Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto hits a fielders choice off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester to first to drive in Jose Peraza in the first inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Photo: Associated Press
Photo: Associated Press

Hal McCoy: 5 questions facing the Reds entering Spring Training

Most believe Cincinnati headed for another last-place finish in NL Central

As the Cincinnati Reds begin spring training this week in Goodyear, Ariz., expectations are not high. They may train in Goodyear but nobody expects them to have a good year.

In fact, most venues who dabble in predictions are saying the Reds will maintain their firm grip on last place in the National League Central, where they’ve finished the last two seasons after finishing fourth in 2014.

And they are probably right as the Reds continue their rebuilding and reconstruction plans which has seen them in the last year two years trade players such as Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Dan Straily for a full menu of prospects.

RELATED: Reds CEO: ‘I hope Billy Hamilton is with us forever’

There are pot holes to fill and so far not much to build around other than Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton. There are probably more questions than answers right now and there are at least five big ones as the team begins workouts under the high Arizona skies and the swaying palm trees that also features rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners and sagebrush.

Here are five questions that need to be solved as the team progresses over the next six weeks, although there is no way they will all be answered:

Will catcher Devin Mesoraco be able to catch after a couple of hip surgeries?

The Cubs’ Javier Baez lies on the ground after scoring on a hard slide against Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco on Friday, April 22, 2016, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff

A catcher who can’t catch is a liability, especially if that catcher can’t play any other position and there is no designated hitter in the National League.

RELATED: Oft-injured Mesoraco continues to look forward

Fortunately, the Reds always had a back-up plan with back-up catcher Tucker Barnhart, who was no longer a back-up catcher the last two years. Two seasons ago he shared the position with Brayan Pena and last year he pretty much played it himself and was solid both defensively and offensively.

What can the Reds do about second baseman Brandon Phillips and more importantly, what WILL they do with him.

Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips fields a groundball against the Cubs on Friday, April 24, 2015, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff
Photo: David Jablonski

They have tried to trade him three times and he plunked down his no-trade clause in all three instances.

It it clear to everybody (but maybe not him) that the Reds want him out of the way so they can install the second baseman of the future, Jose Peraza. Phillips blocks the way.

RELATED: Reds CEO on Phillips: ‘I don’t have a crystal ball’

So will the Reds cut down on Phillips’ playing time, will they bench him and make him a utility player? This is the last year they’ll have to go through this. His contract expires after this season and the Reds are certain to let him fly away. But what do they do with him and his $13 million this year?

How will they fill out the starting rotation?

Reds starter Homer Bailey pitches against the Indians on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Photo: David Jablonski

The news this week that Homer Bailey underwent his third surgery in two years has to have manager Bryan Price’s head spinning.

Bailey underwent surgery to remove a couple of bone spurs off his problematic right elbow. The club counted on Bailey to anchor the rotation and the plan was to follow him with Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan and two guys who showed they belong during spring training.

Now, instead of finding two starters, they need to find three until Bailey, if and when, can return — probably not until early or mid-May.

The candidates are many, with the front-runners being Cody Reed (0-7 with a 7.36 ERA in 10 major league starts), Robert Stephenson (a No. 1 draft pick who is 2-3 with a 6.08 ERA in eight major league starts and a guy who has fought the system and slowed his learning curve), Tim Adleman (a signee off an independent league team who was 4-4 with a 4.00 ERA in 13 starts last season for the Reds), Amir Garrett (a 22nd-round draft pick who played basketball at St. John’s in New York and is 25-29 with a 3.18 ERA over 96 starts in five minor-league seasons.

REDS: Free agent Feldman can ‘help us in multiple ways’

Also in the mix is Scott Feldman (a 34-year-old journeyman who was a 30th round draft pick by the Texas Rangers and is 71-77 with a 4.40 ERA in 12 major-league seasons), Austin Brice (a right hander the Reds acquired in the Dan Straily trade from Miami and who made 15 bullpen appearances last year for the Marlins and was 0-1 with a 7.07 ERA).

And there is Bronson Arroyo, returning to the Reds after injuries kept him from pitching in the majors the last two years. He is on a minor-league contract and told the Reds, “Just fill in the numbers on a contract and give me a chance.” He most likely would be a better coach than a rotation plug-in.

Is this year’s bullpen going to be more like a bullpen than a pigpen?

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02: Raisel Iglesias #26 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch in the 9th inning during the game against the Chicago Cubsat Great American Ball Park on October 2, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The bullpen was, in the words of our current occupant of the White House, “A total disaster, believe me.” It was baseball’s worst, hands down.

The Reds have done little to upgrade, but the fact that Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias are healthy (for now) hints of vast improvement. Both were rotation possibilities last year but Lorenzen didn’t make it out of spring training and Iglesias barely did. When they returned they were plopped into the back end of the bullpen and did well.

RELATED: Reds beef up bullpen with Storen

Former closer/set-up man Drew Storen was signed and prefers the closer role. But will Price stick to the traditional one-inning, one-man closer role? Or will he go the way the Cleveland Indians did in the playoffs and put the best available man in the game when the game is on the line, even if it is the sixth or seventh inning? Price has talked about it, but hasn’t done it much yet, although he did use Lorenzen and Iglesias interchangeably as closers late last season and sometimes used them in two innings.

With the trade at the deadline last year of Jay Bruce, who is the right fielder?

The Reds’ Scott Schebler celebrates at home plate after hitting a three-run walk-off home run against the Cardinals on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff

Scott Schebler holds the upper hand heading into spring training.

Schebler was in a battle for left field early last season with Adam Duvall and lost in a landslide. He was so bad he was sent back to Triple-A Louisville early in the season. He came back after the Bruce trade and hit .265/.330/.432 in 82 games.

RELATED: Schebler not taking starting job in right for granted

If Schebler doesn’t work out, the team could shift Duvall from left field to right field and put Jose Peraza in left field to bide his time in the lineup until Phillips is long gone.

And how about Jesse Winker, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2012? In five minor league seasons he has hit .296, but his lack of power is holding him back. He hit .303 in 106 games at Class AAA Louisville, but hit only three home runs and drove in only 45. As one scout put it, “Who wants a corner outfielder who hits only three home runs in a season?”

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