Cactus League countdown: Cincinnati Reds

Despite two NL Central titles in the past three seasons, the Cincinnati Reds remain but a tease to a fan base with high expectations.

After winning 97 games last season only to be bounced in the first round of the playoffs, the Reds open spring training with high expectations once again and only minor tweaks to the 2012 NL Central championship roster.

While the team is clearly capable of repeating in the Central, the bigger question will be if the Reds can follow up with a strong postseason. That’s not a question that will be answered in the Cactus League, but Reds camp in Goodyear, Ariz., ought to offer a good look at what the Reds are doing to try to get over that last hump.

When a team wins 97 games, though, it’s hard to make a case for major changes. The Reds did opt to sacrifice a little defense for offense when they traded center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians for Shin-Soo Choo, who will take over in center field having not played the position since 2009 and just 10 times as a major leaguer.
Choo, 30, should benefit greatly from playing half the 2013 season at homer-friendly Great American Ballpark, perhaps getting more out of his power potential than in any previous season. The greater adjustment for him will be getting comfortable in center field — a process that will begin this spring.

The only other change to last year’s Opening Day lineup is one that began last season. Todd Frazier, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, replaces veteran Scott Rolen at third base.

The Reds also added longtime Milwaukee Brewer Manny Parra to the bullpen and signed Jack Hanahan to back up Frazier, but otherwise they were content to do only minor tweaking. Most notably, they intend to move closer Aroldis Chapman into the starting rotation, with 2012 trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Broxton taking over ninth-inning duties.
The Reds planned to move Chapman to the rotation last spring but were forced to keep him in the bullpen when closer Ryan Madson was lost for the season with an arm injury. Assuming a successful transition this year, one starter from 2012 will lose his spot in the rotation. Mike Leake was the team’s fifth starter last year, so he seems most likely to be bumped.

Spring camp will also offer 2010 NL MVP and perennial candidate Joey Votto the chance to get sharp again after an injury-plagued 2012 season. The first baseman played only 111 games last year, missing a stretch of 48 due to a knee injury. When he returned in September, he didn’t quite look like himself, but a rested and rehabbed Votto should be back this spring.

With apparent upgrades in Choo and a full season of Frazier at the hot corner along with a healthy Votto and the flamethrower Chapman in the rotation, the Reds seem to have found ways to improve a 97-win team. Now begins their quest to improve on the way they finished.

Who’s new: OF Shin-Soo Choo, trade (Indians); 3B Jason Donald, trade (Indians); 3B Jack Hannahan, RP Manny Parra, free agents; 2B Emmanuel Burriss, SP Armando Galaraga, SS Cesar Izturis, C Miguel Olivo, minor league free agents.

Who’s gone: RP Bill Bray (Nationals), 3B Mike Costanzo (Nationals), SS Didi Gregorious (D-backs), RP Ryan Madson (Angels), C Dioner Navarro (Cubs), OF Drew Stubbs (Indians), SS Wilson Valdez (Giants); 2B Miguel Cairo, 3B Scott Rolen, free agents.
Battle ground:
Reds want to move closer Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, and assuming that plans works out it will probably mean Mike Leake gets bumped to the bullpen, demoted or perhaps traded. The everyday lineup appears to be set, so the primary training camp intrigue could be sorting out spots in the bullpen.
Health watch: Reliever Nick Masset missed all of 2012 after suffering a shoulder injury last spring training, and he’s expected to be ready for the start of camp. … First baseman Joey Votto missed 48 games with a knee injury last season and returned in September but didn’t look quite right. He’s rested and rehabbed this offseason and should be his old self again this spring.
Sneak preview:
Perhaps one of the fastest players in all of baseball, Billy Hamilton racked up a professional record 155 stolen bases last season. That and his performance in the Arizona Fall League was enough to earn a big league camp invitation, though he’s almost guaranteed to begin the season in the minors. Still, fans should get a glimpse of the future in Hamilton, who is transitioning to center field from shortstop.
Spring training info: Goodyear Ballpark, 1933 S. Ballpark Way, Goodyear. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers) and Feb. 16 (full squad). First game Feb. 22. Tickets: