I normally don’t like it when successful teams stand pat, but I’ll make an exception for the 2011 Reds.
Yes, the Reds would look that much stronger if they had traded for say, right-hander Zack Greinke. But to make an offer equivalent to the Brewers’, the Reds would have needed to part with center fielder Drew Stubbs, shortstop prospect Zack Cozart and at least one top young pitcher, perhaps right-hander Mike Leake or lefty Travis Wood.
The Reds didn’t need to do that, plus take on the $27 million that Greinke is owed over the next two seasons. They were my pick to win the NL Central even before Milwaukee lost Greinke for at least the first part of the season and St. Louis lost righty Adam Wainwright for all of it. They easily could be my pick in 2012 and ’13 as well.
Rather than spend heavily on offseason acquisitions, the Reds committed $151 million in contract extensions for first baseman Joey Votto, right fielder Jay Bruce and right-handers Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. Their top six starting pitchers are under club control for at least three seasons. So is lefty Aroldis Chapman, who currently is a reliever, as well as Votto, Bruce and Stubbs.
Maybe the lack of a dominant ace will hurt the Reds if they reach the postseason again. But the intriguing thing about this team is that it has yet to realize its full potential. While Arroyo, third baseman Scott Rolen, catcher Ramon Hernandez and closer Francisco Cordero are 34 or 35, most of the team’s players are in their prime or pre-prime.
“People are excited around here,” Rolen says. “How good is Cueto? How good is Volquez? How good is Chapman? They haven’t gotten (to their peaks) yet.
“You look at the Phillies. You know how good Cliff Lee is, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt. We won the division and went to the playoffs last year. And we’re still seeing how good a lot of our guys are going to be.”
Such a team can improve simply by being left alone. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty applied precisely that logic during the offseason, adding only shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielder Fred Lewis, neither of whom is projected to play full time.
The Reds scored the most runs in the National League last season and ranked second in defensive efficiency. They were seventh in ERA, 10th in rotation ERA. But Arroyo is their only starting pitcher older than 27, and Chapman will be in the bullpen for the entire season instead of just 15 games.
Oh, and by the way, the Reds’ farm system has jumped from No. 30 in the Baseball America rankings in 2006 to No. 6 this season. The team’s Triple-A roster will be loaded with potential reinforcements — and trade candidates — at virtually every position.
The Reds are not without concerns. They lack a true leadoff hitter. Cordero, fading as a closer, will be under pressure to stave off Chapman. Shortstop is a bit uncertain; the Reds plan to start Paul Janish but could turn to Renteria, the reigning World Series MVP.
Then there is health. The injury to Wainwright demonstrated how swiftly one blow can alter a team’s chances. Rolen, in particular, would be difficult for the Reds to lose — and he is coming off a season in which he played 133 games, his most since 2006.
That’s baseball; no team is ever comfortable. Still, the Reds are a different bunch coming off the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 1995. Even their loss to the Phillies in the division series — a three-game sweep triggered by Halladay’s no-hitter — might have contributed to the greater good.
Second baseman Brandon Phillips still is stewing over the defeat, believing that after Game 1, the Reds beat themselves. But Phillips says the quick exit made the Reds hungrier, even proclaiming, “I’m glad what happened last year happened the way it did.”
Left fielder Jonny Gomes offers a similar view.
“I sense more of an urgency to get back there as opposed to a hunger to get there,” he says. “There are probably 30 teams hungry to get there. But it’s more of an urgency over here. We can’t wait to get back and completely redeem ourselves.”
Bench coach Chris Speier says he senses more of “a calm confidence” — a confidence stemming from the simple fact that the players know they’re good. Bruce describes it like this: “Last year we were kind of hoping; we thought we might, we could. This year, we expect it. We know we can. That’s a huge, huge deal.”
Countless things can go wrong in a season, and usually do. However, the Reds are a mostly athletic bunch, blending power and speed, playing strong defense night after night. Their clubhouse is free of Manny Ramirez/Miguel Cabrera-type drama. And their pitching, at the very least, will keep them competitive in most games.
Manager Dusty Baker says that in the evolution of a contender, the most difficult step is the first. The Reds took that step last season by ending their 14-year postseason drought. The next steps lie ahead.
“You’re happy to get there, but that’s not the end of the happiness. That’s the beginning of the happiness,” Baker says.