The state of the 2012 Cincinnati Reds

Published Apr. 3, 2012 11:58 a.m. ET

Seldom does anything take attention away from the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day in Cincinnati, even though the national impact has been removed the last few years because Major League Baseball schedules games ahead of the Reds.

It used to be that the Reds, as baseball’s first professional team, were granted the honor of playing the first game, always at home, every year.

They still get to play the first game at home, as they will Thursday afternoon against the Miami Marlins in Great American Ball Park, but it won’t be the first game of the major-league season.

Opening Day in Cincinnati retains its buzz for Reds fans, starting with the Findlay Market parade, with newly elected Hall of Famer Barry Larkin serving as grand marshal.

Maybe they should have co-grand marshals this year because the talk of the week is about Joey Votto and the possibility that he is about to sign a 10-year contract extension worth $225 million.

Several sources confirm that a deal is close, including Votto, the 28-year-old first baseman who was National League MVP in 2010, leading the Reds to the NL Central division title.

Votto is in the second year of a three-year $38 million contract that will pay him $12 million this year and calls for $17 million next year.

If the deal is worth $225 million and Votto agrees to it, it would be the fourth largest contract in baseball history behind Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.

What this contract brings about is a big, big question: Can the Reds also afford second baseman Brandon Phillips, who is in the final year of his contract and is seeking an extension commensurate to his mammoth talents.

Phillips, a Gold Glove second baseman and an All-Star, will make $12 million this year and is seeking a hefty raise. While he isn’t asking for money in the Votto category, it is close enough that fans wonder if it will be feasible or possible to extend his deal.

Most likely, Votto’s deal would be heavily backloaded and might even have some deferral money, but the money still has to be paid somewhere down the road.

With the Reds operating at a payroll between $75 million and $80 million a season, Votto’s average salary of $22.5 million would take up more than one-fourth of the payroll, leaving little wiggle room for another gargantuan salary.

The Reds, though, say they remain dedicated to continue talks with Phillips about a contract extension.

A roster decision was made this week, too, when third baseman Juan Francisco was traded to the Atlanta Braves for minor-league pitcher J.J. Hoover, although the Reds might have taken J. Edgar Hoover just to remove Francisco.

It didn’t take a message in a bottle to realize the Reds were extremely displeased, especially manager Dusty Baker, when Francisco reported to spring training 12 pounds overweight.

Francisco, one of the team’s top prospects, had done little to rehab a calf he injured over the winter.

Francisco, who daily put on displays of  long distance power in batting practice, is undoubtedly stuffed with talent and potential, but the Reds were unable to extract it. And Francisco, a quiet, laid-back man, seemed unwilling to do what is necessary to put that talent into play.

When play begins Thursday shortly after 4 o’clock, rookie Zack Cozart will be at shortstop. He was anointed the job over the winter, but could have lost it with a miserable spring. To the contrary, he was outstanding all spring, solidifying the job and enabling the Reds to option Paul Janish to Class AAA Louisville. Janish was last year’s Opening Day shortstop.

The team spent all spring grooming Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman for the rotation, but a series of injuries forced Baker and the front office to start the season with Chapman in the bullpen.

Closer Ryan Madson’s torn rotator cuff knocks him out for the season, forcing the Reds to move lefthander Sean Marshall into the closer’s role.

The bullpen’s other lefthander, Bill Bray, missed the first half of spring training with a groin injury and wasn’t effective in his late outings this spring.

And the other team’s set-up candidate, Nick Masset, starts the season on the disabled list with arm inflammation.

Chapman and Homer Bailey were the candidates for the No. 5 rotation spot behind Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake.

Bailey has no bullpen experience and Chapman has worked in the bullpen the last two years, so the decision was easy — although it might be a temp job.

If and when Bray comes around and when Masset is ready, if somebody in the rotation falters or encounters injuries, Chapman is ready to step in.