As spring training draws near, the Cincinnati Reds will head to Goodyear, Ariz. with a spring in their steps.
Pitchers and catchers report to the complex Thursday and confidence is as high as the Arizona sky, thanks to the machinations and manipulations made by the front office during the offseason.
As the Reds made move after move, fans became more excited and upbeat. Each move lifted the excitement and each move lifted the expectations.
So now the pressure is on. The front office has done enough to make the Reds at least relevant in the National League Central. They haven’t been relevant since 2013.
The Reds won 90 games in 2013 and they fired manager Dusty Baker, one year after his team won 97 games and won the National League Central by nine games.
To fans, that’s ancient history. Recent history has been filled with wide gaps, pot holes and crevices.
Since they fired Baker, the Reds have finished fourth in 2014, last the next five years, then fourth last year under new manager David Bell.
Mostly under Bryan Price, Baker’s successor, and Bell, the Reds have been unarmed and not dangerous.
That certainly doesn’t appear to be the case this season.
They are definitely armed, especially with a starting rotation of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani and Wade Miley. And young Tyler Mahle is waiting in the wings.
Maybe it is not as potent as the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Mets, but the potential is there for the Reds to have one of baseball’s stronger rotations. Nevertheless, it is a mammoth upgrade from recent rotations that were as thin as a dollar bill.
That, alone, is reason for optimism and a rush to the ticket windows.
But executives Dick Williams and Nick Krall didn’t stop there. Armed with an open checkbook, they hit the free agent market with a frenzy.
It seemed as if the Reds were involved in nearly every trade talk and were in on many, many free agents. They missed on catcher Yasmani Grandal, pitcher Zack Wheeler, pitcher Dallas Keuchel and shortstop Didi Gregorius.
They reportedly offered outfielder Marcell Ozuna a three-year $50 million deal. He turned it down to sign a one-year $18 million contract with Atlanta, gambling that he can land an even bigger payday after a year with the Braves.
The Reds didn’t back down. They kept at it. They signed infielder Mike Moustakas, ranked by MLB.com as he 13th-best free agent on the market. They signed outfielder Nick Castellanos, ranked 10th by ESPN.
And for the first time they signed a Japanese-born player, free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama.
That means the Reds will have at least three new position players among the starting eight. And they will have one new starter in the rotation (Miley) to go with two starters they acquired last year (Gray, Bauer).
If nothing else, the Reds have created a buzz around baseball. They are being written about and talked about nationally .
That, too, is a turnaround. The last few years MLB-TV’s Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo called the Reds organization, “The worst in baseball. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Will how this season plays out make a difference in the Reds’ very ugly image over the past six seasons?
The first bad news already surfaced. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, arguably the Reds best player, was doing a Mark Spitz/Michael Phelps imitation when he hurt his shoulder in a swimming pool mishap and underwent surgery.
His return is uncertain. Fortunately, Moustakas was acquired to play second base but is a natural third baseman. So the Reds can slide him over to third base and put Nick Senzel at second base.
Senzel played center field last year, but that’s the position played by Akiyama. Castellanos most likely will man left field, leaving Aristides Aquino, Jesse Winker and Phillip Ervin vying for right field.
The Reds permitted shortstop Jose Iglesias to walk and he signed a one-year $3 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. That left a hole at short and the Reds tried to get Gregorius and have been involved in trade talks with Cleveland for Francisco Lindor and with Los Angeles for Corey Seager.
Those trades are unlikely and it looks as if Freddy Galvis wins shortstop by default. And when the Reds failed to lure Grandal back to Cincinnati (he was originally a No. 1 draft pick by the Reds), Tucker Barnhart will be behind the plate again.
One of the biggest question marks concerning the Reds is the slippage of first baseman Joey Votto. His numbers the last two seasons have dwindled and diminished.
Even he said he was disappointed and embarrassed by his contributions last season. With Votto batting in he heart of the order, production is needed.
When the biggest worry the Reds have is the status of Joey Votto, the team is in a good place.
But the proof won’t be in the pudding, it will be on the field.
SPRING TRAINING IMPORTANT DATES
Feb. 13: Pitchers, catchers report
Feb. 15 First pitchers, catchers workout
Feb. 16: Full squad reports
Feb. 18: First full-squad workout
Feb. 22: Spring Training opener vs. Indians, 3:05 p.m.
March 26: Opening Day vs. Cardinals, 4:10 p.m.