Reds return intact looking for deep playoff run

Same starting five in the rotation. Same back end of the

bullpen. Same starting lineup, except for one spot.

On the surface, not much has changed with the Cincinnati Reds,

and that’s exactly how they wanted it. The NL Central division

champions have brought their team back virtually intact for another

run at their elusive goal.

Another division title is only an initial goal for a team that

won 97 games last season. They’re looking way beyond that first

champagne celebration.

Instead, they’ve got their eye on late October.

”I want to get to the next round of the playoffs,” second

baseman Brandon Phillips said. ”I want to start there. Of course

the goal every year is to win the ring, but I feel like you’ve got

to take steps.”

The Reds have taken huge steps in the last five years,

reconfiguring themselves from perennial also-ran to consistent

playoff contender. They went nine years without so much as a

winning record, and 15 years between playoff appearances before

winning the division as an up-and-coming team in 2010.

They got swept in the playoffs by the Phillies that season, then

slipped the following year under a lot of injuries. They were back

on top last season with a team built for long-term success, but

fell in the first round of the playoffs again, this time to the

Giants in five games.

Everything about the offseason has gone into giving them a

better chance to not only reach the playoffs, but to keep

going.

”We’re a team that’s built for now,” general manager Walk

Jocketty said. ”We’re built to win now.”

They think some modest lineup tweaking could make them a bit

better.

One of their biggest weaknesses for years has been the lack of a

leadoff hitter, which forced manager Dusty Baker to use Phillips

and others in the top spot. They got Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians

to replace Drew Stubbs, who struck out too much to be effective.

Choo could be a short-term fix, with Billy Hamilton – who set a

minor league record with 155 steals last season – playing center

field and batting leadoff for Triple-A Louisville this season.

The other change is at third base, where Todd Frazier gets the

job full-time for Scott Rolen, who decided not to return for

another season. Frazier filled in at third base and at first base

when Rolen and Joey Votto were hurt, and ended up third in NL

Rookie of the Year voting after batting .273 with 19 homers and 67

RBIs.

Cincinnati thinks the offense will be even better with a healthy

Votto around from the start of the season. The former NL MVP tore

cartilage in his left knee while sliding into base on June 29 and

needed two operations. Votto was gone for 48 games and wasn’t

himself when he returned, reduced to hitting singles the rest of

the season because of the weak knee.

During spring training, he hit his first homers since June 24,

an indication his knee is fully healed.

Votto’s first significant injury has given him a different

outlook.

”People’s injuries resonate with me more because of my

experience,” he said. ”It probably made me a better

teammate.”

The Reds got through last season with all five starters healthy

and were the only team in the majors that used as few as six

starters – they had to call one up for a doubleheader. The streak

of good luck ended when Johnny Cueto pulled muscles in his side

during the first inning of the opening playoff game in San

Francisco, leaving Cincinnati’s pitching plans in flux for the rest

of the series.

Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake

each made 30 starts last season. Bailey in particular showed

improvement, throwing a no-hitter in Pittsburgh. All are back and

healthy.

The Reds’ biggest decision in spring training involved the

closer’s spot. The Reds got hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman ready to

make a long-awaited transition to the rotation, with Jonathan

Broxton available to finish off games, but the left-hander

expressed a preference to keep closing.

Chapman had 38 saves after moving into the role in May,

converting a club-record 27 in a row even though he’d never been a

closer. He’ll have a better feel for the role this season.

”I have a lot of years ahead,” Chapman said. ”I’m happy to be

the closer now.”

Baker got a two-year contract extension after missing the Reds’

division championship celebration last year because he was

hospitalized for treatment of an irregular heartbeat and a

mini-stroke. The 63-year-old manager feels fine and shares the big

expectations for this season and beyond.

”I talked to the owners,” Baker said. ”They asked a lot of

questions and made statements. They’re enthusiastic about our

progress.

”We’ve come a long way in a short period of time, over three

years. It’s about being able to sustain high excellence.”

And it’s about taking that next step deeper into the

playoffs.

AP freelance writer Gary Schatz in Goodyear, Ariz., contributed

to this report.