Opening Day is a holiday in my house. A legitimate celebration. Think wild boar on spits, Gandalf shooting fireworks out of his wagon, people throwing plates in the air.
Yes, since I was a crusty-nosed kid with the sweetest haircut on the block, Opening Day has been Christmas in April. That’s why, when it came time to prepare everyone for the best six months in sports, I knew my enthusiasm would only be matched by a few people.
Luckily, my big brother—he of the three young kids/three hours of sleep per-night—was able to be coaxed out of his cocoon, to help me exalt in all the glory that is today.
He’s the guy who taught me that sports equals cool, and that video gamers are nerds. He’s the guy who showed me how to throw a filthy wiffleball curve. And, he’s the guy who now has to wade through two feet of Dora the Explorer paraphernalia in order to reach his laptop.
Broseph, baseball is here. So put down that diaper bag, chug your apple juice, and let’s get focused.
Hard at work or hardly workin'?
After a lackluster 2011, Reds fans are pretty juiced about this 2012 squad. Are you leaning toward pessimism or optimism as games begin today?
NDS: Brother, I’ve been a Reds fan for nearly thirty years now so…pessimism, of course.
As much as I would love to hitch a ride on the ever-expanding 2012 Redleg bandwagon, I feel much safer on the familiar-old tricycle of pain, parity and passionless play. In my father-of-three lifetime, the Reds have won exactly three division titles. The last time they won a playoff series, I was blaring a cassette recording of "Ice Ice Baby" on my boombox while talking to middle school buddies on a rotary phone.
How is Dusty’s current bunch going to challenge history?
Through starting pitching? Latos is a fly-ball pitcher coming to the renowned airfield of GABP from a stadium bigger than the Red Sea. Arroyo and Leake look (and pitch) like two-thirds of a '90s grunge band, and Cueto is one flying-ninja-kick away from a nasty ankle injury. Don’t get me started on Homer Bailey.
The New Nasty Boys bullpen? I’ve got one word for you. Disabled List. Okay, that’s two, but you get the point. By July, the entire cast of Louisville will be imported to the Queen City. Heck, they might even bring the Bats Bullpen catcher for good measure. Good thing we’ve got Madsen at the back end…hold on.
The young stallion outfield? Heisey, Stubbs and Bruce will make less contact than seventh-graders at a chaperoned dance. Good thing they’re so reliable in the clutch, right?
How about our triumvirate of infield All-Stars? Votto is fat and happy, Phillips is jealous and mad, and Rolen uses a cane up walking ramps. (Okay, I don’t really believe the part about Votto. He’ll be pretty good.)
Did I mention that we have rookies at the two most important defensive positions? Or that we have a parade of nondescript righties coming off the bench (Wilson Valdez? Wilson Alvarez? Or is it Wilson Gomez?)
Yeah, brother, looks like another Red-letter year for the Redlegs. Sorry to rain on the Opening Day parade...
I'm going to take the optimistic stance, and not just because I like to argue with you. The Reds will win their second division title in three years, and here's why...
First, the Reds' starting pitchers will rebound from 2011, where Reds pitchers ranked 12th in the National League (4.16 ERA). While the leader (Johnny Cueto) may regress a tad (he won't have 2.31 ERA again kids, let's be real), the other contributors seem poised for improvement.
Mike Leake is still learning how to pitch in the Majors, and there's no reason to think he won't get better.
Bronson Arroyo had the season-from-Mordor last year (5.07 ERA and a league-leading 46 homers allowed), so even if he never gets back to 15-win form, he can't possibly be that pitiful again.
And Matt Latos, the most noteworthy of Cincinnati's offseason acquisitions, steps in for Edinson Volquez at the front end. As hard as we try, none of us can forget the first-inning woes and eventual collapse that were trademarks of Volquez's 2011. Even moving from Petco to GABP, Latos has to be a huge upgrade.
Second, the Reds' offense will be more explosive this year than last, when it was second in the league in runs scored. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are the leaders (one just got a new contract, one is playing for one).
Jay Bruce is the budding star poised to break out. Zack Cozart is the offensive shortstop we've been waiting years for, and Rolen, a huge cog in the 2010 playoff machine, is healthy and swinging the bat well, after missing most of 2011.
I look for the additions of Cozart and Rolen to be huge catalysts in this lineup, and until they prove me wrong, I expect the Reds' bats to be the best in the NL.
