Spring Postcard: Can youthful Reds follow in '08 Rays' footsteps?
Location: Sarasota, Fla.
1. The Reds may be the closest thing the NL has in 2009 to the '08 Rays.
So says Jonny Gomes, the no-longer mohawked utility player who is a non-roster invite to Reds camp after spending his entire career with Tampa Bay, including a front-row seat to the Rays' improbable World Series run of a year ago.
"This feels similar to me," Gomes said, even noting that the core of young talent in Cincinnati might surpass that of the Rays. "The difference is we've already got a foot in the door here. We just need someone to light the wick and we'll be on fire. But how to do that is the million dollar question that all 32 teams are trying to answer."
Even if the number of big league clubs is an overstatement (there are 30, not 32), Gomes' comparison to Tampa Bay may not be. Like the Rays, the Reds gave little indication a year ago that they could be poised for a big leap in 2008. Cincinnati went just 74-88 last season, compared to Tampa Bay's 66-96 mark before their breakout season. Like the Rays, the Reds' clubhouse is a loose one, populated by still-rising players (and absent veteran stars with big egos or significant clubhouse distractions). Most importantly, like the Rays, they have a potentially potent mixture of several quality young arms in the starting rotation and power bats in the middle of the lineup. The rotation boasts All-Star Edinson Volquez (24), plus righties Johnny Cueto (23) and -- if he wins the fifth spot -- Homer Bailey (22). Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion each have 30-homer power and will populate the heart of the Reds order in a park built to score runs. As evidence of their young talent, nine Reds players left camp to play in the World Baseball Classic, the most of any team in the division. And unlike the Rays, the Reds play in a much more manageable division. Even though Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty concedes the Cubs are heavy favorites in the NL Central, every other spot in the division is up for grabs.
2. With youth comes growing pains.
The Reds have just two position players in their projected starting lineup over 30 (catcher Ramon Hernandez and shortstop Jerry Hairston Jr., who incidentally were born nine days apart in May 1976). And Hairston is not a lock to keep the job if versatile prospect Todd Frazier proves ready to play later in the year. To help compensate for the inevitable errors that come from such a young club (last year the Reds finished with 114 errors, fourth-most in the majors), manager Dusty Baker has put an added emphasis on fundamentals this spring, including sliding drills and cut off throws. Baker says he wants his young club to be "great most of the time and good sometimes. Just play, learn, retain and win."
3. If they don't go boom, their offense may go bust.
The Reds finished seventh in the National League in home runs last year but were last in the league in both hits (1,351) and batting average (.247). Of the six holdovers from last year's team who are expected to be in the starting lineup, four hit at least 20 home runs (a fifth, Chris Dickerson, has 20-HR power but played only 31 games in the majors last year), but only one member of that quartet -- Votto -- hit higher than .261. Their two most prominent position-player acquisitions this winter may not help. Willy Taveras registered 68 steals but had just a .251 average and .308 on-base percentage, fifth lowest among leadoff hitters in the majors last year. Catcher Ramon Hernandez posted the same OBP and hit just .257. Hitting coach Brook Jacoby is not exactly a disciple of walks -- "If we get a strike to hit on the first pitch, we want our guys attacking," he said -- so he's had his team work on hitting the ball gap-to-gap this winter, partly in an effort to increase the team's chances at extra-base hits that will get runners around the bases faster than playing small ball.
Not done yet
Both David Weathers and Arthur Rhodes are 39 years old, making them the oldest players on the team by almost six years, and the only ones who were alive when the Big Red Machine was born in 1970. Both debuted in the majors in 1991 and both will be relied upon as the Reds' primary set-up men. Weathers, who has pitched for nine teams, has finally found a home in Cincinnati, where he has chugged away for the past four seasons, the longest continuous stretch with one club in his 18-year career. Last season, he posted a 3.25 ERA, his best since 2003. Rhodes, meanwhile, signed a two-year contract to make the Reds his seventh big league team. After a rough 2006 in which he amassed a 5.32 ERA and 1.686 WHIP, Rhodes missed the entire 2007 season due to Tommy John surgery, but he rebounded in 2008 to post a 2.04 ERA (including 0.68 after a midseason trade to the Marlins) and 1.245 WHIP in 61 games with Seattle and Florida. The Reds' bullpen was already solid, ranking third in the NL in ERA (3.81). With closer Francisco Cordero recovered from foot surgery, it could be the best in the league in '09.
When he came to Cincinnati last year, Nick Masset was just another guy included in the trade that sent Ken Griffey Jr. to the White Sox. But Jocketty had long coveted Masset, who impressed scouts with his 6-foot-4 frame and live arm. He turned several heads in the early days of camp and worked himself into the discussion to be the team's fifth starter, a spot seemingly reserved for top prospect Homer Bailey. Masset has worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen in his brief career (75 of 77 appearances have been in relief), so even if he doesn't start, he should have an impact on the club as a middle reliever.
Bailey spent part of his offseason working out in Austin, Texas. Among his frequent workout partners was tennis star Andy Roddick, whose fanatical workout routines put Bailey and the rest of the participants to shame. "We'd all be exhausted and he'd just keep going," says Bailey. "We'd all be like, [geez], Andy, downshift, dude." ... Before the team's spring training opener against the Rays, Votto tried to encourage the normally light-hitting Hairston (no double-figure home run seasons in his 11-year career) by shouting "Let 'em know!" every time it looked like Hairston had finally flexed some muscle during batting practice. Alas, Hairston never did hit one out in BP, but he finally let his vocal teammate know he had some pop when he smoked a grand slam in the Reds' win. ... The Reds have always been known as one of the more fan and media friendly teams in the majors, and a posting on their clubhouse door may be part of the reason why. In addition to listing all the media -- bios included -- who cover the team on a regular basis, there is this admonition: "If you are rude or surly to the media, you will appear rude or surly to your -- and our -- fans."