CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals, by virtue of six division titles and seven playoff appearances since 2000, have rightfully been viewed as the kings of the National League Central. But there is a distinct possibility that their days are numbered and it's time for a new ruler in the division.
The Queen City is ready to be king, and it appears the time is right for a coup. Over the past four seasons, the Cardinals have won the division just once -- last year, when they were unceremoniously bounced from the Division Series in three straight games by the Dodgers. Their seven-year run, highlighted by their 2004 World Series title, is ancient history by today's "what have you done for me lately" standards.
But it is the emergence of a stellar young nucleus in Cincinnati, more than the Cardinals' recent slide, that starts talk of a shift in power in the NL Central. It may have taken the Reds 15 long years to get back to the postseason, but there is ample reason to believe this is an organization that has built itself for multiple seasons of contending, not just one.
"I think the biggest reason we feel confident about that is the nucleus of our club with young rising stars," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "We'll continue to get better over the next few years. The veterans we have are still at the point of their careers where they should be able to contribute for a few years. It's a good mix."
Most of the players that earned the Reds' 91 victories this season are under contract for 2011 and beyond, and that likely installs them as favorites to take the NL Central again next year. But it won't be easy.
As a small-market club with a $76 million payroll this season, there will be challenges in sustaining success. NL MVP leading candidate and first baseman Joey Votto is entering his first winter of arbitration eligibility, as is right fielder Jay Bruce. Both will likely get substantial raises, especially the All-Star Votto, who was among the top three in the National League in most offensive categories.
Drafting for impact
Five of the Reds' last six first-round picks were on the active roster at season's end.
*Mesoraco finished 2010 with Triple-A Louisville.
"We'll have to look at ways to contain our costs in some way," Jocketty said. "At some point, we'll talk long-term deals with them."
All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips is signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012. All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen has two years left on his deal. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera and left fielder Jonny Gomes have options for next season. Speedy center fielder Drew Stubbs, coming off 20 homers and 30 steals, just completed his first full season.
And how's this for a rotation battle shaping up next spring? Assuming Bronson Arroyo has his $11-million club option picked up, he will be joined by Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman, if he returns from the bullpen to a starter's role as expected. Except for Arroyo, the others are all 27 or younger.
Add in the stability of keeping manager Dusty Baker, who signed a two-year extension on Monday, and the Reds can spend this winter focusing on improving the club with complementary pieces.
"It's definitely a bright future here with Walt Jocketty and all he's done," reliever Nick Masset said. "I think he will keep building a good team as long as he's around."
Does that mean the balance of power has finally shifted in the NL Central? Not necessarily, according to others around the league.
"If they can lock guys up and have consistent play like they've had for the next three or four years, yeah, they should be good for the next three or four years," Astros infielder Geoff Blum said. "One year doesn't prove anything. Consistency is what gets you the accolades, and they survived this year and beat out everybody, so that's a good start."
It certainly wouldn't be wise to count out the Cardinals.
Of course, St. Louis still has its superstar core returning -- namely Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and dual rotation aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Busch Stadium also routinely draws 3 million fans a season and the revenue can help sustain a $94 million payroll.
"I think it could be a quick recovery for the Cardinals in the Central," Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus said. "I wouldn't call it a power shift, yet."
Neither would Cubs GM Jim Hendry, whose club won the Central in 2007 and '08.
"Everybody picked us to win the third year. The Cardinals won, and the whole world picked the Cardinals to win this year in a layup," Hendry said. "I look at it like it's an interchanging thing. Houston has had good years in the past and then they didn't, and Milwaukee's been in the mix. It's become a very good division that, in the last five years, five of the six clubs have either won it, been in it, [been] close, or made a run."
"It's a very volatile situation. That's why you have to admire a team that wins year in and year out," Baker said. "They're always trying to improve. They're always aware of the payroll. You have to keep the certain right guys and, regrettably, get rid of other guys. That's what makes it tough in modern baseball, because the mid-to-small market teams, you have financial parameters."
If the Reds were able to stay competitive, it wouldn't be the first small-market success story out of the Midwest. The Twins broke an 11-year run of futility with the American League Central title in 2002, using mostly a young core. No one was ready to say at the time that the balance of power shifted from the Indians to Minnesota.
The Twins backed it up by winning the AL Central the next two seasons, and six of the last nine years. They continually reload with talent from their rich farm system and via wise trades.
Don't think that the Reds weren't paying attention.
"It's very similar because of the market size," Jocketty said. "We do have some good young players coming up through the organization. That's why we've focused so much on scouting, player development and internationally."
The Reds finally started heading down the right path with that focus in 2004. After years of attempted shortcuts and "get rich quick" plans failed miserably, former GMs Dan O'Brien and Wayne Krivsky began looking inward. Jocketty and his staff took over the baseball operations in 2008 and deserve ample credit for getting Cincinnati to the next level.
The organizational bones of the Reds are strong, evidenced by all the homegrown players on the team this season, like Votto, Bruce, Stubbs, Cueto, catcher Ryan Hanigan -- and newcomers Wood, Leake, relievers Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek and Jordan Smith, outfielder Chris Heisey, third baseman Juan Francisco and infielder Chris Valaika.
Five of the last six Reds first-round Draft picks finished this season in the Majors -- Mike Leake (2009), Yonder Alonso (2008), Stubbs (2006), Bruce (2005) and Bailey (2004).
The 2007 top pick, catcher Devin Mesoraco, is rising fast and 2010 first-rounder Yasmani Grandal is also on the fast track. Prospects like shortstop Zach Cozart, infielder Todd Frazier, and power lefty reliever Phillipe Valliquette are just around the corner.
"Some of us are going to be here for a few more years, guys that are just getting started and making a name for themselves," said Bruce, who reached career highs with 25 home runs and 70 RBIs this season. "The goal is to sustain this, not just win now but for a long time."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.