Finally, and most importantly, the other two contenders in the NL Central (Milwaukee and St. Louis), will undoubtedly be worse. Obviously, St. Louis' biggest loss was Pujols, who is worth about 15 wins all by himself. But I don't think we should assume that going from Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to I've-never-managed-a-McDonalds Mike Matheny won't take its toll.
And if losing their two most valuable assets wasn't hard enough, the Cards also waved goodbye to pitching coach/necromancer Dave Duncan, a guy who turned retreads like Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Ryan Franklin into level-four All-Star warlocks .
Meanwhile, Milwaukee lost Prince Fielder, who was damn near as valuable to that team as Pujols was to the St. Louis WLBs. With an aging Aramis Ramirez (who not good enough for the Cubs) and Matt Gamel (not Prince Fielder) manning the corners, I think the dynamic of that offense changes for the worse.
In short, the Reds made additions, and their competition made subtractions. Couple that with a statistically-odd year for the Reds (most studies have pointed to Cincy being very unlucky in many of their losses), and a Reds first place finish comes out in the wash.
Watch that elbow big fella'.
Even if our boys fall flat, as you fear, which player(s) do you see outperforming our expectations? And conversely, who do you predict wins the "Biggest Flop" award?
NDS: If the Reds are to live up to this season's sky-scraping expectations, they will have to get some unexpected performances from some unusual places.
My vote for most likely to provide a fortuitous lift is center fielder Drew Stubbs.
The kid from the rifle state has talent oozing out of every pore, but has struggled to put the ball in the play. All it would take is a minor adjustment to his offensive approach, and we might see a true difference-maker emerge. Here's hoping...
Easy, the talking heads who say small market teams can't keep their stars. Wait, you mean on our team? I'll go with Aroldis Chapman. We want the world out of this kid, but the odds are stacked against a guy who puts that much strain on his skinny left elbow. Injuries will persist, sadly.
And two bonus awards...
Most Likely to Get a New Contract...Somewhere Else: @DatdudeBP.
Most Likely to Accidentally Spray Champagne in His Own Eye During a Celebration: Johnny Cueto—call it a hunch.
Sweet tattoo, bro. Too bad it didn't come with a extra MPH and some movement.
RDS: If Cueto is spraying champagne in anyone's eye, it’s gotta be a good thing, right? Unless you’re assuming he get confused and starts celebrating in the wrong team’s locker room (entirely possible).
I think our biggest success story this year will be Jay Bruce, but I don’t think he’ll “outperform expectations,” because people already are expecting the world out of him.
My "Biggest Overachiever" prediction is going to Zack Cozart, who I think establishes himself as the Reds’ shortstop of the future. The kid’s got great hands at short, and seems to be fitting nicely into the two-hole in the lineup. He’s one of just a few guys who consistently hit well in spring training (all the way up to the Futures game Tuesday, when his home run accounted for the regulars’ only score).
How about "Most Likely to Develop an Ulcer," awarded to Fox Sports Ohio color man Jeff Brantley. That dude spends more time talking about ribs and chilitos than he does watching the game.
Or what about "Least Likely to Admit He’s Mediocre?" That one’s going to Homer Bailey, for like the 11th season in a row. It’s no wonder he gets donked around the way he does; his fastball’s straighter than that bitchin' arrow tattoo.
I big, I'm strong, and GOSH DARNIT people like me.
Beyond the Reds (America’s Team), what are the most compelling story lines for the 2012 season?
NDS: Well, besides the Reds, I'll be watching reruns of The Office and playing Princess board-games this summer. But if you're forcing me to think outside my own little bubble...
- The progress of Nationals youthful stars. In a related story, Bryce Harper just got his driver's license, but was so cocky the instructor almost pushed him out of the vehicle.
- Pujols in LA. Eat your hearts out Cardinal fans. Hey, at least he's still in red!
- Added playoff teams. Will the new Wild Card format help baseball's middling clubs? Can't hurt, right?
- ESPN's coverage of the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox. Those three teams comprise 99.7 percent of the baseball talk on the nation's worldwide leader. The other 0.3 percent revolves around unsubstantiated steroid rumors.
"Wait, I'MMMMM the best player on this team? ALREADY?"
RDS: First of all, if you’re watching The Office, it had better be reruns. That show went downhill faster than the Human Missile Crisis.
