ST. LOUIS -- With their first-place finish in the National League Central this past season, the Cardinals became the division's first team to capture three consecutive titles since doing so from 2004-06.
But the division landscape is quite different now than it was then, when St. Louis cruised to NL Central titles by margins of 13 games (2004) and 11 ('05) before topping a mediocre division in '06. This year's NL Central, albeit top heavy, fostered a season of attrition, with the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs jostling for prime position while asserting themselves as also built for the long term.
The Bucs' recent rebuild has reaped three straight playoff appearances. The Cubs are ascending behind a bundle of young talent. And the Cards have found a successful model for sustained excellence. The rise of the NL Central hasn't been all-inclusive -- the Brewers and Reds finished with a combined .407 winning percentage in 2015 -- but it has fostered the need to keep up or else be left behind.
So how might that affect offseason activity? General managers won't necessarily act just because a division foe does, but following a season in which the NL Central boasted three 97-plus-win clubs, there is a realization that being good may no longer be good enough.
"Now, with what's going on in the National League, it's a better approach to say, 'In order to compete with our teams in our division, we have to attain a really high standard,'" said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. "We have to put ourselves in a position with the chance to be great."
"We don't spend a lot of time, necessarily, trying to keep up with the Joneses," added Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, whose club has advanced to the postseason each of the past five seasons. "But you have to be cognizant of what your division looks like, and clearly Chicago and Pittsburgh are built for now and for the future. But so are the Cardinals."
Despite becoming the Majors' first 100-win team since 2011, the Cards feel compelled to make some fairly significant tweaks to their roster this offseason, knowing that it took that 100th win to uncork a division celebration.
"We're going to spend the next three months trying to get better," Mozeliak said. "And guess what? After that, we're going to try to continue to get better. You look at the Central, we get it -- it's tough. And candidly, it's probably going to get tougher, because Cincinnati is going to commit and so is Milwaukee. It's a tough division to play in right now."
Both the Reds and Brewers, frustrated by watching three other division teams find such enduring traction, have shuffled front-office assignments in order to position their respective clubs for calculated rebuilds.
After 13 seasons as the Brewers' GM, Doug Melvin stepped down in late August. He has since been replaced by analytics-minded David Stearns, who, at 30, is baseball's youngest GM. The Reds recently announced that Dick Williams will assume the GM post in Cincinnati as Walt Jocketty takes a new title as president of baseball operations.
Members of both organizations have acknowledged the challenges of catching back up with the three top NL Central teams.
"We want to be a part of that," Stearns said. "We want to make this division better. We want to make this a four-team division, not a three-team division. … Those are three very well-run organizations. We know in order to compete with them, we also need to be an elite organization. It's the best division in baseball, and we want to make it even better."
"We have really, really stiff competition in our division," added Reds first baseman Joey Votto. "That's what we have to recognize. We can't go in with a half effort because of how good those three teams are. Three of probably the best five teams in all of baseball are in our division. These teams are really well put together, well-rounded, really dangerous. They're good, it seems, at every aspect of the game. We have to exceed them."
Aware of the standard set by the NL Central this season, the five clubs must now determine how to distinguish themselves. Will there be some gamesmanship ahead? Perhaps. In fact, the Cardinals' decision to make John Lackey a qualifying offer may have (even if unintentionally) made him less desirable to other division clubs believed to have interest in the free-agent starter.
But it's unlikely to be so much outmaneuvering one another as it is building a club that can both withstand the steep division competition and keep up with it.
"It is a very strong division right now," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "They are three teams that are in their sweet spot right now. That makes it challenging, for sure. But in another way, it's a good thing because it's so close to us, you see it. You have a better understanding of the challenge in front of you."