Entering the 2011 season, general manager Walt Jocketty essentially did nothing to upgrade a team coming off a National League Central championship. The Reds subsequently slipped to a third-place finish. This offseason, however, Jocketty didn't stand pat. In fact, he might have committed the small-market sin of mortgaging the future for instant gratification. Jocketty clearly had an “all-in” approach, making a trifecta of transactions that could have put the Reds in position to contend for their first NL pennant in 22 years. But one Tommy John surgery later, and the Reds were back in the pack. Jocketty landed one of the NL's top young starting pitchers (Mat Latos), one of its top setup relievers (Sean Marshall) and one of its best closers (Ryan Madson). A few weeks into spring training, the Reds learned that Madson would need season-ending surgery. So much for the all-in plan. But in a division that's now void of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Reds have a chance. Latos brings instant credibility to a rotation that was decimated by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention that Cincinnati mostly had bottom-of-the-rotation-caliber starters. The 24-year-old righthander's 3.47 ERA would have led Cincinnati last season among qualified starters. Latos' arrival gives the Reds two legitimate front-line starters, including ace Johnny Cueto. Cincinnati could end up with one of the most dominant rotations in the NL, depending on the development of $30 million flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. The Reds still have the core of the lineup intact from the 2010 playoff season. But a lineup led by All-Stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips isn't without issues. The Reds have major concerns about the health of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, who missed 80 games last season. The leadoff role is a black hole entering spring, considering speedy center fielder Drew Stubbs struck out a club-record 205 times in 2011.
To some extent last season, the Reds began to see the years of stockpiling pitching prospects pay off. Cueto's emergence as the new ace further buried the nightmarish years of having veteran wash-ups in the ace role. After a shaky start, Mike Leake, another homegrown product, rebounded to win a team-high 12 games. But the rest of the rotation was a major disappointment. Swapping the underachieving Edinson Volquez for Latos is a significant upgrade. The only concern with Latos is how he'll adjust from working in pitcher-friendly Petco Park to the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park. The Reds could conceivably have an even newer ace, depending on Chapman's development. But a sore shoulder hampered his progress during the offseason, and the 106-mph-man will start the season in Class AAA Louisville's rotation or in the Reds' bullpen. It says here that he will be in the Reds' pen. Bronson Arroyo is the only over-30 starter, and he is expected to bounce back after struggling with mononucleosis last season.
With two moves, the Reds thought they had ascended from a lower-tier bullpen to possibly the NL's best. The pitching version of the M&M Boys - Madson and Marshall - coupled with hard-throwing righthanders Logan Ondrusek and Nick Masset could end up reminding Reds fans of the Nasty Boys of the early 1990s. Then Madson's elbow balked and left the Reds scrambling for Plan B. During the past two seasons with the Cubs, Marshall had a 2.45 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 150.1 innings. Masset and Ondrusek were inconsistent last season following an outstanding 2010, but they both had extended stretches in which they were almost unhittable. Chapman can be a weapon in the late innings with his heat from the left side. Alfredo Simon, who had 17 saves for Baltimore in 2010, was claimed off waivers from the Orioles with less than a week left in spring training.
Phillips should continue to establish himself as the NL's top all-around second baseman. The Reds picked up his $12 million option for 2012, and the club is hoping to avoid having his contract status be a distraction. A fan favorite, Phillips has made no secret about the fact that he wants a multi-year deal. The other question surrounding Phillips: Where will he end up in the batting order? No. 2 is ideal, but he could end up batting leadoff if Stubbs struggles this spring or cleanup if Rolen breaks down. At shortstop, former second-round pick Zack Cozart gave the Reds a promising glimpse last season, batting .324 after a July call-up. But he played in just 11 games before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.
The Reds are hoping to squeeze one more season out of eight-time Gold Glove winner Rolen, who enters the final year of his contract. He turns 37 the first week of the season and has been on the disabled list three times the past two years. For as much credit as he received for helping the Reds end their playoff drought in 2010, his absence was a big reason why Cincinnati missed the postseason last year. Rolen played in just 65 games. For all of Votto's accomplishments the past two seasons, he still was overshadowed by Pujols. Votto now is arguably the premier first baseman in the NL. Additionally, Votto no longer has to answer questions about what the Reds are going to do with first baseman and top-hitting prospect Yonder Alonso, who was dealt to San Diego in the Latos trade. Cincinnati also avoided any contract distractions with Votto, signing him to a 10-year, $225 million extension, which begin in 2014.
The Reds are ready for the Texas twosome of Bruce and Stubbs to bury some major issues. For Bruce, it's inconsistency. For Stubbs, it's strikeouts. Bruce had a bizarre 2011, winning NL Player of the Month in May for batting .342 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs. But that month was sandwiched by a .228, four-homer April and .217, two-homer June. Somehow, though, the right fielder was named to the All-Star team, but then batted just .241 with 11 homers after the break. Stubbs has struck out an eye-popping 422 times in two-plus seasons. His 40 stolen bases tied for second in the NL last year, and his speed is the only reason why the Reds aren't quite ready to give up on him as the leadoff batter. Instructors will continue to try to teach Stubbs how to bunt this spring. Left fielder Chris Heisey, who tied for the team lead in pinch hits in 2011, isn't a proven everyday player.
