MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s first reaction to Paul Goldschmidt being traded to the Cardinals during the winter?
‘‘The first basemen in this division are no joke,’’ said Rizzo, the Cubs’ first baseman. ‘‘Don’t sleep on Josh Bell in Pittsburgh. He’s amazing. [The Brewers’ Jesus] Aguilar, Goldy, [the Reds’ Joey] Votto. It’s like the whole National League, really. But in this division, it’s going to be fun.’’
No joke: The National League Central has packed more All-Star-caliber talent at one position than any division since perhaps the American League East at shortstop in the 1990s.
‘‘I don’t know if that was the division of the shortstops, but shortstop was the position that everybody seemed to get excited about — the AL East shortstops,’’ Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, considering that phenomenon against this group of first basemen before rattling off the perennial MVP candidates in Votto, Goldschmidt and Rizzo.
‘‘[Aguilar’s] kind of the up-and-comer in the group. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see Josh Bell have a large season, either. It’s strong.”
Goldy, Joey and the Rizz? It might not have the same Hall of Fame ring to it as, say, Willie, Mickey and the Duke, who were all in center field at the same time in New York in the 1950s. But this position cluster, in what might be the toughest division in the majors this season, figures to have an outsized say on which team will survive the division race, if not October.
Does that mean the NL Central goes through first base in 2019?
‘‘For sure,’’ said Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, the NL most valuable player in 2016. ‘‘Even before that, it kind of always has. The Brewers have always had so many good players at first. You look at adding Goldschmidt, and the Cardinals are going to be great this year. The Brewers are going to be studs. The Reds are going to be sneaky.
‘‘Yeah, I’d say it goes through first.’’
It at least represents the marquee attraction in a marquee division that for the first time in more than a decade doesn’t feature even one team that’s tanking.
A laundry list of roster improvements that have the Reds and first-year manager David Bell talking about making the playoffs makes future Hall of Famer Votto more relevant than he has been since at least the Reds’ 2013 wild-card appearance — and maybe since his MVP season in 2010.
And when Aguilar earned an All-Star bid last season, it meant that 10 of the 17 NL first-base spots in the last five years have been taken by four of the five current first basemen in the division, with Goldschmidt (five) and Rizzo (three) combining for eight.
Including Votto, four of the NL Central’s first basemen have 16 combined All-Star appearances. Outside the division, only the Braves’ Freddie Freeman (three) has more than one All-Star appearance among active NL players at the position.
‘‘In that sense, we’re a little bit of a throwback division,’’ Counsell said. ‘‘That’s where offensive stars have traditionally come from, and this division’s giving fans that, for sure.’’
Consider that eight top-five MVP finishes and six Gold Glove awards are represented by Goldschmidt, Votto and Rizzo, with those three finishing second, third and fourth in MVP voting behind Bryce Harper as recently as 2015. Aguilar earned MVP votes last season, too.
And, as Rizzo said, don’t sleep on Josh Bell, a converted outfielder with a high ceiling at the position.
‘‘Votto and Goldschmidt are two guys I’ve watched ever since I was handed a first baseman’s mitt,’’ Bell told Pirates beat writer John Perrotto. ‘‘We’re all different players, but I respect what they do.’’
So grab some popcorn as the season begins.
‘‘The division goes as the first basemen go? I don’t know,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘Do they cancel each other out because of the fact they’re all equally so good? There’s definitely heavy talent — athletic talent — at first base in our division.
‘‘If any of them have an MVP kind of year, they’re going to matter. They’re going to shift that team to the top.’’
Rizzo won’t go that far.
‘‘It’s just more fun,’’ he said of the increased spotlight on first base, as well as the improved teams in the division.
Bryant seemed to think it would be fun watching how that other corner of the infield plays out this season. He said his Bryzzo partner still is the best in the division, even with Goldschmidt moving in.
‘‘Everybody knows who he is as a player, how good he is,’’ Bryant said of Rizzo. ‘‘With Goldschmidt coming over, it’s just more motivation for him to continue to stay on top.’’
If nothing else, it makes it hard for some in the division to imagine anybody else having much chance at an All-Star bid at first.
‘‘Outside of the Central?’’ David Bell said. ‘‘I don’t think so.’’