Who's going to emerge from the Reds bullpen to finish off victories in the eighth and ninth innings? What can we expect from Junior Griffey? When's Homer Bailey coming? Can Ryan Freel hold up as an everyday player? Is Edwin Encarnacion going to explode?
The Reds barely missed snapping their five-year streak of losing seasons last year and we can't be sure they'll break their six-year streak this year. But they seem to be going in the right direction.
Now that Wayne Krivsky has finished off a full year as general manager, turning over his roster during the season and turning over his front office during the offseason, the Reds are a very different organization. The extent to which Krivsky changed the Reds last year is shown, to some degree, in the league rankings.
From the batter's box, the Reds declined relative to the National League, falling from seventh with a 2005 club batting average of .261 to 15th in 2006 at .257. While most of the league improved offensively, the Reds just changed a bit, striking out about 100 times less without increasing their walks and hitting for less extra-base power while running a lot more. The Reds diversified offensively, dropping 23 more sacrifice bunts, trying 62 more stolen bases and succeeding 52 more times. When it all shook out, the Reds scored substantially fewer runs, falling from 820 in 2005 to 749 in 2006.
But the Reds improved substantially in the big picture because pitching improved substantially. The Reds rose from 14th in the league with a 2005 E.R.A. of 5.15 to seventh in 2006 at 4.51. They struck out about 100 more hitters, gave up about 80 fewer hits, walked about 30 fewer and allowed a six fewer home runs. They increased complete games from two to nine and shutouts from one to 10. Opponents scored 801 runs in 2006, down from 889 in 2005.
Between Aaron Harang's improvement and Bronson Arroyo's arrival, the Reds made big strides in their starting rotation, which jumped from the National League's very worst in 2005 to the top half of the league in 2006. Their starter E.R.A. fell to 4.58 from 5.38.
The Reds also improved slightly in their bullpen, though we all know that's also where they lost a lot of games. In 2006, the Reds turned games over to the bullpen with 60 save opportunities, up from 47 a year earlier. But they only turned those 13 extra chances into five more saves.
The Reds have struggled in the bullpen ever since they decided in 2003 to make Danny Graves a starter because they gave him a big contract. Until last year, it didn't make a lot of difference, for the Reds were so bad and so out of so many games that relievers couldn't save them, anyway. Last year, though, the lack of a reliable bullpen cost the Reds five or six games, the difference between nursing a streak of six losing seasons or winning the National League Central and maybe becoming the St. Louis Cardinals in the postseason. Unfortunately, the Reds have not seriously addressed their relief situation since the last pitch of 2006.
So, that's where we are this spring, looking at a different ball club, though with the same weakness at the ends of games. Unquestionably, this spring's games will turn a little more dramatic with each appearance by the likes of David Weathers, Mike Stanton, Todd Coffey, Bill Bray, Gary Majewski, Eddie Guardado and Rheal Cormier, all of them securely in the bullpen and none of whom is right now a lockdown closer.
Guardado is the best candidate after hitting on eight of 10 save opportunities when the Reds picked him up midseason last year. But his left arm soon blew up and now he's coming back from ligament replacement surgery. The acquisition of Guardado was just one of Krivsky's desperate efforts to solidify his bullpen on the fly, the more controversial attempt coming near the trade deadline with the banishment of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington for a package including Majewski and Bray.
The trade flopped in the media and failed on the field because Majewski showed up injured, unbeknownst to Krivsky when he made his trade with Washington's general manager, Jim Bowden. The Reds thought Majewski's sore right shoulder was solved during the winter, but the problem returned and they didn't allow him to throw off the mound when pitchers and catchers took their first turns Feb. 18.
The bullpen issues are at the core of this club's destiny. If the Reds produce just as last year in every respect, excepting a better bullpen, they become a player in the NL Central.
The Cardinals' pitching staff is unsettled and, even under the best circumstances, their starting rotation will hurt. The Astros might be a little better, or not, depending on whether they show enough through May to bring back Roger Clemens. The Cubs threw a big pile of money at players, but part of the deal is that Alfonso Soriano has to try center field. The Milwaukee Brewers are better and might even surprise. In addition to sporting the division's worst batting order and worst pitching staff, the Pirates will be the division's worst dressed club when they put on the new red jerseys.
As the clubs stand now, the Cardinals and Astros are less loaded than when they ended last season, the Reds are about the same (perhaps a little worse with the free agency loss of Rich Aurilia), and the Cubs and Brewers are better. It adds up to a wide-open season.
But a wide-open bullpen could ruin it for the Reds. Spring always brings hope, but it's not likely to make bullpen questions go away.