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Cincinnati Reds Team Preview
There's a distinct aroma of business along the Ohio River these days.

The unfinished kind, that is.

Oh sure, the Cincinnati Reds crossed a good amount of items off of their "rebuilding a brand" checklist in 2012 - rebounding from a 79-win season, capturing the National League's Central Division title out from under the defending World Series champions and winning their first postseason games in 17 years - but a fair bit were still left on the table, too.

And when a two-game playoff road lead on the San Francisco Giants became an extra-inning loss in game three, a five-run blowout in game four and a failed rally from a six-run deficit in game five - all on home turf at Great American Ball Park - what had been a banner season came away smelling like, well something distinctly different.

Especially when those Giant fellas went on to win a trophy of their own a few weeks later.

But hope springs eternal in a baseball-mad town, and the Reds enter 2013 firmly entrenched in the role of favorite for the second time in three years. Lest anyone forget, they won the 2010 NL Central and were expected to take a run at repeating in 2011, too, but got off to a terrible start and never recovered en route to limping to an irrelevant third-place finish, 17 games off the pace.

There's little to indicate that sort of drop off again, though, considering the team - or at least what appear to be its most vital parts - are back and healthy this spring. Third baseman Scott Rolen is gone after making the final out of the playoff series and injured would-be closer Ryan Madson left after never throwing a pitch for the Reds.

The organization's most significant trade of the offseason came when center fielder Drew Stubbs was shipped across the state to Cleveland, but the consensus is that Cincinnati got the better end of the deal in fellow outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who had consecutive 20-homer seasons with the Indians in 2009 and 2010 before slumping to eight (in 85 games) and 16 (in 155) in the last two seasons.

Choo hit .400 in his initial 25 at-bats of the spring, while Stubbs, who hit .250 in his initial 15 spring games with Cleveland. The now ex-Red stole 100 bases in three full-time seasons in Cincinnati, but led the league in strikeouts (205) in 2011 and skidded to a .213 batting average last season.

Choo will lead off for the Reds, filling a spot that begged for consistency throughout Stubbs' stay, though most concede it'll be one and done once Choo becomes a free agent following the season and the Reds presumably promote minor-league phenom Billy Hamilton, who stole 155 bases and had a .410 on-base percentage while splitting time at Single-A and Double-A in 2012.

"(Choo is) the best we have," manager Dusty Baker said.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Reds, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

Reds Projected Lineup
Votto
Phillips
Cozart
Frazier
Ludwick
Choo
Bruce
Hannigan
Rotation
Cueto
Latos
Arroyo
Bailey
Leake
CL: Chapman
Manager
D. Baker
2012 Finish
(97-65) - First Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
Shin-Soo Choo (OF), Jack Hannahan (3B)
Key Offseason subtractions
Ryan Madson (RHP), Drew Stubbs (OF), Scott Rolen (3B)
CAN THE STARTERS DO IT AGAIN?

The Reds were an embarrassment of starting pitching riches last season, with five pitchers combining for 161 starts (the only miss was when a minor-leaguer was brought in to start a game in a doubleheader). And while they certainly cannot bank on that sort of reliability again, they are making out a quintet that's got four members aged 27 or younger - alongside the rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo, who's made at least 32 starts for nine consecutive seasons. Dominican Johnny Cueto broke out for a 19-win season in 2012, though it was his injury in the NLDS - and unavailability for Game 5 - that many point to as the reason the Reds went home early. Behind him, Mat Latos was a dominant 14-4 in his first season in Cincinnati and Homer Bailey won a career-best 13 games and tossed a no-hitter against Pittsburgh. Arroyo is solid if unspectacular, and Mike Leake's 179 1/3 innings and 30 starts are about as good as a manger can want from a No. 5 starter.

WHO WILL REPLACE ROLEN?

Rolen's voluntary exit signals the primetime emergence of Todd Frazier at third base, where he made 66 starts in 2012 after 24 in 2011. Now 27, Frazier was an important offensive weapon in less than full-time status last season, hitting .273 with 19 homers and 67 runs batted in over just 422 at-bats while finishing third in Rookie of the Year balloting. Still, as any Cincinnati observer will tell you, it's the glove work that's the most concerning element of his game, particularly as compared to Rolen, who was as good as anyone at the hot corner in the last decade. Frazier made five errors in 155 chances at third in 2012 and two in 64 during abbreviated work a season before. And, if enthusiasm for the job counts, he's got a leg up on critics. "To work on one position is fun," he said. "It's awesome even being a starter. It's something I've dreamed of my whole life. Like last year, once you get that opportunity, take off with it. You have to prove yourself year after year and day after day."

CAN CHOO TAKE THE LEAD(OFF)?

The main questions in Reds camp as March wore on were less about starting vs. relieving and more about lineup vs. disabled list as Choo, now 30, battled a sudden onset of back spasms and was instantly treated with kid gloves by the Cincinnati medical staff. He'd hit .400 in his first 11 games, which gave the team a glimpse of what it wanted upon acquiring him for fellow center fielder Stubbs. "This feeling, same exact feeling during the season, I would play. But spring training, I still have more time," he said, after a week on the springtime shelf in Arizona. "I don't want to make it worse. It's more important to be ready for the season. I want to play every game - 162 games. I want to make sure I'm healthy to start the season." If that's not the case and Choo misses significant time in the regular season, the Reds would likely plug the hole with holdover Chris Heisey (.265, 7 HR, 31 RBI in 2012) or move Jay Bruce in from right field.

X-FACTOR: LHP AROLDIS CHAPMAN

Another spring, another teasing glance for Reds fans at what the 100-plus mph lefty might look like in the first inning instead of the ninth. But, just a few days after Chapman went public with a desire to remain at the back end, the Cincinnati brass followed suit by announcing that their $30.25 million man will stay in relief - where he's been for each of 137 big-league appearances since signing a six-year contract prior to 2010. His initial full year in the closing role was a major success in 2012, when he pitched to a 1.51 earned run average and struck out 122 batters in 71 2/3 innings while saving 38 games. "It was like last year," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "It was what gave us the best opportunity to win as an organization this year." Assuming the Reds' starters and middle relievers can get leads to him at the clip they did last season, it doesn't seem unlikely he can mirror the 2012 numbers.

OUTLOOK

Unless you lean negative by habit, it's difficult to look at the Reds on the eve of the 2013 schedule and not see good things. As mentioned, the lineup is largely intact from a year - and could be better with a full-time Frazier and a healthy Choo. The starting rotation is young, talented and, at least so far, free from significant injuries. And the back end of the bullpen, with the resigned Jonathan Broxton in the eighth and Chapman in the ninth, will effectively shorten games to seven innings on most nights. Coming off a season in which they won 97 games and were the best team in the Central by nine over their nearest pursuer, the Reds are in the enviable position of having anything less than a World Series berth considered a failure by at least a segment of the fan base.

- By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing MLB Editor


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