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St. Louis Cardinals V Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati''s Trevor Bauer pitches against the Cardinals in the third inning of a game on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — With front office execs from almost all of the 29 other clubs and definitely one from each of his National League Central rivals gathered in the same ballroom this past week, Cincinnati president of baseball operations Dick Williams surveyed the group and grinned as he considered the Reds’ position entering this offseason.

“I’m waiting,” he said. “I’m waiting for everybody in the division to announce their rebuilds so that we can have a year.”

He was definitely joking.

His team doesn’t need that help.

Fresh off a sixth consecutive losing season and a fourth-place finish in the NL Central, Cincinnati set off a few sparks of contention this past summer, like flint striking steel before igniting a fire. Pitching became the accelerate.

The Reds’ team ERA (4.18) ranked fourth in the National League, behind the Cardinals and Dodgers, two playoff teams, and the Cubs. Only four NL teams had a rotation with a lower ERA than the Reds’ 4.12 — three of them made the playoffs and not one of them plays in a stadium as cozy as Great American Ball Park. At the annual general manager meetings held this week, executives from two different division rivals mentioned manager David Bell’s Reds as the rearview-mirror contender everyone should see coming for 2020. They’re closer than the standings appear.

They have payroll room to spend, an offense to revive, and an updated approach to pitching that is giving of tell-tale signs.

“I think there’s a chance to be a really impactful club,” Williams said, clearly not joking. “Pitching-wise it was just so different from the way we had lived through the previous two or three years. To be able to go out there every night and feel like you had a chance. That was such a difference. Really helps your team a lot. Helps all of it. If we could have put some more runs on the board early in some games, I think it could have changed the whole trajectory.”

As offense soared around baseball, two teams in the National League saw a bump in runs scored of less than 10 from 2018 to 2019: the Cardinals and Reds each scored only five more runs. The Reds saw a slide in their on-base percentage, from ninth in the majors in 2018 to 21st in 2019, and Williams drew a line between the sagging offense and the strain of one-run games. The Reds lost 33 one-run games, by far the most in the majors. Since 2016 only the 2017 Phillies had more (36).

The Reds have advertised an intention to be a player in the free-agent market, and they’ve been linked by reports to shortstop Didi Gregerious and outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, two offensive upgrades. Sources also have described the Reds as a suitor for Marcell Ozuna, an All-Star before his two seasons with the Cardinals and a left fielder who could cause a ruckus in GABP’s dimensions.

Williams stressed that a goal of the offseason must be “to create a little more breathing room for our pitchers.” Moves already made this year have fortified that group.

Acquiring pitching was the focus of last winter for the Reds and it was the payoff during the summer. Sonny Gray, acquired via trade, received Cy Young Award votes and had the seventh-best ERA in the majors. At the trade deadline, the Reds landed Trevor Bauer with an eye on having the progressive righthander a leader for the rotation in 2020. Williams called the trade “a head start on our shopping list.”

At season’s end, the Reds then doubled down on a modernized pitching development structure that Bauer had long advocated and Cincinnati had long needed.

The Reds hired Bauer’s friend and pitching confidant Kyle Boddy to serve as director of pitching initiatives while also working at his Driveline Baseball pitching workshop. Cincinnati promoted Caleb Cotham to serve as director of pitching. He spent time with Boddy at Driveline, which calls itself a facility for “world-class pitching and hitting training driven by data.”

Boddy wrote a book, “Hacking the Kinetic Chain,” that details his process for “developing high-velocity pitchers.” Driveline has been at the vanguard of baseball’s pitch craft era.

Boddy and Cotham will work with returning pitching coach Derek Johnson, a highly regarded coach, to maintain a pipeline of pitching. Cincinnati believes it provide the fuel for its contention.

“All of those guys were (already) really a great pitching team for us,” general manager Nick Krall said. “We’d have discussion down in the clubhouse every day about little things and the little things started to add up to big things we should do differently, and in the end we needed to revamp what we’re doing. And it helped guys get better. (Johnson) helped guys get better. The entire pitching development department helped guys get better.

“They made a tweak. They got pushed forward. And they were all better,” Krall continued. “We really saw changes. Some were simple. Some were complex. It made us all see we need to continue to build on this group.”

The improvements were tangible, statistically. The Reds led the National League with 1,552 strikeouts, but also allowed the second-fewest hits in the game, 1,270. For the first time in Reds history they had two pitchers, Gray and Luis Castillo, with at least 200 strikeouts, and newcomer Bauer has twice had 200 strikeout seasons in his career.

Six teams had at least two starters crack the top 20 for ERA this year. Two, Houston and Washington, met in the World Series. The Cardinals lost in the NLCS, the Dodgers lost in the NLDS, and the remaining two were Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom’s Mets and the Reds. Anthony DeSclafani had a 3.49 ERA after the All-Star break to rank 11th in the NL. The Reds’ ERA had not ranked higher than 24th in the majors the previous four consecutive seasons. In 2017, their ERA mushroomed to 5.17, worst in the NL. As if the walls of its ballpark were closing in on them, the Reds had not been top 10 since 2013.

That summer, they ranked fourth, at 3.38.

They also won an NL wild-card playoff berth.

“We really struggled pitching from 2014-15 through the end of last year,” Krall said. “You look at our ballpark. You should score runs in our ballpark. If you can pitch in our ballpark, you should be able to pitch anywhere. So, that’s something at the end of the day we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to score more runs than the other teams. Some teams outslug. Some teams just pitch better. If you can do both, if you can combine the ability to improve your pitching . . .”

Krall paused and left the rest of the sentence unsaid.

The trade for Bauer allows the Reds to bring back four incumbents for the rotation: Gray, Castillo, Bauer, and DeSclafani.

Gray and Castillo were All-Stars in 2019, Bauer an All-Star in 2018. It’s a nucleus that feels like a throwback — and yet will be outfitted with a cutting-edge approach. For years, the Cardinals, the defending division champs, asserted their hold on the NL Central by developing and deploying resolute pitching, and this year was no different. Pitching was the force behind their title, their return to the postseason. And there could be something familiar about the team that hosts the Cardinals when they begin the defense of that title, on opening day 2020 in Cincinnati. A move here, an added bat there, toss in a Joey Votto revival, and the Reds the look of a contender.

Just don’t call them competitive.

“I hate the word, ‘competitive,’” Krall said. “I hate the word ‘competitive’ because that means you played just good enough to lose. The goal is to win. That’s what you want to do. When you see that and that’s your goal it’s not just to build a team for now, it’s to build a sustainable winning organization. And that’s our goal.”

Cardinals' concerns for the offseason

(Originally written in late October)