CINCINNATI -- As members of the Reds took to the highways and by-ways on the annual caravan, they were fully aware that their National League Central rivals have been trying to block their expressway to another division title.
The defending division champs, Cincinnati's winter moves primarily consisted of locking up its young core of talent to multiyear contracts. The only players brought in from the outside were complementary additions in backup shortstop Edgar Renteria, left-handed-hitting outfielder Fred Lewis and Dontrelle Willis, who signed a Minor League deal to try and earn a spot in the bullpen.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs made major additions in an effort to unseat the Reds.
Dusty Baker certainly took notice.
"It is tough. I was watching MLB [Network] and ESPN -- every day somebody in our division was improving," the Reds' skipper said. "I was like 'Oh no, they got this guy and that guy.' You look around, some of the teams in our division don't like what happened last year, and I don't blame them.
"Our thing is we just want to get better. I've looked at some of the improvements other teams are making. But hopefully our improvement just comes from experience."
The Cardinals signed slugger Lance Berkman and shortstop Ryan Theriot. The Cubs added pitchers Matt Garza and Kerry Wood and first baseman Carlos Pena. And the Brewers did the most upgrading by purging top prospects in trades for rotation ace Zack Greinke and valuable starter Shaun Marcum.
St. Louis already has dual aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and, of course, super sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. That tandem will always make for a trendy prediction. The Reds have the benefit of being largely unchanged following a successful run and a bevy of young talent.
But Milwaukee might have sent the most shockwaves through the division. With the pitching upgrades to go with an offense led by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, the Brewers are gaining a fair share of believers heading into spring.
"I think in years past it's really been a two- or three-team race with the six teams in the division," said Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs. "With Milwaukee adding some new arms, the Cubs adding a few arms -- top to bottom, it really will be a competitive division. It's a challenge we're looking forward to. It's really a toss-up right now to see who the division champion might be. Whoever wins it, it will be a battle."
Stubbs is part of a largely unchanged Reds roster. Cincinnati did outlay $151 million to lock up young stars like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto plus veteran starter Bronson Arroyo. The lack of outside additions did not disappoint, especially in light of those signings that attempt to make the Reds contenders beyond 2011.
"It shows they want to win. We had success with the guys we had last year," Stubbs said. "They were quick to re-sign them. It just gives us the confidence to know they're behind us and our efforts. We all have the same goal in mind -- to win a championship."
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.