As the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels spent unprecedented amounts of money during the offseason to try to establish dominance, a battle between rivals in the Midwest could be the most intense race of the 2013 season.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds have won the National League Central Division in three of the past four seasons, and each team has made moves this offseason to bolster their chances to do so again next year.
The Cardinals haven’t added much, but they also didn’t have many holes to fill. They signed left-handed relief pitcher Randy Choate to a three-year, $7.5 million contract to fill the team’s biggest need in the bullpen. They also signed bench player Ty Wigginton to a two-year, $5 million deal, but unless Wigginton comes up with a late-inning homer against the Reds, that signing is negligable.
The Reds, who beat the Cardinals by nine games last year to win the division, made more substantial moves. They resigned reliever Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract to be the team’s closer for the foreseeable future and resigned leftfielder Ryan Ludwick for $15 million across two years. The Reds also traded for outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians to be their centerfielder and leadoff hitter next year.
The Broxton signing should allow flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to be in the starting rotation next year, and the trade for Choo fills a massive hole at the top of the lineup.
Drew Stubbs, who went to the Indians in the trade, held that spot last season, but he hit just .213 with a .277 on-base percentage and 166 strikeouts. By contrast, Choo hit .283 with a .373 on-base percentage and struck out 150 times. That’s still a lot of strikeouts for a leadoff hitter, but Choo provides more power and is certainly an upgrade in a spot the Reds tried to improve at last season’s trading deadline.
Although neither team has made nearly as many moves as several other teams so far in the offseason, the Cardinals and Reds have fortified their rosters to stage quite a battle throughout the 2013 season. They’ll do so without handing out contracts worth more than $100 million, as the Dodgers did by signing pitcher Zack Greinke and Angels did by signing outfielder Josh Hamilton.
The Cardinals and Reds have a recent history full of intense games that have at times led to shouting matches and even a full-out brawl in 2010. With both teams loaded and ready for battle heading into the season, one might think this could be a season series full of more temper tantrums and games that will leave blood boiling for both teams and both fanbases.
But this year’s rivalry might take a more professional turn. Both the Cardinals and Reds know each organization has a good team, and they will likely be the two strongest contenders for the NL Central Division title.
In past years, the Reds were an up-and-coming team that felt it had to rough up the more established Cardinals to gain entrance to the top of the division. Those days are gone. General manager Walt Jocketty has built a roster with a good starting rotation, solid bullpen and increasingly potent lineup filled with stars such as Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce.
This year’s Cardinals-Reds rivalry could be similar to recent battles in the AL West between the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Both teams had some of the most talented rosters in the league, and they stuck strictly to playing solid, intense yet not over-the-top baseball games.
Although it might be fun for fans to watch for extracurricular activities on the field and in the dugouts similar to a playoff hockey game, it might be even more impressive to watch a season series that has good, high-quality baseball.
So while big-market teams on the West Coast battle each other with dollar bills in the offseason, actual games between the Cardinals and Reds next season could create the most interesting division races in all of baseball.