In years past, the Cincinnati Reds have had to drag themselves to spring training.
They’ve lugged rosters full of has-beens, rookies and overpaid budget-busters to Florida and Arizona. They’ve slogged through year after year of pointless warm-ups, knowing they didn’t have the firepower to really compete.
Well, at least for now, those days are gone.
After a flurry of offseason activity, with as talented a core as any in the league, the boys from Cincinnati have arrived at spring training with purpose. Unlike any in recent memory, this season’s squad is stacked with promising potential. However, spring training is about answering questions, and every team has some.
Here’s what we should all be watching when play begins tomorrow.
Baseball is a game of accepted cliches. Don’t step in the bucket. Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in. Don’t guide the ball, just throw it.
Unlike football, where conventional wisdom changes by the season, baseball never waivers. It’s a game where the principles of success that were present decades ago continue to hold merit today (pitching wins championships).
Yet, in their attempt to put their best talent on the field, the Cincinnati Reds plan to buck one of those traditions when they take the field in April.
Anyone who knows baseball knows that the most important positions on the diamond cut the field in half: catcher, shortstop, center field. These are the positions where teams want to be strongest defensively. These are where teams need leadership.
Games are won and lost up the middle, so the say. Yet, even before the start of spring training it was announced that the Reds would be starting rookies in two of those three integral positions.
Zack Cozart will take over as the everyday shortstop and Devin Mesoraco as the everyday catcher.
While these changes won’t draw many much ire from fans (both players are young and project well as Major Leaguers), they do contradict an age-old line of thinking, especially given the fact that both transitions are being made concurrently.
The Prediction: Both rookies acquit themselves well in their first camp as starters. General optimism runs high to start the season.
While one rookie tandem takes up residence in what they hope will be their permanent digs, it’s worth watching to see which other youngsters can carve out their role.
Barring a catastrophic spring for one or the other, half of the Ludwick/Heisey platoon will occupy one seat on the bench. Veteran clubhouse leader Miguel Cairo will occupy another.
Ryan Hanigan, when he’s not spelling Mesoraco, will occupy a third. That leaves two seats up for grabs, assuming the Reds start the season with 12 pitchers, three if they start with eleven.
It will be up to Jocketty and Baker to decide whether the time for youth is now (prospects Todd Frazier, Juan Francisco, Paul Janish have done about all they can in Triple-A) or if they’d prefer the experience of newcomers Wilson Valdez, Willie Harris or Darryl Jones.
Similar to last year, the Reds break camp with 12 pitchers. Valdez and Harris make the squad, Frazier eeks in purely for his versatility and Janish is sent packing.
For the last two years, the career paths of Reds’ shortstop Paul Janish and left fielder Chris Heisey have mirrored one another closely. Both have been under-appreciated and under-utilized. Both have been repeatedly tossed aside for journeymen veterans.
So, when Chris Heisey heard the Reds signed veteran outfielder Ryan Ludwick this winter, his first call had to have been to Janish. I imagine that conversation going something like this:
Janish: “Yo dude.”
Heisey: ‘So uhhhh, remember how I said I couldn’t go in with you on that vintage Ms. Pac-Man game for the clubhouse because, ya’ know, we cleared out all the other left fielders and I’d be playing so much this season and wouldn’t be able to sneak down and use it like last year?”
Janish: “Yup. What’s up?”
Heisey: “These fools just signed Ryan Ludwick..”
Heisey: Hangs up.
March could prove huge for Heisey. While he may not nail down the starting job, he could certainly lose it. Weak spring numbers could mean a lot more of Creaky-Knees Ludwick.
Heisey out-hits Ludwick in Spring Training. Ludwick starts Opening Day. The City of Cincinnati collectively groans.
There’s no question that Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty earned his paycheck this offseason. And when play commences on April 5th at Great American Ballpark, the fruits of that labor should be no more apparent than when Dusty Baker signals to the ‘pen.
See, last March, we all assumed the Reds bullpen would be a strength.
Francisco Cordero provided veteran leadership (if not always reliable production) at the back end. The Cuban Missile was fresh off a tantalizing few weeks of 2010 big league action. Guys like Nick Masset and Bill Bray were back to set things up.
As it turned out, the ‘11 bullpen would follow the same course as the team as a whole: inconsistent, underachieving and downright mediocre (ninth in the National League in ERA).
Well, I’m going to go ahead and just say it: That mess ain’t happenin’ again.
New additions Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall will be immediate upgrades in the eighth and ninth innings, leaving guys like Bray, Masset and Logan Ondrusek in much more manageable situations.
Toss in guys like Jose Arredondo (immense talent, just signed to a two-year deal), Jordan Smith (has proven to be reliable at the big league level) and Andrew Brackman (the 6’10" dark horse), and you have a bona fide roster battle.
Madson, Marshall, Massett, Bray, Arredondo are your seven-eight-nine guys when camp breaks. Ondrusek and long-man Sam Lecure fill out the rest, despite Brackman making it a tough call. As for Chapman...
Last spring, I wrote this article on the confounding matter of what to do with Aroldis Chapman.
The gist was simple: No matter how it’s done, the 2012 Chapman Plan must at least begin with him as a starter. Thankfully, it looks like that’s the track Jocketty and Co. have him on at the moment, so that debate (where he belongs) can be put on hold, for now.
Still, Chapman’s spring training performances will be closely-scrutinized. The way the guy throws the ball makes you salivate, plain and simple, so he’ll always be prominent in the public eye.
However, due to his inconsistencies in 2011 and his uninspiring winter results (it only took two-and-two-thirds innings to inflame his shoulder), I think we’ll all approach his early-March appearances with a bit of trepidation.
As it stands, the Reds company line on Chapman is that they’re in no hurry. If he needs time in spring training (or beyond) to get healthy and harness his nastiness, time is what he’ll get.
But things could get very interesting if the Cuban Pain Train starts rolling over people quicker than expected. Say, for instance, Chapman’s shoulder feels great in the coming weeks. Say he’s punching people out with regularity and logging the same innings as everyone else. How hard will it be to send him on a bus to Louisville, knowing he’s a potential 18-game winner ?
Things could get juicy.
Chapman shows signs of shoulder fatigue in spring training, putting him on the slow train to Triple-A.
For more Ohio sports coverage from Reed Domer-Shank, or for his daily picks against the spread (free!), visit his blog: J O U R N E Y M E N . You can also follow Reed on Twitter: @ReedDS20, or contact him directly at Reed.Domershank@gmail.com.