Anyone else ready for baseball? Mired in the middle of a painful, almost entirely sunless winter, there are few phrases any more satisfying than this: Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks.
Coming off their first division championship in 15 years, the Reds haven’t generated this much offseason enthusiasm since the winter of 1999, a year in which the team added the best player in the game, Ken Griffey Jr., to a club that barely missed the playoffs the season before. We all know how that turned out — 2000 was the opening salvo in lost decade dominated by Griffey’s endless injuries and a perpetually under-armed starting rotation that saw the following collection of retreads start on opening day from 2002 to 2005: Joey Hamilton, Jimmy Haynes, Corey Lidle and Paul Wilson. (That un-fearsome foursome would have trouble making the Reds 2011 AAA rotation.)
Despite a quiet off-season when it comes to roster moves — extra parts Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis replace Orlando Cabrera and Laynce Nix — don’t expect another 2000 letdown, or at least don’t count on a 2000s-like downturn. For assurance, look no further than the starting rotation, which should be one of the deepest and competitive in the Central Division (if not MLB). Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and Homer Bailey (he’s out of options) seem locks. That leaves Mike Leake, Travis Wood and Matt Maloney to battle for the fifth spot. And that doesn’t even include Aroldis Chapman, who looks as though he will get one more year of seasoning in the bullpen.
The relief corps should be just as strong — Chapman joins veteran closer Francisco Cordero and set-up men Bill Bray, Nick Masset and Logan Ondrusek. That leaves newcomer Jose Arredondo — a onetime Anaheim Angels phenom coming off Tommy John surgery — Jared Burton, Jordan Smith and probably one of the starters who doesn’t make the rotation to fill out the final spot or two in the bullpen.
GM Walt Jocketty didn’t bring in a impact bat this offseason — he wisely spent the winter taking care of the Reds young, still-emerging core, giving extensions to Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Cueto, not to mention Arroyo — which leaves a question mark at the lead-off spot (will it be Drew Stubbs, Brandon Phillips or someone else?) and the ever-streaky Jonny Gomes in leftfield.
But, assuming Paul Janish and Ryan Hanigan don’t regress as they ease into more prominent roles, perhaps the biggest key to the Reds repeat chances resides in the fragile body of Scott Rolen, a quiet, unassumingly vital leader who must not only stay healthy — no small task for him at this stage in his career — but also produce as the guy hitting between Votto and Bruce. Then there’s his irreplaceable defense; he won is eighth gold glove last year.
With everything Jocketty (and predecessor Wayne Krivsky and a committed ownership group) has done to turn around a once-foundering franchise, the addition of Rolen remains his most important and prescient move both on and off the field. The 2011 Reds will go as far as Rolen’s back will allow.