Reds have what it takes to make run in 2012

Last year Arizona was baseball’s sleeper, a preseason pick

to finish in last place that emerged as the NL West champion. The year before,

Texas ended the Angels’ run in the AL West, and wound up losing the World

Series to San Francisco.

Colorado was a surprise NL wild card in 2007 and 2009, and Tampa Bay stunned

not only the AL East but all of baseball, advancing to the World Series in

2008.

Which team will be the surprise of 2012? What about Cincinnati?

With spring training about to open, the Reds are looking good while the two

teams to beat in the NL Central suffered major offseason losses.

Already blessed with an explosive lineup built around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and

Brandon Phillips, the Reds were able to put together a package to land San

Diego ace Mat Latos — who goes into Cincinnati’s rotation in the No. 2 spot —

and anchored the bullpen by signing free-agent closer Ryan Madson.

Don’t overlook the impact the signings of Ryan Ludwick and Jeff Francis can

have. Ludwick provides a solid right-handed extra bat, and Francis is a

sleeper. Having shown he was healthy again last year in Kansas City, given the

Reds’ defense and offense, Francis could easily win between 12 and 15 games.

Yes, St. Louis won the world championship last year, but the Cardinals suffered

three losses that can’t be offset. In addition to Albert Pujols’ free-agent

signing with the Los Angeles Angels, manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach

Dave Duncan retired.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, lost Prince Fielder to free agency, and could be without

2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun for the first 60 days. Even if Braun wins his appeal of

the suspension for testing positive for a PED, the controversy of the drug-test

failure would be a distraction.

NOTES

Detroit is definitely the team to beat in the AL Central, but did it

really improve with the signing of Fielder? No. No knock on Fielder, but the

Tigers didn’t add offense with Fielder as much as they replaced offense,

because they will be without Victor Martinez in 2012. The truth is, what little

edge they may gain in offense with Fielder over Martinez, they lose with a

defense that will now feature sub-par infield corners — Fielder at first and

Miguel Cabrera at third.

San Francisco chipped away at its strength to add marginal offensive

help. First it sent right-hander Zack Wheeler, its No. 1 pitching prospect, to

the Mets last July for outfielder Carlos Beltran, who not only didn’t provide

enough offensive help to get the Giants into the playoffs, but then left as a

free agent. Then, this winter, the Giants shipped lefty Jonathan Sanchez, who

has been inconsistent but overpowering, to Kansas City for journeyman

outfielder Melky Cabrera.

Are the Giants hoping to salvage something out of that seven-year, $126 million

deal they gave lefty Barry Zito? Zito is 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA the last five

years and managed to appear in only 13 games (nine starts) a year ago. To his

credit, he has been extremely professional in handling his diminishing role on

the team and has never backed off working to find a solution to his failures.

Can a change of scenery provide a bump for right-hander Jeremy

Guthrie? The Rockies, needing a workhorse, acquired Guthrie, who has worked

200-plus innings each of the last three seasons. They look at his limited

pitching experiences in his youth as a bonus, feeling he is actually fresher at

age 32 (he’ll turn 33 in April) than many pitchers at 27. They also are

counting on the fact that Guthrie, having had to survive in Camden Yards, is a

rare breed in that he will find Coors Field more pitcher-friendly than the park

he’s accustomed to, and will benefit from a markedly better defense with the

Rockies than he has ever had behind him before.

There also is the curiosity of how much will he benefit from moving out of the

AL East, where Baltimore faces the offensive machines in Boston and New York 18

games each per season. The NL West, meanwhile, is noted for pitching, and

Guthrie could make as many as three starts each in San Diego, Los Angeles and

San Francisco, which are at the top of the list of pitcher-friendly parks.

Guthrie was 30-48 with a 4.39 ERA overall the last three seasons — 4-13 with a

5.46 ERA against the Red Sox and Yankees and 26-35 with a 4.13 against all

other teams. He was 2-6 with a 6.59 ERA at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium the

last three seasons.

Bryce Harper is one of the game’s most talked about prospects, and

even though he has yet to have an at-bat in a big league game, Harper’s

biography, “The Last Natural,” is being published. Harper has a ton

of ability, but is the hype going to create a crushing pressure? Time will

tell. He made his pro debut last year, splitting the season between low-A

Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League, and Double-A Harrisburg. His combined

stats were a .297 average, 17 home runs and 58 RBI in 109 games. Hopefully he

will be allowed a chance to develop, acclimate and not be rushed.