McCoy: In exhibition games, wins won’t matter, but questions do

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

For major league baseball players, the Arizona sun is invigorating, the late afternoon golf is relaxing and the late-evening meals at highly rated restaurants are fulfilling.

Winning exhibition baseball games? Not important. As far as spring training goes, the key word is training.

Former Reds managers Davey Johnson, Jack McKeon and Dusty Baker always said with similar words, “We’d like to go .500. Don’t win too many to get complacent and don’t lose too many to establish a losing culture.”

There have been teams that go 10-22 in spring training and win it all. There have been teams that go 22-10 in spring training and finish last.

For the veteran pitchers, it is a time to build arm strength, work on new pitches, polish up their best pitches and work toward surviving 100 pitches and five or six innings by Opening Day.

For the veteran position players, it is a time to play a few innings each game, mostly to get at-bats and refine their timing, take a few ground balls on lumpy infields and catch a few fly balls under the high and cloudless Arizona skies.

And for most teams, that’s about it. Get in shape for the long, long 162-game season. Avoid injuries, avoid sore arms and sharpen up on fundamentals.

It is much, much different this year for the Cincinnati Reds, a team in a pronounced rebuild. There are holes to fill, most of them deeper than a Florida sinkhole.

Again, winning isn’t important. Individual performance is, because it will determine who makes it to the 26-man roster and who won’t.

There are several key questions:

— Who will fill out the starting rotation behind Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft? Luis Cessa is a candidate to transition from the bullpen. Connor Overton is in the mix along with newcomers Luke Weaver and Brandon Williamson.

— Who will play shortstop, Jose Barrero or Kevin Newman or Elly De La Cruz or somebody else? De La Cruz is The People’s Choice, a player fans can’t wait to see. Is he ready?

— Who will play third base, Spencer Steer, or are the Reds willing to forcefeed 23-year-old Christian Encarnacion-Strand into a big-league uniform.

Encarnacion-Strand has only a year-and-a-half of professional ball after the Minnesota Twins drafted him in the fourth round in 2021 out of Oklahoma State University.

The Reds traded pitcher Tyler Mahle for him last year and, strangely, Steer came to the Reds in the same trade. Encarnacion-Strand played 35 games last season at Class AA Chattanooga and hit .309 with seven homers and 29 RBI.

He is a non-roster invitee to the Reds big-league camp, but during an eye-popping, five-game span last week, he went 9 for 13 with 10 RBI and three home runs. A home run he hit in Las Vegas nearly knocked the roller coaster off the top of the Stratosphere casino.

In the cases of De La Cruz and Encarnacion-Strand, more words from those former Reds managers ring true. As Baker told me, “Players will fool you in spring training. Those gaudy numbers are short samples. It’s the same if a player doesn’t post big numbers. Short sample. You have to look at other factors to be sure.”

— Who will play the outfield? Nick Senzel is still recovering from surgery. Wil Myers would be a solid right fielder, but he might be needed at first base if Joey Votto’s surgically repaired shoulder and elbow are not healed enough for him to start the season.

Oh, yeah. Encarnacion-Strand can play first base, too. So could the 6-foot-5 De La Cruz, who might fit it because he writes daily in his diary, “I’m a shortstop, I’m a shortstop, I’m a shortstop.”

If Senzel isn’t ready, the outfield will be populated by near-strangers. If Votto isn’t ready and Myers mans first base, Jake Fraley probably is the right fielder and TJ Friedl is the left fielder. Without Senzel, center field is The Mystery Man. It could be Stuart Fairchild or new faces Michael Siani and Nick Solak.

— Who will bridge the treacherous waters between the starters and closer Alexis Diaz? With the starters limited to the 100-pitch plateau and five or six innings, getting to Diaz to finish out victories is a problem.

The bullpen has been a pigpen for the Reds for the last two seasons and the club did nothing to address it. The hope is that some of the familiar names that have failed to turn it around — Fernando Cruz, Buck Farmer, Vladimir Gutierrez, Reiver Sanmartin, Lucas Sims … and others.

And that’s what spring training is all about for the Cincinnati Reds. Long-ago sports writer Grantland Rice could have been talking about the Reds in spring training when he penned his famous words, “It’s not who won or lost that counts, but how you played the game.”

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