Reds report to Florida for spring camp
Fierce competition expected in left field, starting rotation
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The names, numbers and faces always change as baseball constantly evolves. That fact really hits home when walking into the Reds' clubhouse this year.
Turnover has been rampant over recent years in Cincinnati, even though the club that did not make wholesale changes over the winter. But there's one steady routine that marks the start of the season every year, regardless of the personnel.
Pitchers and catchers reported to Reds camp on Saturday morning.
"It's a little different this year," reliever David Weathers said while scanning the clubhouse.
Out are Ken Griffey Jr., his two end lockers and the giant black trunk he sat on. Adam Dunn, who used to be nearby, is also gone. All of the lockers are in numerical order with no one getting special treatment or locations.
"Dunner and Griff, are gone plus from last spring -- Scott Hatteberg, Mike Stanton, Matt Belisle, Todd Coffey -- I can go long on this list of guys that were here for several years," Weathers said. "There are a lot of new faces here."
With the club since 2003, starting pitcher Aaron Harang is now the most tenured Reds player at six years. Weathers is next with five seasons over two separate tours. The third most tenured guy might be a stunner -- it's third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who is entering his fifth season despite being only 26.
Weathers, Harang and Homer Bailey are the only three pitchers who were around for the start of 2006 Spring Training. Bronson Arroyo arrived mid-camp via a trade from the Red Sox.
"How weird is that? That's a lot of turnaround," Weathers said.
After morning physicals, 29 pitchers and seven catchers were on the field by early afternoon performing routine drills. Pitchers practiced fielding and bunting. Later, several threw in the bullpen, including Harang, Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Arthur Rhodes. Only non-roster catcher Humberto Cota, en route from Mexico, was absent.
With temperatures in the mid 70s and a nice breeze, the Reds couldn't have been greeted with better weather to get the season started.
"Most of the guys appear to be in really good shape," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what I like. It shows me their dedication and desire from the offseason. So far, everybody looks great. We're going to concentrate on being the most fundamentally sound team. We'll try to concentrate on making, hopefully, the least physical and mental mistakes and errors around. It's difficult sometimes when you have young players."
Position players are due to report Tuesday, which would bring the big league camp total to 63. Within a couple of days, hitters will begin taking "live" batting practice against pitchers in the cages.
Many Reds didn't wait for the report date to show up. Harang, closer Francisco Cordero, reliever Bill Bray and outfielders Jay Bruce and Chris Dickerson were among those already at the team complex before the weekend. Many more position players arrived early Saturday and took an informal batting practice inside Ed Smith Stadium.
"You're expected to be in shape when you get here," Bruce said. "Right now, the game is too advanced. It's changed a lot, and it matters a lot to come here in shape."
For snowbirds and local residents alike, it will be the final chance to see the Reds work out and train in Florida. In 2010, the team shifts Spring Training to the Cactus League and a brand new complex in Goodyear, Ariz.
The Reds have been in Sarasota and Ed Smith Stadium since 1998 and in Florida since 1923, with a three-year exception during World War II.
While a new era of Spring Training is a year away, the Reds have already ushered in some dramatic changes since they broke camp in 2008. After the summer trades of the two cornerstone players in Griffey and Dunn, the transition to younger talent was completed. Joey Votto, Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Volquez have emerged as the Reds' marquee names.
"I feel a lot better this spring because I know more of the personnel than last spring," said Baker, who is back for his second season managing the Reds. "There are still about a third of them I don't know."
Spring Training is longer this season because of the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The schedule also has three days off from games instead of the usual one day. Several Reds players are also expected to leave camp to play in the Classic for their respective countries. There are 17 players in camp eligible to play, including nine from the 40-man roster.
"That's a lot," Baker said. "But it will give a lot of guys a longer look-see than usual. Consequently, we'll have to carry more guys too to offset the loss of those guys."
Cincinnati did not make many dynamic changes during the offseason but believed it filled several needs that will improve the club's speed and defense. Free-agent center fielder Willy Taveras signed a two-year, $6.25 million contract to be the new leadoff hitter. Fan favorite Ryan Freel was traded to the Orioles for catcher Ramon Hernandez. Rhodes, a veteran lefty reliever, was signed to a two-year, $4 million contract.
Others like Daryle Ward, Jacque Jones and Jonny Gomes were signed to Minor League deals with camp invites to compete for roster spots. The Reds' competition for left field is likely among Jerry Hairston Jr., Chris Dickerson and Gomes. There are five or six candidates for the fifth starter's spot. Many eyes will also be on shortstop as Alex Gonzalez tries to return from missing all of 2008 with a fractured left knee.
The Grapefruit League schedule opens on Feb. 25 against the Rays at Port Charlotte, Fla.
"It's about getting together as a unit and a team as quickly as possible," Baker said of this camp. "Hopefully, this will be the most fun, exciting, close-knit year of our careers."