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How does Joey Votto build on his 2010 MVP campaign?
Mark Twain once poked fun at Cincinnati for its inability to change with the times. In the case of the 2011 Reds, the lack of change is being viewed favorably in the Queen City. Manager Dusty Baker and almost every key player who helped the Reds end a 15-year postseason drought in 2010 are back this season. That continuity is what the Reds were sorely lacking ever since the calendar flipped to the 21st century. Baker signed a two-year contract extension, and the front office believes the Reds now have the right mix of veteran leaders and promising young players to consistently win the National League Central Division.
The next logical step would be to, well, win one playoff game, after the Reds were swept by Philadelphia in the division series. Whether the Reds are going to take steps beyond that depends on the continued development of a talented pitching staff. Although the starting rotation was steady in 2010, Cincinnati didn’t have a dominant ace to compete with the likes of Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the NL. The Reds figure they have a dominant ace-in-waiting in $30 million Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, whose 105 mph fastball debuted in the majors in late August. However, Chapman still needs to work on his control, and actually could end up as Cincinnati’s closer before he becomes its ace.
After leading the NL in every major statistical category, the Reds’ lineup crashed and burned in the postseason. But with reigning MVP Joey Votto and every position player back Cincinnati is expecting an offensive encore. The lineup, however, isn’t without some big questions. The Reds don’t have a natural leadoff hitter, and Baker isn’t holding his breath that Drew Stubbs will miraculously learn how to bunt and become patient at the plate.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Reds relied on veteran wash-ups to carry the rotation. Last year, however, was a new day for the organization. The memory of second-rate free agent signings and draft busts was washed away by the emergence of promising homegrown hurlers Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, Mike Leake and Chapman. The Reds now have a surplus of arms, and the battle for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation is expected to be intense this spring. The Reds are counting on Edinson Volquez to be the No. 1 starter and return to the form that made him an All-Star in 2008 before an elbow injury shelved him for a year. Cueto proved himself a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy, leading the club with a 3.64 ERA. Bronson Arroyo is an innings-eater who won a career-high 17 games last year.
Aging closer Francisco Cordero had eight blown saves in 2010 — his highest total in four seasons — and a 6.75 ERA in September, and he will be on a short leash in 2011. He is in the final year of his contract, and the Reds have other potential closer options in the lefty Chapman and righthander Nick Masset. Chapman was special in 15 relief appearances, striking out 19 in 13.1 electrifying innings. Righthander Logan Ondrusek emerged as a formidable seventh-inning option during his rookie season, going 5–0.
The Reds opted not to re-sign Orlando Cabrera in favor of slick-fielding/light-hitting Paul Janish, though the team did sign veteran Edgar Renteria in January. Janish has a .226 batting average in his brief big league career. But in a balanced lineup, his bat shouldn’t cause Reds fans to panic, especially considering Janish is an outstanding bunter and a Gold Glove-caliber fielder. When the Reds do need some pop, they can go with Renteria, who is a two-time World Series champion (Florida, 1997; San Francisco, 2010). Janish can also fill in for Scott Rolen at third base. Second baseman Brandon Phillips, an All-Star for the first time in 2010, toughed through some injuries to play a team-high 155 games. Having batted leadoff, second and cleanup, Phillips could be moved around in the lineup again with the uncertainty of where Stubbs will bat.
First baseman Votto and third baseman Rolen represent the lead-by-example, hard-working players the Reds have long needed to change the clubhouse culture. A year after missing 31 games while battling depression and anxiety, Votto made a serious run at the Triple Crown, becoming the first Reds player to win league MVP since Barry Larkin in 1995. Rolen, meanwhile, was named an All-Star for the sixth time in his career. He turns 36 the first week of the season, and his durability is a concern again this year.
After a horrific July, Jay Bruce hit .338 with 15 home runs down the stretch, including an epic walk-off homer to clinch the division title. In December, the Reds made a statement by signing the 24-year-old right fielder to a six-year, $51 million contract. After failing in the leadoff role a month into last season, Stubbs dropped to seventh and proceeded to become the ninth player in team history to record at least 20 homers and 30 steals in a season. The Reds are still trying to figure out where to bat him in 2011. Left fielder Jonny Gomes is a defensive liability, but the mohawk-maned man is again expected to be one of the team’s top run producers.
At a position where most clubs severely lack depth, the Reds have the luxury of calling this one of their all-around organizational strengths. The combination of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan has worked marvelously the past two seasons. Reds catchers led the NL with a .296 batting average in 2010. Hernandez, who has 25 career postseason games on his résumé, batted .342 with runners in scoring position. Cincinnati re-signed Hernandez to a one-year, $3 million deal to allow former first-round picks Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal more time to develop.
The Reds enter camp feeling somewhat better about their bench than they did at the start of 2010. Most of that good feeling is because of 36-year-old Miguel Cairo, who parlayed a minor league contract into a two-year, $2 million deal after batting .290 and being a reliable spot-starter at four positions. Former Giant Fred Lewis was signed in hopes he could become the fourth outfielder and defensive replacement for Gomes. The Reds signed Jeremy Hermida, a former first-round pick of the Marlins, to a minor league deal. He is expected to fill the left-handed pinch-hitting role.
GM Walt Jocketty was hired two years ago to turn the Reds into the Redbirds. It’s apparent he is starting to build in Cincinnati exactly what he did for 13 years in St. Louis. Jocketty’s move to acquire Rolen at the 2009 deadline is shaping up to be one the Reds’ best trades in years, and the GM is sticking to a wise small-market plan to develop a solid nucleus of talented homegrown prospects. It’s unknown how much influence Jocketty has had on Baker’s decision-making, but the much-maligned manager did seem to handle young pitchers with more care last season.
The Reds are doing all the right things to distance themselves from the losing culture that had plagued the franchise since the late 1990s. After years of bad contracts, the Jocketty-led front office has a clear-cut plan. Signing Bruce and Votto sent a message to the rest of the homegrown players: perform and the organization will take care of you. “We like the direction we’re going in, building with young players,” Jocketty says. The Reds are expected to make another run at the division title. But with an overall young starting rotation, Cincinnati is still at least a year or two away from making a deep postseason run.