Lee's return for the full season, and the Cubs suddenly are two bats better.
After spending $17 million on Soriano for the next eight years, the Cubs spent another $17 million per year, adding Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to the rotation headed by Carlos Zambrano. Lilly is 170 innings, 13-11ish, gives up an earned run every couple innings. They're getting a useful pitcher, but is he a better No. 2 than Harang or Jennings?
The Cubs need someone to be better than Lilly, if not quite as good as Zambrano. Among the several candidates is Marquis, a glutton for punishment last year with his 6.02 ERA in 194 innings. But if they get back the Marquis of 2004, their problem is solved.
Of course, that goes for a lot of guys. If they get back the Kerry Wood of 1998, their problem is solved. If they get back the Mark Prior from 2003, their problem is solved.
The Cubs also own a couple tall left handers, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall, who could be imposing. They've got Wade Miller, Glendon Rusch, Neal Cotts and Ryan Dempster lying around, to say nothing of other prospects.
No other team in the division ends the calendar year with so many options and possibilities in the pitching staff. If all the Cubs' pitching is on board this year, Soriano and Lee will produce enough by themselves to take the Cubs into October.
Thus is stated the key matter as the division stands right now. The Astros bought themselves Carlos Lee to play left field, drop a big bat behind Lance Berkman and maybe start the clubs scoring runs again, but it won't matter if the Cubs pitch.
The Reds have basically traded Rich Aurilia, Royce Clayton and Jason LaRue for Jeff Conine, Alex Gonzalez and Chad Moeller. It doesn't seem very exciting, but they could have added three better hitters and it won't matter if the Cubs pitch.
The Cardinals have added nothing. Even if they brought in another hitter, though, it won't matter if the Cubs pitch. The other clubs in the division, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, don't matter anyway.
The chance exists, of course, that the Cubs won't pitch. They wouldn't be the Cubs if that chance didn't exist.
The other contenders should keep trying anyway. But if the Cubs pitch, it won't matter.