But seriously, I see this as one of the most interesting MLB seasons in recent memory, for a few reasons...
- The competition in the East divisions. As pedestrian as the NL Central looks (I’m pretty sure me and Pee-Wee Herman could beat the Astros in a short series), that’s how brutal the AL and NL East will be.
Strasburg and (eventually) Harper will be media magnets, almost to the level of Jose Reyes and that Satan-spawn home run statue in Miami, and for good reason. Those two and the Braves will spend the summer giving the Phillies all they can handle.
Meanwhile, everything I’m hearing is that the Jays and Rays are going to be tough outs—so look for the Yankees and Sox to be dog-fighting all season as well.
- The dominance of the AL. Seriously, does the National League have to have a team in the World Series? The Tigers/Angels/Rangers/Yankees/Red Sox/Rays would vote no, seeing as they might all end up with better records than any NL representative.
Our best hope, over in MLB-the-lesser, would have to be the Phillies, even though most of their lineup eats dinner at 4:30 and can remember when Jimmy Carter was president.
And lastly, which new faces will have seasons to remember?
Bryce Harper isn’t the only guy who could take 2012 by storm. Imports Yu Darvish (Texas) and Yoenis Cespedes (Oakland) crackle with talent. Top prospects (Mike Trout, Matt Moore, Jesus Montero) appear ready to emerge. And there’s always a guy or two that come out of the woodwork to make a name for themselves (Alexi Ogando, anyone?)
Yup, this season could be the best in awhile.
Finally, how do the Reds stack up this season, in the division, and in the league? Who comes out on top?
NDS: How do our Reds stack up? Well, if they were in the AL East or West we might be raising our cheese conies to another middle-of-the-pack finish. But in the woebegone (Google it) NL Central, they have a legitimate shot. Wild Cards will come out of the West and East, so they’ll have to win their division.
One by one (and we’ll skip the Astros for obvious reasons):
Pirates: I would have skipped them too, but that might have seemed lazy. Bottom line, history will bear out for this team. They are who we thought they were.
Cubs: Are they still paying Soriano? Either way, they also need a couple more years of Theo's money-balling before they're legit.
Cards: One big bat away from being the favorite. Ironic? No, really.
Brewers: A darkhorse choice because they obviously allow steroid abusers to continue playing. This means they could be dangerous.
Reds: Our young heroes need only to stay healthy. Can they do it? I will say...NO. The Brewers will win the division with 86 wins. Our Reds will finish one game under.
Hope I'm wrong. Reverse jinxes can be potent...
Seriously, dude. Stop cheating.
RDS: We agree on a couple things.
First, if the Astros and Pirates want to know what’s happening in the division race, they’ll need two telescopes and a homing device.
Second, the Brewers will be buoyed by their filthy, cheating ways. I know Bud Selig has tried hard to eliminate steroids from the game, but when “yeahhhhh, we didn’t exactly refrigerate the peeeeeeeee” is a valid excuse for letting a juicer play, you know there’s more work to be done.
But, don’t for a second, think the Brewers have it in them to win the division again.
The loss of Fielder and Casey McGehee should already cause a major power outage. Then, figure in that Ryan Braun has looked like Mario Mendoza this spring (a .213 average and two home runs in 67 plate appearances), and the picture starts becoming clearer. (Wait, he’s WORSE after being caught for steroids? Weird.) Fate frowns on cheaters, Brew Crew. No champagne for you.
Nah, I say the division comes down to the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Newmans.
Two teams that hate each other more than Israel and Palestine. Two teams that brawled so ferociously, recently, that one player was forced to retire.Two teams that undoubtedly exchange yo’ mamma jokes on the base paths.
Like you, I think the division crown comes down to the bitter end, maybe even the last week of the season. But the loss of Pujols and La Russa, especially, should prove the Cards' undoing. Or at least, it better. Because let’s face it...if that team can let Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron’s love-child go to Anaheim and still beat us? Well, then we’ll never have a chance.
Nope, this is the year.
Welp, that just about does it for me and my bro-diggity.
The real games start in a few short hours, and he hasn’t even put the kiddos in their Cincinnati cheerleader outfits yet. As for me, there are hot dogs to be purchased, cinnamon/chocolate chili to be crock-potted, and at least seven Budweisers to consume before I’ll be ready for that first pitch.
Lace up your spikes, friends. The fun begins now.
For more 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.