In the life of a Cincinnati Reds fan the past several years, you have begun to take on the persona of a blighted Pittsburgh Pirates lubber. Without a playoff appearance since 1995, Reds fans have been treated to glimpses of promise in the form of players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn, Felipe Lopez, and Danny Graves. In the 96-win year of 1999 under Jack McKeon, the Reds fanbase sought promise in a one-game playoff only to be crushed by Al Leiter's shutout.
Some blame our faults on the figures of Dan O' Brien, Wayne Krivsky, Bob Boone, and Dave Miley. When you dive in and look at the source, you see an underfunded minor league system circa Marge Schott and a series of bad investments: Griffey, Ryan Dempster, and Eric Milton. Combined with the prowess of Jim "Leatherpants" Bowden, the Reds have fallen into the obsuritive dweller of the National League Central Division.
That is, until now.
Reds fans have found a light in their figurative darkness. That form is not in one large beam in their eyes like the Griffey's of the past, but many smaller little streaks that take the shape of the team like names of Cueto, Votto, Volquez, Philips, Bruce, and soon Alonso. Under the watchful eyes of a man named Baker, will this new breed of Redlegs come to form?
This creation has been a long time coming. Beginning on Apr. 7, 2006, the Reds traded for Brandon Phillips, 2008 Gold Glove Award winner. His average dropped 20+ points from 2007 to 2008, and his HR total dipped from 30 to 21, but this could be attributed to a lack of consistent effort around him. Phillips spent much of the season as Cincinnati's No. 4 hitter, sitting in between Griffey, Dunn, or Joey Votto. He is the new face of the franchise and is the anchor in a soild middle infield that also includes Alex Gonzalez.
With the arrival of Joey Votto on Sept. 4, 2007, the Reds have found a solid left-handed bat that doesn't strike out 200+ times a year. In his first full season with the Reds, Votto was plagued with defensive issues that cleared up toward the last third of the year. Still, Votto swung for 24 HR and an average of .297, tops on the team. With the draft pick of Yonder Alonso, this almost guarantees that Votto will transition to left field in the next two years unless anything unforeseen happens. He looks to be a leader in this year's clubhouse and is returning from a successful stint with the Canadian National team in the WBC: .556 AVG, 1 HR.
The new Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn has taken shape in the form of Dominican fireballer Edinson Volquez. Known for his wild flaming pitches, Volquez approached heights unseen by the Reds after a trade that sent Josh Hamilton to the Texas Rangers on Dec. 1, 2007, landed he and Daniel Herrera. Volquez finished '08 with a 17-6 record and a 3.21 ERA (eighth best in the NL). Poised to work on his control this year, Volquez will anchor the Reds starting rotation, which includes Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and either Homer Bailey or Micah Owings.
On Apr. 3 of last year, another Dominican flamethrower made his presence felt in Cincinnati. Cueto had a perfect game going into the fifth inning of his MLB debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He allowed one runner that game and picked up his first win. Cueto did end the year 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA, but he finished the season strong, winning two of his last three games. Cueto has been working with former Reds great Mario Soto in the offseason and hopes to become one of the top starters in the NL.
A casual MLB fan may stroll along Pete Rose Way in Cincinnati and hear many boos. What that person may not know is that it's actually Reds fans chanting the new diaper dandy's name, "Jay BRUUUUUUUCE!"
On May 27 last year, Bruce took Cincinnati by storm. In his first full week in the Majors, he batted .577 (15-for-26), with three home runs, three doubles, and nine singles in addition to six walks. The three home runs came in three consecutive days, with his first being a walk-off homer. He also scored 12 runs, and batted in seven more.
Most importantly, the Reds had a winning percentage of .714 (5-2) during his first week. Before Bruce was called up, they had a winning percentage of .451 (23-28), and had lost five of the last seven games. Bruce finished the year with 21 HR and a .251 BA. He has devoted his offseason to making strides to raise his average and lower his strikeouts.
The Reds made some key additions to this year's roster. By signing veterans like 100-base stealer Willy Taveras and catcher Ramon Hernandez, the Reds are making a play for the Wild Card if not the division. As a realist, I believe the Reds are still one year away from the playoffs, but it is exciting to hope. Cincinnati fans are yearning for a winner they haven't seen for 10 years.
If veterans such as Jerry Hairston, Jr., Edwin Encarnacion, David Weathers, and Francisco Cordero experience great years, the Reds may have a shot. The young core is strong with more in the pipeline. GM Walt Jocketty looks to have fielded a young yet promising club that will look to stick a fork in someone's plans this season.