The Reds compromised their organizational catching depth by not re-signing veteran Ramon Hernandez and trading former top draft pick Yasmani Grandal. Still, the club is the envy of most teams at the position. The offseason moves mean the Reds are confident in 23-year-old former first-round pick Devin Mesoraco, whom some scouts have likened to Johnny Bench. The Reds will give him a crack to be the everyday catcher, but Ryan Hanigan will still get plenty of playing time.
From an offensive standpoint, the bench is shaping up to be the club's weakest link. Defensively, it should be one of the team's strengths. The Reds led the NL in pinch-hitting (.286), but versatile veteran Miguel Cairo might end up being the only proven player off the bench. Ryan Ludwick was signed in January to be the fourth outfielder, but he will be in the mix for playing time on a regular basis in left field. Wilson Valdez, acquired from Philadelphia, can pair with Cairo as a supersub, capable of playing any position with a smile. Utility man Willie Harris adds even more versatility to the bench.
Owner Bob Castellini holds himself very accountable to the fans, and he was not happy about the Reds' backsliding in 2011. He signed Jocketty to a three-year contract extension in September, entrusting his long-time friend to make some quick fixes without tearing up the core of the team. Jocketty did that with the Latos and Marshall trades. But it's quite possible that trading away three former first-round picks - Grandal, Alonso and pitcher Brad Boxberger - and Wood will come back to haunt Jocketty in a few years. But management is all-in for 2012, which also is the final year of manager Dusty Baker's contract.
The Reds believe the addition of Latos and St. Louis' subsequent loss of Pujols put Cincinnati back as the division favorite. But it will take more than Latos to win the division. Cincinnati will need to regain the clutch-hitting magic it had in 2010, when it ranked second in the majors with a .278 average with runners in scoring position. The Reds' inability to deliver clutch hits was reflected in the fact they suffered 33 one-run losses, most in the National League. A healthy Rolen and more consistent Bruce will be critical to propelling the Reds into the playoffs.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Three-time Gold Glove winner led all National League second basemen with a .300 batting average.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Began his major league career on a seven-game hitting streak, longest by a Red to start his career in a decade.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Became only the fourth player in Reds history to hit at least .320 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. Now he's assured of being $225 million richer.
3B Scott Rolen (R)
Seven-time All-Star is batting just .242 with seven home runs since August 2010 (including postseason).
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Among five active players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first four seasons.
CF Drew Stubbs (R)
Became the first Red to record 40 stolen bases since Deion Sanders had 56 in 1997.
LF Chris Heisey (R)
Led the Reds with three multi-homer games, three leadoff home runs and two pinch-hit home runs in 2011.
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
The Reds pitching staff went 7-6 in the Baseball America top 100 prospect's 13 starts last season.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Career highs in games (91), runs (27), hits (71) and homers (6).
OF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit 37 home runs as recently as 2008 with the Cards; spent 2011 season with the Padres and Pirates.
INF Miguel Cairo (R)
Reliable and versatile veteran played first, second and third base and produced a career-high eight home runs.
INF Wilson Valdez (R)
Hit .370 (27 for 73) with RISP while making 74 starts at three infield positions in 2011 for Philadelphia.
UT Willie Harris (L)
Made at least three starts at second third, left, center and right last season for the Mets. In 71 pinch-hitting appearances he hit just .183.
RH Johnny Cueto
The club's new ace missed reaching double-digits in wins because of five blown saves.
RH Mat Latos
Cincinnati should provide more help after he finished 88th in run support with San Diego last year.
RH Bronson Arroyo
Hampered by mono, innings-eating veteran finished with a National League-worst 5.07 ERA.
RH Mike Leake
After returning in May from a demotion to the minors, he was the club's second-best starter (9-7, 3.36 ERA).
RH Homer Bailey
Management regained confidence in former top pick after career highs in starts (22), wins (9), K's (106).
LH Sean Marshall (Closer)
The 6'7" lefty has a career 2.42 ERA in 15 appearances (26 innings) at Great American Ball Park.
LH Aroldis Chapman
Tough call whether to start Chapman in Louisville's rotation or in Cincinnati's bullpen, where he is badly needed.
RH Nick Masset
Considered a potential closer-in-waiting entering 2011, he blew six saves. Will start the season on the DL with shoulder issues, which are not expected to be serious.
RH Logan Ondrusek
His 0.68 ERA over a 29-game span was one of the most dominant stretches by a Reds pitcher last year.
RH Sam LeCure
Long reliever is an option if a starter goes down, having posted a 4.79 ERA in four starts.
LH Bill Bray
Finally healthy, the former first-round pick finished tied for second in the National League with 79 appearances.
RH Jose Arredondo
Unspectacular but consistent in logging a career-high 53 appearances in his first season with the Reds.
RH Alfredo Simon
Claimed off waivers from Baltimore at the end of spring training.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals